You are currently browsing the monthly archive for September 2012.
You might like to go and view the new post on the Jane Austen House Museum blog, which has an example of Mrs George Austen’s humour: she writes a whole recipe for a bread pudding…in verse.
Go here to see it: I find it fascinating to see just how much word play was part and parcel of normal life in the Austen family, as evidenced by this recipe . Anyone who was slow-witted would have felt rather out of place in that household, don’t you think?
Last night I had a wonderful experience: I attended an intelligently adapted and wonderfully acted version of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park in the only remaining working Regency theatre in England.
Tim Luscombe’s adaptation of Mansfield Park is fast-paced, intelligent and witty, retaining the best of the dialogue and action from Jane Austen’s novel. Mr Luscombe has good form regarding Jane Austen. He has previously adapted Northanger Abbey and Persuasion and is an avowed admirer of her. As he writes in the play’s Programme Notes ( which include the full text of his adaptation) it is very difficult to omit characters and scenes :
Its hard cutting Jane Austen. I adapt her because I love her work. And so anything that goes is a little death, but a play is a very practical thing. It costs money. It can’t be so long that the audience miss the last bus home, and there is always a limit on the number of actors you can expect a theatre to employ…
Some characters were retained but never appeared, living their lives off-stage: Dr and Mrs Grant and Lady Bertram were relegated in this way. A pity, especially as I’m sure Mr Lucsombe would have had some fun with Lady Bertram’s languorous but occasionally lucid character. However, the constant refrain that “Mother is upstairs with a light headache‘ was very amusing, and I don’t think I was alone, last night, in wanting to join in the oft-repeated phrase. The roles of Julia and Mr Yates were omitted completely.
Geoff Arnold, above, who played Tom Bertram, William Price and Mr Rushworth, was excellent. Each character was completely different, in both speech and posture. His Mr Rushworth was a complete triumph, and took over Mr Yates’ role in one of my favourite scenes from the novel, where he is found “ranting ” on the “stage” in Sir Thomas’ study.
Henry and Mary Crawford were excellent; sophisticated beings causing havoc in the rural backwater of rich but repressed Mansfield. The gasp of horror from the audience when Henry announced that he wanted to make a tiny hole in Fanny Prices’ heart was wonderful to behold. Many in the audience seemed to have fallen for Henry’s charms…up to that point. Which is, I suppose exactly as Jane Austen would have wanted it to be.
Fion Jolly was a great Fanny. Her reactions to the goings on around her were fabulously portrayed. But the award for best performance, to my mind at least, must be made to Pete Ashmore as Edmund. Edmund is, as you know, a tricky role for anyone to play. The urge to slap him, when reading the book, is often never far away. He can be kind but annoying, and an actor not attuned to playing him as a flawed but genuine and serious human, not as a paragon, will lose our sympathy very quickly. Last night we saw a manly, kind, upright but ever-so-slightly flawed Edmund. I didn’t want to slap him very often, if at all. Which in a theatre so intimate as at Bury was probably for the good of all concerned. Tim Luscombe’s direction in the notes to the play probably helped:
Edmund isn’t witty but mustn’t be a “formal ,solemn, lecturer”, either.
He really wasn’t.
Richard Heap as Sir Thomas and Mr. Price was marvellous ( it’s almost like the Captain Hook/Mr Darling role reversal in “Peter Pan” isn’t it?) managing to successfully convey to us some of Sir Thomas’ wry humour, which is present in the novel but hardly ever portrayed in film or on stage in my experience.
The set was simple but clever: Town, Portsmouth and Mansfield were depicted on gauzes printed with Regency engravings behind a simple Repton-esque arcade:
The clatter of the Portsmouth scene, compared to the elegance and calm of Mansfield was very cleverly done, most of the cast suddenly appearing as the unruly Price brood, cavorting around the stage.
This is a long novel, and trying to cram all its content into a production lasting only two and a half hours seems an impossible task. But last night the cast and crew at Bury St Edmunds succeeded in portraying the majority of the action, and moreover, retaining many important moments which I did think might be omitted. The themes of the abolition, the slave trade, education of women, the politics of landscaping etc were only alluded to: the interaction between the lovers and the consequences of their misplaced affections was the main business of the evening. But I’m not complaining, for to manage to portray the main themes of the novels in an economical but exciting a manner was a triumph.
The director, Colin Blumenau is also an admirer of Jane Austen and his past championing of the lost 18th century theatrical repertoire makes him the perfect director of this intimate production, in a theatre with which he is wholly familiar: he was the Artistic Directory at the Bury theatre for 15 years. His knowledge of the theatre of the era was evident in small but telling details: for example, Maria’s gestures when acting out a scene in Lovers Vows were taken directly from Henry Siddons’ Rhetorical Gestures and Actions or so it seemed to me. These tiny references to 18th century life and its theatre were delicious bonuses for a knowledgeable audience but didn’t detract for one minute from the fast pace of the tale. As Mr. Blumenau writes in the plays’ programme:
How fabulous once again, to find myself in the hands of an incomparable writer whose command of our English language makes it a joy to work with- to speak and to hear. The fact that her major works are in novel form only gives rise to regret that she didn’t persevere with her attempts at dramatic writing…and once again how gratifying to know that you are working with the work of a woman. Disenfranchisement and disempowerment did nothing to stifle her voice in the literature of the period. Once again following a long tradition of great women writers the like of Wollstonecraft, Inchbald Cowley and Centlivre, we find a unique female voice is out-writing so many men. I like that a lot.
So do I. And if you want to see this really inspired production, clearly created with much love, affection and, above all, intelligence, then you have your chance. It is still playing at Bury ( a prefect venue given its size and age) till the end of this week, and then it goes on tour, dates and locations here. I would urge you to go. You will not, I think, regret it.
A few days ago we looked at the Georgian Rectory where Madame Lefroy, Jane Austen’s most beloved friend, lived in the small village of Ashe in Hampshire. Today, let’s discover a little about the church where her husband, Isaac Peter George Lefroy was Rector, the parish church of Holy Trinity and St Andrew, Ashe.
I have to say, from the very outset, that appearance of the church is not quite as it would have been in the late 18th century. The original church building dated from the mid 12th century, and was then a single cell building. It was described in The Reverend William Bingley’s History of Hamsphire, Volume 2 ( 1807-13 ) as a
very small but neat building … single aisle and the chancel with a mural monument to Rev. Richard Russell, rector 1729-83, who died 27 Jan 1783 in his 80th year, and an elegant mural monument of marble, commemorates the Rev Isaac Peter George Lefroy, the late rector here and of Compton in Surrey and Ann his wife who died at the Parsonage house on Sunday, Dec 16 1804, in consequence of a fall from her horse the preceding day.
When I visited the interior of the church I was able to take photograph of a drawing of the church as it was prior to its rebuild, in order to give you some idea of how it looked when the Lefroys were resident in the village:
I hope you can discern some of the detail: I do apologise for its quality (or lack thereof) for I have had to manipulate the photograph a lot to try and make it at all useful. Hopefully you can see , by comparison with the photographs, that the rebuild,while it made the church larger, tried, in my very humble opinion, to keep to the style and character of the original, simply-designed church
The rebuild of the church was effected in the late 19th century, because, frankly, it was falling down around the ears of the Rector, Francis Walter and his congregation. In 1873 Walter discovered, on an inspection of the fabric of the building, that his church was in a very dangerous state of repair. The North and East walls were leaning and were subject to settling, or subsidence, and, despite having been repaired in 1866, the West wall had further subsided and was considered to be in a very dangerous state; also, the roof was considered to be beyond any practical repair.
Accordingly, it was decided that a new church had to be commissioned, to be built on virtually the same site, only slightly enlarged. The great Victorian architect, Sir George Gilbert Scott (who, you may care to know, was commission to design a parish church by my family in 1854) was employed to create it, and it was consecrated for use as the parish church by the Bishop of Winchester in 1878.
Not only was the building different in the Lefroy’s time but the name of the church was different then too. During the Reverend Lefroy’s era the church was known only as the Church of Holy Trinity. The appellation St Andrew was added in 1899. It had always been assumed that the church had always been dedicated in the name of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, but Mortimer George Thoyts, who was the father of the then rector, Francis walter, whom we have met above, and who was also the owner of the advowson, thought that the dedication to the Holy Trinity was something that had only been applied to the church after the reforms of the Reformation, when the old Catholic reverence to individual saints was discouraged by the newly formed Protestant Anglican church. And he was proved to be correct : he discovered that in 1503 the church had received a bequest,
Ecclesiae Sancti Andrea de Asshe
and as you can see, it seems clear from the wording of the bequest that the church was then, prior to the Reformation, dedicated to Saint Andrew. So the additional dedication was duly approved and made.
The church, as you can see below, is set on a sloping site, the ground running downhill from the road that runs at right angles to the Andover Road, now the B3400.
The wooden Lytch Gate stands at the junction of this road and the lane that leads to the church. This is but a few minutes walk from the Lefroy’s elegant rectory.
The Lytch Gate has, as I understand it,been moved from its original position near to the entrance to the church to its present position on higher ground.
The churchyard, (which in the winter seems to be covered with snow, which is, in reality, large drifts of pure white snowdrops) has some very old gravestones. I did find the directions to the Lefroy graves a little confusing, but I think this photograph shows them ( if anyone knows otherwise, please do let me know):
In addition to the connection with Jane Austen’s beloved friend, Madame Lefroy, this church eventually became associated with Jane’s niece, Anna. She is buried there and there is a memorial dedicated to her memory inside the church( more on this in my next post). Anna Austen, the daughter of Jane’s eldest brother, James and his first wife, Anne Matthews, married Anne and George Lefroy’s son, Benjamin in 1814. Eventually he became rector of Ashe, like his father. He was ordained in 1817. His brother, John Henry George Lefroy, was appointed as Rector of Ashe after their father’s death in 1806. Sadly, John died aged only 41 in 1823. Benjamin was then appointed as Rector of Ashe and he and Anna came to live at the Rectory and remained there until Ben’s untimely death in 1829. After Benjamin’s death, Anna moved from the Rectory with her seven children and lived in various houses, first at a home owned by her brother-in-law, Edward Lefroy at West Ham, near Basingstoke. Subsequently, she lived at Oakley,Winchester and Monk Sherbourne before spending the last ten years of her life at Southern Hill near Reading. Reading was, of course, where Anna’s aunts, Jane and Cassandra Austen, had attended the Reading Ladies Boarding School, situated in the former Abbey Gateway, from 1785-1786.
And that ends the first part of our visit to Ashe parish church. Next in this series we shall look at its interior and, in detail, at the Lefroy memorials.
I found these videos yesterday, and I thought you might like to see them. As you know I’m off to see Tim Luscombe’s new adaptation of Mansfield Park on Saturday at Bury St Edmunds. (FX:Excited squeal) The theatre has recently put up two videos featuring the cast on its site. First, an interview with the actors who play Mary and Henry Crawford, Kristin Atherton and Samuel Collings:
I have to say I’m not sure if I agree with all of Samuel’s assessments of Henry Crawford’s character (!) but it makes for interesting viewing.
Here is an interview with Pete Ashmore who plays Edmund Bertram:
Mary Crawford as Beyoncé? I think I know just what he means :)
The third video is of the cast rehearsing dances, presumably for Fanny’s coming out ball:
I will only add that, in the words of the late and very lamented Eric Morecambe, someone in the cast is a lovely little mover…..
I thought you all might be interested to see a portrait of Edward Cooper, Jane Austen’s Evangelical cousin, rector of Hamstall Ridware in Staffordshire and friend of Thomas Gisborne. He was, or so it seems to me, a permanent irritant to Jane Austen, from the evidence of her letters.
The portrait is now on display at Jane Austen’s House in Chawton and if you click here you will be able to see it in a post I have written for the Museum’s blog.
You know too well how I love a mini series of posts….and so this week I am going to concentrate on Madam Lefroy, Jane Austen’s great friend. She was, of course, aunt to Tom Lefroy with whom in 1796, Jane Austen seems to have had a flirtation or a serious romance, depending on how you interpret some brittle phrases in some of the earliest letters of Austen’s to have survived. Tradition has it that Mrs. Lefroy and her husband were disturbed by their flirtation knowing full well that Tom was dependant upon the patronage of his rich uncle, Benjamin Langlois and consequently was not in a secure enough financial position to court anyone, let alone another impoverished member of their social circle. More on this later, as today I am going to consider the place where some of this flirtation took place…Ashe Rectory.
Anne Brydges (1748-1804) of Wootton Court in Kent had married Isaac Peter George Lefroy, ( known always in the family as “George”) on the 28th December 1778. George Lefroy was three years older than her. After their marriage they moved to live in Basingstoke, and in May 1783 when Mr Lefroy became the Rector of Ashe, on the death of the Reverend Dr. Richard Russell, they began their life at Ashe rectory, which is now known as Ashe House.
Let’s discover where this very elegant building stands. Here is a section from my map of Hampshire by John Cary, which shows the relative positions of Steventon, (marked number 1) and Ashe (marked number 2):
Ashe is approximately 2 miles from Steventon, where Jane Austen and her family lived, separated by winding lanes and the road that leads from Basingstoke to Andover. The house is not now open to the general public but Constance Hill in her book, Jane Austen: Her Homes and Her Friends (1923) managed to visit it, and gives us her impressions:
Here, in the older part ( of the house-jfw), is the morning-room, which has two casement windows opening on to gay flowerbeds and a green lawn, flanked on the side of the lane by a great yew hedge that is nearly as tall as the house itself. In this room here are folding doors which open into a large dining-room, which was formerly the drawing-room. “Those doors,” remarks the Rector, “were thrown open when the Rev. Isaac Peter George Lefroy gave dances here a hundred years ago.” So we are actually standing on the very spot where the ball took place, and can picture to ourselves the whole scene! There the country dance must have been formed, and there down the centre must Jane and her partner have crossed hands to the couple at the lower end! The pleasant echoes of their merry talk seem hardly to have died away, though the authors of it have so long since vanished.
The ball at Ashe is mentioned in the first of Jane Austen’s letters to have survived:
You scold me so much in the nice long letter which I have this moment received from you, that I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together. I can expose myself however, only once more, because he leaves the country soon after next Friday, on which day we are to have a dance at Ashe after all. He is a very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man, I assure you. But as to our having ever met, except at the three last balls, I cannot say much; for he is so excessively laughed at about me at Ashe, that he is ashamed of coming to Steventon, and ran away when we called on Mrs. Lefroy a few days ago.
(Letter to Cassandra Austen, 9th January, 1796)
The Rectory, viewed from the road that leads to Ashe parish church, is an elegant building,
and apparently George Lefroy mortgaged the living of Ashe so that the beautiful facade could be added to it. Irene Collins in her excellent book, Jane Austen and the Clergy, speculates about the atmosphere of this home:
At Mrs Lefroy’s parties, young and old could meet to dine and chat and enjoy themselves; strangers could be made to feel at home; the lordly Chutes, the influential Bigg Withers and the down-to-earth could meet on easy terms. Unlike Mrs Elton who offended the society of Highbury when she arrived from Bristol with her talk of rout parties and iced drinks, Mrs Lefroy knew how to enliven the neighbourhood without suggesting that she despised its unfashionable ways. It was probably Mrs Lefroy Jane Austen had in mind when she caused Mary Crawford to meditate on the social possibilities of marriage with Edmund Bertram, imaging herself “commanding the first society in the neighbourhood; looked up to, perhaps as leading it even more so than those of larger fortune”…
When you consider this house, which by all accounts had very elegant interiors, and the bewitching powers of its hostess to make days and evenings spent there very pleasant experience, you do have to wonder at Jane Austen’s reaction to it and its elegant hostess, bearing in mind the more boisterous atmosphere and homely attractions of Steventon Rectory. Though she no doubt adored her Steventon home the elegant way of life at Ashe must have made an impression on her.
There is no surprise, to my mind at least, that Jane Austen become enamoured both it and of the friendly, charming, well-read and educated woman, 25 years her senior, who was its mistress. Next, more on Mrs Lefroy and her friendship with Jane.
This link to the Harper Collins site gives us the publication date for Paula Byrne’s new biography of Jane Austen. The hardback edition of The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things is to be published in Australia on the 2nd January, 2013, and in the UK on the 3rd January 2013. It will cost £25. An E-Text edition( for all formats presumably) will be on sale on the same dates. There does not appear to be a US publication date as yet, but when it is known I will of course pass it on.
The publisher’s website gives us some idea as to the approach the book will be taking:
In this astonishing biography Paula Bryce, the renowned Austen scholar, thwarts all attempts to tame Jane’s reputation into one of dreary respectability and we meet the more likely personality behind such novels as Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion. Through her life and work, Jane emerges as deeply immersed in culture and politics, far ahead of her time in both her writerly ambition and desire for independence.
With new revelations, including Byrne’s discovery of a previously unknown contemporary portrait and the identity of Jane’s long-lost seaside love, this is a depiction of Austen that finally makes sense – an intelligent, subversive and thoroughly modern woman.
The webpage for the Downloadable Audio Book , which is released on the 3rd January, has this to add:
After this book, no longer can Austen be viewed as someone who did not engage with the great political events of her time. How many lovers of her work are aware that the Prince Regent kept a debauched household down the road from her village, that she was related by marriage to other major literary figures of the time such as the libertine Gothic novelist William Beckford and her favourite poet George Crabbe. The book will also identify her long lost seaside love as well as argue that her assumed ‘genteel’ sense of humour could also be savage, highly subversive irony.
I must admit , I am warily looking forward to reading this book. I have, as many of you already know, been researching Jane Austen and Politics for over ten years now, and I am really interested to have the opportunity to compare my notes and discoveries Dr.Byrne’s. As for the portrait, sadly, I still think it lacks the necessary provenance: perhaps this may change when we can finally read the contents of the book.
The BBC One programme, Bargain Hunt yesterday broadcast a small film about the Georgian Kitchen at Number One, Royal Crescent, Bath.
This building was one of the grandest houses in the Crescent, which was designed by John Wood the Younger, and it was of course here that Catherine Morland promenaded with Isabella Thorpe in Northanger Abbey:
As soon as divine service was over, the Thorpes and Allens eagerly joined each other; and after staying long enough in the pump–room to discover that the crowd was insupportable, and that there was not a genteel face to be seen, which everybody discovers every Sunday throughout the season, they hastened away to the Crescent, to breathe the fresh air of better company.
The house has had many interesting residents including Frederick, Duke of York. It is now a wonderful museum run by the Bath Preservation Trust, and is always worth a visit to its fabulous restored and decorated rooms, staffed by really helpful, knowledgeable and, in some cases, very entertaining guides!
The house is decorated as it would have been in the Georgian era: below is the fabulous first floor drawing-room:
And here, below, is the ground floor dining room, the table set for a typical Georgian dessert course, with sweetmeats and nuts and decorated with some rather wonderful sugar sculpture:
But this part of the programme -a few minutes long only-was really about the Kitchen- which is rather wonderful as we do not get to glimpse inside Georgian kitchens very often. So let’s look, in some detail, at the items on show in the basement kitchen at Number One, and see how they would be used and how they would work.
From the right, on top of the scrubbed surface of the pine table you can just see the outline of some sugar nips, right next to a very typical 18th century conical sugar loaf. The nips were used to break up the sugar loaf, most likely imported from the West Indies into the nearby port of Bristol. Here is a better, clearer picture of some 18th century sugar nips, made from iron, for you to see:
In the picture below, you can see the sugar nips mounted on a piece of wood. Also on the table surface you can clearly see a wooden lemon squeezer and a brass pestle and mortar, used for pounding spices:
The kitchen has three types of spit turning devices on show: the first, the most infamous, a cage which was wall mounted and which would have held a Turnspit Dog,who would have run, hamster-like, in the case, turning the spit as required.
Here is another picture, from the book, Remarks on a Tour to North and South Wales, published in 1800 of a Turnspit dog hard at work:
it is really appropriate that this cage is still installed in a kitchen in Bath for it was in Bath that the last turnspit doges were used, when other parts of the country had resorted to other, mechanical devices with which to turn their roasting meat. Mechanical devices such as this clockwork jack, below. This is an 18th century counterweight jack with a flywheel:
This works by gravity : a weight is attached to a string, which winds down the mechanism, every 20 minutes or so, then it has to be rewound. I’ve operated one of these in the food historian, Ivan Day’s kitchen, at his home in Cumbria. You can see it in my picture, below, to the right of the fireplace:
His clockwork jack had a weight made from an old cannon ball. The sound of the clockwork mechanism working, tick-tocking away, and then being re-wound every so often, must have been a very familiar sound in smaller Georgian households.
The problem with clockwork spits was that they demanded a lot of attention in order that they could be re-wound, and they were not particularly efficient. Below is the frontispiece from Martha Bradley’s book,The British Housewife (1756) showing a very well equipped Georgian kitchen…
You can see the kitchen maid pulling the chain of the clockwork jack, to help turn the spit:
Another type of jack was on view in the Kitchen at Number One: a bottle jack set above a screen or a “hastener”:
This jack would move the joint of meat clockwise and then counterclockwise in front of the fire so that it cooked evenly. Below is a bottle jack- note that it gets its name from its shape- and a hastener on show in the Georgian House Museum at Bristol:
Bottle Jacks were spring driven, wound up with a key and they ran for a fair length of time before running down, and were an improvement on the clockwork jack. The meat to be roasted hung from small hooks in the bottom of the jack. They were designed to hang inside a vertical tin, reflecting oven-the hastener- which would be set in front of the fire, facing the coal grate. This produced heat evenly up and down the suspended joint or bird. In addition to the heat radiating from the fire, the sides and roof of the tin oven further reflected heat, making for more efficient use of fuel and more even roasting.
The drip tray, set before the fire and under the meat cooking before the it, was used to collect the fat which dropped from the meat during cooking time. The large basting spoon-which you can see underneath the tray- was used to baste the meat during the cooking process.
Also on show in the kitchen are some rudimentary and rather smoky and smelly sources of light. Tallow candies, above, are notorious for the smell and the smoke that they produced, very inferior to expensive wax candles. Tallow was normally the fat obtained from beef or lamb.
In the centre of this photograph, above is an iron crusie lamp- a lamp powered by animal grease or fish oil. The fat would be put in the bowl of the iron lamp, and a wick would then rest in it, and be lit to provide a light.
In the centre of this photograph is a wooden and iron rush nip, or rush light, typical of the early to mid 18th century. It was designed to hold a rush that had been covered in animal fat by immersing it in a trough, which was, ideally, as long as the rush to ensure the rush was well saturated with the fat. Gilbert White of Selborne, near Chawton in Hampshire tells us of the method of choosing rushes for used as rushlights, in his book, The Natural History of Selborne:
The proper species of rush for this purpose seems to be the juncus effusus or the common soft rush, which is to be found in most pastures, by the side of streams or hedges. These rushes are in the best condition in the height of summer but may be gathered so as to serve the purposes well, quite on to Auutmn….as soon as they are cut they must be flung into water and kept there for otherwise they will dry and shrink and the peel (the rind-jfw) will not run…The careful wife of a Hampshire labourer obtains all her fat for nothing for she saves the scummings of her bacon pot for this use: and if the grease abound with salt she causes the salt to precipitate to the bottom by setting the scummings in a warm oven….A good rush, which measured in length two feet four inches and a half burnt only three minutes shorter than an hour and a rush of still greater length has been known to burn one hour and a quarter. These rushes give a good clear light”
And finally, something that would have been in constant use, bearing in mind the presence of tallow fat candles and foodstuffs in the kitchen area…18th century mice traps on the pine dresser. One wooden, one iron:
You can even see some poor mice captured in the iron example to the centre right….
So, there you are, a short trip around some 18th century gadgets that would have been found in many kitchens and homes of the era. I do hope you have enjoyed it. The episode of Bargain Hunt is available to view, here, on the BBC iPlayer for the next six days for all of you living in the UK. The part of the programme that interests us begins at approximately 24 minutes in.
In her letter to her sister, Cassandra, dated 20th June, 1808, written from Southampton, Jane Austen appears to be rather upset by the news that a woman who had taken Holy Communion at the same Church service as her, was an adulteress:
This is a sad story about Mrs. P. I should not have suspected such a thing. She stayed the Sacrament, I remember, the last time that you and I did. A hint of it, with initials, was in yesterday’s “Courier,” and Mr. Moore guessed it to be Lord S., believing there was no other Viscount S. in the peerage, and so it proved, Lord Viscount S. not being there.
The adulteress in question was Mary-Letitia Powlett, who was married to one of the Austen’s Southampton acquaintances, Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Powlett. The news in The Courier confirmed that the Lieutenant Colonel was going to take an action for damages by way of a suit of Criminal Conversation against Viscount Sackville, who had committed adultery with Mary-Letitia.
Why was Jane Austen so outraged by this woman taking Holy Communion? The answer is, very probably, in her very serious attitude towards taking this sacrament, which was also indicated by her attachment to a now little-known book, The Companion to the Altar by William Vickers.
William Vickers’ book was one of the few books we know she actually owned, as opposed to books that were in her father’s library and merely available to her, or those she borrow from friend s and circulating libraries. David Gilson’s Bibliography of Jane Austen lists only 20 volumes known to have been the sole property of Jane Austen, including this book. In Jane Austen: The Parson’s Daughter Irene Collins tells us that:
On the 24th April 1794 she received a gift often bestowed on Confirmation Candidates: a copy of William Vickers’ Companion to the Altar, a guide to the private preparation to be undertaken in order to be worthy of receiving Holy Communion
(Jane Austen: The Parson’s Daughter, Page 72)
According to Gilson’s Bibliography, her copy of this book is now owned by Princeton University, and it shows many signs of being greatly used. Miss Florence Austen, Jane Austen’s great-niece, who along with her sister, Jane, sold the item, noted:
…this book of devotions always used by Jane Austen we used to be told so by my old Aunt Cassandra
(Gilson,page 445 . Note, this Cassandra was not Jane Austen’s elder sister, as she predeceased both the Misses Austen who owned the Companion)
Irene Collins again notes that:
According to members of Jane’s family, she cherished the Companion and made constant use of the prayers and meditations included in it. She was to take her participation in the sacrament of Holy Communion seriously as a cleansing from sin and a repeated welcome into the company of the faithful.
(as above, page 72)
Jane Austen was 18 when she was confirmed, an age slightly older than our modern candidates often are. This can be explained because 18th century dioceses were very large, and, as a candidate could only be confirmed by a Bishop, it could take him some years to be able to visit the candidate’s local church in order to perform a confirmation service.
William Vicker’s book is not long, but it is extremely full of very, very detailed advice regarding the self-examination a candidate for communion had to perform in order to avoid:
those Fears and Scruples about Eating and Drinking unworthily and of incurring our own Damnation thereby..
It advises an extremely detailed self-examination prior to every occasion when Holy Communion was taken, and, as Irene Collins ruefully notes:
to carry out all William Vicker’s advice would have required several hours of meditation.
(as above 156)
Though Jane Austen’s copy of the book is a separate volume, in her lifetime this book was often bound together with volumes of The Book of Common Prayer. As a result the book was very influential, seeming to have “official” sanction of the Anglican church. And this is the case with my copy, which is contained in a small pocket-sized edition of the Book of Common Prayer, dating from 1783:
Here is the engraving from the Companion, showing the Last Supper, which of course, was the event that instated the sacrament of Holy Communion:
And here is the preface and first page of the book, and do note you can enlarge all of those images by clicking on them if you want to look at the detail:
The Book of Common Prayer sets out, in very clear terms, why it is very necessary to be thoroughly prepared, having repented and being free from sin before taking Holy Communion:
Therefore if any of you be a blasphemer of God, an hinderer or slanderer of his Word, an adulterer or be in malice or envy, or in any other grievous crime, repent you of your sins, or else come not to that Holy Table: lest, after the taking of that holy Sacrament, the devil enter into you, as he entered into Judas, and fill you full of iniquities ands bring you to destruction of both body and soul.
The Companion places extreme emphasis on the need for a candidate to thoroughly examine their own lives and deeds and to be truly penitent before taking the sacrament. Look at this quote below:
The first Part then of a Communicant’s Duty is Self –examination: A Duty not only enjoined by human Authority, but likewise commanded by St. Paul…when we are employing our minds in the Duty of Self-examination, before the Communion, or at any other Time, we must discharge it as impartially as is possible for us, judging as severely of our own Actions as we would do of our greatest and worst enemy; or otherwise we shall but flatter and deceive ourselves in a Matter of the greatest Weight and Importance, namely the knowing the State and Condition of our Souls.
As evidenced by her wondering comment to Cassandra in the letter quoted above- This is a sad story about Mrs. P. I should not have suspected such a thing. She stayed the Sacrament, I remember, the last time that you and I did. – the seriousness of taking the Sacrament and the rarity with which it was performed was certainly felt by Jane Austen, as a devout Anglican. That an adulteress, who was continuing in her sinfulness, should have put herself forward to take the sacrament, was shocking to her. Her contemporaries felt the seriousness of taking the sacrament too- many were noted for leaving Communion services prior to taking the sacrament, if they felt they were ill prepared for it. Jane Austen alludes to this in her comment in her letter to Cassandra, wherein she was surprised that Mrs Powlett, the adulteress
stayed the Sacrament
when she had the opportunity to absent herself from the church and not be a recipient of Holy Communion, for which she was obviously very ill-prepared.
Do note that while communicants these days are used to services of Holy Communion being made available to them on a weekly ( if not on a more frequent) basis, this was not the case for Jane Austen and her contemporaries. Being able to take part in a service of Holy Communion was rare: it was usually celebrated on only four occasions during each year. Anglicans very rarely celebrated it on days other than at Christmas, Easter,Whitsun (Pentecost) and as a service of thanksgiving after a successful harvest.
So, does this have any relevance to Jane Austen’ novels? I think it does. For example, Elizabeth Bennet really is blind to her faults and those of her family until she reads Darcy’s letter, which has a devastating effect upon her:
“How despicably have I acted!” she cried; “I, who have prided myself on my discernment! I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity in useless or blameable distrust. How humiliating is this discovery! yet, how just a humiliation! Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind. But vanity, not love, has been my folly. Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment I never knew myself.”
Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 36
It is clear, I think that Jane Austen needs us to know how negligent Elizabeth has been, not only personally but as a Christian. Had she constantly examined her behaviour and motives as instructed by the Companion, she might not have been so blind and prejudiced against Darcy, and so taken in by Wickham and his lies.
Emma, too, is someone who would have benefitted from self-examination, for despite her proud boast to Harriet in Chapter 10;
“If I know myself, Harriet, mine is an active, busy mind, with a great many independent resources; and I do not perceive why I should be more in want of employment at forty or fifty than one-and-twenty.
she really did not know herself at all, being too proud of her abilities, and scornful of others. In Chapter 47, after Harriet has avowed she is in love with Mr. Knightley, Emma finally understands how stupidly and blindly she has acted:
Her own conduct, as well as her own heart, was before her in the same few minutes. She saw it all with a clearness which had never blessed her before. How improperly had she been acting by Harriet! How inconsiderate, how indelicate, how irrational, how unfeeling had been her conduct! What blindness, what madness, had led her on! It struck her with dreadful force, and she was ready to give it every bad name in the world. …
Jane Austen certainly understood how to set her characters up for one almighty fall. Similarly, Marianne Dashwood’s extreme penitence after returning home to Barton after her illness, is indicative of her previous blindness to her own faults:
They have borne more than our conduct. Do not, my dearest Elinor, let your kindness defend what I know your judgment must censure. My illness has made me think — It has given me leisure and calmness for serious recollection. Long before I was enough recovered to talk, I was perfectly able to reflect. I considered the past; I saw in my own behaviour since the beginning of our acquaintance with him last autumn, nothing but a series of imprudence towards myself, and want of kindness to others. I saw that my own feelings had prepared my sufferings, and that my want of fortitude under them had almost led me to the grave. My illness, I well knew, had been entirely brought on by myself, by such negligence of my own health, as I had felt even at the time to be wrong. Had I died, it would have been self-destruction. I did not know my danger till the danger was removed; but with such feelings as these reflections gave me, I wonder at my recovery, — wonder that the very eagerness of my desire to live, to have time for atonement to my God, and to you all, did not kill me at once. Had I died, in what peculiar misery should I have left you, my nurse, my friend, my sister! — You, who had seen all the fretful selfishness of my latter days; who had known all the murmurings of my heart! — How should I have lived in your remembrance! — My mother too! How could you have consoled her! — I cannot express my own abhorrence of myself. Whenever I looked towards the past, I saw some duty neglected, or some failing indulged. Everybody seemed injured by me. The kindness, the unceasing kindness of Mrs. Jennings, I had repaid with ungrateful contempt. To the Middletons, the Palmers, the Steeles, to every common acquaintance even, I had been insolent and unjust; with an heart hardened against their merits, and a temper irritated by their very attention. — To John, to Fanny, — yes, even to them, little as they deserve, I had given less than their due. But you, — you above all, above my mother, had been wronged by me. I, and only I, knew your heart and its sorrows; yet, to what did it influence me? — not to any compassion that could benefit you or myself. — Your example was before me: but to what avail? — Was I more considerate of you and your comfort? Did I imitate your forbearance, or lessen your restraints, by taking any part in those offices of general complaisance or particular gratitude which you had hitherto been left to discharge alone? No; — not less when I knew you to be unhappy, than when I had believed you at ease, did I turn away from every exertion of duty or friendship; scarcely allowing sorrow to exist but with me, regretting only that heart which had deserted and wronged me, and leaving you, for whom I professed an unbounded affection, to be miserable for my sake.”
Sense and Sensibility, Chapter 46.
Of course, Marianne, who is only 16 when the novel begins, may not have yet received her first communion, and may not, therefore, have been totally aware of her duty to examine her thoughts, words and deeds in such a severe fashion, to avoid possible Divine retribution. But the retribution her creator ensures she receives -severe illness- is exactly the punishment that the Companion fears will be the lot of someone who fails to prepare themselves properly when taking the sacrament of Holy Communion, thereby failing to live a Christian life through self-examination:
Note, this Word “Damnation” does not signify eternal Condemnation but on the contrary some temporal Punishment or judgment…such as Sickness or Death…
(The Companion,Page 8)
It is an interesting point to consider. But I think you will agree that it would appear that Jane Austen did place extreme importance on the ability to know yourself, truly, honestly and without prevarication, and this is reflected not only in her own conduct, but in her characters’ lives.
If you would like to read this interesting book for yourself, a copy of the Companion is available to read on Google Books: go here to see.
And that concludes for a while our small topic of Jane Austen and religion. I hope it has been interesting to you..
Today BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour again considered what books you might read on holiday in their Summer Reading series. Today’s topic was Romantic Fiction. Alice Peterson, whose novel has beaten Fifty Shades of Grey from the Kindle Top Ten list, tells us her preferences, as does journalist, Tanya Grey. Classic romantic stories are discussed as well as modern.
Mr. Darcy, and Captain Wentworth appear in the conversation(as does Mr Rochester).
And the erotic nature of Persuasion is discussed…. tempted? Of course you are…Go here to listen to the very short- eight minutes long- feature.
Just to interrupt our series on Jane Austen and her religion for a moment, it has just been brought to my attention that the Blue John ornaments I wrote about in a previous post, Robbing Derbyshire of its Petrified Spars, made very interesting prices when they went up for auction this summer at Tennants salesrooms in Yorkshire.
Blue John is, as you will no doubt recall, a very beautiful mineral that was found only in Castleton in Derbyshire, and examples of it or items made from it may have been one of the early nineteenth tourist trade items, a “petrified spar”, that Elizabeth Bennet refers to in Chapter 42 of Pride and Prejudice:
With the mention of Derbyshire there were many ideas connected. It was impossible for her to see the word without thinking of Pemberley and its owner. “But surely,” said she, “I may enter his county with impunity, and rob it of a few petrified spars without his perceiving me.”
The first lot , a pair of Obelisk Candelabra achieved a hammer price of £11,000, which when all buyers premiums were paid, made a total selling price of £13,465.
The second lot, a pair of Blue John Urns….
achieved a hammer price of £120,000, and the total price when all tax and premiums were paid was £146,640. Phew……
According to Huon Mallalieu’s report in this week’s Country Life magazine, the auctioneer wished he had reversed the order in which the lots were sold for he considered that the Candelabra were the bargains of the sale. I can only agree….
For a woman and novelist of such obvious( to me at least) religiously based moral authority, it might surprise you to realise that Jane Austen makes direct mention of the Book of Common Prayer (and, indeed, to the Kings James Bible) only very occasionally.
As we noted in the last post, Jane Austen would have been very familiar with the Book of Common Prayer, the liturgy of the Church of England, of which she was a member, and of which her father and, eventually, two of her brothers were priests. I think we ought to consider how often Jane Austen would have read the Prayer Book, for then it may become clear how its phrases became part of her, and how this was reflected in her works. Do note that Jane Austen wrote three prayers, date of composition unknown. I will not be discussing them in detail here, as we shall concentrate on the influence of the Prayer Book in her novels.
The Book of Common Prayer provides Anglicans with all the basic texts they need for all their devotions, throughout their lives, in church and at home. The services include those for Sundays, Morning and Evening Prayers, the litanies, daily offices( that is, daily church services) and also for the special services that would have been performed throughout an Anglican’s life: that is, for baptisms, confirmations, weddings, death-bed communions and funerals. Each Prayer Book also contains a Psalter, which contains all the Psalms as translated by Miles Coverdale. They are included because the Psalms are- one or more of them- an integral part of the services.
The Prayer Book also contains the Collects. The Collects are short prayers which are used not only in sequence though out the liturgical year, but also are used in private devotions. The Lectoinary is also included: this is made up of the readings-the Lessons- from the Old and New Testaments which were designated to be read on particular days, on a three-year cycle which was devised by Thomas Cranmer. He intended, therefore , that the Prayer Book would not only be used in Church but at home in daily services held by the family, and also in private devotions. The Austens at Steventon, Southampton and Chawton seem to have kept the habit of morning and evening prayers . In her letter to her sister, Cassandra dated the 24th October 1808, written when she was looking after her nephews Edward and George Knight, who were staying with her at Southampton after the death of their mother, Elizabeth Knight who had died unexpectedly after giving birth, Jane Austen makes mention of their habit of evening prayers:
In the evening we had the Psalms and Lessons, and a sermon at home, to which they were very attentive; but you will not expect to hear that they did not return to conundrums the moment it was over.
The habit of saying daily morning and evening prayers, as well as regular sunday attendances at church though out her life meant that Jane Austen would have been wholly family with the text of the Prayer Book, I’m sure you will agree. And in that case, it might surprise you how few direct references there are to the contents of the Prayer Book in her works.
The first and most obvious reference, is to the rubrick to the Solemnization of Matrimony service. The rubric is the instruction to the clergy and the laity as to how the service is to be conducted. This reference appears in Emma, in Chapter 53, where Emma is coyly referring to her future marriage to Mr. Knightley:
“Impossible! I never can call you any thing but ‘Mr. Knightley.’ I will not promise even to equal the elegant terseness of Mrs. Elton, by calling you Mr. K. But I will promise,” she added presently, laughing and blushing, “I will promise to call you once by your Christian name. I do not say when, but perhaps you may guess where; — in the building in which N. takes M. for better, for worse.”
Here you can see the service for the Solmnization of Matrimony from John Baskerville’s Prayer Book of 1761, printed after the accession to the throne of George III( and do note you can enlarge all these pictures by clicking on them):
As you can clearly see, the two parties to be married are referred to throughout the service as N and M:
A more puzzling reference to one of the Psalms, Psalm 16, is made by Miss Bates, again in Emma, Chapter 21
“Oh! my dear sir, as my mother says, our friends are only too good to us. If ever there were people who, without having great wealth themselves, had every thing they could wish for, I am sure it is us. We may well say that “”our lot is cast in a goodly heritage.””
Here Jane Austen has made Miss Bates, the impoverished daughter of the former vicar of Highbury, misquote the Psalm:
You can see that Verse 7 clearly states:
The Lot is fallen unto me in a fair ground: yea, I have a goodly heritage.
Margaret Anne Doody in her essay Jane Austen’s Reading, which is contained in the Jane Austen Handbook, (1986) edited by J. David Grey, explains this mistake as follows:
Miss Bates’s simple use of it point sot a misapprehension; she has no heritage-that is her problem. She is referring to charity, the only heritage the minister’s daughter may expect. Austen’s own relation to this truth may have tempted her in this instance to forsake her own custom ( of not referring directly or too closely to religious texts- JFW)
Other instances of indirect references to the Prayer Book can be found in her characters speech and in their letters. For they, like most of us and their creator, would have used phrases from the Prayer Book almost without knowing. Here are just three examples: there are more. The first is taken from chapter 57 of Pride and Prejudice: Mr Bennet relates the contents of Mr. Collins’ letter to Elizabeth and informs her that Charlotte is now pregnant;
The rest of his letter is only about his dear Charlotte’s situation, and his expectation of a young olive-branch.
This is a reference to Psalm 128, verse 4
Thy children like the olive-branches round about thy table.
In Sense and Sensibility, Colonel Brandon obliquely refers to the Communion of the Sick, wherein the sacrament would be administered to a dying person:
Life could do nothing for her, beyond giving time for a better preparation for death; and that was given. I saw her placed in comfortable lodgings, and under proper attendants; I visited her every day during the rest of her short life; I was with her in her last moments.”
The phrase preparation for death is clearly a reference to this service – the last rites if you like- where poor Eliza could ready and prepare herself for death. Colonel Brandon could do nothing more for her than to enable her to meet her end with dignity and in accordance with her faith;
The final example in this post comes from Chapter 23 of Persuasion, after Captain Wentworth is reconciled with Anne Elliot, and is considering her defence of her own conduct and of Lady Russell’s part in persuading Anne to reject his first offer of marriage:
He looked at her, looked at Lady Russell, and looking again at her, replied, as if in cool deliberation –
“Not yet, but there are hopes of her being forgiven in time. I trust to being in charity with her soon.
This is again a reference to the Communion service:
Ye that do truly and earnestly repent you of your signs and are in love and charity with your neighbours..Draw near with faith and take this holy Sacrament to your comfort
So…why didn’t Jane Austen make more open references to this book, with which she was wholly familiar? Perhaps the answer comes from her friend, Mrs Barrett of Alton, who had this to say about Jane Austen’s faith as expressed in her novels:
Miss Austen…had on all the subjects of enduring religious feeling the deepest and strongest convictions but a contact with loud and noisy exponents of the then popular religious phase made her reticent almost to a fault. She had to suffer something in the way of reproach from those who believed she might have used her genius to greater effect. But her old friend used to say, “I think I see her now defending what she thought was the real province of a delineator of life and manners and declaring her belief that example and not “direct preaching” was all that a novelist could properly afford to exhibit…