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Archive for the ‘Sense and Sensibility’ Category

by Brenda S. Cox

“I am never too busy to think of S&S. I can no more forget it, than a mother can forget her sucking child; & I am much obliged to you for your enquiries.”—Jane Austen, letter to Cassandra Austen, April 25, 1811, quoted in AGM brochure.

On this day, Oct. 30, 211 years ago (1811), Jane Austen’s first novel was published, Sense and Sensibility! A few weeks ago, the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) met to discuss and celebrate “Sense and Sensibility in the City of Gardens.” The garden city of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, hosted this 2022 AGM.

Lovely logo for the 2022 JASNA AGM, Sense and Sensibility in the City of Gardens (Victoria, Canada)

Getting to Victoria was challenging for those of us on the east coast, but it was rewarding. The city is on an enchanting island on the west coast of Canada. Those who came early or stayed late were able to visit famous Butchart Gardens, a nearby castle, or other local sights. Personally, I chose to go whale watching, which was a delight. We watched a pod of orcas and saw a humpback whale waving his front flippers back and forth at us!

During the conference itself I got to choose between many great options. The schedule overflowed with fascinating talks, fun workshops, and great events. Of course an Emporium offered great books from Jane Austen Books as well as other goodies from Jane Austen’s Regency World and regional JASNA chapters. And I found many wonderful “kindred spirits” to talk with between events.

Plenaries: Cowper, Sin, and Duels

Each speaker showed us Sense and Sensibility through a unique lens. The first plenary speaker,  Dr. Emma Clery, spoke on “‘Our Garden is Putting in Order’: The Place of William Cowper in Jane Austen’s Thought-World.” Having studied Cowper extensively for my own book, I was intrigued by Clery’s ideas on Cowper’s influences in Sense and Sensibility. She said the Dashwoods were expelled from the “garden” of Norland, as Jane Austen was expelled from her “garden” at Steventon. This “paradise” is regained at Delaford, which is described in terms of garden walls and fruit trees. People in Austen’s works are like plants, needing the right conditions to grow. I want to explore the many references to trees, timber, and woods that Clery said are found in S&S.

The most controversial talk of the weekend was Robert Morrison’s “‘Deeper in a Life of Sin’: The Regency Romance of Sense and Sensibility.Dr. Morrison, author of The Regency Years, showed the bad sides of all the men in S&S, claiming that none were real heroes. He also suggested that the first Eliza’s baby might have been Brandon’s, and that Marianne might have been losing Willoughby’s baby when she was so ill at Cleveland. He got a lot of pushback on these ideas; we can find potential evidence both for and against his suggestions. But his talk did start some great discussions through the rest of the weekend!

Finally, during Sunday brunch, we heard all about “The Many Duels of Sense and Sensibility” from Susannah Fullerton, author of Jane Austen & Crime. Fullerton told us that dueling at this time was not legal, but was rarely prosecuted. In this “Age of Politeness,” looking too closely at a man or brushing against him could result in a duel. She went on to describe the duels in S&S which were fought with words. She sees duels between John and Fanny Dashwood (Fanny wins), Fanny and Elinor’s mother (Fanny wins), Elinor and Lucy (goes back and forth), and more. From this perspective, as a novel of cutting and thrusting, Fullerton challenged us to look at the references to needles, pins, scissors, and knives in S&S, as well as “cut” and “sharp.”

Activities and Options

Outside of the plenaries, we had many great activities to choose from: workshops (including, as always, lots of dancing), special interest sessions, an improvised play, and great breakout sessions. Breakouts focused on a wide range of topics, including the arts, Austen in Spanish, specific characters in S&S, military service in the East India Company, information literacy, landscapes, a “playlet” dramatizing Lucy Steele’s tactics, and much more. Articles based on many of these are likely to appear in the next editions of Persuasions and Persuasions On-Line, so be on the lookout!

Breakout Sessions on Religious Themes

Besides religious echoes in the three main talks, three of the breakout sessions focused on one of my interests, the religious aspects of the novel. Laura Dabundo, author of Jane Austen: A Companion, shared about “Jane Austen’s Ode to Duty: Morality and Conscience in Sense and Sensibility.” Comparing S&S to Wordsworth’s “Ode to Duty,” Dabundo showed that “duty is manifest in one’s principled obligations to family, friends, church, and nation, personally and in community.” 

Roger E. Moore, author of Jane Austen and the Reformation, asked whether S&S might be “Jane Austen’s Most Religious Novel.” He examined the idea of religious enthusiasm, overly emotional reactions to religion, feared in Austen’s day. Many of Marianne’s thoughts, feelings, and actions fit with this religious enthusiasm. So it is possible Austen was showing the pitfalls of that contemporary concern.

I (Brenda S. Cox) also had the privilege of sharing my thoughts about “Faith Words in Sense and Sensibility: A Story of Selfishness and Self-Denial.”  I explored themes of vices and virtues in the novel. Austen, rather than preaching like many of her contemporaries, chose instead to use examples to encourage moral behavior. Elinor’s selfless behavior throughout, and Marianne’s repentance late in the novel, give strong examples to follow. Austen used “faith words” that had strong religious connotations in her time to reinforce her messages.

A Few of My AGM Highlights, in Pictures

Bookbinding workshop: Richelle Funk taught us some basic bookbinding skills, and we made lovely little notebooks; I used mine to take notes during the conference. Here, Baronda Bradley, in one of her gorgeous outfits, prepares her booklet for binding.
Beading with Jane Austen Workshop: Kim Wilson displays a replica of Jane Austen’s bracelet, along with other variations that can be made with her instructions and supplies, soon to be available online; sign up for her newsletter list to be notified. With her instructions and materials, I was able to start a lovely single-strand bracelet, and finish it as soon as I got home.

In a special interest session, Kristen Miller Zohn told us about “Gender and Decorative Arts in Austen’s Novels.” She explored how decorative arts, interiors, and clothing presented in Austen’s novels, particularly Northanger Abbey, speak to the unique roles of women and men in Austen’s era.
Cecily Van Cleave, a historical fiction writer, led another special interest session on “Beyond the Garden Wall: Priscilla Wakefield, Women in Botany, and the Intersection of Art and Science during the Austen Era.” We learned that women wrote science guides in this time, intended to help young ladies replace frivolous pursuits with more serious, intellectual hobbies.
Donna Fletcher Crow, dressed in a replica of Austen’s costume in the Byrne portrait, showed us maps and scenes of “Jane Austen in London with the Dashwoods.” She also explained the significance of Austen’s choices for locations. Listeners, though, seemed to be most fascinated by her mention of pencils as cutting-edge technology of the time, with graphite as a precious English product.
The Banquet and Promenade were a lovely time for many to dress up and show off their outfits. Kristen Miller Zohn and Jennifer Swenson, coordinators of the 2021 Chicago AGM, at the banquet.

For many of us, the Ball is always a joy and delight. Most people dressed in lovely costumes, like those in the above photos of Renata Dennis (head of the diversity committee) and myself, Jeanne Talbot, and Baronda Bradley (whose bustle held a bouquet of fresh flowers) with her husband Eric Fladager. We all danced the night away.

Next year, I hope you will join us at the 2023 AGM in Denver for “Pride & Prejudice: A Rocky Romance.”

 

Brenda S. Cox, author of the new book, Fashionable Goodness: Christianity in Jane Austen’s England, writes for Jane Austen’s World and for Faith, Science, Joy, and Jane Austen. You can also visit her on Facebook.

 

 

 

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Book Review by Brenda S. Cox

“I have had ample time to consider the difference between my former, naïve ideas of love and happiness, and the more mature and accurate view of them I now possess. I find that my opinions are quite transformed. How differently I feel about everything now! – about what I want, about what will make me happy.”—Marianne Dashwood in the last chapter of Colonel Brandon in His Own Words

Colonel Brandon is a bit mysterious. He has a tragic past, which we only see in glimpses. Readers sometimes think he is too serious for Marianne, and we don’t see much of their courtship or love story. Movies add some of this in, but not enough, in my opinion.

Colonel Brandon in His Own Words, by Shannon Winslow, fills in the blanks about Brandon’s background, his connections with both Eliza’s, and his romance with Marianne.

So, I loved reading Colonel Brandon in His Own Words, by Shannon Winslow, which filled in the blanks and brought Brandon more to life for me. The story is consistent with Sense and Sensibility, but adds new insights to the novel.

Sometimes I hesitate to read a parallel Austen story, thinking I will already know everything in it since I know the novel so well. But this time each page brought something new. Even when familiar incidents were included, from Brandon’s perspective, I sometimes had to go back to S&S and check—was it really like that? And it was.

I asked the author to tell us more about why she wrote this book, and what she loved about writing it. Here’s what she shared with us:

Shannon Winslow’s Thoughts on Colonel Brandon in His Own Words

If you’re unfamiliar with my work, the first thing you should know is that I’m a little different – probably in a lot of ways, but I’m talking about my writing philosophy. It’s different from most other JAFF authors in at least two respects. Let me explain.

First, I love ALL of Jane Austen’s novels. Okay, maybe not equally. Like most people, Pride and Prejudice is my favorite, but they’re ALL worth reading. They’re ALL worthy of our attention. So, early on, I decided I wanted to write at least one novel related to each of Jane Austen’s six. And I’m almost there!

I have Pride and Prejudice covered (The Darcys of Pemberley, Return to Longbourn, The Ladies of Rosings Park, Miss Georgiana Darcy of Pemberley, Fitzwilliam Darcy in His Own Words). I wrote The Persuasion of Miss Jane Austen (probably the book of which I’m proudest!) for her fans who wish she’d enjoyed the romance and happy ending she crafted for all her heroines. I count Leap of Hope as my Mansfield Park book (although there’s a lot of P&P in it too). And I have a campy sequel to Northanger Abbey: Murder at Northanger Abbey. Now with Colonel Brandon in His Own Words for Sense and Sensibility, I only have Emma left to go!

The second major difference between me and most other JAFF (Jane Austen Fan Fiction) authors is that I don’t write “variations” per se. I can’t swear that I never will, but so far the books I’ve written expand on (or supplement) Jane Austen’s stories; they don’t change them. So all my books agree with each other and with canon. It’s just the approach that works best for me. I guess I’m sappy enough to believe that there’s one “true story” for the characters I’ve come to know and love, and that’s the one Jane Austen wrote. Adding on (with sequels, minor character stories, etc.) simply allows us to spend more time in their delightful company.

In other words, filling in the blanks Jane Austen left behind is my bread and butter, and there are a LOT of intriguing blanks when it comes to Colonel Brandon. Sense and Sensibility follows Marianne’s and Elinor’s movements primarily, so they are well covered. But there’s quite a bit of time when the men (Edward and Colonel Brandon) are “off camera,” so to speak, creating interesting blanks in the record. Since I really enjoyed writing the first-person, hero’s point of view in my previous book (Fitzwilliam Darcy in His Own Words), I decided to do the same kind of thing for my S&S novel. But should I go with Edward or Colonel Brandon? Hmm.

No contest. In my opinion, Colonel Brandon is not only the more admirable character, he also has the more interesting backstory to work with. There’s so much we don’t know about him, though, and much of what we do happened long before the scope of the original novel. What were his family relationships like? And his sad history with Eliza, which scarred him for life? These things are briefly mentioned in Sense and Sensibility, but we don’t get any details. We don’t see and experience them for ourselves. What about his military years in India? That sounds like a research rabbit hole waiting to be explored. Lots of story potential!

I was also excited to flesh out Brandon’s romance with Marianne, huge portions of which are only hinted at by Jane Austen. She simply didn’t have the time and space to go into their 2-year courtship in any depth, but I did! I cover the day they met, their slow, gentle courtship, the proposal itself (with a very satisfying twist!), and then a brief glimpse into their married life. Everything is from Brandon’s point of view and in His Own Words.

It was such a joy to spend this past year with Colonel Brandon – quiet hero and consummate gentleman – poking around in his head, discovering more about the man, learning what he believes and how he thinks. I love and respect him all the more now! I hope you are a fan as well, or I trust you will be after reading his full story in Colonel Brandon in His Own Words.

More on the Book and the Author

Here’s the cover copy of the book:

Colonel Brandon is the consummate gentleman: honorable, kind almost to a fault, ever loyal and chivalrous. He’s also silent and grave, though. So, what events in his troubled past left him downcast, and how does he finally find the path to a brighter future? In Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen gives us glimpses, but not the complete picture.

Now Colonel Brandon tells us his full story in His Own Words. He relates the truth about his early family life and his dear Eliza – his devotion to her and the devastating way she was lost to him forever. He shares with us a poignant tale from his military days in India – about a woman named Rashmi and how she likewise left a permanent mark on his soul. And of course Marianne. What did Brandon think and feel when he first saw her? How did his hopes for her subsequently rise, plummet, and then eventually climb upwards again. After Willoughby’s desertion, what finally caused Marianne to see Colonel Brandon in a different light?

This is not a variation but a supplement to the original story, chronicled in Brandon’s point of view. It’s a behind-the-scenes look at the things Jane Austen didn’t tell us about a true hero – the very best of men.

Shannon Winslow, whose goal is to fill in the blanks Austen left behind.

Shannon Winslow says an ordinary trip to Costco fifteen years ago changed her life when she picked up a copy of the ’95 miniseries of Pride and Prejudice. She’s been hopelessly hooked on all things Jane Austen ever since, her obsession ultimately inspiring her to write her own stories a la Austen. To date, she has authored eleven novels and a Jane Austen Devotional, with no end to her creative output in sight. Her two sons now grown, Shannon lives with her husband in the log home they built in the countryside south of Seattle, where she writes and paints in her studio facing Mr. Rainier. Visit her at her website and follow her on Facebook.

From Brenda again:

I highly recommend Colonel Brandon in His Own Words, especially to read in this year of focusing on Sense and Sensibility. I think it will add to your appreciation of S&S. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did!

Brenda S. Cox writes on Faith, Science, Joy, and Jane Austen. Her book Fashionable Goodness: Christianity in Jane Austen’s England will be out this fall, Lord willing. If you’re interested in faith aspects of the book, see this review. And for Austen news, follow her on Facebook.

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Inquiring readers,

I’ve had the pleasure of viewing the play, Sense and Sensibility, an enjoyable adaptation by Kate Hamill from the Jane Austen novel of that name. It was directed by Susanna Gellert in Everyman Theatre. Ten actors, all professionals and most of whom reside in the Baltimore/Washington area, play all the parts. Except for the actresses who portray Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, the remaining actors take on a variety of roles, as you can read in the image below or in the link to the online program.

List of actors

The venue was intimate and the set simple, fluid, and changeable. A single door, two windows, two tables, and a number of chairs are rolled around the stage on caster wheels, and within a minute or less we are treated to a scene in Norland Park, a journey by carriage (yes) to Barton Cottage or a visit with Mrs Jennings to London, a tete a tete between Mrs Ferrars and Lucy Steele, a confrontation between Fanny Dashwood and the hapless Lucy, Marianne’s illness at the Palmer’s house, etc.

This online program in pdf format provides a synopsis of the play, history of Everyman Theatre and biographies of all those involved in the writing, directing, acting, and production of this play.

Sense and sensibility

The above screen shots are deliberately small so they are heavily pixilated when enlarged and cannot be reproduced, but they will give you a sense of the stage sets. At the far right is the opening scene around Mr Dashwood’s corpse, to its left is the first look Marianne, Mrs Dashwood, Margaret, and Elinor have of Barton Cottage; to its left is a view of the “gossips,” who catch the audience up on much of the plot in London; the third image from the left demonstrates how the actors have moved the furniture to resemble a carriage. The two men at the front are the horses; the final two images at the extreme left show the dance and the double weddings. 

Since the actors are American, there was no pretense of affecting a British accent. Ms. Hamill, for the sake of stagecraft, deviates from Austen’s novel much like Emma Thompson’s script did in 1995’s Sense and Sensibility. Both writers followed Austen’s plot and comedic moments, but as they emphasized her wit they expressed their own humor in different ways, which made my noticing their similarities and differences all the more enjoyable.

Emma Thompson and Kate Hamill were also keenly aware of their modern audiences. Thompson’s characterization of Mr Palmer was hilarious and instantly recognizable; Ms Hamill’s scene of Fanny Dashwood going manic and pummeling Lucy Steele when she discovers that the young woman is engaged to her brother Edward was not only fun to watch, but quite original (and much too short). The actress, Tuet Thi Pham (Fanny/Lucy), tussles with herself, using her body and gymnastic gyrations to demonstrate Fanny attacking a defensive Lucy. Ms Pham speaks/shouts out both roles, while providing the audience with an unforgettable spectacle of a madwoman swinging at flies.

Because the sets in this theatrical production are puritanically stark, precisely lit, and moveable, one must use one’s imagination to “see” the houses/mansions, their interiors, the English countryside, or a visit to London. Someone who is not familiar with Regency customs and manners, or who has not read the novel, might have a hard time following the plot, but I think they will enjoy this thespian take on Austen’s novel nevertheless.

For the dramatic denouement, all the elements of the plot come together. Marianne attempts to reach Willoughby’s estate in the rain, but now lies sick and heartsick (on top of a table that serves as a bed.) Col Brandon, frantic with worry, offers to escort Mrs Dashwood to her daughter. Meanwhile, Willoughby visits the Palmer house, all contrite but self-absorbed. He wants Marianne’s forgiveness. Elinor sees through him, for she knows that he’s a cad who’s impregnated an innocent girl and married a rich woman for gain, and orders him to leave.

Colonel Brandon returns with Mamma Dashwood and all is good, for during her recovery he reads to Marianne in the dramatic manner of which she approves. (Oh, how ‘Sensibility’ of him to be so aware of his beloved’s preferences!). Edward Ferrars visits Barton Cottage to reveal that Lucy married his rich bro Robert and that he’s free to love our Sensible Elinor. She morphs into a puddle of melting pudding before saying yes.

In the next scene we see the company dancing at a ball. The door then opens to a double wedding, after which the casts sings Starlight, a delightful song by Dua Lipa (“All night, come and dance with me; You’re my starlight; I need you; All night; Starlight) which is sung by the cast as they line dance –or dance in line — I couldn’t tell! In this way the production connects again with modern audiences (ie. the young-uns) and the play ends in the most feel good way.

I watched the video link on a beautiful evening with a glass of wine. The reflections on my screen made the production look like it was set in a forest.

Screen Shot 2022-05-13 at 4.58.59 PM

Vic watching Sense and Sensibility.

My neighbor and friend, Peg, wrote this turbo review:

“Saw the production yesterday and thought it was fabulous!  Amazing what they do on that stage with so few props and the cast in several different roles.  I knew the story though had never seen the play or movie and thoroughly enjoyed.”

__________________________

Everyman Theater-Laura Weiss

Everyman Theatre

The most wonderful result of watching this play is that I discovered Everyman Theatre, a nonprofit theater in downtown Baltimore that seats 253 downstairs in the main auditorium. The theater also boasts a newly renovated space for 210 upstairs for a more intimate theater experience. Both are just the perfect size for me. If I recall, the Firehouse Theater, which I loved attending in Richmond, VA, seated fewer than 80 in the audience.

In addition, Everyman box office also sells a virtual link that one can watch after the live production closes. I was given 48 hours to watch the play after clicking on the link, which gave me an opportunity to take notes for this review and re-watch certain scenes.

Opinion: If this production of Sense & Sensibility comes to a theater near you, I am certain you will like it immensely.

Song at end: Dua Lipa’s Starlight

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Last month, I wrote about Pin Money, or allowances, in Jane Austen’s life and novels. This time, I’m looking more closely at the importance of money in a genteel woman’s life and how it plays out in Austen’s novels.

Money is one obvious way parents could put limits on their children and keep them under control. This happened to both sexes for various reasons in Jane Austen’s time, but it carried even more weight for a woman because there were also financial consequences that came with marriage once she left her father’s home, even if she came from a wealthy family.

At that time in England, husbands had complete control over the finances of their wives. Without an adequate personal budget to spend as she liked, a wife had to go to her husband to ask for money to buy anything and everything she might need. Without a set allowance, wives could find themselves in a very difficult or unhappy position. This is one of many reasons why the marriage settlement (or prenuptial agreement) was so crucial because it was one way fathers could make sure their daughters (and grandchildren) were taken care of financially.

Gwyneth Paltrow in Emma, 1996.

Marriage Settlements

A young woman from a wealthy family would obviously qualify for better marriage terms than a young woman with very little. Her father could leverage what his daughter brought to the marriage for a highly favorable marriage settlement, allowing for her to have the pin money she needed, portions for her children, and a widow’s pension in the event that her husband died. Young women who did not bring as much to the marriage would have a smaller personal budget or, in some cases, no personal budget whatsoever.

In Daniel Pool’s What Jane Austen Ate and What Charles Dickens Knew, he writes, “Typically the bride’s family would have their lawyers negotiate with the husband’s lawyers, to get the husband to agree to grant her ‘pin money,’ which was a small personal annual allowance while he lived, a hefty chunk of property or money to support her after he died, and ‘portions’ of money for their children. All this would be written up in the ‘marriage settlement’ by the lawyers before anybody walked down any aisles.”

In JASNA’s Persuasions, you can read all about The Marriage Law of Jane Austen’s World. (For more on marriage settlements and marriage law in the Regency Era, please see the resources at the end of this article.)

Marriage Settlement, Mills College Library Heller Rare Book Room, Special Collections. Photo by Rachel Dodge, 2019.

Money Matters in Jane Austen’s Novels

In each of Austen’s novels, we find intriguing scenes that relate to women and personal money. Each of these examples shows us just how important it was for a woman to have her own money and the problems (and dangers) that could arise if she did not have any money or ran out of money, especially if she was away from home:

Fanny Price’s £10

In Fanny’s case in Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas supplies her with money before she leaves for her journey to visit her family in Portsmouth:

It had very early occurred to her that a small sum of money might, perhaps, restore peace for ever on the sore subject of the silver knife, canvassed as it now was continually, and the riches which she was in possession of herself, her uncle having given her £10 at parting, made her as able as she was willing to be generous.

Mansfield Park, Jane Austen

Harriet Smith’s Purse

In Emma, we see evidence of Harriet Smith’s allowance, which comes in handy when she meets the “trampers” on the road:

More and more frightened, she immediately promised them money, and taking out her purse, gave them a shilling, and begged them not to want more, or to use her ill.

Emma, Jane Austen
“The terror … was then their own portion.” Illustration by C.E. Brock.

Lydia and Kitty Bennet’s Mismanagement

In Pride and Prejudice, Lydia and Kitty spend their pin money money at the shops and must borrow money from Elizabeth and Jane when they surprise them for a meal at the inn in Hertfordshire:

“And we mean to treat you all,” added Lydia, “but you must lend us the money, for we have just spent ours at the shop out there.” Then, showing her purchases—“Look here, I have bought this bonnet. I do not think it is very pretty; but I thought I might as well buy it as not. I shall pull it to pieces as soon as I get home, and see if I can make it up any better.”

Lydia Bennet, Pride and Prejudice

Nancy Steele’s Fright

In Sense and Sensibility, we find this intriguing passage about the Steele sisters and personal money when Nancy Steele must go to Mrs. Jennings for money after Lucy borrows all of Nancy’s money and marries Robert Ferrars:

Not a soul suspected anything of the matter, not even Nancy, who, poor soul! came crying to me the day after, in a great fright for fear of Mrs. Ferrars, as well as not knowing how to get to Plymouth; for Lucy it seems borrowed all her money before she went off to be married, on purpose we suppose to make a show with, and poor Nancy had not seven shillings in the world…

Mrs. Jennings, Sense and Sensibility
Lucy Steele (Anna Madeley) and Anne, or “Nancy,” Steele (Daisy Haggardand), Sense and Sensibility, 2008.

Catherine Morland’s Borrowed Fare

In Northanger Abbey, money becomes quite important in a crucial moment. First, money is mentioned when Catherine Morland goes to Bath. Her parents send her with money for her personal expenses and ask her to keep account of her spending:

I beg, Catherine, you will always wrap yourself up very warm about the throat, when you come from the rooms at night; and I wish you would try to keep some account of the money you spend; I will give you this little book on purpose.”

Mrs. Morland, Northanger Abbey

Money is mentioned again when Catherine is suddenly and unexpectedly sent home from Northanger Abbey. While she is in Bath, she is under the care of her hosts, the Allens, who would, of course, pay for many of her expenses while she is under their roof and their protection. However, once she goes to Northanger, she is essentially under the care and protection of General Tilney. When he sends her home abruptly, he does not provide the funds necessary for her journey home, leaving her in a very precarious and even dangerous situation. This was a terrible oversight on his part. Thankfully, Eleanor is able to provide the funds, which we may assume is from her own personal allowance:

It had occurred to her that after so long an absence from home, Catherine might not be provided with money enough for the expenses of her journey, and, upon suggesting it to her with most affectionate offers of accommodation, it proved to be exactly the case.

Catherine had never thought on the subject till that moment, but, upon examining her purse, was convinced that but for this kindness of her friend, she might have been turned from the house without even the means of getting home; and the distress in which she must have been thereby involved filling the minds of both, scarcely another word was said by either during the time of their remaining together.

Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen

Catherine makes it home safely and repays the money to Eleanor by mail with only a short note: “The money therefore which Eleanor had advanced was enclosed with little more than grateful thanks, and the thousand good wishes of a most affectionate heart.”

The Morlands, a very practical bunch, decide after a bit that it all ended well in the end, but even they cannot understand such a “breach of conduct” on General Tilney’s part:

They were far from being an irritable race; far from any quickness in catching, or bitterness in resenting, affronts: but here, when the whole was unfolded, was an insult not to be overlooked, nor, for the first half hour, to be easily pardoned.

Mr. and Mrs. Morland could not but feel … that, in forcing her on such a measure, General Tilney had acted neither honourably nor feelingly—neither as a gentleman nor as a parent. Why he had done it, what could have provoked him to such a breach of hospitality . . . was a matter which they were at least as far from divining as Catherine herself…

Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen
Felicity Jones as Catherine Morland, Northanger Abbey, 2007.

Mrs. Smith’s Recovered Property

In Persuasion, we turn our attention to the widowed Mrs. Smith, whose husband had badly mismanaged their finances: “She was a widow and poor. Her husband had been extravagant; and at his death, about two years before, had left his affairs dreadfully involved.” In this situation, it is not just Mrs. Smith’s personal finances that are at stake, but her finances at large. Here, we see Captain Wentworth use his influence to work on her behalf and help improve her financial circumstances. At the end of the novel, we read this:

[Mrs. Smith] was their earliest visitor in their settled life; and Captain Wentworth, by putting her in the way of recovering her husband’s property in the West Indies, by writing for her, acting for her, and seeing her through all the petty difficulties of the case with the activity and exertion of a fearless man and a determined friend, fully requited the services which she had rendered, or ever meant to render, to his wife.

Persuasion, Jane Austen

When we look at the parents, guardians, husbands, and friends in the examples above, it’s clear that Austen uses money matters (just as she uses so many other clever devices) to point to character and propriety. We could go through each novel and study each of the male and female characters and surmise quite a bit about their personalities just from the way they each manage money.

It’s clear that the characters in Austen’s books who provide well for their wives, children, and friends–and those who are generous and charitable with their money–are the characters we should admire and respect. Conversely, those who handle their money poorly–and those who manipulate and use and abuse others for financial gain or for personal control–are the characters we should distrust and, in some cases, even despise. In Austen’s novels, money matters.


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 December 2021. You can visit Rachel online at www.RachelDodge.com.


Links About Marriage and Marriage Settlements:

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Inquiring readers: Victoria Grossack, FCAS, the author of this piece and an actuary, sent this highly interesting article about Jane Austen and mathematics, a first topic for this blog. Enjoy!

Janeites esteem Jane Austen as a literary genius. Her characters are exquisitely drawn and her dialogue can be wickedly funny. She also uses the stream of consciousness technique before it became popular. All devotees know her novels are classics.

What about Austen as a mathematician, however? She never promotes herself in this regard. Like most female authors in her day, she doesn’t promote herself at all, not even putting her name on her novels – but in her writing, her mathematical abilities are evident. In fact, she uses math in a way that would make most actuaries proud. (Note: Actuaries are specialized mathematicians who generally work for insurance companies, which is relevant to some of the math Austen uses.)


Monetary Sums, Large and Small

Jane Austen and almost all of her characters are aware of the value of money, which would be true of most mathematicians (and certainly all actuaries). In fact, money is often a motivator for her characters’ choices in her novels. The young ladies often need to marry so they will have husbands to support them, while the single gentlemen are more attracted to single young ladies when they have significant dowries. Mr. Darcy’s income of £10,000 per annum makes him more handsome in Pride & Prejudice, while Mr. Wickham only courts Mary King after she inherits £10,000. Mr. Collins’s financial situation even wins him the hand of Charlotte Lucas:

Without thinking highly either of men or matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want. (Pride & Prejudice, Chapter 22)”

Image of the front and back of a half guinea

Image of a half guinea in the time of George III

However, Austen’s comprehension goes well beyond large, round sums and the necessity of an income. Mansfield Park has a lovely passage in which monetary gifts to William Price are discussed by his two aunts, Mrs. Norris and Lady Bertram.

Mrs. Norris seemed as much delighted with the saving it would be to Sir Thomas as with any part of it. “Now William would be able to keep himself, which would make a vast difference to his uncle, for it was unknown how much he had cost his uncle; and, indeed, it would make some difference in her presents too. She was very glad that she had given William what she did at parting, very glad, indeed, that it had been in her power, without material inconvenience, just at that time to give him something rather considerable….”

“Mrs. Norris seemed as much delighted with the saving it would be to Sir Thomas as with any part of it. “Now William would be able to keep himself, which would make a vast difference to his uncle, for it was unknown how much he had cost his uncle; and, indeed, it would make some difference in her presents too. She was very glad that she had given William what she did at parting, very glad, indeed, that it had been in her power, without material inconvenience, just at that time to give him something rather considerable….”

“I am glad you gave him something considerable,” said Lady Bertram, with most unsuspicious calmness, “for I gave him only £10.”

“Indeed!” cried Mrs. Norris, reddening. “Upon my word, he must have gone off with his 3 pockets well lined, and at no expense for his journey to London either!” (Mansfield Park, Chapter 31)”

The amount of Mrs. Norris’s gift to William Price is never mentioned in Mansfield Park, but Jane Austen told her family (A Memoir of Jane Austen) that Mrs. Norris gave her nephew only one pound. Besides being a perfect contrast of the miserly Mrs. Norris versus her much more generous sister, the dialogue shows how well Austen understood the importance of relatively small sums, and how much £10 would mean to a midshipman in William Price’s position.

The Distress of Debt

Another reason for seeking a marriage settlement is to deal with debt. Several of the gentlemen (Willoughby in Sense & Sensibility, and Wickham in Pride & Prejudice) marry to escape debt, making life choices that they would have preferred not to make.

However, marriage is not the only solution to debt. Austen’s last novel, Persuasion, begins with the fact that the baronet, Sir Walter Elliot, has been living beyond his means and needs to “retrench” in order to regain solvency. As he is one of those people who is really bad at managing money, Austen comes up with the best method that will save him money: 

“Quit Kellynch Hall.” The hint was immediately taken up by Mr. Shepherd, whose interest was involved in the reality of Sir Walter’s retrenching, and who was perfectly persuaded that nothing would be done without a change of abode. (Persuasion, Chapter 2)

This change of abode is critical to the plot of Persuasion. It’s also sound business advice. 

Some readers may object that the examples given so far only prove that Austen had a mercenary side and do not demonstrate her understanding of mathematics. So let’s move on to other passages involving annuities and livings. These also concern money, but the math is more challenging.

Annuities and Livings

Annuities are insurance contracts that provide a fixed income stream, often for a person’s remaining lifetime. An annuity is a series of payments; these days annuities are often used as a way to pay out retirement, or are awarded in lieu of some lottery sum.

Life expancy from 1770 to 20018 of people from Oceania, Europe, Americas, Asia, World, Africa

Life expectancy over time

Now, annuities, when used by life insurance companies and pension funds, are fairly sure things because they can rely on expected values, i.e., mortality tables. In other words, life insurance companies and pension funds know approximately when their annuitants will die, on average. These organizations can manage because they work with large pools of people. Each annuitant can land anywhere on a distribution, but on average, given enough customers, an insurance company can have confidence in its ability to pay annuities.

However, if you are just one individual promising an annuity to just one other individual, you cannot rely on averages, because you can land anywhere on a distribution. It’s like throwing a pair of dice: on average, they will sum to 7, but you can roll anything from 2 to 12, and the probability of rolling something besides the mean is pretty good.  

So, that’s the underlying math. In Sense & Sensibility, Austen describes the dilemma a couple is facing when debating whether or not to promise an annuity to Mr. John Dashwood’s widowed stepmother. This sort of annuity would have to be guaranteed by them; they would not be in the position of a life insurance company that can have confidence in averages. Here are some of the remarks made by Fanny Dashwood to her husband, Mr. John Dashwood:

“… if you observe, people always live forever when there is an annuity to be paid them; and she is very stout and healthy, and hardly forty. An annuity is a very serious business; it comes over and over every year, and there is no getting rid of it. You are not aware of what you are doing. I have known a great deal of the trouble of annuities; for my mother was clogged with the payment of three to old superannuated servants by my father’s will, and it is amazing how disagreeable she found it. Twice every year these annuities were to be paid; and then there was the trouble of getting it to them; and then one of them was said to have died, and afterwards it turned out to be no such thing. My mother was quite sick of it. … It has given me such an abhorrence of annuities, that I am sure I would not pin myself down to the payment of one for all the world.” (Sense & Sensibility, Chapter 2)

Fanny Dashwood’s speech demonstrates her meanness, but Jane Austen has also demonstrated her sophisticated understanding of the uncertainty associated with an annuity.

Let’s move on to livings. A living is the salary of a clergyman, a fixed number of pounds, associated with fulfilling the duties of a particular parish, sometimes paid in kind instead of cash. Austen, daughter and sister of several clergymen, understood the importance of livings.

Livings are critical to the characters in Pride & Prejudice and in Mansfield Park. In Sense & Sensibility, Austen gives real insight into the livings market, when a living for a small parish is being given by Colonel Brandon to Mr. Edward Ferrars. The discussion below takes place between Mr. John Dashwood and John’s half-sister, Elinor.

Really!—Well, this is very astonishing!—no relationship!—no connection between them!—and now that livings fetch such a price!—what was the value of this?”

“About two hundred a year.”

“Very well—and for the next presentation to a living of that value—supposing the late incumbent to have been old and sickly, and likely to vacate it soon—he might have got I dare say—fourteen hundred pounds. And how came he not to have settled that matter before this person’s death? Now, indeed it would be too late to sell it, but a man of Colonel Brandon’s sense! I wonder he should be so improvident in a point of such common, such natural, concern!” (Sense & Sensibility, Volume III, Chapter 41)

This shows Austen’s deep understanding of the mathematics of the livings market – as well as her talent to explain the situation clearly and to use that situation for effectively displaying the personalities of her characters.

Insistence on Accuracy

Austen’s mathematical talent is visible in matters, such as her understanding of chance in cards and her calculation of distances in journeys. She does not always go into these areas in depth, but they serve as reliable backgrounds for some of her scenes.  

Gold pocket watch opened, with cover and numerals inside

Halsted Pocket Watch

Furthermore, Austen is aware – as are most mathematicians – that a significant proportion of the population is not especially good in mathematics, and that their calculations and estimations should not be relied upon. The following dialogue takes place in Mansfield Park, between the characters Mary Crawford and Edmund Bertram:

I am really not tired, which I almost wonder at; for we must have walked at least a mile in this wood. Do not you think we have?”

“Not half a mile,” was his sturdy answer; for he was not yet so much in love as to measure distance, or reckon time, with feminine lawlessness. … “We have been exactly a quarter of an hour here,” said Edmund, taking out his watch. “Do you think we are walking four miles an hour?” (Mansfield Park, Chapter 9)

As the passage above was written more than two hundred years ago, we’ll skip over the lack of political correctness. Instead, let’s focus on the fact that nearly every mathematician (or actuary) has to insist on using reasonable data and accurate calculations. Moreover, most mathematically inclined persons will review calculations, even their own, because mistakes are so easy to make.

Testing Assumptions for Reasonability

Just as important as data and accurate reckoning are the underlying assumptions. Mathematicians, when creating scenarios and simulations, always need to determine whether their assumptions are reasonable. Something similar comes up in Northanger Abbey, when Henry Tilney tells Catherine Morland she has allowed her imagination to run away with her.

“Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? … Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. … Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open?” (Northanger Abbey, Chapter 24)

Austen insisted on making stories out of the probable rather than what was wild and fanciful. She always keeps her assumptions grounded in reality.

Proxy variables

My favorite example of Austen’s display of mathematical ability is when she uses a proxy variable. Here’s Wikipedia’s definition of a proxy variable: “In statistics, a proxy or proxy variable is a variable that is not in itself directly relevant, but that serves in place of an unobservable or immeasurable variable. In order for a variable to be a good proxy, it must have a close correlation, not necessarily linear, with the variable of interest.”

In Emma, the following dialogue takes place between Mrs. Elton, the local vicar’s new bride, who recently arrived from Maple Grove, and Jane Fairfax, who happens to be the best educated of all of Austen’s heroines:

Photograph of the front of a modest stone building

Former National School, 1833, Gloucestershire.

“I do believe,” she continued, “this is the most troublesome parish that ever was. We never heard of such things at Maple Grove.”

“Your parish there was small,” said Jane.

“Upon my word, my dear, I do not know, for I never heard the subject talked of.”

“But it is proved by the smallness of the school, which I have heard you speak of, as under the patronage of your sister and Mrs. Bragge; the only school, and not more than five-and-twenty children.” (Emma, Volume III, Chapter 16)

The number of children in the school serves as a proxy variable for the size of the parish. It is a perfect example of a proxy variable.

Family Connections

As we have seen, Jane Austen repeatedly shows her understanding of mathematics. The case, in my opinion, is proved, but there is additional circumstantial evidence. Mathematical talent often runs in families. Two of Jane’s brothers became admirals in the Royal Navy; in fact, the brother closest to her in age, Sir Francis Austen, rose to become Admiral of the Fleet. They could not have achieved these positions without strong abilities in mathematics. (Note: my own brother is an actuary.) 

Black and white image of Jane Austen's sailor brother

Sir Francis Austen

Jane Austen never used the term actuary, even though actuaries existed when she lived. Of course, she was writing about romance in country villages and not about insurance companies. In her six finished novels, she only uses the word mathematician on one occasion. This paragraph takes place in Emma, when Emma has witnessed an event – Mr. Frank Churchill’s rescue of Harriet Smith from a threatening mob – which she hopes will lead to romance:

Could a linguist, could a grammarian, could even a mathematician have seen what she did, have witnessed their appearance together, and heard their history of it, without feeling that circumstances had been at work to make them peculiarly interesting to each other?—How much more must an imaginist, like herself, be on fire with speculation and foresight!—especially with such a groundwork of anticipation as her mind had already made. (Emma, Volume III, Chapter 3)

Austen’s use of the word mathematician in this passage indicates she probably had some familiarity with people who could calculate. 

Jane Austen writes both intelligently and intelligibly on many topics associated with mathematics. I do not think I am being an imaginist when I maintain that this literary genius of the early nineteenth century had a profound understanding of mathematics.

About the Author:

Photo of the author

Author, Victoria Grossack

Victoria Grossack is a Fellow of the Casualty Actuarial Society and has worked for companies such as Folksamerica Reinsurance and Zurich Financial Services; she currently supplies materials for the Actuarial Bookstore. She also writes novels celebrating birds, Greek mythology, and Jane Austen. Her Jane Austen-based novels include: The Meryton Murders, The Highbury Murders, The Mansfield Park Murders and Mrs. Bennet’s Advice to Young Ladies. Her novels can be found at Amazon.

Citations:

Lodge, David, “The best stream of consciousness novels,” The Guardian, January 20, 2009.

Austen-Leigh, James Edward, A Memoir of Jane Austen, Richard Bentley and Son, 1871.

Roser, Max, “Life Expectancy,” Our World in Data

Victoria’s Article in Actuarial Review entitled “Jane Austen, Actuary?” September 21, 2021: Click here to read it

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