Category Archives: Jane Austen

The Wizard of the North

Written in response to Charli Mills May 18, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a wise story. It can be about wisdom, expressing wisdom or advice for turning 50! It can be a wise-cracking story, too. Go where wisdom leads you. So I am writing about a real wizard, though this is not one of my imagined historical events, as most of the words are not my own.

 

The Wizard of the North

“Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones.”

“But Jane, nobody knows who wrote it. How can you be so sure?”

“Because it is just like him, but it’s not fair. He has Fame and Profit enough as a Poet, and shouldn’t be taking the bread out of other people’s mouths.”

Cassandra smiled as her sister picked up the book again.

 “I do not like him.” Jane continued, “And do not mean to like Waverley if I can help it – but fear I must.” Silently she thought, “I wonder if he will like Emma?”

He did.

 

Emma title

 

Sir Walter Scott, who was known as The Wizard of the North, was a very well-known and successful poet, so he published his first novel Waverley anonymously and for years no one knew for certain who had written it. Jane Austen, however identified the author almost immediately. All her words in the above passage are taken directly from her letters.  Emma was published shortly after Waverley, Sir Walter Scott was delighted with the novel and gave it what we would call a rave review in The Quarterly, the top literary magazine of the day.

 

Purists may notice that, in order to meet the word count, I have edited Jane Austen’s words slightly, turning is not into isn’t and should not into shouldn’t.

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An Early Visitor to Jane Austen’s House

The other day I visited Jane Austen’s house museum, recently refitted for the bicentenary. One of the things that had been done was a revision of the guide book, which reminded me of something that I had found tucked in a copy of the first ever guidebook, dating from shortly after the house first opened to the public in 1949.

This is a description of the house, clearly written when the house was newly opened, possibly before the guidebook was published. Whilst we were there a vintage bus arrived, a perfect illustration to the account. Here it is.

 

Jane Austen’s House at Chawton

It is still in the country & for this I suppose we must be thankful.
The little cottages so near & round about are mostly thatched & very old. They are I feel, exactly as they were when Jane Austen lived here.
No modern housing estate has engulfed them. The countryside is very wooded but there are fields & where there are fields there are cows – all very peaceful.
It is, then, with a sense of shock that when one alights from the bus by the cottages adjoining J.A.’s house a large untidy yard given over to some kind of car business seems to jump into view.
I suppose the J.A. trust will never be rich enough to buy it up and hand it back to the cows but it just shouldn’t be there.
J. Austen’s house itself stands on the corner where two main roads meet & this was always so.
It looks very plain & unadorned – quite commodious – a house not a cottage & very near the road, but with an old world garden.
It is brick built & looks rather strange with two entrances, one on each side – but I imagine the present side entrance was once a door leading into an outbuilding which was indeed the kitchen as a tablet in the side walk indicates.
The front of the house was not improved by a very large window having been bricked up which is often the case with houses in & around Winchester.
I saw the whole side of a house blocked out in this way, the outline of the windows clearly discerned & with the pelmets left as these were.
This very large window with rounded pelmet on one side of the house must have improved the appearance & broken up the plain look of the front of the house.
However it was so blocked up when the Austen’s took over & was left there.
They probably felt it was too near the road was privacy & had another put in at the side of the house.
Inside the house is magic.
Not all the rooms are on view but in those that are I am sure that Jane Austen’s spirit moves.
It is her home & must have been serene & cheerful, cared for & loved.
I was spellbound to see her music on the pianoforte with her name on the cover & titles of the pieces, written in her own hand.
The fine needlework & pencil drawings are exquisitely finished.
The music (much, much of it) that she copied is so beautifully transcribed that it might be printed. I could hardly believe it was hand copied.
The letters she wrote, even in illness have an ease & even flow of language – so lovely – that the most everyday affairs become alive & interesting.
The people she talked about come to life & the world she lived in – no crossings out – no word out of place – all so easy & natural & so enjoyed.
The bedroom seemed just right for her. There is very little furniture in it but the original fire place is still in being & here she sat by the fire in her last illness.
Some of her hair is enclosed in a locket. It is a rich brown.
The patchwork quilt she was making is on view.

 

Dear Jane Austen
I silently give thanks for all the pleasure you have given me & for your lovely nature without which your books could never have been written.

Jane Austen Visitor

The Original Guidebook & Written Account

There is no indication who wrote it or why, but I am sure you will agree that it is a lovely piece, written by a true Janeite.

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Regency Pot Plants, or Learning to Love a Hyacinth

On her first morning at Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland came down to breakfast, Henry Tilney was already there, in order to prevent him teasing her about her fears of the night before she changes the subject by looking at some flowers.

“What beautiful hyacinths! I have just learnt to love a hyacinth.”

“And how might you learn? By accident or argument?”

“Your sister taught me; I cannot tell how. Mrs. Allen used to take pains, year after year, to make me like them; but I never could, till I saw them the other day in Milsom Street; I am naturally indifferent about flowers.”

“But now you love a hyacinth. So much the better. You have gained a new source of enjoyment, and it is well to have as many holds upon happiness as possible. Besides, a taste for flowers is always desirable in your sex, as a means of getting you out of doors, and tempting you to more frequent exercise than you would otherwise take. And though the love of a hyacinth may be rather domestic, who can tell, the sentiment once raised, but you may in time come to love a rose?”

Catherine had arrived at Northanger about the middle of March, so the hyacinths were probably not cut flowers, but ones in pots or glasses. Glasses for hyacinths were available at the time, William Cobbett in The English Gardener (1829) advises;

In water-glasses, the hyacinth makes a very agreeable show in the house during the most dismal part of the winter. Get blue glasses, as more congenial to the roots than white ones, fill them with rain water, with a few grains of salt in each, and put in enough water to come up the bulb about the fourth part of an inch. Change the water carefully every week, and place the plants in the lightest and most airy part of the room, or green-house, in which you keep them.

 However by March, and particularly in a house like Northanger Abbey which had large and extensive glass houses, the bulbs would probably have been grown in pots, so that they could be changed as soon as the flower began to fade.

Flowers were often grown in pots and, if you had a large collection, could be displayed in a fashion that seems strange to a modern reader, as Louisa Johnson in Every Lady her own Flower Gardener (about 1840) describes;

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We recollect once seeing a very interesting collection of more than two hundred species, growing in a high state of perfection, in the house of an amateur living in Brussels. The room containing them was fitted up much in the same way as an ordinary library, with abundance of light shelves round the walls, and a large table in the middle of the room, on which were placed the pots containing the plants. At night, the room was lighted up by an elegant glass lamp, and it was heated by one of those ornamental stoves which are so common on the Continent, Altogether, it had a very handsome appearance.

However, in smaller room she advises to use pot stands rather than stages, (the pretentious term jardinière didn’t come into England from France until the mid-nineteenth century). A Regency, or perhaps a facsimile of a Regency, plant pot stand is to be found in Lytes Cary, a country house in Somerset.

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Courtesy National Trust

I didn’t have the material to make a curved front, so settled on an angular form. Painted black with a gold chinoiserie pattern.

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Cobbett says that there were over a thousand varieties of Hyacinth available in his day, so I felt justified in using a range of colours, to give an impression of the display admired by young Catherine Morland.

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Jane Austen’s Bicentenary – Looking forward with Regret

2017 is going to be a Jane Austen year, it is her bicentenary being 200 years since her death in 1817. As well as banknotes and coins there will doubtless be a great deal of memorabilia produced. I will certainly collect some of it, and add it to my collection – of memorabilia I collected during the celebration of her last bicentenary.

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Some memorabilia from 1975

I was a young man in 1975 when the bicentenary of her birth was celebrated, and don’t feel that ancient now we are commemorating the bicentenary of her death. Sir Walter Scott was sadly correct when said that ‘it was a tragedy that so talented a creature died so young.”

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Jane’s other language.

This is the last of my series of blogs, Five things you might not know about Jane Austen.

 

Like most educated women of her time Jane Austen knew some French and Italian. But she knew another language, a far more unusual one. What was it?

She tells us in her own words, in 1808 she was living in Southampton and on December 27 she wrote to her sister, who was staying with their brother in Kent. In her long letter she mentions a visit they had made.

‘We spent Friday evening with our friends at the boarding-house, and our curiosity was gratified by the sight of their fellow-inmates, Mrs. Drew and Miss Hook, Mr. Wynne and Mr. Fitzhugh; the latter is brother to Mrs. Lance, and very much the gentleman. He has lived in that house more than twenty years, and, poor man! is so totally deaf that they say he could not hear a cannon, were it fired close to him; having no cannon at hand to make the experiment, I took it for granted, and talked to him a little with my fingers, which was funny enough. I recommended him to read “Corinna”.’

So there it is, Jane Austen could sign, she knew what was probably an early version of British Sign Language which had been developed in the late eighteenth century, and was already being taught to deaf people of all classes through several schools. The question then arises, how did she come to know sign language?

V0016541 The Dumb Alphabet. Coloured aquatint, W.T. Annis 1819.

One possibility is that she learnt, as do many hearing people do today, to communicate with a relative. In her case her brother George, little is known about him. He was born in 1766, ten years before Jane, and like her and her other siblings, was placed with a wet-nurse in the village of Steventon immediately after birth. However he never returned to live with his family and the majority of references to him are concerned with his care. He was clearly mentally or physically disabled and the fact that Jane Austen could sign suggests that he was either deaf or couldn’t speak.

What is perhaps less surprising than Jane Austen holding a conversation in sign language, is that she takes the opportunity to suggest something to read!

 

Finally, if anyone doubts that sign language is a real language, British Sign Language was officially recognised as a minority language in 2003.

 

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Forgotten Tourism or – An unexpected stop on the way to Pemberley

This is the fourth of my series of blogs, Five things you might not know about Jane Austen.

 

Amongst my collection of books (well other members of my family call it a library) I have a delightful old children’s book, Scenes in England for the Amusement and Instruction of little Tarry-At-Home Travellers, by the Rev Isaac Taylor a prolific children’s author of the period.

taylor-england

Published in 1822 it is just the sort of book that would have been found in the schoolroom at Pemberley and one can imagine Elizabeth reading it to her children and remembering her eventful trip to the north ten years previously. For the book is a description of a large number of places of interest throughout the country and through it we can follow Elizabeth Bennet as she took the tourist trail from Hertfordshire to Derbyshire.

The initial part of the journey took them through ‘Oxford, Blenheim, Warwick and Kenilworth’taylor-england-pictures-oxford

Oxford

taylor-england-pictures-blenheim

Blenheim

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Kenilworth Castle

Then on to Derbyshire to ‘Matlock, Chatsworth, Dovedale, and the Peak’.

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Dovedale

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The Peak

All of these places are still tourist attractions today, though there was one place mentioned that doesn’t seem to fit the idea of the Regency tourist destination – Birmingham. This is what the Rev Taylor has to say about it.

taylor-england-pictures-birmingham

Birmingham

‘Oh, what place are we coming to now? it seems as if it were all on fire; what a cloud of smoke rises into the air !

Well it might seem so, for this place is Birmingham, where the furnaces, and the glass-houses, and the steam-engines, shoot up torrents of sulphurous smoke: where every workshop (and they are all workshops) has its several chimneys, puffing up smoke, smoke, smoke, into the loaded atmosphere. Not only do the coals consumed. darken thus the air, but gasses, and fumes from metals, and oils, and varnishes, and every sort of manufacture, help, not only to becloud, but almost to poison the atmosphere.’

So why would Elizabeth and her uncle and aunt want to visit this town, bedevilled by industrial pollution, again Taylor gives the answer.

‘And pray what do they make at Birmingham? Rather say, what do they not make? for they make almost everything: all sorts of hardware, especially knives and scissors, and all sorts of steel-ware, up to fire irons, and fenders, Candlesticks, and all sorts of brass utensils; tea kettles, and copper-ware.’

Factories were tourist attractions, they could be visited in the same way as many country houses. The potential visitor would apply, frequently by writing a note on the back of a visiting card, and then would be shown around. In the case of a house, by the housekeeper, in a factory by one of the foremen.

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The Soho Manufactory

The main attraction in Birmingham was the great Soho Manufactory, founded by Mathew Boulton, he even arranged visitor tours. Parties were taken around to look at how the vast range of metal goods were made, and also see displays of the finished products.

So it is possible that Elizabeth had a new piece of jewellery, or a small piece of silver plate, in her luggage when her aunt persuaded her to make the memorable visit to Pemberley.

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Magic in Jane Austen

This is the third of my series of blogs, Five things you might not know about Jane Austen.

 

Magic would seem to have no place in the world depicted by Jane Austen it is, after all, a very realistic depiction of the early nineteenth century. In fact that is one of the reason I enjoy the novels so much, they provide a wonderful window on the period. However, despite the apparently rationality of the age, magic did have a place in Britain at this time.

Medicine was remarkably ineffective, the way in which the body worked was only just beginning to be understood and many medical procedures were probably more dangerous than the condition they were attempting to treat. For this reason, even educated people, frequently resorted to magical charms to treat various ailments.

The Reverend James Woodforde, a former fellow of Oxford and rector of a Norfolk parish was, despite being highly intelligent and very well educated, a great believer in charms to cure medical conditions. He is also one of the greatest diarists of the period and records various charms he tried and the effect they had. In 1790 he suffered from a swelling on the eyelid.

‘Mar.11, Friday The Stiony on my right Eye-lid still swelled and inflamed very much. As it is commonly said that the Eye-lid being rubbed by the tail of a black Cat would do it much good if not entirely cure it, and having a black Cat, a little before dinner I made a trial of it, and very soon after dinner I found my Eye-lid much abated of the swelling and almost free from Pain.’

However;

‘Mar. 15, Tuesday.. , My right Eye again, that is, its Eye-lid much inflamed again and rather painful. I put on a plaistor to it this morning, but in the Aft. took it of again, as I perceived no good from it.

Mar. 16,Wednesday …. My Eye-lid is I think rather better than it was, I bathed it with warm milk and Water last Night. My Eye-lid about Noon rather worse owing perhaps to the warm Milk and Water, therefore just before Dinner I washed it well with cold Water and in the Evening appeared much better for it.’

Fortunately he finally managed to do something sensible, there is no further mention of the eyelid so presumably simply washing it and keeping it clean worked.

In Mansfield Park the Bertrams and the Crawfords, accompanied by Fanny Price and Mrs Norris visit Sotherton, the home of Mr Rushworth. During this visit Mrs Norris;

‘Had been met by the gardener, with whom she had made a most satisfactory acquaintance, for she had set him right as to his grandson’s illness, convinced him that it was an ague, and promised him a charm for it.’

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So there it is, the most unpleasant character in Jane Austen’s works is the one to offer magical help. An Ague was an intermittent fever, possibly a form of malaria. As the disease could naturally disappear it is one where charms would appear to work, so what might the charm have consisted of? It might have sounded vaguely medical, in The Compleat Housewife: or Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion there are several recipes for the cure of ague which would have had no practical benefit and so to modern eyes look like charms. This is typical,

country-housewife-ague

Or perhaps it was a magical one such as this, recorded in Devon in the nineteenth century;

‘To cure ague, when a sufferer feels that an attack is imminent, he should go to the nearest crossroads at midnight, on five nights, and there bury a new-laid egg.’

Though let’s hope it wasn’t the cure that Parson Woodforde tried on his servant;

‘May 22 1779 My Boy Jack had another touch of the Ague about noon. I gave him a dram of gin at the beginning of the fit and pushed him headlong into one of my Ponds and ordered him to bed immediately and he was better after it.’

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A nineteenth century ghost, no relation to what I am saying, but I like the picture.

Mrs Norris is, of course, the only character from Jane Austen’s works referenced in the Harry Potter novels, depicted as a wicked cat. J K Rowling says she chose the name as she always disliked Mrs Norris (who doesn’t), though I suspect she also knew that Mrs Norris practiced magic.

 

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