Writing About Jane Austen

Jocelyn Harris

Notes from a talk given 15 May 2019, Wellington

In 1964, I arrived to London to write a PhD thesis, but didn’t have the faintest idea what about. So I wandered into the Victoria & Albert Library to look at Samuel Richardson’s correspondence. There I found that when he told Lady Bradshaigh that he had killed off Clarissa, his tragic heroine, she shed a pint of tears, and there they were, splashed all over the page. And that’s how I became hooked on research.

From the letters, I figured out how he wrote his third novel, Sir Charles Grandison, and ended up editing its whole seven volumes for the Oxford University Press. Then Cambridge University Press asked me to write a book about all three of his novels, so I did. My research usually starts like that, with a random niggle. So when I realised that Grandison was Jane Austen’s favourite novel, I wanted to know what she had done with it. It was soon obvious that she drew on not just Grandison, but on a huge range of other writers including Shakespeare, whose plays she knew virtually by heart. Out of that enquiry came Jane Austen’s Art of Memory, again from Cambridge, to show what she made of her reading. All I ever want to know, really, is how she did it. That’s all. No pressure.

I started with the sixteen little pages of her first draft Persuasion‘s last two chapters, the only manuscript to survive from any of her published novels. It was hugely exciting to watch a genius at work moment to moment, as she deleted, inserted, interlineated, interlineated her interlineations, wrote additions in the margins, stuck on a patch with two wax wafers, and added a huge X to show where the passage should go. I was startled to see how often she veered off course, and how hard she worked to make it right. Then in the space of eight days, she rewrote the whole thing, polishing those last chapters into absolute perfection. I also began to delve into the historical, geographical, and literary contexts for the novel, for instance the contrast between beautiful but repressive Bath and sublimely Romantic Lyme Regis; the sheer importance of the naval references; her remarkably courageous satire on rank and privilege; and the way she merged elements of her naval brothers, Frank and Charles, Nelson, and Byron into the dashing Captain Wentworth. And so I wrote A Revolution Almost beyond Expression: Jane Austen’s “Persuasion.”

The niggle for my most recent book, Satire, Celebrity, and Politics in Jane Austen, was my long-term discontent about her being called an ironist rather than the fiercely indignant satirist I always believed she was. As I browsed through biographies and history, it dawned on me that she was criticising celebrities up to and including the Prince of Wales. And that made her political––hence my title. Also, I had always been intrigued that Austen called Fanny Burney “the very best of English novelists,” so I read right through the magnificent, multi-volume edition of Burney’s letters and journals. We always knew that Austen drew on Burney’s fiction, but I was astounded to discover in the correpondence characters and scenes that seemed remarkably familiar, especially for Mansfield Park. What was with the names Fanny and Susan Burney, and Fanny and Susan Price? But how on earth could Austen have known what was in Burney’s private writings?

I found a possible solution in the fact that Mrs. Austen’s gossipy cousin, Mrs. Cassandra Cooke, had lived directly over the road from Burney in Great Bookham, Surrey. Perhaps, I thought, it was she who passed on information about Burney’s life at Court. After all, Mrs. Cooke was a close friend of Susan Burney, the principal recipient of Fanny’s letters, she wrote regularly to her Austen relatives, and Jane visited her at Great Bookham several times.  

Many close parallels seemed to exist between Fanny Burney in her gilded prison at Court and Fanny Price in her gilded prison at Mansfield, suggesting that Austen knew all about about Burney’s misery as the Second Keeper of the Queen’s Robes, especially the way she was bullied by horrible Mrs. Schwellenburg, the First Mistress of the Robes, just as Fanny Price would be bullied by horrible Mrs. Norris. Also, Burney wrote only to family, friends, and the imaginary acquaintance she called “Nobody,” rather as the lonely, introspective Fanny Price could only confide in the readers of the novel.

More possible connections include the fact that neither Fanny Burney nor Fanny Price can act, and the whiff of incest in Sarah Harriet Burney’s relationship with her half-brother James that seems to anticipate Fanny Price’s relationship with her cousin Edmund Bertram: Mrs. Norris suggests that it could become incestuous. Burney’s letters from Court contain copious information about ineffectual royal parents, disappointing sons, over-protected daughters, and the Regency crises that as many critics now agree, underpin the characters and plot of Mansfield Park. All this could have percolated through Mrs. Cooke to Austen. It’s as though the novel pays homage to Burney, whom Austen called “the very best of English novelists.”

Another thing. Austen’s devastating satiric portrait of Mr. Price had always bothered me. Why such ferocity? As I read more into the letters, I wondered if Austen could have based Mr. Price of the marines on Molesworth Phillips of the marines, Susan Burney’s brutal husband. As the only eye-witness of Cook’s death, he failed to rescue him or retrieve his body, probably out of cowardice. Austen had every reason to be grateful to Cook, because he had been mentor-by-proxy to her naval brothers, who were trained in navigation by Cook’s own naval astronomer. And thanks to a Civil War re-enactor on Facebook, I was thrilled to find Edward Burney’s fine and hitherto unknown portrait of him––in Nottingham.

I reached out to Burney expert Patricia Crowne, who explained that William Lock, a very rich patron and friend to the Phillips family, had asked Edward to paint his three-year-old son. Edward refused the commission, feeling he wasn’t up to it. Phillips insisted, shoving a banknote into his pocket either to encourage or to bribe him. Edward tried to return the note, and a scuffle ensued between sturdy Phillips and small, shy Edward. Phillips must then have bullied him into carrying out the portrait of himself, but Edward got his revenge, for he drew Phillips as the suspicious, aggressive man he undoubtedly was.

Austen once wrote that she hated the prince regent, but why? Thanks to  a local historian, I found out that when she lived at Steventon, she was only three miles from Kempshot Manor, Basingstoke, where the young man lived with his illegal wife, Mrs. Fitzherbert. Here he held wild parties that shocked the neighbourhood; here his grotesque honeymoon with Caroline of Brunswick took place under the jealous and malevolent eye of his mistress, Lady Jersey.

At Kempshot, Jane’s brother James hunted with the prince; at the Wheatsheaf Inn, where the sisters walked regularly to collect the mail, they no doubt heard all about the riotous Hunt Club dinners he held there. From likenesses between the prince and John Thorpe I began to believe that Austen was satirizing the young wastrel in Northanger Abbey. She would do so again in Persuasion, where the extravagant, reckless Sir Walter Elliot refuses to “retrench,” common code for the extravagant, reckless prince regent. In Persuasion, she attacks the regent once more through William Walter Elliot, who is all too keen to grasp the honours he had formerly disdained, just as the regent was eager to seize the throne from the ailing king, his father, whom he publicly mocked.

Another reason for Austen to hate the regent was that he essentially bankrupted her brother Henry, as Emma Clery explains in her marvellous book, Jane Austen: The Banker’s Sister. Henry had lent £6000 to Lord Moira, who lent it to the regent, who never gave it back. Moira escaped his debtors  by becoming governor-general of India. No wonder that Austen attacked the regent as Sir Walter and Mr. Elliot.

Then as I was reading Claire Tomalin’s marvellous biography of the celebrated comic acress, Dora Jordan, I was struck by how closely her  appearance, characteristics, and most famous Shakespearean roles matched those of Elizabeth Bennet. Austen, who adored the theatre, could hardly miss knowing about the superstar who featured almost daily in newspapers, magazines, portraits, and satiric cartoons for over twenty-five years.

Even though Jordan supported the Duke of Clarence from her theatrical earnings, the princely father of ten of her children eventually abandoned her to seek somebody richer. In 1812, Henry Austen moved to Sloane Street, just round the corner from Jordan’s home in Cadogan Place. Here he and his wife Eliza de Feullide may have seen the actress sadly handing over five children to their father, thinking it in their best interest. I had always wondered why Austen thought that Mrs. Darcy would be dressed in yellow, so was delighted to find that Jordan famously cross-dressed as Rosalind in a yellow breeches suit for As You Like It.  

I was equally bewildered that Austen praised a portrait of Mrs. Harriet Quentin, the regent’s current mistress, as an accurate representation of Mrs. Bingley. I found, however, that Mrs. Quentin’s mother Mrs. Lawrell lived near Mrs. Cooke. Perhaps, I thought, when Cassandra and Jane visited Great Bookham, they met her daughter Harriet. And perhaps they encountered that nubile young woman again when she was residing round the corner from Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, where Henry had established his bank.

I discovered delicious details about Harriet Lawrell in “Memoirs of the Life of the Celebrated Mrs. Q,” in Whore Biographies. She and her sister were living with their button maker cousin Mr. Nutting, a “very rich” man who “moved in the highest circles.” He “boasted of their fortunes,” and “fortune-hunters were daily upon the run after such desirable game.” Mr. Nutting, explains the biographer, “buttoned up the bodies of all the royal family,” and seeing that he was patronized by the Duke of York, Commander in Chief of the army, he probably buttoned up the bodies of all the soldiery as well. But the button maker soon discovered that the intentions of a “gallant young nobleman” were not honourable. He dismissed him from his house, “and thereby lost the contract for furnishing his regiment with buttons.”

That gallant young nobleman was the “very handsome, lively, and accomplished” but impoverished Captain Quentin, who in 1811, danced Harriet Lawrell off to Gretna Green. He had begun his career as a cornet in the 10th Light Dragoons, Prince George’s favorite regiment, and in 1811, the new regent appointed him his aide-de-camp and close horse-racing associate. In exchange for his wife, the regent would raise Quentin to commander of his regiment, and beyond.

In 1813, Colonel Quentin sailed for Spain, leaving his wife to be “toasted in all the gay circles.” She became what her biographer calls “a professed spanker,” meaning a particularly fine woman. “The town teemed with tales of love,” until a “certain person, who like the Grand Seignior, can throw his handkerchief to whom he pleases, sure of being gratefully received, became her admirer.” He meant, of course, the regent. When Austen writes to Cassandra about Mrs. Bingley’s portrait, she assumes that her sister knows exactly who she is talking about, as if they had both encountered this “professed spanker” while staying with Henry.

Finally, I had always been puzzled by the phrase “half Mulatto” in Sanditon. So I followed up the fact that the most celebrated mulatta in London in Austen’s time was not the famous Dido Belle, niece to Lord Mansfield, but Sara Baartman, the so-called “Hottentot Venus.” Austen was a keen reader of newspapers and periodicals, and Baartman was the sensation of the day, displayed like a wild beast in Piccadilly, then taken up as a test case by the abolitionists. As Austen walked down Piccadilly, she would have seen posters inviting spectators to view Baartman, who was thought (wrongly) to be a mulatto, and believed (wrongly again) to be courted for her money by the cash-strapped Duke of Clarence. So I asked myself, did sympathy for Baartman prompt Austen to create her “half-Mulatto” West Indian heiress, in Sanditon? And what was Austen’s likely attitude to the slave trade? Having read and admired Thomas Clarkson’s History of the Slave Trade, she would name Fanny Price’s cruel aunt Mrs. Norris after Mr. Norris, a notoriously cruel and hypocritical slave-trader.

In Mansfield Park, Mary Crawford’s friend Lady Lascelles is the only real person ever to interact with an Austen character. That reference makes an edgy point about the abolition, for the Lascelles dynasty had grown immensely rich  from the slave-trade, and in 1807, the second Henry Lascelles spent the remarkable sum of £100,000 campaigning as a Tory candidate for Yorkshire. But the revelation of his family’s slavery interests led to his defeat by Charles William Wentworth Fitzwilliam––names that Austen tucked away for her novels. In spite of the Lascelles wealth and influence, abolitionist William Wilberforce returned at the head of the poll. Thus Mary Crawford’s casual allusion to Mrs. Lascelles in Wimpole Street, where Mr. and Mrs. Rushworth will take up residence, pulls her right into the contemporary debate about the slave trade and the abolition.

Austen could have seen many a satirical attacks on the prince as she walked about London past displays of cartoons about him in print-shops. Even in her poem about the Winchester races, written three days before she died, she may still be attacking the regent, for St. Swithin accuses “The Lords & and the Ladies” all “sattin’d & ermin’d” of being his “rebellious subjects,” rebukes them as “depraved,” and announces that “By vice you’re enslaved/ You have sinn’d & must suffer.” To punish them, he vows to bring down regular rain-showers on “these races & revels & dissolute measures/ With which you’re debasing a neighbouring Plain.” It was the satirist’s last fling at a regent she knew to be dissolute, depraved, and a danger to the nation, a man not fit to be king.

Satire, Celebrity, and Politics in Jane Austen came out in 2017, but still the discoveries come. In Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity, Janine Barchas revealed that the name “Wentworth” conjures up the powerful family of Wentworth-Woodhouse, starting with Thomas Strafford (1593–1641) under Charles I to the last Earl of Strafford (1732–99), who had recently died. Like Austen’s hero, he was named Frederick Wentworth. Austen’s mother was a Leigh, a family inflexibly loyal to the Stuarts. And the most glamorous Stuart of them all was the Duke of Monmouth, illegitimate son of Charles II, who led a doomed rebellion, funded by his mistress, Lady Henrietta Wentworth, against James II.

On June 11, 1685, Monmouth and his forces landed at Lyme Regis, where Austen would stay in 1801. There she would have heard a great deal about Monmouth, for even as late as 1835, the old lace-makers in Broad Street, where she had lodged, were still rehearsing “elegies on their darling Monmouth.” After Monmouth’s defeat at the Battle of Sedgemoor on July 6 1685, revenge was swift and vindictive. Monmouth himself died in a hideously botched beheading on Tower Hill, and at the Bloody Assizes in Taunton, Judge Jeffreys found most of the 1300 rebels guilty and sentenced them to death––Austen mentions Taunton six times in Persuasion, and nowhere else. Many were executed on the beach at Lyme Regis, called “Monmouth Beach” to this day. As a young man, Monmouth had been fostered by William, Lord Crofts, a gentleman of the king’s bedchamber––the source of another in-joke in Persuasion.

For her plot, Austen seems to draw on the family story of Mrs. Austen’s relative Elizabeth Wentworth, née Lord, whose portrait hangs at Stoneleigh Abbey, home to a branch of her mother’s family. Jane visited the Abbey with Cassandra and Mrs. Austen in July 1806, so she probably heard that in 1720, Mrs. Lord had vetoed the proposal of a young soldier named Wentworth who was neither wealthy nor well-born. The lovers married in secret just before he departed with his regiment to France. After two years, he  returned as a wealthy Lieutenant-General. Elizabeth Lord, having resisted other matches, introduced him to her unsuspecting mother, who approved the match and allowed the marriage. So too, Anne Elliot resists Charles Musgrave and Mr. Elliot in Captain Wentworth’s absence; so too, on his return, Sir Walter Elliot approves of him as a “well-looking man.”

So what with one thing and another, I ended up writing three whole books about Jane Austen. With all the information out there waiting to be discovered, I see no reason ever to stop.


Further Reading

Barchas, Janine. Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location,and Celebrity. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 2012.

Clery, E. J. Jane Austen: The Banker’s Sister. London: Biteback P, 2017.

Harris, Jocelyn. “Captain Wentworth and the Duke of Monmouth: Brilliant, Dangerous and Headstrong.” Persuasions Online 39.1 (2018).


–––––Jane Austen’s Art of Memory. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989.

–––––A Revolution Almost Beyond Expression: Jane Austen’s “Persuasion.” Newark: U of Delaware P, 2007.

–––––Samuel Richardson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986.

–––––Satire, Celebrity, and Politics in Jane Austen. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 2017.

Tomalin, Claire. Mrs. Jordan’s Profession: The Story of a Great Actress and a Future King. London: Penguin Books, 1995.

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What Kitty Did Next Book Review

Frances Duncan

The last we hear of Kitty Bennet in Pride and Prejudice is that she “spent the chief of her time with her two elder sisters. In society so superior to what she had generally known, her improvement was great.” Carrie Kablean takes us on Kitty’s journey of improvement in What Kitty Did Next. It’s inline with her fate as envisioned by Jane Austen, but I won’t spoil the ending by telling you! Continue reading “What Kitty Did Next Book Review”

2019 Meetings

Our 2019 meetings are now available to be booked online.

All these meetings will be held in Wellington, let us know if you’d like to organise a meeting in your town!

30 MarchAway from Home: The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Tourism in Jane Austen (+ bonus Austen quilt)
Paul stone will talk about domestic tourism in Austen’s novels. Followed by a short talk by Helen Jones about her “My Jane” quilt which was in a recent exhibition.

18 MayWriting about Jane Austen
Jocelyn Harris has published three books on Jane Austen and she’s going to tell us all about it.

27 July: Book Club (novel of your choice!)
By popular demand we’re going to focus on Persuasion.

19 October: The Life of Jane Austen’s Letters
Ruth Williamson will tell us the story of what happened to Austen’s letters, a story as fascinating as what they had to say.

14 December: End of year High Tea*
We’ll wrap up the year with our annual high tea. The venue this year is the Chameleon Restaurant at Hotel Intercontinental

*This is not listed publicly and can only be accessed by the link here.

Card Games in Jane Austen Novels

Notes from a talk given 13 October 2018, Wellington
Marianne Vignaux
I wanted to talk a bit about card games specifically in Jane Austen’s novels. When I started this, all I knew off hand was that card games appear frequently in the novels, they are obviously a mechanism that Austen uses to isolate people within a crowd, so that her characters have the privacy to conduct business necessary to the plot without any breach of protocol. Think, for example of Wickham’s pivotal conversation with Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice, “Allowing for the common demands of the game, Mr Wickham was therefore at leisure to talk to Elizabeth, and she was very willing to hear him” in which he makes the extraordinary (and misleading) revelations about Mr Darcy’s history, which sets up one of the two pillars of Elizabeth’s dislike and Prejudice against him. How else was she going to get this information, since she didn’t exactly know Wickham well enough to wander off on her own into the shrubbery with him. So these secrets had somehow to be revealed in full view of everybody.

Continue reading “Card Games in Jane Austen Novels”

Regency Parlour Games

Notes from meeting held 13 October 2018, Wellington

Sian Farr

How did you entertain yourself this winter?

Travel back to Regency England…roughly 1811-1820 – how do you think the gentry occupied themselves during the short winter days and long winter evenings?  No television, internet or radio in those days.  No Netflix or Sky sport.

Continue reading “Regency Parlour Games”