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Archive for the ‘Jane Austen’s World’ Category

Vic’s Review

Mary-Bennet-Cover-Smaller-VersionImagine a mystery novel that features Mary Bennet as its investigative heroine! Author Katherine Cowley’s choice of Mary, the largely unnoticed Bennet daughter in Pride and Prejudice, piqued my interest. While Cowley kept some of Mary’s idiosyncrasies and insecurities as the middle child, she has created a sympathetic character, whose strengths as a keen observer accustomed to sitting on the sidelines help her solve a murder.

The book opens just after Mr Bennet’s death, with 19-year-old Mary sitting vigil near her father’s body at Longbourn. It is night and the house is deathly quiet. As she reminisces about past regrets and current events, she comes to dread her future as an unmarried daughter. Her safest choice would be to live with Mrs Bennet, but Mary wants to leave Meryton and wonders if she should take the bold step of earning her own way in life, as a governess perhaps? 

Her reveries are interrupted by the sound of a carriage. Not expecting company at such a late hour, Mary reluctantly asks a maid to let the mysterious visitors in. The door opens to two strangers, Lady Trafford, a strong-willed woman who rarely considers the word “no” as an answer to her requests, and her secretive nephew, Mr. Withrow. Lady Trafford ostensibly came to pay her respects to the mourning family, claiming kinship, but the reason for her visit soon becomes clear—to offer Mary an invitation to live with her at Castle Durrington in Sussex, for reasons that don’t quite make sense to the young woman.

After some persuasion and mental list-making, Mary accepts Lady Trafford’s invitation, and so her adventures as a sleuth begin. The following passage with Mrs Bennet, Lady Trafford, and Mary gives you some idea of Cowley’s writing style, which is her own, but echoes Jane Austen’s in a delightful way:

“Surely it is owed to us, Mary, for you to have such an opportunity. Especially as you are not beautiful like your sisters, and you have had no suitors.”

“I have already made up my mind, Mother.”

“You cannot possibly think to turn down Lady Trafford’s offer! What an inconsiderate child you are.”

“I did not say how I had made up my mind.”

“What do you say, Miss Bennet? Will you join me at Castle Durrington?”

“How big is your library?” asked Mary. “And do you have a pianoforte?”- p.56

In her first days at the castle, Mary becomes embroiled in a mystery. Then, during a brisk walk to the Sussex coast, she stumbles upon a body lying face down in the sea. After meeting a few more characters and getting to know Lady Trafford and Mr Withrow better, she no longer knows who to trust. Given free rein to Castle Durrington’s library, her research leads her to more unsettling truths. 

Cowley writes the book from Mary’s point of view, which is refreshing, for we come to know her as a fully realized person, one who is willing to learn and eager to take lessons to improve herself. She is a careful list maker and planner, and one who combines the characteristics of a good investigator—that of an observant, nondescript, determined, and note-taking woman—who people seldom notice. 

This first published book by Katherine Cowley will appeal to readers who enjoy murder mysteries set in the Regency era with a castle and rugged English coastline as a setting. Readers are also given a host of suspects to suss out until the solution is revealed. I had a great time sussing wilst arriving at my own conclusions to the mystery in this novel!

Interview with Katherine Cowley 

  1. Photo of Katherine Cowley

    Katherine Cowley

    What about Mary Bennet’s character appealed to you to write about her? Which of her traits in Pride and Prejudice did you develop to further and enhance your mystery plot for this novel and make her more interesting?

One of the things that appealed to me most about Mary Bennet is the fact that others overlook her—she is ignored, dismissed, and snubbed. And shouldn’t those who are quiet and overlooked be able to have their own stories, their own adventures?

Mary Bennet is very analytical, she loves to read, and she’s good at remembering things. Like Mary, I know what it’s like to say the wrong thing in a group setting, or to embarrass myself in conversation, or to not feel comfortable in all situations. 

So much is left open about Mary’s character—what is it that she wants? It’s clear that she wants to read and play the pianoforte and have peace and quiet, and there’s a brief mention by Austen that Mary had hoped Mr. Collins would propose to her. But beyond that, we don’t know what Mary wants. In part, I wrote this book to figure that out.

In terms of characteristics that I developed, I played up Mary’s observational skills, and I gave her a desire to learn French and drawing. Also, if Mary does not know what to do in a situation, she’ll think about what one of her sisters would do in such a moment, and often that ends up being the perfect action for her to take.

  1. Briefly describe your writing process for us (if this is possible). What I mean is, did you develop a plot outline first (with the ending always in mind)? And then allowed the characters to speak to you as you wrote about them? Or did you “stay with the program?” You also mentioned a community of writing help in your acknowledgments—how did they influence your thoughts before, during, and after the process?

I would categorize myself as both an outliner and a discovery writer. I did write an outline before the first draft, with some of the major events I wanted in the story (for example, I knew I wanted French and drawing lessons, and I knew I needed a big ball scene that had all sorts of mystery and intrigue and would also act as an important moment for Mary’s character). I also had a very clear vision of what the final chapter would look like. 

But then I “discovered” (or figured out as I went along) all sorts of characters and events and situations as I wrote.

I don’t know the exact how length of my first draft, but the second draft of the novel was about 55,000 words. While there was mystery, there was not a dead body—it was not yet a murder mystery. That came in a later draft.

I wrote five drafts of the novel before querying literary agents. My writing group read one chapter a month and gave me feedback, and I sent the second, third, and fourth draft of my novel to new sets of readers—a mixture of other writers and trusted readers who love Jane Austen. This community was so helpful in helping me refine my ideas, improve my writing, solve plot problems, and figure out what was and was not working.

I wrote two additional drafts with my literary agent (the first was a major revision, and the second was a minor revision). After my book was acquired by my publisher, I did a revision with the editor, a second revision to shorten the book by 1000 words, a copy edit, and proofreads.

Now that it’s finished, the novel is about 90,000 words (so 35,000 words longer than the second draft). It was a lengthy process to get the story from where it started to where it is today.

  1. In this day and age, it is unusual for a new author to have a book published, but you have two more Mary Bennet mystery sequels in the pipeline. Kudos! I suspect this has more to do with hard work than luck. What advice would you give to other hopeful authors who are writing their first books?

If you’re writing a first book, my biggest advice is to keep writing, and to push through and finish the book. When I first began trying to write books, I started a lot of novels that I never finished, sometimes due to perfectionism or not knowing what I wanted to do with the story or because I became distracted by a shiny new idea.

I learned a lot from books that helped me understand structure and plot, and there’s so much you can learn about writing craft from the Internet, from books, and from writing conferences. But there’s a lot that you can only learn by doing it. Push through, finish a first draft, and let go of perfectionism. And then take the time to get feedback from other writers and revise, revise, revise. Then, if you would like to publish the book, make sure to take the time to learn all you can about publication and different publishing options.

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The book will be available on April 22nd, 2021. Find purchase information for preordering in the US, Canada, UK, Australia, and other locations on Katherine Cowley’s site.

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After sharing my book review of A Most Clever Girl: How Jane Austen Discovered Her Voice by Jasmine A. Stirling, I had the great pleasure of interviewing Jasmine about her background, her writing process, and the inspiration behind her book. Thank you to Jasmine for her time and her thoughtful answers to my questions!

Q. What initially inspired you to write A Most Clever Girl? Describe your vision for the book and your writing process.

A. When I set out to write this book, I chose Jane Austen because I admire her life and her work, and because I believe she is one of the most misunderstood women in history. Jane Austen was far from being the prim, prudish, “dear Aunt Jane” depicted by her brother Henry and her nephew Edward in their biographies of the author. She is also far from being an author of swoony romances, as we are sometimes led to believe.

These discrepancies between the popular image of Austen and the real Jane Austen gripped me. I wanted to help young people understand Austen the rebel, Austen the humorist, and Austen the artist, so that when they encountered her work later on, they might better be able to fully appreciate and enjoy it.

However, as I delved into my research, it became clear that Jane Austen was a perfect subject for a children’s book about creativity and persistence, because her upbringing, life struggles, and triumphs tell us a great deal about what a writer needs in order to fully master her craft. Of course, I still hope that A Most Clever Girl will help kids relate to the real Jane Austen and encourage them to pick up her novels when they get a little older.

As for my process, it was extensive. I read widely on Austen—both primary and secondary sources—for two years before I wrote a single word. Then, I sat down and wrote a draft of the book in less than an hour. Of course, it was mediocre. It was my first attempt at creative writing as an adult. I was a beginner.

Over the next ten months, I worked for hours each week rewriting and revising the manuscript based on feedback from dozens of people—writers, kids, freelance editors, and agents. I continued to refer to and pull things from primary and secondary sources as I went. Ultimately, I rewrote or revised my initial draft more than 60 times. The final story was unrecognizable when compared with the first draft.

One of the most challenging aspects of writing this book was figuring out how to explain the literary significance of what Jane Austen did—pioneer her witty realist style, rich with social commentary and moral imperatives—to very young people who have no idea what literature was like in Regency England and have scant understanding of what a writer’s voice is all about. Hopefully I pulled it off!

Interior illustration of A Most Clever Girl

Q. What do you hope young readers and the worldwide Jane Austen community will gain from reading this book?

A. A Most Clever Girl is about the process of creative mastery. It’s about all those boring, mundane aspects of creative achievement that our culture doesn’t like to talk about—being rooted in place, having community support, getting consistent feedback, having time, money, and a room of one’s own, discipline, and maturity—which are critical for an artist to bloom.

My hope is that if children (and adults!) study and learn more about how someone becomes a great writer, or filmmaker, or painter, or musician, it will give them insight into how to nurture their own talents—whatever they may be—to greatness.

The message, I hope, is an empowering one. If one begins a project and it isn’t coming out quite as nicely as one expected, do not despair! Set aside ninety minutes each day before or after school or work and keep at it. Find your community. Get feedback. Advocate for the time and space to work on your craft. Be patient.

Although Jane Austen had written drafts of her most famous and beloved novels by her mid 20s, it was not until more than a decade later that she had fully developed her voice as a writer. In fact, by the time Austen had mastered her craft, she had been writing for more than a quarter of a century.

In short, creative mastery is not born of a flash of inspiration. Inspiration plays a part, but not the major part, in any creative endeavor.

Q. When did you first discover Jane Austen and how have her books touched your life?

A. I first fell in love with Jane Austen while reading Persuasion at age nineteen while studying abroad as an associate member of Keble College at the University of Oxford. I also adore Pride and Prejudice.

One way in which Austen inspires me is in her ability to create literature that is fun and escapist and yet anything but light. I am dazzled by Austen’s depth and skill as an artist, and love that she challenges our notion that great art must be a moody, dark, and bitter tonic. Austen, like Shakespeare, is able to work simultaneously on many levels at once. While distracting us with her perfect sentences and tidy plotlines, she entertains and amuses while also viciously satirizing patriarchy, the church, the aristocracy, and conventional views of women. Her characters are of her time and yet distinctively modern. She is perennially relevant, offering each new generation corrective wisdom without being gauche or overbearing.

Q. What was your research process for A Most Clever Girl and what sources did you consult? Have you visited any of the Jane Austen sites in England?

A. One of the things that I think is unique about A Most Clever Girl among children’s books is its liberal use of and reliance on primary sources. Austen’s letters are used to describe details of her life in three spreads. Actual examples from her juvenilia are referenced right at the beginning of the book. Quotes from her novels are sprinkled liberally throughout the text (in italics) to describe Austen’s own creative journey. Every detail, from what young Jane is reading in the second spread to what she thought about her how brother James cut up his turkey, is grounded in a primary source and laid out on an accurate timeline.

Each decision I made was carefully considered, often in agonizing detail. For example, several biographies state that Austen fainted upon hearing the news that the family would move to Bath. On further investigation, I concluded that, based on the primary sources used to develop this theory, this might not have occurred. So although I had included it in an early draft, I wrote it out later on. The last thing a biographer for children wants to do is to perpetuate inaccurate information about someone in history.

I was painfully aware throughout my writing process that Austen is a unique subject. Her enormous popularity and the vast number of professional and novice Austen experts means that anyone writing about her needs to be particularly sensitive about the many versions of the Austen narrative. I tried to tread that line respectfully while also making sure my own version of her story had real heft and direction.

When I was a student at Oxford I had the opportunity to visit many of the sites mentioned in my book. My college friends from those days are currently planning an Oxford reunion (when things open up again) and we plan to revisit the sites in A Most Clever Girl on the same trip.

Interior illustration of A Most Clever Girl

Q. The illustrations for the book are charming! Tell us about those and any other special features in the book.

A. I love that Vesper Stamper visited the sites that she illustrated for the book on a research trip to the UK. Her work emphasizes the three-dimensional portrait of Austen I worked hard to evoke in my writing. Vesper’s Austen sparkles with mischief and wit. At the same time, her illustrations are gorgeous and lush and tap into that escapism that I think make Austen such a delight for grownups to read.

Q. This book traces Jane Austen’s journey as a writer, from Steventon to Bath to Chawton, and explores the way she found her voice. What parts of her story were particularly meaningful for you? In what ways do you relate to Austen as a writer?

A. My journey mirrors Austen’s in that, as a child, I wrote prolifically. From the age of three, I regularly composed poems in my head and dictated them to my mother to write down. I wrote throughout my childhood and into my young adult life. But as an adult, I stopped writing completely, until a few years ago, when I began my first creative writing project—a picture book biography of Jane Austen.

My reasons for abandoning creative writing are probably not dissimilar to Austen’s. In hindsight, I wish I had understood more about how creative achievement works. I think it would have motivated me to carve out time for writing during those years, even when I struggled with where to begin.

Q. If you could step into one of Jane Austen’s novels, which one would it be and which character would you like to play?

A. I would most like to be Anne Eliot in Persuasion. I appreciate that Captain Wentworth is a self-made man, and that he does not come with a large estate. We would be free to make our own, new home together. I think his industriousness, good sense, and lack of inherited wealth would put me at ease. Furthermore, Wentworth writes the most romantic and self-aware letter in human history when he proposes to Anne. That letter would get me through many a quarrel in later years as we raised children and managed a household together.

Q. What are you working on now?

A. I have a 450-page YA/New Adult narrative nonfiction book coming out next year about the women’s suffrage movement titled: We Demand An Equal Voice: Carrie Chapman Catt and Votes for Women. I am also working on a novel.

Interior illustration of A Most Clever Girl

Thank you again to Jasmine for her wonderful interview! If you haven’t read my book review of A Most Clever Girl, you can read it here. I found the book utterly charming. I’m planning to give copies to my friends at birthday parties, baby showers, and graduations–and pretty much every other occasion I can think of. I hope you do too! –Rachel

ABOUT THE BOOK

Witty and mischievous Jane Austen grew up in a house overflowing with words. As a young girl, she delighted in making her family laugh with tales that poked fun at the popular novels of her time, stories that featured fragile ladies and ridiculous plots. Before long, Jane was writing her own stories-uproariously funny ones, using all the details of her life in a country village as inspiration.

In times of joy, Jane’s words burst from her pen. But after facing sorrow and loss, she wondered if she’d ever write again. Jane realized her writing would not be truly her own until she found her unique voice. She didn’t know it then, but that voice would go on to capture readers’ hearts and minds for generations to come.

PURCHASE LINKS:
Amazon
Bookshop.org


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jasmine A. Stirling is the debut author of A Most Clever Girl: How Jane Austen Discovered Her Voice, a picture book biography of Jane Austen about persistence and creative mastery. Jasmine lives on a cheerful street in San Francisco with her husband, two daughters, and their dog. From a young age, she loved to write poems and stories and worked her way through nearly every children’s book (and quite a few for grownups, too) in her local library. When she’s not writing, Jasmine can be found hiking in the fog, singing songs from old musicals, and fiddling with her camera.

Follow Jasmine on Instagram and Facebook @jasmine.a.stirling.author where she posts about kidlit and life with two young girls.


RACHEL DODGE teaches college English classes, gives talks at libraries, teas, and book clubs, and writes for Jane Austen’s World blog and Jane Austen’s Regency World magazine. She is the bestselling author of The Anne of Green Gables Devotional: A Chapter-By-Chapter Companion for Kindred Spirits and Praying with Jane: 31 Days Through the Prayers of Jane Austen. Her newest book The Little Women Devotional is now available for pre-order and releases later this year. You can visit Rachel online at www.RachelDodge.com.

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by Brenda S. Cox

Last week I started a series about people of color in Austen’s England, looking through different lenses of history. We began with Sanditon, The Woman of Colour, and other literature. We’ll be continuing with a post each month. 

If you want to do some of your own exploring, the following are resources that I have found helpful. (These are also listed under the History tab above.) If you know of other good resources that I’ve missed, please let me know in the comments section so I can add them. Or if you’ve read any of these and want to comment on them, please do!

Black History, Black People in Austen’s England

Books

 
Untold Histories by Kathleen Chater examines the records of churches, courts, newspapers, and other sources to see what they show about black people in England, 1660-1807.

Individual Black People in Austen’s England

Black Clergy 
  • Clergy of African Descent in England,” Church Times, Oct. 23, 2015. 
  • Barber, Samuel. My Primitive Methodists. Mixed-race Methodist lay minister. Son of Francis Barber (see previous section).
  • Philip Quaque, black Anglican priest and missionary
  • John Jea, The Life, History, and Unparalleled Sufferings of John Jea, the African Preacher. Black African minister who visited England. 
  • John Marrant, The Journal of John Marrant, 3. Black African minister who visited England.
  • Boston King, “Memoirs of the Life of Boston King, a Black Preacher,” from The Methodist Magazine, March-June 1798, 264. Black African minister who visited England.
Paula Byrne’s Belle explores what we know of Dido Belle, the mixed-race great-niece of Lord Mansfield.

Slavery and Abolition

Gretchen Gerzina’s Black London explores the lives of black people in London through art, individual stories, and other lenses.

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Happy Easter, gentle readers. Many of the customs followed in the early 19th century by Jane Austen and her family are still followed today in one fashion or another. For this blog post, I have gathered information already known to many, and some that might be new. The following quote sums this holiday up nicely:

Easter during the Regency was both a holy day and a holiday.” – Lesley-Ann McCleod

Pancake Races Before Lent:

The 40 days before Easter or Lent began on Wednesday with a church service. This day was preceded by Shrove Tuesday, on which one would confess one’s sins. The date was also the last day to eat all the foods that would be prohibited during abstinence. This meant emptying the larder of rich foods, such as milk, eggs, butter, fat, wheat flour, and spices—ingredients commonly found in pancakes. An alternate name in Britain for Shrove Tuesday was Pancake Tuesday! Pancakes were made for consumption or for public races:

At the sound of a pancake bell, often the bell from the local church, women ran a course carrying a frying pan with a pancake in it. They had to successfully flip the pancake at least three times before they reached the goal. Some communities held pancake parties, with people dressed up [as] the Protector of the Pancakes, irst Founder of the Fritters, Baron of Bacon-flitch, and the Earl of Egg-baskets.” –  Regina Scott, guest author on The Regency Blog of Lesley-Anne McLeod

Pancake races with female contestants are still held today. In addition, street football, or hurling, where teams of men (country men against city dwellers, for instance) hurled the ball against the opposing team until one team won, is also a time-honored Easter tradition.

Easter Sermons:

Easter Sunday, which commemorated Christ’s resurrection from the dead, was a solemn occasion and one of obligation for parishioners, such as the Austen family and the community of worshipers. In the book, Jane Austen and the Clergy, Irene Collins writes that clergymen in Jane Austen’s day were not expected to write original sermons every Sunday, except on a few occasions.

Henry Crawford, assessing Edmund Bertram’s commitments at Thornton Lacey, judged that ‘a sermon at Christmas and Easter ‘would be’ the sum total of the sacrifice.”

She also wrote that Mr. Collins produced only two sermons between his ordination at Easter and his visit to Longbourn in November of the same year.- p. 96. Jane Austen and the Clergy, Irene Collins, August 1, 2002.

cover of Religion and Philosophy of a stack of Bibles and the title of a sermon Thomas Lloyd preached in a parish church on Easter-Day, April 8th, 1787

Easter Music

I will always remember Sunday Easter service with my parents when singing this uplifting Methodist Church hymn, “Jesus Christ is Risen Today.” (14th C. song rewritten in 1739 by: Lyricist Charles Wesley, Composer Samuel Arnold, initially titled Hymn for Easter Day). This hymn was also popular during Jane Austen’s day. My emotions well up when I watch this YouTube video of the King’s College choir singing the hymn.

Easter in Pride and Prejudice

When Elizabeth Bennet visits Hunsford and Rosings, she becomes aware of Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s omission in inviting the Collins’ and their guests in advance for this most important holiday:

In this quiet way, the first fortnight of her visit soon passed away. Easter was approaching, and the week preceding it was to bring an addition to the family at Rosings, which in so small a circle must be important.”

Elizabeth understands that Lady Lady Catherine de Bourgh has no time for herself or Mr and Mrs Collins, but an invitation finally came:

Colonel Fitzwilliam’s manners were very much admired at the parsonage, and the ladies all felt that he must add considerably to the pleasure of their engagements at Rosings. It was some days, however, before they received any invitation thither, for while there were visitors in the house they could not be necessary; and it was not till Easter-day, almost a week after the gentlemen’s arrival, that they were honoured by such an attention, and then they were merely asked on leaving church to come there in the evening. For the last week they had seen very little of either Lady Catherine or her daughter. Colonel Fitzwilliam had called at the parsonage more than once during the time, but Mr. Darcy they had only seen at church.”

The ladies, we presume, arrived wearing their new Easter bonnets and gowns made especially for such an important holiday. One assumes that Easter must have presented a busy schedule for Mr Collins, the vicar of his parish. Elizabeth Hawksley, who has written an interesting article about the clergy in Jane Austen’s novels, describes Mr Collins during the days surrounding Easter. His schedule is far from busy:

So what did the vicar of a parish actually do? Elizabeth Bennet and Sir William and Maria Lucas visited the Collinses around Easter – today, the busiest time of the church year. Nevertheless, we hear of Mr Collins driving his father-in-law round the countryside every day during his visit, and of dinners at Rosings with Lady Catherine de Bourgh; but there is no mention of any church activities.” – Jane Austen and the Clergy: How the System Worked, Elizabeth Hawksley.

Tithing at Easter

Interestingly, people were punished for non-payment of tithes or attendance at Easter. In his book, The Parish Registers of England, Charles Cox (1843-1919) writes:

“…On conviction for divers of the less serious offences, such as non-payment of tithes or Easter dues, or for the non-observance of Sundays or Saints’ Days, offenders were admonished, and if obstinate excommunicated; but in such cases absolution and discharge could  usually be obtained on payment of a fine…”


The Monday After Easter—Merriment at Greenwich Park:

This image depicts Easter day for the masses in Greenwich Park in London. At the top of the hill is the Royal Observatory with astronomical equipment. According to a contemporary description, a sojourn to the park is well worth the visitors’ time! The Monday after Easter the park is filled with throngs of merry makers (ten to thirty thousand) from all walks of life and many ages. The hill is steep, with celebrants running down it in pairs or groups of males and females, sometimes tumbling head over heels, and most likely giggling.

Black and white engraving of Greenwich Park with crowds celebrating Easter

Greenwich Park with the Royal Observatory on Easter Monday, Modern London, Edward Pugh

Greenwich is crowded at these holidays.  In the public-houses is dancing from morning to evening.  Almost every private house of the lower and middle sort make tea and coffee; yet it is often difficult to find room even for a small company; and it is very usual for parties to take a cold repast and wine with them, and dine beneath the trees in the Park, in spots a little retired from the throng. “Mapping Modern London, Horwood’s Map, Greenwich Park

To view the incredible details of the park, click on an image, which will open to enlarged version.

Food:

Hot cross buns, ham, lamb in season, and potatoes were common dishes at Easter, as were colored eggs for an Easter egg hunt. These foods are still popular today. Kirstin Olsen writes about Pastor Woodforde, the author of Diary of a Country Parson,

Woodforde and his friends tended…to prefer the grass lamb, and it is in the spring that most of his references to eating lamb occur.” – Kirstin Olsen, Cooking with Jane Austen (pp. 66-67)

Grass lamb, or young lambs that still drink milk from their mothers were prized by many. Soon after they are born, the lambs start to eat hay, grass, or grain, but much of their food intake is still from their mothers’ rich milk. The lambs are slaughtered within 2-15 months of birth, weigh from 135 to 140 lbs, and are available only from April to September. Their taste is not as intense as an older lamb’s, but it is one that Pastor Woodforde prefered.

Jane Austen’s Easter

This 2011 article from the Jane Austen Centre, written by Laura Boyle, is worth reading in full. It is a comprehensive discussion about Jane Austen’s celebration of Easter, both as a solemn religious holiday and as a festive event. Click here to enter it.

All Things Georgian

I also recommend this website and its many fact-filled blog posts with well-researched, hard to find information. This link lead to an article entitled “An Early Easter Miscellany.”

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Have a happy Easter everyone. As with many of you, mine will be spent with the family. The sky is cloudless, the day is warm and perfect for the smaller fry to find Easter eggs.

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by Brenda S. Cox

“Of these three, and indeed of all, Miss Lambe was beyond comparison the most important and precious, as she paid in proportion to her fortune. She was about seventeen, half mulatto, chilly and tender, had a maid of her own, was to have the best room in the lodgings, and was always of the first consequence in every plan of Mrs. Griffiths.” – Sanditon

This is the only time Jane Austen clearly introduces a black or mixed-race character in her fiction. And we don’t know what direction she was going to go with this young lady. (Though obviously the producers of Sanditon have made their own speculations, as have the authors of completions of the novel. My favorite completion, by the way, is here.)

My favorite completion of Jane Austen’s Sanditon is by Jane Austen and “Another Lady.”

Austen’s inclusion of a mixed-race character raises questions for us today:

  • How many black and mixed-race people were there in Austen’s England?
  • Is she likely to have known any of them?
  • What were their lives like?
  • How did Austen’s society view them and treat them?

I’ve been doing a lot of reading on this topic, and it’s hard to find solid answers. However, the series of posts that I’m starting today will look at the question from different angles. We’ll start today with some indications from fiction of Austen’s time. Then we’ll look at statistics from official records, using Kathleen Chater’s Untold Histories.  We’ll also look at what art of the time can tell us, and consider the lives of some individual black and mixed-race people. Each of these lenses will give us a little clearer picture of black people’s lives in Austen’s England.

Miss Lambe

Miss Lambe is “half mulatto.” Nowadays “mulatto” is an offensive term, as it is based on the word “mule”; mixed-race people were believed to be sterile like mules. (Though there must have been plenty of evidence to the contrary!) But I don’t think Austen is using it pejoratively. She is simply describing Miss Lambe’s background. It sounds like Miss Lambe had a parent who was half-black and half-white, most likely her mother, and a white parent. Such pairings were quite common in the West Indies. A plantation owner might well leave his wealth to a mixed-race child.

Austen calls Miss Lambe “chilly and tender.” “Chilly” probably meant that the weather of England was too cold for her, compared to the West Indies where she grew up. “Tender” probably meant that she was delicate, easily becoming ill. Though as I imagine Miss Lambe, I like to think that “tender” also meant she was kind and gentle.

Austen sometimes describes people, such as Marianne Dashwood and Henry Tilney, as having a “brown” complexion. There’s been some speculation that she may mean to imply mixed racial backgrounds. That’s possible, but it seems a little unlikely to me. It sounds like Austen is just describing minor variations in skin tones. She usually pairs “brown” skin with dark eyes and dark hair. In one other reference, Miss Bingley says Elizabeth Bennet has become “brown and coarse.” Darcy says she is tanned from traveling in the summer.

The Woman of Colour is an anonymous novel published in 1808 about an heiress like Miss Lambe. The modern version edited by Lyndon J. Dominique includes much helpful background information and excerpts from other fiction and nonfiction of the time.

Back to Miss Lambe. We can get some idea of what her life might have been like from a novel of the time. The Woman of Colour: A Tale  was published anonymously in London in 1808, nine years before Austen began writing Sanditon. Professor Lyndon J. Dominique has edited a modern version, full of helpful background information.

Modern scholars speculate that the writer was herself a “woman of colour,” the mixed-race daughter of a West Indies planter, but we don’t know for sure who wrote the book. “People of color” may be used today to describe people of various races. However, eighteenth-century British people used it to refer to certain groups of free people in the Americas. Some included free black people, but others used the term only for those of mixed race (p. 21 in The Woman of Colour).

The novel is a series of letters from Olivia Fairfield to her former governess in Jamaica. Olivia, the daughter of a white plantation owner and a black slave, is on her way to England. Her loving father knows that because of her skin color she will never be treated as an equal by the planters of Jamaica. So he arranges that after his death she will travel to England. In England, laws and attitudes toward mixed-race people were less harsh, and tender-hearted Olivia wouldn’t have to see the suffering of the black people she identifies with. Her father, in his will, has arranged for her to marry her cousin, who will then inherit her fortune.

Already we find an interesting contrast. While black people were often treated horrifically in the West Indies, they found more acceptance in England itself.

Prejudices

The story shows some examples of prejudices that black and mixed-race people experienced in England at this time. Olivia and her black maid are called names, and yet they earn a place in society.

At her first English ball, Olivia is “an object of pretty general curiosity” (84). She says, “My colour, you know, renders me remarkable” (84). People stare at her “as if they had been invited purposely to see the untamed savage at a shilling a piece!” However, one gentleman, who calls her a “native,” adds, “In native elegance unrivalled! . . . More grace, more expression, more characteristic dignity, I never yet beheld in one female figure!” His friend calls her a “sable goddess.” Olivia enjoys the dancing, but complains that rather than rational people, she finds only “folly and dissimulation” (88).

Olivia’s maid Dido is a black woman. Though not enslaved, she seems the stereotype of the faithful black slave. She speaks in “half-broken language” (57), presumably a Jamaican dialect. She loves Olivia dearly and serves her faithfully. Olivia also loves Dido. In town, Dido says she is called names like “blacky” and “wowsky” and “squabby” and “guashy,” “and all because she has a skin not quite so white,–God Almighty help them all.” (“Wowski” was the name of an American Indian woman in a novel of 1787; “Quasheba” was the name of dark-skinned characters in novels of 1767 and 1798.) Dido says even a maid treats her like a slave. But she looks forward to their home in the countryside, where she will be the housekeeper and be in charge. Once in the country, she wins the affection of the “peasants” with her warm heart (105).

Olivia’s husband’s young nephew George thinks Olivia’s skin is “dirty” and Dido’s even dirtier. Olivia explains to him, “The same God that made you made me . . . the poor black woman—the whole world—and every creature in it! A great part of the world is peopled by creatures with skins as black as Dido’s, and as yellow as mine. God chose it should be so, and we cannot make our skins white, any more than you can make yours black” (79).

They go on to discuss the evils of slavery. The child has heard the coachman saying that “black slaves are no better than horses over there,” and Olivia explains, “Those black slaves are, by some cruel masters, obliged to work like horses . . . but God Almighty created them men, equal with their masters, if they had the same advantages, and the same blessings of education.” Olivia says that human feelings and religious principles, as well as “kindred claims,” impel her to pray for the end of slavery, the emancipation of her brethren (80-81).

Once Olivia is married and living in the countryside, she meets “East Indian Nabobs,” a family who made their fortune in India, and finds them proud and selfish. However, she is completely accepted into the social circles of her area. The most prejudice she experiences is from her sister-in-law, who is a conniving, selfish woman.

The Woman of Colour: A Tale  shows some of the prejudices against black and mixed-race people in England. Nevertheless, it also implies that people of color were fully accepted in English society, particularly if they had wealth, like Austen’s Miss Lambe.

Jane Austen’s niece Anna Austen Lefroy made the earliest attempt to complete Sanditon.

Religious Themes

The novel has many Christian themes. At this time, Christians in England, led by William Wilberforce’s “Clapham Sect,” were pushing strongly to abolish the slave trade and then slavery. Literature was one of their most important means of raising public awareness and calling for compassion for oppressed people. Evangelical Hannah More was writing tracts like “The Sorrows of Yamba: or, The Negro Woman’s Lament,” a story about an enslaved woman whose baby died in her arms on a slave ship. William Cowper, Jane Austen’s beloved poet, wrote poems condemning slavery. Cowper wrote, “We have no slaves at home – then why abroad? . . . 
Slaves cannot breathe in England; if their lungs Receive our air, that moment they are free,
They touch our country and their shackles fall.” (This wasn’t strictly true, in legal terms, but was widely believed. It does point out the radical difference, though, between British colonies where slavery was part of the economy, and Britain itself.) While we don’t know who wrote The Woman of Colour, the book seems to fit with other such literature that put a human face on enslaved peoples and called for Christian compassion toward them.

Olivia’s mother was her father’s slave and his mistress. He taught her Christian faith, which she accepted eagerly. But she also learned from the church that her relationship with him was wrong, since they weren’t married. She confronted him, but he was too proud and too prejudiced to marry her. She died in childbirth. Olivia’s father raised her, gave her a good education, then sent her to England.

Her cousin Augustus, a good man, is at first repelled by Olivia’s dark complexion. However, he soon realizes that she has “a noble and dignified soul.”

Olivia is “a stranger in a strange land, where she is more likely to receive contumely [contempt] than consideration . . . a superior being, and . . . the child of humanity, the citizen of the world, with a heart teeming with benevolence and mercy towards every living creature!—She is accomplished and elegant; but her accomplishments are not the superficial acquirements of the day,–they are the result of application and genius in unison” (102-3).

In fact, Augustus and Olivia, both epitomes of beauty, intelligence, and virtue, seem to be made for each other. They marry and live happily. But—I won’t spoil it—something happens to destroy their happiness. Interestingly, the person who destroys their marriage is motivated by greed, jealousy, and class prejudices, not racial prejudices.

Olivia ends up alone, but she bears it well and peacefully. Throughout the story, she turns to God in all her trials and fears. The story ends by spelling out the moral: In times of calamity, we should seek God. Faith in God can enable us to become resigned to any hard situation.

The original editor adds that if the book can “teach [even] one skeptical European to look with a compassionate eye towards the despised native of Africa—then, whether Olivia Fairfield’s be a real or an imaginary character, I shall not regret that I have edited the Letters of a Woman of Colour!” (189)

Another cover for Sanditon completed by “Another Lady”; other completions are also available by other authors.

Other Fiction of Austen’s Time

Lyndon J. Dominique, who edited the modern version of The Woman of Colour: A Tale, provides a timeline of “Women of Color in Drama and Long Prose Fiction” from 1605 to 1861. He lists 37 publications during Austen’s lifetime with black or mixed-race characters, including Sanditon. It seems likely that as an avid reader, Austen was probably familiar with some of these, or earlier ones.

Dominique includes excerpts from a few of these works, including:

Lucy Peacock’s “The Creole” (1786). A creole heiress (who may be white or mixed-race) loses her fortune to an unscrupulous husband. Only her “honest negroes” console her (196). Again there is a Christian message. The creole lady writes, “Surely . . . we have no right to tyrannize over, and treat as brutes, those who will doubtless one day be made partakers with us of an immortality. Have they not the same faculties, the same passions, and the same innate sense of good and evil? Should we, then, who are enlightened by the holy precepts of Christianity, refuse to stretch forth the friendly hand, to point these human affections to the most laudable purposes, the glory of God, and the real advantage of society?” (196) She frees her slaves.

Agnes Musgrave’s Solemn Injunctions (1798).  At a boarding school, a girl is jealous of a talented, amiable young lady from the West Indies. So she “insinuates” that the girl has black ancestry and should be rejected. The other West Indian girls bring the prejudices of the islands with them to school. “In the West Indies the distinction is kept up by the women with so scrupulous an exactness, as never to mix, on equal terms, with people so descended”: they would not mix with any “child of mixed blood whose ancestors within the fourth degree of descent were negroes” (215). Here again the prejudices of the West Indies are much stronger than the prejudices of England.

Other stories include mixed-race heiresses like Olivia who are beautiful, well-educated, and virtuous Christians. They also include people who condemn “vulgar” black people. It appears that some of these stories, like The Woman of Colour, were written at least partly to help counteract prejudices and support anti-slavery causes.

I suspect Jane Austen’s Miss Lambe would have been a more balanced character then those we find in other novels of the time. Austen did not write stereotypes. However, Austen was strongly opposed to slavery* and probably would have presented Miss Lambe positively.

The Woman of Colour also includes nonfiction excerpts of the time which confirm some of the attitudes and situations represented in the novel. For example, a copy of a Jamaican planter’s will, leaving his fortune to his “reputed daughters” born of his black mistress, shows that there were mixed-race West Indian heiresses.

Next month we’ll look at who the black people in England were at this time, how they got there, and what social classes they belonged to. Scholar Kathleen Chater searched through a huge number of primary sources to find that information, so I’ll share some of that with you, from her book Untold Histories.

 

If you are familiar with other fiction of Austen’s era that includes black characters, tell us about those characters! Or, if you’ve read The Woman of Colour, what did you learn from it or think about it?

 

Learning More

On Friday, April 9, from 5:00 – 6:30 PM EDT, Professor Dominique will be giving an online seminar on “Political Blackness in The Woman of Colour,” discussing the novel he edited. You can sign up at Jane Austen & Co. The recorded talk is now available there.

 

If you want to start exploring more on this topic on your own, in the tabs above, under History, scroll down until you find the section I’ve added on Black History, or see Resources. It will give you a wide variety of resources to start investigating.

*I don’t intend to look at slavery in the British colonies, or abolition, in this series, but you’ll also find sources addressing those areas among the resources listed. “Austen and Antigua—Slavery in Her Time”  is a good discussion of Jane Austen’s comments on slavery and her family’s connections with slave plantations.

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