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“Mr. Martin, I suppose, is not a man of information beyond the line of his own business. He does not read?”
“Oh, yes! that is, no — I do not know — but I believe he has read a good deal — but not what you would think any thing of. He reads the Agricultural Reports and some other books, that lay in one of the window seats — but he reads all them to himself. But sometimes of an evening, before we went to cards, he would read something aloud out of the Elegant Extracts — very entertaining. And I know he had read the Vicar of Wakefield. He never read the Romance of the Forest, nor the Children of the Abbey. He had never heard of such books before I mentioned them, but he is determined to get them now as soon as ever he can.”
Emma, Chapter 4
The Elegant Extracts are virtually unknown today, but they provide a little clue to our understanding of the character of Robert Martin. To understand what that tiny reference to his reading habits reveals is important for anyone reading Emma today..
These books, Elegant Extracts of Prose and the companion anthology, Elegant Extracts of Verse, were collated by Vicesimus Knox.
He became the Headmaster of Tonbridge School in Kent and was famous for his liberal, enlightened views on education which were influenced by the teachings of John Locke.
George Austen, Jane Austen’s father ,was educated at this school, though he attended the school long before Knox was headmaster there. It is clear however that they seem to have shared the same enlightened view of the education of children of both sexes.
Knox promoted the reading of fiction as a means of exercising the imagination and encouraging critical and creative thought. His book Liberal Education(1781) has some interesting points to make about education, and he was particularly scathing about the shortcomings of the state of university education in the late 18th century. He also has some interesting points to make on female education-a subject that was dear to Jane Austen’s heart He disapproved of limiting a girls education to domestic concerns. He thought the female
mind is certainly as capable of improvement, as that of the other sex
And as mother, women were largely responsible (with the dishonourable exception of Mrs. Bennet) for the education of their children, it would be better for them to be well educated in a rounded manner and to be well read:
A sensible and well-educated mother is, in every respect, best qualified to instruct a child till he can read well enough to enter on the Latin grammar. I have indeed always found those boys the best readers, on their entrance on Latin, who have been prepared by a careful and accomplished mother.
He had attended St John’s College,Oxford from 1771 –1778 and seems to disapproved of the somewhat immoral regime there. He asserted in his book, that to send a son to either university without the safeguard of a private tutor would probably
“make shipwreck of his learning, his morals, his health and his fortune”.
He suggested reforms to the university system in his pamphlet A Letter to Lord North, which Knox addressed to the Oxford Chancellor in 1789. This pamphlet suggested the intervention of Parliament in the situation at the colleges, and advocated stricter discipline, reducing students reliance on personal servants, the strengthening of the collegiate system, an increase in the number of college tutors, the cost of which could be met by doubling tuition fees and abolishing “useless” professors. College tutors were to exercise a parental control over their pupils, and professors not of the “useless” order were to lecture thrice weekly in every term, or resign.
In all, he sounds rather like the type of teacher of whom George Austen would have approved. Jane Austen certainly possessed a copy of the Extracts for in 1801 she gave them to her nice Anna. (See : A Bibliography of Jane Austen by David Gilson, page 433)
Moreover, her comic poem “I’ve a pain in my head” (which was written as an account of her visit to Mr Newnham an apothecary, a relation of one of her brother Edward’s tenants in Chawton), parodied a poem entitled “The Doctor and the Patient” which is to be found in the Epigram Section of Volume IV of The Elegant Extracts in Verse:
‘I’ve a pain in my head’
Said the suffering Beckford;
To her Doctor so dread.
‘Oh! what shall I take for’t?’
Said this Doctor so dread
Whose name it was Newnham.
‘For this pain in your head
Ah! What can you do Ma’am?’
Said Miss Beckford, ‘Suppose
If you think there’s no risk,
I take a good Dose
Of calomel brisk.’–
‘What a praise worthy Notion.’
Replied Mr. Newnham.
‘You shall have such a potion
And so will I too Ma’am.’
(See The Poetry of Jane Austen and the Austen Family edited by David Selwyn, page 83)
The prose volumes were comprehensive collections of letters, orations, essays from publications such as the Rambler, Spectator and the Idler and also contain extracts from works by leading modern authors such as Gilpin , Swift, Hugh Blair, French philosophers such as Voltaire and classical authors such as Pliny.
The verse volumes were made up of the verses of famous writers of the time,-Thompson and Cowper, extracts from Shakespeare, Spencer, Johnson, Milton, Gay, poems ,ballads, epigrams, and prologues and epilogues spoken at the playhouses.
The books were used a standard texts in schools for years: indeed, this was the use for which Knox explicitly intended his books, for he believed in the reading of fiction as a means of exercising the imagination and critical and creative thought. As he wrote in his preface to the Verse volumes, the books
“are calculated for classical schools, and for those in which English only is taught”.
“may be usefully read at the grammar schools, by explaining everything grammatically, historically, metrically and critically, and then giving a portion to be learned by memory’
In 1810 Wordsworth wrote that Elegant Extracts in Verse
‘is circulated everywhere and in fact constitutes at this day the poetical library of our Schools’.
By the mid 19th century however, their popularity had waned. In 1843 Robert Chambers, introducing his own Cyclopaedia of English Literature asserted that it will take the place of Knox’s Extracts which,
‘after long enjoying popularity as a selection of polite literature for youths between school and college’ has now ‘sunk out of notice’.
Vicesimus Knox’s anthologies were both expensive and popular: Elegant Extracts in Prose (1783), and Elegant Extracts in Verse (c. 1780) had each at least 15 editions, and a third collection Elegant Epistles (1790) had at least 10.
Each volume was issued in an abridged form, but these were only published in one or two editions.The unabridged volumes had each about 1000 pages and sold for five guineas the set of two volumes- one prose, one verse- which was a very considerable amount of money in the late 18th /early 19th century.
So what does this tell us about Robert Martin who reads these books? It show us that as a family the Martins were not afraid to spend money-and in quite considerable amounts- on good and improving literature. That he is, I think , certainly better read than Harriet, brought up on a limited diet of Mrs Radcliff’s sensational novels, and quite possibly, better read than Emma, whose reading lists were impressive but really do not constitute any real proof of accomplishment and improvement . Incidentally in Chapter 9, her limited knowledge of the Extracts is confirmed when Emma and Harriet are organising their great literary endeavour of collecting riddles. Her bold statement that her father’s rather risqué contribution was
“Copied from the Elegant Extracts”
proves her ignorance: it was never a part of that sensible and earnest anthology:
Kitty, a fair but frozen maid,
Kindled a flame I yet deplore,
The hood-wink’d boy I called to aid,
Though of his near approach afraid,
So fatal to my suit before.
And that is all that I can recollect of it; but it is very clever all the way through. But I think, my dear, you said you had got it.”
“Yes, papa, it is written out in our second page. We copied it from the Elegant Extracts. It was Garrick’s, you know.”
It is quite ironic that the girl who can make fine reading lists but never completes them, and has clearly never read such an improving set of volumes of the Elegant Extracts( though it would appear from her casual statement that there is a set in the Hartfield Library) can so easily dismiss a man who even though he reads only extracts of works, is probably,as a result, much better read than herself.
Jane Austen certainly approved The Extracts and of Robert Martin and his well founded and self-sacrificing attempts at self-improvement. No wonder he could write well in his letter of proposal to Harriet, a fact that so surprised Emma
She read, and was surprized. The style of the letter was much above her expectation. There were not merely no grammatical errors, but as a composition it would not have disgraced a gentleman; the language, though plain, was strong and unaffected, and the sentiments it conveyed very much to the credit of the writer. It was short, but expressed good sense, warm attachment, liberality, propriety, even delicacy of feeling.
Emma , Chapter 7
I think it is interesting that Jane Austen provides a little insight into Robert Martin ‘s true worth simply by letting us know that he purchased and read such books as these.