Jane Austen’s Novels

In the early 19th century, every house of consequence had a shrubbery. Sometimes it was a simple grassy area with shrubs and a few trees; sometimes there was an attractive bench beside a winding gravel path where a young lady could sit and enjoy nature; and it could be as large or small as the owner wanted. In essence, it was the antithesis of the more formal parterres, geometrical shapes and clipped box hedges at the front of the house which proclaimed the owner’s status and control over Nature.

Formal gardens proclaimed the owner’s status

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At first glance, Mrs Bennet seems to have nothing whatsoever to recommend her as a mother. Jane Austen, who had a sharp tongue when she’d a mind to, tells us that, ‘She was a woman of mean understanding, little information and uncertain temper.’ This harsh judgement is corroborated by Mr Darcy, in his letter to Lizzy, where he doesn’t hesitate to point out  Mrs Bennet’s ‘total want of propriety’. And poor Lizzy herself, ‘blushed and blushed again with shame and vexation’ when her mother showed up her ill-breeding when she came to Netherfield when Jane was ill.

after Cassandra Austen, stipple engraving, published 1870. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery

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Re-reading Emma recently, it struck me that, far more than Jane Austen’s other novels, it is permeated by a sort of unease about class. On the surface, it’s a socially stable society with the Woodhouses at Hartfield and Mr Knightley at Donwell Abbey at the apex. Their wealth and status has obviously been established for many generations – that socially damning word ‘trade’ is no part of their financial inheritance. It is the heroine, Emma Woodhouse, who is the most conscious of social class and she believes that she knows to a T where everyone fits into the class structure. It is Emma who is the most unforgiving about people wanting to climb above their ‘proper’  – as she sees it – place.

after Cassandra Austen, stipple engraving, published 1870 courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

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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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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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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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The importance of precedence is a major theme in Jane Austen’s last novel Persuasion, and this post looks at the ramifications of this. Persuasion’s opening scene shows Sir Walter Elliot’s perusal of the Baronetage, the most important book in his library, which charts the lineage of the Elliot family from its first mention in Sir William Dugdale’s Baronetage of England (1675-6) to Sir Walter’s own entry in the 1790s.

The Importance of the Family Tree

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