Jane Austen and her World

Benjamin Haydon (1786-1846), artist, and author of a brilliant diary, is somewhat neglected nowadays, though he was an interesting man and counted Keats, Hazlitt and Wordsworth among his friends. He was a good portrait painter – as his 1842 portrait of Wordsworth below attests – but, unfortunately, he passionately believed in the old-fashioned 18th century notion that Great Painting should concentrate on historical and religious subjects in the Grand Manner.

William Wordsworth against a background of the majestic Helvellyn, in the Lake District,  by Benjamin Haydon, 1842. Once a staunch Radical and Romantic poet, Wordsworth, by 1842, had become an establishment figure and would become Poet Laureate in the following year. 

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Re-reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice recently, I found myself wondering why everyone in the Lucas family, calls Elizabeth Bennet ‘Eliza’, rather than ‘Lizzy’, which is what her family call her. Is she a slightly different person when she is ‘Eliza’? And why is she Charlotte Lucas’s ‘intimate friend’, anyway? Jane Austen describes Charlotte as, ‘a sensible, intelligent young woman, about twenty-seven’. Elizabeth is twenty, and we know that she has a close relationship with her twenty-two-year-old sister Jane. Normally, at twenty, one’s friends tend to be one’s own age, for example, Kitty Bennet is a close friend of Charlotte’s sister, Maria, who is more or less her own age, so we are allowed to ask what Elizabeth gets from her friendship with Charlotte that she doesn’t get from Jane.

Mr Collins accosting Mr Darcy at the Netherfield Ball by Charles E Brock

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I’m sure I’m not just speaking for myself when I say that novelists choose the surnames of their characters with great care. I certainly agonise over mine. I was reminded of this when reading Maggie Lane’s brilliant Jane Austen and Food. In it, she makes the perceptive point that Mrs Norris in Mansfield Park is ironically named – from the French nourrice, a nurse. She behaves in the most un-nurturing way towards Fanny Price and seems to take every opportunity to put her down.

‘My dear Sir Thomas, Fanny can walk.’ says Mrs Norris. Illustration by Hugh Thomson for Mansfield Park

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In this post, I am remembering the battle of Albuera, on 16th May, 1811 – as I do every year, ever since I visited the battlefield and learnt what happened on that ‘Field of Grief‘ as Lord Byron put it,  208 years ago.

The battle of Albuera in 1811 and the storming of Badajoz in 1812 were among the bloodiest engagements of the Spanish Peninsular War (1808-1813). Almost forgotten today, the battles fought between the British, under Wellington, and their Portuguese and Spanish allies, against the might of the Napoleon’s army were once household names.

The town’s own memorial to the Battle of Albuera

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Today, I’m re-visiting the Royal Mews, looking the various coaches and landaus, and, of course, the gold ‘Coronation’ coach.  Landaus feature in Jane Austen’s novels; the obnoxious Mrs Elton, in Emma, boasts about her sister’s barouche-landau – which she takes every opportunity to mention (presumably because Emma doesn’t have one at Hartfield). But what exactly is a landau?

Queen Alexandra’s State Coach dates from 1865. It was used regularly by King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra 

A carriage is the general term for any horse-drawn passenger vehicle, from the humble gig to the Gold Coronation Coach.  A coach is simply a large carriage. Basically, all landaus are coaches but not all coaches are landaus.

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I have long been fascinated by Jane Austen’s choice of first names for her characters, and today I’m looking at how the early 19th naming system worked. The 1800 name pool was, by modern standards, surprisingly small, and this is echoed in Jane Austen’s constant reuse of the same names. Take the name Mary; there are two Marys in Pride & Prejudice (Mary Bennet and the heiress Mary King, pursued by Wickham); a Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park; and Mary Musgrove in Persuasion. According to research done by The Names Society, Mary was the most common girl’s name in 1800, closely followed by Anne and Elizabeth, so perhaps we should not be surprised. Jane Austen even calls two major characters by her own Christian name, Jane, which comes in at number 5 in the 1800 list. There is Jane Bennet in Pride & Prejudice and Jane Fairfax in Emma.

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I have been re-reading Jenny Uglow’s In These Times: Living in Britain Through Napoleon’s Wars, 1793-1815 in which she demonstrates very clearly how the Napoleonic Wars permeated every aspect of life for twenty-two long years and affected everybody – including Jane Austen’s characters  – as the country faced the urgent need for men for the armed forces, military supplies, ships, a modern transport system, efficient banking, and so on.

Captured Napoleonic Eagle of the 105th by the Royal Dragoons at the Battle of Waterloo,1815, in the Household Cavalry Museum (copy)

This post is a refutation of those critics who assert that Jane Austen’s novels concentrate only on domestic everyday life as lived by the English upper-middle classes.Jane  Austen, they say, ignores the wider picture and fails to mention the Napoleonic Wars. This, in my opinion, is simply not true. In fact, the war is a constant, and important, background to her novels; the problem is that most modern readers fail to recognize her references to it.

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On December 16th, 1775, in the rectory at Steventon, Hampshire, on a freezing winter’s day, the rector’s wife, gave birth to a daughter. The baby was, of course, Jane Austen, and she was to become one of our greatest novelists. Her books have given us so much pleasure, as well as inspiring numerous film and television adaptations. Then there are those books her works have influenced from Marghanita Laski’s completion of Sanditon in 1975, 200 years after Jane’s death; Amanda Grange’s clever Mr Darcy’s Diary; to Val McDermid’s witty and perceptive modern take on Northanger Abbey, to name but a few. Many Jane Austen characters have also had interesting afterlives as detectives, vampires or zombies; and some of them have even met up with Austen characters from her other books.

So today, on her birthday, it’s only fitting to pay tribute to many people’s favourite author, including mine.

Sanditon, a novel by Jane Austen and Another Lady, 1975

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I’ve always enjoyed pageantry. I confess that the sight of soldiers in uniform, wearing crested helmets and scarlet jackets, sitting on gleaming black horses and being put through their paces by an even smarter officer, gladdens my heart. So, today, I’m visiting the Household Cavalry.

Visitors watch the Changing of the Guard ceremony in Horse Guards Parade. 

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In every film or television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice I’ve seen (and I’ve seen many) Mr Bennet comes across as a sympathetic character; a man we could like. We enjoy his irony with regard to the oleaginous Mr Collins: ‘It is happy for you that you possess the talent of flattering with delicacy. May I ask whether these pleasing attentions proceed from the impulse of the moment, or are the result of previous study?’

He finds Mr Collins ‘as absurd as he had hoped; and he listened to him with the keenest enjoyment, maintaining at the same time the most resolute composure of countenance…’ And we laugh with him.

But there is a less admirable side to Mr Bennet, one which leads to a great deal of unhappiness for his elder daughters, Jane and Elizabeth, and near disaster for the flighty Lydia who runs off with the caddish (though handsome) Wickham.

19th century reticule

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