If I could but know his heart: Willoughby’s story and Marianne’s closure

‘If I could but know his heart, everything would become easy,’ says Marianne Dashwood to her sister a few months after Willoughby’s betrayal. He has already opened it to Elinor, hoping she may eventually convey his passionate apology to her:

You tell me that she has forgiven me already. Let me be able to fancy that a better knowledge of my heart, and of my present feelings, will draw from her a more spontaneous, more natural, more gentle, less dignified, forgiveness. Tell her of my misery and my penitence–tell her that my heart was never inconstant to her, and if you will, that at this moment she is dearer to me than ever.

Miss Dashwood won’t go quite that far: ‘I will tell her all that is necessary to what may comparatively be called your justification’ – his ‘protestations of present regard’ will be out of the question. But Marianne needs closure, and Elinor lets her have it at last:

‘I am now perfectly satisfied, I wish for no change. I never could have been happy with him, after knowing, as sooner or later I must have known, all this.–I should have had no confidence, no esteem. Nothing could have done it away to my feelings.’

‘I know it–I know it,’ cried her mother. ‘Happy with a man of libertine practices! … No–my Marianne has not a heart to be made happy with such a man!–Her conscience, her sensitive conscience, would have felt all that the conscience of her husband ought to have felt.’

Mrs Dashwood’s referring to his seduction of Eliza Williams. Willoughby’s account doesn’t, however, add anything to what they already know in that respect, except that he thought he’d given the girl his address. Elinor has purposefully focused on the ‘chief points’ of his explanation, and therefore must have spared her sister the unpleasant details, as well as the ungentlemanly victim-bashing.

‘Marianne sighed, and repeated, “I wish for no change.”’ She had been wondering what his real intentions towards her had been:

If I could be satisfied on one point, if I could be allowed to think that he was not always acting a part, not always deceiving me;–but above all, if I could be assured that he never was so very wicked as my fears have sometimes fancied him, since the story of that unfortunate girl–

Elinor has set her mind at rest: everything had been ‘strictly honourable’ and ‘blameless’ – his affection had been genuine and, but for the unfortunate discovery of his previous affair, he would have proposed. Nor had he been as ‘fickle’ as Marianne had previously suggested – just afraid of poverty. That would have been a huge relief. Miserable as she still is, she must  be savouring it. Her own self-esteem has been at stake:

My peace of mind is doubly involved in it;–for not only is it horrible to suspect a person, who has been what he has been to me, of such designs,–but what must it make me appear to myself?–What in a situation like mine, but a most shamefully unguarded affection could expose me to–

In other words, she might have been encouraging the advances of a man whose sole aim was sexual intercourse – a thought so dreadful she can’t even finish the sentence.

The Misses Mary and Hannah Murray by John Trumbull

Her suspicions may have been allayed, but she can’t excuse his sexual misconduct, his callous disregard for his partner’s feelings and reputation, or his irresponsible behaviour towards his own child. He couldn’t possibly have been trusted as a husband or a father.

Financial issues would also have prevented a happy union. As Elinor points out,

Had you married, you must have been always poor … His demands and your inexperience together, on a small, very small income, must have brought on distresses … Your sense of honour and honesty would have led you … to attempt all the economy that would appear to you possible: and, perhaps, as long as your frugality retrenched only on your own comfort, you might have been suffered to practice it, but beyond that–and how little could the utmost of your single management do to stop the ruin which had begun before your marriage?–Beyond that, had you endeavoured, however reasonably, to abridge his enjoyments, is it not to be feared, that instead of prevailing on feelings so selfish to consent to it, you would have lessened your own influence on his heart, and made him regret the connection which had involved him in such difficulties?

The yield of his estate is reckoned at between six and seven hundred pounds a year. Marianne would have brought in fifty more. The Dashwoods live on five hundred, so they wouldn’t have been destitute. Elinor believes a thousand a year would be enough: she calls it ‘wealth,’ but her sister, already influenced by Willoughby, disagrees:

Two thousand a-year is a very moderate income … A family cannot well be maintained on a smaller. I am sure I am not extravagant in my demands. A proper establishment of servants, a carriage, perhaps two, and hunters, cannot be supported on less.

Elinor goes on:

His circumstances are now unembarrassed–he suffers from no evil of that kind; and he thinks only that he has married a woman of a less amiable temper than yourself… Had he married you, … the inconveniences would have been different. He would then have suffered under the pecuniary distresses which, because they are removed, he now reckons as nothing. He would have had a wife of whose temper he could make no complaint, but he would have been always necessitous–always poor; and probably would soon have learned to rank the innumerable comforts of a clear estate and good income as of far more importance, even to domestic happiness, than the mere temper of a wife.

Furthermore, as Emma Woodhouse would have put it, ‘a very narrow income has a tendency to contract the mind, and sour the temper.’ Of course she’s talking of ‘those who can barely live, and who live perforce in a very small, and generally very inferior, society,’ but, given Willoughby’s expensive lifestyle, we can anticipate a similar outcome. She would have spoken her mind eagerly, and not always with perfect composure. And, if the way in which he refers to Eliza Williams and Miss Grey is anything to go by, he would have ended up blaming her.

Illustration from http://www.mollands.net

In the last chapter we learn that Mrs Smith finally forgives him, ‘stating his marriage with a woman of character, as the source of her clemency,’ which leads him to believe ‘that had he behaved with honour towards Marianne, he might at once have been happy and rich.’ Eventually, that is, since the death of his ‘old cousin’ would have been ‘uncertain, and possibly far distant.’ Though in Jane Austen’s novels we never know. Doesn’t Mrs Churchill pass away at exactly the right time? To say nothing of Dr Grant, who conveniently departs from this world just as Edmund and Fanny ‘begin to want an increase of income.’

Elinor’s mention of Willoughby’s selfishness draws a deep emotional response:

Marianne’s lips quivered, and she repeated the word ‘Selfish?’ in a tone that implied–’do you really think him selfish?’

‘The whole of his behaviour,’ replied Elinor, ‘from the beginning to the end of the affair, has been grounded on selfishness. It was selfishness which first made him sport with your affections; which afterwards, when his own were engaged, made him delay the confession of it, and which finally carried him from Barton. His own enjoyment, or his own ease, was, in every particular, his ruling principle.’

Elinor’s tough love has gone too far – this is overkill. Marianne has suffered enough already. She’s just said: ‘I wish to assure you both … that I see every thing–as you can desire me to do.’ Does Miss Dashwood need to keep on piling up charges, taking away every possible comfort? Surely no one is ruled by selfishness ‘in every particular.’ She sounds like Fanny Price, who accuses Miss Crawford of cruelty just because she has a sense of humour. But, unlike Edmund Bertram, Marianne seems to acknowledge the truth of the indictment: ‘My happiness never was his object.’ She believes she’s being honest, but guilt over the pain she’s caused her family has made her doubt her own judgement and submit to her sister’s. Gone is the earnest, critical, ironic creature that once remarked to Elinor: ‘I thought our judgments were given us merely to be subservient to those of neighbours. This has always been your doctrine, I am sure.’

Her sister, in turn, might be trying hard to convince herself. She has been powerfully moved by Willoughby’s narrative and knows he still loves Marianne, though she’s decided not to tell her:

Willoughby, in spite of all his faults, excited a degree of commiseration for the sufferings produced by them, which made her think of him as now separated for ever from her family, with a tenderness, a regret, rather in proportion, as she soon acknowledged within herself–to his wishes than to his merits. She felt that his influence over her mind was heightened by circumstances which ought not in reason to have weight; by that person of uncommon attraction, that open, affectionate, and lively manner which it was no merit to possess; and by that still ardent love for Marianne, which it was not even innocent to indulge.

Illustration from http://www.mollands.net

Having stood near the brink of the abyss, sensible Miss Dashwood fears her sister might be sucked back into it:

Willoughby, ‘poor Willoughby,’ as she now allowed herself to call him, was constantly in her thoughts; she would not but have heard his vindication for the world, and now blamed, now acquitted herself for having judged him so harshly before. But her promise of relating it to her sister was invariably painful. She dreaded the performance of it, dreaded what its effect on Marianne might be; doubted whether after such an explanation she could ever be happy with another; and for a moment wished Willoughby a widower.

Oh dear! Who would have thought? She resolutely checks her emotions and focuses on making sure that her sister gets married to someone who truly deserves her:

Then, remembering Colonel Brandon, reproved herself, felt that to his sufferings and his constancy far more than to his rival’s, the reward of her sister was due, and wished any thing rather than Mrs Willoughby’s death.

We’ve just seen how strong Elinor’s feelings can be – she must have been shocked by their intensity. Somehow she manages to ‘govern’ or repress them, and see to it that Marianne does too. The past is dangerous and should be laid to rest by drawing the appropriate moral from the story: ‘All Willoughby’s difficulties have arisen from the first offence against virtue, in his behaviour to Eliza Williams. That crime has been the origin of every lesser one, and of all his present discontents.’

There you are! Original sin in all its anticlimactic triteness. Fanny Price couldn’t have put it better. Yet we must bear in mind that, whatever ‘the violence of her passions,’ Willoughby’s lover was a young girl of about sixteen. He would have been twenty-four at the time, and much more experienced. The ‘weakness of her understanding,’ far from excusing his behaviour, would have been an ‘aggravating circumstance,’ as the phrase would suggest an imperfect awareness of the devastating social consequences of her actions. Her character could never be restored, no one would want to marry her, and she would have to live in virtual seclusion. By taking away her virginity, he’s actually destroyed her whole life. The scandal also ruined Marianne’s, as well as his own chances of happiness with her, leading to a loveless, mercenary match with wealthy Miss Grey. Elinor does have a point, and, ‘unpleasant … as the discussion of such a subject’ is to her, bravely confronts him with his guilt.

But Marianne will never know Willoughby’s true heart. Always ready to tell ‘lies when politeness required,’ Miss Dashwood proves equally capable of concealing the truth.

Jane Austen’s novels quoted from www.mollands.net

The guardianship of religion and morals: prayer and manners in Mansfield Park

Mrs Rushworth got ready to give her visitors a tour of Sotherton Court. She’d made sure she’d be almost as competent as her housekeeper – better than the Countess of Grantham in Downton Abbey, anyway. If the way in which she first approved of and then handled her son’s marriage is anything to go by, she was not a very clever woman. But on this occasion she was able to show the Bertrams and Crawfords around, and, except for the dating of the mahogany furnishings in the chapel, the information provided seems accurate enough. It would appear that kind of wood was not widely used in James II’s times, so it’s often been suggested that either the Rushworths were very wealthy or Jane Austen made a mistake. There might be yet another explanation: Mrs Rushworth probably didn’t get it right.

We may imagine the large, regular, red-brick Elizabethan house, built in a low spot, but with many handsome old-fashioned rooms. Fanny is disappointed in the chapel: she expected aisles, arches, inscriptions, and banners. Edmund reminds her they’re not in a castle or a monastery. As their hostess’s history lesson goes on, they learn it

‘was formerly in constant use both morning and evening. Prayers were always read in it by the domestic chaplain, within the memory of many; but the late Mr Rushworth left it off.’

‘Every generation has its improvements,’ said Miss Crawford, with a smile, to Edmund.

A wickedly good joke that falls flat. Neither Edmund nor his cousin have a sense of humour – or wit, come to that. Mary’s progress is their decline:

‘It is a pity,’ cried Fanny, ‘that the custom should have been discontinued. It was a valuable part of former times. There is something in a chapel and chaplain so much in character with a great house, with one’s ideas of what such a household should be! A whole family assembling regularly for the purpose of prayer is fine!’

I wonder where she got such ideas from. She’s eighteen now, having lived at Mansfield Park as a poor relation since she was ten. Her father is a former lieutenant of marines ‘without education, fortune, or connections.’ What does she know about great houses? The Bertrams don’t have a chaplain – or pray together, for that matter. Why shouldn’t the poor or the middle classes worship together? Miss Price must have read too many books. But Edmund and our heroine might later put down the Rushworths’ disgrace, at least partly, to the neglect of such religious practices – the mother-in-law falling out with her son’s wife, the latter’s sexual indiscretions, the snitching maid.

Their companion holds more earthly views:

‘Very fine indeed,’ said Miss Crawford, laughing. ‘It must do the heads of the family a great deal of good to force all the poor housemaids and footmen to leave business and pleasure, and say their prayers here twice a day, while they are inventing excuses themselves for staying away.’

‘That is hardly Fanny’s idea of a family assembling,’ said Edmund. ‘If the master and mistress do not attend themselves, there must be more harm than good in the custom.’

Illustration from http://www.mollands.net

‘At any rate, it is safer to leave people to their own devices on such subjects. Everybody likes to go their own way–to chuse their own time and manner of devotion. The obligation of attendance, the formality, the restraint, the length of time–altogether it is a formidable thing, and what nobody likes; and if the good people who used to kneel and gape in that gallery could have foreseen that the time would ever come when men and women might lie another ten minutes in bed, when they woke with a headache, without danger of reprobation, because chapel was missed, they would have jumped with joy and envy. Cannot you imagine with what unwilling feelings the former belles of the house of Rushworth did many a time repair to this chapel? The young Mrs Eleanors and Mrs Bridgets–starched up into seeming piety, but with heads full of something very different–especially if the poor chaplain were not worth looking at–and, in those days, I fancy parsons were very inferior even to what they are now.’

She has a good point: inward devotion can hardly be imposed. The outward show of conformity, however, reinforces the status quo – all the more so if it’s compulsory. There is a family gallery, with ‘velvet cushions,’ as Mrs Rushworth indicates. The servants would have had their own place. Even the physical layout of the chapel would have reproduced the inequality ordained by God. And there’s no telling what the lower orders might pray for if not properly guided.

For a few moments she was unanswered. Fanny coloured and looked at Edmund, but felt too angry for speech; and he needed a little recollection before he could say, ‘Your lively mind can hardly be serious even on serious subjects. You have given us an amusing sketch, and human nature cannot say it was not so. We must all feel at times the difficulty of fixing our thoughts as we could wish; but if you are supposing it a frequent thing, that is to say, a weakness grown into a habit from neglect, what could be expected from the private devotions of such persons? Do you think the minds which are suffered, which are indulged in wanderings in a chapel, would be more collected in a closet?’

Mary has inadvertently hurt Fanny’s ‘religious’ sensibilities.  She may have been ill-advised to have spoken so lightly, but at least she’s honest. Though she may give her opinion too decidedly, as Lady Catherine would have put it, from the very beginning we know what she thinks.  Fanny is wise not to reply, but ‘faith’ is supposed to bring about peace of mind, not irritability – her insecurity and  her ‘nerves’ almost get the better of her here. Edmund has been personally affected too – he feels attracted to someone who obviously doesn’t share his views on what he sees as a major issue. He must pause …

After the Wimpole Street scandal breaks out, the difference becomes unbridgeable. With a mixture of playfulness and bitterness she calls him a ‘Methodist’, a term used disparagingly at the time to refer to Church of England Evangelicals:

‘A pretty good lecture, upon my word. Was it part of your last sermon? At this rate you will soon reform everybody at Mansfield and Thornton Lacey; and when I hear of you next, it may be as a celebrated preacher in some great society of Methodists, or as a missionary into foreign parts.’ She tried to speak carelessly, but she was not so careless as she wanted to appear.

We don’t see much emphasis on religious emotion, though – only Fanny’s ‘fervent prayers’ for Edmund’s happiness. What she means by that is not quite clear, as she doesn’t include Mary Crawford in them. There’s also Edmund’s heartfelt exclamation on learning that his cousin didn’t regret her brother’s inconstancy as much as he had feared:

‘Thank God,’ said he. ‘We were all disposed to wonder, but it seems to have been the merciful appointment of Providence that the heart which knew no guile should not suffer.’

William Wilberforce, by John Rising

Unlike Evangelicals, Edmund doesn’t object to pluralism. His position seems a bit contradictory, as, on the other hand, he shares his father’s belief that

a parish has wants and claims which can be known only by a clergyman constantly resident, and which no proxy can be capable of satisfying to the same extent. Edmund might, in the common phrase, do the duty of Thornton, that is, he might read prayers and preach, without giving up Mansfield Park: he might ride over every Sunday, to a house nominally inhabited, and go through divine service; he might be the clergyman of Thornton Lacey every seventh day, for three or four hours, if that would content him. But it will not. He knows that human nature needs more lessons than a weekly sermon can convey; and that if he does not live among his parishioners, and prove himself, by constant attention, their well-wisher and friend, he does very little either for their good or his own.

As Edmund himself puts it,

A fine preacher is followed and admired; but it is not in fine preaching only that a good clergyman will be useful in his parish and his neighbourhood, where the parish and neighbourhood are of a size capable of knowing his private character, and observing his general conduct

But when the Mansfield living becomes vacant on Dr Grant’s death, he has no qualms in accepting it, as he and his wife ‘want an increase of income.’ It had initially been meant for him, and it was only his brother’s profligacy that later forced Sir Thomas to sell the presentation, as we learn in chapter 3. According to him, it would have provided ‘more than half the income that ought to be his.’ It all sounds rather hypocritical, although, as Mr Wickham remarks, ‘we are none of us consistent.’

In 1787, William Wilberforce, a prominent member of the Evangelical group later known as the ‘Clapham Sect,’ wrote: ‘God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.’ Edmund and Fanny seem interested in the former, as I discussed in an earlier post. I would only add here that perhaps he thinks his cousin’s influence on her uncle might lead to a gradual improvement in the living and working conditions of his slaves. Wilberforce’s ultimate goal, the abolition of slavery itself, was, however, a long way off, and in the meantime the inhabitants of Mansfield Park appear to enjoy the profits of unfree labour with a clear conscience.

As a clergyman, however, Edmund will have ‘the guardianship of religion and morals, and consequently of the manners which result from their influence.’ He further explains the responsibilities of the men of the cloth:

The manners I speak of might rather be called conduct, perhaps, the result of good principles; the effect, in short, of those doctrines which it is their duty to teach and recommend; and it will, I believe, be everywhere found, that as the clergy are, or are not what they ought to be, so are the rest of the nation.

Illustration from http://www.mollands.net

He starts quite modestly by opposing private theatricals, but then changes his mind in order to prevent a greater evil, a rationalisation that fails to convince Fanny. She, in turn, ‘cannot act,’ so we may well wonder whether she’s not making a virtue out of necessity.

A few months after ordination, however, his sister’s sexual transgression prompts a harsh, uncompromising, unforgiving response. Mary Crawford believes that  

if by any officious exertions … she is induced to leave Henry’s protection, there will be much less chance of his marrying her than if she remain with him. I know how he is likely to be influenced. Let Sir Thomas trust to his honour and compassion, and it may all end well; but if he get his daughter away, it will be destroying the chief hold.

Edmund is shocked: ‘No reluctance, no horror, no feminine … modest loathings!’ The ‘dreadful crime’ must be punished immediately, there must be no ‘acquiescence in the continuance of sin.’  This is not Antigua. The Bertrams cannot afford to give their ‘sanction to vice … or lessen its disgrace.’ Some people just cannot be reformed, so Miss Crawford must be given up, though

hers is not a cruel nature. I do not consider her as meaning to wound my feelings. The evil lies yet deeper: in her total ignorance, unsuspiciousness of there being such feelings; in a perversion of mind which made it natural to her to treat the subject as she did. She was speaking only as she had been used to hear others speak, as she imagined everybody else would speak. Hers are not faults of temper. She would not voluntarily give unnecessary pain to any one … Hers are faults of principle …  of blunted delicacy and a corrupted, vitiated mind.

The moral crusade seems to have run out of steam: he must now stop the bleeding and go on preaching to the choir. We should be grateful, however, to have been spared the fire and brimstone rhetoric we often find in contemporary and later literature. Concern with the social implications of behaviour appears paramount in the novel.

In 1809 Jane Austen openly states: ‘I do not like the Evangelicals.’ Yet in November 1814, over a year after finishing Mansfield Park, she writes to Fanny Knight: ‘I am by no means convinced that we ought not all to be Evangelicals, & am at least persuaded that they who are so from Reason and Feeling, must be happiest & safest.’ She doesn’t sound as if she were undergoing a conversion: I rather believe she’s been exploring possibilities. By the end of the book Edmund and Fanny seem to have found happiness and safety ‘within the view and patronage of Mansfield Park.’ Afraid of the evil influence of the outside world, fighting a losing battle against change, they feel comforted and reassured among like-minded creatures. Would the author have been content with that kind of bliss?

In fact she had already turned her thoughts ‘to those … more cheerfully employed,’ though she would later express her doubts about Emma too: ‘I am very strongly haunted with the idea that … it will appear … to those who have preferred MP very inferior in good Sense.’ Never mind the good sense – I, for one, am glad to leave the self-righteous whining behind.


Jane Austen’s novels quoted from www.mollands.net

Adkins, Roy and Lesley. (2014). Jane Austen’s England. Daily Life in the Georgian and Regency Periods. New York: Penguin Books.

Austen, Jane. (1996). Mansfield Park. Ed. with an Introduction and Notes by Kathryn Sutherland. London: Penguin Books.

Brown, Richard. (2002). Church and State in Modern Britain 1700-1850. London: Routledge.

Hardman, O. The Clapham Sect. Retrieved from http://anglicanhistory.org/misc/clapham.html

Le Faye, Deirdre, ed. (2011). Jane Austen Letters. Oxford: OUP.

Schlossberg, Herbert. The Evangelical Movement in the Church of England. Retrieved from http://www.victorianweb.org/victorian/religion/herb5.html

Stott, Anne. (2014). Wilberforce and Jane Austen: some possible connections. Retrieved from https://claphamsect.com/2014/04/17/wilberforce-and-jane-austen-some-possible-connections/

Tomalin, Claire. (1999). Jane Austen. A Life. New York: Vintage Books.

Nine children and a very small income: How poor are the Prices?

Life at Mansfield Park may, on the surface, look like a ‘succession of busy nothings.’ We might be forgiven for nodding off like Lady Bertram, as a bunch of wealthy people engage in trivial pursuits in order to escape boredom for a while. That’s how Henry Crawford comes up with a scheme to make Fanny Price fall in love with him, only to find out that his own heart is not as indifferent as he thought. As she turns him down, Sir Thomas suggests she should experience once more how the poorer half lives, so that she may learn to appreciate ‘the value of a good income’ and a comfortable home. Thus, unusually enough for an Austen novel, we get a chance to see for ourselves.

In chapter 1 we’re told that her mother wedded

a Lieutenant of Marines, without education, fortune, or connexions … Sir Thomas Bertram had interest, which, from principle as well as pride–from a general wish of doing right, and a desire of seeing all that were connected with him in situations of respectability, he would have been glad to exert for the advantage of Lady Bertram’s sister; but her husband’s profession was such as no interest could reach.

The novel was written between 1811 and 1813. Fanny is eighteen by the time the main action takes place, and was nine when Mrs Norris proposed that her niece should be raised at Mansfield Park, her parents having then been married for eleven years. They must have taken their vows, therefore, between 1791 and 1793, the year in which Revolutionary France declared war on Britain, which had enjoyed peace since the end of the American War in 1783. As a result of Mr Pitt’s policies, only 16,000 sailors remained in the navy, as opposed to the 110,000 enrolled when the Treaty of Paris was signed, acknowledging the independence of the former colonies. This would explain why Lt. Price was beyond help at the moment. An ‘absolute breach between the sisters’ prevented his brother-in-law from exercising his influence on his behalf when hostilities broke out again.

Armed conflict might have provided opportunity for ‘action with a superior force’ or sharing in prize money. But eleven years later the Bertrams learn that Fanny’s father has become ‘disabled for active service’. He must have been receiving ‘a very small income’ from the Chatham Chest, a fund financed by compulsory deductions from seamen’s pay that was merged in 1803 with a similar scheme run by the Greenwich Hospital. Whatever his impairment, we see him walking, kicking away portmanteaus as well as band-boxes, and reading the paper. And we can hear him shout. In Persuasion Captain Harville, a little lame and frail as a consequence of  a severe wound,

had contrived excellent accommodations, and fashioned very pretty shelves, for a tolerable collection of well-bound volumes, the property of Captain Benwick … a mind of usefulness and ingenuity seemed to furnish him with constant employment … He drew, he varnished, he carpentered, he glued; he made toys for the children; he fashioned new netting-needles and pins with improvements; and if everything else was done, sat down to his large fishing-net at one corner of the room.

Portsmouth Point, by Thomas Rowlandson

Had Mr Price been more industrious, he might have made himself serviceable around the house. We know, for instance, that they’re short of chairs, and their table has been vandalised  by his sons. He might even have found a way of supplementing his narrow means.

Assuming his wife’s dowry had been equal to Lady Bertram’s, it would have yielded about £350 a year. The Dashwood sisters and their mother lived on 500, so the Prices wouldn’t have been so poor at first, though they wouldn’t have made enough to keep nine children.

They could have done much worse. Having been made a Lieutenant in 1796, the Austens’ former neighbour Earle Harwood married Sarah Scott the following year. On 19 December 1798, Jane informs Cassandra: ‘Earle has got the appointment to a Prison ship at Portsmouth, which he has been for some time desirous of having; & he & his wife are to live on board for the future.’

Mrs Price’s contrition, despondency and poverty bring about a reconciliation, and the Bertrams send money and advice. They undertake to bring up her undernourished eldest daughter and Sir Thomas assists ‘liberally in the education and disposal of her sons.’ William joins the navy, and, by the time Fanny comes back to Portsmouth, one of their brothers works as a clerk in London, his uncle having presumably paid for his apprenticeship. Another is a midshipman on an Indiaman, i.e. a merchant ship engaged in the Eastern trade, something his mother already had in mind when she wrote her apologetic missive to her Northamptonshire relatives. A girl having passed away, only five children remain, of whom one is about to ‘begin his career of seamanship’ on board the Thrush. The two youngest boys would attend the Portsmouth Grammar School, which opened in 1750 and was originally free.

Their house, like most people’s, would have been rented. They don’t, however, share it with others, or sublet any rooms or floors. Even though, coming from Mansfield Park, Fanny finds it small, it doesn’t look as overcrowded as other contemporary urban dwellings. The walls are thin, which would point to the poor construction resulting from the rapid expansion of towns and cities.

The Prices have two servants, of whom the upper maid looks slovenly enough. Though she’s loud, impudent, and lazy, her mistress believes that, were she to dismiss her, she would only get someone worse. Labour was relatively cheap, and even Miss Benn, the Austens’ impoverished Chawton neighbour, had a maid. Yet not everybody could afford domestic help, as Jane reports in October 1798:

Earle & his wife live in the most private manner imaginable at Portsmouth, without keeping a servant of any kind. – What a prodigious innate love of virtue she must have, to marry under such circumstances!

Mrs Price is not a good manager: she’s ‘dissatisfied with her servants, without skill to make them better, and whether helping, or reprimanding, or indulging them, without any power of engaging their respect.’ We get the impression that Rebecca’s cooking might have improved, if only she’d been properly trained: ‘We are very much disposed to like our new maid,’ Austen writes to her sister, ‘she knows nothing of a dairy, to be sure, which, in our family, is rather against her, but she is to be taught it all.’

Illustration from http://www.mollands.net

Fanny’s youngest brothers are ‘ragged and dirty,’ while her mother looks ‘slatternly’ and ‘shabby’. Nor can her father be taken ‘for a model in dress.’ Still, they go to Church ‘in their cleanest skins and best attire.’ Mr Price cordially invites Henry Crawford to share their mutton on a Saturday, but their everyday fare seems less appetising. Fanny is put off by ‘Rebecca’s puddings and Rebecca’s hashes, brought to table … with such accompaniments of half-cleaned plates, and not half-cleaned knives and forks.’

Sitting in she sunlit parlour, she noticed

stains and dirt that might otherwise have slept … In a cloud of moving dust … her eyes could only wander from the walls, marked by her father’s head, to the table cut and notched by her brothers, where stood the tea-board never thoroughly cleaned, the cups and saucers wiped in streaks, the milk a mixture of motes floating in thin blue, and the bread and butter growing every minute more greasy than even Rebecca’s hands had first produced it … Her mother lamented over the ragged carpet as usual, … and wished Rebecca would mend it.

On the one hand, Fanny’s perceptions have been partly coloured by her upbringing: ‘After being nursed up at Mansfield, it was too late in the day to be hardened at Portsmouth.’ On the other hand, the ‘noise, disorder, and impropriety’ could at least have been reduced if only her parents had been more diligent and resourceful. Mr Price only cared for liquor and the company of his navy mates.

He did not want abilities but he had no curiosity, and no information beyond his profession; he read only the newspaper and the navy-list; he talked only of the dockyard, the harbour, Spithead, and the Motherbank.

I’m not sure this is a fair criticism. Had he been more successful, even snobbish Emma Woodhouse would have found it quite natural:

How much his business engrosses him already is very plain from the circumstance of his forgetting to inquire for the book you recommended. He was a great deal too full of the market to think of any thing else—which is just as it should be, for a thriving man. What has he to do with books? And I have no doubt that he will thrive, and be a very rich man in time—and his being illiterate and coarse need not disturb us.

Unfortunately, we can’t acquit Mr Price of other charges:

He swore and he drank, he was dirty and gross. She had never been able to recall anything approaching to tenderness in his former treatment of herself. There had remained only a general impression of roughness and loudness; and now he scarcely ever noticed her, but to make her the object of a coarse joke.

His wife’s personality didn’t help:

She was a manager by necessity, without any of Mrs Norris’s inclination for it, or any of her activity. Her disposition was naturally easy and indolent, like Lady Bertram’s; and a situation of similar affluence and do-nothingness would have been much more suited to her capacity than the exertions and self-denials of the one which her imprudent marriage had placed her in. She might have made just as good a woman of consequence as Lady Bertram, but Mrs Norris would have been a more respectable mother of nine children on a small income.

Illustration from http://www.mollands.net

And, of course, having spent nine years in the countryside, our heroine would find the physical atmosphere of a Regency town oppressive:

It was sad to Fanny to lose all the pleasures of spring … To be losing such pleasures was no trifle; to be losing them, because she was in the midst of closeness and noise, to have confinement, bad air, bad smells, substituted for liberty, freshness, fragrance, and verdure, was infinitely worse.

The first piped water supply in Portsmouth was installed in 1811, but only the middle and upper classes could afford the connection. Sewage ran down the gutters into the moat. The filth and stench would have been unbearable to someone not used to it. Personal hygiene would usually have meant washing your hands, face and neck. Few people bathed at the time, even among the well-off. But in a small urban house close proximity would have made body odour more conspicuous. There would have been no space or facilities for the frequent cleaning of crockery, cutlery, or clothes.

A ‘sad fire’ is burning in the parlour when Fanny arrives. There’s enough coal to build it up, it seems, but the household is not well organised. She’ll soon find out there is no fire at all in the ‘scantily furnished’ room she is to share with Susan. For the time being she sits ‘undistinguished in the dusk,’ as her father calls out for a candle. When it’s brought in, he places it in front of the borrowed newspaper he’s about to read, as his ‘bewildered, broken, sorrowful’ daughter watches in silence – a chiaroscuro of selfishness and rejection. Ignored and unnoticed, she’s as much of an outsider at her parents’ home as she was at Mansfield Park. There would have been plenty of beeswax candles there. Mr Price’s would have been a tallow one with a rather unpleasant smell. Still poorer people lit rushlights or just gathered by the hearth.

The Prices are not so badly off as we might have expected. They’re relatively well-fed and, except for Mr Price’s alcohol addiction and unspecified disability, seem healthy enough. Four of the children have started their professional careers and two attend school. Their house is small, but at least they’re not squeezed together in some damp, stuffy attic or cellar. Used to much higher living standards and having surprisingly forgotten what it was like during the first nine years of her life, Fanny is shocked. The local girls think she puts on airs.

The Portsmouth household is far from ideal, but its shortcomings stem chiefly from neglect, inefficiency, inadequate parenting, improper behaviour, and bad habits, playing against a background of urban pollution and overcrowding. The connection appears almost inevitable. Though ‘early hardship’ may have its advantages, ‘domestic happiness’ is associated with ‘country pleasures’. As Edmund Bertram puts it, ‘We do not look in great cities for our best morality.’


Jane Austen’s novels quoted from www.mollands.net

Adkins, Roy and Lesley. (2014). Jane Austen’s England. Daily Life in the Georgian and Regency Periods. New York: Penguin Books.

Austen, Jane. (1996). Mansfield Park. Ed. with an Introduction and Notes by Kathryn Sutherland. London: Penguin Books.

Lambert, Tim. A Brief History of Portsmouth, England. Retrieved from http://www.localhistories.org/portsmouth.html

Le Faye, Deirdre, ed. (2011). Jane Austen Letters. Oxford: OUP.

Records of Royal Greenwich Hospital, and the Chatham Chest. Retrieved from http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C725

Thomas, B.C. (1990). Portsmouth in Jane Austen’s Time. Persuasions, 12. Retrieved from http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/printed/number12/thomas.htm

Scolding, compassion, and relief: charity in Pride and Prejudice and Emma

‘He is the best landlord, and the best master,’ says Mrs Reynolds in Pride and Prejudice, ‘that ever lived …There is not one of his tenants or servants but what will give him a good name.’ That’s where I would have started warming to Mr Darcy. According to the housekeeper, he’ll be just ‘as affable to the poor’ as his father was. Though, all in all, her praise sounds a bit over the top, Mrs Gardiner is inclined to believe her:

To be sure, the good lady who shewed us the house did give him a most flaming character! I could hardly help laughing aloud sometimes. But he is a liberal master, I suppose, and that in the eye of a servant comprehends every virtue.

Her Lambton friends confirm Mrs Reynolds’s account. As we read in the next chapter,

They had nothing to accuse him of but pride; pride he probably had, and if not, it would certainly be imputed by the inhabitants of a small market-town where the family did not visit. It was acknowledged, however, that he was a liberal man, and did much good among the poor.

In other words, he’s not as involved in village life as Mr Knightley, but, as far as landowners go, he seems fair and generous, if rather remote.

Lady Catherine, by contrast,

was a most active magistrate in her own parish, the minutest concerns of which were carried to her by Mr Collins; and whenever any of the cottagers were disposed to be … too poor, she sallied forth into the village to … scold them into … plenty.

Since, as a woman, she is not qualified to serve as a ‘magistrate’, the term is used ironically to stress the officious nature of her intervention. If her behaviour at the parsonage is anything to go by, she must pop in just as their paltry meals are being prepared or laid out,  and emphatically remark that they are too large for their station. Occasionally, however, should her acquaintance be in need of servants or farm labourers, she might help get them jobs, just as she’s managed to find employment for Miss Pope and Mrs Jenkinson’s nieces. From this excerpt we can also gather that Mr Collins does visit the poor and sick in his parish, but refers the destitute to Her Ladyship – not to the overseers or the magistrate himself. We might imagine the former would be glad to have been saved the trouble, and ratepayers would be grateful to have been spared the tax rise.

Mr Elton also calls on the poor, as is his duty, though he may be distracted from it by the unexpected appearance of Miss Woodhouse. People may also seek his advice on parish relief applications. Like him, Emma snobbishly looks down on those more or less immediately beneath her on the social ladder, while dispensing her charity to those at the bottom:

The yeomanry are precisely the order of people with whom I feel I can have nothing to do. A degree or two lower, and a creditable appearance might interest me; I might hope to be useful to their families in some way or other. But a farmer can need none of my help, and is, therefore, in one sense, as much above my notice as in every other he is below it.

Industrious cottagers, by William Ward, after James Ward, 1801.

Chapter 10, Vol. I describes one of her merciful errands:

They were now approaching the cottage, and all idle topics were superseded. Emma was very compassionate; and the distresses of the poor were as sure of relief from her personal attention and kindness, her counsel and her patience, as from her purse. She understood their ways, could allow for their ignorance and their temptations, had no romantic expectations of extraordinary virtue from those for whom education had done so little; entered into their troubles with ready sympathy, and always gave her assistance with as much intelligence as good-will. In the present instance, it was sickness and poverty together which she came to visit; and after remaining there as long as she could give comfort or advice, she quitted the cottage with such an impression of the scene as made her say to Harriet, as they walked away,

‘These are the sights, Harriet, to do one good. How trifling they make every thing else appear!—I feel now as if I could think of nothing but these poor creatures all the rest of the day.’

The author seems to be saying that, whatever her faults, our heroine is sensitive and thoughtful towards the truly disadvantaged. It’s the latter’s forbearance, however, that would rather be required. In exchange for a few shillings and a pitcher of broth, they are compelled to listen to the patronising guidance of a young lady who fancies herself capable of understanding what she’s never experienced. She might have learned a few facts about nutrition and home remedies from Mrs Weston or Mr Perry, but what can she know about ‘their temptations’? An example of these can be found in chapter 3, Vol. III. A begging child comes towards Harriet Smith, who is walking down the Richmond Road with a friend. Miss Bickerton screams and manages to run away, but Harriet cannot. She’s petrified.

How the trampers might have behaved, had the young ladies been more courageous, must be doubtful; but such an invitation for attack could not be resisted; and Harriet was soon assailed by half a dozen children, headed by a stout woman and a great boy, all clamorous, and impertinent in look, though not absolutely in word.–More and more frightened, she immediately promised them money, and taking out her purse, gave them a shilling, and begged them not to want more, or to use her ill.–She was then able to walk, though but slowly, and was moving away–but her terror and her purse were too tempting, and she was followed, or rather surrounded, by the whole gang, demanding more.

At least from Emma’s point of view, it would have been unrealistic to expect restraint, and the whole incident is almost blamed on the victim’s lack of aplomb. Having received ‘a little education’ at Mrs Goddard’s, she should have known better. To think  Miss Woodhouse flattered herself she’d given Harriet ‘more decision of character’! That’s why Jane Fairfax feels so guilty: ‘Do not imagine, madam,’ she says, ‘that I was taught wrong.’ With instruction comes greater responsibility, but not necessarily wisdom, presence of mind, or ‘virtue’.

Illustration from http://www.mollands.net

What else could, in Emma’s opinion, lure the labouring classes away from the straight and narrow? The prospect of a mug of ale at the Crown, after an exhausting day? The appeal of idleness? Lust? They must be aware that they can’t afford so many children – but then again, without ‘separate rooms’ … The situation must surely be more complex than that. On her way to the humble cottage, for instance, she explains:

A very narrow income has a tendency to contract the mind, and sour the temper. Those who can barely live, and who live perforce in a very small, and generally very inferior, society, may well be illiberal and cross. This does not apply, however, to Miss Bates.

By her own admission, then, things may not be as simple as they look. Later on she acknowledges that ‘with insufferable vanity had she believed herself in the secret of every body’s feelings; with unpardonable arrogance proposed to arrange every body’s destiny.’

Underpinning the class system was a shared belief that inequality had been ordained by God. Charity mitigated injustice and eased the conscience of the privileged. However condescending, it was much better than being upbraided for your lack of means. As Emma puts it,

I hope it may be allowed that if compassion has produced exertion and relief to the sufferers, it has done all that is truly important. If we feel for the wretched, enough to do all we can for them, the rest is empty sympathy, only distressing to ourselves.

I get the impression that rich and clever Miss Woodhouse might have done better than utter comforting platitudes, give them a coin and a few medicinal or household management tips, or offer a jug of soup. But she’s satisfied with what she reckons she’s achieved. From the very beginning we are warned that she has ‘a disposition to think a little too well of herself.’ On the other hand, she’s young, and caring in her own way. Experience and critical reflection may still broaden her mind.

In 1800, Jane Austen’s friend Mrs Lefroy, the Ashe rector’s wife, set up a straw manufactory, so that women and children could earn a few pence by making mats. And Eliza Chute, whose husband owned The Vyne and represented Hampshire in Parliament, made broth for her villagers and handed out blankets. In September of that year she writes:

The poor are dissatisfied & with reason. I much fear that wheat will not be cheap this year: & every other necessary of life enormously dear: the poor man cannot purchase those comforts he ought to have: beer, bacon, cheese. Can one wonder that discontents lurk in their bosoms: I cannot think their wages sufficient, & the pride of a poor man ( & why should we [not] allow him some pride) is hurt, when he is obliged to apply to the parish for relief & too often receives harsh answers from the overseers.

Though worse off than these ladies, Austen was also concerned with the practical needs of her neighbours: ‘Dame Tilbury’s daughter has lain-in – Shall I give her any of your Baby Cloathes?’ she asks Cassandra in October 1798. On Christmas Day she reports:

Of my charities to the poor since I came home you shall have a faithful account. – I have given a p.r of Worsted Stockgs to Mary Hutchins, Dame Kew, Mary Steevens, & Dame Staples; a shift to Hannah Staples, & a shawl to Betty Dawkins; amounting in all to about half a guinea.

Illustration from http://www.mollands.net

In October 1800, Jane went shopping with her brother Edward, the absentee Steventon landowner, who was intent on helping the locals:

At Oakley we bought ten pair of worsted stockings, & a shift. – The shift is for Betty Dawkins, as we find she wants it more than a rug. – She is one of the most grateful of all whom Edward’s charity has reached, or at least she expresses herself more warmly than the rest, for she sends him a “sight of thanks.”

The poor in Austen’s letters are members of the community: we know their names and what they do for a living. The tone may be occasionally humorous, but never superior or judgemental:

Dame Bushell washes for us only one week more, as Sukey has got a place. – John Steevens’ wife undertakes our Purification; She does not look as if anything she touched would ever be clean, but who knows? – We do not seem likely to have any other maidservant at present, but Dame Staples will supply the place of one.

The anonymous family Emma visits don’t even belong to Highbury: their dwelling, just like the gypsy camp, is ‘a little way out.’ We see her come in and go out, but there’s no dialogue, no description of what happens inside. As the girl with the pitcher overtakes her on her way back, she talks to her, but we’re not told what they say.

Regardless of the good intentions of individual members of the élite, the huge disparities between the haves and have-nots and the hardships suffered by the lower orders were too blatant to be ignored. The ruling classes feared a French-style revolution that might deprive them of their wealth, power, and lives. Though this never materialised, riots broke out every now and then, mainly brought about by high food prices, but also by England’s industrial transformation and the enclosure of common land. In 1795, a group of soldiers in Henry Austen’s regiment, the Oxfordshire Militia, joined a starving crowd in a protest that was brutally put down. In May 1816, a few months after the publication of Emma, demonstrators at Littleport, Cambridgeshire, demanded affordable bread and threatened to shed blood. Five of them were hanged and six others sentenced to transportation. Charitable deeds might have provided temporary solutions to particular cases, but it was social justice that was required.


Jane Austen’s novels quoted from www.mollands.net

Adkins, Roy and Lesley. (2014). Jane Austen’s England. Daily Life in the Georgian and Regency Periods. New York: Penguin Books.

Calway, Gareth. “‘Bread or Blood’ Fenland Riots, 200 years on.” Eastern Daily Press 20 May 2016. Retrieved from http://www.edp24.co.uk/features/bread_or_blood_fenland_riots_200_years_on_1_4543204

Le Faye, Deirdre, ed. (2011). Jane Austen Letters. Oxford: OUP.

Tomalin, Claire. (1999). Jane Austen. A Life. New York: Vintage Books.

Nabobs, gold mohrs, and palanquins: Colonel Brandon and Warren Hastings

Colonel Brandon is hardly the kind of man a teenager would fall for. He’s ‘on the wrong side of five and thirty’ and talks of flannel waistcoats, which ‘is invariably connected with aches, cramps, rheumatisms, and every species of ailment that can afflict the old and the feeble.’ His gravity and reserve, the result of ‘some oppression of spirits,’ wouldn’t help. On the other hand, ‘he has seen a great deal of the world; has been abroad, has read, and has a thinking mind,’ being capable of providing ‘much information on various subjects.’ Still, ‘prejudiced against him for being neither lively nor young,’ Marianne Dashwood and Mr Willoughby are ‘resolved to undervalue his merits.’

While Elinor commends the readiness with which he always answers her enquiries, her sister finds him unbearably dull:

‘That is to say,’ cried Marianne contemptuously, ‘he has told you, that in the East Indies the climate is hot, and the mosquitoes are troublesome’ …

‘Perhaps,’ said Willoughby, ‘his observations may have extended to the existence of nabobs, gold mohrs, and palanquins.’

As Lady Susan puts it, ‘where there is a disposition to dislike, a motive will never be wanting.’ Willoughby may simply mean that Brandon is a boring old man who has nothing original or interesting to communicate. But he might also be hinting that the colonel’s past behaviour may have left something to be desired. People tended to be suspicious of Indian wealth, and Willoughby might have heard rumours. Elinor believes malicious gossip should be nipped in the bud:

‘I may venture to say that his observations have stretched much further than your candour. But why should you dislike him?’

‘I do not dislike him. I consider him, on the contrary, as a very respectable man, who has every body’s good word, and nobody’s notice; who, has more money than he can spend, more time than he knows how to employ, and two new coats every year.’

A mohr was a gold coin worth fifteen rupees, and the term nabob was applied either to governors in the Mogul Empire or to Englishmen who returned from India with a fortune. Among the latter was Warren Hastings, the first Governor-General of Bengal and godfather to Jane Austen’s cousin Eliza Hancock. In 1786 he was impeached by the House of Commons on charges ranging from mismanagement and poor military judgement to corruption, extortion, and judicial murder. They were partly based on the allegations of Sir Philip Francis, a member of the Supreme Council of Bengal, with whom he had fought a duel. The process had been introduced by Edmund Burke, who then acted as parliamentary prosecutor, along with Charles James Fox and Richard Brinsley Sheridan, all of them Whigs. The trial in the House of Lords drew large audiences, lasting from 1788 to 1795, the year in which Jane Austen wrote Elinor and Marianne, an early version of Sense and Sensibility. He was eventually cleared but the expenses of his defence left him significantly worse off. Eliza herself went to Westminster Hall to witness the proceedings, sitting there from ten in the morning to four in the afternoon. Lord Macaulay describes the excitement aroused by Burke’s opening speech:

The ladies in the galleries, unaccustomed to such displays of eloquence, excited by the solemnity of the occasion, and perhaps not unwilling to display their taste and sensibility, were in a state of uncontrollable emotion. Handkerchiefs were pulled out; smelling bottles were handed round; hysterical sobs and screams were heard: and Mrs Sheridan was carried out in a fit.

The Trial of Warren Hastings

In a previous post I’ve argued that Willoughby’s sympathies may have lain with the Whigs. Marianne, on the other hand, doesn’t know how to govern her feelings, and in Vol. II, chapter 6, has to be revived with lavender water and hartshorn. Perhaps the author thought they were just the kind of  people who would  mistrust a sensible man like Col. Brandon.

The Austens supported Hastings throughout his ordeal, and in 1794 Jane’s father wrote to him, thinking he might still have enough influence to advance Frank’s naval career. Henry, who was planning to marry his goddaughter, congratulated him on his acquittal, mentioning ‘many instances’ of  his kindness to him. The letter is revoltingly sycophantic.

His younger sister seems to have genuinely admired him:

And Mr Hastings – I am quite delighted with what such a Man writes about it. – Henry sent him the Books after his return from Daylesford … I long to have you hear Mr H’s opinion of P&P. His admiring my Elizabeth so much is particularly welcome to me.

Col. Brandon’s ‘fortune’ is ‘about two thousand a year,’ i.e. twice the amount Elinor considers necessary for comfort and happiness, but half Mr Bingley’s income and one-fifth of Mr Darcy’s. Mrs Jennings wonders what might have prompted his sudden departure for London on the very day of the Whitwell excursion:

The estate at Delaford was never reckoned more than two thousand a year, and his brother left everything sadly involved. I do think he must have been sent for about money matters, for what else can it be? I wonder whether it is so. I would give anything to know the truth of it. Perhaps it is about Miss Williams and, by the bye, I dare say it is, because he looked so conscious when I mentioned her.

His Indian wealth is never assessed – no one is interested in pursuing the subject. For all we know, it might have been used to pay off estate debts, just as Hastings’s was partly spent on lawyers’ fees. On the other hand, judging by the length of his tour of duty, it might not have been very large. While his financial situation is barely touched on, the second possibility seems more promising:

‘What! do not you know who Miss Williams is? I am sure you must have heard of her before. She is a relation of the Colonel’s, my dear; a very near relation. We will not say how near, for fear of shocking the young ladies.’ Then, lowering her voice a little, she said to Elinor, ‘She is his natural daughter.’

The colonel later explains that she had been entrusted to him by her dying mother, who was also his cousin and former sister-in-law:

She left to my care her only child, a little girl, the offspring of her first guilty connection, who was then about three years old. She loved the child, and had always kept it with her ….after the death of my brother …  she visited me at Delaford. I called her a distant relation; but I am well aware that I have in general been suspected of a much nearer connection with her.

Col. Brandon and his cousin had been sweethearts, but his father, who was also her guardian, wished, ‘against her inclination,’  to marry her to his elder son, so that her money could be used to save the family estate. As the lovers’ plans to elope to Gretna Green were discovered, the younger brother was banished from home, and she was grounded till she submitted to her uncle’s will. ‘I meant,’ the colonel continues, ‘to promote the happiness of both by removing from her for years, and for that purpose had procured my exchange.’ He sailed off to the East, but the union proved extremely unhappy:

My brother did not deserve her; he did not even love her … she experienced great unkindness … My brother had no regard for her; his pleasures were not what they ought to have been, and from the first he treated her unkindly. The consequence of this, upon a mind so young, so lively, so inexperienced as Mrs Brandon’s, was but too natural. She resigned herself at first to all the misery of her situation … But can we wonder that, with such a husband to provoke inconstancy, and without a friend to advise or restrain her (for my father lived only a few months after their marriage, and I was with my regiment in the East Indies) she should fall?

Edmund Burke, by Joshua Reynolds

Similarly, Austen blames the Prince of Wales for his wife’s indiscretions: ‘I am resolved at least always to think that she would have been respectable, if the Prince had behaved only tolerably by her at first.’

The colonel goes on: ‘The shock which her marriage had given me … was nothing to what I felt when I heard, about two years afterwards, of her divorce.’ Being still in England at the time, he must have learned about the wedding soon after it took place. The divorce would have been granted at least six months before the information reached him in India – news, good or bad, didn’t travel fast in those days. The husband would have had to sue his wife’s lover for criminal conversation and then obtain a legal separation from an ecclesiastical court. A Private Act of Parliament would have been required for him to be allowed to remarry. He must have found out about the adultery pretty early on, or else the procedure couldn’t have been completed so quickly. Could she have been pregnant with his younger brother’s child? Was he her ‘first guilty connection’?

‘It was nearly three years after this unhappy period before I returned to England … after I had been six months in England, I did find her,’ says the colonel. He came back almost five years after the wedding, then, and six months later he was introduced to little Eliza, who was about three – or so her mother must have declared. We must take Col. Brandon’s word for it, since there are no other witnesses. But for all we know, he might be lying to spare Elinor’s blushes, or trying to conceal an unsavoury past. On the other hand, how could he be sure his cousin was telling the truth? The girl may have looked smaller than her real age, and her development may have been delayed, especially as the mother didn’t have the means to support her. Could she have been conceived before he left for India? If they were intimate at the time, the thought must have crossed his mind – but how could he be certain? We must bear in mind that it was baptisms, not births, that were recorded in parish registers.

The parentage of another Eliza, Jane Austen’s cousin and sister-in-law, had been the object of speculation in India. After eight years of marriage, the childless Hancocks had moved to Bengal, where they became close friends with Warren Hastings, then a widower, who had been appointed the company’s representative at the court of the Nawab. Philadelphia got pregnant, and a daughter was born in 1761, to whom Hastings stood godfather. Though Lord Clive forbade his wife to keep company with the mother, alleging an extramarital affair with Hastings, Tysoe Hancock behaved like an affectionate father. Did he trust his wife? Was he in denial? Was he too proud to acknowledge the facts? Did he cover up for his business partner and patron?

Later on Hastings became involved with another married lady, Mrs Imhoff, whom he wedded after her divorce, having apparently paid the husband off. So perhaps he wasn’t that into Mrs Hancock after all, or didn’t want to hurt his friend’s feelings. Maybe he had his own doubts, or knew the child couldn’t be his. By 1775 he had settled ten thousand pounds on Eliza, but then again she was his goddaughter and he was a rich man. The evidence is inconclusive.

Illustration from http://www.mollands.net

Whether or not Eliza Williams was Col. Brandon’s daughter, he felt he must confront her seducer:

‘Have you,’ she continued, after a short silence, ‘ever seen Mr Willoughby since you left him at Barton?’

‘Yes,’ he replied gravely, ‘once I have. One meeting was unavoidable.’

Elinor, startled by his manner, looked at him anxiously, saying,

‘What? have you met him to–’

‘I could meet him no other way. Eliza had confessed to me, though most reluctantly, the name of her lover; and when he returned to town, which was within a fortnight after myself, we met by appointment, he to defend, I to punish his conduct. We returned unwounded, and the meeting, therefore, never got abroad.’

Elinor sighed over the fancied necessity of this; but to a man and a soldier she presumed not to censure.

Of all the foolish, reckless things men used to do this is perhaps the most difficult to explain. Jane Austen must have heard about the 1780 duel between Sir Philip Francis and Warren Hastings. Alleging the former had gone back on his promise not to oppose certain measures, the latter wrote: ‘I judge of his public conduct by my experience of his private, which I have found to be void of truth and honour.’ Sir Philip felt compelled to challenge him, was wounded, and returned to England. He flatly denied having reached a political agreement with Hastings, though things might not have been so clear-cut. Was the provocation a desperate but deliberate attempt to get him out of the way? The governor-general certainly benefited from the outcome. He sounds regretful though, yet unwilling to take responsibility: ‘I hope Mr Francis does not think of assuming any merit from this silly affair. I have been ashamed that I have been made an actor in it.’

Warren Hastings was not the first man to engage in a duel, or to be suspected of having fathered offspring out of wedlock, or accused of corruption. I’m therefore far from suggesting that Jane Austen based a fictional character on him. But the tales we are told have a way of weaving themselves into the fabric of our own narrative, and the stories we read sometimes resonate with the echo of other voices …


Jane Austen’s novels quoted from www.mollands.net

Adkins, Roy and Lesley. (2014). Jane Austen’s England. Daily Life in the Georgian and Regency Periods. New York: Penguin Books.

Gleig, G.R. (1841). Memoirs of the Life of the Right Hon. Warren Hastings, First Governor-General of Bengal, vol. II. London: Richard Bentley.

Dodwell, H.H. ed. (1929). The Cambridge History of the British Empire. Vol. IV: British India 1497-1858. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Koster, Kristen. (2011). A Primer on Regency Divorce and Annulments. Retrieved from http://www.kristenkoster.com/a-regency-divorce-primer/

Le Faye, Deirdre, ed. (2011). Jane Austen Letters. Oxford: OUP.

Macaulay, Thomas Babington. (1841). Warren Hastings, an essay. Retrieved from


Marshall, P.J. Warren Hastings. In Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Warren-Hastings

Roy, Anindyo. (2005). Civility and Empire. Literature and culture in British India 1822-1922. Abingdon: Routledge.

Tomalin, Claire. (1999). Jane Austen. A Life. New York: Vintage Books.


A woman of brilliant and cultivated mind: did Eliza Hancock inspire Lady Susan?

‘Silly woman to expect constancy from so charming a man!’ exclaims Mrs Johnson, Lady Susan’s friend and confidante. She’s referring to Mrs Mainwaring and her husband, the protagonist’s lover. Thinking along the same lines, Eliza Hancock remarks: ‘He is young & reckoned handsome, in the Military & a Frenchman besides – how many reasons to doubt his constancy.’ She’s talking about her first spouse, Jean Francois Capot de Feuillide. Though the letter was addressed to Philadelphia Walter, she may have repeated the joke in front of others. Was Lady Susan modelled on Jane Austen’s beautiful, lively, bright, worldly, and flirtatious cousin, as has been suggested?

Lady Susan was written between 1793 and 1795. A fair copy was made on paper with an 1805 watermark. Love and Freindship, composed in 1790, had been dedicated to Eliza, and in Catharine, or the Bower, we find, mutatis mutandis, her mother’s story:

The eldest daughter had been obliged to accept the offer of one of her cousins to equip her for the East Indies, and … had been necessitated to embrace the only possibility that was offered to her, of a maintenance … Her personal attractions had gained her a husband as soon as she had arrived at Bengal, and she had now been married nearly a twelve month. Splendidly, yet unhappily married. United to a man of double her own age, whose disposition was not amiable, and whose manners were unpleasing, though his character was respectable.

In fact it seems Tysoe Hancock was only seven years Philadelphia Austen’s senior, and the marriage might have been prearranged by her uncle, Frank Austen, who also happened to be his lawyer in England. Betsy was born in 1761, and rumour had it she was not Tysoe’s child but her godfather Warren Hasting’s. All four of them came back to England in 1765, the men returning to the East in 1768. Soon after her father’s death, Betsy announced that, from then on, she would be Eliza ‘for,’ as we read in Northanger Abbey, ‘what young lady of common gentility will reach the age of sixteen without altering her name as far as she can?’

In 1781 Eliza married Capot de Feuillide in Paris. In 1786 she crossed the Channel with her mother, giving birth to her son Hastings, and spending Christmas at the Steventon Rectory. ‘Madame is grown quite lively,’ wrote Mrs Austen, ‘when a child we used to think her too grave.’ James, her eldest son, was on his Grand Tour at the time, but Henry was home, and Eliza danced and flirted with him, though he was ten years her junior. James was back in 1787, and the next Christmas entertainment was more elaborate. Plays were put on at the barn, and there was plenty of backstage drama as well, as the brothers vied for her attention.

She may have engaged ‘at the same time, and in the same house, the affections of two men,’ but they were both perfectly free. It was she that was married. Did she neglect her husband, as Sir Reginald says Lady Susan did? Not really – it was rather the other way round. It would seem his main goal in life was to drain his marshes in the Marais area  to turn them into farming land. He needed capital and was advised to marry Eliza, on whom Warren Hastings, the Governor-General of Bengal, had settled ten thousand pounds. A few months later he went south to oversee the works, leaving his bride in Paris, while getting hold of her income and borrowing money from Philadelphia. Mother and daughter later joined him there, but the couple ended up leading separate lives. Indian wealth was helping fund the agricultural development of his estates and that was almost all that mattered.

Fort St George, in Madras (Chennai). Engraving by Jan Van Ryne, 1754

Sir Reginald would have frowned on Eliza’s ‘encouragement of other men,’ but she was definitely not ‘poor’. On the other hand, while Lady Susan was a peer’s daughter, Jane Austen’s cousin was not actually the countess she claimed to be. When they were introduced, her husband was just an officer in one of Marie Antoinette’s regiments. He later went on half pay, devoting all his energy to his pet undertaking. Perhaps he thought her fortune might help him obtain a title, but she must have realised he was not a nobleman. Did she indulge in delusions of grandeur or wishful thinking – or did she just lie to impress family and friends? Might be fun too, passing yourself off as foreign aristocracy and chuckling up your sleeve at human credulity … Maybe the Austens knew and played along. It’s tempting to read Jane’s dedication of Love and Freindship as a private, even shared joke:

 To Madame la Comtesse De Feuillide

This Novel is inscribed

by Her obliged Humble Servant

The Author

As we know, Lady Susan lies all the time – be it about her reasons for opposing the Vernons’ union or for leaving Langford, about Frederica’s behaviour or her plans for her, or about her relationship with Mr Mainwaring or Reginald De Courcy. Her sister-in-law calls her ‘mistress of deceit,’ and the author does not trust her: ‘Whether Lady Susan was or was not happy in her second choice, I do not see how it can ever be ascertained; for who would take her assurance on either side of the question?’

About the time Jane Austen wrote the novella or a little later but before she copied it out, Eliza, a widow since her husband’s execution in 1794, received two proposals. In 1796, James, now a widower with a daughter, failed to persuade her to ‘give up dear Liberty & yet dearer flirtation.’ However, by the end of the following year she wedded Henry, having been ‘induced’, as she explained three days before the event, ‘to an acquiescence’ that she had ‘withheld for more than two years.’ His engagement to Mary Pearson had been broken off in the summer of 1796, so there might have been some overlapping here. In June 1799, Jane told Cassandra:

The Post has been more friendly to me, it has brought me a letter from Miss Pearson. You may remember that I wrote to her above two months ago about the parcel under my care, & as I had heard nothing from her since, I thought myself obliged to write again two or three days ago, for after all that had passed I was determined that the Correspondence should never cease thro’ my means -.

All this would suggest that, though Henry was apparently jilted by his fiancée, she wouldn’t have had much choice, as it would seem he had been courting his cousin for some time. He was a free man when Eliza accepted him – or so she says. But did she receive his attentions while he was not ‘at liberty to bestow them’? In November 1796 she reported: ‘I hear his late intended is a most intolerable Flirt, and reckoned to give herself great Airs.’ Had Henry been complaining, like Mr Mainwaring – or merely trying to arouse her jealousy? ‘She is a pretty wicked looking Girl with bright Black Eyes which pierce thro’ & thro’,’ she added. ‘No wonder the poor young Man’s heart could not withstand them.’

Eliza Hancock

According to Mrs Vernon, Lady Susan ‘is clever and agreeable, has all that knowledge of the world which makes conversation easy, and talks very well, with a happy command of language.’ This description would have fitted Eliza to a tee. She had even been at the French court, which Lady Susan would have killed for.

Eliza was fond of music, dancing, social gatherings, and the theatre – she just loved London. However, she also enjoyed visiting the Steventon Rectory, and in 1799, while Henry was in Ireland with his regiment, she lived near Dorking in virtual seclusion. To Lady Susan a country village is ‘an insupportable spot’ – whatever her plans,‘London will be always the fairest field of action.’ When Mr Johnson threatens to settle in the country if his wife doesn’t stop corresponding with her friend, she understands her decision : ‘I yield to the necessity which parts us. Under such circumstances you could not act otherwise.’

But, in my view, the main difference would be that while Jane Austen’s cousin was a devoted, nurturing mother, daughter, and friend, her fictional character is ruled by her selfish ‘desire of dominion’. Hastings was severely disabled: he had failed to develop properly and would go into convulsive fits. Yet she never gave up on him, or thought of sending him away to be looked after by others, but patiently encouraged him to make progress, as she informs her cousin Philadelphia Walter:

Have I told you that I have begun teaching him to write and that he regularly comes to school to me every day, for that & French & English reading, you would laugh to see how grave we both are on these occasions.

Eliza nursed her mother through her last illness, trying every possible cure and every available method to soothe her pain. She was also attached to the Austens, especially to Jane’s father.  ‘I always tenderly loved my uncle,’ she states, ‘but I think he is now dearer to me than ever, as being the nearest and most beloved relative of the never to be sufficiently regretted parent I have lost.’

We don’t know what Lady Susan was like as a daughter, but by the heartless way in which she treats Frederica we can see that, as parents, she and Eliza are poles apart. Yet there would appear to be a hint of disapproval in James Edward Austen-Leigh’s memoir:

She was a clever woman, and highly accomplished, after the French rather than the English mode; and in those days, when intercourse with the Continent was long interrupted by war, such an element in the society of a country parsonage must have been a rare acquisition … She also took the principal parts in the private theatricals in which the family several times indulged … Jane was only twelve years old at the time of the earliest of these representations, and not more than fifteen when the last took place. She was, however, an early observer, and it may be reasonably supposed that some of the incidents and feelings which are so vividly painted in the Mansfield Park theatricals are due to her recollections of these entertainments.

Warren Hastings with his Wife Marian in their Garden at Alipore. Oil on canvass by Johan Zoffany, 1784.

An exotic outsider whose moral standards did not match those of late 18th century rural England, Eliza was bound to be judged. Furthermore, the author’s mother, James Austen’s second wife, forbade her husband to invite her, no doubt jealous of his attraction to her. Nor was she welcome at Godmersham, where Henry used to go on his own –  it seems Elizabeth, her sister-in-law, didn’t like her either. Maybe she was too fascinating to be trusted around men.

‘There is exquisite pleasure in subduing an insolent spirit, in making a person predetermined to dislike acknowledge one’s superiority,’ Lady Susan declares. Perhaps Eliza got a similar thrill out of overcoming her relatives’ misgivings, though she wouldn’t have put it quite that way. At any rate, her uncle was so pleased with her marriage to his son that he sent them forty pounds as a gift, and Jane was with her during her final hours.

‘A woman of brilliant generous and cultivated mind just disinterested and charitable,’ as her epitaph reads, she might have inspired Lady Susan, but was a much more complex creature.  She may have looked frivolous and shallow on the surface, but was deep down an affectionate, caring, and  courageous woman that faced life with a wicked sense of humour.


Jane Austen’s Lady Susan and James Edward Austen-Leigh’s Memoir of Jane Austen quoted from www.mollands.net

Lady Susan manuscript retrieved from http://www.janeausten.ac.uk/manuscripts/lady_susan/Front_(left)_board.html

Caplan, Clive. (1996).Jane Austen’s Soldier Brother: The Military Career of Captain Henry Thomas Austen,” Persuasions, 18.

Le Faye, Deirdre. (2004). Jane Austen: A Family Record. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Le Faye, Deirdre, ed. (2011). Jane Austen Letters. Oxford: OUP.

Moody, Ellen. (2011). Eliza (née Hancock, then de Feuillide) Austen: kindly, strong, deep feeling and thoughtful (1). Retrieved from https://reveriesunderthesignofausten.wordpress.com/2012/09/23/eliza-hancock-de-feuillide-austen-and-henry-austen/

Tomalin, Claire 1999. Jane Austen. A Life. New York: Vintage Books.

The influence of strength over weakness: will Lady Susan ever meet her match?

Lady Susan is a heartless, domineering, revengeful, scheming little bitch. The stupidity of her victims doesn’t make me hate her any less. For all her coolness and sophistication, I find her almost as loathsome as John Thorpe. And yet I know she’s sometimes considered as a strong female character whose triumphs over silly men we are allowed to celebrate ‘against our conscience.’ Personally, I fail to see how a woman who rejoices in the misery of others of her gender might advance their cause. And there is nothing remarkable about queening it over a bunch of nincompoops.

The daughter of a peer whose name or wealth no one ever mentions, she marries at a young age, her ‘extravagance and dissipation’ forcing her husband to sell his family’s castle. ‘In narrow circumstances’ after his death, she lives on the charity of her brother-in-law, occasionally sponging on other friends. Sir Reginald De Courcy believes that, being poor, she ‘may naturally seek an alliance which must be advantageous to herself.’ In fact, though she tells Mrs Johnson she’s ‘not at present in want of money,’ she plans to stiff her daughter’s school mistress out of her tuition fees:

The price is immense, and much beyond what I can ever attempt to pay …I am excessively provoked, however, at the parade of propriety which prevented Miss Summers from keeping the girl; and it seems so extraordinary a piece of nicety, considering my daughter’s family connections, that I can only suppose the lady to be governed by the fear of never getting her money.

There you go! Here’s a sensible woman who’s clearly not impressed. She knows what ‘the best families’ can be like. At some point Lady Susan herself acknowledges she ‘cannot just now afford to go to town.’

Fortunately Mr Vernon ‘rolls in money,’ does ‘not know what to do with it,’ and is a generous man. Hence her ‘increasing friendship for’ his family.

Disposed, … as he always is to think the best of everyone, her display of grief, and professions of regret, and general resolutions of prudence, were sufficient to soften his heart and make him really confide in her sincerity.

Not quite what you would expect of a banker – perhaps he’s just a partner, not directly involved in the business. His wife thinks he

was a great deal too kind to her when he was in Staffordshire; her behaviour to him, independent of her general character, has been so inexcusably artful and ungenerous … that no one less amiable and mild than himself could have overlooked it all.

Lady Susan finally decides to avail herself of his invitation to spend a few weeks at Churchill. She’s just been thrown out of Langford, accused of ‘engaging at the same time, and in the same house, the affections of two men, who were neither of them at liberty to bestow them–and all this without the charm of youth!’

Leonora Galigai

Quite a feat, were it not for the fact that one is a half-wit and the other no better than a self-deluded cuckold. The latter was once a penniless fortune-hunter who persuaded a wealthy heiress to marry him against her guardian’s advice. Not only does the ungrateful scoundrel openly carry on with another woman under her very nose, but he also puts up with his lover’s stealing his sister’s fiancé, whom she says she’s wooing on her daughter’s behalf. Unable to bear separation from his new lady friend, he forgets what is due to her, ‘and the opinion of the world,’ and suggests lodging incognito near the Vernons’. As she forbids it, he visits Mrs Johnson and pathetically complains about his wife’s jealousy – just what a wimp would do. Anxious in turn about Lady Susan’s relationship with Reginald De Courcy, he is ‘tolerably appeased’ when she explains that their ‘acquaintance is no ‘more than the commonest flirtation.’

What does Lady Susan see in him? He is handsome, ‘polished’, ‘insinuating,’ and has ‘the power of saying those delightful things which put one in good humour with oneself and all the world.’ And, crucially, he thinks she can do no wrong. It’s tempting to draw a parallel with Emma, who ‘never could … expect to be so truly beloved and important; so always first and always right in any man’s eyes as’ in Mr Woodhouse’s. Does Lady Susan have daddy issues? Do strong women need to have weak men around?

In any case, there’s no shortage of them in this world. Take Sir James Martin, for instance. He’s young, good-looking, gentlemanly, and wealthy. He’s also an ass. Having invited himself to Churchill, he talked too much, repeating himself over and over, and ‘mixing more frequent laughter with his discourse than the subject required.’ Lady Susan had previously written:

I have more than once repented that I did not marry him myself; and were he but one degree less contemptibly weak I certainly should: but I must own myself rather romantic in that respect, and that riches only will not satisfy me.

Yet she thinks he’s good enough for Frederica. You know what they say about fools and their money: she must be planning to spend his by manipulating her daughter. At the very least she’d be able to freeload on them.

Reginald De Courcy, on the other hand, is not just the handsome heir apparent to his father’s estate: he’s both clever and sensible, and has ‘a proud spirit … resulting from … superior integrity.’ Still, he’s young, warm, and impulsive, and his infatuation clouds his judgement. First he trusts Mr Smith’s account of Lady Susan’s misbehaviour at Langford, but he’s curious and confident he’ll be able to detect her tricks. Though he demands full explanations, he ends up believing everything she says. His heart ‘seems always debating on the reasonableness of its emotions,’ but he lets himself get carried away by his feelings. Daring to question her parenting methods, he is easily convinced that her intentions have always been the best and that he’s been wrong to interfere. He must have asked for forgiveness, thus reinforcing her domination: ‘A very few words from me,’ she writes, ‘softened [him] at once into the utmost submission, and rendered [him] more tractable, more attached, more devoted than ever.’ So much so that they become engaged. As he comes to town to be with her, he meets Mr Johnson and his ward, and accepts Mrs Mainwaring’s version of events without seeking confirmation from a different source.

‘The spell is removed. I see you as you are,’ he says. ‘The charm is broken. My eyes are opened,’ Edmund Bertram exclaims in a somewhat similar situation. The incantation seems to have been no more than ‘the influence of Strength over Weakness,’ to which Jane Austen refers in a letter to her friend Anne Sharp. ‘Galigai de Concini for ever & ever,’ she adds. Leonora Galigai was a favourite of the French Queen Marie de Medicis, Louis XIII’s mother. Accused of having bewitched her royal friend, she replied: ‘My spell was the power of a strong mind over a weak one.’ In this case, it doesn’t look as if preying on the naive, the mentally slow or the young and inexperienced required any extraordinary abilities. As Reginald himself puts it, ‘My understanding is at length restored, and teaches me no less to abhor the artifices which had subdued me than to despise myself for the weakness on which their strength was founded.’

Illustration from http://www.mollands.net

Lady Susan is beautiful, graceful, intelligent, and agreeable. ‘Her countenance is absolutely sweet, and her voice and manner winningly mild.’ She ‘talks very well, with a happy command of language, which is too often used … to make black appear white.’ She trusts this will enable her to tell her own story, forgetting that, as Mrs Vernon points out,

when a person is always to deceive, it is impossible to be consistent … Lady Susan finds it necessary that Frederica should be to blame, and probably has sometimes judged it expedient to excuse her of ill-nature and sometimes to lament her want of sense. Reginald is only repeating after her ladyship.

Oh dear! To think he could have saved himself so much trouble if only he had used his brains or exercised his memory …

Mrs Vernon is on to her sister-in-law. Yet she feels she has to make an effort to remember, or else she too might succumb to her charm:

Her address to me was so gentle, frank, and even affectionate, that, if I had not known how much she has always disliked me for marrying Mr Vernon, and that we had never met before, I should have imagined her an attached friend … Unfortunately, one knows her too well …

She has already almost persuaded me of her being warmly attached to her daughter, though I have been so long convinced to the contrary. She speaks of her with so much tenderness and anxiety, lamenting so bitterly the neglect of her education, which she represents however as wholly unavoidable, that I am forced to recollect how many successive springs her ladyship spent in town, while her daughter was left in Staffordshire to the care of servants, or a governess very little better, to prevent my believing what she says.

Frederica knows this too. Her mother’s attempts to impose her will on her amount to coercion, no matter how she spins it:

Some mothers would have insisted on their daughter’s accepting so good an offer on the first overture; but I could not reconcile it to myself to force Frederica into a marriage from which her heart revolted, and instead of adopting so harsh a measure merely propose to make it her own choice, by rendering her thoroughly uncomfortable till she does accept him.

Her tactics don’t work, and eventually she writes to her, stating her intentions plainly, which prompts Frederica’s escape. This is Lady Susan at her worst. An informed adult might avoid being taken in by a run-of-the-mill manipulator, but what could a child do in those days when confronted with the full weight of parental authority? It might well be argued that this is no more than what other parents did at the time – still, Mrs Vernon tells her niece: ‘She has no right to make you unhappy.’ Could she ever have had what she thought was Frederica’s best interest at heart? Not really, or else she wouldn’t have tried to nip Reginald’s attraction to her in the bud:

I have for some time been more particularly resolved on the match from seeing the rapid increase of her affection for Reginald, and from not feeling secure that a knowledge of such affection might not in the end awaken a return. Contemptible as a regard founded only on compassion must make them both in my eyes, I felt by no means assured that such might not be the consequence. It is true that Reginald had not in any degree grown cool towards me; but yet he has lately mentioned Frederica spontaneously and unnecessarily, and once said something in praise of her person.

One of the reasons why this collection of letters does not become a fully fledged novel is that the protagonist never meets her match. Yet Frederica’s resistance is almost heroic, considering the odds. She even scores a few points by forcing her mother to dismiss her suitor, a partial defeat Lady Susan deems ‘a humiliation’. By the end, it is expected that Reginald should be ‘talked, flattered, and finessed into an affection for her’ – not a very convincing conclusion, but again she wins. By her mother’s own sarcastic admission, there’s still hope:

Such was the first distinguished exploit of Miss Frederica Vernon; and, if we consider that it was achieved at the tender age of sixteen, we shall have room for the most flattering prognostics of her future renown.


Jane Austen’s novels quoted from www.mollands.net

Lady Susan manuscript retrieved from http://www.janeausten.ac.uk/manuscripts/lady_susan/Front_(left)_board.html

Lady Susan read-along retrieved from http://austenauthors.net/writers-block/lady-susan/

Le Faye, Deirdre, ed. (2011). Jane Austen Letters. Oxford: OUP.

Chesterfield Philip Dormer Stanhope, Earl of. Letters Written by Lord Chesterfield’s to his Son. Selected by Charles Sayle. London and Newcastle-on-Tyne: The Walter Scott Publishing Co., Ltd. Retrieved from https://archive.org/stream/letterswrittenby00chesuoft/letterswrittenby00chesuoft_djvu.txt

Christensen, Thomas. (2012). 1616: The World in Motion. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint.

Tomalin, Claire 1999. Jane Austen. A Life. New York: Vintage Books.

Voltaire  (1761). The Works of M. De Voltaire. Translated from the French, with Notes Historical and Critical by T. Smollet, T. Francklin, et al. Vol. 5. London: Newbery, Baldwin, Johnston, Crowder, Davies, Coote, Kearsley, and Collins.

You have made me hate myself for ever! Elinor Dashwood as a role model

Sense and Sensibility is a novel of grief, heartbreak, resilience, and second chances. It’s also a dialogue about how to deal with bereavement and betrayal. Austen’s heroines cope with them in different ways, from fainting and running mad to putting themselves together for the sake of those they love. While in Love and Freindship taking leave of our senses seems to be the only option, the interaction between Elinor and Marianne shows us the path to rational behaviour and self-control as well as the difficulties it’s strewn with.

One of the things I like best about Austen’s first published book is that it is virtually impossible for readers to remain neutral. Sooner or later we must choose between the sisters, though we might change sides over time. Each has a point and there is something of both in most of us.

After their father passed away,

Elinor saw, with concern, the excess of her sister’s sensibility; but by Mrs Dashwood it was valued and cherished. They encouraged each other now in the violence of their affliction. The agony of grief which overpowered them at first, was voluntarily renewed, was sought for, was created again and again. They gave themselves up wholly to their sorrow, seeking increase of wretchedness in every reflection that could afford it, and resolved against ever admitting consolation in future.

Their distress doesn’t on the whole appear as artificial as the author makes it sound here, especially if we consider that, a few months on, ‘the sight of every well known spot ceased to raise the violent emotion which it produced for a while.’ Mrs Dashwood’s ‘spirits began to revive, and her mind became capable of some other exertion than that of heightening its affliction by melancholy remembrances.’ Wouldn’t that be normal after all? We all mourn differently, and not all of us are immediately able to get on with our lives. Austen’s account of her own father’s death might surprise us with its restraint, but even she acknowledges that ‘the loss of such a Parent must be felt, or we should be Brutes.’

Yet someone must take charge of things:

Elinor, too, was deeply afflicted; but still she could struggle, she could exert herself. She could consult with her brother, could receive her sister-in-law on her arrival, and treat her with proper attention.

The trouble with her is that she thinks everybody must deal with suffering in the same way. Thus, she strives ‘to rouse her mother to similar exertion, and encourage her to similar forbearance.’

We should bear in mind that the Dashwood ladies will eventually be thrown out of their home, and  have to make do with an income of £500 pounds a year, when the Norland estate alone has been yielding 4000. Not the main source of their sorrow, but enough to add to their worries, just like the lack of a place of their own did to the Austen women’s.

This is, indeed, Laura’s only anxiety in  Love and Freindship:

You may perhaps have been somewhat surprised .., that in the Distress I then endured, destitute of any support, and unprovided with any Habitation, I should never once have remembered my Father & Mother or my paternal Cottage in the Vale of Uske. To account for this seeming forgetfullness I must inform you of a trifling Circumstance concerning them which I have as yet never mentioned. The death of my Parents a few weeks after my Departure, is the circumstance I allude to. By their decease I became the lawfull Inheritress of their House & Fortune. But alas! the House had never been their own and their Fortune had only been an Annuity on their own Lives.

Her subsequent expressions of regret, therefore, do not ring true:

I took up my Residence in a Romantic Village in the Highlands of Scotland where I have ever since continued, and where I can uninterrupted by unmeaning Visits, indulge in a melancholy solitude, my unceasing Lamentations for the Death of my Father, my Mother my Husband & my Freind.

As a satire on the novel of sensibility, the story is full of exaggerated outbursts that prevent characters from taking adequate action but not from caring about the materialistic aspects of life. Extreme sensitivity coexists with calculating callousness.

Illustration from http://www.mollands.net

Sense and Sensibility might also have started as a critique of this tradition, but we soon see there’s nothing fake about the sisters’ feelings. The only difference between them is that Elinor ‘knew how to govern them: it was a knowledge which her mother had yet to learn; and which one of her sisters had resolved never to be taught.’

‘Taught by whom?’ we might ask. Does Elinor’s knowledge of how to keep her own emotions in check qualify her to educate others? What works for her might not, after all, work for them. And her methods might not be the best. Her sister is not swayed by her arguments:

‘Exert yourself, dear Marianne,’ she cried, ‘if you would not kill yourself and all who love you. Think of your mother; think of her misery while you suffer: for her sake you must exert yourself.’

‘I cannot, I cannot,’ cried Marianne; ‘leave me, leave me, if I distress you; leave me, hate me, forget me! but do not torture me so. Oh! how easy for those, who have no sorrow of their own to talk of exertion! Happy, happy Elinor, you cannot have an idea of what I suffer’ …

‘Whoever may have been so detestably your enemy, let them be cheated of their malignant triumph, my dear sister, by seeing how nobly the consciousness of your own innocence and good intentions supports your spirits. It is a reasonable and laudable pride which resists such malevolence.’

‘No, no,’ cried Marianne, ‘misery such as mine has no pride. I care not who knows that I am wretched. The triumph of seeing me so may be open to all the world. Elinor, Elinor, they who suffer little may be proud and independent as they like–may resist insult, or return mortification–but I cannot. I must feel–I must be wretched–and they are welcome to enjoy the consciousness of it that can.’

‘But for my mother’s sake and mine–’

‘I would do more than for my own. But to appear happy when I am so miserable–Oh! who can require it?’

In a similar situation, Emma, clueless as she often is, convinces Harriet Smith to make a serious effort to forget Mr Elton:

‘My being saved from pain is a very secondary consideration. I want you to save yourself from greater pain. Perhaps I may sometimes have felt that Harriet would not forget what was due–or rather what would be kind by me.’

This appeal to her affections did more than all the rest. The idea of wanting gratitude and consideration for Miss Woodhouse, whom she really loved extremely, made her wretched for a while, and when the violence of grief was comforted away, still remained powerful enough to prompt to what was right and support her in it very tolerably.

Emma then famously reflects that ‘there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart.’ Does this mean Marianne is cold and unloving?  Not really. Harriet is a simpler creature, and she does not care for the vicar as passionately or as deeply as Marianne does for Willoughby. At any rate, Miss Woodhouse succeeds in persuading her friend, whereas Miss Dashwood does not.

Illustration from http://www.mollands.net

Her example is not enough, as we see when she finally reveals Edward’s secret engagement and her own struggle:

‘And yet you loved him!’–

‘Yes. But I did not love only him;–and while the comfort of others was dear to me, I was glad to spare them from knowing how much I felt. Now, I can think and speak of it with little emotion. I would not have you suffer on my account; for I assure you I no longer suffer materially myself. I have many things to support me. I am not conscious of having provoked the disappointment by any imprudence of my own, I have borne it as much as possible without spreading it farther. I acquit Edward of essential misconduct. I wish him very happy; and I am so sure of his always doing his duty, that though now he may harbour some regret, in the end he must become so. Lucy does not want sense, and that is the foundation on which every thing good may be built.–And after all, Marianne, after all that is bewitching in the idea of a single and constant attachment, and all that can be said of one’s happiness depending entirely on any particular person, it is not meant–it is not fit–it is not possible that it should be so.–Edward will marry Lucy; he will marry a woman superior in person and understanding to half her sex; and time and habit will teach him to forget that he ever thought another superior to her.’–

‘If such is your way of thinking,’ said Marianne, ‘if the loss of what is most valued is so easily to be made up by something else, your resolution, your self-command, are, perhaps, a little less to be wondered at.–They are brought more within my comprehension.’

‘I understand you.–You do not suppose that I have ever felt much.’

Now it’s Marianne that’s being intolerant, though Elinor comes dangerously close to a ‘picture of perfection.’ Just as the elder sister assumes we must all bear our pain in the same way, the younger believes we must all feel alike. Soon realising her mistake, however, ‘“Oh! Elinor,’” she cried, “you have made me hate myself for ever.–How barbarous have I been to you! … Because your merit cries out upon myself, I have been trying to do it away.”’

Tender caresses ensue, but Miss Dashwood neither denies her own excellence nor attempts to counteract her sister’s self-loathing. She seems to believe that invidious comparison will lead to positive behaviour. Wrong:

She felt it with all the pain of continual self-reproach, regretted most bitterly that she had never exerted herself before; but it brought only the torture of penitence, without the hope of amendment. Her mind was so much weakened that she still fancied present exertion impossible, and therefore it only dispirited her more.

Oh dear! Isn’t is obvious? Marianne is depressed. She can’t even bring herself to try. Far from relieving her misery, guilt only increases it. To be fair to Elinor, she is young and inexperienced. She has a lot on her plate right now, too, what with her own disappointment, watching over her family, keeping up appearances, observing the rules of propriety, being polite to their acquaintance, and excusing her sister’s occasional lack of manners. Must be exhausting. So much so she fails to notice Marianne has not changed her wet shoes and stockings …

Perhaps it’s just as well, as she might not see sense otherwise. As she recovers from her illness, she puts things into perspective, fully realising the error of her ways, and once more acknowledging her sister’s superiority. Strangely enough, considering her fragile state, she manages to summon the energy to devise a scheme of ‘rational employment and virtuous self-control.’ Elinor’s response is nuanced: ‘impatient to soothe, though too honest to flatter,’ she gives her ‘only that praise and support which her frankness and her contrition so well deserved.’

From which I gather she believes she’s been right all along and worth following as a role model, whereas her sister is to blame, among other things, for inconsiderately endangering her own life. Self-abhorrence would therefore seem a proper way to show repentance. It doesn’t cross her mind that she might have taken a different approach or tried to understand what was going on in Marianne’s.

Sometimes people forced by circumstances to become towers of strength find it useful to stick to a few black-and-white notions. They might feel entitled to sit in judgement and passive aggressively exact a little commendation every now and then. All too often self-denial comes at a price.

Marianne is eager, immoderate, and imprudent – she’s also a teenager. She may be selfish and rude at times, but she’s so very honest that even her wretchedness commands respect. I’m glad Col. Brandon is capable of appreciating that ‘there is something so amiable in the prejudices of a young mind, that one is sorry to see them give way to the reception of more general opinions.’ This time round I too side with her.


Jane Austen’s novels quoted from www.mollands.net

Love and Freindship quoted from


Le Faye, Deirdre, ed. (2011). Jane Austen Letters. Oxford: OUP.

Nemade, R., Staats Reiss, N., and Dombeck, M. (2007). Historical Understandings of Depression. Retrieved from


Perfectly qualified by his seat in the House: politicians and electioneering in Jane Austen’s writings

I’ve been meaning to write about politicians for some time, but kept putting it off, fearing the post might turn out to be as unpopular as its subject every now and then becomes. But whether blindly followed or blamed for all the evils of the world, they are nowadays subject to democratic election. Whether it is wise or naive to assume that outsiders turned insiders will do a better job, or that those who have hitherto cared about nothing but their own interests will start looking after our own, we do have a choice. In Jane Austen’s England, only one out of eight men could vote. Women, of course, couldn’t. Whereas in the so-called rotten boroughs MPs were elected by just a handful of voters, big industrial towns like Manchester had no separate representation.

In Sense and Sensibility, Mrs Ferrars wishes to get her elder son ‘into parliament, or to see him connected with some of the great men of the day.’ But Edward, having ‘no more talents than inclination for a public life,’ prefers the church. So does Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park. Mary Crawford disagrees: ‘You ought to be in parliament,’ she tells him, ‘or you should have gone into the army ten years ago.’ To her ‘a clergyman is nothing.’

In the former novel, Mrs Palmer says her husband

is always going about the country canvassing against the election; and so many people came to dine with us that I never saw before, it is quite charming! But, poor fellow! it is very fatiguing to him! for he is forced to make every body like him.

Yet, according to his wife, he wouldn’t visit Mr Willoughby, as the latter ‘is in the opposition,’ from which we might infer that Mr Palmer is loyal to the party in government. Mr Spencer Perceval, a Tory, was the Prime Minister at the time, being in office from 1809 to 1812, when he was assassinated by a disgruntled merchant. Their neighbour would therefore be a Whig. But Mrs Palmer’s information is often inaccurate: she thinks Combe Magna is much nearer Cleveland than it actually is, and, though believing it to be usually praised as a ‘sweet place,’ is easily convinced of the contrary.

She also states that her husband will never frank for her, on which he refuses to comment. Except for the pre-paid post system operating in London, where a flat rate of twopence was charged, as we can see in chapter 26, postage was then paid by the recipient. But letters franked by MPs were delivered for free. They could be wrapped in a separate sheet of paper, as long as it contained their signature. Though originally intended for official business, the privilege was widely abused, so that family, friends, and even distant acquaintances benefited from it.

In October 1813, Jane Austen writes from Godmersham:

Now I will prepare for Mr Lushington, & as it will be wisest also to prepare for his not coming or my not getting a frank I shall write very close from the first & even leave room for the seal in the proper place.

She did leave a space on the third page, just in case, and also on the fifth. In the event Mr Lushington, who served as MP for Canterbury from 1812 to 1830, did come and sign his name on the ‘envelope’. Just as Mr Chute, MP for Hampshire, signed his on James Austen’s and his wife’s correspondence. As the Austens did not frown on the practice, it would seem Mr Palmer just wishes to cross his wife.

House of Commons, by Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Charles Pugin

In Mansfield Park, Edmund assures Fanny that her missive ‘shall go with the other letters; and, as your uncle will frank it, it will cost William nothing.’ And we’re told that his mother

rather shone in the epistolary line, having early in her marriage, from the want of other employment, and the circumstance of Sir Thomas’s being in Parliament, got into the way of making and keeping correspondents.

But about the time her niece joined the family,

Lady Bertram, in consequence of a little ill-health, and a great deal of indolence, gave up the house in town, which she had been used to occupy every spring, and remained wholly in the country, leaving Sir Thomas to attend his duty in Parliament, with whatever increase or diminution of comfort might arise from her absence.

It has been argued that, as the owner of an Antigua plantation, he must have been a Whig. Tories traditionally resented paying taxes to fund the naval protection of Britain’s West Indian colonies and trade.

Talking of his would-be son-in-law Mr Rushworth, Mary Crawford says: ‘A man might represent the county with such an estate; a man might escape a profession and represent the county.’ Her sister agrees: ‘I dare say he will be in parliament soon. When Sir Thomas comes, I dare say he will be in for some borough, but there has been nobody to put him in the way of doing anything yet.’

A rotten borough, that is, or a constituency whose population had declined over time, to the extent that very few men had the right to vote. Their MP was, therefore, handpicked by peers and major landowners, who could easily intimidate or bribe the electorate, especially as there was no secret ballot.

William Pitt the Younger

On 20 November 1808, Jane Austen writes:

We called on the Miss Lyells one day, & heard a good account of Mr Heathcote’s canvass, the success of which of course exceeds his expectation. — Alethea in her Letter hopes for my interest, which I conclude means Edward’s-& I take this opportunity therefore of requesting that he will bring in Mr Heathcote. Mr Lance told us yesterday that Mr H. had behaved very handsomely & waited on Mr Thistlethwaite to say that if he (Mr T.) would stand, he (Mr H.) would not oppose him; but Mr T. declined it, acknowledging himself still smarting under the payment of late Electioneering Costs.-

Here Austen’s referring to the 1808 Hampshire by-election, which was prompted by Sir Henry Paulet St John-Mildmay’s death, and won by Thomas Freeman Heathcote. The latter held his seat till 1820, becoming the 4th Baronet of Hursley Park in 1819. One of his brothers was married to Elizabeth Bigg of Manydown, and another was to wed one of the Miss Lyells. Elizabeth’s sister Alethea wished her friend Jane to tell Cassandra to ask their brother Edward, with whom she was staying, to exert his influence as a Chawton and Steventon landowner on Mr Heathcote’s behalf.

The Whig candidates, Mr Thomas Thistlethwayte and the Hon. William Herbert, had triumphed in the 1806 general election and served as MPs till they were defeated by the Tories at the next, which took place the following year. Sir Henry’s fellow MP was James Austen’s friend Mr Chute. Mr Thistlethwayte did not run again when the former passed away, as he could not afford the expense, but Mr Herbert did. A token poll was carried out, following an agreement between the contending parties, and Mr Heathcote was returned. Mr Herbert had challenged the validity of his candidacy, but did not pursue his petition. Perhaps Alethea Bigg had all this wheeling and dealing in mind when she suggested Edward Austen Knight’s intervention. From the Austen family tradition and his own social position we may gather that his sympathies lay with the Tories. In this case, however, Heathcote was supported by the ministerial party of the time, which included the Whig followers of the Duke of Portland as well as former Pittites.

Though the procedure was hardly democratic by today’s standards, Hampshire was not a rotten or a pocket borough, i.e. a constituency controlled by a single person or family. Was Lord Osborne one of those individuals? As he enters the assembly rooms in The Watsons, we are warned about his real motives:

Lord Osborne was a very fine young man; but there was an air of coldness, of carelessness, even of awkwardness about him, which seemed to speak him out of his element in a ball-room. He came, in fact, only because it was judged expedient for him to please the borough.

As a peer, he could not sit in the House of Commons, but he could pick his own candidates.

In 1792, the year in which Jane Austen wrote Catharine, or The Bower, a scandal broke out when it was alleged that this corrupt system had enabled 154 people to choose 307 MPs. Early on in the unfinished novel, we are informed that

Mr & Mrs Stanley were people of Large Fortune & high Fashion. He was a Member of the house of Commons, and they were therefore most agreeably necessitated to reside half the year in Town; where Miss Stanley had been attended by the most capital Masters from the time of her being six years old to the last Spring, which comprehending a period of twelve Years had been dedicated to the acquirement of Accomplishments which were now to be displayed and in a few Years entirely neglected.

A new way to pay the National-Debt, by James Gillray

According to Mrs Percival, who believed ‘everything was going to rack and ruin, …the house of Commons … did not break up sometimes till five in the Morning.’

Mr Stanley is the only Austen politician who states his political views:

Mr Stanley & her aunt, … began their usual conversation on Politics. This was a subject on which they could never agree, for Mr Stanley who considered himself as perfectly qualified by his Seat in the House, to decide on it without hesitation, resolutely maintained that the Kingdom had not for ages been in so flourishing & prosperous a state, and Mrs Percival with equal warmth, tho’ perhaps less argument, as vehemently asserted that the whole Nation would speedily be ruined, and everything as she expressed herself be at sixes and sevens … Kitty …found it very entertaining to observe the eagerness with which they both defended their opinions.

And his daughter complains that ‘he never cares about anything but Politics. If I were Mr Pitt or the Lord Chancellor, he would take care I should not be insulted, but he never thinks about me.’

Her father is portrayed as a reactionary Tory, in denial about pressing problems, such as the budget deficit resulting from war expenditure, the size of the national debt, unemployment, and poverty. Unlike Mr Pitt, he wouldn’t see the need for reform. The then Prime Minister had started as an ‘independent Whig,’ but voted consistently with the Tories, and was regarded as a Tory by his opponents at the time of his death. His supporters and appointees belonged to both parties.

I like the way in which the author hints that Mr Spencer might not be as competent as he ought to. Young Jane seems to be laughing: ‘So you think you know all about politics just because you’re in Parliament?’ The joke might also be on his opponent, as Mrs Percival  feels entitled to state her own views regardless of her interlocutor and without providing any evidence to back them up.

Jane Austen’s politicians belong to a world where the term ‘democrat’ was used to stigmatise those who sought to improve social conditions and called for a political reform that was not enacted until 1832. Yet the problems they confronted or ignored are not so different from those we face today. Though we’ve come a long way in many respects, and candidates are no longer picked by landowners, it might be argued that special interests still play a role in their selection.


Jane Austen’s novels quoted from http://www.mollands.net

Jane Austen’s Catharine, or The Bower, quoted from http://www.janeausten.ac.uk/manuscripts/blvolthird/iii.html

Adkins, Roy and Lesley. (2014). Jane Austen’s England. Daily Life in the Georgian and Regency Periods. New York: Penguin Books.

Austen, Jane. (1999). The Annotated Sense and Sensibility. Annot. and ed. by David Shapard. New York: Anchor Books.

Burns, Arthur. (2015). William Pitt, the Younger. Retrieved from https://history.blog.gov.uk/2015/09/16/william-pitt-the-younger-whigtory-1783-1801-1804-1806/

Craig, Sheryl. (2015). Jane Austen and the State of the Nation. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Doody, Margaret. (2015). Jane Austen’s Names: Riddles, Persons, Places. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Le Faye, Deirdre, ed. (2011). Jane Austen Letters. Oxford: OUP.

Thorne, R., ed. (1986) The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820. Retrieved from http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1790-1820/constituencies/hampshire

Tomalin, Claire. (1999). Jane Austen. A Life. New York: Vintage Books.

Spirits freshened and thoughts relieved: a few stress management tips from Jane Austen’s characters

Is Jane Austen’s fiction descriptive or prescriptive? Does she confine herself to depicting a real or imaginary world or does she intend to lay down rules for individual and social behaviour? The subject is rather complex. In order to answer the question, we should, among other things, distinguish between authorial and character voice, and determine to what extent irony and jokes express her real views. And, of course, general rules are not the same as tips. In a nutshell, I dare say that, though her writings are undoubtedly informed by her values, she doesn’t mean to be didactic.

And yet, after a particularly trying week, I turned to them wondering whether I could get any guidance on stress management. Many quotes came to mind, and others popped up as I browsed through. Eventually I decided it’d be fun to put them together and share them with my readers, with the caveat that her characters’ opinions might not reflect hers. Here are some of the choice bits of wisdom/folly I’ve come across:

1.‘Run mad as often as you choose; but do not faint.’

These are the last words of Laura’s beloved Sophia in Love and Freindship. A warning you cannot afford to ignore, as the former explains:

How could it be otherwise accounted for that I should have escaped the same indisposition, but by supposing that the bodily Exertions I had undergone in my repeated fits of frenzy had so effectually circulated and warmed my Blood as to make me proof against the chilling Damps of Night, whereas, Sophia lying totally inactive on the ground must have been exposed to all their severity. I was most seriously alarmed by her illness which trifling as it may appear to you, a certain instinctive sensibility whispered me, would in the End be fatal to her.

Therefore, indulge in a little bout of insanity every now and then, if you must, but keep your smelling-salts about you, just in case …

2. In Jack and Alice, ‘somewhat heated by wine,’ Miss Johnson seeks ‘relief for her disordered Head and Love-sick Heart in the Conversation of the intelligent Lady Williams.’ Unfortunately, neither booze nor social interaction provide any solace: she is ‘uncommonly out of spirits,’ and can ‘think of nothing but Charles Adams … and … the unreturned affection’ she feels for him. Worse still, she forgets herself in the most undignified manner, as ‘her head is not strong enough to support intoxication (1) .’

The hapless girl,

heated with wine and raised by passion … could have little command of her temper … “From Words she almost came to Blows’ – when Mr Johnson luckily entered and with some difficulty forced her away from Lady Williams.

Elinor & Marianne
Illustration from http://www.mollands.net

3. In Sense and Sensibility, Mrs Jennings recommends comfort food:

Had not Elinor, in the sad countenance of her sister, seen a check to all mirth, she could have been entertained by Mrs Jennings’s endeavours to cure a disappointment in love, by a variety of sweetmeats and olives.

As Marianne’s misery persists, more substantial fare is metaphorically suggested:

Well, I shall spirit up the Colonel as soon as I can. One shoulder of mutton, you know, drives another down. If we can but put Willoughby out of her head!

4. ‘A little sea-bathing would set me up for ever,’ declares Mrs Bennet, who knows a thing or two about ‘nervous’ tremblings, flutterings, and spasms. In spite of Mr Woodhouse’s misgivings, a dip in the ocean was widely believed to benefit those who suffered from all sorts of physical and psychological disorders. Mr Parker, who, admittedly, had a vested interest in the matter,

held it indeed as certain that no person could be really well, no person (however upheld for the present by fortuitous aids of exercise and spirits in a semblance of health) could be really in a state of secure and permanent health without spending at least six weeks by the sea every year. The sea air and sea bathing together were nearly infallible … Sea air was healing, softening, relaxing fortifying and bracing, seemingly just as was wanted sometimes one, sometimes the other. If the sea breeze failed, the sea-bath was the certain corrective; and where bathing disagreed, the sea air alone was evidently designed by nature for the cure.

The restorative influence of nature in general cannot be denied. Not without a little sarcasm, Lizzy Bennet exclaims:

‘What delight! what felicity! You give me fresh life and vigour. Adieu to disappointment and spleen. What are men to rocks and mountains? Oh! what hours of transport we shall spend!’

5. Emma’s never been to the seaside. Her demanding aging father wouldn’t let her leave Highbury, and looking after him can be taxing:

The weather affected Mr Woodhouse, and he could only be kept tolerably comfortable by almost ceaseless attention on his daughter’s side, and by exertions which had never cost her half so much before … The prospect before her now, was threatening to a degree that could not be entirely dispelled–that might not be even partially brightened. If all took place that might take place among the circle of her friends, Hartfield must be comparatively deserted; and she left to cheer her father with the spirits only of ruined happiness.

How does our heroine avoid burnout?

Emma resolved to be out of doors as soon as possible. Never had the exquisite sight, smell, sensation of nature, tranquil, warm, and brilliant after a storm, been more attractive to her. She longed for the serenity they might gradually introduce; and on Mr Perry’s coming in soon after dinner, with a disengaged hour to give her father, she lost no time in hurrying into the shrubbery.–There, with spirits freshened, and thoughts a little relieved, she had taken a few turns, when she saw Mr Knightley.

Illustration from http://www.mollands.net

6. Jane Fairfax is also under a great deal of strain, what with her private engagement, his fiancé’s thoughtless flirting with Emma, their frequent tiffs, the alternative prospect of becoming a governess, her oversolicitous aunt, and their small home.

“Oh! Miss Woodhouse, the comfort of being sometimes alone!”–seemed to burst from an overcharged heart, and to describe somewhat of the continual endurance to be practised by her, even towards some of those who loved her best.

Her daily walks to the post-office provide a precious opportunity to be by herself she’s unwilling to give up. Like Elinor Dashwood, she must keep a secret and knows she is ‘stronger alone.’

7. In the course of similar perambulations, Lizzy Bennet turns things over in her mind.

Reflection must be reserved for solitary hours; whenever she was alone, she gave way to it as the greatest relief; and not a day went by without a solitary walk, in which she might indulge in all the delight of unpleasant recollections.

Every Austen heroine needs to engage in some ‘quiet reflection’ in order to make sense of upsetting or confusing events and compose herself. If nothing else, meditation eases pain and leads to self-knowledge and self-control, as Marianne Dashwood tells her sister:

My illness has made me think–It has given me leisure and calmness for serious recollection. Long before I was enough recovered to talk, I was perfectly able to reflect. I considered the past: I saw in my own behaviour … nothing but a series of imprudence towards myself, and want of kindness to others. I saw that my own feelings had prepared my sufferings, and that my want of fortitude under them had almost led me to the grave …I have laid down my plan, and if I am capable of adhering to it–my feelings shall be governed and my temper improved.

8. Talking to a sister or a kindred spirit can also help. Elinor and Marianne confide in each other by the end of the book. Jane and Lizzy Bennet,  Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram, Emma Woodhouse and Mrs Weston, and Elizabeth and Emma Watson do it more regularly. Anne Elliot envies Louisa and Henrietta Musgrove

nothing but that seemingly perfect good understanding and agreement together, that good-humoured mutual affection, of which she had known so little herself with either of her sisters.

9. The plan Marianne refers to is a ‘scheme of … rational employment and virtuous self-control.’ It combines physical exercise with ‘a course of serious study’ and music practice.

The fact is she can’t forget Willoughby: ‘His remembrance can be overcome by no change of circumstances or opinions. But it shall be regulated, it shall be checked by religion, by reason, by constant employment.’

Elinor thinks she should be commended for it, but doubts she’ll be able to keep her resolution. Her goals seem too ambitious. Perhaps she should have taken baby steps …

10. This is precisely what Harriet Smith does:

Emma watched … her own particular little friend; … she could … most heartily rejoice in that light, cheerful, unsentimental disposition which allowed her so many alleviations of pleasure, in the midst of the pangs of disappointed affection. There she sat–and who would have guessed how many tears she had been lately shedding? To be in company, nicely dressed herself and seeing others nicely dressed, to sit and smile and look pretty, and say nothing, was enough for the happiness of the present hour.

Though Harriet is not very bright, this seems wise enough: why wallow in dejection and self-pity when we can put them aside and enjoy ourselves for a while?

Similarly, Mrs Bennet, for all her fretting and worrying about the entail and her daughters’ future, still manages to find ‘solace’ in ‘visiting and news.’ She is clearly thrilled to learn about the latest fashion trends:

The Bennets are shocked
Illustration from http://www.mollands.net

I do not blame Jane … for Jane would have got Mr Bingley, if she could. But, Lizzy! Oh, sister! it is very hard to think that she might have been Mr Collins’s wife by this time, had not it been for her own perverseness. He made her an offer in this very room, and she refused him. The consequence of it is, that Lady Lucas will have a daughter married before I have, and that Longbourn estate is just as much entailed as ever. The Lucases are very artful people indeed, sister. They are all for what they can get. I am sorry to say it of them, but so it is. It makes me very nervous and poorly, to be thwarted so in my own family, and to have neighbours who think of themselves before anybody else. However, your coming just at this time is the greatest of comforts, and I am very glad to hear what you tell us, of long sleeves.

11. Though Mrs Bennet is not clever enough to smile at her own ‘follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies,’ a little sense of humour never comes amiss. Emma believes Frank Churchill has been laughing up his sleeve at the expense of the trusting inhabitants of Highbury:

‘I do suspect that in the midst of your perplexities at that time, you had very great amusement in tricking us all.–I am sure you had.–I am sure it was a consolation to you.’

‘Oh! no, no, no–how can you suspect me of such a thing? I was the most miserable wretch!’

‘Not quite so miserable as to be insensible to mirth. I am sure it was a source of high entertainment to you, to feel that you were taking us all in.–Perhaps I am the readier to suspect, because, to tell you the truth, I think it might have been some amusement to myself in the same situation. I think there is a little likeness between us.’

While double-dealing and deceit ought to be condemned, the ability to appreciate the funny side of things appears to be vital in coping with any kind of stress. After all, as a certain gentleman philosopher puts it, ‘for what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?’


(1) These words are crossed out in the MS.


Jane Austen’s novels quoted from www.mollands.net

Jane Austen’s Juvenilia quoted from http://www.janeausten.ac.uk/manuscripts/blvolfirst/Front_(left)_board.html