I was re-reading P&P the other day (for the nth time) and reached the passage in which Mr. Bennet famously tells Lizzie after reading her Mr. Collins’ letter concerning Darcy:
But, Lizzy, you look as if you did not enjoy it. You are not going to be Missish, I hope, and pretend to be affronted at an idle report. For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?”
Now that passage has always seemed to me to hold a ring of truth that extends beyond the novel. A quick read of Jane Austen’s letters reveals a person who delights in passing on the latest on-dits (as gossip was fashionably called during the Regency period). Part of it, of course, is living in the country, with no television, no internet, and nothing else to amuse you beyond news of the people around you. This was particularly true when she wrote to Cassandra, who of course knew the people Jane Austen wrote about.
Mr. Heathcote met with a genteel little accident the other day in hunting; he got off to lead his horse over a hedge or a house or a something, & his horse in his haste trod upon his leg, or rather ankle, & it is not at certain whether the small bone is not broke.
A house or a something? Such a sense of the ridiculous is invested in that little remark, we can’t help but laugh at Mr. Heathcote’s genteel misfortune. Fortunately, we know that Mr. Heathcote recovers fully in a later letter. Continue reading
Yesterday I attended one of the Athletics sessions of the Paralympics. It was mind-boggling, emotional and certainly very inspirational. The athletes themselves were amazing. My eleven year old daughter won’t stop talking about it, especially about the tremendous determination and strength of these Olympic athletes who never allowed a physical or mental challenge to come in their way. Just the thought of how each and every one had to fight all odds to get to that stadium brought tears to my eyes.
I was awestruck, too, at all the work that went into adapting different games and setting up rules to take into account different physical capabilities. What impressed me most, though, was the fact that the athletes were given no slack. This was particularly striking with the long jump. True, the athletes were blind and had to depend for guidance on their coach’s clapping to know when to take the jump, but to see that red flag raised indicating a foul when an athlete went over the white line was a constant reminder of how hard they’d had to train to get to this stage. But it went way beyond that, because the distances they were jumping were worthy of the absolute best. Continue reading
I’m always asking myself about the secret of Jane Austen’s appeal. Of course this is intriguing for me as a writer because I want so badly to work out how how she does it. Still, no matter how closely I look at her writing, it always seems as if something is slipping away at the edge of my mind refusing to be captured. I’ve sensed her lurking , waiting to pounce, a cat watching the mice that are her characters. It’s one of the reasons I don’t buy into the idea of “dear aunt Jane” and the saintly spinster ideal that was presented later by her Victorian nephew. You’ll probably get mad at me, but I think “dear Jane” could be pretty snarky. In one letter she’s described as “a poker of whom everybody is afraid”. I don’t know if the pun was intended or not, but it describes what I mean very well – both in the sense of poking around to reveal the truth, as well as poking fun at people.”
Simply being snarky doesn’t generally earn you any gold medals in the Top World Writer category, though.
I think her particular brand of snarkiness works because JA could put her finger on the soul of things and expose it, without sentimentality, but also without partiality. She makes you sit up and think: “That’s so true!” She writes about a kind of elevated society — a merciless one in which you either conform to certain standards of correctness or are immediately exposed to the glaring limelight of embarrassment. Mrs. Bennet’s obvious matchmaking, Mary’s attention-grabbing, Lydia’s flirting, Caroline Bingley’s hopelessly desperate man-catching techniques are all contrasted to Mr. Darcy’s careful reserve. For a moment there at the ball in Meryton, you would almost think that Darcy is the only perfect character around. But then Darcy ’s behavior – meticulously correct as it is — is brought to its knees as Lizzy discovers the arrogance and snobbery behind it. But it goes beyond that. The well-known passage in which Darcy is first described is also a delicious indictment of society and the superficial way in which collective opinions are swayed from one extreme to another. You can almost hear Mrs. Bennet’s voice in there, along with many of the hopeful matrons at the ball. Darcy’s swing away from favor is as much a result of his snobbery as it is due to the indifferent way he dashes everyone’s hopes. Continue reading
Sevenoaks, a lovely well-preserved old town in Kent close to Westerham, is associated with several of Jane Austen’s relatives, most particularly Jane’s Uncle Francis Austen (Frank). We know that Jane visited her uncle on at least one occasion, namely in 1788, when she was 12, where she met other (more priviledged) members of the Austen family. Rumors abound that a village close to Westerham was the model for Mr. Collins’ Parish village Hunsford and that Rosings was based on an estate in the area, Chevening, where Jane’s cousin John became rector in 1813.
I visit Sevenoaks several times a year since I love to picnic in the Knole, a property partly owned and inhabited by Lord Sackville and partly by the National Trust. The grounds hold a deer park with an ancient herd of deer roaming around, which, along with the green rolling hills, makes for a wonderful backdrop (if you can find a spot that doesn’t have deer droppings, that is).
The Knole has its own literary connections to boast of, since it hosted both Rudyard Kipling and Virginia Woolf, but this time the Knole wasn’t the center of my interest. I actually took a proper walk through the old section of Sevenoaks, trying to trace the footsteps Jane might have taken. Since many of the buildings have remained unchanged since her time, I thought it might be fun to do a fanciful recreation of some of the things she might have seen.
The walk begins with the Jane Austen plaque in the ground indicating a spot she would have very likely stepped on herself, just outside her uncle Francis’ house — The Red House, which we know she was invited to visit when she was around 12 years old.
When she arrived by carriage with her father and sister Cassandra, this is where they would have gone in. Would a footman have opened the gates for them to enter? Continue reading
by Monica Fairview
Funny how some terms become so slippery you can’t really grab hold of them. For us, sensibility immediately brings to mind the word “sensible,” which in fact doesn’t make any sense in the context of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, where the two obviously mean different things.
Have I got everybody sufficiently muddled? Just wait and see.
Here’s an explanation of what the word sensibility actually meant in Austen’s time taken from Wikipedia (what would we do without it?):
Sensibility refers to an acute perception of or responsiveness toward something, such as the emotions of another. This concept emerged in eighteenth-century Britain, and was closely associated with studies of sense perception as the means through which knowledge is gathered. It also became associated with sentimental moral philosophy… George Cheyne and other medical writers wrote of “The English Malady,” also called “hysteria” in women or “hypochondria” in men, a condition with symptoms that closely resemble the modern diagnosis of clinical depression. Cheyne considered this malady to be the result of over-taxed nerves. At the same time, theorists asserted that individuals who had ultra-sensitive nerves would have keener senses, and thus be more aware of beauty and moral truth. Thus, while it was considered a physical and/or emotional fragility, sensibility was also widely perceived as a virtue. Continue reading
by Monica Fairview
Jane Austen was a remarkably clever writer. Now I know you don’t need me to tell you that, but every now and then I stop and think about how well she put together P&P, and I marvel that she was able to do so many things in the space of relatively few pages.
Take, for example, the many things in the novel that could have happened but don’t – all of them for very good reasons.
Darcy could have agreed to honor the promise of his mother to Lady Catherine. He could have married Anne. As a gentleman, he was obliged to do so, and there would have been no romance.
Now if we consider the norms of those days, in which these kinds of engagements were often binding between aristocratic families, and an audienct of the time might have thought badly of Darcy for not fulfilling the agreement. After all, a gentleman who broke an engagement was considered a cad.
1. We know Lady Catherine tends to be rather inventive about her daughter. Remember the absurd statement about the piano?
There are few people in England, I suppose, who have more true enjoyment of music than myself, or a better natural taste. If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient. And so would Anne, if her health had allowed her to apply. I am confident that she would have performed delightfully.
Since Lady Catherine tends to make those kind of statement, we’re not quite willing to accept her word for it that Darcy’s mother really planned to have the Darcy and Anne marry. Though of course financially and socially it’s a good match. Continue reading