A warm imagination

The Rice portrait, said to be a portrait of the young Jane Austen by Ozias Humphry, painted in 1788 when she was 13.

Catharine, or the Bower
by Jane Austen,
in Catharine and Other Writings
edited by Margaret Anne Doody and Douglas Murray.
World’s Classics, Oxford University Press, 1993.

“[When] the Bower began to have its usual influence over her Spirits, she contributed towards settling them, by taking out a book, for she had always one about her, and reading.”

‘Catharine, or the Bower’

Catharine, also known as Kitty, lives with her aunt Mrs Percival at The Grove, Chetwynde, five miles from Exeter, far from “the hot House of Vice” that is London. We may suppose that, as with her author at the time of writing, Kitty is sixteen years old; but we’re immediately told that, unlike her author, she “had the misfortune, as many heroines before her, of losing her Parents when she was very young.”

When we discover that her aunt is determined to preserve Kitty’s virtue by closely scrutinising, supervising and warning off any young man that crosses the girl’s path, we recognise that Austen is playing on common fairytale tropes; and so our task appears a simple one – to see how the story plays out. Unfortunately, we don’t get the joy of that because this, begun in 1792 as one of Austen’s first essays in novel-writing, remains incomplete.

Though there is evidence that, a score of years later, she was tinkering with this youthful fragment – removing outdated practices such as powdering the hair, and inserting references to the newly instituted Regency – she never did progress with this promising start. Yet, even at this stage, we can recognise some of her trademark themes.

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Doing sums

“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”
― Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

In my imagination August is always associated with books. It may be that, unless memory plays me false, I spent most school summer holidays cosied up with a classic novel; or that the relatively recent promulgation of August 9th as Book Lovers Day merely cements a traditional association.

I may also have Cathy Brown’s increasingly popular meme 20 Books of Summer (or 15, or 10) to blame. But whatever the cause, today may be a good time to take stock.

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A moralising purpose

Engraving by Thomas Bewick

Jane Austen and the Clergy
by Irene Collins.
The Hambledon Press 2002 (1994).

There’s a neat correspondence between a study examining Jane Austen’s models for fictional clergy, notably the snobby Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice, and the fact that such a study was undertaken by a scholar by the name of Collins. But this work is more than just a discussion of Mr Collins, Mr Tilney, Mr Elton, Dr Grant, Mr Bennet and others: it underlines how important Jane’s own clerical background was in forming the bedrock of not only her fiction but also her life.

Originally published in 1994, Jane Austen and the Clergy appeared just in time for the reignition of Austen mania brought about by the adaptation of Pride and Prejudice for television in 1995, making the late Irene Collins (she died in 2015) a bit of a celebrity for Austen fans. Ever since I began reading Austen for myself I’ve been delving into this volume bit by bit till I now feel able to make some assessment of its undoubted worth.

In fact this study feels like a labour of love for the author. At times it’s unclear whom it’s aimed at: is it other literary scholars, the general public, Austen fans, or church historians? But, approached with care and attention by the reasonably intelligent reader it is undoubtedly enlightening on all fronts and an excellent commentary for those embarking on a reread of Jane’s published oeuvres.

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Behold me immortal

Collected Poems and Verse of the Austen Family
by Jane Austen,
edited with an Introduction and Notes by David Selwyn.
FyfieldBooks / Carcanet Press, in association with the Jane Austen Society, 1996.

The day returns again, my natal day;
What mix’d emotions with the Thought arise!
Beloved friend, four years have pass’d away
Since thou wert snatch’d forever from our eyes.

Jane Austen’s poem (snappily entitled To the Memory of Mrs Lefroy, who died Dec:r 16 — my Birthday. — written 1808) is only one of a couple of extant poems with any pretentions to gravity, mock or otherwise, written by the celebrated author. Most if not all of the rest of Jane Austen’s verse output presented here involves ballad-like doggerel, amusing verses parodying serious poetic forms and wordplay in the form of riddles and other games.

A good two-thirds of the poems included in the collection however are either by individuals from the extended Austen family or represent joint efforts, when they accepted poetic challenges and responded with punning rhymes. Among the contributions are works by her mother, Mrs Cassandra Austen, her sister Cassandra and her brothers, plus one of her uncles, several nieces and a nephew.

While we can’t count any of the verse here as seriously great poetry (though a few are quite splendid) their value lies in exhibiting the playfulness and love of words that the family members shared amongst themselves. As the editor tells us, “Verse-making was a social activity, a game of greeting, or charades, or bouts-rimés,” the pieces often composed “as part of a game, with various members of the family making their own contribution to a round.”

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The original Elizabeth Bennet?

Elizabeth Benet

A repost from 5th May 2013 for Austen in August.

Visiting Bath Abbey in April this year [2013] I chanced on this curious memorial on the east wall of the south transept.

Close inspection revealed the name of one Elizabeth Benet (sic), widow of William Bathurst Pye Benet (died May 4th 1806), who herself died at the age of 80 in 1826. Could Jane Austen, who lived in Bath between 1801 and 1805 (not to mention visits there in the 1790s), have met this real-life Elizabeth Bennet, clearly a grande dame in Bath society?

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