Saturday, June 17, 2006

Genteel Jane

There's been talk around the web recently about whether Jane Austen intended some rather risque references in her novels. I have no strong opinion on that, but I do have on Jane herself. Now this is entirely my own reading of her, but I hurt for Jane when I see people today trying to keep her crammed in a box of genteel propriety that confined her in life.

I see Jane Austen as a woman torn between family affection and loyalty and a soaring intelligence, creativity, and spirit. I can imagine the sort of powerful objections that led her to cover her writing whenever the family wanted her attention in order to keep the peace. How she delighted in earning money. Did she secretly dream of the time when she could afford to go off on her own and explore the wider world?

Jane was not a Victorian miss. Her early years were 18th century, not 19th.

Only consider Jane's History of England, written when she was sixteen. Her passage on Edward IV already shows a lovely, irreverant tone and absolutely no prudery about mistresses.

"This Monarch was famous only for his Beauty & his Courage, of which the Picture we have here given of him, & his undaunted Behaviour in marrying one Woman while he was engaged to another, are sufficient proofs. His Wife was Elizabeth Woodville, a Widow who, poor woman! was afterwards confined in a Convent by that Monster of Iniquity & Avarice Henry the 7th. One of Edward's Mistresses was Jane Shore, who had a play written about her, but it is a tragedy & therefore not worth reading. Having performed all these noble actions, his Majesty died, & was succeeded by his son."

My main objection to the Genteel Jane cult, however, is the portrait that is commonly used. Something like this.

However, that is a prettified Victorian version of the sketch by her sister, Cassandra. I've darkened some lines to make the folded arms and assertive posture clearer.

This is a close up of her face. Not genteel at all, no. Not Jane.


Tuesday, June 13, 2006


There's a tendency to put values of today onto the past, perhaps particularly in regards to war. Of course war has always been violent and full of atrocities, but in novels, at least, we like to think that our military heroes have modern sensibilities. Perhaps modern civilian sensitivities. They are sensitve to the humanity of the enemy. They regret killing them. They care about the enemy civilians. They look back on war and shudder.

There are all kinds of reactions to war, of course, but I've seen plenty of evidence to the opposite.

Consider this letter, written after Waterloo by Lieutenant William Turner, 13th Light Dragoons.

"VILLEPEUT near PARIS, 3rd July 1815.

MY DEAR BUSBY,—I assure you it is with the greatest pleasure I can find time to inform you I am perfectly sound and in good health and spirits.

We marched into this village last night from near Louvres, and are only nine miles from Paris and can distinctly hear the firing, which takes place at Paris, between the Prussian advanced posts and the French. This war cannot possibly last long, for every town and village is completely ransacked, and pillaged by the Prussians and neither wine, spirits, or bread are to be found. The whole country from the frontier to Paris has been laid waste by the march of troops, and the crops nearly destroyed, we are waiting for the Prussians when that infernal City Paris will be attacked and no doubt pillaged, for it is a debt we owe to the whole of Europe, all the inhabitants for leagues round here have taken themselves and their effects into Paris, so that it will be worth taking if we loose 20,000 men.

You have no idea of the enthusiasm of the troops and their determination to carry before them everything in their way, the Prussians are also determined soldiers and I expect in one week Paris will be completely sacked and perhaps burned."


Sunday, June 11, 2006

Language in the Regency

In the Rush memoires I read that the English upper class larded their speech with French, despite being at war with the French. This is obviously true of Italian, also, judging from this letter from Theresa Fielding to her son. They are both part of the influential Fox Strangeways family. You can read the notes here.

Sackville Street<1>

20th Decr (1815)

My Dearest Henry

I am so pleased that you liked your parcel, you have no idea di quel gran piacer ch’ío gusto nel farvi piacere.<2>

I will send you Zetti’s Grammar<3> but will wait till I hear again from you, in case you should recollect any thing more you wish to have sent with it.

I have sent to Rodwell for the last Edition of Zetti’s Grammar, but it is not yet come. & I will look over my Italian Books to see if I have any that will suit you. You are too young yet to read their first rate Poets, you would not yet feel their beauties, & they are difficult. I will must send you some easy books to begin with, & in prose till you are more au fait<4> of the language

Adiò conservatevi & scrivite Subito<5>

Let me know if the Morning Chronicle<6> ever miss because I send it every day

Have you a good Italian Dictionary to consult?

Would you like to have the Examiner?<7>

William H Fox Talbot Esqr
Rnd Mr Barnes’s

A letter from his sister is entirely in French. An exercise to some extent, but indicative.
Ce 11 Fevrier 1817.

Mon cher Henri,

J’espère que vous êtes bien content d’avoir aujourd’hui dixsept ans, je vous le souhaite de tout mon cœur & je voudrais bien avoir le plaisir de vous le dire de vivevoix.

Maman<1> nous a fait présent à chacune d’une très belle poupée, et nous allons célébrer votre jour de naissance en meublant les petits appartemens des poupées, c'est à dire notre Baby House. Il faisait clair un soir, mais Maman ne pouvait pas nous permettre de regarder les étoiles à cause du Froid.

Mon cher Frère
Croyez moi
Votre affectionnée Sœur

Caroline Augustine.

London Feb eleven 1817 Auckland<2> –
Hy Fox Talbot Esqr
Revd Mr Bonney<3>


11 February 1817

My dear Henri,

I hope that you are happy to turn seventeen today, I wish you this with all my heart and I would so like to have the pleasure of saying this to you in person.

Mama gave each of us the gift of a very beautiful doll, and we are going to celebrate your birthday by furnishing the little appartments for the dolls, that is to say our Baby House. It was clear one evening, but Mama could not allow us to look at the stars because of the Cold.

My dear Brother
Believe me
Your affectionate Sister
Caroline Augustine.

All the letters are interesting.