The company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation

Learning Latin with Jane Austen October 4, 2012

Filed under: Jane,Pride and Prejudice — lizzyandjane @ 9:54 pm
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This semester, I have the special treat to be learning Latin! Often, it brings me warm, fuzzy thoughts of sitting down with a young Christopher Marlowe, slaving away at Latin verse to craft a translation to fit his perfect iambic pentameter, but today’s homework actually reminded me of everyone’s favourite embarrassing cousin, Mr. Collins!

Perhaps tonight I can read to you from Fordyce’s Sermons?

Translating “The Tragic Story of Phaëton,” I think of the Bennet family supper where the most delicious dish is awkwardness, served up by Mr. Collins as he continues to name drop his esteemed patroness Lady Catherine:

But she is perfectly amiable, and often condescends to drive by my humble abode in her little phaeton and ponies.

Learning Latin has been beneficial for learning the etymologies of words (and knowing the English words, I have the perfect mneomic device for future quizzes!). So where does the word “phaeton” come from? According to my [likely shoddy] reading, Phaëton est filius Phoebi, Phaëton is the son of Phoebus. His friends don’t believe that he’s the son of a god, so he cries to the heavens for proof. Just like Jane Bennet hopes to make it to her dinner engagement with the Bingley sisters in high style, so Phaëton wants to borrow Daddy’s horse…that’s attached to the chariot of the sun! While Jane nearly perished by water, Phaëton almost perished by fire, nearly setting the whole world ablaze (although according to my exercise, De caelo cadit Phaëton, he falls from the sky! O mala fortuna!). But I digress.

Pimp my phaeton

Back to Phaëton and his currus (meaning chariot, also where we get the word for Mr. Darcy’s preferred mode of transportation, the “curricle”). Just as Phaëton raises himself up to the sun, so does Lady Catherine like her “smallfolk” to know how above them she is; Mr. Collins feels that if he can attach himself to Lady C. just right, maybe he can hitch that ride all the way up to the sun. Mr. Collins has had his nose stuck in Fordyce’s Sermons, so maybe he does not know the lamentable end of the Greek myth (spoiler alert: he dies), but I hope that that Lizzy’s verbose cousin takes a breath long enough to heed Mr. Bennet’s sound advice:

…if I were you, I would stand by the nephew. He has more to give.


Persuasion and Social Media August 21, 2012

Filed under: Jane,Persuasion — lizzyandjane @ 6:47 pm
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Do you ever catch yourself internally narrating your life in 140-character doses? I’m not proud to say that I definitely do. In Jane Austen’s time, of course, they lacked the time-stealers called Facebook and Twitter, but they certainly didn’t lack social media.

Persuasion begins with an introduction to Kellynch Hall’s patriarch, Sir Walter Elliot, who “for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one.” His favorite page, it will come as no surprise, is his own, as it contains his own family’s history couched comfortably around other high-born men of his ilk. What’s interesting is that while Sir Walter reveres the book’s role as a reminder of the past, he actually revises it to function as an ongoing narrative about his family’s present, “improv[ing]” the text to include his daughter’s decently advantageous marriage and the precise date of his wife’s death. Like the social media that has become ubiquitous in our daily, even hourly, lives, Sir Walter keeps a record of the good times and bad that make up the circle of his life.

During the Napoleonic Wars during which Persuasion was set, social media was more important than ever, as it allowed those on the home front to keep tabs on those they loved. Lady Russell persuaded Anne to break off her engagement with the Wentworth, but she nonetheless read the “navy lists and newspapers” in order to keep track of her lost love. Like so many of us who resort to facestalking our exes, it is through this media that Anne learns that Wentworth had “distinguished himself, and early gained the other step in rank, and must now, by successive captures, have made a handsome fortune.”

When the now-Captain Wentworth arrives on the scene, charming the proverbial pants off of women and men alike, the Musgrove party takes to communally exploring social media. Showing that a caption is worth a thousand words, Wentworth elaborates in order to contextualize his professional history. Interesting in this case is that Wentworth’s statuses are dictated for him. He tells his captive audience:

We had not been six hours in the Sound, when a gale came on, which lasted four days and nights, and which would have done for poor old Asp in half the time; our touch with the Great Nation not having much improved our condition. Four-and-twenty hours later, and I should only have been a gallant Captain Wentworth, in a small paragraph at one corner of the newspapers; and being lost in only a sloop, nobody would have thought about me.

Anne and Captain Wentworth going from “It’s Complicated” to “In a Relationship”

As opposed to today’s democracy of 140-characters or less, Wentworth’s fame relies more upon the Warhollian philosophy of one’s social worth being measured in inches.

In this way, social media is a far older phenomenon than we often think. Using it to fill in the contextual gaps that  necessarily reside in a plot that confines itself to the 100 days between Napoleon’s return from exile and his defeat by the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo, Austen shows that one’s personal and professional business was just as on display two hundred years ago as it is today.


Points of tension: “It is a truth universally acknowledged” April 29, 2012


“Have you no compassion for my nerves?!” – Mrs. Bennet actually has plenty to be nervous about.

In any work of literature, there is a negotiation between what goes said and unsaid. For example, when we hear “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife“ (the first lines of Pride and Prejudice), we know that this particular “universe” must be solely inhabited by the likes of Mrs. Bennet, but we lightheartedly laugh at this generalization. The generalization itself, we find, becomes less lighthearted the older the unmarried Miss Bennets’ father gets, prompting a fear of their future financial welfare. If Mr. Bennet dies before the girls are married, Mr. Collins will inherit their house and they will be left destitute. So in this way, those first lines offer a point of tension in Pride and Prejudice. It is a moment that could be glossed over, but if we take a chance to consider what goes unsaid, we would be able to find the socially fraught circumstances behind it. I plan to continue using this blog as a place to identify and consider points of tension in all of Austen’s writing. Where do they come from? Who is responsible for them? What is their purpose? Stay tuned to find out!


A defense of the widow in Persuasion April 18, 2012

Filed under: Jane,Persuasion — lizzyandjane @ 5:12 pm
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It was 1994 when I learned about the circle of life, or, to quote The Lion King’s predecessor, Hamlet, “all that lives must die, / Passing through nature to eternity.” In Jane Austen’s Persuasion, such an egalitarian vision is pulled apart by all the strings attached.

In this novel, Austen shows just how harsh her society could be on the women who had no choice in the fact that they outlived their husbands; it’s the circle of life, someone’s gotta go first. Seven years before the novel took place, Lady Russell persuaded Anne Elliot to break off her engagement with the young, handsome Captain Wentworth, who would necessarily ship out to war again, and did Anne really want to become a naval widow at nineteen? Last season in Downton Abbey, William showed us the virtue of marrying before dying at war – he left his sweetheart taken care of. But not all the widows in Persuasion have this privilege, one that should actually be a right.

Take Mrs. Clay, for instance. A widow of a man of no great means, two children, and whether it’s Anne’s, Austen’s, or some amalgam of that in a narrator’s point-of-view, the book tells us to be suspicious of Mrs. Clay’s intentions toward Sir Walter. “Nothing was as good for her constitution as a ride to Kellynch”, the narrator says in her most sarcastic voice. But is this fair? Speaking of air, Anne only begins to regain her “bloom” at the points where she is at liberty to take long walks with her sister and the Miss Musgroves. How differently would she have acted in Mrs. Clay’s in the same situation?

The worst-case scenario of widowhood is Mrs. Smith. She is locked away in Westgate Buildings, with her social status reduced to “widow and cripple.” Anne is compelled to renew this acquaintance but Sir Walter nonetheless feels at liberty to make a particularly snide comment at her expense:

A widow Mrs. Smith lodging in Westgate Buildings! A poor widow barely able to live, between thirty and forty; a mere Mrs. Smith, an every-day Mrs. Smith, of all people and all names in the world, to be the chosen friend of Miss Anne Elliot, and to be preferred by her to her own family connections among the nobility of England and Ireland! Mrs. Smith! Such a name!

Good from far, but far from good!

What Sir Walter forgets is that Mrs. Smith is not the only person to lose a spouse; he has, and enjoys the choice of “remaining single for his dear daughters’ sake.” Sir Walter sneers at the first that Mrs. Smith is a widow and an invalid before reaching the age of “one-and-thirty”, yet Sir Walter fawns over Mr. William Elliot, who was the same age as Mrs. Smith upon losing his own spouse.

But let’s look into the differences in the aftermath. Mrs. Smith’s husband died after a series of indiscretions, leaving her with debt as crippling as her ailments. After a series of indiscretions on Mr. Elliot’s part, his own wife died, leaving him her fortune. How convenient. While Mrs. Smith went to Bath for the benefit of the curing waters, William Elliot used her account of Anne to get to know her in advance of officially meeting Anne in bath, all the better to ensnare her with the oh-so-creepy proposal of “The name of Anne Elliot has long had an interesting sound to me. Very long has it possessed a charm over my fancy; and, if I dared, I would breathe my wishes that the name might never change.” Eeeew! As a friend of mine best put it, he’s just smarmy. Yet, William Elliot fully gets away with so obviously “beginning to calculate the number of weeks which would free him from all the remaining restraints of widowhood, and leave him at liberty to exert his most open powers of pleasing.” No thank you. But that’s Mr. Elliot’s right, as a man in that culture. Instead of being a fraction of his former self, it’s his prerogative as a man to leave his wife’s death behind him, proposing to his cousin so he can grow into the man he wants to be, the future Sir William Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall.

Captain Benwick, while less obviously creepy, is no better. He was so distressed about his fiancé Fanny Harville’s death that Captain Wentworth couldn’t leave his side for a whole week. Benwick had even got a portrait of himself commissioned for Fanny, but when he fell in love with Louisa Musgrove, he tactlessly asked his former-future-brother-in-law, Captain Harville, to get it reframed for his new belle. Harville has his time to lament of it to Anne, but who can remember that, when it’s so quickly followed by the whole “you pierce my soul” bit?

Worth the wait!

So, returning to Lady Russell and Anne Elliot. Lady R is also a widow, but she is a widow who has been provided for, has subscriptions to all the important publications, has varied enough acquaintance to be gone for the second and third quarters of the story, and has the luxury of traveling in her carriage between Kellynch Lodge and Bath. She’s even less encumbered than Mrs. Norris in Mansfield Park, although sometimes I hate her as much. But Anne doesn’t – she’s at peace with Lady Russell. Why is that? Because Anne ultimately gets her man, a man who has returned home in tact, a man who she can marry, confident that he has both the respect of his title and chests full of prize-money. So I guess it comes down to the advice that my own father gave to me years ago: don’t marry rich, marry very rich.

Thanks for stopping by! – Jane