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.

 

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.

Thoughts?

Fight Against Slavery Carried on Beyond Austen’s Life

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!”

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.

 

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.)

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.