Sir Edward Denham's sense and literary taste (or lack thereof), from Sanditon

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As in the Plan of a Novel and others of her writings, here Jane Austen skewers what was ridiculous in the literature of her day.

Chapter 7

[Scene: A group is strolling or sitting along the "Terrace" at the seaside village of Sanditon; the young baronet Sir Edward Denham has been pestering the beauteous Clara Brereton, but now turns his attention to the viewpoint character, Charlotte Heywood:]
...Sir Edward's [character] required longer Observation [to be understood by Charlotte]. He surprised her by quitting Clara immediately on their all joining & agreeing to walk, & by addressing his attentions entirely to herself. -- Stationing himself close by her, he seemed to mean to detach her as much as possible from the rest of the Party & to give her the whole of his Conversation. He began, in a tone of great Taste & Feeling, to talk of the Sea & the Sea shore -- & ran with Energy through all the usual Phrases employed in praise of their Sublimity, & descriptive of the undescribable Emotions they excite in the Mind of Sensibility. -- The terrific Grandeur of the Ocean in a Storm, its glassy surface in a calm, its Gulls & its Samphire, & the deep fathoms of its Abysses, its quick vicissitudes, its direful Deceptions, its Mariners tempting it in Sunshine & overwhelmed by the sudden Tempest -- All were eagerly & fluently touched; -- rather commonplace perhaps -- but doing very well from the Lips of a handsome Sir Edward, -- and she could not but think him a Man of Feeling -- till he began to stagger her by the number of his Quotations, & the bewilderment of some of his sentences. -- "Do you remember", said he, "Scott's beautiful Lines on the Sea? -- Oh! what a description they convey! -- They are never out of my Thoughts when I walk here. -- That Man who can read them unmoved must have the nerves of an Assassin! -- Heaven defend me from meeting such a Man un-armed."

"What description do you mean?", said Charlotte. "I remember none at this moment, of the Sea, in either of Scott's Poems."

"Do not you indeed? -- Nor can I exactly recall the beginning at this moment -- But -- you cannot have forgotten his description of Woman. --

``Oh! Woman in our Hours of Ease --''

Delicious! Delicious! -- Had he written nothing more, he would have been Immortal. And then again, that unequalled, unrivalled address to Parental affection --

``Some feelings are to Mortals given With less of Earth in them than Heaven'' &c

But while we are on the subject of Poetry, what think you, Miss Heywood, of Burns' Lines to his Mary? -- Oh I there is Pathos to madden one! -- If ever there was a Man who felt, it was Burns. -- Montgomery has all the Fire of Poetry, Wordsworth has the true soul of it -- Campbell in his Pleasures of Hope has touched the extreme of our Sensations -- ``Like Angel's visits, few & far between.'' Can you conceive any thing more subduing, more melting, more fraught with the deep Sublime than that Line? -- But Burns -- I confess my sence of his Pre-eminence, Miss Heywood -- If Scott has a fault, it is the want of Passion. -- Tender, Elegant, Descriptive -- but Tame. -- The Man who cannot do justice to the attributes of Woman is my contempt. -- Sometimes indeed a flash of feeling seems to irradiate him -- as in the Lines we were speaking of -- ``Oh! Woman in our hours of Ease''. -- But Burns is always on fire. -- His Soul was the Altar in which lovely Woman sat enshrined, his Spirit truly breathed the immortal Incence which is her Due. --"

"I have read several of Burns' Poems with great delight", said Charlotte, as soon as she had time to speak, "but I am not poetic enough to separate a Man's Poetry entirely from his Character; -- & poor Burns's known Irregularities greatly interrupt my enjoyment of his Lines. -- I have difficulty in depending on the Truth of his Feelings as a Lover. I have not faith in the sincerity of the affections of a Man of his Description. He felt & he wrote & he forgot."

"Oh! no no --" exclaimed Sir Edward, in an extasy. "He was all ardour & Truth! -- His Genius & his Susceptibilities might lead him into some Aberrations -- But who is perfect? -- It were Hyper-criticism, it were Pseudo-philosophy to expect from the soul of high toned Genius, the grovellings of a common mind. -- The Coruscations of Talent, elicited by impassioned feeling in the breast of Man, are perhaps incompatible with some of the prosaic Decencies of Life; -- nor can you, loveliest Miss Heywood" -- (speaking with an air of deep sentiment) -- "nor can any Woman be a fair Judge of what a Man may be propelled to say, write, or do, by the sovereign impulses of illimitable Ardour."

This was very fine; -- but if Charlotte understood it at all, not very moral -- & being moreover by no means pleased with his extraordinary stile of compliment, she gravely answered "I really know nothing of the matter. -- This is a charming day. The Wind, I fancy, must be Southerly."

"Happy, happy Wind, to engage Miss Heywood's Thoughts! --"

She began to think him downright silly. -- His chusing to walk with her, she had learnt to understand. It was done to pique Miss Brereton. She had read it, in an anxious glance or two on his side -- but why he should talk so much Nonsense, unless he could do no better, was un-intelligible. -- He seemed very sentimental, very full of some Feelings or other, & very much addicted to all the newest-fashioned hard words -- had not a very clear Brain, she presumed, & talked a good deal by rote. -- The Future might explain him further -- but when there was a proposition for going into the Library she felt that she had had quite enough of Sir Edward for one morning, & very gladly accepted Lady Denham's invitation of remaining on the Terrace with her. -- The others all left them, Sir Edward with looks of very gallant despair in tearing himself away.


Chapter 8

THE two Ladies [Charlotte Heywood and Lady Denham] continued walking together till rejoined by the others, who, as they issued from the Library, were followed by a young [boy] running off with 5 volumes under his arm to Sir Edward's Gig -- and Sir Edward, approaching Charlotte, said "You may perceive what has been our Occupation. My Sister wanted my Counsel in the selection of some books. -- We have many leisure hours, & read a great deal. -- I am no indiscriminate Novel-Reader. The mere Trash of the common Circulating Library, I hold in the highest contempt. You will never hear me advocating those puerile Emanations which detail nothing but discordant Principles incapable of Amalgamation, or those vapid tissues of ordinary Occurrences from which no useful Deductions can be drawn. -- In vain may we put them into a literary Alembic; -- we distil nothing which can add to Science. -- You understand me I am sure?"

"I am not quite certain that I do. -- But if you will describe the sort of Novels which you do approve, I dare say it will give me a clearer idea."

"Most willingly, Fair Questioner. -- The Novels which I approve are such as display Human Nature with Grandeur -- such as shew her in the Sublimities of intense Feeling -- such as exhibit the progress of strong Passion from the first Germ of incipient Susceptibility to the utmost Energies of Reason half-dethroned, -- where we see the strong spark of Woman's Captivations elicit such Fire in the Soul of Man as leads him (though at the risk of some Aberration from the strict line of Primitive Obligations) -- to hazard all, dare all, atcheive all, to obtain her. -- Such are the Works which I peruse with delight, & I hope I may say, with Amelioration. They hold forth the most splendid Portraitures of high Conceptions, Unbounded Views, illimitable Ardour, indomptible Decision -- and even when the Event is mainly anti-prosperous to the high-toned Machinations of the prime Character, the potent, pervading Hero of the Story, it leaves us full of Generous Emotions for him; -- our Hearts are paralized. -- T'were Pseudo-Philosophy to assert that we do not feel more enwrapped by the brilliancy of his Career, than by the tranquil & morbid Virtues of any opposing Character. Our approbation of the Latter is but Eleemosynary. -- These are the Novels which enlarge the primitive Capabilities of the Heart, & which it cannot impugn the Sense, or be any Dereliction of the character, of the most anti-puerile Man to be conversant with."

"If I understand you aright", said Charlotte, "our taste in Novels is not at all the same."

And here they were obliged to part -- Miss Denham being too much tired of them all to stay any longer. -- The truth was that Sir Edward, whom circumstances had confined very much to one spot, had read more sentimental Novels than agreed with him. His fancy had been early caught by all the impassioned, & most exceptionable parts of Richardson's; & such Authors as have since appeared to tread in Richardson's steps, so far as Man's determined pursuit of Woman in defiance of every opposition of feeling & convenience is concerned, had since occupied the greater part of his literary hours, & formed his Character. -- With a perversity of Judgement, which must be attributed to his not having by Nature a very strong head, the Graces, the Spirit, the Sagacity, & the Perseverance, of the Villain of the Story outweighed all his absurdities & all his Atrocities with Sir Edward. With him, such Conduct was Genius, Fire & Feeling. -- It interested & inflamed him; & he was always more anxious for its Success & mourned over its Discomfitures with more Tenderness than could ever have been contemplated by the Authors.

Though he owed many of his ideas to this sort of reading, it were unjust to say that he read nothing else, or that his Language were not formed on a more general Knowledge of modern Literature. -- He read all the Essays, Letters, Tours, & Criticisms of the day -- & with the same ill-luck which made him derive only false Principles from Lessons of Morality, & incentives to Vice from the History of its Overthrow, he gathered only hard words & involved sentences from the style of our most approved Writers.

Sir Edward's great object in life was to be seductive. -- With such personal advantages as he knew himself to possess, & such Talents as he did also give himself credit for, he regarded it as his Duty. -- He felt that he was formed to be a dangerous Man -- quite in the line of the Lovelaces. -- The very name of "Sir Edward", he thought, carried some degree of fascination with it. -- To be generally gallant & assiduous about the fair, to make fine speeches to every pretty Girl, was but the inferior part of the Character he had to play. -- Miss Heywood, or any other young Woman with any pretensions to Beauty, he was entitled (according to his own views of Society) to approach with high Compliment & Rhapsody on the slightest acquaintance; but it was Clara [Brereton] alone on whom he had serious designs; it was Clara whom he meant to seduce. -- Her seduction was quite determined on. Her Situation in every way called for it. She was his rival in Lady Denham's favour, she was young, lovely, & dependant. -- He had very early seen the necessity of the case, & had now been long trying with cautious assiduity to make an impression on her heart, and to undermine her Principles.

Clara saw through him, & had not the least intention of being seduced -- but she bore with him patiently enough to confirm the sort of attachment which her personal Charms had raised. -- A greater degree of discouragement, indeed, would not have affected Sir Edward. -- He was armed against the highest pitch of Disdain or Aversion. -- If she could not be won by affection, he must carry her off. He knew his Business. -- Already had he had many Musings on the Subject. If he were constrained so to act, he must naturally wish to strike out something new, to exceed those who had gone before him -- and he felt a strong curiosity to ascertain whether the Neighbourhood of Tombuctoo might not afford some solitary House adapted for Clara's reception; -- but the Expence alas! of measures in that masterly style was ill suited to his Purse, & Prudence obliged him to prefer the quietest sort of ruin & disgrace for the object of his Affections, to the more renowned.


"Oh! Woman in our Hours of Ease":
From Sir Walter Scott's Marmion:
O woman! In our hours of ease
Uncertain, coy, and hard to please,
And variable as the shade
By the light, quivering aspen made;
When pain and anguish wring the brow,
A ministering angel thou!

One doesn't have to be a radical feminist to suspect that Jane Austen found herself less than charmed by this collection of misogynistic stereotypes.

Scott's "Lines on the Sea" exist only in Sir Edward's overheated imagination.

Thomas Campbell's Pleasures of Hope:
Cease, every joy, to glimmer on my mind,
But leave, oh leave the light of Hope behind!
What though my winged hours of bliss have been
Like angel visits, few and far between.
"Those vapid tissues of ordinary Occurrences from which no useful Deductions can be drawn":
This phrase is intended by Sir Edward to describe novels such as those that Jane Austen herself wrote! (See the ideal vs. the real.)
Richardson's Lovelace:
Robert Lovelace is the anti-hero of Samuel Richardson's voluminous 1748 epistolary novel Clarissa; he rapes the virtuous heroine Clarissa, who then considers herself irretrievably "ruined" and dies.
Here Jane Austen is ridiculing, in the person of the foolish Sir Edward, a favorite theme of novels of her day, and one that she had also treated lightly in Northanger Abbey: attacks on female virtue, especially by aristocratic ravishers or would-be ravishers. There is hardly any male sexual predation in Jane Austen's writings. (See a quote from Gilbert and Gubar on this.)
Sir Edward seems to combine, in his own feeble way, the newfangled Byronic/romantic hero with the traditional novel-villain. See Ellen Moody on Jane Austen's Heroes.

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