We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Reading about Jane Austen & photos of Steventon, Chawton, Winchester · 19 October 08

Dear Friends,

This is for readers who might appreciate comments on recent criticism of Austen’s art. It’s a round up of criticism on Austen I’ve read recently. I also link in a delightful set of photos taken by Tracy Marks during her visit trip to Austen sites.

On the texts: I’d like to recommend John Wiltsire’s JA and the Body as excellent too (I recommended his JA: Introductions & Interventions a while back). Wiltshire’s idea is to study how Austen uses sickness and health in her novels, specifically the body’s functioning as an unconscious vehicle of self-expression. The idea comes from Arthur Kleinman’s study of somatization where he shows that emotions are (so to speak) deposited in the body; the way illnesses emerge and are experienced become idioms of social and cultural distress. You can come across this perspective in clinical studies of pain perplexes (e.g., Atul Gawande’s chapter in Complications where pain may genuinely be in the head but counts as it’s experienced physiologically fully.)

It’s not just the overt examples in Jane Fairfax or Fanny Price, but
the comic ones we are less inclined to pay attention to but matter,
e.g., Mrs Bennet’s nerves. Sexuality can be discerned too as the
body becomes a site on which all sorts of incidents and cultural and social meanings are inscribed.

This sounds terribly abstract, but in fact once he begins to study the novels, it’s startling how effective turning one’s attention to Austen’s many many descriptions of her character’s bodily gestures and doings of all sorts (from blushes to diet, to the way they walk, physically feel things (so the body becomes an indicator of protest) is in understanding the meaning of an individual novel’s characters and plot-design. I’ve mentioned Emma through Jane Fairfax, but Mr Perry is kept quite busy in Highbury_ and there are devastating and quieter cases of illness and bodily trouble in MP. Sense and Sensibility with Marianne’s illness and Elinor’s less obvious but often recorded traumas and Sanditon may seem to lend themselves more to this than say Persuasion, but think of all the descriptions of Anne Elliot over the course of that book. Mary Musgrove’s “sore throats” which are “always worse than anybody’s,” Captain Benwick’s appearance.

It really works, new insights about the novels and the sources of
Austen’s power emerge. As with his Interventions it’s also written lucidly and is an enjoyable book to read. He quotes Austen continually.


On the genre: Susan Fraiman’s Unbecoming Women: British Women Writers and the the Novel of Development. The reach of this one goes far beyond Austen to novels of development, women’s films, and the reality of adolescent and young women’s lives. Fraiman argues that there is a bildingsroman for women, but it takes a very different form from that we find in men’s novels (which may be said to descend from Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister). What happens is the woman is obstructed from doing what she wants, and becomes will she nill she part of an order intershot by males in conflict with one another who she becomes a sort of instrument for, even if she is fighting for a life for herself.

The result is a partly reading against the grain in a number of classic novels, not so much misreading, but showing the underbelly let’s say in Austen’s P&P of Elizabeth’s humiliation, for Elizabeth is humliated and she bends enormously in a reverse direction without Darcy having to bend very much. She is just about all wrong she decides. Fraiman sees Lydia’s story as a complement for Elizabeth’s. Fraiman also reads Burney’s Evelina (who is waylaid), Bronte’s Jane Eyre (who sets up a homosocial home for herself away from Rochester where she does become independent though cannot get more than that minimally) and then Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (which, righly in my view, angers Fraiman). What’s particularly good is how Fraiman then moves into modern novels of women’s development—and shows the same story of obstruction, getting round it, coping with it.

For me Fraimans’ approach to modernizing Austen is the fulfilling true and enlightening one (by contrast Lost in Austen is triviliazing serious issues and praising modern ways of life for unexamined reasons). As for films, take The Duchess: a story of Georgiana growing up and what happens to her: she learns to live with utter obstruction and narrow limits. She must live inside the Duke’s life, her options very limited.


On Austen’s life: I’ve not read David Nokes’s biography of Austen recently, having read through one third of his biography of Gay now and begun his biography of Swift, I will return to Nokes’s biography of Jane Austen with renewed respect. I did feel his book was far more originally researched than Tomalin’s. He was brave in admitting how much fictionalization goes on in these biographies; his reward for his telling the truth (necessary in a biography of Austen as so much has been skewed or destroyed by the family) was his book was attacked.

Why? for its interpretation. I disagree with some of his assertions: he says Austen wanted to go to Bath and wanted to socialize with her intellectual equals. The first idea has much and the second some (or considerable) evidence against it. Austen did hate Bath when she went as a poor unmarried woman. She clearly avoided being lionized and socializing outside her family and few friends even if this meant not being with her equals and peers in mind (which she brings out as a hurt and loss in her Watsons for example). Many Janeites apparently want their Jane to want retirement and dislike overt socializing-city life; they don’t want their Jane seeking admiration outside her family (this way they can identify perhaps). MP is a great book and was read just as much as Emma: Nokes hates it, and wants to condemn it in Murdock’s terms, and also tries to prove it was a great flop in comparison with the others; it wasn’t in comparison with Emma which also was not appealing to the reading public in the way of P&P. He manifests a Twain-like intense sexual antagonism to Fanny Price.

But these are not enough to make the book bad or useless. He is bold and has a strong critical perspective on the 18th century establishment (as he does in his books on Gay and Swift), and wide perspective. He suggests Eliza was Warren Hastings’ biological daughter; all the evidence shows this: recently this is becoming a norm to say (Edith Lanks gave a talk defending this view in the recent JASNA) despite Deirdre Le Faye and all the upholders of individual who embody for them the establishment then as well as now and conventional established virtues. Nokes shows the banal indifference towards her art and control over it and Jane the family practiced; that the aunt was a compulsive shoplifter and so on. For these things his well-researched informative and (mostly) insightful and usually thought-provoking book was attacked.


On the readership: There have been a number of blogs on the recent JASNA, many lacking specificity and commentary on what was discussed. One which is worth reading is the report from Teach Me Tonight (a blog written by, among others, romance writers): “Romance in the Wake of Jane Austen”.

It’s revealing too, and significant for anyone who reads Austen and is interested in why others read her—also the proliferation of sequels and movies. It’s very difficult to get up a frank discussion of the problems of admitting that Austen writes in the romance tradition and what this is—the dissing of women’s art being endless and strong. The terms say in which The Jane Austen Book Club, book and film, but especially film, were panned is instructive.

Teach me tonight is probably an intuitive choice for the blog title
but it’s spot on. In Bel Canto at a heightened point of the romance of the secondary characters, Carmen inviting Gen to come to the closet that night say “Teach me tonight”—the literal sense is he’ll teach sex as well as language; the deeper meaning is of the male as tutor—flattering no doubt, but then she is the one arranging this :) So handy dandy who is the teacher?


And here are Tracy Marks’s pictures of Steventon, Chawton, Winchester

Derbyshire – In search of Pemberley
Bakewell, Chatsworth, Haddon Hall, Lyme Park
Hertfordshire – In search of the Longbourn: St. Albans
The Cotswolds – In search of early 19th century villages
Jane Austen’s Bath – walking tour and exploration of places she lived and visited, and places relate to scenes in NA and Persuasion
2 days of the Jane Austen festival – Promenade, Costumes, JA Center, Regency dance workshop.


Posted by: Ellen

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  1. From Janeites:

    “Thank you, Ellen, those are very good and I thoroughly enjoyed your blog. Jeannine”
    Elinor    Oct 21, 1:06pm    #
  2. “Ellen, You’ve brought an extera dose of sunshine to a perfect autumn day here with those wonderful pictures! Many thanks for making them available to all.


    NB: The reader should remember the photos are not mine. They are Tracy Marks's; I merely linked them in as I did the blog about Austen and romance from Teach Me Tonight.

    Elinor    Oct 21, 1:06pm    #
  3. From Janeites:

    “Thanks for sharing, Ellen. Wonderful pictures. Makes me want to go and visit the sights as well. I’ve been in the planning stages of a trip to England and haven’t quite decided where or what I want to do. There is so much history there. The churches and cottages are quite charming. I too enjoyed your blog.

    Take care.
    Elinor    Oct 21, 1:07pm    #
  4. “Dear Ellen,

    Thank you so much for the link to Tracy’s photographs. I really
    enjoyed my visit. Regards, Margrit”
    Elinor    Oct 21, 10:02pm    #
  5. From Elissa:

    “I have been reading Ellen’s blog commentaries about the studies of illness in the novels of JA, and it strikes me that the six main novels break into two main groups, one in which illness does play a part in the everyday rhythm of the characters’ lives but still does not suffuse the novels; the others in which the characters seem saturated with illness of body, mind, and spirit. In the former group, we have P&P, S&S, and even Emma [although illness as a theme is becoming rather strong here]. In the latter group, we must consider MP, Persuasion, and NA.

    Elinor    Oct 21, 10:03pm    #
  6. IN response to Elissa,

    What Wiltshire notices is how much close nuanced description Austen provides of her characters’ bodies, gestures, facial expressions. Yes she doesn’t often doesn’t tell us precisely what color hair a character has, how tall he or she is, the precise shape of the nose, but what she does a lot is provide a precise indication of an expression on the face, a movement of the hand or arm or body or leg, just that telling detail of costume (Catherine Morland dresses splendidly in Bath) or gesture, how they are breathing. Now often they are upset, and more often than we remember their soma affected radically by their psyche and it somehow registered. Her texts may not be overtly sexualized and she does not include genital sex—which is often what male readers equate with sex. But her texts are alive with feeling and that includes the sexual.

    As you say (and he agrees), Emma is a rare picture of health too. And that makes sense. This is a pre-modern science era.

    The book is alas expensive.

    Elinor    Oct 21, 10:10pm    #
  7. From Diana:

    “I must say I enjoyed the thoughtful Austen blog you wrote. I was very glad to read about that romantic session at the AGM that has created such a stir.

    Elinor    Oct 22, 6:36am    #
  8. From Janeites:

    “I agree, Ellen; this is taboo-breaking stuff. I’m fascinated by discussions that explore the marginalization of so-called women’s fiction. Interesting how women turn against women. There is a lot of knee-jerk snobbery; I’ve been guilty of it myself. It’s refreshing to hear a new perspective.

    Laurie Viera Rigler”
    Elinor    Oct 22, 12:07pm    #
  9. On Janeites, there’s been a posting where someone argued illness is a plot-device in Austen and therefore not to be taken seriously. This is a way of trivializing Austen as it makes illness into a trivial thing: a plot-device.

    I answered thus:

    “Because illness is used to advance a plot or set up a situation, does not mean it is not meaningful and not important. Quite the contrary.

    But Wiltshire’s book is not about illness per se, rather that illnesses of all sorts, but especially disturbances due to psychological distress, are far more frequent than is usually noticed. Wiltshire argues they are part of Austen’s continual presentation of the body, central to her presentation of characters.

    On C18-l there’s been a thread on acting in the eighteenth century. A number of brilliant treatises on this were written over the course of the era: by Diderot, by Aaron Hill, linking overt facial and body gesture to inner psychological and talking of the meaning of pictorialism in psychological terms. You can see this in the brilliant portraiture of the era. Allan Ramsay’s are remarkable (going beyond Reynolds, think of his Reynolds, and Gainsborough—his Grace Elliot); so too many of the French painters who were imitated in the illustrations, e.g.,

    Here is Duplessis of Gluck, the opera composer:



    Sarah Siddon’s portrayal of victim-heroines has been shown to feed into the way Radcliffe wrote her books; that is, Radcliffe was influenced by going to see Siddons. I suggest the same sort of connection alive for Austen; her criticism of what she did see emphasized how the actress didn’t fool her into believing she was the character.

    There are numerous older essays also talking about pictorialism of this sort (reading the body—for that’s what it is); I’m most familiar with those on Richardson’s Clarissa & Grandison which Austen knew well.

    And I’d like to connect how this helps film adaptations too; the screenplay writers not only go to the novels, but also motifs and type scenes in contemporary plays, e.g, Davd Nokes on the film adaptation of Clarissa.

    Elinor    Oct 22, 12:43pm    #
  10. Actually I’d like to confess I just read the article by Laura Thompson from the Telegraph linked into the romance blog. Here it is for those who’d like to read this:


    I link it in to say I agree with it, mostly. Not altogether, but I can hold the view that the romance blogger holds: that Austen is romance, and romance is a respectable genre. But I also think it goes back to the 3rd century in Greece and therefore has for more variety than the 8 characteristics described in the romance blog. Those 8 characteristics describe best selling novel romances today, not all romances. They don’t describe all Austen’s fictions.

    And I can agree with Thompson too that Austen is hard and satiric. Austen’s books quiver with intense emotionalism, but they are not of the sort that the modern romance reader grasps. The emotionalism is of the kind that understand Charlotte Lucas’s life is a grim misery she endures because her other option (old maid supported by her family) was worse. I agree with her that Austen condemns Lydia (I would add she feels real respect for and identification with Elinor and tender affection for Fanny). Endurance and struggle the bye-words of MP and they are the values Austen sees as getting us through life. She can be very harsh on stupidity and often points out how her characters misunderstand one another as they stand next to one another and see everything out of a narrow tunnel vision of their own. I don’t know that she would have been amused with what is done with her books; but I agree with Thompson that Austen might have (could she have somehow made the transition) recognized that some of what she satirizes is what she has been turned into in her pop readers’ minds.

    On some level I don't understand these Janeites who read Austen as cozy. As Thomson said, they seem not to be reading Austen but what is said about her and then applying that to the literal understanding of the words on Austen's pages. The world must have only a small group of readers who understand what they read, and when we realize how few read and then only a subgroup reading with understanding, this is dismaying.

    My problem with Thompson is she does appear to despise many women readers. My problem with the romance blog is they have a very narrow definition of romance. Many romances do end tragically and ironically. And their plot-designs are highly varied.

    Elinor    Oct 22, 11:07pm    #
  11. From Catriona, Janeites:

    “That was a fascinating article, there are two observations I would like to make. The first, in relation to Jane Austen’s attitude to the status quo, is that Jane Austen does seem to have become more subversive as a writer as she got older, more critical of the role women were relegated to. Her point of view was not static.

    The second is based on personal experience but is probably common to most of us, that what we find in each of the novels changes as we ourselves mature. They bring us back to reread many times and every reading reveals something more.

    I confess to first shedding tears reading her introduction of Miss Bates twenty years after first reading “Emma”, the novel had not changed but the life experience I brought to it had.”
    Elinor    Oct 23, 8:04pm    #

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