Posted by JacqueJ on August 27, 1997 at 23:40:35:
I have recently returned (physically if not mentally) from vacation. I had precious little time to myself but I did manage to get in some reading. I read A Room with a View and The Sea for my Breakfast (by Kate Beckwith – this was a new one on me -- wonderful non-fiction about a city girl who moves to the Hebrides and works her way into life with the natives – very warm and funny). But more to the point, I read Jane Austen – Obstinate Heart by Valerie Grosvenor Myer which I enjoyed very much and wanted to share some points with you. It is a history primarily of Jane’s everyday life – the daily tedium punctuated occasionally by parties and balls. It also focuses heavily on her "genteel poverty", the fact that she was constantly cast as a poor relation, always dependent on others for financial support and always economizing, down to the penny. It is often amazing to contemplate how she maintained her creativity under these circumstances (and sometimes she didn’t – in Bath, she virtually stopped writing).
There were a few particulars that I found interesting.
(1) Maybe this has been discussed here before but I found this interesting.
"When Jane Austen was asked which of her characters she liked best, unhesitatingly she replied, ‘Edmund Bertram and Mr Knightly’, adding that she knew real English gentlemen were often very different. The conscientious clergyman, the brave sailor and the responsible landowner were her ideals: but she was clear eyed enough to recognize how often the reality fell short."
I have read but never studied Mansfield Park but at one point I skimmed Emma specifically looking for descriptive information about Mr Knightly and found that there is really very little. Most of what we know about him we learn from what he says and not from what Jane Austen says. She said very little about him and yet he was one of her favorites.
(2) The description of Cassandra’s ill-fated engagement is devastating. It is a tragedy that might have been avoided if they had not been so cautious and announced their engagement earlier. The author then goes on to relate it to Jane’s writing.
"Sense and Sensibility was begun at this time and Elinor’s painful, disciplined self-command reflects Cassandra’s. But how Cassandra must have regretted that sensible decision to wait, that fruitless two-year engagement and the poverty which was the only reason for delay! Excessive caution led to disaster and a long life of loneliness for Cassandra, especially after the early death of Jane. It is hard not to see parallels between Cassandra’s fate and the wistful unhappiness of Anne Elliott in Persuasion. Anne’s misery was remediable in consoling fantasy whereas Cassandra’s life was ruined by her loss.
She goes on to include the quote from the end of Persuasion , "How eloquent could Anne Elliot have been, -- how eloquent, at least, were her wishes on the side of early warm attachment, and a cheerful confidence in futurity, against that over-anxious caution which seems to insult exertion and distrust Providence! - She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older – the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning."
"Cassandra marked it and added in the margin, ’Dear dear Jane! This deserves to be written in letters of gold.’"
(3) Another insight.
"Excessive familiarity, gush and superlatives were considered vulgar, as we see from the empty-headed characters in the novels. Jane was brought up in the English stoical tradition in which one kept one’s griefs to oneself and presented a cheerful face to the world. It was selfish to burden others with personal problems. To do so was to fail in consideration, in what Jane called ‘good breeding’ and ‘decorum’. As she grew older, Jane grew more and more reserved with strangers though still warm and lively within the family."
(4) There have been several discussions here in the past of distances and travel time.
"The journey from London to Godmersham in East Kent in 1808 took ten and a half hours. Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice says fifty miles on a good road should not take more than a morning, but morning meant from breakfast at ten o’clock till dinner time in the late afternoon or evening."
(5) Several months ago there were some comments regarding electricity and whether or not it "existed" in Jane Austen’s time.
"Edward was at Bath for his health, drinking and bathing in the waters and trying a new treatment, ‘electricity’, which Jane said was not expected to be of much use."
(6) Apropos of our discussions of the value of money in the 19th century ---
"There were many landowners who ran counties and parishes, served as magistrates and administered poor relief, in conjunction with the Anglican clergy. Some of them were ten times as rich as Mr Darcy, though Darcy’s 10,000 a year is the equivalent of millions today. To compare incomes with those at the end of the twentieth century, it is necessary to multiply by at least 200. Early in the 19th century, even a modest landholding would bring in some 5,000 a year. To sustain the rank of gentleman, an income of at least 2,000 was necessary; 300 a year was genteel poverty. On that a family could barely afford two maids. A senior servant might earn 80 a year; a junior one, such as a scullery maid, as little as 5, plus food and lodging."
My apologizes – I cannot find the symbol for pound.
(7) Finally, the author mentions that ‘Fitz’ as a prefix in a name implies royal bastardy in an ancestor. This makes me wonder about the implications of using Fitz as a nickname. Inko, are you out there?
And one general comment. This book used a design which eliminated periods on the abbreviations Mr and Mrs. I loved this! It makes for an elegant design and the periods are really unnecessary. I cast a vote for adopting this convention for wider use in the future.
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