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

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

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

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

Jane Austen’s Catharine, or The Bower, quoted from

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jane Austen’s Juvenilia quoted from

The aesthetics of domesticity: a parallel between Jane Austen and Johannes Vermeer

On Monday 24 May 1813, Jane Austen wrote:

Henry & I went to the Exhibition in Spring Gardens. It is not thought a good collection, but I was very well pleased – particularly (pray tell Fanny) with a small portrait of Mrs Bingley, excessively like her. I went in hopes of seeing one of her Sister, but there was no Mrs Darcy; – perhaps, however, I may find her in the Great Exhibition, which we shall go tom if we have time; –  I have no chance of her in the collection of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Paintings, which is now showing in Pall Mall, & which we are also to visit. – Mrs Bingley’s is exactly herself, size, shaped face, features & sweetness; there never was a greater likeness. She is dressed in a white gown, with green ornaments, which convinces me of what I had always supposed, that green was a favourite colour with her. I dare say Mrs D. will be in Yellow.

There are quite a few ladies in yellow in Johannes Vermeer’s paintings, although I wouldn’t identify any of them as Elizabeth Bennet. She clearly belongs to a different time and place. And yet, in his review of Emma, Sir Walter Scott draws an interesting parallel:

The author’s knowledge of the world, and the peculiar tact with which she presents characters that the reader cannot fail to recognize, reminds us something of the merits of the Flemish school of painting. The subjects are not often elegant, and certainly never grand; but they are finished up to nature, and with a precision which delights the reader.

I’ve been drawn to both  Austen and Vermeer since well before I came across this text, perceiving a certain  kindredness of spirit that goes beyond this fleeting reference. Though aesthetic experience is not easy to explain, I’ve put together a list of similarities that might account for the association.

  • Focus on everyday life

Jane Austen was quite aware of the scope of her abilities:

I am fully sensible that an Historical Romance, founded on the House of Saxe Cobourg might be much more to the purpose of Profit or Popularity, than such pictures of domestic Life in Country Villages as I deal in – but I could no more write a Romance than an Epic Poem. – I could not sit seriously down to write a serious Romance under any other motive than to save my Life, & if it were indispensable for me to keep it up & never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first Chapter. – No – I must keep to my own style & go on in my own Way; And though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other. –

After an initial attempt to portray historical (i.e. mythological and religious) scenes, Vermeer devoted himself to genre painting. This style sought to depict a variety of everyday life situations, being quite popular in the Netherlands during the 16th and 17th centuries. We can see why: it offered a glimpse into the way in which others spent their time and went about their daily business. But what I find unique about Vermeer is the atmosphere of blissful domesticity, of unobtrusive respectability that comes out of his secluded interiors. Just as in Austen’s case, the ordinary has been turned into an ideal.

A Lady Writing by Johannes Vermeer
  •   Women

In Jane Austen’s novels the world is seen mainly from women’s point of view. As we all know, gentlemen very rarely talk to each other when ladies are not around. In Vermeer’s paintings women are often portrayed alone, or with others of their gender. Men are usually in the company of women, The Geographer and The Astronomer being the only exceptions.

  • Social class

Both Vermeer and Austen describe the lives of those right above them on the social and economic ladder, whether it’s wealthy Dutch burghers, or the English landed gentry, knights, and baronets. But servants also feature prominently in his work, and even mundane chores are performed with sober grace.

  • Activities

Vermeer’s characters, pretty much like Austen’s, are engaged in receiving, reading, or writing letters, playing music, painting, courting, or interacting with their maids. They might be thinking of their beloved, like Elinor Dashwood, while doing something else, or putting things into perspective through ‘quiet reflection.’ One of them seems to be admiring her own pearls, like Mrs Elton …

  • Small groups

While Austen confines herself to ‘three or four families in a country village,’ Vermeer’s scenes include only a few human figures. Though he preferred canvas, he would have understood what Jane meant by ‘the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour?’

  • Limited production

Jane Austen completed only six novels, whereas thirty-five paintings have been undisputedly attributed to Vermeer. His output may have been marginally larger, but nowhere near the hundreds turned out by Rembrandt or the surviving hundred plus by other contemporaries whose production was more limited.

Attention to detail, thoughtful composition, and a wish to follow his own artistic inclinations might account for this difference. And while I won’t deny I would have liked Austen to have finished Sanditon, which perhaps she would have, had she lived longer, I cannot help feeling that in her case, too, less is more. Had she been pressed for time, she might not have given us her carefully constructed plots, her structured, consistent, and smoothly progressing narratives, or her lively and witty prose.

  • Untimely death

As we know, Jane Austen died at 41, whereas Vermeer passed away at 43. Both were at the height of their creative powers.

  • Reluctance to ‘dwell on guilt and misery’

Contrary to popular belief, Jane Austen’s novels do mention war, the militia, the slave-trade, duelling, crime, punishment, poverty, old age, disease, death, bad parenting, adultery, seduction, and divorce – to say nothing of the murder, hanging, steel traps, and child abandonment to be found in the juvenilia. Yet she refuses to ‘dwell on guilt and misery.’ Is she to be commended or reproved? Neither, I suppose. There is plenty of social critique in her books, anyway, at times thinly veiled in irony, chiefly focused on the marriage market.

Woman Holding a Balance by Johannes Vermeer

When Johannes Vermeer was born his country was at war with Spain. After 80 years of armed conflict, the Independence of the United Provinces of the Netherlands was finally declared in 1648. Vermeer was 15. Three Anglo-Dutch wars, brought about by commercial rivalry, were fought during his lifetime: 1652-1654, 1666-1667, and 1672-1674, the last one being part of the 1672-1678 Franco-Dutch war.  In 1672, the ‘Year of Disaster,’ dykes were opened around Amsterdam to hinder the progress of the French invaders, and two republican leaders were lynched by an angry mob. Not everybody benefited from the economic prosperity generated by trade, and wealth coexisted with deprivation.

We see none of this turmoil or hardship in Vermeer’s paintings. True, there is an officer, but he’s sitting across the table from a laughing girl – maybe she thinks he looks ‘very becoming … in his regimentals.’ The Procuress appears to have been an early attempt at a brothel scene, reminiscent of the Utrecht Caravaggisti, but with no nudity in it: the prostitute is fully clothed.

Was the subject matter the artist’s own choice? It’s not known whether Pieter van Ruijven, who may have purchased over half of his production, had a say in it. Overall there is a sharp contrast between the male sphere of ruthless capitalist expansion and military action and the female realm of domestic harmony and quiet. A seemingly pregnant lady holds a pair of empty scales: she’s not weighing anything – perhaps she’s hinting at a deeply felt need for balance and fairness. A faint light that comes in through the window is all we get from the outside world.

The Vermeers’ home must have been a noisy place. They had fifteen children, four of whom died during their father’s lifetime. They lived with Maria Thins, his mother-in-law, who had been a battered wife. At some point her son moved in with them. He was a violent man who abused his mother, threatened to strike his pregnant sister with a stick, and had to be eventually committed. We wouldn’t have guessed any of this looking at his brother-in-law’s paintings: family tragedy is also kept at bay.

Admiring his masterpieces, we get the impression of someone desperately clinging to a private utopia, an elusive vision of serene dignity and calm that can only be achieved through art. A certain ideal of grace, proportion, order, and restraint, however far from realisation, also informs Jane Austen’s novels. Yet she failed to attain the happy ending she gave her heroines …

We cannot avoid the pain, the uncertainty, the heartbreak, the struggle that human existence involves, but we all need an inner haven, a restful place where we can hope for something better. Some of us are gifted enough to turn it, in Keats’s words, into a thing of beauty that’s a joy for ever.


Jane Austen’s novels quoted from

Barnum, Deborah. 2010. A Jane Austen Triple-Play in Montreal! Retrieved from

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

Sanborn, Victoire. Emma. Masterpiece Classic. Retrieved from

William, Ioan, ed.( 2010). Sir Walter Scott on Novelists and Fiction. London: Routledge.

A comfortable home: Charlotte’s own happiness

Lady Susan might be described, following Thackeray, as ‘a novella without a heroine’ – which I must confess I find rather refreshing. What I like best about it is the open ending:

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 of it on either side of the question? The world must judge from probabilities; she had nothing against her but her husband, and her conscience.

The latter doesn’t seem to have troubled her before, so why should it now? And the former, though a complete fool, is loaded. So, personally, I think that nothing would prevent his wife from spending his money while she gets a little comfort on the side …

As Jane Austen’s major novels approach their conclusion, however, we’re not allowed to harbour any doubts about the marital bliss of her heroes and heroines. A leap of faith is required and disbelief must be suspended. But as far as secondary characters go, we may judge for ourselves.


Charlotte Lucas is not romantic, as she tells Lizzie Bennet in chapter 22, Vol. I. Sour grapes, perhaps, but she knows she cannot afford to be. At 27, she’s past her best-by date – at least Marianne Dashwood would say so, and Lady Russell entertains no hope that Anne Elliot might, at that age, be ‘tempted’ into marriage ‘by some man of talents and independence.’ Charlotte is also rather plain, and her parents can give her ‘little fortune.’ Her father used to be in trade, but, having been ‘‘risen to the honour of knighthood,’ quitted business, bought a new house, and now occupies himself ‘only in being civil to all the world.’ Nor is the daughter particularly accomplished – we don’t see her play the pianoforte or sing at parties. Thus,

Without thinking highly either of men or of matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want.

As Jane Austen herself acknowledges, ‘single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor, which is one very strong argument in favour of Matrimony.’ What other schemes could Charlotte have devised to avoid future poverty?

A knight’s daughter couldn’t possibly work for a living during her father’s lifetime, and then she might have been too old to start as a governess or a companion. On the other hand, applying for a position would have reflected on her brothers and they might not have liked it. Therefore, she would have had to depend on them for her livelihood and be content with whatever they gave her. The Lucas boys wouldn’t have been particularly generous, if their relief at her engagement to Mr Collins is anything to go by.


‘There certainly are not so many men of large fortune in the world as there are pretty women to deserve them’ –  imagine if you’re not even pretty. On average, twenty thousand men were killed or injured every year during the Napoleonic Wars, and many thousands more were fighting overseas. To put it quite bluntly, ‘There was a scarcity of Men in general, & a still greater scarcity of any that were good for much.’

Charlotte is under no illusions, and her expectations are rather moderate: ‘I ask only for a comfortable home,’ she acknowledges. To achieve this goal she must follow certain rules:

  • ‘A woman had better shew more affection than she feels.’
  • ‘It is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life.’
  • You mustn’t let your fancy for a poorer or socially inferior man make you ‘appear unpleasant in the eyes’ of another ‘of ten times his consequence.’

Unfortunately, Mr Collins’s shortcomings are too obvious for a clever girl like her to miss … Lizzy does not take her friend’s views seriously, which makes you wonder about her skills as a ‘studier of character’: ‘You make me laugh, Charlotte; but it is not sound. You know it is not sound, and that you would never act in this way yourself.’ When she finally does, Elizabeth can’t believe it:

She had always felt that Charlotte’s opinion of matrimony was not exactly like her own, but she could not have supposed it possible that, when called into action, she would have sacrificed every better feeling to worldly advantage.

Mr Collins wants ‘a gentlewoman … an active, useful sort of person, not brought up high, but able to make a small income go a good way’ – fortune not essential, mince-pie experience an advantage. In exchange, he offers a ‘highly desirable’ establishment. He’s also heir presumptive to the Longbourn estate. Deal! ‘Love and eloquence’ are really not necessary – the recipient of his protestations might even think ‘his attachment … imaginary.’

Sir William Lucas
Illustration from

Charlotte seizes her chance. She knows Lizzy will never accept what looks like an imminent proposal, so she starts by talking to him at the Netherfield ball. The following day she pops in at the Bennets’ just as her friend’s suitor is

meditating in solitude on what had passed. He thought too well of himself to comprehend on what motive his cousin could refuse him; and though his pride was hurt, he suffered in no other way. His regard for her was quite imaginary; and the possibility of her deserving her mother’s reproach prevented his feeling any regret.

Charlotte soon learns about the latest developments, and is ready to be ‘detained first by the civility of Mr Collins, whose inquiries after herself and all her family were very minute, and then by a little curiosity,’ which leads her to eavesdrop on his conversation with Mrs Bennet:

You will not, I hope, consider me as shewing any disrespect to your family, my dear Madam, by thus withdrawing my pretensions to your daughter’s favour, without having paid yourself and Mr  Bennet the compliment of requesting you to interpose your authority in my behalf.

This is all she needs to know. Now she must listen to him: ‘Such was Miss Lucas’s scheme.’

The following morning,

In as short a time as Mr Collins’s long speeches would allow, every thing was settled between them to the satisfaction of both; and as they entered the house, he earnestly entreated her to name the day that was to make him the happiest of men; and though such a solicitation must be waved for the present, the lady felt no inclination to trifle with his happiness.

True, he’s neither sensible nor pleasant, but she’ll be saved from want. Lizzy, however, thinks she can never be ‘tolerably happy.’


Charlotte is confident:

Considering Mr Collins’s character, connections, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair as most people can boast on entering the marriage state.

Yet she holds that

Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance. If the dispositions of the parties are ever so well known to each other, or ever so similar before-hand, it does not advance their felicity in the least. They always contrive to grow sufficiently unlike afterwards to have their share of vexation.

None of this will satisfy her friend, though Miss Bennet is willing to hope for the best:

You do not make allowance enough for difference of situation and temper. Consider Mr Collins’s respectability, and Charlotte’s prudent, steady character. Remember that she is one of a large family; that as to fortune, it is a most eligible match; and be ready to believe, for every body’s sake, that she may feel something like regard and esteem for our cousin.

But nothing can reinstate her in Lizzy’s good opinion:

‘Were I persuaded that Charlotte had any regard for him, I should only think worse of her understanding, than I now do of her heart. My dear Jane, Mr Collins is a conceited, pompous, narrow-minded, silly man; you know he is, as well as I do; and you must feel, as well as I do, that the woman who marries him, cannot have a proper way of thinking. You shall not defend her, though it is Charlotte Lucas. You shall not, for the sake of one individual, change the meaning of principle and integrity, nor endeavour to persuade yourself or me that selfishness is prudence, and insensibility of danger, security for happiness.’

‘I must think your language too strong in speaking of both,’ replied Jane, ‘and I hope you will be convinced of it, by seeing them happy together.’

This is precisely what her friend seeks to achieve by inviting her to Hunsford. In the meantime, she writes cheerfully about her new life, taking care to mention only what might be praised. Lizzy decides she’d better wait and see for herself.


Personally, I find Charlotte’s perceived need to justify herself rather pathetic – after all, friends shouldn’t sit in judgement, should they? Still, if Lizzy were somehow to be persuaded that things are not so bad as she may have thought, Charlotte would perhaps stop wondering whether she’s made the right choice …

The Parsonage was, indeed,

rather small, but well built and convenient; and everything was fitted up and arranged with a neatness and consistency of which Elizabeth gave Charlotte all the credit. When Mr Collins could be forgotten, there was really a great air of comfort throughout, and by Charlotte’s evident enjoyment of it, Elizabeth supposed he must be often forgotten.

mr collins & Charlotte
Illustration from

The Collinses have a ‘comfortable income,’ but few servants, and cannot afford frequent journeys or a pianoforte. Though they dine at Rosings twice a week, ‘the style of living of the neighbourhood’ is much higher than theirs and therefore their social life is limited. In spite of Lady Catherine’s petty objections, it appears Charlotte is a good manager, and nothing is done extravagantly.

Lizzy  acknowledges

Charlotte’s degree of contentment, … her address in guiding, and composure in bearing with her husband, and … that it was all done very well.

Mr Darcy thinks the house looks ‘very comfortable,’ and Elizabeth admits that her friend ‘seems perfectly happy’

On parting, she reflects:

Poor Charlotte! — it was melancholy to leave her to such society! — But she had chosen it with her eyes open; and though evidently regretting that her visitors were to go, she did not seem to ask for compassion. Her home and her housekeeping, her parish and her poultry, and all their dependent concerns, had not yet lost their charms.

Elizabeth appears to take it for granted that at some point she’ll grow bored with her usual employments. Actually, there is no evidence to support her assumption. Furthermore, by the end of the book Charlotte is pregnant, so we may imagine her children will soon occupy her mind and time. And, eventually, she’ll become mistress of Longbourn, which will pose new challenges and involve new responsibilities – plenty to look forward to.

Charlotte set herself a goal, thought out a plan, and pursued a strategy. Her efforts have been crowned with some success: Mr Collins may be a bit of a nuisance, but a career path has opened up for her. She shouldn’t be pitied.


Dr Johnson defines happiness as ‘felicity; state in which the desires are satisfied.’ The third example for the word is taken from John Locke’s An Essay concerning Human Understanding. Here’s the full quote:

The various and contrary choices that men make in the world do not argue that they do not all pursue good; but that the same thing is not good to every man alike. This variety of pursuits shows, that every one does not place his happiness in the same thing, or choose the same way to it.

‘Know your own happiness’ is Mrs Dashwood’s advice to Edward Ferrars. Charlotte may just have found hers: her reality-checked aspirations have been fulfilled, and she deserves all the credit for it. And however irksome Mr Collins’s society may be, deep down she must be grateful to him for having provided her with a home – a feeling that might grow into some kind of regard.


Jane Austen’s novels quoted from

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

Johnson, Samuel. (1755). A Dictionary of the English Language. Retrieved from

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

Locke, John. (1689). An Essay concerning Human Understanding. Retrieved from

Recreating Richard III: the Georgian stage and The Hollow Crown

I’ve always loved Richard III – ever since I first read it as a teenager. As I grew older, I realised that Shakespeare’s histories may be no more than legends, that he might have been biased, even a Tudor propagandist. But he’s given us some of the best historical fiction – and quite a few facts as well.

On the one hand, he follows his sources closely. Events may be conflated, their order changed, their interpretation simplified, comic relief introduced, the number of real-life characters reduced, speeches made up. But on the whole he keeps to the chosen narrative, which would place him rather near the fact side of the fact/fiction continuum. On the other hand, the dramatic architecture is impressive: he knows how to build up a good story, how to play on our emotions and our imagination to reach a climax, how to construct a fascinating tale from a dull chronicle. He selects just the material he needs and structures it so that the scenario unfolds seamlessly – a people’s history book of sorts.

Though we have perhaps become more critical than his first audiences, each generation finds its own way of enjoying English history through his stirring pageants. I’ve recently watched the Hollow Crown production of the Wars of the Roses, which comprises the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III, my favourite. I loved it. I thought the photography was amazing. Benedict Cumberbatch, who is the last Plantagenet King’s third cousin 16 times removed, has not disappointed me. He’s magnificently human: still bad, but not just the calculating monster we’re used to – his rendering of the ‘there is no creature loves me’ line is actually quite moving. The hump, the withered arm, the uneven gait, the stumbling as he climbs the throne are all pretty convincing but not overdone. The soliloquies and asides are soberly expressive, and the camera is just where it should be, whether to stress personal feelings or to contextualise the action.

I liked all the actors. Judi Dench is perhaps quieter than I expected as the Dowager Duchess of York, the young princes are very good, and Sophie Okonedo is superb as Margaret of Anjou – she almost steals the show. There is too much blood on the battlefield to my taste, but then again that’s what mediaeval close quarter combat must have looked like. Queen Margaret has been made to wander it after Richmond’s victory, surrounded by the strewn corpses, a silent, haunting symbol of the senseless waste brought about by war. This may not have been Shakespeare’s idea, but I thought it a stroke of genius: in the final moments the focus is on tragedy itself.


Jane Austen must have enjoyed Shakespeare’s histories tremendously. In Mansfield Park, Fanny has been reading Henry VIII to Lady Bertram.

Crawford took the volume. Let me have the pleasure of finishing that speech to your ladyship,’ said he. ‘I shall find it immediately.’ And by carefully giving way to the inclination of the leaves, he did find it, or within a page or two, quite near enough to satisfy Lady Bertram, who assured him, as soon as he mentioned the name of Cardinal Wolsey, that he had got the very speech. Not a look or an offer of help had Fanny given; not a syllable for or against. All her attention was for her work. She seemed determined to be interested by nothing else. But taste was too strong in her. She could not abstract her mind five minutes: she was forced to listen; his reading was capital, and her pleasure in good reading extreme. To good reading, however, she had been long used: her uncle read well, her cousins all, Edmund very well, but in Mr. Crawford’s reading there was a variety of excellence beyond what she had ever met with. The King, the Queen, Buckingham, Wolsey, Cromwell, all were given in turn; for with the happiest knack, the happiest power of jumping and guessing, he could always alight at will on the best scene, or the best speeches of each; and whether it were dignity, or pride, or tenderness, or remorse, or whatever were to be expressed, he could do it with equal beauty. It was truly dramatic. His acting had first taught Fanny what pleasure a play might give, and his reading brought all his acting before her again; nay, perhaps with greater enjoyment, for it came unexpectedly, and with no such drawback as she had been used to suffer in seeing him on the stage with Miss Bertram.

New Covent Garden Theatre, by Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Charles Pugin

The heroine is mesmerised, just as Austen must have been when her brother Henry read Shakespeare aloud to the family:

Edmund watched the progress of her attention, and was amused and gratified by seeing how she gradually slackened in the needlework, which at the beginning seemed to occupy her totally: how it fell from her hand while she sat motionless over it, and at last, how the eyes which had appeared so studiously to avoid him throughout the day were turned and fixed on Crawford–fixed on him for minutes, fixed on him, in short, till the attraction drew Crawford’s upon her, and the book was closed, and the charm was broken.

Unlike his namesake, Mr Crawford is not particularly familiar with the Bard’s works. He doesn’t even remember whether he saw Henry VIII at the theatre. But this is a powerful scene, a joyful break in a wearisome tale of woe. Fanny’s suitor has ‘a great turn for acting,’ and a great zest too, as he makes plain in his reaction to the idea of private theatricals:

‘I really believe, said he, ‘I could be fool enough at this moment to undertake any character that ever was written, from Shylock or Richard III down to the singing hero of a farce in his scarlet coat and cocked hat. I feel as if I could be anything or everything; as if I could rant and storm, or sigh or cut capers, in any tragedy or comedy in the English language.


Richard III is also mentioned in Austen’s letters. ‘Prepare for a Play the very first evening,’ she suggests to her sister on 9 March 1814, ‘I rather think Covent Garden, to see Young in Richard.’

Charles Mayne Young was born in 1777. He impersonated a variety of roles in Liverpool and Manchester before appearing at the Haymarket Theatre as Hamlet in 1807. He joined the Covent Garden Company in 1810, as second to John Kemble, leading in his absence.

Jane and Cassandra would have watched Colley Cibber’s adaptation of the tragedy, which was usually performed from 1700 to the end of the 19th century, replacing the original text. It would have begun with the murders of Edward Prince of Wales and Henry VI, to provide some background for those who were not quite familiar with the histories. Cibber’s version was much shorter than Shakespeare’s, and about half of the lines were his own. Many characters had been removed, among them Edward IV, Clarence, Queen Margaret, and Hastings, thus simplifying the production. This might have been one of the reasons behind Cibber’s success, another being his focus on the title-role. The princes were killed on stage, like in The Hollow Crown, presumably to increase the pathos, but Richard tended to be a bit over didactic about his schemes and motives, which must have made it all rather boring.

Charles Mayne Young
Charles Mayne Young as Hamlet, by George Clint

Though Cibber himself enacted the part rather indifferently, his version was hugely popularised by David Garrick, always a favourite with Georgian audiences. His portrayal of the main character suited their taste, eliciting sympathy and compassion, but stopped short of condoning vice.

The Covent Garden house could accommodate around 3000 people. It would have been lit by wax candles during the whole performance, as it was actually impossible to dim the lights. The actors would have stood on the forestage that jutted out into the auditorium, and the Austens would have watched it all from a box. It would be interesting to know whether they did go see Richard III and what they thought of the acting – some believe they didn’t.


If they had, Jane might have smiled remembering what she’d written as a young girl in The History of England, or the heated argument between Kitty Percival and Mr Stanley in Catharine, or The Bower – ‘upon my honour, you are entirely mistaken.’ Was she? Can anyone be? Shakespeare got at least one thing right. After all, whatever we may think of his reign, his role in the War of the Roses, or the Tudor spin doctors, forensic anthropologists confirmed that the King was indeed hunchbacked.

Fact and fiction intertwine in curious ways and we try to make sense of both as we go along. Each generation has its own Richard Plantagenet. Shakespeare’s words are resignified  in different contexts. Our experience of the play can never be the same after the Leicester car park discovery, after the anxious wait to know whether it was really him that lay unceremoniously buried in the city centre, and the final scientific corroboration. The Bosworth scenes have certainly taken on new meaning. Richmond’s prayers and protestations sound more hypocritical, his promises emptier.The opening lines have always had multi-layered connotations: ‘Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun/son of York.’

Austen’s novels were written to be read, Shakespeare’s plays to be performed. Both have been adapted for the stage and screen at various times. Whatever our opinion of the merits of particular renditions, they are works of art in themselves, recreations aimed at different audiences, ways of understanding their world as well as ours.


Jane Austen’s Juvenilia quoted from

Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park quoted from

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

Hammond, Antony, ed. (1989). King Richard III. London: The Arden Shakespeare

Kane, Kathryn. (2009). The Glittering Regency Theatre. Retrieved from

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

Siemon, James, ed. (2009). King Richard III. London: The Arden Shakespeare.

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

A valetudinarian all his life: what is wrong with Mr Woodhouse?

I have always believed Mr Woodhouse was one of those sad creatures whose purported ill health provides the perfect pretext for them to rule other people’s lives and enjoy their constant attention. My opinion has never materially changed, though I have become more aware of his many good qualities and grown rather fond of him over time – you may say he is now an ‘old acquaintance.’ But while Emma may be commended for looking after him as if he were truly sick, he might not be that poorly as he would wish us to think.

The evil of the actual disparity in their ages (and Mr Woodhouse had not married early) was much increased by his constitution and habits; for having been a valetudinarian all his life, without activity of mind or body, he was a much older man in ways than in years.

For a long time I took it for granted that he was, therefore, a hypochondriac – someone unduly anxious about health issues. Forever afraid that someone might catch cold, he is also overcautious about food, and gets a kick out of consulting the apothecary. Yet some learned members of the medical profession disagree, and I would certainly not presume to override their clinical judgement. On the other hand, Jane Austen was not a physician and her novels were intended for the general public. She might have been more concerned with describing typical comic traits that might be recognised in ordinary people than with accurate diagnosis.

In order to settle the matter, I turned to Dr Johnson. According to him, the word ‘valetudinarian’ is an adjective that means ‘weakly; sickly; infirm of health.’ But then, among the examples, is a quote from Jonathan Swift: ‘Valetudinarians must live where they can command and scold,’ which shows the term might even then be used as a noun and applied to those who were not that frail. Dr Swift goes on to say:

I must have horses to ride, I must go to bed and rise when I please, and live where all mortals are subservient to me. I must talk nonsense when I please, and all who are present must commend it. I must ride thrice a week, and walk three or four miles, besides, every day.

Valetudinarians might therefore actually be or fancy themselves unwell – the ambiguity remains. Austen’s reference to Mr Woodhouse’s constitution is also equivocal, as it may be taken in either a physical or a psychological sense. In this case the former would seem more appropriate, as she distinguishes it from his sedentary habits.  All in all, he is not quite hale and hearty, though it may look a bit like a chicken-and-egg problem: is he too feeble for physical or mental exertion or is it idleness that has turned him into an invalid?

As the author remarks, he has been like that all his life. We may assume his faculties have declined with age, but he appears to have been born an old man. His memory, for instance, has never been good, as he tells his daughter:

Ah! it is no difficulty to see who you take after! Your dear mother was so clever at all those things! If I had but her memory! But I can remember nothing;—not even that particular riddle which you have heard me mention; I can only recollect the first stanza; and there are several.

Comforts of Bath: The Pump Room, by Thomas Rowlandson

He does not say: ‘If only I could remember things as I used to,’ as many elderly people do – he must always have been slow.

A comparison with his elder daughter might be enlightening:

She was not a woman of strong understanding or any quickness; and with this resemblance of her father, she inherited also much of his constitution; was delicate in her own health, over-careful of that of her children, had many fears and many nerves, and was as fond of her own Mr Wingfield in town as her father could be of Mr Perry.

Yet Isabella leads an active, fulfilling, and happy life – in other words, similar constitution, different habits. Se does not seem to be ‘easily depressed’ or hate change. She is certainly no enemy to marriage.

After Harriet’s encounter with the gypsies,

It was some comfort to him that many inquiries after himself and Miss Woodhouse (for his neighbours knew that he loved to be inquired after), as well as Miss Smith, were coming in during the rest of the day; and he had the pleasure of returning for answer, that they were all very indifferent–which, though not exactly true, for she was perfectly well, and Harriet not much otherwise, Emma would not interfere with.

From this excerpt I gather that her father might not be in the pink of health – or at least that he has succeeded in convincing her of that. On the other hand, his dialogue with Isabella in chapter 12 shows that he thinks everybody else as sickly as he believes himself to be.

What exactly is wrong with him, apart from his low spirits and endless apprehensions? In chapter 2 we find out that ‘his own stomach could bear nothing rich.’ Then we learn that the sea ‘almost killed’ him on one occasion. In chapter 32, Emma tells Mrs Elton that he has tried Bath ‘more than once, formerly; but without receiving any benefit; and Mr Perry … does not conceive it would be at all more likely to be useful now.’

He may suffer then from some kind of chronic digestive disorder, which his fears might have worsened – if  you eat something believing it may upset your stomach, it probably will. We do not know whether he went to the seaside or Bath on medical advice or just because he thought it might help. During the Regency, treatment involved drinking sea or spa water, which might not have agreed with him. And he might have caught his death taking a swim, or, more likely, being dipped in the freezing waves during the winter months, which were considered the best time of year for such practices.

In Northanger Abbey Mr Allen is ‘ordered to Bath for the benefit of his gouty constitution.’ Plenty of others experiencing similar ailments did the same, as we can see in Jane Austen’s letters. Her brother Edward was one of them:

Edward has not been well these last two days; his appetite has failed him, & he has complained of sick & uncomfortable feelings, which, with other Symptoms make us think of the Gout – perhaps a fit of it might cure him, but I cannot wish it to begin at Bath.

But over a fortnight later, his sister writes:

Edward has seen the Apothecary to whom Dr Millman recommended him, a sensible, intelligent Man, since I began this – & he attributes his present little feverish indisposition to his having ate something unsuited to his Stomach. – I do not understand that Mr Anderton suspects the Gout at all; – The occasional particular glow in the hands & feet, which we considered as a symptom of that Disorder, he only calls the effect of the Water in promoting a better circulation of the blood.

That made me think there might have been some confusion in Mr Woodhouse’s case too. As there does not seem to be anything particularly unusual in an elderly man’s walking rather slowly or dozing off occasionally after dinner, it would appear gastrointestinal trouble is all he is really afflicted by – physically, that is.

Foundling Hospital on Brunswick Square. Etching by H. Roberts after J. Robertson after T. Jacobsen. Source:

On the other hand, he is melancholy, obsessed with disease, afraid of storms as well as of thieves, terrified of change, scarcely able to look beyond his own navel, and utterly dependent on his younger daughter. ‘“What is to be done, my dear Emma?—what is to be done?” was Mr. Woodhouse’s first exclamation, and all that he could say for some time,’ incapable as he was of making up his own mind. Should they stay at Randalls for the night or get back home braving the drifting snow? I must admit I feel sorry for him this time: after his son-in-law’s alarming description any elderly person would have been frightened. Nor are his worries about the quality of London’s air in general, quite apart from Brunswick Square, altogether groundless – on the contrary, the combination fog, smoke and soot would have been truly detrimental to the respiratory system.

Poor Mr Woodhouse is not very clever: everything has to be read and explained to him several times over, whether it is charades or business matters. It seems he has never exercised his brain, and this is one of the reasons why he looks older than he is. Perhaps he should have been treated more like a normal person instead of being overindulged as an invalid …

Though gentle, benevolent, and polite towards his neighbours, he is also selfishly controlling and prevents Emma from leading a full life. She is made to feel she always comes first and is always right, and allowed to do as she pleases as long as he remains at the centre of her thoughts and schemes. Ill health keeps him there, while inactivity reinforces helplessness and ensures permanent compassion.

Unlike Emma’s, his is the story of someone who refuses to embrace, often even to acknowledge, change or diversity. He cannot be persuaded to venture beyond the metaphorical shrubbery to see how the other half lives, whose pleasures he is unable to understand. The happy ending is brought about by playing on his fears rather than by his conquering them.


Emma text quoted from

Adams, Carol. (2015, Dec. 19). Jane Austen’s Guide to Alzheimer’s. The New York Times. Retrieved from

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

Bader, Ted. (2000). Mr Woodhouse is not a hypochondriac! Persuasions, vol. 21, No. 2. Retrieved from

Johnson, Samuel. (1755). A Dictionary of the English Language. Retrieved from

Kinney, Cheryl. (2016). Mr Woodhouse and What Matters in the End. Retrieved from

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

Swift, Jonathan. (1741). Letters to and from Dr J. Swift, D.S.P.D, from the year 1714, to 1738. Dublin: George Faulkner.