Jane Austen and the Modesty of Genius

I would not let Martha read First Impressions again upon any account, and am very glad that I did not leave it in your power. She is very cunning, but I saw through her design; she means to publish it from memory, and one more perusal must enable her to do it. Letter to Cassandra Austen, 11 June 1799 

Jane Austen’s Biographer Claire Tomalin has a nice article in the Guardian today about how modesty and secrecy fueled Austen’s genius. Tomalin’s bio Jane Austen: A Life was published in 1997 and is one of my favorites. It’s good to see that she is still interested in writing about Austen after the publication of her book over ten years ago. It’s a short piece, but packed full of historical nuggets of Janeisms, and centered around Jane Austen’s now famous small writing table. 

This fragile 12-sided piece of walnut on a single tripod must be the smallest table ever used by a writer, and it is where she established herself as a writer…having no room of her own, she established herself near the little-used front door, and here “she wrote upon small sheets of paper which could easily be put away, or covered with a piece of blotting paper”.  

Reading her insights made me reflect on Jane Austen’s unique writing environment, and the odds of anyone ever producing anything of merit under such restrictions. It is amazing to think that the majority of her writing and re-writing transpired on one small wooden table, and that upon her death it passed to her sister Cassandra, and then out of the family to a servant. How it made its way back to Chawton Cottage intact must be a very interesting tale indeed! 

I have not had the pleasure of seeing Jane Austen’s writing table personally, but for those of you who have made the pilgrimage, I would love to hear your story of your visit to Jane Austen’s last home in Chawton, how it felt to see her personal environment, and gaze upon the biggest little table in literary history. 

Writer Claire Tomalin is an English biographer and journalist who was educated at Cambridge University. She has written several biographies; notably Thomas Hardy (2007), Samuel Pepys (2002), The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft (1992) and Shelley and His World (1992). She is married to playwright Michael Frayn and lives in London. Of course, her most important work to date is Jane Austen: A Life!

Should Jane Austen’s Fans Save Mark Twain’s House from Early Demise?

Mark Twain House, Hartford, Conn. 

“The wisest and the best of men — nay, the wisest and best of their actions — may be rendered ridiculous by a person whose first object in life is a joke.” Mr. Darcy, Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 11  

The news on the internet is that the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, Connecticut has hit hard times, and is in danger of closing. Jane Austen might find an ironic twist in the rumors of its demise since Twain was so unkind to her writing during his lifetime. In one of his many infamous quotes against his fellow 19th-century author, he claimed that he had no right to criticize books and does so only when he hates them.  

I often want to criticise Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Everytime I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.” Letter to Joseph Twichell, 13 September 1898

Twain’s three story rambling Victorian home was built in 1874 at the height of his popularity and financial prowess. He penned many of his masterpieces there including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. He also corresponded with his life-long friend William Dean Howells, a fellow author and literary critic, about Howells favorite author Jane Austen. It was an ongoing amusement for Twain to rib his friend about his decidedly poor choice of admiration of Austen. In Howells’ essay My Mark Twain: Reminiscences (1910) he tells us more about Twain’s motivations. 

His prime abhorrence was my dear and honored prime favorite, Jane Austen. He once said to me, I suppose after he had been reading some of my unsparing praise of her-I am always praising her, “You seem to think that woman could write,” and he forbore withering me with his scorn, apparently because we had been friends so long and he more pitied than hated me for my bad taste. 

In Emily Auerback’s excellent book Searching for Jane Austen, she explores Mark Twain’s ongoing banter over Jane Austen’s talent, or lack of it. One of his unfinished writings is entitled Jane Austen. In the last chapter of her book, she includes an insightful investigation of the unfinished work, and Twain’s published letters and quotes about his distaste of Jane Austen’s writing. You can read the entire essay online though The Virginia Quarterly Review. Here is an interesting excerpt. 

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Mr. Darcy’s Diary: Interview with Author Maya Slater

Check out this interesting interview with Austen-esque author Maya Slater about her recently released first novel Mr. Darcy’s Diary. 

If you think that the title seems familiar, you are quite right. It is one-in-the-same as author Amanda Grange’s recent release. The difference between the two being that Slater’s version has not yet been published internationally, but is available from Powell Books online and Amazon.uk. My copy arrived about a week ago, and I am about half way through it. I can say, before I give my official review, that Maya Slater has explored the ‘Regency’ man’s perspective, cavorting and all, and my hair is quite a bit curlier because of Mr. Darcy’s escapades. 

Icon of Mr. Darcy\'s DiaryMr. Darcy’s Diary, by Maya Slater
Phoenix, Orion Books, Ltd., London, (2007)
Trade paperback (248) pages
ISBN: 978-0753822661

Oxford World’s Classics: Sense and Sensibility – Our Diptych Review

Image of the cover to Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen, Oxford Unversity Press, (2008)“Pray, pray be composed,” cried Elinor,”and do not betray what you feel to every body present. Perhaps he has not observed you yet.” Elinor Dashwood to her sister Marianne, Sense and Sensibility, Chapter 28 

Gentle readers, Please join us for the first in a series of six diptych reviews of the revised editions of Jane Austen’s six major novels and three minor works that were released this summer by Oxford World’s Classics. Austenprose editor Laurel Ann is honored to be joined by Austen scholar Prof. Ellen Moody, who will be adding her professional insights to complement my everyman’s view. 

Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen

Oxford World’s Classics, Rev. Ed. (2008) 

Laurel Ann’s Review 

So you want to read Sense and Sensibility. Great choice! Jane Austen’s first published novel (1811) can get lost in the limelight of her other ‘darling child’, Pride and Prejudice, but is well worth the effort. There are many editions available in print today, and the text can stand on its own, but for those seeking a ‘friendlier’ version with notes and appendixes, the question arises of how much supplemental material do you need, and is it helpful? 

One option is the Oxford World’s Classics new revised edition of Sense and Sensibility that presents an interesting array of additional material that comfortably falls somewhere between just the text, and supplemental overload. This volume offers what I feel a good edition should be, an expansive introduction and detailed notes supporting the text in a clear, concise and friendly manner that the average reader can understand and enjoy. 

The material opens with a one paragraph biography of the life of Jane Austen which seemed rather slim to this Austen enthusiast’s sensibility, and most certainly too short for a neophyte. The introduction quickly made up for it in both size and content at a whopping 33 pages! Wow, author Margaret Anne Doody does not disappoint, and it is easy to understand why after eighteen years publishers continue to use her excellent essay in subsequent editions. 

Illustration by C.E. Brock, Sense and Sensibility, J. M. Dent, (1898)Amazingly, the introduction is not at all dated. The material covered is accessible to any era of reader, touching upon the novels publishing history, plot line, character analysis, and historical context. Doody thoughtfully presents the reader with an analysis of the major themes in the novel such as; the dichotomy of sense and sensibility as it relates to the two heroines Elinor and Marianne, the portrayal of negligent mothers, men represented as the ultimate hunter, secrecy, deceit and concealment, and the crippling impact of the inheritance laws and primogeniture on women during the Regency era. Interlaced with Doody’s interpretations are her astute observations of Austen’s writing style with references to pages in the novel and outside sources. The entire essay is well researched, populated with footnotes, and an enjoyable complement to the text. 

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Bookish on Jane Austen

Laurel Ann\'s Austen library“Oh! certainly,” cried his faithful assistant, “no one can be really esteemed accomplished who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with. A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved.”  

“All this she must possess,” added Darcy, “and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.” Caroline Bingley and Mr. Darcy, Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 8  

It is well known that Jane Austen was a voracious reader. Her father George Austen’s library contained over 500 volumes, and having been home schooled by her father and her brother James, both ‘Oxford men’, she had at hand the resources for a solid education and a varied library from her father’s shelves.¹ In the last year of her life, she wrote to her eight-year old niece Caroline Austen who was a budding writer and recommended that she should, ‘cease writing till (she) was sixteen; that she had herself often wished she had read more, and written less in the corresponding years of her own life.’²

Image of the cover of Emma, Folio Society, (2007)We see books and novels discussed frequently in her works as social and moral commentary. If you will note, many of her characters who read or collect books are often portrayed in a more sympathetic light; — Fanny Price in Mansfield Park with her affinity to poetry, Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility who “had the knack of finding her way in every house to the library“, and even Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, that Gothic fiction obsessive, all have their faults, but are overall portrayed postively, learn and grow throughout the story, and by the conclusion are endearing to the reader. On the opposite side of the spectrum, those characters that are negligent readers are unsympathetically slighted; — the odious Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice who “often observed how little young ladies are interested by books of a serious stamp, though written solely for their benefit“, Emma Woodhouse in Emma who “has been meaning to read more ever since she was twelve years old”, Sir Walter Elliot of Persuasionwho, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage” and John Thorpe of Northanger Abbey who thinks novels are “the stupidest things in creation“. These, with the exception of Emma Woodhouse, all have a less favourable end.

With so much praise and admonishment on reading peppered about, it is amusing to ponder if Jane Austen’s character Mr. Darcy from her novel Pride and Prejudice is the moral voice of the authoress when he states that all accomplished women must improve their minds with extensive reading! Much to our benefit, the level of education that Jane Austen’s received was not the norm for ladies in Georgian England. There were some who felt that educating women was a waste of money and resources. Is Mr. Darcy’s progressive attitude working Jane Austen’s personal principals? Is she projecting here?

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Jane Austen and The Battle of Waterloo

Illustration of the Allies entering Paris after Napoleons defeat at Waterloo, October 1815

Allied troops entering Paris after the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte

the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces so little effect after so much labour” Letter to Edward Austen, 16 December 1816, The Letters of Jane Austen

Today marks the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, which is generally credited as Napoleon Bonaparte’s final defeat; – a significant event in European history that deeply affected the lives of every Englishman and the World. Bonaparte would soon surrender his troops and abdicate the throne, ending a seventeen year conflict between Britain and France, and other European nations. You can read a complete account of the battle here.  

Jane Austen had very little to say about the Battle of Waterloo or any aspect of the Napoleonic War, and that really irritated some of her critics. For some reason, the fact that she did not discuss politics or war in her novels makes her somehow negligent and narrow as an authoress. Her surviving personal correspondence is a bit better, with dribs and drabs of comment to her sister Cassandra about their two brothers Frank and Charles who served as sailors in his Majesties Navy, and were deep into the thick of the fighting. 

She lived almost her entire life in the shadow of the Napoleon’s tyranny. To criticize her because she chose not to include mention of it or other external political events in her novels is a misunderstanding of her intensions. Author David Nokes in his biography Jane Austen: A Life, touches upon this point and offers a logical explanation. 

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Jane Austen’s Lydia Bennet: Her Life Credo

Image of a bonnet from Ackermann\'s Repository, (1817)“Look here, I have bought this bonnet. I do not think it is very pretty; but I thought I might as well buy it as not. I shall pull it to pieces as soon as I get home, and see if I can make it up any better.” Lydia Bennet, Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 39 

Lydia Bennet is the youngest of the five Bennet sisters being but fifteen, but by her impulsive and unguarded manner she is the most commanding of the lot, and she knows it! Jane Austen gently gives clues to the reader to the impending peril she imposes on her family through her willful actions. My first impression of Lydia was that she was a time bomb of misery and dissipation just ticking away. 

As the novel progresses, her actions become more outrageous to the detriment of the family reputation when she elopes, and then does not marry. After her patched up marriage to George Wickham, she returns to her family home at Longborne and receives mixed reactions from her family. Totally oblivious to what all the fuss is about, she saw no fault in her behavior. This passage from chapter 51 is a great clue to the nature of her feelings on her actions. 

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