Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Georgian Item of the Week

The Abolition: Olaudah Equiano

Portrait of Olaudah Equiano
Circa 1780
Previously attributed to Joshua Reynolds
Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter

Although forms of bondage had existed in West and Central Africa (and indeed in Europe) before the trans-Atlantic slave trade, human beings were rarely the main commodity at the African marketplace. In the modern world however, the enslaved African was inspected, assessed, auctioned, bought, sold and bartered by Europeans and treated in any manner his owner saw fit.

In 1788 an autobiographical work, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, was published in England, and which set the precedent for anti-slavery literature written by former slaves themselves, which would have a profound impact on the abolition movements in the eighteenth century. Equiano was born in what is modern day Nigeria and kidnapped by slave traders at the age of 11. He was owned by several masters, educated, adopted into Methodism and as he was allowed by his last owner to conduct business for himself, he eventually bought his freedom.

Among the tradition of slave narratives, Equiano's is considered a remarkable achievement since the autobiographical style was not a well-developed genre in the eighteenth century. His narrative has vivid details and is written in the picaresque style. Equiano provides a detailed account of his kidnapping, the unfathomable crossing of the Atlantic in the belly of a slave ship and the brutality, the bondage and the life he endured as a slave.

Thursday, 26 July 2007

Impropriety by the Seaside. Part Three - Conclusion.

Parts One and Two Here

“Very lucky--marrying as they did, upon an acquaintance formed only in a public place!--They only knew each other, I think, a few weeks in Bath! Peculiarly lucky!-- for as to any real knowledge of a person's disposition that Bath, or any public place, can give--it is all nothing; there can be no knowledge.”

What is Frank Churchill doing in Emma when he makes this statement at the Box Hill Picnic? Ridiculing the Eltons, whom this speech was about, and expressing his disdain for them? Carrying on the campaign of deceit in Highbury to hide his secret engagement with Jane Fairfax, which had also been formed on a few weeks' acquaintance in a public watering place, Weymouth, and having a private, ironic joke about it? Trifling with the affections of Jane Fairfax by insinuating that he might have tired of their engagement? He is doing all of these simultaneously and moreover, giving voice to an opinion generally held at the time about acquaintances formed in public, and especially watering, places.

Mr Knightley holds this opinion himself and expresses it in his succinct history of their engagement:

“He meets with a young woman at a watering-place, gains her affection, cannot even weary her by negligent treatment--and had he and all his family sought round the world for a perfect wife for him, they could not have found her superior.”

The point being of course that at watering places such as Bath and Weymouth, unscrupulous men were far more likely to be snared by Isabella Thorpes and Lydia Bennets than be fortunate enough to gain the heart and hand of an incomparably superior Jane Fairfax. Interestingly, its Frank Churchill's impropriety that is more closely associated with seaside Weymouth than Jane Fairfax's. Even before he enters the storyline himself, he is depicted by Knightley as at his leisure in 'the idlest haunts in the kingdom' and 'forever at some watering-place or other' when it was his duty instead to visit his newly wedded father and stepmother in Highbury, though he had claimed to not be at liberty to do so. It is Weymouth furthermore that Emma envisions as the setting for feelings she imagines Jane Fairfax to have for Mr Dixon, a fantasy Frank Churchill encourages her in, pretending to speculate about illicit feelings between his own fiancé and Mr Dixon, a married man; an unfeeling ruse designed to turn any suspicious eyes away from himself.

It was unseemly undoubtedly of Jane Fairfax to agree to an engagement, and a clandestine one at that, with a man who's guardians it's known as a certainty will object to her poverty despite her excellent character and real attachment to their kinsman. The treatment she receives from Frank Churchill and Emma however, the irksomeness of Mrs Elton's attentions and the tediousness of Miss Bates', and the very uncomfortable notion that such a woman as Jane Fairfax should have to waste her life as a governess, more than makes up for losing her head by the seaside, no? On the topic of Mrs Elton, Austen gives her two portions of association, and rightly so. She hails from Bristol, and is courted in Bath.

Austen visited the seaside many times, and at many different spots, during her life. Impropriety by the seaside was on it's way to theming itself into an entire novel but Austen's last illness and her sad early death left her novel of a seaside town, entitled Sanditon unfinished

The Sanditon fragment may be read here at the University of Virginia Library website.


Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Georgian Item of the Week

Between the years 1729 and 1737 Henry Fielding wrote 25 plays, including his most well known, Tom Thumb but he acclaimed critical notice with his novels. The best known are The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749), a picaresque novel in which the tangled comedies of coincidence are offset by the neat, architectonic structure of the story, and The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews (1742), a parody of Richardson's Pamela (1740). In 1734, he married Charlotte Cradock, who became his model for Sophia Western in Tom Jones and for the heroine of Amelia, the author's last novel.

In 1747, several years after Charlotte Fielding’s death, he caused some scandal by marrying his wife's maid and friend Mary Daniel - he was condemned by every snob in England. She was about to bear his child, and Fielding would not abandon her to disgrace.

Fielding's writings became more socially orientated – among other things, he opposed public hangings. After having studied the law throughout his life, he was appointed to the bar in 1740 and he was made justice of the peace for the City of Westminster in 1748 and for the county of Middlesex in 1749. He fought constantly against corruption and with his brother he set up the Bow Street Runners, a detective force that later turned into Scotland Yard. Fielding was a pioneer of the novel as an art form and Tom Jones has been the most admired of them all by many writers who followed him, including Jane Austen

Becoming Marketable

Biopics that meddle with historical figures and bend the facts to promote their agenda drive me crazy. At the same time, I love a good historical film. I am not immune to enjoying historical inaccuracy. A movie like Amadeus for example puts a person like me in a bit of a jam. On one hand, it’s a phenomenal production in every sense. On the other, it’s a total fabrication and thanks to it, Salieri will probably always be thought of by every body who takes biopics to be factual, as the murderer of Mozart. Which is really unfair if you happen to be Salieri; and which leads me again and unequivocally for the last time, to Becoming Jane. God, that title is so syrupy it makes me queasy.

It is true that Jane Austen and Tom Lefroy had a short but animated flirtation, that they were very much attracted to one another, and that Lefroy disappointed her. A very brief non-mention of him in one of her letters three years after their acquaintance ceased shows that she had cared for him but there is nothing to suggest a grand love. (I’m pretty sure ‘non-mention’ isn’t passable as a word but I think it describes Austen's allusional style of letter writing better than, well, allusion. Caveat: allusional is also not a word kids.) In his old age Lefroy told his nephew that he’d had ‘a boyish love’ for ‘the writer Jane Austen’ but I can’t help but wonder that if she had not become famous by the time this remark was made, would he have even remembered the short flirtation of their long distant youth?

I call it shabby indeed to build these few scratchings of a month long flirtation into a love affair and declare that it was a talented writer’s greatest influence. Austen’s influences were clearly drawn from the world around her, for her books are full of lives, the way of people and the way of the world, not just courtships. Those lives are diverse too and not often romantic: glimpses into the never ending workload of servants, the grubby port dwelling Prices, Harriet Smith and Eliza Williams of dubious and undesirable birth, Eliza Barton in a spunging-house¹, Mrs Smith in poverty and crippled, Dick Musgrove, a troublesome half-wit son, the grasping, offensive, stupid John Thorpe and a long list of gamblers, seducers and idiots. Her works feature sailors and soldiers at war, allusions to political unrest, ambition of every nature and moral ambiguity. If love isn’t the sole feature of her books, how can it reasonably be called her sole influence?

If an ado really had to be made about her love life, which I cannot consider as necessary or desirable, Austen was disappointed likewise by a Mr Holder of Ashe House as well as Tom Lefroy. Austen had evidentially expected a proposal from Holder, had even written of her disappointment to her sister, of their being ten minutes alone together in the same room and yet her not receiving any declaration. Austen appears to have had at least three serious suitors, two of whom she received definite proposals from, and denied, but it has been, more realistically in my opinion, speculated that if Austen ever had strong feelings for anyone, it was for the third, and a very shadowy personage, the Nameless Clergyman. In the summer of 1801 the Austens holidayed in Devonshire and formed a friendship with two brothers; a physician and a clergyman. Austen and the clergyman fell in love, apparently to the happiness and approval of all parties. The brothers intended to visit the Austens soon after the holiday was over, and the two factions even planned out a trip together for the following year. To quote from John Halperin²:

It was fully expected by the Austen family that at the first opportunity the clergyman would offer marriage, and that Jane would accept….Instead of an early reunion with her would-be fiancé Jane Austen, according to Cassandra³, received soon after from his brother notice of his death

Anybody who has become friendly with someone while on holiday, promised to keep in touch, and then never contacted them again, will know that such friendships do spring up and fizzle out in life, and that sometimes, rather than inflict hurt, a person will lie to get out of an acquaintance or obligation. But the possibility of lying about a brother’s death however, even to get out of a reconsidered and cooled attachment, seems too extreme to be probable. But it is possible and we can’t reject the possibility of this notice being untrue. Some of Austen’s letters from this time, like so many others, were censored and cut up by Cassandra Austen after her sister’s death and no further mention of the clergyman, his brother or their name can be found.

This censorship took place to preserve Austen’s reputation, or image rather, as a contented, dutiful and sedate woman. This white-washed image was gobbled up whole by a society nursing a conservative backlash that would soon fully unleash itself during the reign of Victoria, and distort every Austen biography or memoir for decades to follow. But it’s this very censorship, that Cassandra did not practice in the case of Lefroy or Holder or other suitors, that suggests that here there were real feelings and existing delicacies to be hurt by exposure to the public. What it comes down to is speculation nonetheless, and a little too much to call something biographic.

If a filmmaker were bent on producing an Austen love biopic, this tender history of a dead lover would seem far more likely material or at least be enough to discredit the notion of one young and immature man straight of college having an influence over the work of Austen for the rest of her life. Lefroy, I don’t doubt was focused on because, as he later became the Chief Justice of Ireland, there was plenty of information about his life to flesh him out and he happened to utter that claim to immortal association, of having had a ‘boyish love’ for her. The question of why a studio would make such a film can have at least two answers, and probably more. A feminist take would suggest that our society can’t handle the thought of a bold, intelligent woman becoming one of the greatest authors in the canon of English literature simply because she was brilliant, and must attribute the greatness of her works to the influence of men. A similarly cynical answer may be the most obvious: that thanks to the popularity of the screen adaptations of Austen’s novels, a love biopic about the writer herself, along with the bonus of permitting a usage of the carriages and corsets draw card, ever popular with the free spending female audience, is going to bring in buckets of cash, whether accurate or not.

¹A place of temporary confinement for debtors, kept by a bailiff, where debtors were sponged of all money they had on themselves, before being transferred to debtor's prison (Wikionary)

² Jane Austen's Lovers by John Halperin in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 25, No. 4, Nineteenth Century. (Autumn, 1985), pp. 719-736

³ Cassandra Austen, Jane Austen’s sister and chief correspondent.

Sunday, 22 July 2007

Impropriety by the Seaside. Part Two.

Although there is indecorousness at Uppercross, foolishness at Kellynch and snobbishness in Bath, the improprieties practiced by all almost every character in the first half of Persuasion are capped by the dangerous and interesting events of the novel taking place by the seaside, at Lyme. The careless intimacy between Captain Wentworth and Louisa Musgrove proceeds rapidly at Uppercross and in her child-like admiration of him ‘he had had to jump her from the stiles’ in all of their country walks. In fervor for the navy and by proxy, the sea, the Miss Musgroves fuel a trip for the Uppercross young people to Lyme, where Wentworth’s closest friends, the Harvilles and Captain Benwick, are quartered. On a walk on the Cobb there are some perilous stairs to be got down and as ‘the sensation was delightful to her’; Louisa is jumped down them by Captain Wentworth. Undoubtedly the sensation of being held in the captain’s hands was more delightful than jumping from heights. Headstrong and infatuated, Louisa insists on jumping again, from higher and with too little notice, and she falls unconscious and concussed onto the pavement. Louisa’s headstrong actions leave her barely conscious for weeks at Lyme and though she recovers, her near fatal fall alters her temperament, her former boisterousness gone and a quiet, nervous, sober girl emerges from the drama.

On the same trip to Lyme Anne Elliot twice briefly encounters a gentleman the party later learns to be Mr Elliot, the heir to Kellynch Hall and Anne’s cousin. His failure to properly attend the Elliot family, his marriage to a low woman and his disparaging remarks about Sir Walter and Miss Elizabeth Elliot had caused a breech between the baronet and his heir. Though reconciled for a short period with the Elliots in Bath , his past life proves to be a true representation of his character, as it transpires that he has seduced Mrs Clay to get her away from Sir Walter, in order that he may prevent the baronet from marrying her and producing a son, thereby disinheriting him. With Mrs Smith’s enlightening story, the reader learns that he contributed to the financial ruin of her deceased husband and refuses, though Smith thought him a great friend, to act on her behalf that she may lift herself out of her present poverty. He is linked also with another seaside place, as it was told in Lyme that he had been in Sidmouth previous to his introduction into the narrative.

To be continued

Thursday, 19 July 2007

Impropriety by the Seaside. Part One.

Modern day readers of Jane Austen may well be baffled by the scandalous reputation of seaside resorts in Georgian Britain. The word 'resorts' refers not to those mega complex hotel monstrosities that can currently be seen ruining the landscape of exotic locales the world over but simply a destination that is an attraction in itself, such as the seaside, and which also provides a society of sorts for visitors. 'Watering place' was likewise a term applied to seaside places and also encompassed Bath.

There was without doubt a loosening of propriety within the society of watering places. These towns were public places, while the social activities of London houses and country estates were much more controlled and private in the main.
In the country a person was in their private home, in London they were working the season, elsewhere they were on holiday. Acquaintances were made that would never have been made in the stricter regimes of London or the country, familiarities might be allowed and liberties may be taken that similarly could never have been anywhere else. If this seems surprising within the context of Georgian society, well, just think what people will do on holiday these days that they would never do at home. It's the same mindset.

Bath was a respectable, wealthy town famous for it's drinking water and healing baths and popular amongst the holidaying classes who were in need of restoration, or did not like or could not afford London for a couple of months. It's being cheaper and cheerier made Bath an ideal spot for fortune-hunters such as the Thorpe siblings of Northanger Abbey and the scene of Eliza Williams' acquaintance with Willoughby in Sense & Sensibility, who could live at less expense and worm their way more easily into hearts of genteel folk in the more relaxed society of Bath, than they could in London.

The chief attraction of Bath was the benefits the place had to one's health, and to ne're-do-wells no doubt the chief attraction was the bored wives, daughters and nieces of gouty gentleman more occupied with their own ailments than the pleasures of their womenfolk. But at the seaside there were even greater health benefits to be had in sea bathing and (oh god) drinking sea water, and most likely ladies who were even more unoccupied, since there were considerably fewer town things by the seaside to take up their time and interest. And there was sea bathing, and all the sensations and delight such an activity could stir up compared to the otherwise sedate experiences of a Georgian lady. It's no accident that so many improprieties occur at seaside resorts in Austen's novels.

Tom Bertram's gallivanting in Mansfield Park sees him idling in as many as three seaside places (as well as London and country houses) within the short time frame of the narrative. He races horses at Brighton, he makes the acquaintance of the fashionable and rather weak-headed Yates at Weymouth, who later persuades Julia Bertram to elope with him, and in telling a story of a visit to Ramsgate he gives a description of the kind of impropriety tolerated in watering places. He forms a new acquaintance on the pier, an inappropriate beginning in itself. Mrs Sneyd is 'surrounded by men' and the two Miss Sneyds are left to the company of other strange young men. Moreover, it transpires that the youngest Miss Sneyd, though '
perfectly easy in her manners, and as ready to talk as to listen' and not demurely attired, is not even 'out' in society. An unseemly piece of mismanagement, as 'Miss Augusta should have a been with her governess'. In other words, she was but a child being made available for the pleasures of men, not unlike Lydia Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. Georgiana Darcy, Lydia's predecessor in the schemes of Wickham, was taken to Ramsgate by his co-conspirator Mrs Younge, in order that he may gain access to her while she is unchaperoned, unwatched and without guidance, and be persuaded to elope with him. Ramsgate is a natural choice here, the quieter, more isolated town means fewer eyes on such a wealthy and young lady. Wickham of course fails at Ramsgate with Georgiana due to the lucky arrival of Darcy. Later however, to really seal the deal of Lydia's seduction, Wickham has as an advantage the largeness and the careless, mindless, raffish, rakish society of Georgian party central: Brighton.

Wickham wasn't the only one sexing it up at Brighton, for the town was the darling of the most oversexed personage of the era, Prince George. Throughout the prince's patronage, especially during the Regency, Brighton was the most decadent, amoral real society in the land. I say 'real society' because the demi-monde, the world of courtesans and mistresses, was a thriving one but not 'society' as such. Soldiers, sailors, courtiers, nobleman, fortune-seekers, pleasure-seekers, money, fashion, familiarity, balmy summer eves and the invigoratingly fresh and salty air...Brighton was a dangerous place. As Austen well knew, for it becomes the scene of Lydia Bennet's licentious flirtations with many an officer in Pride and Prejudice, of Wickham's hedonism and of their elopement together. An elopement even that does not pass honorably with a chaste wedding in Scotland but ends in seduction, and then concealment in London. Brighton, in Mansfield Park comes after the wedding rather than before it. The Rushworths honeymoon in the town with Julia Bertram in tow, an odd place and an odd arrangement unless you consider than the new Mrs Rushworth is likely to want to spend a little time with her tiresome husband as possible. When Sir Thomas sardonically states that his daughters 'have their pleasures at Brighton' he alludes to such pleasures as would not be tolerated at Mansfield.

To be continued...

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Georgian Item of the Week

Young Woman Ironing

circa 1800
Louis-Léopold Boilly
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

This painting has got me thinking and I believe I'll research a post on servants in Georgian Britain and Austen's novels. Check in for that over the next few days. Due to a faulty (and scarily sparky) power cord, my computer and I had parted ways for a while but we're back to posting more often from now on.

Friday, 13 July 2007

Austen and the Picturesque. Part Four Concluded.

For the beginning of Part Four please see below.

“I like a fine prospect, but not on picturesque principles. I do not like crooked, twisted, blasted trees. I admire them much more if they are tall, straight, and flourishing. I do not like ruined, tattered cottages. I am not fond of nettles or thistles, or heath blossoms. I have more pleasure in a snug farm-house than a watch-tower,- and a troop of tidy, happy villages please me better than the finest banditti in the world.”

- Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility

Marianne’s appreciation of the Picturesque isn’t merely an exercise in fashionable sentimentality. Although her demonstrativeness is revealed to be affected, Marianne’s feelings are genuine; her real sensibilities as well as her sense prevail in the novel. While Austen uses the Picturesque to highlight Marianne’s emotionalism, she also uses it to remind us of her real taste and intelligence underneath her often self-absorbed and foolish actions. Edward and Marianne hold intelligent discussions about landscape and the narrative hints at ‘old disputes’ between them, indicating a history of thoughtful debate. The jargons of the Picturesque are not merely hollow words when used by Marianne:

"I am convinced," said Edward, "that you really feel all the delight in a fine prospect which you profess to feel…”

Marianne’s actions of course and even her language at times borders on the absurd, and Austen associates the Picturesque with the absolutely absurd Rushworth in Mansfield Park. In a rage for ‘improvements’ Rushworth bores the Mansfield company with talk of instigating some at Sotherton. "Your best friend upon such an occasion," Maria Bertram advices succinctly "would be Mr. Repton, I imagine", an especially absurd plan, for Repton designed landscapes very well, but never physically built them, not being a gardener himself. Though he charged ‘five guineas a day’, his designs were often not followed since a gardener would have to then be brought in to implement them.

Throughout her works Austen never criticizes the Picturesque per se but she does criticize the fashion for it. Like the subject of any fashion, there is nothing wrong with the Picturesque, what Austen ridicules with it, as she does so often, is the blind following of a trend without reason, honesty, learning or a consultation of real personal taste.


For Parts 1 - 3 please see the Austen and the Picturesque tag.

Thursday, 12 July 2007

Austen and The Picturesque. Part Four.

In Sense and Sensibility Marianne Dashwood’s ‘passion for dead leaves’ is more than a romantic appreciation of Picturesque nature, it’s a declaration of the ideals that she has adopted. Decaying beauty is a phrase that could be used to describe Marianne herself for a good portion of the narrative, as well indicate her tastes. Her character is sound; she is ‘sensible and clever…generous, amiable, interesting’ but her demonstrative emotions and her actions are fueled by Romanticism, and often conjure affectations that, she acknowledges in the final chapters, go against even her character. Her sensibilities are fed by ill judged but popular sentimental notions and propped up by her will to embody the Romanticism of the poetry she reads and the decaying beauty of the Picturesque she so admires. These sensibilities, likewise the Picturesque, invoke drama.

When Elinor pokes fun at Marianne’s first conversation with Willoughby she jokes that ‘another meeting will suffice to explain his sentiments on picturesque beauty, and second marriages, and then you can have nothing farther to ask.’ Marianne’s notions on landscapes and love characteristically have the Romantic in common. Edward Ferrars also teases her good naturedly on the topic. During his first stay at Barton Cottage he admires the surrounding countryside and ridicules the language of the Picturesque as a superficial concern:

"You must not enquire too far, Marianne; remember I have no knowledge in the picturesque, and I shall offend you by my ignorance and want of taste if we come to particulars. I shall call hills steep, which ought to be bold; surfaces strange and uncouth, which ought to be irregular and rugged; and distant objects out of sight, which ought only to be indistinct through the soft medium of a hazy atmosphere.”

Marianne laments that ‘every body pretends to feel and tries to describe with the taste and elegance of him who first defined what picturesque beauty was’, ‘him’ being William Gilpin in his series of essays on the Picturesque, a devotion to whom Edward also notes when he declares that is she were rich, Marianne ‘would have every book that tells her how to admire an old twisted tree’ and indeed, on the sister’s journey to London, ‘any object of picturesque beauty within their view drew from her an exclamation of delight’

Part Four is to be continued

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Books on Tape Techie Time: Podcasts

There are a small handful of Jane Austen related podcasts presently available through iTunes. Among the Austen podcasts however I can only honestly recommend one, but I do so warmly and whole heartedly.

The majority of the present Austen podcast selection is rather mediocre but in the Higher Education category of podcasts there is a unabridged recording of Pride and Prejudice read by Catherine Byers. There is no listing of who the book is read by in iTunes, so I didn't know the name of the narrator until I downloaded and started to listed to it. I wasn't familiar with Catherine Byers so I looked her up and it turns out that she is an actress well known for narration, has recorded more than 500 works over 26 years and was honored with an award for her work in narration. Her reading of Pride and Prejudice is superb. She has an excellent voice and is an expressive and talented narrator. This reading is better than many purchasable titles and it's available free of charge in the podcast section of your iTunes online store. If you do not have iTunes already, you may download it free of charge on the Apple website.

Tuesday, 10 July 2007

Georgian Item of the Week

Georgian Item of the Week Presents:

The Big Three of the Napoleonic Wars: Well, Nel and Nap. Part Three.

Napoleon I of France
15 August 1769 - 5 May 1821

Napoleon Bonaparte First Consul
Antoine-Jean Gros
Musée Nationale de la Légion d’Honneur, Paris

Napoleon Bonaparte was born to a minor Corsican noble family – the Buonapartes - in 1769, not long after the island became the property of France. Following a childhood spent in military academies, Napoleon distinguished himself in the army of revolutionary France, particularly during the campaigns of 1796. Napoleon was a master politician and despite British military defeat in Egypt in 1798, by February 1800 he was established as the First Consul of France. In 1804 he crowned himself Emperor of France and set out to conquer Europe.

Despite devastating naval defeat again by the British at Trafalgar (1805), for the next eight years Napoleon dominated Europe, fighting and defeating a range of alliances involving combinations of Austria, Britain, Russia and Prussia. Napoleon’s power began to mislead him however and in 1812 he made a tragically ill judged attempt to invade Russia. The majority of a 400 000 man army was lost in Russia, Britain had fought its way to France through Spain and in 1814 Paris surrendered to allied forces and Napoleon was sent into exile on the Island of Elba.

Napoleon had one final adventure in 1815. In less than one hundred days he had secretly returned to France, attracted vast support and reclaimed his Imperial throne, had re-emerged on the European scene with his army, and was finally defeated by the Duke of Wellington and General Blücher at Waterloo, and was then exiled even further from Europe. Napoleon Bonaparte spent the six final years of his life on the rocky island of St Helena, and despite modern theories citing a poisoning death, Napoleon died of stomach cancer in 1821. He was a masterful soldier, a highly skilled tactician and a superb administrator, and one of the most celebrated, and debated, personages in history.

Saturday, 7 July 2007

A New Sensibility

More than anything else about the PBS Jane Austen season in 2008, I'm most keen to see Andrew Davies' new adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. Davies of course is the man behind the best Emma and Pride and Prejudice adaptations (1995), as well as Middlemarch (1994), Take a Girl Like You (2000) and Bleak House (2003), among many other excellent productions. I'm also rather excited about his adaptation of A Room with a View, set to be released in the UK some time this year. The Merchant-Ivory production is one of my favourite films, probably in the top five, but I'm always interested in new and potentially good work.

There's been some silly talk in the media about Sense 08 rolling in a replacement for the (apparently) much talked of 'wet shirt scene' from Davies' Pride and Prej. Sigh. That's all I can do when read such dribble. My closest friend and I loved that production when we were teenagers. We watched it many times over, we probably knew the entire script by heart. My mum bought me 'the making of' book for my birthday. I was into it. But never once, not even as a sixteen year old, did I rewind and replay said scene or even think about it after it had passed. I never met anyone who gushed over it. I suspect it was obsessed over more in the media and in other books than in real life. There is of course a book in which it, and poor Colin Firth, actually play a part in the storyline, but so much do I dislike the BJ books that I can't even bring myself to type the words.

But I digress. Scenes involving dueling, seduction, rainy wood chopping and (apparently manly) horse riding are being speculated as there to up the sex appeal. I just find this kind of lurid speculation so boring. Davies knows what he's doing, he's at the top of his game, and gossip about shirtless men just takes away from the amount of research and work that goes into these productions, for the sake of a few sexy minutes.

Not that wood chopping and dueling aren't sexy. They totally are.

I'm very, very glad that the duel between Willoughby and Brandon, and the seduction of Eliza Williams feature, as she especially is such a crucial part of the book's storyline. Plus I just love a cinematic fencing duel. I can't help it. The Princess Bride and Dangerous Liaisons. I'm all about it.*

"The novel is as much about sex and money as social conventions. This drama is more overtly sexual than most previous Austen adaptations seen on screen and gets to grips with the dark underbelly of the book", states Davies in a BBC press release, and I think that says it all, really. I'm rather excited about this production and I believe it may well turn out to be a classic of BBC adaptations. The cast includes David Morrisey as Brandon, Dominic Cooper as Willoughby and newcomers Hattie Morahan as Elinor and Charity Wakefield as Marianne.

*It's just occurred to me at this later stage that this is most likely a duel with pistols. How daft that I just assumed it would be fencing.

Wednesday, 4 July 2007

Austen and The Picturesque. Part Three.

The Picturesque and the Gothic are intertwined in Northanger Abbey, and the limits to which these notions are stretched is a motif sustained throughout the narrative. Austen offers up the Picturesque as a testament to the real feelings of the younger Tilneys, as opposed to the false ones voiced by General and Captain Tilney and the Thorpes. The direction the story takes is dependent on the actions of the Northanger sibling sets: the Morlands, the Thorpes and the Tilneys, the motives and actions of brothers and sisters are central to the narrative. The different ways in which the Picturesque is associated with the Thorpes and the Tilneys emphasizes the great differences in character and sincerity in the opposing siblings. Similar to how their response to Gothic novels delineates a marked difference between Eleanor Tilney and Isabella Thorpe; Eleanor reads a novel like The Mysteries of Udolpho as enjoyable fiction while Isabella seeks to emulate it’s flighty melodrama, so too does the different ways in which Henry Tilney and John Thorpe are linked with the Picturesque present the disparity in intelligence and naturalness between the two men.

This disparity is keenly demonstrated in the two separate excursions Catharine Moreland is taken on by the different siblings, on the inappropriate jaunt in the carriages with the Thorpes, and the more decorous, and more fulfilling, country walk with the Tilneys. John Thorpe, when trying to persuade her to give up this prearranged walk with the Tilneys in favour of the carriage outing with himself, her brother James and Isabella, plays on Catharine’s gothic leanings by proposing to lead the party as far away as Blaise Castle:

"Blaize Castle!" cried Catherine. "What is that'?"

"The finest place in England--worth going fifty
miles at any time to see."

"What, is it really a castle, an old castle?"

"The oldest in the kingdom."

"But is it like what one reads of?"

"Exactly--the very same."

"But now really--are there towers and long galleries?"

"By dozens."

As Austen well knew, Blaise Castle is a fake, not unlike John Thorpe. Modern built in 1766 on the Blaise estate, the 'castle' is not a real castle but a miniature one, and is in fact a garden feature typical of some of the artificial excesses in landscaping practiced under the banner of the Picturesque. Still standing today on the top of Blaise Hill on the estate in Bristol, the castle was only thirty years old when Northanger Abbey was written. The narrative isn’t only making Thorpe appear rather foolish to 18th century audiences, it associates him with the more ridiculous aspects of Picturesque fashion. Ironically, this sort of garden feature was actually known as a ‘folly’.

In opposition to John Thorpe’s folly, the truly warm, good hearted dispositions of Henry and Eleanor Tilney make a calm inclination towards the Picturesque very natural, essential even, to differentiate them from every other protagonist, and make them the emotional and imaginative equals, or superiors, of Catharine. There are none but the Tilneys who share Catharine’s romanticism. The Moreland parents and James, while excellent, are people of ‘useful plain sense’, ‘good temper’ and ‘very respectable’. Mr Allen, like the Morelands, is sensible, wise and unimaginative. Kindly Mrs Allen only has the latter in common with her husband but her good nature is an unemotional, soothing balm. But the Tilney’s romantic awareness is en par with Catharine's, and it is contrasted most strongly with the utterly unfeeling characters of the piece: the heartless and deceitful Thorpe siblings, and those stone cold Montoni* villains, General and Captain Tilney.

On their country walk, Austen tempers Henry Tilney’s interest in the Picturesque to an appreciation of natural beauty, that different way of seeing beauty in the natural landscape that was the original, more educational aspect of the notion:

They were viewing the country with the eyes of persons
accustomed to drawing, and decided on its capability of
being formed into pictures, with all the eagerness of real

On Catherine expressing her ignorance and a desire to learn to draw, ‘a lecture on the picturesque immediately followed’. This ‘lecture’ isn’t an ecclesiastic enthuse for the contrite but a real exercise in teaching and learning:

He talked of foregrounds, distances, and second
distances--side-screens and perspectives--lights and

Though intelligent and reasonable, Henry must not be immune to the emotional pull of the Picturesque, and Austen undercuts his sense with a little sensibility, by allotting to him the poetic romance of ‘a piece of rocky fragment and the withered oak’.

The way the two men are differently associated with the Picturesque yields an accurate portraits of their characters – one clever with the capability for feeling, even romanticism, the other unfeeling, devoid of taste, and foolish. Austen offers a parting shot at the shallow end of the Picturesque, on the point of the General’s dry tour of the gardens at Northanger Abbey. Henry Tilney is absent and without him there to instruct her, Catharine is aware she ‘should not know what was picturesque when she saw it’. This little piece of self awareness coyly suggests that enthusiasm without education may lead to, among other misfortunes, the building of tacky fake castles in your garden.

*Montoni is Radcliffe’s villain in The Mysteries of Udolpho

To be continued

Tuesday, 3 July 2007

Nice one, Becs.

My heartfelt thanks go out to my bonny lass Rebecca Steuart for assisting me in gaining access to an indispensable collection of journal and review articles.

Here's to you Sunflower.

Georgian Item of the Week

Georgian Item of the Week Presents:

The Big Three of The Napoleonic Wars: Well, Nel and Nap. Part Two.

Vice-Admiral Horatio, Lord Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson
29 September 1758 - 21st October 1805

Rear-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson
Lemuel Francis Abbot
National Maritime Museum, UK

If Wellington is regarded as Britain’s greatest soldier, another Georgian must be considered their greatest sailor. Horatio Nelson won three of the most decisive naval battles in British history at the Nile (1798), Copenhagen (1801) and of course, Trafalgar, where in 1805 Nelson took his famous and essential victory over the navy of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Born in Norfolk, his father was the Rev. Edmund Nelson and his uncle the Admiral Suckling*. Nelson likewise joined the navy at the age of 12 and by his own merit as well as his Uncle’s interest, was promoted through the ranks to Captain by the age of 21. In 1798, Nelson was responsible for a great victory in a battle with the French navy. The Battle of the Nile (also known as the Battle of Abukir Bay) took place on August 1, 1798 and, as a result, Napoleon's ambition to take the war to the British in India came to an end.

In April 1801 came the Battle of Copenhagen. At that time, the Baltic was a vital source of trade and maritime supplies for Britain. So when in early 1801, under the influence of Russia, the Baltic and Northern states formed themselves into an 'Armed Neutrality of the North' and placed an embargo on British ships, the Government was to take action. Negotiations with the Danes broke down, a key member of the Armed Neutrality, and battle ensued. Nelson’s disregard for too timid higher orders gained the victory.

1805 brought the most famous naval battle in England’s history: Trafalgar. Having abandoned his plans for an invasion of Britain, Napoleon had now started a new campaign against Austria which had to be thwarted. Napoleon's navy, under the leadership of Villeneuve, was an excellent one and the combined forces of the French and the Spanish a formidable opponent. Britian's advantae was The Nelson Touch. Nelson and the British were thunderingly victorious. But the British navy, and the nation, suffered a great loss. Vice-Admiral Nelson was struck by a French sniper’s bullet during the action. Though he lingered long enough to learn that he had won the battle, he died on board his vessel The HMS Victory hours after being wounded, on the 21st of October 1805.

*This name is so memorable that I've often wondered if Austen, who must have known the life story of the nation's living legend, borrowed Suckling for the bragging, affected Mrs Elton's so amusingly named relatives in Emma

Monday, 2 July 2007

Austen and The Picturesque. Part Two.

While Horace Walpole's taste developed to appreciate the more grandly Gothic, and Thomas Gray the more neoclassical aesthetics of The Beautiful and The Sublime, the nitty gritty of the Picturesque was taken up by Wordsworth in poetry, William Gilpin in travel essays and Uvedale Price, Richard Payne Knight and, later in his career, Humphry Repton, in essays and landscape design. The popularity of the Picturesque owed much to the rhapsodizing essays of Gilpin, who transplanted the ideal from the paintings of Europe to the countryside of Britain, revolutionizing the pre-existing ideas about tourism and allowing more humble English scenery seekers to experience a tour of the landscape, a hereto aristocratic privilege, without going abroad.

Much like the fashion for Gothic novels, the rage the Picturesque, though not unsound in itself, rose to melodramatic and silly heights, as at Knight's residence Downton Castle for example, where
'large fragments of stone were irregularly thrown amongst briers and weeds, to imitate the foreground of a picture'. Austen represents the ideal has having qualities verging on the absurd, in Mansfield Park, Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey, and even as dangerous in Sense and Sensibility, by associating the Picturesque with the exaggerated, emotion-driven and almost deadly sensibilities of Marianne Dashwood.

In Pride and Prejudice Austen touches but lightly on the ideal, in a short exercise in ridicule. When Caroline Bingley and Louisa Hurst oust Elizabeth Bennet from a walk with Darcy by positioning themselves in a way that monopolizes a garden path, Darcy tries to offset their rudeness by inviting her to continue with them regardless. Elizabeth replies
'You are charmingly group'd, and appear to uncommon advantage. The picturesque would be spoilt by admitting a fourth', indicating the enthusiasm for scenic objects grouped in threes by expounders of the ideal. This clever remark hints at the absurdity of Picturesque fastidiousness and casts that aura of silliness onto the trio, leaving the charming group, and The Picturesque, looking somewhat deflated.

To be continued