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?

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.

 

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.

All text title page
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?

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.)

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.