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<---More Recent 97. P&P, women's happiness and marriage 96. Villainy and Romance in Northanger Abbey 95. Austen's attitude to letters Earlier Answers-->

Name:Cheryl Duff
Question 98 I have read where Jane Austen's mother Cassandra Leigh was related to William Pitt the Elder & William Pitt the Younger. What is the connection & is it on her mother or father's side?
Reply Dear Cheryl,

This is a little awkward: as I answer in propria persona, which many of you appreciate as a rule, I should know this in detail, absolutely, so let’s just say it’s a very long time since I passed away and my biographers are so wonderful they seem to know more about what was going on in my life than I did myself. Neither the David Nokes, nor the Claire Tomalin nor the Park Honan biographies, or Deirdre Le Faye’s work (e.g. Jane Austen: A Family Record) seems to offer support for the idea you mention of a Pitt connection; but proving the negative case can be difficult, and the Loch Ness Monster still has its supporters.

My family was pretty keen on asserting or exhibiting connections with social Greatness (mother, née Leigh was related to the Dukes of Chandos (the family name was Brydges), and Warren Hastings, viceroy of India, was godfather (indeed, possibly father) of my cousin Eliza, daughter of my father’s sister Philadelphia. We were all very shocked when Warren Hastings was impeached, and thus harangued in Parliament by such as Edmund Burke and Charles James Fox. In another adventure in legacy-hunting on the Leigh side, as it were, maternal relatives looked at one point to be on the verge of inheriting Stoneleigh, the abbatial country manor near Adlestrop, thanks to the involvement in the case of my Aunt and Uncle Leigh-Perrot, but we didn’t benefit much from this in the end. However, I shall not pursue this as it isn’t what you wished to know about and indeed you may know of such ‘Austen connections’ already. I’m sorry not to have been more helpful.

With best wishes,

Jane Austen

November 13, 2005 16:22:21 (GMT Time)

Name:Reyes Rita Ann                     Top
Question 97 I really admire your writings as a female author and I am writing a paper on "Is Pride and Prejudice a novel about women who feel they should be married to be happy?" Thanks for your time.
Reply Dear Reyes,

Yes, but of course it wasn’t thought that ladies, or women who aspired to the status of ladies, should work, indeed there’s a certain circularity about this you have probably already noted. My novels were reflections of eighteenth-century rather than Victorian life, when society got more complex and more ways of earning a living emerged, Women couldn’t go to university and entry to professions as such was severely restricted. Low-level teaching known as governessing was an option, but I regarded this with horror myself, witness the situation (and attitude) of Jane Fairfax in Emma.

Women therefore had various reasons to get married, and, though this is often put as a feminist point, men themselves had perhaps something to watch out for here. Charlotte Lucas certainly does not marry Mr Collins because she loves him, and her form of happiness is one Lizzie, my great heroine, suspects. It consists so entirely in property, and respectable social position, played off against the big big minus of having Mr C. on the premises, that the novel seems to be saying that no marriage is better than what Charlotte opts for here, especially as she is pregnant by the end of the novel. P&P isn’t a fully realistic novel with a full-blown social picture, but Lizzie is tempted by the shadowy (not so well described or presented?) Wickham simply because he was attractive and entertaining, not because of his social status, but Mrs Gardiner her sensible aunt was worried about this on financial grounds alone, before Wickham’s roguery was suspected. Remember that ten or more children per family was a usual state, or fate at this time. So we are asked to note that Lizzie’s happiness depends on love (Mr Darcy was not arrogant, or not in the way she imagined; he loved Lizzie so much he was prepared to involve himself with Wickham despite his abhorrence of the man who had induced his beloved sister Georgiana to elope, he was tall, dark and handsome, intelligent and perhaps above all powerful.) But Lizzie hardly has to think about makes her happiest—Pemberley, Darcy, the relief of her family’s anxiety about money.

But the novel with its marital climax is a bit of a fairy-tale finally. Elizabeth lived happily ever after, we believe, but we hear nothing of inconvenient things like child-bearing, what will actually happen when Mr Bennet dies, etc. And the whole point might finally be felt to be that Lizzie’s situation is entirely untypical. Mr and Mrs Bennet’s own marriage, for example, was terrible. (Mr and Mrs Gardiners’ seems to be wonderful, but despite the play made with the fact that they weren’t bona fide gentlefolk—my dear, Cheapside!--their income level presumably lifts them well above the worry most marrieds would have while bringing up a family when ‘birth control’ wasn’t the norm. My letters are eloquent about the toll taken by constant childbearing, but P&P doesn’t foreground this. So for me, marriage may not solve your problems, or it may solve them in a demeaning or inappropriate way. I wasn’t married myself and didn’t have children, so finally this may have limited my vision of these things. But I had both a realistic and a romantic apprehension of the married state. Both are there in P&P.

With best wishes,

Jane Austen.

November 12, 2005 03:52:45 (GMT Time)

Name:Runna Munim                     Top
Question 96 I'm doing an essay on Northanger Abbey, I really need to know:
where there is villainy
where the romantic and gothic elements are particularly quotes
where there is emotion
where there is horror.
Please can you help me!
Reply Dear Runna,

It would have been helpful to know what the subject of the essay was, and what critical problem it was trying to get you to resolve or at least discuss. Also I’m not sure whether you actually need a copy of the book or simply can’t identify the instances you require. And I have the feeling that you may be slightly intimidated by the idea of the book, or the ideas the question associates with it. I can’t read it for you, and I suggest you approach that particular task as at least potentially a pleasure in store. Northanger Abbey is intended as a fun book, full or humour and irony, partly at the expense of the heroine, and essentially although it discusses issues like the nature of the Gothic, the status and qualities of women, the relation of fiction to fact or reality, or to history, and the different ways of approaching the writing and reading of novels, it is essentially an unpretentious book which takes pains to be intelligible as well as demystifying.

Villainy is defined in melodramatic terms which reflect Catherine Morland’s reading of ‘Gothic fiction’, but she is not wrong to identify her boy friend’s father General Tilney as a villain, merely wrong in her definition of what villainy consists of in this context (which is not that of real life, merely of this different kind of novel the narrator keeps insisting is of the nature of reality as such). His greed and rapacity, acquisitiveness and desire for land and profit, make him a modern sort of villain, misled by chump-ish John Thorpe about Catherine’s financial status.

The romantic and gothic elements are in the presentation of Catherine’s consciousness and presuppositions cued by her reading and also by her ‘boy friend’ Henry Tilney as they approach Northanger Abbey itself, the rather grand family home, and he rehearses a few threadbare Gothic situations from novels they have both read (these are pinpointed in the notes to the most recent Penguin edition edited by Marilyn Butler). Catherine reads the realities of Northanger in terms of these melodramatic works, is discomfited and defeated and her assumptions apparently disproved. But her sense of evil or horror is recycled in a new form given the General’s nature and its results when he finds Catherine is relatively poor and turns her from the house unceremoniously and in an almost ruffianly way. . . Also Catherine’s own imagination creates gothic experiences, as in Ch. 21.

Basic Gothic texts referred to are, most particularly Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797), but others are mentioned, like Horrid Mysteries (1796) and The Necromancer (1794), translated from the German. These are, especially in Radcliffe’s case(s), upheld as entertainment and intellectual achievement, romancing the mediaeval and the culturally remote, but, ostensibly at least, not as reliable guides to reality. Few have read these works. Indeed, it might help to think of Catherine as a modern miss with her head full of assumptions got from scary films and over-dramatic TV scenes and series). The Gothic, incidentally, is given an interestingly broad definition by a modern expert I read, Fred Botting, who claims simply that “in gothic productions imagination and emotional effects exceed reason”, but Northanger Abbey itself finally raises questions about the scope of reason. The novel itself is a theme here, defended from philistines as anti-imaginative people in Ch. 5, yet also criticised in some of its forms as a dubious guifde to how things are. However, Northanger Abbey is itself a novel mediating the issues and, however ironically, itself apparently committed to providing a guide to reason and reality.     

November 9, 2005 21:12:33 (GMT Time)

Name:Jennifer Reuter                     Top
Question 95 Why are most of Jane Austen's novels not written in the epistolary form? How important are the letters in her novels? What functions do they have? How important were letters in the nineteenth century?
Reply Dear Jenny,

I started out that way, being hugely influenced by epistolary novels by Samuel Richardson like Clarissa Harlowe and in particular Sir Charles Grandison. Both Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice began life in letter form under different titles. But the convention of using letters makes an all-round perspective difficult and also creates difficulties for realistic expectations and presentation (characters end up devoting their lives to letter-writing or find themselves writing letters in impossibly odd circumstances. In this respect the tradition was mocked as early as 1741 by Henry Fielding in his Shamela, a parody of Richardson’s Pamela, and I was aware of this.)

So letters in my novels are more realistically deployed with respect to the size of the role they can be expected to play in characters’ lives, and more intrinsically provide new perspectives on events and characters difficult to envisage otherwise. Letters were tremendously important in my culture (basically still 18thc in most respects—I was born in 1775 and lived until only 1817). They are also strategically important in my novels. One thinks of James Morland’s letter to Catherine at Northanger Abbey explaining that his engagement to the coquette Isabella is over, and Isabella’s letter attempting in vain to repair the damage after her pursuit of Frederick Tilney, which clearly reveals her character to the ingenuous Catherine. Or Willoughby’s terrible letter of dismissal to Marianne in Sense and Sensibility which we learn was drafted by his unpleasant wife Sophia. Or Mrs Gardiner’s description of Darcy’s part in the patched-up Lydia marriage, and her feeling that he is basically a nice man. Or Mr Collins’ terrible letter to Longbourn obviously taking pleasure in the ruin of the Bennet family’s reputation. Or, earlier, the news reaching Derbyshire of Lydia’s elopement in the form of letters from Jane which cut across Elizabeth’s rapprochement with Darcy and relationship with Georgiana at Pemberley, making the plot so very much more interesting! Letters from Mary Crawford and Edmund in Mansfield Park which reach Fanny Price in Portsmouth spell out Mary’s metropolitan worldly-mindedness, Edmund’s revulsion, at least from London, while Lady Bertram plays at being frightened with news of Tom’s drinking and ‘fall’.

A particularly significant and unusual letter is that written by Wentworth to Anne in Persuasion, while in the same room! (But that involved a change of subject!) Letters, then, remained important in my novels as more subtly deployed than in the epistolary novel as such. With no phones, television, e-mails or other electronic modes, letters were the most significant form of communication in my time, and with travel much more difficult, their role was on the whole an even more crucial one. This will help get you started with your own thoughts and opinions about this topic, I hope.    

With best wishes

Jane Austen

November 3, 2005 01:41:18 (GMT Time)