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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Breaking News: Tornado Tom Lefroy Hits Austenland

Image of miniature portrait of Tom Lefroy, (1798)“At length the day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy … My tears flow as I write at the melancholy idea” Jane Austen Letter to Cassandra Austen, 16 January 1796, The Letters of Jane Austen

My Dear Miss Austen,  

Our tears flow too dear Jane. A tornado has hit the gentle shores of your Austenland, and it’s not a pretty sight. We would be remiss if we did not mention that they are at it again; – the ladies and gentleman of the press; – yes – they are claiming that your youthful flirtation with Tom Lefroy inspired you to create your character Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice! Sigh. 

It appears that the day has not yet come on which the press is to flirt thier last with Tom Lefroy. Just when we thought that the brouhaha created by last year’s wobbly bio-pic of your youth, Becoming Jane, had settled down a bit, the present owners of a miniature portrait of your ‘puppy love’ Mr. Lefroy have offered it for sale at the Grosvenor House Art and Antiques Fair, June 12th to 18th, in London. The online news agencies have been aflutter with the news my dear Jane, and I fear the gossip is less than kind. 

  • THE real-life inspiration for TV sexbomb Mr Darcy has been revealed – as a skinny GEEK, The Sun
  • Austen’s Real-life Mr. Darcy a Frail Wimp, NineMSN
  • Jane Austen’s real Mr. Darcy had Girlish Looks, The Telegraph 
  • The Real Mr. Darcy is no Colin Firth, UPI Entertainment News

Some poor misguide souls have even gone so far as to claim that Mr. Lefroy looks like a “skinny geek“, “a pale wimp“, “limp lettuce“, “and a wispy-haired girlie, who looks so delicate that he might even weigh less than Elizabeth Bennet.”

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Jane Austen’s Dearest Friendship with Miss Sharp Still Resonates Today

You would have held the memory of your friend Jane too in tender regret I am sure. – But the Providence of God has restored me – & may I be more fit to appear before him when I am summoned, than I sh’d have been now! – Sick or Well, beleive me ever your attached friend. J. Austen Letter to Anne Sharp, 22 May 1817

Image of three volumes first edition of Emma, presented to Ann SharpJaneites with deep pockets and warm hearts will be winging their way to London for the June 24th auction of a first edition of Emma being offered at Bonham’s Auction House. The rare three volume presentation copy of Jane Austen’s fourth and final novel to be published in her lifetime was a gift from the authoress to Anne Sharp, a dear friend and previous governess to her brother Edward Austen Knight’s daughter Fanny at Godmersham, Kent.

Bonham’s online catalogue description contains some interesting facts.

Jane Austen was allocated twelve presentation copies by the publisher John Murray. Of these, nine were sent to family members (including Jane herself), one to the librarian of the Prince Regent (to whom the work was dedicated), and one to Countess Morley, these last under obligation from the publisher. The present copy is the only one given to a personal friend, testament to the strength of Jane’s feelings for Anne.

First editions of Jane Austen’s novels can garner healthy prices. A November 2007 article in Antiquarian Books listed a recent sale of a three volume set of Sense and Sensibility by Bloomsbury Auctions in New York for $48,000.00. (1) Because the ‘Anne Sharp’ edition of Emma has unique provenance, and no known presentation copies of Emma have ever hit the market before, Bonham’s is anticipating a sale price between £50,000 to £70,000. This could be quite a windfall for its present UK owner who had the volumes shelved in their family library for three generations without a clue as to how their ancestors acquired them. One wonders what else they have loitering about, and why they chose this moment to dispose of them!

Illustration of Godmersham Park, Kent, England

Godmersham Park, Kent, home of the Edward Austen Knight family circa 1804

Anne Sharp served as governess to Fanny Knight (1793-1882) Jane Austen’s niece, at Godmersham from 1804 to 1806, resigning for health reasons. (2) She is mentioned fondly several times in Jane Austen’s letters to her sister Cassandra and in this wonderful passage from Claire Tomalin’s biography of Jane Austen.  Continue reading

Austenesque Author Rebecca Ann Collins Continued Thoughts on Sequels

Image of the cove of The Women of Pemberley, by Rebbeca Ann Collins, Sourcebooks, (2008)Sourcebooks has recently released the second novel in The Pemberley Chronicles series entitled The Women of Pemberley  by author Rebecca Ann Collins. This is the first North American printing of this novel which had been previously released in Australia in 1998, and is part of a ten book sequel series of Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice

The Women of Pemberley  continues the story of Pride and Prejudice’s children of Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy and Jane and Charles Bingley and other familiar characters. The narrative is told in five chapters, each focused on five young women; Emma, Emily, Cassandra, Isabella and Josie and progresses through several years of their lives. Many of the same themes favored by Jane Austen such as courtship and marriage are present, but Ms. Collins’ pen is much broader, taking the characters and plots outside the realm of “three or four families in a country village” and introduces social, political and historical context to the plot. With The Women of Pemberley, we have entered the Victorian era, and witness the great change and industrial progress in England through the lives of her characters. 

Recently, Austenprose received correspondence from author Rebecca Ann Collins in response to our post in April regarding her comments on Austen sequels in the book Jane Austen: Antipodean Views.  She was both amused and intrigued by our comments and the strong reaction by readers, and wanted to elaborate and clarify her views further. 

In the spirit of fair game, and the fact that most true Janeites want their share of the conversation, we are including her comments for the edification and enjoyment of our readers. 

Rebecca Ann Collins writes – 

Having read your exceedingly diverting comments and the variety of opinions of your correspondents on the subject of Jane Austen sequels- I was wondering if you will permit me to contribute to the conversation. 

I would like to make a few points.  Continue reading

My Personal Austen: Does Reading Jane Austen Make Me a Better Person?

Image of a Silhouette of Jane AustenIf anyone out there has ever wondered where I get my inspiration to write continually about one subject – Jane Austen – for six months and counting, you might be amused at what from time-to-time inspires those brain cells into action. Many times, I will be Googling along and happen upon something that I was not searching for in the first place. Serendipity and all that! Often I get an inspiration while driving in my car! Go figure. Here is a meanderin’ tale of my trail of discovery and inspiration for this post today!

Recently I purchased the most amazing book My Dear Cassandra: The Letters of Jane Austen, selected and introduced by Penelope Hughes-Hallet, Clarkson, Collins, New York (1990). I had been aware of this book for years, but had never had the pleasure of seeing it first hand. A few months ago I read a beaming review of it by Book Chronicle whose opinions I respect and admire, resulting in it being pushed up to the top of my ‘must have’ Austen book queue. Yes, gentle readers; – I keep a list! La! 

Image of the cover of My Dear Cassandra, edited by Penelope Hughes-Hallet, Clarson & Potter, New York (1990)

The book is sadly no longer in print, which is *never* a deferent to this obsessive used book lover! I was able to track down an American first edition in ‘like new’ condition at Advance Book Exchange (www.abe.com). Hurrah! It arrived last week, and it is an eye popper; beautifully designed, copiously illustrated and reverently edited. It was a spiritual experience for me, like one of those beautiful Medieval illuminated manuscripts that monks laboured over for years to glorify the Bible! The holy grail of Austen books. Wow! Serious book swoon here!  Continue reading

The Watson’s & Emma Watson Contest Winner

Image of the cover of The Watson\'s & Emma Watson, by Jane Austen & Joan Aiken, Source Books, (2008)The Austen Book Sleuth is pleased to announce …

Congratulations to Jeanette for being the lucky winner of a new copy of The Watson’s & Emma Watson: Jane Austen’s Unfinished Novel Completed, by Joan Aiken in our contest. Jeanette has responded to our e-mail and says, “How Fun!! It should be interesting to read how this author takes on this unfinished work!”

Jeanette has her own lovely blog, A Comfy Chair and a Good Book, where she has reviewed several Austen related books, including her most recent review of The Italian, by Anne Radcliffe, which Janeites will remember is one of the Gothic cannon mentioned in Northanger Abbey and recommended reading to impressionable Catherine Moreland by her friend Isabella Thorpe.

We hope that Jeanette enjoys the book, and will favour us with her impressions! Happy reading!

William Lyon Phelps: Jane Austen’s First Publicist

Image of William Lyon Phelps“The happiest people are those who think the most interesting thoughts. Those who decide to use leisure as a means of mental development, who love good music, good books, good pictures, good company, good conversation, are the happiest people in the world. And they are not only happy in themselves, they are the cause of happiness in others.” William Lyon Phelps

When I ran across this quote, I was quickly struck by the similarity to one of my favorite passages from Persuasion.

“My idea of good company, Mr. Elliot, is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company.”

“You are mistaken,” said he gently; “that is not good company; that is the best.” Anne Elliot & William Elliot, Persuasion, Chapter 16

You will understand the coincidence after reading further.

Illustration by H.M. Brock, Mansfield Park, (1906)In 1890, Jane Austen was not widely read in American college curriculum. She had her small circle of admirers, and her fame had been slowly building since the 1870 publication of her nephew’s biography, A Memoir of Jane Austen, but she had not been embraced by academia. Publishers such as J.M. Dent and Richard Bentley & Son in London, and MacMillan in New York saw her potential and began producing matching ‘sets’ of her novels and letters which were a great success. To meet the new public demand, publishers produced finer bindings with illustrations by the Brock brothers and Hugh Thomson, and included prefaces and introductions by leading scholars of the day.

The winds of change were building. Her public had embraced her, but academia still wavered. Happily, we can credit Yale English Literature Professor William Lyon Phelps‘ (1865-1943) influence for changing that misapplyment. Jane could not have had a more influential or noble champion to wear her colors and sing her praises. By 1900, Dr. Phelps was known throughout the world as a leading literary scholar, educator, author, book critic and preacher. When he spoke, people listened.

Professor Phelps was one of those gifted orators that could make any obscure ancient author or wayward poet shine and students flocked to his lectures. Early in his career he had been instrumental in circular reform, teaching classes in the modern novels which raised more than a few eyebrows of his tenured peers and the attention of the international press. This was the beginning of a long career of academic reform and literary influence.  Continue reading

Apple Blossoms in June? Austen’s Literary Mystery

Image of Jane Austen commanding the apples to bloom

It was a sweet view — sweet to the eye and the mind. English verdure, English culture, English comfort, seen under a sun bright, without being oppressive…It might be safely viewed with all its appendages of prosperity and beauty, its rich pastures, spreading flocks, orchard in blossom, and light column of smoke ascending. Emma, Chapter 42 

An orchard in bloom in June? Did Jane Austen get her seasonal timing wrong? Most fruit trees bloom in May, as my apple-trees in the Pacific Northwest will confirm. This anomaly is unusual, since Austen is so correct with other facts throughout her novels according to scholar R. W. Chapman. Many have questioned this slip-up, including Jane Austen’s brother Edward, who pointed out the discrepancy to her, ‘Jane, I wish you would tell me where you get those apple-trees of yours that come into bloom in July?‘ Well, Edward, it was June but we’re splitting hairs here. 

Image of the cover of Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet, by John SutherlandThere are two possible explanations; one by a scholar and the other by a meteorologist. In the book Is Heathcliff a Murderer: Great Puzzles in Nineteenth-Century Fiction  (new edition 2002), author John Sutherland questions Austen’s timing in chapter two, Apple blossoms in June?  His creative theory prompted a few polite objections from leading authorities; Dr. Claire Lamont and Deirdre le Faye, which are included in the next volume in the series, Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet?: Further Puzzles in Classic Fiction (1999). They pretty much shoot holes in his theory. You can read the discussion here and draw your own conclusions, but honestly, I was so relieved to discover that a meteorologist Euan Nisbet of the Royal Holloway College in London was a Janeite, and has closely studied Jane Austen’s astute observance of accurate weather in her novels and wrote this enlightening articleContinue reading