Dancing with Mr. Darcy: Stories Inspired by Jane Austen and Chawton House, edited by Sarah Waters – A Review

In celebration of the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s arrival at Chawton in Hampshire, the Jane Austen Short Story Award 2009 Competition was sponsored by the Jane Austen House Museum and Chawton House Library. Dancing with Mr. Darcy is a collection of winning entries from the competition. Comprising twenty stories inspired by Jane Austen and or Chawton Cottage, they include the grand prize winner Jane Austen over the Styx, by Victoria Owens, two runners up Jayne, by Kristy Mitchell and Second Thoughts, by Elsa A. Solender, and seventeen short listed stories chosen by a panel of judges and edited by author and Chair of Judges Sarah Waters.

Since the publication of her first novel Sense and Sensibility in 1811, Jane Austen’s works have been cherished by many for a variety of reasons. Some value her astute characterizations and biting wit, others her craft of language and social reproof. If my life-long admiration is any measure of my own flux in “favorite” characters, themes or stories over the years, then I am not surprised that my choice of the grand prize and runners up from this collection are different from the august panel of judges. Firstly, there were many fine stories in the collection. Secondly, which ones would Jane Austen choose?

Here is my breakdown of stories by star rating: 3 with 5 stars, 9 with 4 stars, 5 with 3 stars, 3 with 2 stars and 0 with 1 star. This was based on my first impression; I did not reread them. On analyzing my selection of 5-star stories, I found that they all had strong connections to Austen or her characters, we’re told in a simple and straightforward narrative, and either made me laugh or pulled at my heart. In short, they used some of the same techniques that make Austen’s writing so special. Here are my three 5 star story choices:

Grand Prize: Second Thoughts, by Elsa A. Solender

Poignantly told from Jane Austen’s perspective, we experience her acceptance and eventual rejection in 1802 of wealthy suitor Harris Bigg-Wither of Manydown Park. Torn between her need for financial independence and their unsuitability, Jane ultimately decides “that a marriage without affection can hardly be an agreeable enterprise.”

Runner Up: Eight Years Later, by Elaine Grotefeld Continue reading

An Austen Intern Reports in from The Jane Austen Centre: Week 10

Virgina Claire Tharrington and her Austen class group at Chawton (2008)

Virginia Claire Tharrington (center) visiting Chawton Cottage (2008)

The advenure continues as intern Virginia Claire Tharrington reports in on her experience at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath, England.

First Trip Home (trip to Chawton)

Friday I saw one of the most beautiful countryside I have ever seen. My Jane Austen class went on our study trip to Winchester and Chawton. It was amazing and one of the best days of my entire time here.

Virginia Claire Tharrington at College Street home of Jane Austen, Winchester (2008)

Virginia in front of Jane Austen’s last home on College Street, Winchester

We started out at the house on College Street in Winchester where Jane Austen spent her last days and died in Cassandra’s arms. Though we did not get to go inside the house because it is in private hands it was interesting to see this house that she spent her last months in. Cassandra had brought Jane to Winchester in 1817 to seek medical care but the doctors could barely help with the pain much less with the real problem (which is now believed to be Addison’s disease). The house is a simple building but it is beside the College and Jane’s bedroom is supposed to have overlooked the headmaster’s garden.

Virginia Claire Tharrington visiting Jane Austen's grave at Winchester Cathedral (2008)

Virginia at the graveside of Jane Austen at Winchester Cathedral

After this we went to Winchester Cathedral to see her grave. I thought it was very interesting that only 4 people attended her funeral, 3 brothers and a nephew. Cassandra did not attend her beloved sister’s funeral because in that time it was not customary for women to attend. This struck me as very sad because the sisters were so close and loving. Jane Austen’s grave was very interesting as well because though it is a loving memorial it does not mention anything about her being a writer. It is not till later many years after her death that the plaque was added that says Jane Austen was a famous writer. We stopped at her grave and I was very touched by it if only because it is sort of ironic that at her death she was only known as a parson’s daughter but yet she was buried in one of the largest churches in England. But now her fame has risen to the height that she is the most visited person in the church. We later saw Mrs. Austen and Cassandra’s grave at the little Church at Chawton and thought I think she would better fit there; I think she would be amused at the fact that she is so popular now.  Winchester was a lovely town but I was very excited to move on to see Chawton Cottage and Manor House.

Virginia Claire Tharrington visiting Jane Austen's desk at Chawton Cottage, Hampshire (2008)

Virginia visiting Jane’s desk at Chawton Cottage, Hampshire

Chawton Cottage was a lovely house though it was much bigger than we had expected. I was most excited to see the little table where Jane had written her letter. I did get to see this and I even touched (though you are not suppose to). It was amazing to see this little table on which she rewrote or composed some of the world’s greatest novels. I thought it was also interesting that Jane and Cassandra shared a room while they were at Chawton though there were 6 bedrooms. I would like to believe that these beloved sisters took so much enjoyment from one another that they could not be parted and I suspect that some of their best times were at night when it was just the two of them.  The house is most wonderful and that I am so glad we got to see it.

Virginia Claire Tharrington in front of Chawton Manor House (2008)

Virginia in front of Chawton Manor, Hampshire

Chawton Manor was our next and last stop. Chawton Manor was owned by Jane Austen’s brother Edward and it was passed down until it fell into disrepair after WWI. We went to see the library which has been started by an America member of JASNA. It is a fantastic library of early women writers. We saw first editions of Cecilia which is where Jane Austen could have gotten the title for Pride and Prejudice. It was a wonderful resource and I hope to one day to go back and research there.

This trip has been so wonderful. It has really been a dream come true. To see where Jane wrote and loved so dearly. I can see why she was so eager to leave Bath and go back to the country.  It felt almost as if I was going home, well maybe not to my home but to Jane’s which is just as good! : )

The Jane Austen Centre logoCheers until next week.

Virginia Claire Tharrington

Intern, The Jane Austen Centre, Bath, England

Read Virginia’s previous reports in the Austen Intern archives

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!

Sick and wicked

Image of Godmersham Park, by W. Watts (1799)WICKED

Do not oblige him to read any more. Have mercy on him, tell him the truth, and make him an apology. He and I should not in the least agree, of course, in our ideas of novels and heroines. Pictures of perfection, as you know, make me sick and wicked; but there is some very good sense in what he says, and I particularly respect him for wishing to think well of all young ladies; it shows an amiable and a delicate mind. And he deserves better treatment than to be obliged to read any more of my works. Letter to her Niece Fanny Knight, 23 March 1817, The Letters of Jane Austen

Fanny Knight was Jane Austen’s first and most favoured niece. She was born when Jane was 17 years old in 1793, the eldest daughter of Jane’s brother Edward (Austen) Knight. She adored her and she was like a younger sister.

Image of the front cover of Almost Another Sister, by Margaret Wilson (1998)Much has be discussed and written about their relationship, including this book Almost Another Sister: The Story of Fanny Knight, Jane Austen ‘s Favourite Niece, by Margaret Wilson (1998), which is sadly out of print in the US, but can be ordered second hand through those wonderful people at AbeBooks.com.  Search here . Happily, there is an excellent review of the book by author Marilyn Sachs at the JASNA on-line journal Persuasions, entitled Austen’s Ungrateful Niece.

Five letters that Jane wrote to Fanny between 1814 and 1817 are filled with wise and eloquent advice on love, and openly acknowledge the deep affection she felt for her niece.

When one reads their correspondence, one often feels through their affection and concern for each other that Fanny Knight was the daughter that Jane Austen did not have.

So it is not surprising that Janeites are outraged by a letter written by Fanny, now Lady Knatchbull, in 1869, describing Jane as “very much below par as to good society and its ways.” Fanny believes that it was only due to her rich father and his superior connections that her aunt was rescued from “commonness and a lack of refinement.”

Image of a watercolour painting of Chawton CottageWell, well. The reference to Fanny’s rich father is of course Jane Austen’s brother Edward (Austen) Knight who was not wealthy until he was adopted in 1798 by Thomas and Catherine Knight, Austen family cousins who were titled gentry and childless. They owned the vast estates of  Godmersham Park, Kent and Chawton, Hants, which Edward inherited. He would later suppy his widowed mother and sisters Cassandra and Jane a cottage in the village of Chawton in 1809. Here is a listing for the (Austen) Knight family at Peerage.com. Sir Walter Elliot, Baronet of Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion would take express interest in the Knight family listing in A Genealogical and Heraldic Dictionary of the Landed Gentry of Great Britian.

Of note is the fact that Lady Fanny (Knight) Knatchbull was 77 years old when she wrote the letter in 1869, and from family accounts never expressed herself as eloquently as her aunt Jane, and was quite senile and forgetful for some years prior. This may have been the families way of dismissing this disparaging remark by a niece who Jane dearly loved. My thought is that Jane would have laughed at the comment since “pictures of perfection” made her “sick and wicked“! Further reading on that ungrateful niece Fanny and her infamous slam can be found on these excellent links and books.

*Image of a hand tinted engraving of Godmersham Park, by W. Watts, from Edward Hasted’s History of Kent (1799)