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Archive for the ‘Sense and Sensibility’ Category

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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“They who buy books do not read them, and … they who read them do not buy them.” – Robert Southey

Introduction:

Circulating libraries benefited Jane Austen and authors of her era in two ways. They rented out books, pamphlets, and magazines economically to people of modest means, like Austen. After books were published, library subscriptions made them available to a wider readership than was previously possible.

A short history of circulating libraries:

Circulating libraries were first mentioned in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1740, when Dr. Samuel Fancourt used the words to advertise his store in Salisbury. He had started his library five years before to rent out religious books and pamphlets, then moved his store to London in 1742, where it thrived.

Other already existing London bookshops adopted Fancourt’s commercial library model and its descriptive term. In a little over 30 years, the circulating library had sprung up all over London, as well as Bath and other resort spas, and by 1801 an estimated 1,000 of these libraries had spread all over England. This library concept traveled to British Colonies the world over. A monthly parcel of books could also be ordered by subscription from a London circulating library and shipped to a foreign location, such as a plantation in Ceylon (Parasols & Gloves & Broches & Circulating Libraries,” Mary Margaret Benson).

The difference between subscription and circulating libraries:

An article about subscription vs circulating libraries by JASACT (Jane Austen and all that – in Canberra), explains that the two terms are often confused with each other. Subscription libraries consisted largely of serious book collections that covered specific topics, such as science, history, travel, or theology. Annual fees from male subscribers went towards purchasing books for the collections, which tended to be lofty and not open to the public.

The Roxburghe Club was a club for book lovers established after the sale of the library of the Duke of Roxburghe, which was one of the great libraries of the day, which concluded June 17, 1812. Its membership was men who loved and who could afford books, comprised of a mixed group of aristocrats, businessmen and academics.” – Club London in the Georgian and Regency Eras, Lauren Gilbert

Circulating libraries were established as businesses with the aim of making money from a mass market that consisted of men, the rising middle classes, and women. Instead of focusing on narrow subjects, circulating libraries offered a variety of materials designed to please as many reading tastes as possible (JASACT). These included the novel, which quickly rose in popularity with the fairer sex.

Image of lettering on a building in Bath that was once a Circulating Library and Reading Room on Milsom Street. Image courtesy of Tony Grant.

Lettering on a building in Bath that was once a Circulating Library and Reading Room on Milsom Street. Image courtesy of Tony Grant.

The libraries began to expand from London and leisure resorts to more rural communities across England. Paul Kaufman in an article entitled “The Community Library: A Chapter in English Social History” mentions a circulating library in 1790 operated by Michael Heavisides in Darlington, Durham, a provincial market town. His 16-page catalogue offered only 466 books in 1,014 volumes with a modest list of topics, many of which were not au courant:

All types of fiction predominate, standard and cheapest contemporary types, many with the thinly veiled “history” and “memoir” titles…Shakespeare’s Poems (1 vol.), Milton’s Works, the Odyssey, Pilgrim’s Progress and Holy Ward, translations of Lucan and Ovid, Knox’s Essays, Cook’s Voyages, Spectator, Tatler, and Mirror, Smollett’s History of England (10 vols.), Salmon’s History of England (13 vols.), Thompson’s Poems, Rousseau’s Emile, Berkeley’s Minute Philosopher, Arabian Tales, and two apparently separate Persian Letters.” (The Bodleain.)

While the selection was small, even for regency libraries, Mr. Heavisides was successful enough to run his business for 30 years.

Image of Darlington in 1830

Darlington in 1830

Circulating libraries as consumers:

A new business relationship between booksellers and publishers emerged during the last quarter of the 18th century. Circulating libraries were

…business enterprises, aimed at readers who could not afford to buy books, but who would be willing to pay perhaps half a guinea a year as a subscription fee, and then a few pence rental fee for each volume, or at readers who were away from town-perhaps at a seashore spa!-for a time, as well as those voracious readers who wanted the latest books at bargain prices.” – “Parasols & Gloves & Broches & Circulating Libraries,” Mary Margaret Benson.

The British book industry first began to sell books to the libraries. Publishers then realized they could increase profits by owning a library and renting out their own books.

Image of a circulating library owned by Messrs Lackington Allen & Co, 1809. Image in the public domain

Circulating library of Messrs Lackington Allen & Co, 1809. Image in the public domain

John Lane, who was the proprietor of the Minerva Press, and both the leading publisher of gothic fiction in England and “the principal wholesaler of complete, packaged circulating libraries to new entrepreneurs,” realized that he could make substantial profits from catering to the tastes of readers like Isabella Thorpe and Catherine Morland of Northanger Abbey. (Lee Erickson, p. 583)

People were quite willing to rent a novel they were unwilling to buy.”- Lee Erickson

Only the rich could afford to purchase books in Austen’s day. Publishers generally did not print their own books. They contracted a printer and estimated the number of copies that would sell. Since paper was expensive (much of it was handmade and then taxed), publishers would order new books when the first estimated run sold out. As the popularity of books and novels rose, so did their price. Between 1810 and 1815 books cost the equivalent of $90 to $100 American dollars today.

Image of a Trade Card of Thomas Clout, Printer. An engraving of a printing press is at the top center of the card. Public domain image, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Trade Card of Thomas Clout, Printer. Notice the printing press at the top center of the card. Public domain image, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

To increase rentals, publishers began printing three-decker novels, also known as leviathans. These 3-volume novels became the standard until almost the end of the 19th century. The advantage of three volumes was that each book was rented out one at a time to a customer. When a reader finished Volume the First, she would turn it in and check out Volume the Second, and so forth. This meant that three customers would read one book at any one time. In Northanger Abbey, Henry Tilney described a typical three-decker set to his sister, Eleanor:

Miss Morland has been talking of nothing more dreadful than a new publication which is shortly to come out, in three duodecimo volumes, two hundred and seventy–six pages in each, with a frontispiece to the first, of two tombstones and a lantern …”

Image of a three-volume first edition of Pride and Prejudice bound in a simple publishers board. National Library of Scotland

Three-volume first edition of Pride and Prejudice bound in simple publishers board. National Library of Scotland

New authors like Jane Austen often took the financial risk of publishing their novels. Jane took this gamble after her father sold her first novel Susan in 1803 for £10 to Benjamin Crosby, who allowed it to languish unpublished on his shelves. Six years later, she wrote the publisher under the pseudonym of Mrs. Ashley Dennis, or M.A.D., for the return of her manuscript. Crosby quickly shot back a reply, saying her MS. would be hers if she paid the same amount for it that he paid her. For Jane that £10 represented almost half her yearly allowance, and so the book remained unpublished until after her death.

Austen learned her lesson from this experience and in 1811 she published Sense and Sensibility on commission, which guaranteed its publication. The novel’s success (which made Austen a profit of £140) ensured that she would not have to self publish again.

The rise of the novel:

What shall we say of certain books, which we are assured (for we have not read them) are in their nature so shameful, in their tendency so pestiferous, and contain such rank treason against the royalty of Virtue…that she who can bear to peruse them must in her soul be a prostitute…” – James Fordyce, Sermons to Young Women

Jane wrote her “pestiferous” novels, as Fordyce called all fiction largely aimed at the female market, at an auspicious time. The leisured upper and rising middle classes’ demand for books increased during a period when their costs went up. In addition, the number of literate people was rapidly expanding. In Jane Austen’s England, Roy and Lesley Adkins wrote:

…it has been estimated that two out of three working men could read to some extent, thought rather fewer had writing skills, and not nearly as many working women could read.” (p 231)

In Emma, Austen wrote about Mr. Martin’s sensible taste in reading and of his neat writing skills, which astonished Emma. Individuals who could not read enjoyed hearing a book read to them during group reading, a form of entertainment that the literate Austen family also followed. Paul Kaufman in “The Community Library” (p. 46) mentioned that reading also became a liberating force for the higher servant level. One imagines that cooks, butlers, housekeepers, and governesses were among them.

Circulating libraries fulfilled an insatiable appetite for subscribers. Library proprietors followed the money and increasingly offered more novels to accommodate female readers, although men generally had little regard for fictional stories. Many, like Mr. Collins (Pride and Prejudice), a devotee of Fordyce, held them in great contempt. Sir Edward Denham (Sanditon), could hardly contain his disdain for novel reading:

Sir Edward, approaching Charlotte, said, “You may perceive what has been our occupation. My sister wanted my counsel in the selection of some books. We have many leisure hours and read a great deal. I am no indiscriminate novel reader. The mere trash of the common circulating library I hold in the highest contempt. You will never hear me advocating those puerile emanations which detail nothing but discordant principles incapable of amalgamation, or those vapid tissues of ordinary occurrences, from which no useful deductions can be drawn. In vain may we put them into a literary alembic; we distill nothing which can add to science. You understand me, I am sure?”

Pity poor Charlotte having to listen to that drivel. Contrast Lord Denham’s pompous opinions with Henry Tilney’s charming and succinct statement:

The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.” (Northanger Abbey)

It is interesting to note that Austen rewrote Susan (Northanger Abbey) before she began to write her unfinished novel, Sanditon, and that she and her family were avid novel readers. Still, reading fiction belonged largely to the pervue of women. Gothic and romance novels, popularized by Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth, and Ann Radcliffe, were regarded as disposable throwaways only good enough for one-time reading. Few people purchased novels or kept them on their shelves, and so they were cheaply published with a simple binding known as publishers boards. The Prince Regent owned a handsome three-volume book of Emma, but this was the exception, not the rule.

Image of the 3-decker edition for the Prince Regent of Emma.

The Prince Regent’s edition of Emma by Jane Austen, courtesy Deirdre Le Faye via Jane Austen in Vermont.

Despite Fordyce’s dire warnings, by the end of the 18th century fully 75% of books rented out by circulating libraries were novels. Ninety percent of Mr. Heavisides books in his circulating library in Darlington were listed as standard and “cheapest contemporary” fiction.

This short discourse, gentle reader, brings Part One of Circulating Libraries to an end. In the second installment, discussions will center on subscription fees, libraries as social hubs, subscription books, reading rooms, characteristics of large city and small rural libraries, and Jane Austen’s descriptions of circulating libraries in her novels and letters.

Sources:

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Volz BookInquiring readers,

My apologies to author Jessica Volz–who contacted me weeks before the COVID-19 lockdown about her book–for posting my review of her book several months late. She has been so patient that I must thank her for her graciousness. – Vic Sanborn

The highly interesting and informative Visuality in the Novels of Austen, Radcliffe, Edgeworth and Burney, is no fast walk in the park as far as reading goes, but it is worth the effort since it is filled with new and insightful information. One cannot skip or skim to learn about the way Austen and female writers of her era used visuality in language to communicate hidden meaning. In order to understand how visual language transmitted women’s emotions, issues, and areas of concern in a patriarchal society, I digested Dr. Volz’s words and reflected on how her observations helped me to reassess my understanding of the hidden language these 18th and 19th century authors used.

In her book, Dr. Volz studied the novels of four authors published between 1778 and 1815. Three of those novelists, Radcliffe, Edgeworth, and Burney, enjoyed recognition during Austen’s life, while Austen ultimately found lasting fame as a literary giant. This was a time when women’s views on their rights shifted, greatly helped by the Enlightenment’s campaign for human rights, the influence of the French Revolution in questioning conventional perceptions of women, and Mary Wollstonecraft’s revolutionary writings. Wollstonecraft wanted male-dominated females to attain power over themselves. While this emancipation would take a longer time than she even envisioned, Wolstonecraft influenced contemporary women authors to employ an approach that “concealed their resistance within an artful narration.” (1. Volz, p. 210.)

Volz’s findings found that in a patriarchal society, when women were expected to behave modestly and correctly and use phrases that were acceptable to their male relatives and husbands, female authors found a linguistic end-around through visual references. They:

…focused on ways their texts reveal the authors’ approaches to issues explored or suggested in the novels, including “women’s difficulties, polite society’s anxieties and the problems inherent in judging by appearances.” – (2. Painting With Words, Claire Denelle Cowart, JASNA, 2019.)

Thus, while the novels written by these four authors seemed to outwardly conform to societal standards, their heroines thought for themselves.

While the forms and functions of visuality that women novelists employed to their rhetorical advantage vary, they channeled their thoughts through several distinct visual pathways: visible and ‘invisible’ likenesses, architectural metaphors, the ‘made-up’ social self and communicating countenances.” (Volz, p. 212)

This review discusses some ways in which Dr. Volz examines how Austen employed the forms and functions of visuality. When she sent me her book, she was correct in predicting that I would be the most affected by the chapter that discussed Jane Austen. I’ll start with my first (and still favorite) Austen novel, Pride and Prejudice, and heroine, Elizabeth Bennet.

Elizabeth Bennet, Pemberley, and Mr. Darcy

While Dr. Volz discusses Pemberley well into Chapter 1, I did not begin to truly understand her analysis of Austen’s visuality until I reached this section. I knew Elizabeth Bennet was my favorite fictional heroine from almost the moment I met her at the age of fourteen. Lady Catherine deBourgh expressed the 18th century attitude towards women when she accused Elizabeth of being obstinate and headstrong. In other words, she was not the right sort of lady, especially not for Mr. Darcy.

On that first reading, I instantly understood that Elizabeth’s feelings towards Mr. Darcy were transformed as she walked along the beautiful grounds of Pemberley, viewed the house from afar in its perfect setting, moved throug its exquisite interior, listened to the raptures of his housekeeper as she described her master’s kindnesses, compared a miniature of his youthful self to Mr. Wickham’s (whose actions, as related by the housekeeper, described a cad), and then finally studied a large painted portrait of Mr. Darcy that to Elizabeth seemed true to life and captured her new understanding of his essence.

The architectural metaphors that Volz mentioned explain much in this description of Elizabeth’s leisurely ramble with the Gardiners along Pemberley’s grounds:

They gradually ascended for half a mile, and then found themselves at the top of a considerable eminence, where the wood ceased, and the eye was instantly caught by Pemberley House, situated on the opposite side of a valley, into which the road with some abruptness wound. It was a large, handsome, stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills;—and in front, a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance. Its banks were neither formal, nor falsely adorned. Elizabeth was delighted. She had never seen a place where nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste. They were all of them warm in her admiration; and at that moment she felt that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!” (Pride and Prejudice)

As she views Pemberley’s grounds, Elizabeth can see herself living in this natural setting as its mistress, but she realizes with some sadness that this is no longer possible. To her regret, she rejected Mr. Darcy’s proposal based on her first impressions. Now that she sees him through a new lens, she recognizes how much their tastes and inclinations have in common. Moreover, she understands that Darcy, like his estate, Pemberley, has no artifice.

The lack of artifice is also how Mr. Darcy views Elizabeth – early in their association, he admires her expressive eyes and the liveliness of her character, which gave her a natural beauty much like the estate grounds he loves.

But no sooner had he made it clear to himself and his friends that she had hardly a good feature in her face, than he began to find it was rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes.” (Pride and Prejudice)

Austen also emphasized Darcy’s admiration of Elizabeth’s unorthodox, unladylike walk to Netherfield, which “improved her figure’s picturesque quality and intensified the expressiveness of her eyes.” (Volz, p. 60). His appreciation echoes the ideal of the picturesque in writings by Johann Kaspar Lavater (a Swiss physiognomist, philosopher, and theologian) and William Gilpin in his Observations Relating Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty (1786) which appreciated the irregular features of a person, place, or setting and that “gave them a certain charm and made them desirable subjects for painting.” (Ibid)

JaneAustenSilhouette-Wikimedia

Image, Wikimedia Commons

Volz writes much more about the mastery in which Austen unites Elizabeth and Darcy through visible and invisible likenesses and architectural metaphors. Yet Austen is known for her austere descriptions of person, place or thing. How does this reconcile with visuality? One of the best-known images of Austen is a silhouette used by Jane Austen societies the world over. Early in her book, Volz mentions Austen’s affinity and familiarity with silhouettes. Like her contemporary profilists, “Austen sought to produce verbal ‘shades’ that ‘”convey the most forcible expression of character.”’ (3. Marsh & Hickman, Shades from Jane Austen.)

Austen’s habit of eschewing detail when describing characters’ appearance indicates her preference for using a single telling line that, like the silhouette, supplies ‘infinite expression’ though a profile that is not overshadowed by the particulars within it.” (Volz, p. 36)

For me, this explains Austen’s spare use of details and how this writing style encourage the readers’ imaginations to take hold. As I age, I find new depths in her plots, whose meanings change as my perceptions of the world (and knowledge of her era) change. For example, as a young girl/woman, I couldn’t stand or understand Mrs. Bennet, and found her an irritating though comic character. The more I studied Austen’s era and the circumscribed lives women were forced to live, my sympathy for Mrs. Benne’s poor nerves and her quest to find husbands for her five daughters increased, while my patience with Mr. Bennet (though I never stopped appreciating his wit) waned.

Volz writes that “Austen’s use of an aesthetic vocabulary of character in her fiction directs the reader’s attention to the act of viewing and its ultimate subjectivity in creating couples united in their affections.” So true, but Austen does this so economically and so masterfully, that I am constantly astounded and motivated to reread her novels.

Elinor Dashwood and Lucy Steele

In Sense and Sensibility, Volz traces the evolution of Elinor’s certainty that Edward Ferrars favors her against her painful, but inexorable understanding that he is engaged to Lucy. The proof is supplied through physiognomic means in the form of a miniature likeness of Edward that he gave to his intended. Does this miniature prove that he loves her? Elinor isn’t sure. While devastated, she is a skillful observer, as painters often are. Why do he and Lucy only see each other twice a year? And why, she wonders, did Lucy never give him her picture?

This plot in Sense and Sensibility reads like a mystery, with Austen using visuality clues to lead Elinor/us to the realization that, by not giving Edward her visual likeness, Lucy’s attachment is tenuous at best. In Lavater’s opinion, a portrait is “more expressive than nature.” One can then deduce that a ring with a lock of Lucy’s hair means little compared to an actual likeness. Elinor can discern no real affection in Lucy’s body language or demeanor towards Edward, but this knowledge gives her no comfort. Only a woman is allowed to end an engagement and Edward is too honorable to go against convention. At the end of the novel, Elinor’s intuition proves to be correct and Edward, unceremoniously dumped by Lucy in favor of his brother, is free to declare himself to the woman he loves.

Emma Woodhouse and Harriet Smith

When it comes to the heroine that no one but Austen will much like, Volz explains that Emma is “as much of a product of Highbury as she is a shaper of it.” (Volz, p. 79). Emma’s status, while high in the ranks of Highbury society, does not detract from the dullness of her daily life as a modest female. In her twenty-one years, she hasn’t visited London, a mere few hours drive away in a carriage, or a seaside resort, or even Box Hill (until the famous scene at the end of the novel). After Miss Taylor became Mrs. Weston, a bored Emma (who took credit for uniting Mr. Weston with her governess) looks for another “project.” When her thoughts turn to Harriet Smith, her imagination and manipulation take over. She will mold Harriet into her vision of a young lady with prospects, even though Harriet is the natural daughter of an unknown somebody.

A famous scene in the novel centers on Emma painting a portrait of Harriet. Volz describes this portrait as an example of the heroine’s self-delusions (the likeness depicts Harriet as Emma would like her to be), and that the friendship among the two women represents something other than themselves. “Emma has redrawn Harriet’s character, which now ‘acts’ as improperly as the eye and hand that have shaped it.” (Volz, p. 80) Needless to say, Emma’s portrayal of Harriet has more to say about the painter than the sitter.

From the start of the alliance, the reader understands that this friendship is woefully out of balance. A weak mouse stands little chance against a powerful cat, and so Emma’s machinations blindly continue, but after Harriet reveals her love for Mr. Knightley, which she (unbelievably) thinks is reciprocated, Emma finally sees ‘the blinders of her own head and heart,’ although Emma feels sorrier for herself in her self-deception than she feels for her deluded friend. “Austen’s visual technique stages for the reader the dramatic shift in the heroine’s vision and perceptions.” (Ibid.) This is true, but Austen’s young heroine still has much to learn before the story ends.

In this section, Volz provides more interesting observations about the Emma/Mr. Knightley relationship, which readers will find equally fascinating.

Fanny Price and Mansfield Park

My final thoughts about Volz’s book are about her analysis of Fanny Price. Fanny’s journey as a young girl transported to a strange new house is demonstrated by the rooms she lives in. At first the lonely child cries herself to sleep, but as the novel progresses, the rooms she occupies within the house, first as an outsider and then as an accepted member of the household, correspond with her emotional growth. The more comfortable Fanny feels in her adopted home, the more she blossoms. Fanny’s “acquisition of a new private space within Mansfield serves as a metaphor for her progress towards social acceptance.” (Volz, p. 76)

When Fanny is banished to live with her parents in Portsmouth, she learns how much she has changed and grown. “Aesthetic contrasts teach the heroine and the reader to see that Mansfield’s values are diametrically opposed to those at Portsmouth, with its crowded, agitating interior.” (Ibid.) Mansfield Park has become Fanny’s home, and within it she shines both outwardly and inwardly.

Austen’s evolving views towards ideal landscapes are personified in her descriptions of Pemberley and Mansfield Park:

Whereas Elizabeth’s raptures over Pemberley’s physiognomic display highlight the place’s picturesque irregularity, here [in Mansfield Park], Austen defers to the presentation of organized beauty and agreeable symmetry, implying her own changed view of landscape design.” (Volz, p. 77)

Water at Wentworth, Humphry Repton. The second image shows the improvements to the scene

Water at Wentworth, Humphry Repton. The second image shows the improvements to the scene

This is not surprising, since one of the premier landscape architects at the time that Austen wrote  Mansfield Park was Humphry Repton, whose work Jane prominently mentions in the novel. Repton’s habit of removing irregularities from a landscape can be viewed in his red books, in which he presented before and after watercolors of his designs to his clients. The “after” watercolors remove any impediments to a perfect view or irregularities (by cutting down trees or adding features, such as a pond or a Palladian bridge).

I should also mention that Volz’s thorough examination of Austen’s visual aesthetic includes the author’s use of free indirect discourse (FID), which characterizes Austen’s writing. Approximately 20-30% of Austen’s narration is FID, in which both the narrator and a character are speaking at once.

Outside of direct dialogue, free indirect discourse is the most common, economical, and sophisticated way novels relay information about thoughts and speech. […] Austen’s employment of FID was revolutionary, for while earlier authors had used it to some degree, it remained to Austen to take advantage of the wide range of how FID could be deployed to manipulate our ironic understanding of her characters.” (4. Mooneyham White, Discerning Voice Through Austen, JASNA)

In our day and age, many readers no longer recognize the subtleties that 18th/19th century readers understood when reading novels by contemporary female authors. Dr. Volz’s observations help us to analyze their subtext and, in my case, prompted me to rethink my earlier reactions to Austen’s characters.

One can use Dr. Volz’s observations in analyzing other Austen characters on our own – Anne Elliot, Admiral and Mrs. Croft, and Henry Tilney, to mention a few. Austen scholars and Austen fans who have delved deeply into her characters’ lives and the history of Regency England will find this book fascinating and a useful reference in their libraries.

Image of Dr. Volz from Nineteenth-Century Studies Association

Image of Dr. Volz from Nineteenth-Century Studies Association

About Dr. Jessica A. Volz:

Dr. Jessica A. Volz of Denver, Colorado is an independent British literature scholar and international communications strategist whose research focuses on the forms and functions of visuality in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century women’s novels. Her latest book, Visuality in the Novels of Austen, Radcliffe, Edgeworth and Burney (London and New York: Anthem Press, March 2017), discusses how visuality — the continuum linking visual and verbal communication — provided women writers with a methodology capable of circumventing the cultural strictures on female expression in a way that concealed resistance within the limits of language. The title offers new insights into verbal economy and the gender politics of the era spanning the Anglo-French War and the Battle of Waterloo by reassessing expression and perception from a uniquely telling point of view.

Dr. Volz holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of St. Andrews and a B.A./M.A. in European Cultural Studies and Journalism from Boston University. She was recently named an ambassador of the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation, which was created to harness the global passion for Jane Austen to fund literacy resources for communities in need across the world. Dr. Volz has also served as the editor of two Colorado legal publications and as a translator for a number of Paris-based companies. In her spare time, she enjoys planning tea parties and plotting novels.

References:

1. Volz, Jessica A. Visuality in the Novels of Austen, Radcliffe, Edgeworth and Burney. Anthem Press, Anthem Nineteenth-Century Series, 2020. Print. ISBN:13-978-1-78527-253-0 (pbk).

2. “Painting with Words,” Visuality in the Novels of Austen, Radcliffe, Edgeworth and Burney, Jessica A. Volz. Review by Claire Denelle Cowart, JASNA News, 2019. PDF document downloaded May 18, 2020: file:///C:/Users/18046/Downloads/JASNANews_Summer2019_BookReviews.pdf

3. Hickman, Peggy and Marsh, Honoria, Shades from Jane Austen, London: Parry, Jackman 1975, xv-xxii.

4. Mooneyham White, Laura, Discerning Voice through Austen Said: Free Indirect Discourse, Coding, and Interpretive (Un)Certainty, Jane Austen Society of North America, Volu. 37, No1—Winter 2016, Downloaded May 20, 2020: http://jasna.org/publications/persuasions-online/vol37no1/white-smith/

Additional:

Coffee, Tea and Visuality: The Art of Attraction in ’‘Pride and Prejudice’, Jessica A.Volz, Jane Austen Literacy Foundation, February 22, 2017, Downloaded May 18, 2020:https://janeaustenlf.org/pride-and-possibilities-articles/2017/2/21/issue-8-coffee-tea-and-visuality

Edmundson, Melissa, “A Space for for Fanny: The Significance of Her Rooms in Mansfield Park,” Persuasions On=Line, Jane Austen Society of North America, V. 23, No.1 (Winter 2002), Downloaded 5/20/2020: http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/on-line/vol23no1/edmundson.html

Lavater, Johann Casper. Essays on Physiognomy: For the Promotion of the Knowledge and the Love of Mankind. Illustrated by more than eight hundred engravings accurately copied; and some duplicates added from originals. Executed by or under the inspection of, Thomas Holloway. Translated from the French by Thomas Holdcroft. 3 vols. 5 bks. London: John Murray 1789-98.

Oesteich, Kate Faber, “Jessica A. Volz – Interview,” Nineteenth-Century Studies Association (NCSA), May 10, 2017. Downloaded May 18, 2020: https://ncsaweb.net/2017/05/10/jessica-a-volz/

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Episode 7: At the regatta: Diana, Lady Campion, Charlotte, and Mrs. Parker

At the regatta: Diana, Lady Campion, Charlotte, and Mrs. Parker

As popular television fare goes, Davies’ Sanditon is quite entertaining. In the first 16 minutes of Episode Seven, so many dizzying plot developments are introduced, that they left this viewer’s head spinning. By the end of the episode, everything but the kitchen sink had been thrown into the mix to keep viewers hungering for more. (The last episode is a doozy, but we’ll get to it next week.)

 

Davies’ sledge -hammer approach felt so heavy handed at times, that (honestly) I ran to my bookshelf to retrieve Pride and Prejudice. Reading Austen’s delightful, familiar words gave me a sense of calm. I put down the book and continued to watch the episode.

 

As certain characters in Davies’ Sanditon reveal their distasteful ambitions, such as when Clara Brereton told Esther Denham about her sexual gymnastics with Sir Edward on the drawing room floor after burning Lady Denham’s will and divvying up her fortune (as that lady lay dying), I reached for my first glass of wine, but I am getting ahead of myself.

 

Let’s face it. Austen did not hesitate to create nasty characters. Think of Sense and Sensibility.  Fanny Dashwood, John’s wife, is a piece of work plotting to oust Mrs. Dashwood, John’s stepmother, and his stepsisters from Norland Park almost as soon as the elder Mr. Dashwood was buried. Her machinations were despicable, but under Austen’s skillful pen, Fanny’s method to drive them out was masterful, awesome, ruthless, and nuanced. John, her husband, is a manipulated fool and yet a willing conspirator in disregarding his father’s express desire for his stepsisters’ and stepmother’s future security.

 

We felt the Dashwood women’s pain and grief. We understood their pride and anger as they chose to leave an impossible situation as soon as possible. We felt for Marianne Dashwood when she fell for Willoughby, a flawed but smooth-talking and handsome character. Readers knew, along with Colonel Brandon, that he had gotten a virginal girl pregnant and then abandoned her to a life of shame.

 

Elinor Dashwood, a sensible character, at first had difficulty seeing through Lucy Steele, a conniving little witch. When Elinor finally figured her out, she was trapped into listening to information about Edward Ferrars that felt like knives stabbing her heart. More than once I wanted her to bitch slap that girl, but Elinor has more class than me.

 

Who can forget Fanny Dashwood’s mother? She was an outspoken battle-ax and manipulator of the worst sort, whose conversation provoked Marianne to defend her sister with a truthful artlessness that was bold and threw caution to the wind.

 

The difference between Austen’s villains and Davies’ is that Austen laid a careful groundwork for their motivations and behavior. The dark undertones of conflict between Willoughby and Colonel Brandon resonate with us. The secrets the two men withheld from Marianne, and the complexity of their love and longing for her add to the suspense of the plot—who will she choose? Which choice makes sense to the heart of a young girl? Which is the more mature, sensible choice? How do experience, suffering, and maturity add to a character’s growth and understanding?

 

In Davies’ Sanditon, secondary characters and villains tend to be one dimensional, almost cartoon-like. The main protagonists, Charlotte and Sidney, are given more complex motivations, which I appreciate, especially in this episode as they attempt to overcome their misunderstandings and grow closer. Their longing for each other is palpable, as Lady Susan and Young Stringer notice.

 

Now, let’s examine the salient plot lines in this second to the last episode.

 

Stupid is as stupid does

 

While Lucy Steele’s devised her trap for Elinor with evil genius, she kept her plans to herself until she approached Edward. Clara Brereton is just plain dumb. She lords it over Esther, who is unable to hide her emotions for her stepbrother. A gloating Clara reveals that she and Edward found the will, agreed to 50% of the cut, then burned it. Seeing Esther’s disbelief, she adds salt to the wound to reveal that she and Sir Ed sealed the deal with a quickie on the drawing room floor. Charlotte Spencer, the actress who plays Esther, stepped up her acting chops and gave a superb performance throughout this episode. We feel her pain, her horror, and then her understanding of the situation.

 

Most of all, we (I) cheered her hard slap to Clara’s face. Then, when Clara figures out that Esther is still a virgin, she says,”No wonder he was so keen to take his pleasure elsewhere.” We (I) wished that Esther had knocked her unconscious to the floor. (I’ve been watching too many Marvel movies.)

 

As for Clara, she’s no Jane Fairfax. Her situation as Lady D’s dependent companion is precarious. Falsely confident, she assumes the mantle of the victor prematurely. Jane Fairfax kept silent until all the dominoes fell safely in place before Frank Churchill revealed their romantic bond. Clara, who has just as much to lose, could not stop herself from gloating.

 

A vengeful phoenix arises from the ashes and swoops on her victims with talons outstretched

 

Esther, in her misery, pays a final visit to Lady Denham. Her confession to the comatose lady is revealing. She says:

 

You should know there’s not a single person alive who holds you in the least affection. Not Edward, Clara, not me…“You will die unloved, and Edward, my Edward—she holds Lady D’s hand—“Truth is, he’s betrayed us both. He betrayed us when he and Clara lay with each other on the drawing room floor. He betrayed us when he and Clara conspired to burn your will and share your fortune. I truly hope that you find happiness in heaven, because this earth has become a living hell.”

 

Hours or days later, Esther sits waiting in the hallway as Sir Ed awakens from a couch just outside of Lady D’s bedroom. He yawns and says,

I did not know it was going to be this drawn out [or] I would have been in bed.”

Esther replies sarcastically,

Perhaps you would have been more comfortable on the floor.”

He shoots her a curious look. Then, wonder of wonders, the unfortunately named Dr. Fuchs runs towards them.

Her fever broke!…She may yet recover altogether!”

While Clara blanches, as if the ghost of Northanger Abbey has come to attack her, Sir Ed’s collar grows three sizes too small.

 

Somewhat later, he and Clara simper up to Lady D, who’s still abed. Sir Ed says unctuously,

Words cannot express our belief. Dr. Fuchs has our eternal gratitude.”

Lady D, holding a glass with a milky substance, says,

Why? If anyone deserves credit, it is the ass who restored my strength.”

Austen created the running joke of Lady D’s milch asses, from whom that wealthy widow planned to make much money. Davies and his team hardly used that funny material, an opportunity missed.

 

Clara adds timidly,

We have kept constant vigil.”

A steely-eyed Lady D then gives the two of them her what for.

Mmmm. Well, you can dry your eyes. Dying is highly disagreeable…although it has to be said there is nothing like imminent death to focus the mind. I have under-estimated the boundless depth of your venality.”

The two blather and bluster, but Lady D waves them off.

Enough, you feeble parasites…Get out, and needless to say, I shall be laying a new floor in my drawing room, since the old one has been indelibly stained!”

Gentle readers, who’d have thunk a wood floor would become such an important character in a mini-series? Oh, the drama! Sir Ed is disinherited. Clara is banished to London post haste. And Esther appears to be the sole remaining heir to the Denham fortune. At this point, I poured my second glass of wine, a Cabernet Sauvignon, and munched copious amounts of Utz Party Mix, which contains not one wholly natural ingredient as far as I can tell.

 

Turbo recap of the rest of the story

 

Tom Parker is beside himself when he gushes that all the beau monde in London have traveled to Sanditon. He greets Lady Susan with an obsequiousness that is cringe worthy. When he tells her that Sanditon has the finest situation on the south coast, she pooh-poohs the idea,

 

Oh, shush. Never mind all that. If I gave a fig about the sea, I’d have gone to Brighton.” (A delicious cut.)

It turns out that she’s come to continue her conversation with Charlotte, which, to my mind, was nothing more than artless chatter at a fancy ball from a simple girl from a simple farm near an undeveloped town. One can never divine the whims of the rich and famous, so we’ll have to take Lady Susan’s word at face value.

 

She and Charlotte chatter, and the lady’s keen observation tells her that she’s in love. Her discernment also tells her that Lady Eliza Campion, one of the richest women in the country and an old connection to Sidney Parker, stands in the way of Charlotte’s happiness. Lady S, a kind busybody, will see to that. She’ll find a chink in Lady Campion’s armour and put a stop to her designs on Sidney Parker. Anything for a friend she’s known for all of two hours.

 

Charlotte, upset at seeing Lady C, turns away from the assembled company and encounters Young Stringer in the woods. We learn this late in the series that his first name is James. James Stringer. Had Davies and his team meant for Stringer to be a likely love interest for Charlotte, we would have learned this important fact earlier. In the course of their conversation, James realizes that while he yearns for Charlotte, she yearns for someone else. Like the stoic man he is, he holds his feelings to himself and lets her go. C’mon, James! Fight for your woman!

 

We then see the three Parker brothers strolling towards the regatta. As they converse, we learn that Sidney has loved Eliza Campion for a decade and that his broken heart drove him to the West Indies. (Another bit of news that comes late in the series.) Sidney only says that it’s a strange feeling to want something that is impossible and to find that it’s suddenly in your grasp. For once Arthur sounds intelligent and says that while he admires Sidney’s spirit of forgiveness, if it were him, he would never trust that lady again.

 

As a quick aside, Miss Lambe, who has been strangely delegated as a secondary character in the background, shows signs of deep depression. Arthur Parker visits her and insists that she join them in the festivities. She goes unwillingly, but it is obvious that he has a crush on her.

 

The regatta is a letdown. There’s a sandcastle competition, a fisherman’s boat race, and a gentleman’s rowing race that James Stringer and his crew win. Tents provide food and drink, but I see nothing that would attract the beau monde to return a second time.

 

Before the rowing competition, Sidney and Charlotte make goo goo eyes at each other on the boat as he practices his strokes and shows her how to row along with him. (I do so love symbolism.) Eliza Campion watches them from the banks, jealous and suspicious. After the race she makes a pitch, telling him she never lost hope and that fate is giving them a second chance. 

 

Sir Ed fails in his quest to woo Esther back and share her fortune. The once confident man is drunk and disheveled as he encounters Clara with her packed bags at the docks. He tells her off harshly and brags that he’s still a gentleman and titled. “Yes,” she says, “but I had nothing to lose…You’re alone and unloved.”

 

After a revealing conversation with Sir Ed, who spoke in derogatory terms about Esther, Lord Babbington hurries to see her. He tells her that he can’t forget her and that he has her back, always.

I feel I could spend a thousand years in your company and still not have enough.”

 

Esther begins to cry.

You…know nothing.”

 

He replies,

I think you’ve been his prisoner for too long.”

The background music swells in my head as he continues talking to her in this romantic vein.

 

In the last scene, Sidney approaches Charlotte.

I thought you and Mrs. Campion would be heading back for London,” she says.

 

She’s already left. I decided against joining her. On reflection, I realized I would rather be here…I believe I’m my best self—my truest self when I’m with you.”

 

The music crescendos. My heart’s a flutter. Perhaps from the wine, but it might be that all this romantic stuff is making me feel all puddly inside.

 

Next week: the conclusion. Or is it? (Gentle readers, those of you who binge watched this series, please include no spoilers in the comments. Thank you!)

 

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