A Modest Proposal: Might the Spinster Have Married?

As reported in last month’s blog about Jane Austen’s romantic attachments, biographers dutifully recount the story of Jane’s acceptance/rejection of a proposal by Harris Bigg-Wither, a young, brash man six years her junior, on Thursday-Friday, 2-3 December 1802.

The story goes that Jane and Cassandra journeyed to Manydown, the Bigg-Wither estate, for several weeks of leisure with the family. The Austen ladies were good friends with Harris’s sisters, especially Caroline and Alethea. On 2 December, Bigg-Wither surprises Jane with a proposal. Overwhelmed at the prospect of becoming mistress of a large estate, Jane accepts this proposal from a person with little to recommend him except wealth. She reconsiders overnight; recants her acceptance in the morning; then flees back to Bath in humiliation. (A woman could accept and reject a proposal then; a man could not withdraw one without the woman’s consent.)

What is distinctly odd about this history, however, is that this purported engagement and refusal, which would have created a scandal, does not appear to show up in any surviving contemporaneous letters or journals by anyone who knew Jane.

When I began to analyze the details of Austen’s life eight or nine years ago for historical fiction based on her life, I recognized that the references all went back to Caroline, daughter of her brother James and sister-in-law Mary, “the Steventonites”—so called because they replaced the Austens’ father and his family at the Steventon rectory when the elder Austen retired to Bath in 1801. I knew Caroline sourced the story to her mother, but it wasn’t until some years later, when it hit me that Caroline was one of Austen’s youngest relatives, that I checked and learned that Caroline had not even been born when the proposal is supposed to have happened!

Manydown Park, where Jane Austen attended many balls, flirted with Tom Lefroy, and according to one niece accepted and rejected a marriage proposal

Recently, Helena Kelly, in her book “Jane Austen: Secret Radical,” points out the same odd circumstance: this major biographical event is reported only by Caroline, and only in 1870—68 years after the supposed incident—a lifetime! (I am in general agreement with Kelly’s take on Austen and her work in society, though I find her interpretations of the novels to be eccentric.)

Supposedly, after the disaster with Bigg-Wither, it was James who escorted the Austen sisters to Bath, so Mary would have been aware of the situation. Mary, however, was never close to Jane and died herself in 1843—26 years after Jane died, 41 years after the event, and 27 years before Caroline’s telling. Caroline was only 12 when Austen died—she recounts her last sad meeting with her aunt. Even if the Bigg-Wither topic arose in the sad conversations after her death, that still would have been 15 years after the events. Considering the reticence people have about speaking “ill” of the dead, it is easy to believe the topic well might not have come up until much later.

How is it this story is handed down by a niece too young to have known about it directly but not by the many other nieces and nephews who were alive? James Edward, her first official biographer, was 19 when Jane died–he attended her funeral on behalf of his father–yet he sources his younger sister for the tale of the botched proposal! Wouldn’t he have heard the story from his parents himself?

Stories have become legends in less time than the gaps in this recounting!

Further, descriptions of Bigg-Wither by Caroline do not seem to match to the one or two portraits of him—he is supposed to be a very large, heavy young man, but the visual evidence shows him as relatively slim. See the image at the top, by the headline–he does not seem to be the hulking, brooding young man of Caroline’s description.

Notice something else: Cassandra, an actual witness to the mysterious coastal suitor, who was going to propose to Jane in the summer of 1801 but died unexpectedly, as described in my last blog, provides almost no details about the man. Nor does she mention Bigg-Wither’s proposal in 1828 when she’s reminded of the other (expected) proposal.

Cass seems to have relayed just enough information about Jane’s coastal “romance” to confuse rather than enlighten. Cass also destroyed the vast majority of Jane’s letters from this period, leaving no other evidence of the events. We know nothing about the letters except that Caroline calls them “open and confidential”–but she gives no indication she has seen them. Why would Cass have kept the letters about Tom Lefroy, which support the idea that he (or his aunt) had dumped Jane, while burning those about those later relationships—unless at least one of those relationships was even more serious?

Though the story of any embarrassing Bigg-Wither encounter likely would have circulated for years in the “Steventonite” family (niece Fanny coined the name), the incident is too specific for one being recounted twenty, thirty, or forty years later, as likely happened. Mary provides too many details. How would she have remembered the exact date of a proposal so long before about a sister-in-law she was not close to? (Mary did not seem much fond of anyone, though in fairness she did help Cass tend to Jane during Jane’s final illness.)

Meaning the provenance of this story is suspicious, at the very least.

(The oafish Bigg-Wither married someone else in 1804 and sired ten children.)

Now that we’ve covered all the proposals, what about a possible marriage? Shocking! But the question brings us to the one letter in which Jane Austen identifies herself as a married woman, the 5 April 1809 letter to the publisher Crosby (she spells it “Crosbie”) in which she demands they either publish “Susan,” which they had bought six years earlier, or she would sell it to someone else.

The publisher quickly replies that they paid for the book (though not required to publish it) and if she sold it to anyone else “we shall take proceedings to stop the sale.” End of correspondence—though years later her brother Henry did buy the book back for Jane for the original 10£, enabling it to be published as “Northanger Abbey.”

Jane signs her letter to Crosby “Mrs. Ashton Dennis,” care of the Southampton Post Office. The publisher does not know her name—Henry handled the sale, and she was identified only as “A Lady.” The thinking is that she uses a different name to remain anonymous, and the one she uses spells out “MAD” to indicate her unhappiness at the delays. (And what prompted to her write the abrupt letter six years after the fact?)

That leads to an interesting problem. Jane has been in Southampton for some time; the post office knows her. In the autumn, she kept up a steady stream of correspondence with Cassandra, then at Godmersham, when Edward’s wife, Elizabeth, died unexpectedly after childbirth. How is Jane going to pick up a letter for a “Mrs. Ashton Dennis” unless that is now her name? Isn’t it also strange that, while Jane’s life is relatively well-known, the two proposals that have very poor provenance come in the period in which Cass destroyed almost all of Jane’s letters?

In this time, we have a three-and-a-half-year gap of Jane’s letters, 1801-1804; a year-long gap, mid-1805 to mid-1806; and a 16-month gap, February 1807-June 1808. We have only 13 letters—not quite 2 a year—from 1801 to 1808, where they begin again with some regularity. Besides the occasional passing reference to her in other people’s letters and diaries, we know nothing of Jane’s whereabouts or doings for this time.

Considering the confusion and inconsistency in reports of who she was involved with, and when—too many specifics in one major encounter (Bigg-Wither) and far too few in another (the mysterious clergyman described last time)—one must ask what was really going on. Were there multiple romantic encounters, each one ending disastrously, or perhaps one relationship that these inconsistent stories point to—or are designed to point away from?

When she signed her name as a married woman in 1809, was she MAD at the publisher about not publishing the book “Susan,” or MAD about some man the family sought to hide?

There is still time to enter the quiz and giveaway for a leather-bound collection of Jane Austen’s works.


Brotherly Love?

In a recent blog, I wrote about the general but oft ignored belief that cousins should not marry. Cousin marriage was fashionable in Jane Austen’s time among the wealthy, but it also happened more than once in Jane’s immediate family. Her brother Henry (top, by headline) married their cousin Eliza, and the son of brother Frank married the daughter of brother Charles. Cousin marriage also occurs in “Mansfield Park,” when Fanny and Edmund are betrothed.

An even closer—and absolutely prohibited—degree of consanguinity is that of brother and sister. Sibling marriage being an incestuous taboo the world over, one would not expect such a thing ever to enter the environs of Austenia. Yet tradition brought it to Jane’s doorstep, for the law not only forbade marriage between blood siblings but also between brothers and sisters by marriage.

Therefore, the marriage of Jane’s brother Charles to Harriet Palmer after the death of his first wife was “voidable” because Harriet was Fanny’s sister. As explained in Martha Bailey’s article in “The Marriage Law of Jane Austen’s World” (Persuasions, Winter 2015), this sisterhood created a prohibition by “affinity” (marriage) as strong as one by blood. The logic was: Because Fanny and Harriet were related by blood, and because husband and wife became one flesh upon consummation, then Charles would also be related to Harriet by blood. This thinking applied equally for a woman who married the brother of her dead husband.

“Voidable” in Charles’ case did not necessarily mean “voided.” Someone—most likely a relative seeking to grab an inheritance—would have to sue to have the marriage voided and any children declared illegitimate. Charles never had enough money for anyone to bother trying to disinherit his four children by Harriet.

To resolve the ambiguity about people marrying the sibling of a deceased spouse, the 1835 Marriage Act validated all previous such marriages but voided any going forward. To evade this prohibition in still another Austen situation, Jane’s niece Louisa Knight went to Denmark in 1847 to marry Lord George Hill, who had been married to Louisa’s now deceased sister Cassandra. Such dodges continued until the affinity laws were removed in 1907.

This concept of “affinity” as a barrier to marriage brings us to the most difficult “brother and sister” pair in Austen, Mr. Knightley and Emma. Their “affinity” is not a technical one under the law but one created by proximity and time. In all but blood, Mr. Knightley functions as Emma’s older brother. He’s the good-natured scold who tries to keep a bright but undisciplined young woman on the straight and narrow and who also seeks to protect her in a fraternal way.

Modern courts have struggled with psychological affinities even when no biological issue exists. Adoptive parents have wanted to marry adoptive children, for instance. Did the love grow naturally as happens in any other relationship, or did the parent use a position of authority to groom the child inappropriately? Courts have looked at the amount of the disparity in age or the length of the relationship to try to determine the right course. Mr. Knightley is seventeen years older than Emma—and has known her since birth!

This is not to imply there is anything immoral in the Emma-Knightley relationship. Readers quickly recognize that they are the only two people worthy of the other and are intrigued at how they will surmount the barriers between them—primarily those Emma herself creates with her matchmaking exercises. This almost subliminal conflict is, however, one of many ways that Austen develops deep psychological issues in the courtship genre where other authors never reach beyond the superficial.

Their relationship begins to change as each (incorrectly) foresees the loss of the other—Emma to Frank Churchill and Mr. Knightley to Jane Fairfax. Feelings break through at the Westons’ ball.

The critical scene in the 1998 movie when Jeremy Northam, as Mr. Knightley, recognizes the shift from brother and sister to man and woman in “Emma”

First, Emma notices his physique: “so young as he looked! … His tall, firm, upright figure, among the bulky forms and stooping shoulders of the elderly men.” Then there is his gallant rescue of Harriet after Elton’s snub. “Never had [Emma] been more surprized, seldom more delighted, than at that instant.” Finally, there is their brief but serious tête-à-tête. The well-known and memorable exchange that follows ends up redefining their roles. Note that it is Emma who nudges the two forward.

“Whom are you going to dance with?” asked Mr. Knightley. She hesitated a moment, and then replied, “With you, if you will ask me.”

“Will you?” said he, offering his hand.

“Indeed I will. You have shewn that you can dance, and you know we are not really so much brother and sister as to make it at all improper.”

“Brother and sister! no, indeed.”

The sense of this scene turns on how the key phrases are handled. In the 1972 BBC series starring Doran Godwin and John Carson, the brother-sister comments are treated as so much banter. In the 1998 movie, Gwyneth Paltrow also tosses her line out merrily. What follows, however, makes all the difference. Jeremy Northam first responds with a laughing “Brother and sister! … ” Then, as she moves out of earshot, he adds meaningfully, “No, indeed.” He understands the tectonic shift that has occurred.

When the book opens, Emma, in addition to being handsome, clever, and rich, has lived “nearly” twenty-one years. In the months that pass covering the events of the novel, she comes of age. This is not likely to be a casual choice for Austen. Twenty-one is the age of consent. This is Austen’s signal that the heroine is no longer in the junior position but is fully capable of owning this momentous swing from younger sister to adult wife.


Engaging Stories About Miss Austen and Her Beaus

How many times was Jane Austen engaged—or married (!)? Thoughts about her short life—and her emotional life, whatever it may have been—bubble up in this year of 2017, the 200th anniversary of her death.

Officially, Austen was engaged once, for less than a day, to a young, callow Harris Bigg-Wither, in 1802. Because the engagement is recounted in all the Austen biographies, the answer of “one” is the correct answer in my quiz/giveaway for an Easton Press collector’s edition of leather books comprising Jane Austen’s six major novels.

(Please enter! No purchase required; contest open till 18 Sept. 2017; different quiz each week. The contest appears several items down on the Facebook page.)

Whether there was such an engagement, however, is open to speculation, as we will see next month when we drill into that proposal in detail.

This time, we consider several other beaus in the amorous history of Miss Austen.

Let’s quickly dispose of two. Clergymen figure regularly among her suitors, though her novels have only one clergyman with any pluck, and he’s a clown in his persistence. Two who came and went in her life were a Mr. Samuel Blackall in 1798, whom Jane testily labels “a piece of … noisy perfection,” and Mr. Edward Bridges in 1805. It seems these relationships went no further than the men displaying an interest in her and Jane deflecting it.

Her first and best-known attachment involves an Irishman, Tom Lefroy (above, by headline), in late 1795 and early 1796 when both were turning 20. With plans to study law in London, the lad comes down to visit his aunt, Mrs. Anne Lefroy, who was Jane’s friend and mentor. The story is that, when the flirtation becomes too serious, Mrs. Lefroy (whom many called Madame Lefroy, though Jane uses “Mrs.” in all her letters) sends Tom away before an “understanding”—an engagement—can be reached.

The reason is that Tom could forfeit the Langlois inheritance if he marries a penniless girl. In this scenario, Mrs. Lefroy is torn between her affection for Jane and her need to protect her nephew’s financial well-being, as he is there under her supervision.

This relationship is the basis of the book and movie “Becoming Jane,” which is a combination of good and bad extrapolation of their personal history. For example, “Becoming Jane” has Tom naming his oldest daughter after Jane, when a family’s oldest daughter would normally have been named after her own mother or grandmother. As luck has it, the mother of Tom’s wife is indeed also named Jane! Convenient for our Irish lawyer, as well as the movie script. …

But was the relationship that serious? Tom, whom Jane describes as a “very gentleman-like, good-looking, pleasant young man,” is mentioned in the very first extant Austen letter of 9 January 1796, when she says that his birthday was the day before. She tells her sister Cassandra that she was “almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved … everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together.” She also mentions that he will leave “soon after next Friday.”

Anne Lefroy was Jane Austen’s friend and mentor but is reported to have sent her nephew away before their flirtation became too serious

Six days later she writes that “I rather expect to receive an offer from my friend” at the next day’s (Friday’s) ball, saying she “will refuse him, however, unless he … give[s] away his white Coat”—a follow-on joke about his dress. Then, on Friday, she writes that she will “flirt my last with Tom Lefroy,” adding, “My tears flow as I write, at the melancholy idea.”

Biographers have taken this to mean that she is broken-hearted, yet this is all she says to her confidante-sister about what is supposed to be a tragic breakup, and her very next remark is that “Wm. Chute called here yesterday. I wonder what he means by being civil,” and she follows with several more bits of ordinary gossip.

So: She says on the 9th that she and Tom are having great fun but he will leave in little more than a week. In little more than a week, he leaves! Hard to see this as his being shipped off in “disgrace,” as biographer David Nokes describes it. Austen being wry in almost every sentence of every letter, it’s hard to know if she is serious or joking about expecting a proposal or laughing or crying about melancholy tears.

The Lefroy and Austen families had continuing personal connections, and years later Jane’s niece Anna married Tom’s cousin Ben. No one objected to that pairing because Ben did not have wealth. Jane could keep up with Tom, but was hesitant to. In November 1798, nearly three years after the ball flirtations, Jane recounts to Cass that when Mrs. Lefroy visits she is “too proud” to make any inquiries of him. Her father does, likely on her behalf, and she learns that Tom is returning to Ireland to practice law. There, he married an old friend, eventually became Lord Chief Justice, and remembered Austen fondly.

Perhaps her heart was broken, if only a little. One suspects it was on the level of a summer vacation flirtation in which both parties know they will go their separate ways after an exciting but innocent fling. Perhaps later, considering their delightful weeks together, she hoped he might come back after completing his initial studies in London.

Tom at one time admitted that he loved Austen but in a “boyish” way. Still, in an ending to rival “Dr. Zhivago,” he traveled to England to pay his respects to her when he learned of her death on 18 July 1817, according to his family.

It’s hard to know: Had they truly fallen hard for each other and then forced apart, or were they both just tantalized by a lively start and simply wondered what might have been?

Then we have the mysterious lover at the beach in the summer of 1801, which Cassandra recounts to at least two of their nieces after Jane’s death. The story is that while the Austens are at the beach, Jane and the man meet and fall in love; they are to meet again later, where a proposal is expected. Instead, Jane and Cass receive a letter that he has died.

Tradition is that he was a clergyman, but that’s not certain; Cass says he was “pleasing and very good looking,” but never provides the man’s name. The nieces, Caroline and Louisa, cannot even agree about where on the Devonshire coast this romance occurs. Finally, Cass does not relay the story until 1828—more than a quarter-century after it is supposed to have happened, when she sees a man who evidently reminds her of the suitor.

Her nieces and nephews carry on the inconstancy about Jane’s possible relationships. In the first edition of “A Memoir of Jane Austen,” her nephew James Edward writes: “I have no reason to think that she ever felt any attachment by which the happiness of her life was at all affected.” In the next edition, however, he hints at two romantic attachments, concluding that he is “unable to say whether her feelings were of such a nature as to affect her happiness”—whether she seriously cared about either man.

Even in these comments, it’s not clear whether he is speaking of Lefroy and Bigg-Wither, one or more clergy, the beach mystery, or someone entirely different.

Next time: the Bigg-Wither proposal: Why does it not ring true?

To Celebrate Austen’s Life, Chance to Win Collector’s Edition

Jane Austen lovers the world over have spent the last week commemorating the loss of the author at the far too young age of 41. She died on July 18, 1817, and was buried in Winchester Cathedral on July 24.

In recognition of her passing, we are inviting our fellow Austen fans to enter a contest to win a special, leather-bound collector’s edition set of her major books from Easton Press, which produces some of the finest-quality books made.

It seemed only fitting to acknowledge the loss of such a beloved novelist with an opportunity for one of her many fans around the world to win the full collection of her mature literary works.

Included in the Easton Press book collection are Austen’s well-known titles “Sense and Sensibility,” “Pride and Prejudice,” “Mansfield Park,” “Emma,” “Northanger Abbey,” and “Persuasion.”

The contest is being held on The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen’s Facebook page. Participants may enter the Austen Book Collection contest daily through September 18, 2017, for a chance to win the grand prize of the special collection of Austen’s novels. Entrants will be asked to answer trivia questions about Austen’s life and literary works; you have to complete the short quiz, but you don’t have to answer correctly to be entered into the drawing. No purchase is necessary for entry.

In addition, a monthly winner will be chosen to win signed copies of all three volumes of “The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen” trilogy, my historical novels which reimagine Austen’s life and combine her close portraits of ordinary life with the grand scope of the Regency Era and Napoleonic wars. Volume III of “The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen” trilogy is scheduled for release in October 2017.

Austen is one of my favorite authors and it seemed only fitting to acknowledge the loss of such a beloved novelist with an opportunity for one of her many fans around the world to win the full collection of her mature literary works. Her writing didn’t receive widespread recognition and popularity until years after her death. It’s a statement of the quality of her work that her popularity grew steadily over time and that 200 years later, she is one of the most respected and best-loved writers of all time.

While Austen achieved success as an author during the years of 1811 to 1816 with her novels “Sense and Sensibility” (1811), “Pride and Prejudice” (1813), “Mansfield Park” (1814) and “Emma” (1815), it wasn’t until the joint publication of “Northanger Abbey/Persuasion” shortly after her death in 1817 that the public knew her name—she had published anonymously during her life.

In my trilogy, I use Austen’s real life to provide a thoughtful, in-depth look at life for women in the early 1800s. I plunge the protagonist into the period’s scientific advances, political foment, wars that were among the longest and most devastating in European history—and into a serious relationship with a man very much her equal. By the end, circumstances challenge the heroine’s courage, integrity, and heart.

The series is available from Amazon or at Jane Austen Books.

Austen and the Cathedral: Was Interment a Signal Honor?

This week marks the commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the death of Jane Austen, who died on July 18, 1817 of an unknown disease (Addison’s leads the speculation). Tributes have been flowing through any number of activities, readings, evensongs, and events, leading to July 24, the date of her funeral. In the UK, public benches are being dedicated to Austen, and the “Rain Jane”  program will have Austen’s words appear in public places throughout Hampshire whenever there is precipitation. These are just a few of the many events scheduled throughout the year.

Winchester Cathedral, where she is interred, is the focus of many of the activities. One was the unveiling of the £10 note graced with her face (above, by headline). As she is also on the £2 coin, Austen will be the first person other than a monarch to appear on more than one form of British currency at the same time. Cathedral bells tolled 41 times to mark each of her years on this earth.

Her burial raises an interesting question: Why, when this comparatively obscure spinster died in 1817, was she buried in a cathedral which houses the bones of Saxon kings and saints? This, in fact, was the subject of a talk by Professor Michael Wheeler at the cathedral on July 21.

It seems highly unusual for an ordinary citizen to be buried in a place normally reserved for secular and religious leaders. According to Jo Bartholomew, curator and librarian at the cathedral, the mortuary chests hold such dignitaries as: Cynigils and Cenwalh, two Christian kings from the seventh century; Kings Egbert and Ethelwulf (grandfather and father of King Alfred); King Cnut (Canute) and his Queen Emma; two bishops, Alwyn and Stigand; and king William Rufus. Most had been originally buried in Old Minster, the predecessor to Winchester Cathedral, which was just to the north and partially beneath it.

Was it common for an ordinary citizen to be buried there in

King Cnut (Canute) is one of the ancient kings and bishops interred at Winchester Cathedral, along with Jane Austen.

1817, or was this an extraordinary honor? In those days, not so extraordinary after all. Indeed, Jane was the third and last person buried there that year. Austen expert Deidre Le Faye suggests that the cathedral was selling burials to raise money.

Cost, rather than rank, may have been the limiting factor for a cathedral interment, which cost the Austen family was willing to bear. Jane’s funeral expenses came to £92, a significant amount for someone of her means. Clearly, she or her family was determined to make a statement. After all, none of her brothers, including Frank, who died the highest-ranking naval officer in England, received such a burial.

Elizabeth Proudman, vice chairman of the Jane Austen Society and an expert on Jane Austen, said in a letter that the location was likely Austen’s choice: “I believe that she is buried there, because she wanted to be. It was up to the Dean in those days to decide who could and who could not be buried in the Cathedral. Usually it was enough to be respectable and ‘gentry.’ This, of course, she was as her late father and two of her brothers were in the church.” 

Jane’s father, George, had been the rector at Steventon, fourteen miles away, until he retired in 1801. He was succeeded by James, his oldest son, who still held that position in 1817. Henry, who had taken up the cloth after his bank collapsed in the recession of 1816, also had a clerical position nearby. It probably did not hurt that Jane’s brother Edward was the wealthy inheritor of the Knight estate, with extensive holdings in Steventon and Chawton, which was sixteen miles away. From his recent ordination, Henry knew the Bishop, according to biographer Claire Tomalin; and the Dean, Thomas Rennell, was a friend of the important Chute family who were relatives of the Austens.

Having lived at Chawton for nine years, where she wrote or significantly revised her oeuvre, Jane was taken to Winchester for unsuccessful medical treatment. “She had been ill in Winchester for about two months, and I think her burial must have been discussed,” Proudman says. “I like to think that her family would have talked about it with her, and that they followed her wishes. … It may be that she had no particular attachment to the village [of Chawton]. We know that she admired Winchester Cathedral, and she knew several of the clergy. When she died she had some money from her writing, and her funeral expenses were paid from her estate. It was a tiny funeral, only 3 brothers and a nephew attended, and it had to be over before the daily business of the Cathedral began at 10.00 am.” 

In fact, most funerals were relatively small in those days, and women did not attend. Cassandra, with their friend Martha Lloyd (James’ sister-in-law), “watched the little mournful procession the length of the street & when it turned from my sight I had lost her for ever.” In that letter to their niece Fanny two days after Jane’s death, Cass added: “I have lost a treasure, such a Sister, such a friend as can never be surpassed. … She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow, I had not a thought concealed from her, & it is as if I have lost a part of myself. … Never was [a] human being more sincerely mourned … than was this dear creature.”

Edward, Francis, and Henry were the brothers who attended. Charles was too far away to come. James was ill (he died two years later), but his nineteen-year-old son, James Edward, rode from Steventon to Winchester for the service. Thomas Watkins, the Precentor (a member of a church who facilitates worship), read the service. Jane was interred in a brick-lined vault on the north side of the nave.

While Jane is interred at a grand cathedral, her mother (left) and sister are buried in the churchyard at Chawton, close to the cottage where all three women lived.

Tomalin believes it was Henry who “surely sought permission for their sister to be buried in the cathedral; splendid as it is, she might have preferred the open churchyard at Steventon or Chawton.” One suspects it was Henry who pushed for the cathedral, and Jane would have been happy to be at rest anywhere. Yet, modest as she was in many ways, she understood the worth of her writing. She may have made the decision with a view to posterity. In any event, Cassandra was pleased with the decision. “It is a satisfaction to me,” she said, that Jane’s remains were “to lie in a building she admired so much. … her precious soul I presume to hope reposes in a far superior mansion.” 

Henry arranged for a plaque to be installed in the cathedral to commemorate Jane’s benevolence, sweetness, and intellect, but curiously enough, not her writing. As the popularity of her novels grew over time, officials were baffled by the pilgrims coming to visit the crypt of a woman the church knew not as a brilliant novelist but only as the daughter of a rural clergyman.


Marrying a Cousin

There’s a whole lot of marrying going on in Jane Austen’s novels. Among the major characters of her six major novels, at least nineteen couples tie the knot.

One wedding was so singular that it could have been halted in certain quarters, then and now. The marriage in Mansfield Park between Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram, who are first cousins, would have been illegal for much of England’s history and would still have been illegal under Catholic canon. Even today, marriage of first cousins is illegal in half the jurisdictions of the United States, though it is legal in other Western nations—and quite common in other parts of the world.

As one might suspect, English law on cousin marriage diverged from Catholic doctrine as the result of Henry VIII. His tendency to tire of a wife—and his need to sire a male heir—put him regularly in need of a new marriage. This regularly put him afoul of church doctrine.

Just as he manipulated canon law to have his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled so that he might marry Anne Boleyn, he later had the marriage laws altered so that he could marry Catherine Howard. Under the old law, his marriage to Howard would have been incestuous because she was Anne’s first cousin. The law applied whether a person was cousin by blood or marriage. Where before no one closer than fourth cousins could marry, the Marriage Act of 1540 made marriage legal for first through third cousins.

A ban on incestuous marriages probably preceded civilization, as people recognized that inbreeding caused deformities and other birth defects. In ancient times, no one knew what degree of separation would prevent problems, so tradition (often via religion) became very cautious.

Modern genetics largely contradict the fear of defects among the children of first cousins. Unless both carry a specific genetic problem, the risk for cousin couples is only 1.7 to 2.8 percent higher than with other couples. Conversely, cousin couples suffer fewer miscarriages. It has been posited but not proven that similar blood chemistry may account for the lower miscarriage rate.

Prince Regent, later George IV, had a disastrous marriage to his cousin

By the 1800s, cousin marriage was not unusual. The most famous of Austen’s time was that between the Prince Regent and Caroline. Similar blood chemistry didn’t help much in that horrific mismatch!—a mismatch that Austen comments on in her letters when she sides with the princess.

Closer to home, Jane’s brother Henry married Eliza, their first cousin, whose exotic charm created sibling competition between Henry and James as to which cousin would win her heart. A first-cousin marriage occurred in the family’s next generation, too, when Francis, the oldest son of Jane’s brother Frank, married Fanny, the daughter of Frank and Jane’s brother Charles.

By that generation, it was estimated that about one in fifty marriages for ordinary people involved cousins vis-à-vis about one in twenty for the aristocracy and other swells; the higher number among the wealthy likely related to the desire to keep family property together. The estimate came from George Darwin, the son of Charles Darwin and Emma Wedgwood of the pottery dynasty—first cousins! Whenever his children became ill, Charles worried that they were weak from inbreeding.

Cousin marriage appears twice in Austen’s novels. In Pride and Prejudice, Lady Catherine proves the economic rationale for cousin marriage—that of building family fortunes—in her determination to join her daughter Anne to her nephew. Darcy has the good sense to reject his listless relative for the spirited if poor Liz Bennet.

Eliza de Feuillide had not one but two cousins who sought to marry her: James Austen and Henry Austen, two of Jane’s brothers. She chose the more ebullient Henry.

And of course Fanny and Edmund marry at the end of Mansfield Park. Whatever the church tradition, which still discouraged cousin marriage, no eyebrows shot up. Interestingly, the subject is raised before Fanny is ever invited into the family, when Mrs. Norris declares that Sir Thomas need not worry about a match between one of his sons and their cousin: “do not you know that, of all things upon earth, that is the least likely to happen, brought up as they would be, always together like brothers and sisters? It is morally impossible. I never knew an instance of it.”

By the novel’s conclusion, many years later, Sir Thomas gives not a thought to the match being between cousins, recognizing only Fanny’s many virtues.

Austen makes a point of mentioning “married cousins” on the last page, but only in the context of their joy in a relationship “as secure as earthly happiness can be.” It’s as if the familiarity that came from cousinage—their growing up together in the same house—bode well for a companionable life. At the very least, in this family of affairs, divorce, elopements, and general scandal, Fanny’s moral worth transcends any consanguineous concerns.

Next time: A look at another form of consanguinity.


Miss Austen—No Politician, She

In this, the 200th anniversary year of Jane Austen’s death, we learn that white supremacists are co-opting the English author in support of a racial dictatorship, shocked opponents are claiming that true readers are “rational, compassionate, liberal-minded people,” and conservatives are chiding Janeites for assuming that great literature can be written only by great liberals.

All these political takes on Austen, yet whenever someone describes her political views, they get them wrong, because they have no idea what hers actually were. As an individual and an artist, she kept her political mouth firmly shut. She had other—I would claim—more important things to write about.

This silence can be confounding, for Austen lived in a time tumultuously like our own. Slavery—the “alt-right” issue of the day—was bitterly fought over. War, political corruption, and disparity in wealth had England on the brink of breakdown. Factory automation was destroying the middle class. Sound familiar?

Yet, when asked about her aunt’s political views, Caroline Austen, who wrote a memoir of the author, said: “In vain do I try to recall any word or expression of Aunt Jane’s that had reference to public events—Some bias of course she must have had—but I can only guess to which quarter it inclined.”

As today, the politics of 1800-1820 had many “quarters.” Radical Tories believed that God had put themselves and the King in charge; the poor deserved their lot because God had made them so. Radical Whigs, full of entrepreneurial zeal, believed that the poor deserved to starve because they were too lazy or incompetent to rise from their rags.

In between was a shifting coalition of moderate Tories, who felt a responsibility to those beneath them, and moderate Whigs, who sought to spread the political and social wealth—mostly to themselves, the rising business and technical class.

Lower-case “republicanism”—power to the people by putting them in charge, rather than an anointed king—drew the same reaction among conservatives then as “socialism” does today—the fear of the leveling of society (and power). A few desperate citizens pushed for revolt out of despair at the lack of economic and political justice.

Many of the issues are woven into the fabric of Austen’s work, but none plays out in the foreground. Thus, people take a slice here and there to justify their own political stances. Sheryl Craig, in her book Jane Austen and the State of the Nation, goes so far as to conclude that Austen’s novels are “carefully constructed texts … about political economics. The love stories came later.” Despite much great information in her work, Craig’s conclusion strikes me as exactly wrong.

A few feminist scholars were also described as “startled” to discover that a Wikipedia entry on Austen claimed she supported traditional marriage. Sorry, but she did.  Every woman in her novels outside of traditional marriage, unless she started out rich, ends up impoverished, disgraced, or dead. The women in traditional marriage end up happy—or make a conscious and occasionally odious tradeoff for its security (see Charlotte Lucas and Mr. Collins). What Austen insisted upon is that traditional marriage include love and respect.

Naval officers like Frank Austen needed patronage to move up in the navy; otherwise, an officer could languish for years. All but a wealthy oldest son faced an uncertain future.

The poet W. H. Auden wrote a ditty noting that her supposed love stories actually describe the “economic basis” of society. Four of her six novels open with a reference to wealth, and conversations regularly involve finance. But this “economic basis” develops not through political discourse but through her factual descriptions of life.

Naval officers like Jane’s brothers needed patronage to move up in the navy; otherwise, an officer could languish for years. All but a wealthy oldest son faced an uncertain future.

Being dependent, women must be canny in their romantic choices (see what happens to Marianne and Lydia when they are not). The non-inheriting males must find a career (see all younger sons). The lower classes need patrons to move up (sailor William Price, along with Jane Austen’s sailor brothers).

One sees in these stories her liberal sympathies, but it is not a sympathy of class. While self-made naval heroes return from war to supplant the attenuated aristocracy in Persuasion, the author holds in equal esteem the dull but reliable Col. Brandon, the grouchy aristocrat Darcy, the energetic Mr. Knightley, the farmer Martin—anyone who shares the virtues of industry, intelligence, and generosity.

The telling issue of that era was the slave trade, which became illegal in 1807, when Austen was 31, in her maturity as an author. As I have discussed before, Edward Said and other scholars claim that she turns a blind eye, particularly in Mansfield Park, where the family’s money comes from slavery on a West Indies plantation. Paula Byrne and others, in contrast, claim that Fanny Price in Mansfield Park speaks “truth to power” about slavery.

As today, racial issues divided society. Economic and religious traditionalists supported slavery and evangelicals led the bitter fight to end it.

Austen’s admiration for the poet-abolitionist William Cowper and for Thomas Clarkson’s abolitionist book indicate her opposition to slavery. Despite a few anti-slavery winks, however, Mansfield Park does not prove

As today, racial issues divided society. Economic and religious traditionalists supported slavery and evangelicals led the bitter fight to end it.

these personal views. Apologists cite Fanny’s comment that, when she raises the issue of the slave trade with her family, she is met with “dead silence!” The inability of anyone to respond to her question demonstrates Fanny’s—Austen’s—moral rebuke.

Only it doesn’t.

Fanny explains the silence: Her cousins simply have no interest in their father’s business, and Fanny does not wish to “set myself off at their expense,” by showing any curiosity about his topics. Earlier, she makes similar, maddeningly oblique comments. She could mean that she’s interested in the plantation reforms that were beginning to make slavery somewhat less horrific. We don’t know. Slavery adds a subtle metaphor about Fanny’s own lowly status, but Austen is too talented to turn her most complex novel into a political tract.

In attitude, Austen was a moderate Tory—the equivalent of a moderate Republican. Austen never challenged the existing order. Like the abolitionist William Wilberforce, she wanted to reform it—not abolish it. She believed in merit as the economic salvation for herself and her brothers. She was a proto-feminist in the sense that she was a pragmatist. Dependent on the men in her family for most of her life, she needed to be able to support, as well as express, herself. That ability became critical when her brother Henry’s bank collapsed, taking much of the family’s wealth with it. (Most of Jane’s funds were safely deposited in Navy Fives–stock paying five percent.)

Practical economic considerations fill her books, but to read the novels as political commentary is to miss the point. Austen creates a rich, original world in which complex, believable human beings interact at their best and worst.

Any political lessons flow from the way human characteristics manifest themselves at all levels in the real world. Life experience, not ideology, dictates any political take-aways from her plots. She demonstrates that women should be able to accept relationships on their own terms and to provide for themselves as their needs require.

In the 200th commemoration of her death, it is disquieting that these lessons of a woman’s right to basic self-determination remain too often unheeded—even disputed.


Rules of the Road for Regency Language

Recently, some writers online were discussing language, particularly the use of language for an historical period such as the Regency age. I was traveling and unable to jump into the discussion, but the comments set me to reflect about my approach—which I had considered for quite a while as I began my historical fiction based on Jane Austen’s life.

As for general language, I take the actor’s approach when preparing to play an historical character: don’t imitate the person, inhabit the person. Learn all you can, absorb the way the individual thinks, feels, and acts, then speak naturally. The voice will come to you. Afterward, with a period piece, check for anachronisms. It’s not unusual for me to check five or six words a page. Trouble is, some old English words sound new, and some new English words sound old. “Ignition,” for example, sounds like a modern word: We relate it to car ignitions, “ignition, liftoff,” and so on. However, this word has been firing up our vocabulary since at least 1612.

The discussion covered a variety of bugaboos, mostly prohibitions that grammarians in the 19th Century tried to force on English to make it more like Latin, to rein in English’s sprawling structure to become more “proper.”

Among these rules, there’s no law against beginning a sentence with “And” or “But” or other conjunctions; however, that usage was not typical of traditional English and it does sound modern. Austen, though, uses an opening conjunction once in a while. Here’s an early example from “Mansfield Park,” when Fanny is trying to settle in: “And sitting down by her, he was at great pains to overcome her shame in being so surprised, and persuade her to speak openly.”

When I begin a sentence with a conjunction, it is usually to express a character’s thoughts, to distinguish a character who speaks abruptly, or to mark the less formal aspect of speech. Austen does the last in the same section in “Mansfield”: “And remember that, if you are ever so forward and clever yourselves, you should always be modest; for, much as you know already, there is a great deal more for you to learn.”

Austen commonly uses the “semicolon-and”; perhaps fifty for every “period-and.” Why should the former be seen as stately English, connecting two balanced phrases, and the latter as improper?

Split infinitives are another bogus issue. English is an accented language, and sometimes sentences split an infinitive for the rhythm: “To boldly go where no one has gone before” is a “Star Trek” phrase in almost perfect iambic. “To go boldly” or “Boldly to go” strike the English ear as wrong.

The phrase originated in a 1958 White House pamphlet on space travel; it was amended to “where no man has gone before” for the first “Star Trek” television series, then returned to “where no one has gone before” for the revival, “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” The phrase is also brought out in the split-infinitive debate. I’ve always wondered why the phrase wasn’t “to boldly go where none has gone before,” because that is perfect iambic pentameter. Perhaps the author thought it sounded too lyrical. Or perhaps “none” might have been contradicted by alien species, of which there are aplenty boldly going somewhere in the “Star Trek” saga.

There are other sentences in which the only correct sense requires the infinitive to be split. How else could you construct the following: “Prices are expected to more than double by next year.” The words that split the infinitive are nothing more than modifiers of the main verb; i.e., adverbs.

Split prepositions are also fine. Both Austen and Shakespeare used them. When challenged on his use of sentence-ending prepositions, Winston Churchill is reputed to have responded: “This is the kind of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put!” Though there is no definitive source of the remark that traces directly to the British Prime Minister, it sounds like the English bulldog—though he might have thrown in a “bloody” or two. Ending a sentence with a preposition is fine if it gives the sentence a punch. The same is true of keeping the preposition with its object where it technically belongs.

Among the other language issues that arose in the earlier lively discussion, I admit that it bugs me when people don’t know the difference between “farther” and “further,” but Jane Austen didn’t. Neither did Thomas Hardy, who wrote nearly a hundred years later. They both used “further” to mean distance. “Further” has always had the broader sense, but it’s a relatively recent development to separate the two so that “farther” means only “distance” and “further” means everything else. A nice distinction, but new.

Having been a copy editor, I learned and enforced all the rules. I was part of the priesthood. Over many years since, I have become more flexible. I do not believe technicalities should overcome the sense the writer is trying to convey. Some technically correct solutions are so cumbersome they break the spell by taking the reader out of the story. Usually, the best solution is to rewrite the sentence entirely, but that sometimes creates other problems.

I have a good friend and fellow writer who was never very good with spelling and punctuation. He asked me one time if the technical stuff really mattered, since the writer must focus on content. I replied that the rules were part of our box of tools and after twenty or thirty years we should be able to use them. I noticed decided technical improvements in his work after that. These changes, in turn, led to crisper writing. Sharpening his tools paid off.

There are many good style guides, from the plain and simple “AP Style Book” to the dense and complex “Chicago Manual of Style.” Even when the rules seem unintelligible, you can usually find an example that matches the phrase you’re concerned about. E.B. White’s “Elements of Style” is another classic, more about elegant writing than technical style.

One of the problems for American writers with an English audience is the difference between English spelling and punctuation and American spelling and punctuation. Some of the differences, mostly in spelling, evolved over time (“colour” = “color”, “encyclopaedia” = “encyclopedia”). A few developed independently (automobile “boot” = automobile “trunk”).

The main differences, however, happened abruptly and deliberately. Have you ever wondered why American punctuation is the inverse of English? American usage begins with a double quotation mark, and any interior quote is a single quotation mark: “Jones said angrily, ‘I hate quotes within quotes!’ ” English usage is the opposite: ‘Jones said angrily, “I hate quotes within quotes!” ’ Another difference is that in English usage, a noun that has a plural sense takes a plural referent: “The government/they.” In American usage, the same word has a singular sense: “The government/it.”

The reason is purely arbitrary. After the Revolutionary War, American printers wanted protection from the more established and cost-efficient British publishers. In a patriotic and protectionist fervor, Americans established a style just different enough to keep British printers from winning U.S. print contracts. It was the literary equivalent of driving on the other side of the road.

(Originally, most nations used the left side of the road in order to have the (right-handed) sword hand in a protective position against people coming the other way. The U.S. switch to the right side related to Napoleon’s preference for the right, which shifted the continent in that direction, and to the larger freight wagons over here in the U.S., which favored a rider on the left rear horse. This person would have a whip in his right hand for the horses and would want to see oncoming traffic on his left, putting his wagon on the right.)

Back to language. In some cases, the arbitrariness of the grammatical rule frustrates sense.

Consider a mixed group of men and women asked a question, and no one knows the answer. Which should it be:

“Everyone shook his head in confusion.” {grammatically correct but leaves out women}

“Everyone shook her head in confusion.” {grammatically correct but leaves out men}

“Everyone shook their heads in confusion.” {grammatically incorrect but correctly inclusive}

Most “singular/he” constructions can be avoided by changing the noun to plural, something like “people/they.” This is one example of trying to write around the problem. Most grammarians say it is fine to use the “everyone/they” construction in informal usage, but not in formal usage. I would normally use “everyone/he” or “everyone/she” in nonfiction, depending on sense. Nonfiction wants to be rigorous. In the above example, I would use “everyone/they” in fiction. Why? Because in fiction, there’s a different kind of rigor, which is maintaining the spell of the scene. There is no good substitute for the word “everyone” in English. Try recasting the above sentence to “people” and you’ll see what I mean: “People shook their heads in confusion.” What people? Everyone!

Also, rewriting the section might create more awkwardness than it solves; and being the way most of us speak, “everyone/they” is far less intrusive to a reader who, you hope, is caught up in your story. If the only one who objects is a grammar freak, I’m OK with that. I know I would have tried every workaround beforehand.

There’s only one unbreakable grammatical rule: You can’t break a rule unless you fully understand it, know why it exists, and have a good reason to break it.

As an American, I use U.S. spelling and punctuation. I know the obvious differences between U.S. and UK style, but a UK publisher will be far more capable than I of properly dealing with the nuances. English and American readers buy the opposite editions all the time, and neither has any trouble reading the other’s punctuation and spelling style. The best thing is to be proper and consistent with whichever you use.

When writing from an English point of view, however, I avoid Americanisms. In writing about Austen, I have readers versed in both the Regency period and UK English review my work before I publish. I have been corrected in the American use of “fall” for “autumn,” “creek” for “brook,” and a few other such provincialisms. I was embarrassed to learn from an English friend that I used the American “momma” instead of the English “mama” near the end of Volume II of “The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen,” my novel on Austen’s life, after having used the correct form earlier. This was a late addition and suffered from the lack of vetting.

A few times, my intrepid early readers caught a few words they thought were anachronisms but were not. One flagged “administratrix” as modern technical, but it goes back to circa 1561. I follow a rule similar to that of Regina Jeffers, another Austen blogger, who will use a word if its documented use comes within ten or twenty years of the time she writes about. The rationale is that a word must have been circulating in speech for a while before it became part of the written lexicon. In my Austen trilogy, the character Ashton Dennis uses the word “stomp” in late 1802. The first known written use of the word was 1803. I decided that Ashton must have been the one to coin it.

Austen and MTM: Pleasantly Subversive

When the news came recently that Mary Tyler Moore had died, I joined millions of others in feeling a deep sadness at the loss of an actress who had lit up television during a relatively bland era. Before she was done, Moore won seven Emmy Awards and two Tony Awards, received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Comedy Awards, and was in the Television Hall of Fame.

In taking embarrassment into the form of high art, she found a way to make a case for all women to be treated with respect, whether the woman in question was a suburban housewife caring for her family or an enterprising single woman making her own way in the world. She proved her serious acting chops in the movie “Ordinary People” and many other films.

As I—along with many, many others—replayed some of the best clips from both “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” I kept thinking that there was another connection to be made, but I couldn’t figure out what it might be until I was watching an hour-long retrospective. Early critics savaged Moore’s show for having a pug-ugly male lead—Ed Asner—a strange supporting cast, and a lead that no American audience would ever accept—not only a woman, but a “spinster.”

 Then it hit me: Mary Tyler Moore was the Jane Austen of our era.

 Think about it. At their height, Mary Tyler Moore (as Mary Richards in her TV series) and Austen (as a novelist) were single woman in their thirties, hitting their professional stride in a world weighted against women and thwarting them in a variety of ways big and small. Both experienced might-have-been relationships in their personal lives that at times brought reflection over loss—but never stopped their quest to move ahead alone.

In a time of great social tumult, both were quiet supporters of a better way. While some contemporary women were tough, intellectual advocates of better treatment for women (Mary Wollstonecraft in Austen’s day, Gloria Steinem and others in Moore’s day), Austen and Moore used gentle humor and social satire in their renderings of ordinary life. They made many of the same points as did the advocates, but in a way that was easier to accept because, in ordinary life, the injustice perpetrated was so palpably wrong.

Jane and Mary adhered to most social norms while subverting them.

Mary Richards, for example, was the only cast regular who called Lou Grant “Mr. Grant” instead of “Lou.” Her respect and deference were the basis by which she would haltingly question Mr. Grant. Step by step, she would walk him down some male-centered policy until his own logic proved he was wrong. In a similar fashion, Austen did not preach a moral as many of her sisterly novelists did. Instead, Austen let people like Mr. Collins and Mrs. Elton simply speak and act, demonstrating their selfishness and vanity objectively—aided at times with the gentlest of authorial irony.

The approachability of Jane and Mary, and their handling of ordinary domestic life and work, led readers and viewers not only to identify with them but to feel that they had their own personal relationship. Fans automatically spoke in terms of “my Jane” and “my Mary”—sister, aunt, BFF. One actress, who played a character who was mean to Mary on the show, received death threats. One suspects a similar reaction should anyone trash-talk Austen in front of Janeites.

Austen influenced numerous women authors in future generations—as well as men—while Oprah Winfrey and a generation of female journalists praised Moore for showing them how to achieve success while remaining themselves, how not to succumb to anger or despair while persevering. Putting a good face forward was not a way of swallowing pride at insult and disrespect but of subtly gaining ground while antagonists—male and female—were busy preening.

 Jane Austen of the 19th Century and Mary Tyler Moore of the 20th Century: Sisters at heart!

 What do you think—are these reasonable parallels? Are there others I missed? Who else might be the Jane Austen of our world?

P.S. I may be slow to respond to comments. I’m in Australia this week to deliver a series of talks to the Jane Austen Society of Australia in Sydney, Newcastle, and Brisbane, with a lot of travel and a huge time difference!

Impressions of Australia

On the week-long visit to Australia to discuss the time and works of Jane Austen with fellow Janeites, the schedule set up so that I had a day on and a day off, giving me the opportunity to see a little of the country-continent. This was a welcome change from my only other visit, a business trip in 1998, when all I saw was hotels and conference rooms—and Michael Palin of “Monty Python” fame in an elevator.

When my time in a new place is limited, my preference is to find one or two things to do and strike out on foot. With an early morning arrival, I promptly set off to explore Sydney after fueling up at the nearest eatery—a 7-11 selling urn coffee and Krispy Kreme doughnuts. I found authentic Australian food later. …

Weather in the country had been dreadfully hot in the weeks before my arrival—above 100 degrees Fahrenheit—but had cooled to the high-80s (about 30 in their Celsius), which made for pleasant if occasionally sweaty walks. Remember, it’s summer in the Southern hemisphere. At the Sydney talk, the day was so sultry that the dress code was casual. Ceiling fans shoved the hot air around, and the talk ended just as the skies unleashed a barrage of hail. I felt like I was back home in an Arkansas summer T-storm. When the hail abated, we dashed for the car, but on the way home got hit by several pieces so large we thought it was going to break the windshield (it didn’t!).

On a day off, I walked Oxford Street from the Paddington area of Sydney through Hyde Park to Sydney Harbor. (Many place names in Australia refer to the English homeland.) The street is lined with fashionable dress shops for women on one side and more specialized shops for male clientele on another. (All I bought was a pair of bicycle socks from a U.S. expatriate who had made his career in the Coast Guard, then met an Aussie girl and came with her here.)

Ancient Moreton Bay fig trees cover much of Hyde Park in Sydney

One turns and goes downhill through Hyde Park, a cool respite populated with exotic birds and huge trees, including the Moreton Bay fig tree with its convoluted branches. The harbor is anchored on the right by the clamshell roofs of the famous Sydney Opera House and on the left by “The Rocks,” where a handful of the original stone buildings survive from the colony’s founding. Sydney’s first citizens were convicts transported from England for mostly petty crimes—in essence, England dumping its impoverished citizens on a largely empty land.

Sydney has a huge harbor with lots of coves—the city of 4.5 million wraps around almost too many coves to count. A two-hour cruise provided an appreciation of the scale of this beautiful city. Sydney’s Harbor Bridge is a magnificent structure, completed in the 1930s, which gave the people the confidence that they could create a city to rival any in the world.

I dined twice with members of the Jane Austen society at 5 Ways, an intersection of five streets in Paddington that sports a number of restaurants, including the Thai and Italian where we dined. Food is somewhat pricier in Australia than the U.S., but we landed upon pasta specials one night and did well for the sum spent. Bright and lively conversation in all three cities I visited convinced me of what one woman said, “Jane Austen has a way of bringing good people together.”

Paddington lace–wrought-iron metalwork–on colorful buildings

The Paddington area is known for its ornate wrought-iron work on the front of houses, called “Paddington Lace.” These designs, along with the warmth, humidity, and subtropical plants, remind an American of New Orleans. As does the Mardi Gras celebration scheduled for the next weekend!

In Sydney, Susannah Fullerton, the president of the Jane Austen Society of Australia, took me along a hill on the south side of the Sydney Harbor, where our loop brought lovely views of the entrance of the harbor to the sea, along with the original lighthouse and gun emplacements that were still active in World War II. One stone path had been built by the convict laborers transported from England to Australia.

Detail of the wrought-iron metalwork known as Paddington lace

Those who survived the year-long voyage, and the initial years of hardship and near-starvation here, were the hardiest stock. Having earned their freedom, they carved out a nation from a stingy land. (And, like settlers in the U.S., had often brutal encounters with the natives, a troubled legacy that lingers to today.)

My journey continued Wednesday with a 2.5-hour train ride north and west to Newcastle, like its English namesake a coal-producing town. The train went through densely forested hills and alongside Lake Macquarie. Efficient and fresh, the train gave me the opportunity to work on Volume III of my trilogy. Writing in a new location stimulates creativity.

Like the U.S. west coast, the Australian east coast can be hot and dry, and the danger of bush fire is serious. On one side, a fire had come right up to the railroad tracks. Recent rains had been very welcome.

In Newcastle, my host lived at the top of an area known as the Hill, and we walked on an engineering marvel of a pedestrian bridge that spanned several small headlands. We went only partway; the entire bridge tied together the beaches and port below with the upper parts of town. Later, we also strolled the main port area.

Though coal is still exported (a long line ships stretched into the distance offshore, waiting their turn to come in for loading), the steel mill shut down years ago. The closure was a severe shock to the economy, but Newcastle has rebounded and is now becoming a tourist destination and cultural center.

An author on parade must balance the number of books he hopes to sell with the number that one can physically carry. My arms are several inches longer than when I started. The people of Newcastle were particularly receptive, leaving me with much lighter bags to schlepp back.

Downtown of Brisbane, largest city in Queensland, still another port in Australia

In Brisbane, I stayed in an area known as Ascot, which has two racecourses, named of course for its English parallel. On Saturday, the men in their suits and the ladies in their finery strolled down to the horse track. Their return, after a hot afternoon and the consumption of adult beverages, left the ladies holding onto their bonnets while swaying on their heels.

Racecourse Road—a half-mile stretch of bars, coffee shops, restaurants, and interesting shops—leads to the Brisbane River. One eatery is called 5 Burroughs, named for the five divisions of New York City but feeling more like a rib joint in the American South. If Sydney felt like New Orleans with its upscale feel and wrought-iron work, Brisbane feels more like Charleston by the sea or Little Rock by the river. The local variety of cicadas begin to call the minute you get off the main street, even in the day.

On the river itself, with tall new buildings on three sides and a large cruise ship on the other, the air saturates a courtyard with the smell of curry. Dinner was at a restaurant at the old brick power plant, a huge structure that has been converted into theaters, restaurants, and other night-life venues.

I’m hesitant to generalize about a country from meeting only a dozen or so, but Australians are a gregarious folk. Everyone I met was eager to speak to me, eager to visit with a visiting American. Granted that I was spending much of my time with well-educated and well-read people, but even those I ran into on the street were engaged and interested in the world around them.

No doubt one reason is that Australia is an island nation—and a coastal country. Every major city is a port town. People look out to sea rather than inland. Out-country visitors are common, from all over the world. That may be why many Australians think of international rather than in-country travel. With few mountains to generate weather, the interior of Australia is hot and dry and relatively unpopulated. The big cities are all on the coast. Darwin is closer to Jakarta, Indonesia, than to any major Australian city. As one person in Brisbane put it, she can fly three and a half hours and still be in Queensland. A little farther, and she can be in a different country.

Being part of the British Commonwealth and being the only nation of Western heritage on this side of the Pacific, Australians pay much more attention to international affairs, particularly American and English, than the average American.

After all, World War II came right to Australia’s door—Brisbane guns exchanged fire with Japanese ships in World War II, submarines attacked Sydney Harbor, and the battle of the Coral Sea stopped a fleet intent on invasion.

Every Australian with whom I said more than a few words—my accent gave me away—peppered me with questions about the U.S. election. Though Americans tend to think of England, Germany, and other European nations as our allies, Australians consider themselves America’s closest ally—they are the ally in the Pacific. They’ve fought beside the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan—not to mention in Vietnam and the two world wars. They could not understand why our President had attacked their Prime Minister. They were more confused and disappointed than angry—doesn’t America know who our friends are?

After just ten days, I certainly know who mine are.

Austen in Australia

I spent the week in Australia, giving presentations on the history and work of Jane Austen. The lectures took me to Sydney, where I spoke at the Annual General Meeting of the Jane Austen Society of Australia, and at a local library; and at the Austen societies in Newcastle and Brisbane.

As in America as well as England, many people here are Austen aficionados, if not fanatics. All manner of readers speak of “their Jane” or “my Jane.” The author’s stories resonate on every continent.

Subjects included the Napoleonic Wars and how they affected Jane Austen’s family and her novels; the general history of the period 1775-1820 and how the major issues of the broader world are subtly weaved into the life of Austen’s country villages; and the battle over slavery, a contentious issue that spanned Austen’s life. Her handling of the topic—or not—in her books is the subject of much debate.

I had given the talks in the U.S. and England, but to more general audiences. I was a little nervous about whether well-studied Janeites would find the information compelling—or old hat. Because I generally cover material outside Austen’s immediate context, though, the topics held their attention and led to good questions afterward.

At the Sydney talk about the war, one person suggested that I add the fact that the income tax was instituted in 1799 to help pay for it. She was probably right, but I was able to say I would cover that point in the broader talk I was doing two days hence. The war cost England the staggering sum of 1.68 billion pounds. Despite this and taxes on goods such as carriages and hair powder, half that amount remained as debt at war’s end.

Australians were interested to hear how Austen weaves naval references into her novels

The next lecture was at the Ashfield library in a Sydney suburb, located in a mall close by Woolworth’s—completely separate from the U.S. five-and-dime that went out of business decades ago. We were upstairs from the library proper, in a large meeting room where the area council meets to conduct local government business.

Questions here were more about her writing and the writing of other authors of the same period. One person asked what kind of novel I thought Austen would have written had she been a man. This enabled me to say with a smile, “These over here!” Appreciative laughter as I pointed to my trilogy, “The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen.” The gentleman was kind enough to buy a copy.

The people in Newcastle were lovely; the town is also lovely—an old steel town that is now being rejuvenated, though a lot of its business remains shipping coal to China and elsewhere. My hosts and the group leader were, well, … lovely. One easily falls into the habit of describing the people and locales as “lovely,” because that’s the one short word that best describes them all.

This venue was more intimate, which either unnerves the speaker or relaxes him. I found myself enjoying the close encounter.

Susannah Fullerton, Austen expert, shows a path in Sydney, built in the early 1800s by convicts sent to Australia from England

At the Brisbane talk on slavery, for time and relevance, I did not discuss Mrs. Smith and her financial troubles in the West Indies in “Persuasion.” This reference strongly implies her business is related to the sugar plantations. To me, this is a plot device rather than a comment on slavery. This minor character needs help on a financial matter distant and complicated enough that she cannot resolve it on her own, and the purpose of her predicament is to demonstrate the relative trustworthiness of Mr. Eliot and Capt. Wentworth. The question, though, shows how closely Janeites peruse the works.

My sponsor for this trip was Susannah Fullerton, long-term president of the Jane Austen Society of Australia, a highly respected author of several books on the English writer, speaker on numerous literary topics, and leader of worldwide literary tours.

I have been corresponding with Susannah for three years on many matters related to Austen. She’s a terrific person, very generous with her time and thoughts. Her kindness to me on this trip, and her thoughtful advice on literary projects, were beyond anything I might have expected. Arriving as a distant colleague, I was treated as a close friend. 

Do Austen’s Novels Reveal Her Views on Slavery?

My last blog explored the effort in England to abolish the slave trade—the buying and selling of human flesh—which was accomplished in 1807—as well as the effort to eliminate slavery itself throughout all British possessions, which was not accomplished until 1840.

Slave owners were helped through their “difficult” six-year period of adjustment, 1834-1840, with payments of twenty million pounds as recompense for the loss of their “property.”

Before England ended the slave trade in 1807, the selling price for a healthy adult male was about fifty pounds; women and children were less. Four in ten slaves died—one for every two tons of sugar produced. It was less expensive to buy a new slave than to feed an existing slave. The cycle was self-fulfilling. With new slaves constantly arriving, there was no financial incentive to feed current slaves properly. Without enough to eat, women could not reproduce, requiring more slaves to be brought in.

Slave owners portrayed their “workers” as living happy lives, much better than in their native Africa. The reality was horribly different, with four of ten slaves dying from the grueling work.

Twice during Austen’s life, slaves had the chance to earn freedom. The first was during the Revolutionary War, when American slaves were promised freedom if they fought for England against the rebels. When England lost, many of the freed blacks left with other Loyalists. It is estimated that England had about 15,000 freed blacks, mostly in London, where they took up typical lower-class occupations—and suffered many of the privations typical of the working poor.

A similar offer for freedom came in the French wars. By 1802, England had sent more than 90,000 sailors and soldiers to the West Indies. Half of them died of disease, including Tom Fowle, fiancé of Cassandra, Jane’s sister, who served as a chaplain on his cousin’s military ship. These huge losses caused the British army to buy 13,400 slaves locally to reinforce its troops. As before, the promise to blacks was freedom at the end of their service.

Evangelicals, particularly the Methodists, led the fight against slavery. In contrast, the establishment Church of England not only supported the institution—it also owned a slave plantation, bequeathed to the church in the early 1700s. The profit was used to take the message of Christ to America. That’s right: Anglicans sent the black man to his grave to save the soul of the white.

Before the entire slave trade was abolished in 1807, the abolitionist William Wilberforce (image above, with headline) pushed through a Foreign Slave Trade Bill in 1806. Authorizing the Royal Navy to intercept foreign slave ships, the bill was as much about hurting French interests in the West Indies during the Napoleonic Wars as it was about helping slaves.

In an effort to curry favor with the British after his brief return to power in 1815, Napoleon signed a decree to end France’s slave trade. Though it had the effect of ending the slave trade for all the European powers, the edict did not stop England from taking Napoleon down a second time and exiling him to St. Helena in the far south Atlantic.

Slavery was not the only cause for Wilberforce, the Minister of Parliament who led the fight for twenty years. He supported many other charitable causes, providing relief for the poor and the “deaf and dumb” and founding the first society to prevent cruelty to animals. After giving away tens of thousands of pounds to charitable causes, the abolitionist died in poverty after an investment with one of his sons collapsed.

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Mansfield Park undoubtedly concerns slavery, but what does the novel really say about it?

The battle to end the slave trade came when Austen was reaching the height of her creative powers. Mansfield Park, published in 1814, has slavery as a major theme. The wealth of the Bertram family comes from a West Indies plantation, and Sir Thomas Bertram disappears for the middle part of the novel to tend to business there. The critic Edward Said leads a contingent that criticizes Austen for apparently accepting slavery, while author Paula Byrne leads a group that has Fanny Price speaking “truth to power” about slavery.

As proof of her abolitionist views, Austen supporters cite Fanny’s noted comment that when she raises the issue of the slave trade to her uncle in a room with the entire family, she is met with “dead silence!” The inability of Sir Thomas or his children—her cousins and, theoretically, her betters—to respond to her question about slavery is proof of Fanny’s moral superiority.

However, it’s not at all clear that Fanny’s “dead silence!” comment is a rebuttal of slavery and the family’s reliance on its revenue. The entire passage—not just the one sentence—needs to be carefully read and key phrases studied. I challenge every reader to decide what is really happening with the book’s heroine.


Fight Against Slavery Carried on Beyond Austen’s Life


Slavery was one of the most contentious issues of Jane Austen’s time. Some scholars claim that she ignored the issue or even accepted the legitimacy of the practice. Others claim that her novel Mansfield Park serves as an anti-slavery tract. For certain, Austen would have tackled the complex issue in a complex way.

The fight to abolish the slave trade—the buying and selling of slaves—had been raging since 1787, when Thomas Clarkson, who had won an essay contest at Cambridge condemning slavery, helped form the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Another founding member was Josiah Wedgwood, the pottery magnate, who created the official emblem of the group, an image of a chained slave (see image with headline) with the plaintive cry “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?”

Soon after, Clarkson gave William Wilberforce a copy of his pamphlet. Shortly after that came the famous meeting under the oak tree on William Pitt’s estate in which Pitt and William Grenville, two future prime ministers, convinced Wilberforce to take up abolition as his main political cause in the House of Commons. In Pitt’s fabled words, “We were too young to realize that certain things are impossible, so we will do them anyway.”

It was Grenville who shepherded the final bill through after Pitt’s death in 1806. Ironically, Pitt had become a (temporary) opponent to abolition because the cause made it harder for him to keep his pro-war political coalition together against France.

The climactic vote to end the slave trade came in March 1807, when Jane Austen was at the peak of her authorial powers. It took another generation before England abolished slavery entirely—six months after the death of Wilberforce in July 1833. Three days before he died, Wilberforce is said to have been assured of the passage of the bill. The end to slavery in all English possessions was phased in over six years, beginning in 1834, and slave owners received twenty million pounds in recompense.

William Wilberforce spent his life seeking to abolish slavery. He succeeded in ending the buying and selling of slaves, but died six months before slavery itself began to be phased out.

It is not surprising that it took twenty years to end the purchase of human flesh and another twenty-six to end slavery itself. In the early years, the focus was to end the misery of the capture, sale, and transport of slaves, though abolitionists assumed the end to slavery would come eventually. There was the hope that, if slave holders could not buy more, they would treat their current slaves better: It was cheaper to buy a new slave than to feed an old one.

Slavery is perniciously difficult to eliminate once it is in place, for free labor has an addictive effect on the beneficiaries. The slave trade represented 5 percent of the British economy, with a slave ship departing England every day. When everything is tallied—manufactured goods, tools, and rum to Africa; slaves to America; rum, sugar, tobacco and cotton to England—the Triangular Trade represented 80 percent of England’s overseas trade. Liverpool and Bristol were the two largest slave-related ports, which gives us the hint that Mrs. Elton’s family was involved in Emma.

Its tentacles stretched far enough to ensnare the Austen family. Mr. Austen’s half-brother, William Hampson, owned a Jamaica plantation, and Jane’s father was also a trustee of a slave plantation in Antigua for a friend, James Nibbs. Nibbs was godfather to Jane’s brother, James. It does not appear that Mr. Austen ever did any work related to the trust.

Aunt Leigh-Perrott was heir to a plantation in Barbados, meaning that any inheritance from that side of the family—which the genteelly poor Austens desired—would have been tainted. The family received none, though, until Aunt Leigh-Perrot’s death in 1836, after slavery itself had been voted out.

What of Jane Austen’s own point of view? We know that her favorite authors opposed slavery, including the poet William Cowper, who penned the famous lines celebrating Lord Mansfield’s freeing of a black slave in England in 1772: “Slaves cannot breathe in England; if their lungs/Receive our air, that moment they are free;/They touch our country, and their shackles fall.”

Jane’s niece Fanny had an anti-slavery story in her diary in 1809; it’s likely her views would have been shaped by Jane, Cassandra, and others of her aunts’ generation. Frank Austen is the only Austen sibling known to have actively denounced slavery; his views likely shaped Jane’s.

In a letter home in 1808, Frank compared the relatively “mild” form of slavery practiced at St. Helena in the eastern Atlantic with the “harshness and despotism” practiced in the West Indies. In St. Helena, a slave owner could not “inflict chastisement” on a “refractory” slave; he must apply to the magistrate for relief. Frank concluded with characteristic honesty: “This is wholesome regulation as far as it goes, but slavery however it may be modified is still slavery. [No] trace of it should be found … in countries dependent on England, or colonized by her subjects.”

In her letters, Austen indirectly praises Thomas Clarkson by saying she was “as much in love” with author Charles Pasley as she ever was with Clarkson—a reference to Clarkson’s book, History of the Abolition of the Slave Trade (1808).

Mansfield Park has a number of references to slavery, from the title itself—Lord Mansfield having freed the slave Somersett and by extension all slaves in England—to Mrs. Norris, evidently named for a slaver who tormented the abolitionists, particularly Clarkson. Whether the novel itself stands opposed to slavery is a matter of dispute; personally, I believe Austen was too much of an artist to telegraph her own views.

All of these references, however, come after the end to the slave trade in early 1807. Barring the discovery of new family letters, it’s unlikely we’ll know Austen’s true views during the years leading up to 1807. Her beliefs likely evolved along with those of England in general, with little thought early on and a growing realization of the horrors of slavery.

Given her respect for her older brother, Frank’s ardent opposition to slavery likely galvanized her own opposition as she matured.

There’s poetic justice that the Royal Navy, which had earlier protected slaving ships making the Middle Passage from Africa to the Americas, now enforced the ban on slave traffic. Two generations of Austen men, beginning with Frank and Charles and continuing through their self-named sons, intercepted slavers on the open seas.

What Did Jane Austen Look Like?

What did Jane Austen look like? No one really knows.

Which is to say: We know fairly precisely her size and shape, but only a little of what her face looks like.

A forensic analysis done by clothing expert Hilary Davidson in 2015 details Austen’s figure. By analyzing an outer garment called a pelisse, known to have been Austen’s, and constructing a new one of the same dimensions, Davidson concludes that Austen was between 5 feet, 6 inches and 5 feet, 8 inches tall and she had a bust of 31 to 33 inches, a waist of 24 inches, and hips of 33 to 34 inches.

This made her tall for the age and typically spare. One observer, not necessarily friendly, used the metaphor of a fireplace poker to describe her, though it’s not clear whether that reference was to her ramrod shape or to the underlying iron of her personality.

Conventional image of Austen, which did not favor her and was later altered to make her appearance softer

Austen’s face in theory is one of the best known in the world, based on a somewhat cherubic image that has launched a thousand books—and will soon be imprinted on England’s ten-pound note. The image is based on a watercolor done by her sister Cassandra in about 1810. However, people who knew Austen said the image was not very flattering, and the version normally used in print (see image) was further altered by an illustrator to soften her features.

The only other drawing known to be of Austen, also a watercolor by her sister Cassandra, is a lovely wash of blue in which Jane’s face is obscured by the angle and a large bonnet and her figure is obscured by her blooming dress (see image with the headline at the top).

Silhouette of Austen?

There is also a silhouette, found in a family copy of Mansfield Park, believed to be of Jane (see image).

Two other images have emerged in the last few years. The most curious—and interesting image—comes from an Austen scholar, Paula Byrne, who wrote a lovely book called The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things. Byrne’s husband bought a drawing at auction that he thought resembled Jane.

On the back they discovered the name “Miss Jane Austin”—the name being misspelled. At first they thought the portrait might be a later rendering of her; but many things pointed to it being

of Austen herself—in particular, the strong resemblance of the face to her brothers, particularly Charles (see images below).


Byrne, who eventually did a BBC special on the pencil-on-vellum drawing, calls the usual portrait “saccharine.”

Byrne’s portrait of Austen shares the nose and striking eyes of the family, particularly of her brother Charles
Charles Austen was a naval officer who had the family’s piercing gaze

Two of three Austen experts have supported the idea that the newly found portrait was of Austen.

Perhaps because the image is not as mild and sweet as the accepted image, only a few others have rallied around the likeness as a likely portrayal of Austen. In particular, Austen expert Deirdre le Faye rejects the portrait, but then le Faye has not always been enthusiastic about any ideas involving Austen or her family that did not originate with her.

Studies indicate that the picture is likely from 1815, when Austen was riding high as an author, though her identity remained largely unknown. It’s tempting to think that Jane may have had her portrait done after she saw some success. It’s likely to have been done in London, where she spent quite a bit of time as her books were in production. This is also when she cared for her brother Henry during a serious illness. An ornate church peeks through the window. Le Faye dismisses the building as being Canterbury. It’s more likely to be Westminster Abbey, with its symbolism as the resting place for literary greats.

Personally, I find the piercing intelligence—exactly the same as the gaze of her brothers Frank and Charles—to be more convincing than the soft, plump rendering of the conventional portrait.

Even more recently, forensic painter Melissa Dring was commissioned by the Jane Austen Centre in Bath to create a new portrait of Austen, working as if she had been commissioned by police to develop a sketch of someone. Dring took descriptions of Austen, incorporated the general family features—particularly the eyes and nose—and painted her as a woman in her late twenties, which she would have been during her years in Bath.

Dring’s forensic portrait captures Austen’s liveliness

The best description of Jane’s face comes from her niece Caroline, who said it “was rather round than long—she had a bright, but not pink colour—a clear brown complexion and very good hazle eyes. She was not … an absolute beauty, but … a very pretty girl. … Her hair, a darkish brown, curled naturally.” Another person described Jane as having rosy cheeks.

Dring’s result is a striking portrait of a bright, humorous woman—though in my view the painter slathers on the red rather too thick. Instead of having rosy cheeks, Austen seems to suffer from rosacea. Interestingly enough, though, the result far more resembles the Byrne portrait than the conventional portrait (see image).

Dring explains her research and methodology here.

Unless someone finds an indisputable portrait of Austen, we’re left ultimately to speculation. However, the most believable rendering I’ve seen is a wax figure, also commissioned by the Jane Austen Centre, based on the Dring portrait and done by the renown sculptor Mark Richards (see final image). richards-wax-image

Perhaps because this rendering is three dimensional, it seems to best capture the stature, grace, and personality of a person whose intelligence and humanity radiate outward.

This is a woman who could charm her nieces and nephews, captivate men, be every woman’s best friend–and write insightful novels about human beings and their day-to-day lives.


Strolling in the Pleasure Gardens of Jane Austen’s Bath

Whereas the first day of the Jane Austen Festival in Bath was as dreary as anyone could wish to avoid—enlivened only by the gaily dressed ladies and gentlemen who braved the rain for the Promenade—the next day broke off as sunny and pleasant as anyone in England would wish to enjoy.

The major activity for our group was a tour of the pleasure gardens, beginning at the Holburne Museum, which now as then is the entrance to Sydney Gardens. In Austen’s day the building was called the Sydney Hotel, though it was not a hotel in the traditional sense but a place of entertainment. All of the activities of the Gardens—public breakfasts, music, fireworks, and special events—began at this building. The Gardens were behind.

The public could buy subscriptions for a season of activities, though occasionally special events required additional admission. Jane Austen is known to have participated in some public breakfasts.

Moira throws herself energetically into her history of  Sydney Gardens

Our tour was led by an architectural historian by the name of Moira, a knowledgeable, energetic, theatrical, R-trilling woman of a certain age and build. She walked us through—literally—the layout of the Gardens, which as originally constructed had a variety of features including a canal, Chinese-style bridges, a waterfall, serpentine promenades, a grotto, and a labyrinth.

Progress has reduced the size of the Gardens and eliminated a few features. The Great Western Railway swallowed the labyrinth in the 1830s, for instance. Most of the Gardens remain, however, and it’s still a lovely place to promenade of a pleasant afternoon, as Jane and her sister Cassandra were fond of doing.

The only way for a lovely woman to dress for an afternoon promenade

On our Sunday, the Gardens were full of visitors, including a few dressed in Regency wear. (Being in costume can lead to discounts at some haberdashers and eateries, we learned.) Our group featured a stunning young woman in a blue Regency walking outfit carrying complementary ivory parasol and gloves. It’s this sort of thing that gives credence to the concept of time machines.

The one thing that surprised me was the extent to which the Gardens sloped up from the entrance. Given that the canal cuts across the Gardens along the back, I had assumed that the elevation would be relatively flat or would slope downhill rather than up.

We finished at Jane Austen’s three-story house at 4 Sydney Place across the street from the Gardens. The building is rather austere, with a plain front of light-colored local Bath stone. Next to the red door is a small plaque giving the dates of Jane’s tenure there.

The family lived at Sydney Place from 1801 to 1804, after her father retired and they moved from the country in Steventon, about eighty miles east, to Bath where her parents had met and married as young people.

The location of their house, just off the Great Pulteney Bridge and across from the Gardens, was, however, too expensive for a retired clergyman and they ultimately moved to cheaper quarters. The plaque incorrectly gives the end date as 1805. Likely, the person who commissioned the sign assumed that the family moved upon the death of her father in January 1805; in fact, it was before then.

In her first few years in Bath, Jane Austen lived in a townhome at 4 Sydney Place, across from the Gardens

We couldn’t go into the house because it’s now part of a boutique hotel group—so any Janeite can settle in for a long weekend. The price is somewhat dear! A member of our group who recently stayed there says it is well decorated and has a number of Austen-related books but, curiously, none of Austen’s own novels.

Moira the tour guide had a book of illustrations that she used to point out details of the Gardens to the tour group. I noticed that one illustration showed a hot-air balloon, which she had not mentioned by the time the tour concluded.

I discreetly asked whether that drawing might be of the flight from the Gardens in September 1802. She laughed with surprise and excitement. The illustration was from a much later flight in Vauxhall Gardens, London—there is no artwork apparently of the 1802 flight by Monsieur André-Jacques Garnerin in Bath. The story is that the balloon was intended to remain tethered, being moved about by ropes above the heads of the admiring crowd. But the balloon got away, causing great mischief and alarm.

Moira wondered how an ordinary modern-day American might know about Bath’s aviation history. Before I could answer, my companions leapt in to explain that I had written a novel about Jane Austen, the critical scene coming when she is launched in a runaway balloon from Sydney Gardens. Furthermore, they announced, after hearing all the details about the Sydney Gardens, the Sydney Place home, and the balloon flight—I had got all the details right.

(Actually, there’s one detail I might have fudged, but I will wait for a diligent reader to point it out.)

Rain in Bath Fails to Dampen Spirits During Promenade

Being in Bath for the annual Jane Austen Festival was a special treat, and things were so busy that the first time I’ve had to write is two days later, in another Austen haunt about 90 miles east of Bath–Hampshire.

Even these thoughts are quickly put together. No coherent theme has emerged!

The Jane Austen Festival runs for ten days in Bath every September, two weekends sandwiching a week in which something interesting happens each day: lectures, balls, tours, theatrical performances.

My wife, Wendy, and I attended the Friday night pre-festival soiree, which was a relatively small affair in which we got to mingle with the many volunteers who help put on the event. Things are informal enough, and hands’ on enough, that Jackie Herring, the festival director, was the one taking tickets.

Jackie has been with the festival almost since its start and director for nine years. She says it’s a good thing it’s an annual event, because it takes about a year to put together.

It was interesting to see the number of young women involved as stewards, who have various assignments all during the festival, including shepherding participants to the right places for the Promenade and different events. One such young lady was a microbiologist in Bristol, and another held multiple teaching jobs. Both were eager to help all week at the Festival. It’s good to think that another generation has fallen in love with Austen.

Saturday’s big event was the Promenade, at which a few years ago Bath set a world record in the number of people wearing Regency dress. This is the modern record, of course. One supposes Bath had a few more Regency-clad denizens in 1802. Bath reclaimed the modern record from upstart Americans who had previously gathered the largest modern Regency crowd, thinking it would be fun to beat the Brits at their own game.

We were a group of six: Wendy and I, the two winners of the sweepstakes tied to the launch of the second volume of my trilogy, “The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen,” and their guests. As we stood for a few photos in and around the Abbey, we were swarmed by a host of the other tourists, who could not get enough photos of relatively attractive people dressed so smartly. We had to explain to most of them that there was this festival going on, and that hundreds of people would soon be walking all over the city in Regency costumes.

The weather was gloomy all morning, with a light shower here and there. The forecast was for the rain to clear at 11:00 with the start of the Promenade, which began at the Assembly Rooms (the Upper Rooms in Jane’s day) and meandered by or through all of the big sights (and sites) in Bath.

Naturally, a forecast of clearing skies at 11:00 meant that this was when the rain began in earnest, and it came down in buckets for part of the two-hour walk. By the end, we were all as bedraggled—but in equally determined spirits—as Liz Bennet when she traipsed through the mud to see her ill sister.

Beyond my finely accoutered companions, the highlights of the Promenade for me were a delightful girl out with her grandparents, a set of half a dozen middle-aged Janeites from a Germanic country (whose language I could not understand), and a group of young people and children performing dances in the rain for those of us now able to finish inside the building where we started.

Inside the Rooms were hot drinks and pastries, which the crowd quickly set upon before turning to see all the wares at the Festival Fayre. This emporium features all manner of items related to the Regency era, from subscriptions to the magazine “Jane Austen’s Regency World” to Austen books and memorabilia to every variety of period clothing and accessories. If you’ve been to the shops at the annual general meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America, the fayre is similar—but the clothing for sale comes in a greater variety of quality and expense.

The day formally concluded for me with a lecture on the bigger history of the Regency period that framed Jane Austen’s novels. A small but attentive audience listened as I spoke about science, business, social and labor issues, politics, and war.

After answering several interesting questions, I was pleased when a man in the audience thanked me for the talk and said—apparently quite surprised—“You made an hour go by fast!”

Austen Authors

Austen and the Big Bow-Wow

Jane Austen told both her nephew and the Prince Regent’s librarian that she lacked the knowledge and ability to write about the big world. She worked in miniatures, she said, “two inches wide, on which I … produce little effect after much labor.”

Indirectly seconding her, Sir Walter Scott wrote: “That young lady has a talent for describing … ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The big bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but [I lack her] exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting.” Read full post…

Just Jane

“The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen: Volume 1″/ By Collins Hemingway/ A Review & Giveaway

The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen reimagines the life of England’s most famous female author by asking: How would her life have changed if she had married and had a child? How would this thinking woman, and sensitive soul, have responded not to a ballroom flirtation but to a real relationship that developed over time? How would shouldering the responsibilities of marriage and motherhood have changed her as a person and a writer? Read full post…

News Release

Author Collins Hemingway Hosts Book Launch for The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen: Volume II at Jane Austen Festival in Bath, England

BATH, England, 7 Sept., 2016 – Author Collins Hemingway will officially launch Volume II of The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen Trilogy, a new historical novel based on Austen’s life, on the opening day of the Jane Austen Festival on Saturday, 10 September, in the beautiful UNESCO World Heritage city of Bath, England. During the event, Hemingway will give a lecture about the history, politics, and science of the greater Regency world that framed Austen’s novels and give a reading from his newest novel.

The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen tells a spirited, affecting love story during an exciting, turbulent time. Set in the “lost years” of her twenties – a period of which historians know virtually nothing – the trilogy reveals the story of a talented, passionate woman fully engaging with a man who is very much her equal. The series resolves the biggest mysteries of Austen’s life:

  • Why the enduring rumors of a lost love or tragic affair?
  • Why, afterward, did the vivacious Austen prematurely put on the “cap of middle age” and close off any thoughts of love?
  • Why, after her death, did her beloved sister destroy her letters and journals?

Reviewers have praised The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen for the quality of the writing, its compelling love story, its sensitive treatment of the historical Austen, and its meticulous research.

Readers have called the series as “a magical tale,” “one of the best love stories I have read in a long time,” and “wickedly clever!” Critics have described the content as “an imaginative journey of the soul.”

“The book launch in Bath, Jane Austen’s one-time home during the early 1800s, is a ‘full-circle’ milestone for me,” said Hemingway. “It was nearly 10 years ago when I was visiting Bath that I was inspired to write a story about Austen which respectfully reimagined her life during the Regency era. A decade later, I’m returning to Bath to launch the second volume of the trilogy that, I hope, does justice to her voice.”

Event details

The lecture and book reading are open to the public.

  • Date: 10 September, 2016 from 2:00 p.m. to 3:00pm
  • Location: The Kingston Room at The Pump Room
  • The Roman Baths, Stall Street, Bath BA1 1LZ
  • Tel: 1225 477785
  • RSVP to info@austenmarriage.com


The novel is now available at Amazon and Jane Austen Books and information about The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen trilogy can be found at the Austen Marriage website.

About The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen

The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen examines how a serious romantic relationship would have changed Jane Austen as a person and a writer, using historical fiction to provide a thoughtful, in-depth look at what life was really like for women in the early 1800s.  The trilogy plunges the protagonist into the period’s scientific advances, political foment, wars that were among the longest and most devastating in European history—and into a serious relationship with a man very much her equal.

Austen achieved success as an author during the years of 1811 to 1816 with her novels Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1815), and the joint publication of Northanger Abbey/Persuasion shortly after her death in 1817.

For more formation about The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen and author Collins Hemingway, please visit www.austenmarriage.com. If you would like to “Like” our Facebook page, please do so here:  www.facebook.com/pages/The-Marriage-of-Miss-Jane-Austen/364335963764558.


Media contact:
Megan McKenzie
McKenzie Worldwide


News Release

The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen Trilogy’s Volume II Now Available for Pre-order

Official book launch at Jane Austen Festival in Bath, England, in September

PORTLAND, Oregon, August 30, 2016 – Volume II of The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen Trilogy, a new historical novel based on Austen’s life, is now available for pre-order on Amazon and Jane Austen Books.

The book is now available for pre-order from Amazon.

It is also available at janeaustenbooks.net.

The official book launch of the latest novel in the trilogy will take place on Saturday, Sept. 10, at the annual Jane Austen Festival (www.janeaustenfestivalbath.co.uk) which celebrates her life and work in the beautiful UNESCO World Heritage city of Bath, England, her one-time home during the 1800s.

Reviewers have praised The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen for the quality of the writing, its compelling love story, its sensitive treatment of the historical Austen, and its meticulous research.

Readers have called the series as “a magical tale,” “one of the best love stories I have read in a long time,” and “wickedly clever!” Critics have described the content as “an imaginative journey of the soul.”

“The social and literary strictures of the day caused Jane Austen to end her novels where the real story ought to begin—with marriage,” Collins Hemingway said.  “I wanted to explore the deepest issues of marriage as Austen—given the chance—might have, and I wanted to put a woman of her intelligence and character in the middle of the dangerous and complex world that was the Regency era.”

About The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen

The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen examines how a serious romantic relationship would have changed Jane Austen as a person and a writer, using historical fiction to provide a thoughtful, in-depth look at what life was really like for women in the early 1800s.  The trilogy plunges the protagonist into the period’s scientific advances, political foment, wars that were among the longest and most devastating in European history—and into a serious relationship with a man very much her equal.

Austen achieved success as an author during the years of 1811 to 1816 with her novels Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1815), and the joint publication of Northanger Abbey/Persuasion shortly after her death in 1817.

For more formation about The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen and author Collins Hemingway, please visit www.austenmarriage.com. If you would like to “Like” our Facebook page, please do so here:  www.facebook.com/pages/The-Marriage-of-Miss-Jane-Austen/364335963764558.

Media contact:
Megan McKenzie
McKenzie Worldwide
+1 503-625-3680

Pre-order Volume II — Just $3.99

I try to write interesting, thoughtful blogs on a semi-regular basis, so I hope readers will indulge the rare promotional notice. Especially when it involves eighteen months of hard work and relates directly to the existence of this website. Meaning, I’m very pleased to announce that Volume II in “The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen” trilogy is available for pre-order from Amazon—just $3.99!

See why readers have praised “The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen” as “a magical tale”—“one of the best love stories I have read in a long time”—“wickedly clever!” Find out why critics call it “an imaginative journey of the soul.”

Volume II will officially launch on Sept. 10, 2016, at the Jane Austen Festival in Bath, England. But you can pre-order the e-book today on Amazon! https://www.amazon.com/Marriage-Miss-Jane-Aus…/…/ref=sr_1_2…

“The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen” explores her twenties, a period of which historians know almost nothing, to present life as it would have been for an intelligent, independent, passionate woman who meets a man very much her equal. The trilogy answers the mysteries around those missing years: Why the rumors of a lost love? Why did Austen never seek love again? Why did her beloved sister destroy her letters and diaries of this time?

Volume I told the story of a tender romance. Volume II takes Austen and her husband into an intense and complex marriage, as the challenges of the Regency Era threaten their new life together.

You can get a sneak peek of the deep personal matters at stake in a preview of the book here:

If you haven’t already read Volume I of “The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen,” you can get a copy at a special discount at www.janeaustenbooks.net, or an e-book at Amazon.

Courtship becomes marriage. Life becomes real. Order now.

$3.99 for Volume II e-book
$3.99 for Volume I e-book
$11.99 for Volume I paperback











Did Austen Speak Posh?

In our last blog, we heard how Shakespeare’s English much more resembled the accents of the provinces than the “proper” English favored today by actors and newscasters, the latter being an accent called “Received Pronunciation” or “RP.”

Jane Austen had knowledge of and appreciation for Shakespeare. There are parallels between her social comedies and his, Willoughby reads “Hamlet” in “Sense and Sensibility,” and Edmund Bertram discusses Shakespeare in “Mansfield Park.”

Austen has other passing references to the Bard, one of which, Sonnet 116, is given prominence in Emma Thompson’s screenplay for “Sense and Sensibility,” as explained  here (with some additional theorizing).

Seeing that Austen, like Shakespeare, is considered one of the masters of impeccable English, the question naturally arises as to whether the speaking language in her sitting rooms was closer to RP or to the “Original Pronunciation” or “OP”–a rich, earthy, older dialect similar to Scottish, Irish, and American English.

Austen’s novels are set in different counties in south England. Each dialect would have varied somewhat, but there would have been many similarities. To pick one county to stand for all, let’s use Hampshire, Austen’s home for most of her life.

Tony Grant, a scholar from Hampshire, says the county’s sound “is a warm, gentle sort of accent with a soft burr to it … You could not mistake somebody speaking with a Hampshire accent … as coming from anywhere else but Hampshire.”

According to Grant, the famous first proposal by Darcy to Liz in “Pride and Prejudice” would have sounded much different if rendered in the Hampshire speech that Austen herself likely used. First, here is Austen’s graceful prose:

“In an unhurried manner he immediately began an inquiry after her health, imputing his visit to a wish of hearing that she were better. She answered him with cold civility. … He came towards her in an agitated manner, and thus began: ‘In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.’ ”

Once she overcomes her astonishment, Liz responds:

“In such cases as this, it is, I believe, the established mode to express a sense of obligation for the sentiments avowed, however unequally they may be returned. … If I could feel gratitude, I would now thank you. But I cannot—I have never desired your good opinion, and you have certainly bestowed it most unwillingly. … ”

Darcy’s plea and Liz’s response is transformed thus:

“Ize a bin struggling wi meslf, Lizzie. It won’t do nay more. Me feelins will not be [reprezz’d] nay mar. Yee mussle allowz me t’ tell yee ’ow, wi some power’ul emotion me admires and loves ee.”

“In sich as this, it is ’stablished thing t’express a sense a obligati’n fer the sen’imen’s avowed, ’owever unequalz they be. … If ay could feel grat’tude, I’d now thank ee. But ay can’t – I’ve ne’r wannered yer good thoughts like, and yee’ve cert’nly bin unwillin’ aven’t ee.”

Grant admits that this accent is exaggerated; he says he mixes in other accents from farther west. In addition to changing the pronunciation he also modifies much of Austen’s formal language to Hampshire colloquialisms. Even so, the dialog should make it clear that Liz would have spoken much differently than most of us assume. If she were to break into that dialect in a BBC episode, we would likely be as astonished as Liz was at Darcy’s unexpected proposal.

It does not appear that anyone has done a recording of Austen’s work in a Hampshire dialect. For comparison, though, here is a recording of a local Hampshire man born in 1898. The Austen accent, from eighty to a hundred years earlier, would have been at least as thick and likely thicker (one might say, “richer”).

Here is another one from the county, a woman born in 1920. In just one generation, the accent has become less distinct, but it’s still noticeable. To an untrained American ear, the woman’s accent sounds like the maid Rose from the series “Upstairs Downstairs” rather than from one of the gentry upstairs.

It would be fascinating to hear how the use of Austen’s native tongue might change the speed, rhythm, and emphasis of the dialogue. There is a very noticeable difference in Shakespeare plays, as comparison. The original accent is faster, spoken from the belly rather than the vocal cords, and brings out more puns in the text.

The International Dialects of English Archive includes accents from other locales in which Austen set her scenes. None of the accents resembles the posh English of today’s Shakespeare plays and Austen movies.

Both Austen and her characters would have been immediately recognized as being from the country when they went up to London, which then as now has its own distinct sound. Locals would not necessarily assume they were bumpkins; the country had too many regional accents to allow discrimination by sound; one could tell the “right sort” of people by their wealth and manners.

It was, however, during this time that the speech of the well-to-do in and around London began to assume its modern form. A major change was the loss of ‘rhoticity’—the ‘r’ sound after a vowel, so that “park” became “pahk.” There’s a chance that Londoners—and perhaps Darcy—would have begun to pick up the distinct RP accent that the modern listener associates with upper-crust England.

That accent is relatively easy to learn, according to a young woman who promises to teach us how to speak like Hermione from “Harry Potter.”

But what is posh is a matter of fashion rather than linguistics. At least one young London woman considers “RP”—as spoken by Dowager Countess Grantham in “Downton Abbey”—to be an accent that can be used credibly only by old people. She distinguishes between old-fashioned RP and modern “standard,” in which people are allowed to maintain their natural accents.

Under this definition, Jane Austen’s Hampshire accent would be perfectly acceptable because she always wrote proper English, no matter how she spoke it.

Note and tip of the hat: I came to the article about Austen’s accent through a long interest in Shakespeare’s tongue, which led to the previous blog post here. As I was working on both of these blogs, Vic at Jane Austen’s World published the blog by Tony Grant, which I cite here. I independently came upon several other links included in that blog. Jane Austen’s World is a lovely website, and I encourage everyone to visit it.


‘To Bay or Not to Bay’: Did Shakespeare Talk Country?

When I was in college, the drama department at the University of Arkansas wanted to do a bang-up job on Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” Over the summer, they sent the actor playing the lead role off to study proper enunciation.

He returned with an impeccable rendition, but no one anticipated the disconnect for the audience caused by Hamlet speaking “proper” English and the rest of the cast speaking in their usual Arkansas accents. At times it sounded like a mashup of “Masterpiece Theatre” and the country comedy show “Hee-Haw.”

What’s ironic, though, is that the UA had it backward. Years later, I learned that Shakespearian English was not BBC English—known as the “Received Pronunciation” (RP), as if it had been handed down from God on high. Shakespeare’s English sounds like a regional version of English similar to Scottish and Irish, as well as Southern dialects in America.

Consider these lines from “Henry IV,” as Prince Harry challenges Falstaff for lying about his cowardice when set upon by “robbers”—one of whom was the Prince.

PRINCE: Why, how couldst thou know these men … when it was so dark thou couldst not see thy hand? Come, tell us your reason. …

FALSTAFF: … Give you a reason on compulsion? If reasons were as plentiful as blackberries, I would give no man a reason upon compulsion, I.

This is a pun, shown with my emphasis, that works only if “reason” rhymes with “raisin.” Where does this happen? In a thick American hillbilly accent.

Not convinced? Anthony Burgess, author of “A Clockwork Orange,” linguist, and Shakespeare scholar, describes in his novel “ABBA ABBA”–the rhyme scheme, not the rock band–what must have been his own epiphany about Shakespeare’s dialect.

“ABBA ABBA” is about the life of the poet John Keats as he’s dying of consumption in Rome. Keats receives a present–an English-Italian dictionary from 1611, edited by John Florio, a known friend of the Bard. In explaining the pronunciation of Italian words by comparing them with English, Florio also ends up showing the pronunciation of English words in Shakespeare’s day.  Here is Burgess describing Keats’ reaction:

“He was being given a vision … of how Shakespeare spoke. He spoke like an Irishman. … He said not flea but flay. He pronounced reason as raisin. And now [Keats got] the joke in Falstaff ‘s words: ‘reasons are as plentiful as blackberries.’ Of course, raisins. With awe and something of fear, John felt that he was being instructed by … poets dead and gone.”

That’s not all. According to David Crystal, an expert on the Elizabethan tongue, Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy begins, “To bay or not to bay,” which is straight out of the Appalachians or the Ozarks.

If it seems outlandish to suggest that elements of Shakespeare’s tongue might show up among rustics in the U.S. South, remember that most of the early settlers in that region were English, Scottish, and Irish. A number of them headed into the hills and didn’t talk to anyone outside their small communities for hundreds of years.

The mainstream dialects continued to evolve on both sides of the Atlantic. Many linguists believe England’s English has changed more than American English. In particular, most Americans still pronounce the “r” after a vowel (“rhoticity”), as in “park the car,” whereas RP English tells us to “pahk the cah.” Linguist Gretchen McCulloch flatly states that the majority of British settlers “spoke much more like current Americans than current Brits.”

In short, Shakespeare’s English is not the RP accent Ben Trawick-Smith speaks of as heard “among Oxford professors and in Jane Austen films.” Instead, it is a rich, earthy tongue spoken from the gut rather than the vocal cords. When Shakespeare is performed in “Original Pronunciation” (OP), many more rhymes and puns materialize, the rhythms change—and the play moves faster. “Romeo and Juliet” is ten minutes faster in OP.

Controversy has emerged as to whether Shakespeare should be done in RP or OP. Traditionalists vote for RP because it’s what they know, though it’s a Johnny-come-lately accent. Nor can they get their heads around the idea of doing the glorious Bard’s soaring pentameters in what they perceive as a downhome country twang—Scottish, Irish, American–even Australian.

OP supporters believe it’s important to hear Shakespeare as he spoke it. The Globe theater in London has done several productions both ways. See what David Crystal and his son, Ben Crystal, an actor and writer, have to say about the difference. The main discussion begins three minutes in.

In a separate segment, Ben explains why OP resembles so many varieties of English—including “pirate”!

What are your thoughts? Should Shakespeare be played in modern RP tongue, the language of the aristocrats of our own day, and of the movers and shakers of modern London? Or should we take the Bard back to his roots?

Does Shakespeare belong to the posh or the people? Does democratizing Shakespeare mean dumbing him down?

As for the other famous and proper English author, we’ll talk about Jane Austen and her actual accent next time around. Watch this space!

The history of the English language is rich and varied. Here is just a sampling of information on the topic.

British accents.

How English has changed.

For no reason except fun, here’s actor Robin Williams doing a host of accents.

Chawton House Library Conversations: June Podcast

The Chawton House is very closely tied to Jane Austen’s history. In 1781, Thomas Knight II inherited the house. He and his wife Catherine had no children of their own, but through family connections with Jane Austen’s father, the Reverend George Austen, they eventually adopted Jane’s third brother, Edward, when he was 16 years old. Edward Austen eventually took over management of the estates at Godmersham and Chawton in 1797, living mostly at Godmersham and letting the Great House at Chawton to gentlemen tenants. In 1809 he offered a house in the village to his mother and two sisters Cassandra and Jane, and it was there that Jane Austen began the most prolific period of her writing life. Her career as a novelist took off with the publication of “Sense and Sensibility” in 1811, and she went on to publish a further three of her novels while at Chawton (two more followed shortly after her death). She lived in Chawton until her death in 1817, only moving to Winchester near the end of her life to be nearer medical care.

The Chawton House Library has a wonderful monthly podcast filled with interesting information. You should check it out and listen to their latest podcast here: http://www.chawtonhouse.org/?p=61772

Help us pick the cover for Volume II

Volume II of The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen trilogy will be launched in September at the Jane Austen Festival in Bath, England. In the new book you will learn more about Jane Austen during the “lost years” of her life—seven years of which historians have little to no information. The period love story combines the charm and fierce wit of Austen’s comic masterpieces with a serious relationship set in the harsh realities and conflicts of the Regency period.

The trilogy answers the biggest mystery about the author: What did she do in her twenties, before she dedicated her life to writing? Tantalizing hints exist of a romance and possible scandal. Why were her letters and journals destroyed by her beloved sister? Why, afterward, did the vivacious Austen shut herself off from the world to write? Learn more of what really happened to Austen during the “missing” years of 1802 to 1809 during a turmultuous time in England’s history.

If you haven’t read the first book in the trilogy yet, pick up a copy today, offered at a special discount for a limited time, at www.janeaustenbooks.net. See why one critic called Volume I of The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen “an imaginative journey of the soul.“ You can find out more about Volume II when it is available this fall.

In the meantime…we’re asking for everyone’s input on a very important element for Volume II: the book cover. Below are two leading candidates for the cover of Volume II. Please indicate your preferences in comments.










Ballrooms were an important setting for romance in the Regency era. This cover treatment is intended to capture the excitement and intrigue of these important social events in Jane’s life which offered her so much good material to write about in her novels. Should this ballroom scene be the featured cover?










The beautiful English countryside nurtured Jane’s mind and soul, giving her the peace to contemplate the major events of her life. Should this outdoor scene be the featured cover?

Thanks for your input!


North America Winner of Sweepstakes Announced

Please join me in congratulating Karen vanMeenen of Rochester, New York, the Grand Prize Winner from the US in The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen Sweepstakes 2016. She has won a fantastic Grand Prize trip for two to the beautiful UNESCO World Heritage City of Bath, England, to attend the Jane Austen Festival in September 2016.

KJAB_buynowaren’s Grand Prize includes round-trip economy class air travel for two to London; a one-night hotel stopover in London; two round-trip train tickets to Bath; a three-night stay with daily breakfast for two at Three Abbey Green, a Four Star Gold Award guest house in the heart of Central Bath; free two-day admittance to the Jane Austen Festival in Bath, which is famous for being Austen’s one-time home; a tour of Bath and the surrounding countryside including Jane Austen’s house, the famous Bath Abbey, Roman Baths, the iconic Pulteney Bridge and Weir, Royal Crescent and King’s Castle among other sites.

Needless to say, I’m looking forward to sitting down for tea with Karen along with our UK winner Vicki Smith.

If you didn’t win one of our fantastic Grand Prizes, please don’t despair. As a special thank you to all of you who entered our sweepstakes we are offering a special discounted price ($11.50 for paperback; $19.50 for hardcover) for a limited time on your purchase of The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen from Jane Austen Books.

Photo: @Owen Benson

UK Winner of Sweepstakes Announced for Bath Festival

Drum roll, please!

It’s time to announce our Grand Prize Winner from Great Britain in “The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen” Sweepstakes 2016.

Vicki Smith of Manea in Cambridgeshire, England, is our lucky Grand Prize Winner! She has won an exciting Grand Prize trip for two to the beautiful UNESCO World Heritage City of Bath, England, to attend the Jane Austen Festival in September 2016!

We’ll be announcing our Grand Prize Winner from the U.S./Canada next week so stay tuned for that exciting news. You just could be our lucky winner!

Vicki’s Grand Prize includes two round-trip train tickets to Bath, three-night lodging with daily breakfast for two, and local tours and activities including the Jane Austen Festival.

In Bath, which is famous for being Austen’s one-time home, Vicki and her guest will enjoy exploring the cobblestone streets of the city and the picturesque valley of the River Avon. The city of Bath and the surrounding area is the setting for several pivotal chapters in “The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen,” Collins Hemingway’s new novel reimagining Austen’s life.

The Grand Prizes include free two-day admittance to the Jane Austen Festival, which begins Friday, Sept. 9; a three-night stay with daily breakfast for two at Three Abbey Green, a Four Star Gold Award guest house in the heart of central Bath; a tour of Bath and the surrounding countryside including Jane Austen’s house, the famous Bath Abbey, Roman Baths, the iconic Pulteney Bridge and Weir, Royal Crescent and King’s Castle among other sites; an exclusive tea with Collins Hemingway and signed copies of his novel.

If you didn’t win this fantastic Grand Prize, please don’t despair. As a special thank you to everyone who entered our sweepstakes we are offering a special discounted price ($11.50 for paperback; $19.50 for hardcover) for a limited time for your purchase of “The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen” on Jane Austen Books.

Sweepstakes update, Austen movie fun


Just a brief update to let you know that “The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen” Sweepstakes 2016 has concluded, and we’ll be announcing our Grand Prize Winners soon. Watch for updates here.

Also, Mary Jo Murphy in the New York Times ranked all the Austen movies done to date. More than sixty adaptations of Austen’s work, as I’ve mentioned before.

Note that the films are not listed in the order of rank; higher ranking ones are scattered throughout the article. The organization of the reviews is all the movies based on one book, then all the movies based on another, etc.

Murphy chooses the Jennifer Ehle/Colin Firth “Pride and Prejudice” as her favorite. I prefer the Emma Thompson “Sense and Sensibility.” Perhaps I’m not as enamored of the Colin Firth wet T-shirt contest as others may be–though he remains my favorite Darcy. Both movies are from 1995 and helped launch the modern Austen phenomenon.

Darcy’s shirt is coming to America, for those who are interested.

Note also that the critically well-received “Love and Friendship” will be officially released May 13. The movie, starring Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny, is confusingly named for one Austen story but is actually based on another, “Lady Susan.” I had always hoped that Austen might return to “Lady Susan,” an early unpublished work, and bring it up to the same level of quality as her major works. The main character, played by Beckinsale, is delightfully and unrepentantly evil.

A Taxing Subject for Americans–and for Austen and her Peers

April 15 being tax day in the U.S., I thought it appropriate to celebrate the many ways the tax man visited Jane Austen and her fellow citizens during Regency times.

The tax philosophy of the day echoed the views of the famous tax philosopher, George Harrison of the “Beatles”: “If you get too cold I’ll tax the heat/If you take a walk, I’ll tax your feet.”

Well, they didn’t tax feet in the Regency era, but they did tax other modes of transport such as horses and carriages.

Among the items taxed between 1795 and 1820 were: almanacs, bricks, candles, carriages, dice, glass, gloves, hair powder, hats (men), horses, leather, letter franks, newspapers, perfume (women), ribbons, servants and gamekeepers, shooting licenses, sporting dogs, spirits and wine, starch, timepieces, tobacco, wallpaper, and wills.

Taxes ranged from threepence for a cheap worker’s hat to several pounds for luxury items. Though the tax on alcohol and tobacco affected everyone, most taxes were geared toward the wealthy. Riding horses, for example, were taxed, but working horses were not.

In “Pride and Prejudice,” Mr. Bennet’s horses, which were farm horses first and pulled a carriage in their spare time, would have escaped taxation. Otherwise, the Bennet family probably could not have afforded a carriage. The carriage tax was among the highest: £8.16s for one four-wheel carriage; £9.18s for a second ; and £11 for each one after that, as Hazel Jones documents in “Jane Austen’s Journeys.”

By comparison, an unskilled laborer of the day made about £25 a year, and the Austen women, after the death of Mr. Austen, lived on about £400 annually.

Most of the tax revenue went toward the war with France, which carried on for most of Austen’s adult life.

The window tax, which had been around for many years, is a tax Austen mentions in “Mansfield Park” as a proxy for wealth. Henry Crawford gravely shakes his head at the size of Sotherton Court, the Rushworth house, and the narrator comments that there are more windows “than could be supposed to be of any use than to contribute to the window-tax.” This comment may have originated with Jane’s mother after Mrs. Austen’s trip to the fabulous Stoneleigh estate.

Tax policy and its implications arise subtly in the opening scene of my trilogy, The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen, in which Austen observes the entrance of a young man, Mr. Ashton Dennis, who quickly emerges as the male protagonist. After describing his wardrobe, the narrator observes: “He wore his own hair, whether because of the new fashion or unsuitable political views, it was impossible for Jane to know.”

The reference is to Ashton’s lack of a traditional wig and the hair powder used to keep it fresh. Old-fashioned Tories wore wigs and gladly paid the tax on powder as a patriotic show of support for the war with France. Some people, however, stopped wearing wigs to avoid the tax, while many Whigs disposed of wigs to protest the war itself, which ran counter to their commercial interests. Walking into a room, one could often tell political affiliation at a glance.

Having failed to raise as much money as expected, the hair tax was ultimately reduced; but by then a more natural look was in, sporting real hair in Roman styles. Vic Sanborn provides a lovely tutorial on changing men’s hairstyles in this era. This was also the beginning of the Romantic era, when hair could be as wild as the heath.

Despite the lack of revenue production, the hair-powder tax did have a positive effect. The powder was made from wheat; by discouraging its use, the tax somewhat reduced the pressure on food supplies for the army.

Every tax has such unexpected consequences, some negative, some positive. The tax on English newspapers led to the start of book clubs and subscription libraries, several of which Austen joined. These groups greatly increased the number of readers, and politics were often discussed at the meeting places, likely speeding up efforts at reform.

Most of the taxes remained in place during the war with France, but the ladies got a break. The men’s hat tax was not repealed until 1811, but the perfume tax ended in 1800.

Readers: What do you think—have I missed any other tax-related commentary in Austen’s works?

Were there other unintended negative consequences of these taxes?

Sexism in Film, Part II: What’s the Solution for Hollywood?

Recently, I wrote about sexism in films today and the general lack of strong roles for women. The blog noted that Jane Austen has been the source for at least ninety TV or movie productions, nearly half of all female films in the last twenty years.

Though the quiet perseverance of her characters has a universal appeal, the point was not so much hooray for Austen as it was a raspberry for the dearth of female roles from other sources.

The discussion over women in films, it turns out, was only beginning to gather steam in the industry, and the numbers that have turned up are damning.

In a survey of movies from 2007-2012, the New York Film Academy (NYFA) found that only 31 percent of all speaking characters in film are women. Nearly 30 percent of all women in movies wear revealing clothes or become partially naked, versus less than 10 percent of men. Women characters tend to be younger than men and ancillary to them.

Gena Davis, star of “Thelma and Louise” and other female-driven films, points out that in family films the percentage of speaking female roles is even lower (28 percent) and the female roles are often stereotypical.

In animated films, in which the production company can include as many females as desired, women compose only 17 percent of crowd scenes! Are they that much harder to draw?

Black women have particularly difficult problems getting roles or visibility. By overwhelming numbers, black women in films are homeless, powerless, abused, or alone. Even when they achieve recognition, it’s often for a menial position. Two of the six academy awards won by black females in 88 years were for servant roles, Hattie McDaniel in 1941 and Octavia Spencer in 2011.

The lack of roles for women translates into a lack of leverage for paychecks. NYFA found that men took home the top 16 biggest paychecks in Hollywood. The highest salary for a woman, Angelina Jolie, was equal to the lowest two salaries for men on the list.

Nancy Myers, the acclaimed director of movies about women, said in a New York magazine interview in Sept. 2015 that, except for a “couple” of bankable female stars, most women are fighting over the same small number of roles. This gives them less negotiating power than men. She also said it’s hard to get male movie stars to play in a movie if a woman is the lead.

The assumption is that putting women in positions of power will help female actors, and that turns out to be true. NYFA found that a female director results in nearly an 11 percent increase in female characters and a female writer leads to a nearly 9 percent increase in female characters.

Female directors, however, find it difficult to obtain employment.

Vulture columnist Kyle Buchanan documents that, in 2015, not a single film directed by a woman was produced by 20th Century Fox, Paramount, Sony, or the Weinstein Company.

Movies in the pipeline for 2016 have a similar tale: A USC study found that just 3.4 percent of working film directors were female and only 7 percent of all films reflected the country’s diversity. A USA Today analysis of 184 movies by 14 studios slated for release this year found little female presence.

Even the next in the female-based “Divergent” series, which stars Shailene Woodley, went to a male director. And, in the entire history of the Academy Awards, only four women have been nominated for best director, and only one has won, Kathryn Bigelow in 2010. Surprise: 77 percent of Oscar voters are male.

Barbra Streisand observed that women were doing better 100 years ago, when 12 women were working as directors in Hollywood.

Directing is only part of the equation, of course. Women are vastly underserved in the Hollywood power structure. According to NYFA, women comprise only 25 percent of producers; 20 percent of editors, 15 percent of writers; and 2 percent of cinematographers. Women constitute 9 percent of directors; if only 3.4 percent made a studio film in 2016, then two-thirds of women are unable to find a major directing job.

To the complaint that there aren’t enough good women directors out there, Buchanan of The Vulture provides a list of one hundred female directors Hollywood should be hiring .

Nancy Myers, the director, says that the problem is part cultural and part psychological, because in Hollywood a male director can have a flop and get another chance, but a woman cannot. Shonda Rhimes, considered the most powerful female in television for her hit shows featuring strong black females, echoes these remarks, saying that men consider successful female productions to be a fluke—even when the “fluke” repeats.

What drives women film professionals crazy, of course, is that female films, when they can be made, are often very successful. Seven of the top twenty movies of 2015 were primarily female-driven, including “Mad Max: Fury Road,” which was really a women’s liberation movie in which the male lead is dragged along for the ride. “Pitch Perfect 2” and Melissa McCarthy’s “Spy” trounced their male competition on release. Yet it’s also true that all but “Pitch Perfect 2” (Elizabeth Banks) was directed by a man.

The Motion Picture Academy has since announced changes designed to double the number of women and minority voters by 2020, which over time should help create more visibility for female and minority projects come award season.

But there’s the chicken-and-egg problem: What difference will that make if women and minorities continue to be overlooked for roles by the Hollywood establishment, which continues to make action-oriented movies primarily for young men?

It’s great that Austen is the go-to source for female movies, but there’s also only so much Austen material available. Though the newly released “Love and Friendship” is an excellent movie, the other new flick, “Pride and Prejudice and the Zombies,” is as awful as the book that spawned it. We’re now dredging the bottom of Austen’s manuscript drawer.

What’s the solution, readers?

Should women boycott male movies? Start a petition drive? Institute a quota system? Insist on equal pay for women actors? Is it enough that a few powerful women have created their own production companies?

Women in Films has started an online campaign, #52filmsbywomen, to encourage people to see at least one movie a week by a woman. One can rush out to see the lovely “Brooklyn,” for instance. Its star, Saoirse Ronan, was nominated for an Academy Award, and another dozen women are featured in prominent roles. Then one learns—it was written and directed by men.

First Monthly Winner of 2016 Bath Sweepstakes

We have our first winner of the monthly prize of our 2016 Bath Sweepstakes, which is a signed copy of The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen. This is the first of several smaller prizes before we select the grand prize winner, which will be a trip for two to Bath, England.

Click on this link to see the details of this month’s drawing!

Don’t wait to enter if you have not already.

Austen Sweepstakes Offers Grand Prize of Trips to Bath

Trips to Bath, England, are the grand prizes of The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen Sweepstakes 2016, to coincide with the city’s annual Jane Austen Festival in September 2016.

The sweepstakes, which honors Jane Austen, her work, and the many readers around the world who have made her a literary icon, comes in the midst of a series of Austen anniversaries—the 200th anniversaries of the publication of her novels from 1811 to 1817, and of course the 240th anniversary of her birth last month. I wanted to mark these important dates, as well as the publication of my own trilogy, The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen, in a way that recognizes her literary importance and also gives back to her many readers around the world.

My goal in the trilogy is to examine life and love for an intelligent woman in 1805, and to recognize Austen by imagining how an author of her skills would have tackled topics that were forbidden to women writers in her times. Just as I treat her seriously as a person and an artist, this contest provides a serious and meaningful reward for the people who have turned her into one of the most respected and best-loved writers of all time.

Participants may enter The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen travel sweepstakes daily from January 4, 2016, through April 14, 2016, for a chance to win either of two grand prizes, depending on whether they reside in the U.S., Canada or Great Britain:

Grand Prize Trip for two adults from the U.S. or Canada to London and Bath, England. Grand prize includes round-trip air travel (economy class) for two adults to London, a one-night lodging in London, two round-trip train tickets to Bath, three-night lodging with daily breakfast in Bath, and specified local tours and activities.

Grand Prize Trip for two adults from Great Britain to Bath, England. Grand prize for residents of Great Britain includes round-trip train or airline travel (economy class) to Bath, depending on which mode of travel is more cost-efficient from the winner’s residence in Great Britain. Three-night lodging in Bath with daily breakfast, and specified local tours and activities.

No purchase is necessary for sweepstakes entry. People can enter daily, and those who use Twitter to tweet about it can receive extra entries for themselves.

In Bath, each Grand Prize winner and his/her travel companion will enjoy free two-day admittance to the Jane Austen Festival, which begins Friday, September 9; a three-night stay with daily breakfast at Three Abbey Green, a Four Star Gold Award guest house in the heart of central Bath; a tour of Bath and the surrounding countryside including Jane Austen’s house; the famous Bath Abbey, Roman Baths, the iconic Pulteney Bridge and Weir, Royal Crescent and King’s Castle among other sites; an exclusive tea with Hemingway, author of The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen; and signed copies of his new novel.

As the one-time home of Austen, the beautiful UNESCO World Heritage city of Bath and the surrounding county of Somerset are favorite destinations for Austen devotees from around the world. Bath, in the picturesque valley of the River Avon, is also the setting for several pivotal chapters in The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen, which critics have praised for the quality of the writing, its compelling love story, its sensitive treatment of the historical Austen, and its meticulous research.

Travel must take place September 7, 2016, to September 12, 2016, in conjunction with the Jane Austen Festival in Bath The U.S. or Canada Resident Grand Prize Winner and his/her travel companion must travel together on the same itinerary and must travel to/from London on the following dates: Wednesday, September 7, 2016, and Monday, September 12, 2016. Air travel will be via round-trip, economy class airfare for two adults to London from a major airport nearest to the U.S. or Canada Resident Grand Prize Winner’s home.

The Grand Prize trips do not include additional travel, meals, or other costs not specifically listed in the Description of Grand Prizes or any miscellaneous expenses, as explained in the Official Rules.

Throughout the sweepstakes, entrants may also win one of four monthly prizes, which will include signed copies of The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen and an exclusive conversation via Skype about the novel with the author.

Residents of the U.S., Canada (excluding the province of Quebec) and Great Britain may enter the contest here. If you would like to “Like” the novel’s Facebook page, please do so here.

News Release

Enter The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen Sweepstakes 2016; Win One of Two Grand Prize Trips to Bath, England

PORTLAND, Oregon, Jan. 4, 2016The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen Sweepstakes 2016 was announced today by author Collins Hemingway in celebration of Jane Austen, the world-renowned English novelist, and his new historical novel based on her life. The travel sweepstakes will include two grand prize trips to the beautiful UNESCO World Heritage city of Bath, England, during the annual Jane Austen Festival in September 2016, which celebrates her life and work.

As the one-time home of Austen, the historic city of Bath and the surrounding county of Somerset are favorite destinations for Austen fans from around the world. Bath, in the picturesque valley of the River Avon, is also the setting for several pivotal chapters in Hemingway’s novel reimagining her life.  Reviewers have praised The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen for the quality of the writing, its compelling love story, its sensitive treatment of the historical Austen, and its meticulous research.

Participants may enter The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen travel sweepstakes daily from January 4, 2016, through April 14, 2016, for a chance to win either of two grand prizes, depending on whether they reside in the U.S., Canada or Great Britain:

  • Grand Prize Trip for two adults from the U.S. or Canada to London and Bath, England

o   Grand prize includes round-trip air travel (economy class) for two adults to London, a one-night lodging in London, two round-trip train tickets to Bath, three-night lodging with daily breakfast in Bath, and specified local tours and activities.

  • Grand Prize Trip for two adults from Great Britain to Bath, England

o   Grand prize for residents of Great Britain includes round-trip train or airline travel (economy class) to Bath, depending on which mode of travel is more cost-efficient from the winner’s residence in Great Britain. Three-night lodging in Bath with daily breakfast, and specified local tours and activities.

No purchase is necessary for sweepstakes entry.  People may enter daily on www.austenmarriage.com/sweepstakes and visitors to The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen’s Facebook may enter and then use Twitter to tweet about the sweepstakes to earn additional entries for themselves.

In Bath, each Grand Prize winner and his/her travel companion will enjoy free two-day admittance to the Jane Austen Festival, which begins Friday, September 9; a three-night stay with daily breakfast at Three Abbey Green (www.threeabbeygreen.com), a Four Star Gold Award guest house in the heart of central Bath; a tour of Bath and the surrounding countryside including Jane Austen’s house; the famous Bath Abbey, Roman Baths, the iconic Pulteney Bridge and Weir, Royal Crescent and King’s Castle among other sites; an exclusive tea with Hemingway, author of The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen; and signed copies of his new novel.

“Our sweepstakes is a celebration of Austen and her work in a way that gives back to her many fans around the world,” Hemingway said. “Just as I treat her seriously as a person and an artist in The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen trilogy, this contest provides a serious and meaningful reward for the people who have turned her into one of the most respected and best-loved writers of all time.  My goal in the trilogy is to examine life and love for an intelligent woman in 1805, and to honor Austen by imagining how an author of her skills would have tackled topics that were forbidden to women writers in her times.”

Travel must take place September 7, 2016, to September 12, 2016, in conjunction with the Jane Austen Festival in Bath (www.janeaustenfestivalbath.co.uk). The U.S. or Canada Resident Grand Prize Winner and his/her travel companion must travel together on the same itinerary and must travel to/from London on the following dates: Wednesday, September 7, 2016, and Monday, September 12, 2016. Air travel will be via round-trip, economy class airfare for two adults to London from a major airport nearest to the U.S. or Canada Resident Grand Prize Winner’s home.

The Grand Prize trips do not include additional travel, meals, or other costs not specifically listed in the Description of Grand Prizes or any miscellaneous expenses, as explained in the Official Rules www.austenmarriage.com/sweepstakes/official-rules.

Throughout the sweepstakes, entrants may also win one of four monthly prizes, which will include signed copies of The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen and an exclusive conversation via Skype about the novel with the author.

Residents of the U.S., Canada (excluding the province of Quebec) and Great Britain may enter the contest here: www.austenmarriage.com/sweepstakes. For more information about The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen and author Collins Hemingway, please visit www.austenmarriage.com. If you would like to “Like” our Facebook page, please do so here:  www.facebook.com/pages/The-Marriage-of-Miss-Jane-Austen/364335963764558.

About The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen

The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen is available online at amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, authorhouse.com, the Jane Austen Centre in Bath (http://janeausten.dblencowe.com/product/the-marriage-of-miss-jane-austen-signed-by-the-author/), and Jane Austen Books http://www.janeaustenbooks.net/p/store_29.html#!/~/search/inview=product57551432&keywords=15864&offset=0&sort=relevance). This novel is the first book in a trilogy that examines how a serious romantic relationship would have changed her as a person and a writer, using historical fiction to provide a thoughtful, in-depth look at what life was really like for women in the early 1800s.  The trilogy takes the heroine out of rural England and plunges her into what the Regency era was really about: great explorations and scientific advances, political foment, wars that were among the longest and most devastating in European history—and into a serious relationship with a man very much her equal.

Austen achieved success as an author during the years of 1811 to 1816 with her novels Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1815), and the joint publication of Northanger Abbey/Persuasion shortly after her death in 1817.

Reader Thoughts on ‘Marriage,’ Austen’s Journey of the Soul

’Tis better to give than receive, but in this holiday season I would like to take a moment to thank readers for what I have received—their very generous thoughts and comments on my novel, The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen.

What touched me most was the number of times “beautiful” and “delight/ful” came up:

“A delightful book, beautifully researched with historical tidbits.”

“This beautifully constructed book transports the reader. … The exchange of letters was exquisitely beautiful.”

“The escapades of the couple made me laugh and the beautiful letters brought a depth of character to Jane and Ashton while also bringing them together.”

“This book is beautifully written. It was so engaging that I didn’t want it to end. … This is one of the best love stories I have read in a long time.”

“How delightful to read a novel so creatively written which explores what many JA fans have wondered—did she ever fall in love?”

“The book is a delight—readers are transported to another time and place with amazing detail and accuracy.”

“I have just finished reading this delightful book. … It is not too far from Austen’s life story—with a twist that intrigues. …[T]he ending is quite lovely. … The best ending of its sort I have read.”

Beyond being glad that any reader enjoys a novel, an author feels a special joy when readers appreciate things that he worked hardest to achieve. Professional reviewers all cited the language:

“The irony and sly humor of Jane Austen herself, complete with the stylistic language of the Regency period” (Blueink starred review). “A talent for witty banter and wry observations that would make Elizabeth Bennet proud” (Kirkus). “Wry, observant, laconic—much like Jane Austen herself, without ever dipping into pastiche or mimicry” (Jane Austen’s Regency World).

And a regular reader: “The language, timing and historical accuracy were all perfect. I found myself reading the last of this book rather than preparing for a party I was to give that evening.”

Ultimately, novels rise and fall on characterization, and these comments engender pride:

“The characters jump off the page with their captivating personalities.”

“This author has fleshed out a Jane Austen who remains true to what I felt she might be like reading her novels in my teens. He makes her come alive—her quick wit, intelligence, eagerness to learn new things, and thoughtful reflections. … How dear to me that she becomes a woman of strong passion!”

Kirkus found my Austen “true to life, an intelligent and determined young woman.” Others referred to “a very human Jane” and “a believable version of her character, truly a worthy addition to the Jane Austen legacy.”

My favorite was a four-star review from Foreword CLARION Reviews, which described the novel as “an imaginative journey of the soul.” More than a historical romance or a period piece, I wanted to create a flesh-and-blood reality for a sensitive woman caught up in a turbulent time in a relationship with a man very much her equal. Volume I is the start of a journey that will test her character and her soul.

Many thanks again to all who have read the book and especially to those who have taken the time to comment.

Happy holidays, everyone!

Wilsonville Spokesman

December 16, 2015

Marrying Microsoft and Jane Austen

It may come as some surprise that after several decades co-authoring nonfiction works on science and business with the likes of Bill Gates, Eugene-based writer Collins Hemingway — who is unrelated to Ernest Hemingway — should direct his efforts to a literary trilogy that reimagines the life of Jane Austen.

But to hear Hemingway tell it, the shift in emphasis is not as much of a stretch as one might think….Read entire story.

Reflections on JASNA AGM

As one of 150-plus first-time attendees to the 2015 Annual General Meeting (AGM) of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA), I found the event to be as educational as I had hoped and more charming than I expected. Here are a few of my JASNA reflections.

The AGM was hosted by the Louisville, KY, region, led by Alana Gillett and Bonny Wise, who put on an event that drew the largest number of newcomers and, according to old-timers, a record turnout of people dressed in period clothes. There’s something about Southern culture that encourages locals put on their Sunday best when nice people come to town.

My main interest in attending was the seminars, particularly those related to health, medicine, and childbirth. These topics play an important role in the second and third volumes of “The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen.” The seminars ended up spanning talks by Albert Roberts, on the work of a naval surgeon; Sharon Lathan, a nurse (RNC) and novelist, on medical practice and practitioners; mathematician Dr. Jo Ann Staples on household remedies of the day; and Kelly M. McDonald on childbirth in Regency times, with examples involving Austen’s own relatives.

Some of the medical treatments, including surgery without anesthetics, were brutal. A modern person cowers at the knowledge that Austen’s fellow author Fanny Burney underwent a mastectomy for breast cancer without anesthetic—and lived another thirty years. Other treatments, such as medicines containing mercury, were dangerous. Laudanum—opium dissolved in gin or wine—was the day’s equivalent of aspirin.

The medical practice of every era will suffer from historical perspective. Two hundred years from now, people will consider us barbaric for cutting open people—even with anesthetics—to heal them, and for dumping poison in their veins to stave off cancer.

My convention-going days have involved business—meetings with partners, customers, the press—and the typical attendee was a burned-out yuppie. It’s refreshing to see people who enjoy working the booths, and people in the hallways who are conversing with others because they want to, rather than have to. And to attend seminars out of genuine interest–in addition to a business imperative.

For a newbie, there were not as many opportunities to meet others as I would have liked. Everyone was friendly, but the singleton had to push forward, usually into long-time friends, to make connections. It was worthwhile, to be sure. I met a number of fellow authors, and members of regions outside of Oregon whose interests ranged from the erudite to the fun. It would have been nice to have meetings specifically designed to introduce people to those from other parts of the country.

Of course, I declined the one social event I might have joined in, the Saturday evening ball. Too concerned that the dance steps would be too complicated, though from what I then saw from the sidelines the more experienced dancers were quite patient and encouraging to the newcomers.

I learned that the card game Speculation was as popular among the Rogers clan (explorers of the Ohio valley and the Great Northwest) in Locust Grove, KY, as it was among the Bertrams in Mansfield Park, England. I could not claim, as Fanny Price did, to be a mistress (master?) of the rules within three minutes, for the youngest lady at the table roundly trounced me in the half-dozen hands I played.

News Release

Ex-Microsoft Exec Goes from High Tech to Novel About Jane Austen

Historical fiction imagines impact of mature love on authors life, work; Early reviews positive on ‘imaginative journey of the soul

 PORTLAND, Oregon, October 8, 2015 – A long-time Microsoft executive who co-authored a book on business and the Internet with Bill Gates and a book on the retail industry with Starbucks executive Arthur Rubinfeld is publishing an entirely different kind of work this week: a novel that reimagines the life of Jane Austen.

Collins Hemingway, who worked in marketing and communications on Microsoft’s systems business from 1987 to 1999, is launching The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen at the Annual General Meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) in Louisville, KY, Oct. 8-11. The novel, the first installment of a trilogy, is now available on amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.

Hemingway, a nonfiction author who has earned his reputation for tackling challenging subjects with clarity and insight, has now applied these literary talents to a work of fiction. Reimagining the life of Jane Austen, a literary icon beloved by readers around the world, The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen examines how a serious romantic relationship would have changed her as a person and a writer. The approach uses historical fiction to provide a thoughtful, in-depth look at what life was really like for women in the early 1800s.

The love story takes the heroine out of Austen’s balls and country houses of rural England and plunges her into what the Regency era was really about: great explorations and scientific advances, political foment, and wars that were among the longest and most devastating in European history. The characters become bound up in these outside events even as they become bound together.  The novel imagines a life for Austen in which she opens her heart to a man as independent, as passionate and as complicated as she is herself.

Early reviews of The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen have been very positive:

What if Austen, who penned so many classic love stories, found her own romantic match? Ashton Dennis fits right into the Austen universe, while this Jane remains true to life, an intelligent and determined young woman. The writing is Austen-ian, and Hemingway has a talent for witty banter and wry observations that would make Elizabeth Bennet proud. An enjoyable first novel in an imaginative, well-researched series. —Kirkus Reviews

Hemingway’s book … [places] a very human Jane into a vibrant, turbulent England that is seeking new ideas but also fighting the Napoleonic Wars. … He captures the energy of the times, while also writing with the irony and sly humor of Jane Austen herself, complete with the stylistic language of the Regency period. … This is truly a worthy addition to the Jane Austen legacy, a story sure to please all Austen fans. —Blueink Starred Review

A skillful portrayal of an early nineteenth-century literary icon takes this historical romance on an imaginative journey of the soul. … Insight and intuition, along with meticulous research, have created a believable version of her character in this tender story of Ashton and Jane. … Excellent character development enhances the plausibility of the scenario. Background, motivation, eccentricity—everything that constitutes a personality allow these fascinating people to step off the pages in lifelike form. Bright, colorful descriptive passages establish a sense of place, building atmosphere and mood. … Hemingway immerses himself in [Austen’s] unique world—a stylistic tribute that evokes the genteel atmosphere of the period. —Julia Ann Charpentier, Foreword CLARION Reviews, 4 stars

[An] engaging and remarkably convincing romance. … Wry, observant, laconic—much like Jane Austen herself, without ever dipping into pastiche or mimicry. … Hemingway, with the lightest touch, builds up a thoroughly convincing alternative history for Jane. … [A] thoughtful re-imagining of Austen’s love life. Joceline Bury, Jane Austens Regency World

The common theme between The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen and Hemingway’s nonfiction is the handling of complex subjects in a clear, intelligent and creative manner. As a nonfiction author, Hemingway has worked with a number of thought leaders to produce insightful books on topics as diverse as corporate culture and ethics; business, the Internet, and mobile technology; retail branding strategies; and the cognitive potential of the brain. He is best known for partnering with Gates, then Microsoft’s CEO, on the #1 best-selling book Business @ the Speed of Thought.

Hemingway will be signing books from 3:45 to 5:45 pm, on Saturday, Oct. 10, in the Galt House Grand Hall at the JASNA conference. For more information about The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen and the author go to www.austenmarriage.com.

About the Author

After a career in the high-tech industry, Hemingway, a native of Arkansas, now lives in Bend, OR. His range of interests shows in the books in which he has been involved. He is:

  • Author of the novel The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen (Oct. 2015);
  • Co-author with Microsoft CEO Bill Gates of the #1 best-selling book on business and technology, Business @ the Speed of Thought;
  • Co-author with Starbucks executive Arthur Rubinfeld on Built for Growth, the gold standard about how companies can create and renew retail brands;
  • Co-author with Dan Baker and Cathy Greenberg on What Happy Companies Know, about how positive cultures help companies outperform competitors;
  • Co-author with Robert Marcus on The Fifth Wave, about the mobile revolution and how it is changing the world;
  • Co-author with Shlomo Breznitz on Maximum Brainpower, about how to keep the mind active and the brain healthy throughout life.

Clarkson, Anning, Austen Ring


Of Jane Austen’s known jewelry, her topaz cross came from her younger brother, Charles, who bought one each for his sisters with his first navy prize in 1801. Her turquoise bracelet probably came from another brother, Edward, as a memento relating to the death

of his beloved wife Elizabeth in 1808.                                          (Photo by Michael Maggs, Wikimedia Commons)

But what is the provenance of the turquoise ring, the one that American singer Kelly Clarkson sought to buy at auction in 2013? And could that ring have drawn Jane Austen into a search for fossils along the cliffs of Lyme Regis?

The possible loss of the Austen ring—to an American!—a rock star!—set off a controversy unlike any since Lord Elgin spirited the Parthenon marbles out of Greece and into England during Austen’s day. Pooling their farthings in 2013, England’s Janeites raised £152,450 ($232,836) to secure the ring for posterity.

But whence the ring originally? The only reference I have been able to find to a Jane Austen ring during her lifetime is her Stoneleigh Abbey inheritance of a “Single Brilliant Centre Ring.” This came when her aunt and uncle Leigh-Perrott accepted a financial settlement in exchange for any claim to the Stoneleigh estate when the last of the direct Leigh line died in 1806.

That settlement, even with a ring or other trinkets, was a bitter disappointment to the Austens. In a letter, Jane called it a “vile compromise.” If the Leigh-Perrots had pressed their claim—and won—the oldest Austen brother, James, would have eventually inherited the magnificent estate from the childless Leigh-Perrots.

Could this brilliant centre ring from Stoneleigh be the same brilliant turquoise that now rests, safe from marauding Americans, at Jane Austen’s House Museum in Hampshire?

Even if the ring originated elsewhere, its composition raises fascinating questions in itself, for it could provide a new perspective on a paleontological family in Lyme Regis whom Austen knew. The blue stone is odontolite: fluorophosphate infiltrated by hydrous ferrous phosphate. In plain language, it is an ancient tooth that has been stained blue by the soil. In plainer language still, a fossil.

Fossils were contentious science in the early 1800s and for long after because they contravened the officially accepted age of the Earth. Bishop Ussher in 1650 had set Creation at precisely 6 p.m. on October 22, 4004 B.C.—5,779 B.J. (Before Jane). Though only one-sixth of his sources were biblical, the Church adopted his estimate as fact.

Yet here were these cliffs, composed of layers and layers of soil, deposited slowly over time, each layer containing its own collection of life as shown in the fossilized remains. A calculation based on God’s rocks rather than on Man’s generations would put the age of the Earth—and its lifeforms—at many, many millions of years (185 million is today’s estimate of the Lyme deposits).

Fossil exploration in the Regency era was part of a drumbeat of discoveries pouring out of studies in astronomy, chemistry, and geology that put the literalness of Scripture—and ecclesiastical authority—at risk. Though this was half a century before the theory of evolution, Erasmus Darwin, Charles’ grandfather, had already postulated the existence of a mechanism by which one species might turn into another. Fossils supported that view.

Consider then that Austen knew a cabinetmaker named Richard Anning, who came to the family quarters in Lyme Regis at least once, to provide a bid for a furniture repair in 1804. Anning also sold fossils, dug from the nearby cliffs, to tourists. He used the proceeds to supplement his meager wages and to fund more serious excavations.

Because the Anning family sold the more common fossils at the small village market, Austen must have seen Anning from time to time. If she had the ring then, he might have recognized the stone as a fossil and perhaps discussed its origins with her. A woman who loved to walk the cliffs, Austen would have been fascinated by the natural philosophy involving the ground beneath her feet.

Very likely, Austen met the family’s young daughter, Mary, peddling those same wares at the market. Could Austen have resisted buying a modest fossil from the scruffy but precocious girl? Would Jane’s interactions with the Anning family have led her to scrape out a fossil here and there along her walks?

Mary Anning grew up to become one of the leading paleontologists in the world. Among her finds, mostly at Lyme Regis, were the first complete skeletons of the ichthyosaur and plesiosaur. As a woman and religious dissenter, she seldom received full recognition for her work, was denied membership in the Geological Society of London, and lived most of her life in poverty. She once wrote: “The world has used me so unkindly, I fear it has made me suspicious of everyone.”

Two centuries later, the Royal Society named Anning one of the ten most important British women in the history of science. Lyme Regis now has a fossil festival and celebrates an annual Mary Anning day.

One supposes that, years later, Austen might have slipped away from Chawton to travel back to her beloved Dorset coast—to refresh her memory of the Cobb, perhaps, for Persuasion?—and have come upon Mary Anning once again. In 1815, Mary would have been sixteen and as mature in her science as Jane had been in her writing at the same age.

It is tantalizing to imagine that there could have been a day along the cliffs when one of the greats of English literature joined with one of the greats of English science—both largely unrecognized in their time—to dirty their petticoats in a hunt for the elusive pterosaur hidden within the Blue Lias.

(This article was originally published in Jane Austen’s Regency World.)

Strong Female Film Characters

Strong female film characters: Will they ever consistently appear?

Movies with strong female leads have proven exceedingly popular. Consider only the success and variety of The Hunger Games, Wild, Kill Bill, Gravity, and Frozen. Yet the entertainment industry has had to be dragged—if not kicking and screaming, at least whining—into making films about strong women.

Women in the field, including the respected Emma Thompson, complain that sexism is as prevalent today in the entertainment industry as at any time in the past. “Some forms of sexism and unpleasantness to women have become more entrenched and indeed more prevalent,” Thompson says. “When I was younger, I really did think we were on our way to a better world, and when I look at it now, it is in a worse state than I have known it.”

The situation has caused Hollywood actresses, including Jennifer Aniston, Drew Barrymore, Jessica Biel, Jane Fonda, Queen Latifah, and Reese Witherspoon to found their own production companies to create films with strong female leads.

“My daughter was 13, and I wanted her to see movies with female leads and heroes and life stories,” Witherspoon explains. She and her business partner, Bruna Papandrea, through their company Pacific Standard, have already produced Wild, Gone Girl, and Don’t Mess With Texas.

Though some film heroines have used moxie and physical strength to take on a hostile world, more often women use their brains and character to hold their own in a society set against them. The source for the one consistent line of such strong, thoughtful women? Jane Austen.

At least ninety Austen-based movies, miniseries, and television shows have been done, including twenty-five or so major movies/miniseries. Most are relatively recent. The only early major movie was the Olivier-Garson Pride and Prejudice in 1940.

The Austen breakout began in 1995 with four popular Austen adaptations. Emma Thompson, quoted above, won awards as both an actress and screenwriter for Sense and Sensibility. Alicia Silverstone won accolades for the Emma-based Clueless. Jennifer Ehle battled Colin Firth until he surrendered to her charms in a Pride and Prejudice miniseries. Gwyneth Paltrow followed as Emma in 1996.

Another two dozen major productions have come along in the next twenty years, including four scheduled for release in 2015. Sarah Seltzer provides a thoughtful look at most of them, ranking the Ehle-Firth Pride and Prejudice the best and the two 1999/2007 Mansfield Parks as the worst. Even Austen’s minor books are being filmed—Love and Friendship and Lady Susan.

Why would a traditional author such as Austen be so appealing to the modern age? Perhaps women find the quiet perseverance and hope of a Liz Bennet, Catherine Morland, or Fanny Price closer to their reality than an avenging female gladiator.

There’s also a life richness often missing in action movies. Emma Thompson captures the bittersweet essence of Austen’s books when she says, “In all the great stories, even if there’s a happily-ever-after ending, there’s something sad.”

On the twentieth anniversary of the 1995 Austen emergence in film, such roles resonate today with ordinary women who face many of the same issues: a lack of respect, general economic disadvantage, and less opportunity than their male counterparts.

The same thing, of course, that females in the entertainment business face.

‘Slow Love’ for Darcy

John Tierney’s recent article on “mate value” confirms a long-held notion that people tend to marry others like themselves in terms of looks, wealth, and education. He holds out hope for mismatched couples, however, through a process called “slow love.”

Studies show that the longer someone spends with a potential but mismatched mate, the higher they rate the other in sex appeal. Over time, an individual has the opportunity to uncover the other person’s strengths, which can outweigh the initial impression. (See for couples time can upend the laws of attraction.)

This phenomenon of “slow love” accounts for what Tierney calls the “schlub-gets-babe” movie formula, such as “Knocked Up,” in which the unkempt Seth Rogen lands the gorgeous Katherine Heigl.

Tierney may be off the mark, however, in his other example, “Pride and Prejudice,” which he cites lovingly throughout. Based on Darcy’s initial negative reaction to Elizabeth’s looks, several productions have made Liz a plain young woman. But Jane Austen describes Elizabeth only from Darcy’s eyes, never objectively.

One of the charms of Austen’s sly prose is that the reader can never know whether Liz’s intelligence and wit eventually outweigh her poor looks, or whether her physical beauty becomes apparent to Darcy only when her many other attributes overwhelm his social bias.

After all, the book’s original title was not “Plain Jane and Hot Stud” but “First Impressions.”

Why the Book

Whenever we travel, and happen to have a female pilot, I joke to my wife about my horror that they’re letting a “girl” fly the airliner. Knowing that my own flight instructor was a woman, my wife usually responds with nothing worse than a sharp elbow to the ribs. (I fly little planes—they’d never let me fly a big one.)

My primary physician, my dentist, and most other professionals in my life—women. My career—often one of collaboration with women. My most satisfying professional times—a company run by women. The loveliest person in my life—a woman.

It seems only natural that I should write a novel that has as its protagonist a strong female character, in the form of Jane Austen, respected for her intelligence, her wit, and her demand that women be treated with respect.

No doubt this empathy for women involves my own personal history. I and my two brothers were raised by a single mother after our father ran away from home. This was in the conservative South, when being a divorcee had the whiff of the disreputable about it, and the highest rung on the corporate ladder for a woman was that of office secretary.

We survived, but I would not romanticize the experience. My mother struggled her entire life to earn a living—and respect. We had food on the table, but not much. We often fell behind on our account with the grocer. But she never missed a day of work, and she eventually paid every bill. Absorbing her work ethic, we boys clawed our way up and out.

But that life and experience was not ennobling. It largely broke my mother. She achieved modest comfort in retirement, but she was never really happy.

Because of the timing of my career, I witnessed the rise of women in the workplace. When I began working for newspapers in high school, ninety percent of newsrooms were male, and the women were largely relegated to the Society section. By my mid-twenties, half the newsrooms were female. When I moved into high-tech ten years later, communications had shifted from largely male to largely female. Many women avoided the glass ceiling by founding their own firms.

By and large, I have prospered more under the collegial atmosphere fostered by women than by the tiresome competitiveness that is too often a part of male culture. I successfully swam with the sharks, but it wasn’t a lot of fun.

These are all the personal reasons that I’ve been drawn to Jane Austen as a character. In so many ways, she represents an intelligent woman’s fight for independence in a society structured to keep her dependent.

In writing this book, I can liberate her to become a whole woman capable of fulfilling her life’s dreams. I can engage her in issues from which she otherwise would have been excluded. I can throw the worst of the Regency era at her and see how she responds. By testing her mettle, I can draw a deeper and more honest portrait of her character than is otherwise possible.

And, by making her the first woman in Bath to fly, I can have her life soar. …

Tough World for Austen

I knew I had my Jane Austen novel when I read a seemingly unrelated work: Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder. This history of scientific and industrial developments during the period spanning Austen’s life went far beyond “three or four families in a country village” to show a panorama of fervent intellectual activity across sprawling Regency England.

I already had the major plot points for the central love story—including, curiously enough, the technological marvel referenced in Chapter 1 and deployed in Chapter 4. However, I needed much more than that to avoid replicating what Austen—not to mention her many imitators—had already done. I did not want still another parlor-room romance in a quaint English setting. I wanted to rip that tranquil world apart and send the lovers out into a complex, dangerous world that would test them as human beings.

That world had two major components: the rapid and destabilizing changes in business and society, and the brutal, never-ending stalemate that was the war with France.

The Age of Wonder demonstrated the scientific and industrial advances that were providing the literal and figurative engines for the Industrial Revolution. These changes undermined traditional craft industries to create substantial labor unrest and demands for political reform.

The other part, the military, was equally important. Several characters in Austen’s novels have military backgrounds. Wickham, the deceitful Militia officer in Pride and Prejudice, is the most infamous. Yet from the repartee of Austen’s social gatherings, today’s readers would never be able to guess that England and France were locked in a death struggle for twenty-nine years of Austen’s forty-one-year life. Or that England was torn with dissent and often teetering on financial collapse.

Her adulthood paralleled the Napoleonic wars, with horrifying death tolls from combat and disease, press gangs that shanghaied civilian sailors into the Royal Navy, food shortages created by military demands, and the constant threat of French invasion.

In The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen, the real world continually complicates characters’ lives, and the devastating war comes home in direct and fearful ways.

Well aware that she fashioned miniatures—comparing her books to intricate two-inch ivory carvings—Austen deflected any suggestions that she work on a larger scale. My own view is that, had she lived to old age like most of her siblings, Austen would have ventured far beyond her rural settings. Her unfinished Sanditon shows hints—a book about a crass real-estate developer who wants to turn a sleepy village into a tourist trap!

The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen strives to do what she might have done had she had the chance. It paints a love story across a broad canvas that shows what the Regency era was really all about: great explorations, scientific discovery, industrial advances, labor and political unrest, and an unceasing, bloody war.

From High Tech to Jane Austen

Blame it on Dr. Eaves.

He’s the answer to the question, why would a 21st Century man, who has spent most of his career in computers, business, and aviation, explore the “what ifs” in the life of a literary woman from two hundred years earlier?

Dr. Duncan Eaves was my cherubic 18th Century literature instructor, who could joyfully recite long stretches of Pope’s heroic couplets or convince his students, by good humor alone, that it was worth the effort to finish Samuel Richardson’s tedious novel Pamela.

Dr. Eaves was a world expert in 18th Century literature, and Jane Austen was the bookend of his course. He and another wonderful instructor at my school, Dr. Ben Kimpel, wrote the definitive biography of Richardson, usually considered the first English novelist, and Dr. Eaves edited an edition of Pamela.

Dr. Eaves eschewed the usual Jane Austen reads, Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, for Emma, which he considered much the superior work.

At this same time, in a class on modern poetry, I read a poem—by Anne Sexton or Maxine Kumin, I believe—that described what life would have been like for Romeo and Juliet had they not “escaped” with a romantic death: squalling babies, money hassles, etc. I had just gotten married and had a child, was struggling financially, and knew, even at 21, that courtship and marriage were radically different things.

The situation led to animated exchanges with Dr. Eaves about Austen. My view was that she was a brilliant but superficial writer—almost by definition—because courtship did not lend itself to investigation of the deepest feelings of the heart or the substance of life. Her books, I told Dr. Eaves, ended where they should have begun: with marriage.

Dr. Eaves told me to come back and read Austen every ten years or so. As I gained experience, he said, I would see more of life woven into the fabric of her work and less of the comedy of manners. Over time, his prediction came true. Austen pushed the bounds of convention, and likely her own sense of propriety, by addressing substantive issues obliquely—premarital sex and the slave trade, to mention two.

Even the delightful Emma, with its breezily misguided protagonist, manages to provide “perfect happiness” for a scandalous situation, which is the fact of Harriet’s illegitimacy. Interestingly enough, her being a “natural” daughter turns out not to be nearly as important as whether her father was a gentleman, as Emma supposes, or a tradesman, as turns out to be the case.

Novels in Austen’s day often addressed the question of a lady’s virtue before marriage but never seriously addressed other matters of consequence, before or after the wedding. Austen’s secondary characters are the ones involved in dubious—thus consequential—activities, and she often leaves open the question of future happiness for them. The main characters, however, skip off gaily into the future.

The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen is my solution to the questions that began decades ago at university. I wanted to bring the more serious issues of her day out of the background and into the light, as part of the protagonist’s own experiences.

I also wanted to see how a woman of Austen’s intelligence, passion, and independence would respond when she must directly address those issues. The answer was to throw the female lead into the exciting, chaotic maelstrom that was the Georgian-Regency era.