I’ve just read a fascinating book: John Mullan’s What Matters in Jane Austen? In it, he asks 20 questions – and then deconstructs them absolutely brilliantly. One of them is: What do the characters call each other? And further, how does Jane Austen herself refer to them? Here is an example to show you what I mean.
I’ve been thinking about Lydia’s role in Pride and Prejudice and I’ve come to the conclusion that she is far more important to the plot than it might seem at first sight. Lydia is entirely self-centred. She’s never sorry for anyone else, or ever considers anybody else’s point of view. She is concerned only with herself.
In the 21st century, Church of England clergy are hard-working men and women – usually running a number of parishes, as well as struggling to pay for the upkeep of churches which may be in need of serious repair. They are expected to have several services on Sundays, possibly in different parishes, and to see to the spiritual needs – and often the material needs, if the parish is a poor one, of their parishioners. They are also pretty poorly paid. Still, at least they can count on a roof over their heads and the job carries a pension and the security of knowing that they will have somewhere to live once they retire.
In 2013, Joanna Trollope published Sense & Sensibility, one of the Austen Project books which aimed to re-write Jane Austen’s novels, scene by scene, but in a modern setting. I have only just read it, and I can’t understand how I came to miss it – perhaps because 2013 wasn’t a good year for me. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and she has an interesting take on Margaret Dashwood.
This post is in two parts. This week I shall look at the role of Margaret Dashwood, firstly, in Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility and then I’ll contrast it with Emma Thompson’s depiction of Margaret Dashwood in her Screenplay of Sense & Sensibility which won the 1996 Academy Award for Best Screenplay, as well as earning Emma Thompson an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. The differences are interesting.
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.
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.
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.
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
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