Inaugural Meeting of the Jane Austen Society (Hunter Branch)

Wednesday 16 November 2011 was the inaugural meeting of the Hunter Branch of JASA.  Delivered by JASA president Susannah Fullerton The Life and Times of Jane Austen essentially was a primer to the uninitiated. Naturally, it commenced with an extract of Pride and Prejudice  (1813):

She would not give him time to reply, but hurrying instantly to her husband, called out as she entered the library,

‘Oh! Mr Bennet, you are wanted immediately; we are all in an uproar. You must come and make Lizzy marry Mr Collins, for she vows she will not have him, and if you do not make haste he            will change his mind and not have her.’

Mr Bennet raised his eyes from his book as she entered, and fixed them on her face with a calm unconcern which was not in the least altered by her communication.

‘I have not the pleasure of understanding you,’ he said, when she had finished her speech. ‘Of what are you talking?’

‘Of Mr Collins and Lizzy.  Lizzy declares she will not have Mr Collins, and Mr Collins begins to say that he will not have Lizzy.’

‘And what am I to do on the occasion? – It seems an hopeless business.’

‘Speak to Lizzy about it yourself.  Tell her that you insist upon her marrying him’

‘Let her be called down.  She shall hear my opinion.’

Mrs Bennet rang her bell, and Miss Elizabeth was summoned to the library.

‘Come here, child,’ cried her father as she appeared. ‘I have sent for you on an affair of importance.  I understand that Mr Collins has made you an offer of marriage.  Is it true?’ Elizabeth replied that it was. ‘Very well-and this offer of marriage you have refused?

‘I have, Sir.’

‘Very well. We now come to the point.  Your mother insists upon your accepting it.  Is not it so, Mrs Bennet?’

‘Yes, or I will never see her again.’

‘An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents,-your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.’

The first draft of Pride and Prejudice known as First Impressions was sent to a London publisher who expressed no interest in it whatsoever.  Ironically, it regularly is voted the most popular book and most popular romance.  We don’t know how different First Impressions is from Pride and Prejudice as the original manuscript did not survive.

Today there are no limitations to the  versions of Pride and Prejudice, including a counting book ‘one house at Longbourn, two gentlemen in want of a wife, five Bennet sisters…£10,000 annual income…’film adaptations, merchandise including Mr Darcy soap. Jane Austen would be spinning in her grave at some of the incarnations.

CHILDHOOD

Jane Austen was born in 1775 in Stevenson Hampshire, the second youngest of eight children.  By all accounts, Jane Austen had a happy childhood but was not from a wealthy family. Well aware that she would be a single woman of small fortune she knew for economic security she would need to find husband.  She was writing from real knowledge of how the dependent status of women influenced their choices (as can be seen through the character of Charlotte Lucas).

Austen had brothers in the church, navy and landed gentry.  Brother Edward was adopted by wealthy relatives who had no heirs.  It was through him that she could experience that stratum of society that would inspire Rosings, Pemberley and Mansfield Park.

EDUCATION

Mr Austen taught the sons whereas the daughters had to scramble for an education where they could.  Jane and Cassandra Austen had less than two years formal education.  The girls had access to their father’s library which contained novels (literally when they were the new literary form), the Bible, essays and history.   Her formal education was to equip her to the only honourable occupation open to her: Marriage.  She would have learnt how to dance, embroidery, household management and how to play an instrument.  What Jane Austen’s education would not have encompassed was English composition.

Jane Austen possessed an extremely active imagination.  She parodied the sentimental novels and later the Gothic novels (re: Northanger Abbey).

JUVENILIA

From a very early age Austen dipped quill pen in ink pot to produce her wonderful juvenilia.  Austen has been compared to Mozart in that she produced works of genius while still in her teens.  In her juvenilia are wonderfully vulgar creations including the forerunner to Mrs Bennet in her husband hunting quest.  Reading from The Three Sisters:

Letter 1st

Miss Stanhope to Mrs…

My dear Fanny

I am the happiest creature in the World, for I have received and offer of marriage form Mr Watts.  It is the first I have ever had and I hardly know how to value it enough.  How I will triumph over the Duttons! I do not intend to accept it, at least I believe not but I am not quite certain I gave him an equivocal answer and left him.  And now my dear Fanny I want your advice whether I should accept his offer of not, but that you may be able to judge of his merits and the situation of affairs I will give you an account of them. He is quite an old Man, about two and thirty, very plain so plain that I cannot bear to look at him.  He is extremely disagreeable and I hate him more than anybody else in the world.  He has a large fortune and will make great settlements on me; told me that she should offer himself to Sophia and if she refused him to Georgiana, and I could not bear to have either of them married before me.  If I accept him I know I shall be miserable all the rest of my Life, foe he is very ill tempered and peevish extremely jealous, and so stingy that there is no living in the house with him.  He told me he should mention the affair to Mama, but I insisted upon it that he did not for very likely she would make me marry him whether I would or no, however probably he has before now, for he never does anything he is desired to do.  I believe I shall have him.  It will be such a triumph to be married before Sophy, Georgiana, and the Duttons;   And he promised to have a new carriage on the occasion, but we almost quarrelled about the colour, for I insisted upon it being blue spotted with silver , and he declared it should be a plain Chocolate, and to provoke me more said it should be just as low as his old one.  I won’t have him I declare.  He said he should come again tomorrow and take my final answer, so I believe I must get him while I can.  I know the Duttons will envy me and I shall be able to chaperone Sophy and Georgiana to all the Winter Balls.  But then what will be the use of that when very likely he won’t let me go myself, for I know he hates dancing and what he hates himself has no idea of any other person’s liking; and besides he talks a great  deal of Women’s always Staying at home and such stuff.  I believe I shan’t have him; I would refuse him at once if I were certain that neither my sisters would accept him, and that if they did not , he would not offer to the Duttons.  I cannot run such a risk, so if he will promise to have the Carriage ordered as I like, I will have him, If not he may ride in it be himself for me.  I hope you like my determination; I can think of nothing better;

And Am your ever Affec

Mary Stanhope

We can imagine the teen-aged Jane reading Three Sisters to Cassandra who would have laughed in all the right places and encourage Jane to write further.

LOVE

It is hard for young women today to phantom how totally dependent women of Jane Austen’s period were upon their relatives and vital of importance of making a good match.

 Austen attended dances, assembly balls etc.  These were the social functions where most people met and flirted with their prospective partners.

The earliest surviving letters of Jane Austen mention her brief flirtation with Tom Lefroy. Austen had no dowry and Lefroy at the beginning of his legal career (and five sisters) needed to marry well.    Lefroy eventually married a wealth heiress, fathered nine-ten children.  It would have being a desperately boring life.

It is known that Austen was engaged for all of one night.  A very sleepless night.  He was the elder son, nice property but she did not love him.  For this posterity can be grateful.  If she had married Austen’s writing career would have been subsumed to the demands of running a household and child birth.

Cassandra was engaged to a clergyman who went to the West Indies to make his fortune.  Unfortunately he died leaving what little he had to Cassandra.

PUBLICATION

After the death of Austen’s father, the Austen women lived very unsettled lives.  During her twenties it can be argued that Austen suffered from depression.  Her writing was going no-where.  Sense and Sensibility (Elinor and Marianne), Pride and Prejudice (First Impressions) and Northanger Abbey had been rejected.  For Northanger Abbey, Austen was paid £10 but the publisher never bothered reading it

After many restless years, brother Frank stepped in with offer of Chawton Cottage (today the Jane Austen Museum).  The novels are reworked and in a risky move Jane Austen agrees to indemnify the publisher.  On the 31 October 1811, Sense and Sensibility by a Lady is published and for which a tidy sum of £140 is received.  It is only after her death that her name appears as the author.  Her second novel is styled as Pride and Prejudice by the author of Sense and Sensibility.

Mansfield Park (1814) is considered the controversial novel which demands to reread many times. Fanny and Edmund are not the most sexually appealing protagonists.

Emma is the perfect novel with the perfect heroine who is ‘faultless despite her faults’.  And we are regaled with a lengthy passage from the book:

Emma could say no more. They seemed to be within half a sentence of Harriet, and her immediate feeling was to avert the subject, if possible. She made her plan; she would speak of something totally different—the children in Brunswick Square; and she only waited for breath to begin, when Mr. Knightley startled her, by saying,

“You will not ask me what is the point of envy.—You are determined, I see, to have no curiosity.—You are wise—but I cannot be wise. Emma, I must tell you what you will not ask, though I may wish it unsaid the next moment.”

“Oh! then, don’t speak it, don’t speak it,” she eagerly cried. “Take a little time, consider, do not commit yourself.”

“Thank you,” said he, in an accent of deep mortification, and not another syllable followed.

Emma could not bear to give him pain. He was wishing to confide in her—perhaps to consult her;—cost her what it would, she would listen. She might assist his resolution, or reconcile him to it; she might give just praise to Harriet, or, by representing to him his own independence, relieve him from that state of indecision, which must be more intolerable than any alternative to such a mind as his.—They had reached the house.

“You are going in, I suppose?” said he.

“No,”—replied Emma—quite confirmed by the depressed manner in which he still spoke—”I should like to take another turn. Mr. Perry is not gone.” And, after proceeding a few steps, she added—”I stopped you ungraciously, just now, Mr. Knightley, and, I am afraid, gave you pain.—But if you have any wish to speak openly to me as a friend, or to ask my opinion of any thing that you may have in contemplation—as a friend, indeed, you may command me.—I will hear whatever you like. I will tell you exactly what I think.”

“As a friend!”—repeated Mr. Knightley.—”Emma, that I fear is a word—No, I have no wish—Stay, yes, why should I hesitate?—I have gone too far already for concealment.—Emma, I accept your offer—Extraordinary as it may seem, I accept it, and refer myself to you as a friend.—Tell me, then, have I no chance of ever succeeding?”

He stopped in his earnestness to look the question, and the expression of his eyes overpowered her.

“My dearest Emma,” said he, “for dearest you will always be, whatever the event of this hour’s conversation, my dearest, most beloved Emma—tell me at once. Say ‘No,’ if it is to be said.”—She could really say nothing.—”You are silent,” he cried, with great animation; “absolutely silent! at present I ask no more.”

Emma was almost ready to sink under the agitation of this moment. The dread of being awakened from the happiest dream, was perhaps the most prominent feeling.

“I cannot make speeches, Emma:” he soon resumed; and in a tone of such sincere, decided, intelligible tenderness as was tolerably convincing.—”If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more. But you know what I am.—You hear nothing but truth from me.—I have blamed you, and lectured you, and you have borne it as no other woman in England would have borne it.—Bear with the truths I would tell you now, dearest Emma, as well as you have borne with them. The manner, perhaps, may have as little to recommend them. God knows, I have been a very indifferent lover.—But you understand me.—Yes, you see, you understand my feelings—and will return them if you can. At present, I ask only to hear, once to hear your voice.”

Persuasion published posthumously is the wonderfully love story where two lovers reunited after eight years.  Particularly moving is the love letter Captain Wentworth writes Anne Elliot.

 

DEATH AND LEGACY

Conventionally, it is thought that Jane Austen died from Addison Disease. The latest theory is that Austen may have died from arsenic poisoning. Austen died in 1817 at the age of 41 in Winchester where she had travelled for medical treatment.  She was buried in the Cathedral contrary not because she was a famous author but more likely because she died in the immediate environs and was a clergyman’s daughter.

Her books were forgotten for a period of time after her death until renewed interest in them was spark by her nephew’s 1870 biography.

Today Jane Austen is the third most written about woman in history after Joan of Arc and the Virgin Mary.  Her books are more popular than the Bronte sisters, Gaskell, Eliot and Dickens.  Why? Her work is entertaining, the incredible quality of the writing, the structure of the writing and they are wonderfully funny.

Jane Austen was an astute observer with and incredible understanding of human nature.  We all know a Miss Bates, a stingy Mrs Norris, boorish John Thorpe and a Mary Musgrove.  Jane Austen teaches us how to observe fellow human beings, deal with people and yourself.

 The session concluded with a Q&A.  With such matters people try and demonstrate how erudite they are by revealing the depth of their ignorance.  How much money did she make? Why does academic convention refer to her as Jane Austen not Austen? Do you think making adolescent boys read Jane Austen destroy future enjoyment of it?  Are you familiar with this text?

A token of appreciation was presented to Susannah Fullerton and organiser Pamela Whalan.  Exhortations  to join the society and partake of tea and coffee concluded the meeting.

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