For your Bookshelf: “What’s the Play and Where’s the Stage?” by Alan Stockwell

Today a guest post by Alan Stockwell, author of What’s the Play and Where’s the Stage? A Theatrical Family of the Regency Era, as he tells us a bit about his new book. I shall add this to my TBR file – it has all the makings of a Regency era soap opera of the highest order, all the better because it is all true! Please comment below if you have any questions for Mr. Stockwell…

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What’s the Play and Where’s the Stage?
A Theatrical Family of the Regency Era

The lives of eminent London actors of the Regency period – Kean, Mrs Siddons, Kemble, Cooke, Macready, Grimaldi et al, are more than amply recorded. This book ploughs a more unusual, rarer, furrow.

It reveals the theatrical lives of a family of provincial players who tramped the highways and byways bringing the latest London hits and classic plays to unsophisticated audiences in tiny country theatres and large manufacturing towns. The author offers not a specialist tome for theatre historians – although they will find previously unknown material and new revelations here – but a beguiling story of a family of three thespian siblings, their spouses and their children.

This is a Regency world far removed from the novels of Jane Austen. There are highs and lows, riches and poverty, twists and turns, and extraordinary events as in the script of any modern television saga.  The marked difference being that – for the Jonas and Penley Company of Comedians – this was real life.

In Georgian and Regency times even the tiniest country town had its theatre visited regularly by travelling players. These companies were usually family based and my book is an account of one such troupe – more adventurous than most – the Jonas & Penley Company, grandiloquently self-styled “His Majesty’s Servants of the Theatre Royal Windsor”. The troupe under their indefatigable leader Sampson Penley comprised three siblings, their spouses and two dozen children.

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This picture from the Garrick Club shows Edmund Kean the brightest star of the Regency stage.  The man in pink on the left is Sampson Penley Jr of the once well-known Penley family of provincial players.
[Source: VesperHawk.com ]

I purposely divided the text into discrete biographies, allowing the narrative of each to flow. However, the subjects all being closely related, the parts form an inter-connected whole. So that their separate stories are easy to read, and are not interrupted by notes etc, all such things are grouped in appendices, which can be ignored if you are not interested in the research necessarily compiled for such a project as a historical biography. Although the book revolves around the theatre of the time there is much information on other aspects of social history – wages, transport, childbirth, postal system etc, which all impinged on the everyday life of players. Authors of Regency fiction may find such things of professional interest. Below is a brief look at the family members described:

  • Sampson Penley & his brother-in-law John Jonas and all their trials and tribulations setting up a circuit of theatres in south-east England during the Napoleonic Wars while touring with ever-enlarging families. Events include becoming lessees of the Windsor theatre and playing to the royal family; leasing a London theatre (a failure); the first English company to tour the continent in 1814 after the fall of Napoleon; the first English company to play in Paris since Elizabethan times and the riot that ensued; imprisonment for debt and bankruptcy.
  • Mr & Mrs William Penley who were Sampson’s brother and sister-in-law. For several years Mrs W P was the leading tragedy queen in the Jonas & Penley company while her husband was at Drury Lane theatre for ten seasons. Of outstanding interest is that George III’s queen “adopted” their six-year old son, had him educated at public school and provided £300 to facilitate his joining the Indian army where he ended up a major.  William became affluent and two of his sons became artists – Aaron of sufficient eminence to paint Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.
  • Sampson Penley Jr who was a leading man at sixteen, joined Drury Lane where he was a principal member of the company for many years in spite of receiving the most consistently damning of reviews. He wrote several plays but only one success. He supported Edmund Kean in many plays and when he lost his place in London he became a manager in Windsor, Newcastle and Leicester. He fell in love at first sight and married after a whirlwind courtship, fled to Paris to avoid debts and died there far too young.
  • The three acting daughters of Sampson, Rosina, Phoebe and Emma Penley relate their careers in tandem. Rosina was the most important and she was the first British actress to be hailed by the intelligentsia of Paris for her Shakespearean performances. Rosina’s peregrinations as a respectable single woman travelling throughout the land, playing a multitude of parts in many towns and circumstances is very different from the typical lives of other women of the period whether rich or poor. Her sisters Phoebe and Emma played the same repertory of parts and on many occasions pairs of sisters acted together.
  • Sampson’s son Montague Penley who was an artist and drawing teacher (a pupil was Princess Augusta) as well as an actor, scenic artist and manager. He acquired the lease of the Lyceum theatre in London which resulted in a swift financial debacle and yet another Penley fleeing to France.
  • Belville Penley was Sampson’s youngest son who as a child acted in Brussels on the eve of Waterloo and afterwards with his family visited the battlefield. He did not become an adult actor but was a theatre manager. His wife was a singer whom he impregnated prior to marriage causing press condemnation. Belville went into partnership with the actor James Anderson at Leicester, Cheltenham and Gloucester. The partnership ended with another bankruptcy. Mrs Belville Penley went on to be a well-known singer of oratorio and religious works and her husband became lessee of the Roman Baths at Bath.
  • Cousins Maria Jonas and Frederick Jonas who also had substantial theatrical careers.

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What’s the Play and Where’s the Stage? is a hardback of 420 pages with an ISBN 978-0-9565013-6-3. You can visit my website for more information www.vesperhawk.com.

And what is the significance of the title? It is a quotation from an anecdote you will find on page 28!

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About the Author: Alan Stockwell MBE was a professional puppeteer for over forty years. Latterly, he has devoted much of his time to writing, and is the author of several books and many articles on the theatre, magic, circus and puppetry. He is a long-time member of the Society for Theatre Research and the Irving Society [that would be Henry, not Washington].  And has written on Sherlock Holmes and Charles Dickens (see website for more information).

Thank you Alan for sharing about your book! – Readers, please reply below if you have any comments or questions.

You can purchase the book here:

c2016 Jane Austen in Vermont

An Afternoon with Susan Wolfson and her Annotated Northanger Abbey

I welcome JASNA-Vermont member Margaret Harrington, who has written a few words on our last JASNA meeting. As part of the Burlington Book Festival, we were fortunate to have Susan J. Wolfson, Professor of English at Princeton University, speak on her annotated edition of Northanger Abbey (Harvard UP 2014). With many thanks to Champlain College for allowing us their fabulous space in Aiken Hall, to our hospitality team Hope Greenberg and Heather Brothers, and all our generous bakers for the usual delicious fare! We were all very honored for the opportunity to listen to and talk with Dr. Wolfson, who made us all love and appreciate Northanger Abbey all the more.

We at JASNA-Vermont also heartily thank JASNA (the Jane Austen Society of North America) for graciously offering us a grant so we could bring Dr. Wolfson to Vermont for this Burlington Book Festival event – we could not have done it without them!

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Susan J. Wolfson spoke on “Jane Austen before She Became Jane Austen” at our JASNA-Vermont September 27th meeting which was also an event for the Burlington Book Festival.

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Dr. Wolfson gave a multi-layered talk centered on Northanger Abbey, the first book Jane Austen wrote and sold. In an engaging lecture the Princeton professor placed the book into the history of the time so that we, the audience and readers, could understand events behind the episodes of the novel. We gained new insights into what captured the young author’s imagination because we were given a lively narration of the London riots, Sir William Pitt’s system of surveillance, the social circus in Bath, and most of all, the template of the Gothic novel on which Austen based Northanger Abbey.

Wolfson’s talk wrapped the novel in the fabric of the society of the time so that we could understand the characters better, especially the dynamic between Henry Tilney and Catherine Morland. We also were given provocative ideas

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such as Northanger Abbey is about training the mind of the reader, and that Jane Austen was not really interested in married life yet her first book has a Meta marriage plot. We learned that although this was her first novel it was not published until after the author’s death and there were years when it sat on the publisher’s shelf prompting Jane Austen to sign her complaint to the publisher as Mrs. Ashton Dennis, an acronym for MAD.

book cover-NA-WolfsonAs I write this short report, I have before me on my desk the Jane Austen Northanger Abbey Annotated Edition edited by Susan J. Wolfson. It is a beautiful book to see, to touch, to open, to smell, and soon I will be reading it. This gives a whole new life to the book for me because I had reread it on my eBook before the lecture. How wonderful to look forward to this edition after attending such an insightful, interesting, accessible, engaging talk.

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Some photos from our event:

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Co-Rc Marcia M

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Hope G setting up food

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Heather B, Theresa R, and our youngest JASNA-Vermont member!

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Maryann P with more food

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Susan Wolfson with Champlain College student Kes S.

©2015 Jane Austen in Vermont; text and images by Margaret Harrington

Julie Klassen’s Lady Maybe Giveaway ~ and the winner is….

… Nancy M – who wrote on September 10th

I think I have all your books aside from the latest. And they sound very intriguing. I will be happy to get them both!

Cover-LadyMaybeNancy, please email me with your contact information (address, phone, email) and the book will be sent out to you directly from Julie’s publisher.

Thank you all so much for commenting – Sorry you couldn’t all win – but suggest you order Lady Maybe pronto…(and The Painter’s Daughter in December!)

And hearty thanks to Julie for sharing her love of England and for writing such delicious stories!

©2015 Jane Austen in Vermont

JASNA-Vermont September Meeting ~ Susan Wolfson on Northanger Abbey

You are Cordially Invited to JASNA-Vermont’s September Meeting

at the Burlington Book Festival 

Northanger Abbey: Jane Austen’s First Novel,
before she was ‘Jane Austen.’”

with

Susan Wolfson,* Professor of English at Princeton University,
and editor of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey: An Annotated Edition**

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Sunday September 27, 2015, 1:00 – 3:00 pm 

Morgan Room, Aiken Hall,
83 Summit Street
Champlain College, Burlington VT***

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Sponsored by JASNA-Vermont and Bygone Books,
funded in part by a grant from the Jane Austen Society of North America.

~ Free & open to the public ~ ~ Light refreshments served ~ 

For more information:   JASNAVTregion [at] gmail [dot] com
Please visit our blog at: http://JaneAustenInVermont.wordpress.com
Burlington Book Festival website: http://burlingtonbookfestival.com/ 

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S.Wolfson.2015*Susan Wolfson is Professor of English at Princeton University, where she is a specialist in British Romanticism, a field in which she teaches Jane Austen’s novels. She has recently produced the Harvard Annotated Northanger Abbey, a unique edition of the novel’s text that hews, with less intervention than standard editions, to the text of the 1818 publication, and as with other volumes in the Harvard series, includes page-by-page annotations, illustrations, and other supplementary materials. With her husband Ronald Levao, she has also edited Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for the same series. And with her colleague Claudia L. Johnson, she edited Pride and Prejudice for Longman Cultural Editions, of which she is the General Editor, and in this capacity has supervised Emma (edited by Frances Ferguson), and Persuasion (edited by William Galperin). Her most recent book is Reading John Keats (Cambridge), about Keats as a reader as well as a writer, and about how this readerly quality shapes and stimulates how he is read (very Austenian in this way!). Susan Wolfson received her PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and taught at Rutgers University New Brunswick for 13 years, before her present appointment at Princeton. Widely published in the field of Romantic-era studies, she is the recipient of grants and fellowships from the ACLS, the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. 

**The book will be available for purchase and signing
***Aiken Hall is located at 83 Summit Street [#36 on map]. Park on the street or in any College designated parking during the event: https://www.champlain.edu/Documents/Admissions/Undergraduate%20Admissions/Campus-Map.pdf

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Hope you can join us!

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Dates for your Diary

December 6, 2015:
Annual Birthday Tea & Ball at the Essex Inn –
Celebrating 20 years of the 1995 Pride & Prejudice mini-series!
– details forthcoming
(Colin Firth is welcome if he is available and happens to be in Vermont…)

c2015, Jane Austen in Vermont

Chawton House Library News ~ Sandy Lerner Honored with the OBE!

Very Exciting news just in! Sandy Lerner, the force behind the turning Chawton House, home to Jane Austen’s brother Edward Knight, into the Chawton House Library, has been awarded an Honorary OBE – “honorary” being the term for the OBE presented to a non-UK national [read here about the OBE, Order of the British Empire]. Here is the info on the event and celebration that took place yesterday at Chawton House!

Sandy Lerner copyright Pal Hansen from 2013

CHL Founder Awarded Honorary OBE
for Services to UK Culture

Award recognises importance of our unique Library of women’s writing

Today at Chawton House Library a very special event took place: our founder and Chairman, Dr Sandy Lerner, was awarded an Honorary OBE.

As a foreign national, the award of an OBE by Her Majesty the Queen recognises the significance of Dr Lerner’s cultural contribution to the UK in restoring the house an estate and establishing the Library. Although such awards are usually recognised at the British Embassy in the recipient’s country of residence, when Dr Lerner was first advised of the award over a year ago, she requested permission to delay announcing the honour and wait to be presented with the award at Chawton House Library itself.

Hampshire’s Lord-Lieutenant, Mr Nigel Atkinson Esq, presented the award to Dr Lerner in the Dining Room where Jane Austen would have dined with her brother, Edward. Dr Lerner, like many avid readers, loves the work of Jane Austen.

Read the rest here at the CHL website: http://www.chawtonhouse.org/?p=60082

And here are two pictures from yesterday’s celebration:

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Hampshire’s Lord-Lieutenant, Mr Nigel Atkinson Esq, with Sandy Lerner

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CHL Board of Trustees Members Richard Knight (descended from Edward Austen Knight), Gilly Drummond, and Len Bosack with Sandy Lerner and Nigel Atkinson

[Images courtesy of Chawton House Library, with thanks.]

We were very fortunate at JASNA-Vermont to have had Sandy visit us for our December tea in 2012 – she spoke about her book Second Impressions, a sequel of sorts to Pride and Prejudice. Here she is signing her book for our member Thierry Guerlain:

Sandy Lerner and Thierry Guerlain

All our members here in Vermont send our hearty congratulations to Sandy! – a very much deserved award for all her efforts on behalf of Jane Austen and the many other women writers too long neglected. They all have a “home of their own” at last.

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You can learn more about supporting the Chawton House Library by visiting their “Get Involved” page. You can:

c2015 Jane Austen in Vermont

Guest Post & Book Giveaway! ~ “Edward Austen Knight as Landlord” ~ with Linda Slothouber on her Jane Austen, Edward Knight & Chawton

BookCover-SlothouberGentle Readers: Today I welcome Linda Slothouber, author of Jane Austen, Edward Knight, & Chawton: Commerce & Community (Woodpigeon Publishing, 2015), the result of her research at Chawton House Library in 2013. As the recipient of a grant through JASNA’s International Visitor Program, Linda’s project was to research the management of the Chawton estate in Hampshire during Edward Knight’s [nee Austen] ownership and this recently published book presents her findings. It is a most interesting and informative read, giving insights into the life and character of Jane Austen’s brother, thereby showing us how knowledgeable Jane Austen was in creating her own Heroes as landlords [think Mr. Knightley and Mr. Darcy! Henry Crawford, not so much…] – she had a fine model in her very own brother! I cannot improve upon what Deirdre Le Faye has written, that this book is “an essential addition to the Austenian bookshelf.”

I asked Linda how she chose this topic, what prompted her to apply for the JASNA grant, and here is her response: “Having written about other businesses in Jane Austen’s time, such as Wedgwood and Richard Arkwright’s cotton-spinning empire, I was very interested in how the business of estate management worked, both in the real world and in Jane Austen’s fiction.  I made some preliminary inquiries and found out from Chawton House Library about the Knight Archive and other potential resources.  My original intention, when I applied to JASNA’s International Visitor Program, was to write a much shorter book, but each question I answered spawned two more, and I discovered some stories and information I just couldn’t bear to leave out.” She tells us more about it all in her post below.

Linda has generously offered us a copy of her book for a giveaway, so please leave any comments and questions for her after this post in order to be entered into the random drawing [details below].

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Edward Knight, Landlord
by Linda Slothouber

The number of books, websites, magazines, and television programs that aim to explain the world in which Jane Austen lived must number well into the hundreds.   Many of them give a broad view of historical events and cultural conditions, compressing decades of time and significant regional diversities into a notional Georgian/Regency England.

In researching my book, Jane Austen, Edward Knight, & Chawton: Commerce and Community, I wanted to complement the more general histories by looking closely at specific people in a specific place.  My goal was to answer my own questions about the structure and economy of the English estate by looking at the experience of the estate-owner who would have been most familiar to Jane Austen:  her brother, Edward.  Adopted by rich relations, Edward inherited Godmersham Park in Kent; property in Chawton, Steventon, and elsewhere in Hampshire; and property in three other counties, changing his surname to Knight as a condition of the inheritance.  (Ronald Dunning gives more background on the Knight family here.)

Presentation of Edward Austen to Thomas and Catherine Knight – wikipedia

Presentation of Edward Austen to Thomas and Catherine Knight – wikipedia

I knew that the landed gentry made their money from renting and using their inherited lands, but how exactly did that happen?  How involved were landowners in estate management?  Jane Austen’s brother was an excellent case study.  I also wanted to explore how Chawton actually functioned as a community and get a better look at the people who lived in the cottages and farmhouses.  Who were the people that Jane Austen would have encountered during her years in Chawton?  When Chawton Great House was vacant or in the hands of tenants, what effect did that have on the estate and the village?

A View of Chawton @1740 by Mellichamp. Chawton House Library (BBC – Your Paintings)

My research into these questions was possible because of the availability of the Knight Archive, a treasure trove of several centuries’ worth of papers.  In 1961, 1986, and at various points in the 1990s, the Knight family gathered up record books, official documents, and random bits of paper from Chawton House and turned them over to the Hampshire Record Office in Winchester.  The HRO’s archivists created an index, but, because many entries refer to bundles of documents, the index can’t comprehensively describe everything in the archive.  The experience of going through one bundle after another, carefully unfolding 200-year-old papers to discover what each one contained, is something I will never forget!  Among the fascinating odds and ends I came across were the bills for Elizabeth Austen’s funeral and for the care of Jane and Edward’s brother George in his last weeks, the seating plan for the church in Chawton, and the list of poor old ladies to whom flannel petticoats were given after Edward Knight’s death.

Most of the documents in the Knight Archive concern the management of the Chawton estate and other Knight holdings.  While there are significant gaps, what has survived provides important insight into the Knights’ estate operations in Hampshire over a long period of time.  I read estate papers written by Elizabeth Knight and her steward in the early 1700s, and then turned to an estate wages book from the early 1900s, when Montagu Knight was the squire; some of the activities done on the estate remained remarkably constant, and some of the same surnames appeared on the lists of workers in both centuries.  As the focus of my research fell exactly between these two points, the range of documents provided an invaluable context for understanding Edward Knight’s period of ownership.

Excerpt from Edward Knight’s 1807 bank ledger, showing several deposits of estate income made by his steward, Bridger Seward, and forwarded through Henry Austen’s bank in Alton. (Courtesy of Barclays Group Archives)

The period between 1808 and 1819, encompassing the years when Jane Austen lived in Chawton, is, by chance, particularly well documented.  An estate accounts book has survived and is supported by bundles of vouchers documenting specific purchases and jobs done on the estate.  To pursue some questions, such as how much money Edward Knight earned from all his property in a typical year, I had to do some detective work, comparing the data found in the Knight Archive with that from other sources, including the Godmersham Heritage Centre, Barclays Group Archives (which holds Knight’s banking ledgers), and previously published sources such as Deirdre Le Faye’s Chronology of Jane Austen and Her Family.

So what did I learn?  It turns out Edward Knight had more land, and less money, than has commonly been believed.  I estimate that his contemporaries would have spoken of him as having “7,000 or 8,000 pounds a year,” not the £15,000 his near-contemporary Mary Russell Mitford stated (admittedly based on hearsay) as his income.  Knight had to contend with a lawsuit that threatened his ownership of his Hampshire property – that much is well-known – but his wealth was also affected by changes in the national economy that affected land values and farming income, presenting problems that plagued him throughout the 1820s and seem to have had an effect on his health, as well.

Edward Austen Knight - CHL

Edward Austen Knight – CHL

Knight felt deeply his responsibilities to his family, to the community, and to his own posterity – his son and the future heirs of the Knight estates.  Throughout his life, he provided financial assistance to many members of his family, though his female relations received far less direct financial support than his brothers did, or received assistance in ways that were not recorded in bank ledgers.  As for the community, Knight’s support for education, health care, and housing for the poor made Chawton more stable and less miserable than many other villages at the time.  It may be tempting to criticize some of his actions and omissions from our 21st-century vantage point, but L.P. Hartley’s maxim holds true:  “The past is another country:  they do things differently there.”

Learning about Edward Knight’s history and experience in estate management is valuable in its own right, but adding to the body of knowledge about Jane Austen is always a goal.  By discovering more about the people she knew during her eight years in Chawton and comparing the facts of their lives with what she wrote about them, we may come a tiny step closer to understanding her views and feelings.

One individual she knew well is William Triggs, Edward Knight’s gamekeeper at Chawton.  Triggs was by far the most well-paid of the Chawton estate servants; his salary of £52 was nearly half that of the estate steward.  His primary responsibility was to protect game on the estate for Edward Knight’s sons and guests to shoot when they came to stay. Since this didn’t happen often, some of his time was spent overseeing hay-making and other projects on the land, paying workers, and selling hay and potatoes on behalf of the estate (all tasks a bailiff might have done, but Knight didn’t employ one at Chawton at the time).  He was trusted with the money required to carry out these tasks and he earned a commission on sales.  He had guns and dogs and a horse that was purchased with estate funds, as was his hat, which cost a guinea (four times the cost of a common laborer’s hat).  Gamekeepers at the time were often resented by villagers for their high-handed ways and for siding with landowners, and this may have been the case with Triggs.  I found only one record in Knight’s estate accounts of poachers being conveyed to jail, but I did find a mention of a charge of assault brought against Triggs, which was settled by the estate paying the large sum of 9 pounds to the victim.

Jane Austen mentioned Triggs several times in her letters.  She found in him a worthy subject of long-running jokes shared with several members of her family.   She ended one letter, written from Godmersham Park to Cassandra back in Chawton, “With love to you all, including Triggs.”  In another letter, she wrote of seeing Triggs scurry down the lane, laden with birdcages and luggage, to meet the coach—not the kindest observation surely, but it seems to me she took some delight in seeing Triggs lose his swagger and struggle with lowly tasks.  In 1817, an interesting meeting took place:  “Tell William [Edward Knight’s son] that Triggs is as beautiful & condescending as ever, & was so good as to dine with us today,” wrote Jane.  We must imagine Triggs, the servant who perhaps acted above his station, sitting down to dine with the Austen women, who were related to the squire at the Great House but living in much humbler circumstances.  How did Jane Austen feel about being condescended to by her brother’s employee?  She tried to make conversation with him, but was it the sort of conversation Mr. Bennet had with Mr. Collins at dinner?  Did she speak aloud, teasingly, what she later wrote in her letter, that Triggs must have looked “very handsome” in his green coat at a recent funeral procession?  By discovering more about the dinner guest at the cottage table, it becomes easier to at least formulate such questions, even if the answers remain elusive.

A final word:  Even a scrap of paper of no obvious significance, which might easily have gone in the fire 200 years CEA-3-JAHouseMuseumago, has its magic today:  the words, the spelling, the quality of signatures (or X’s marked down by the unlettered), and the amount of paper allocated to a particular purpose all tell us something.  If such ephemera is worth saving and studying, then how much more essential is it to preserve a unique document that is central to Jane Austen’s life story?  Right now, Jane Austen’s House Museum is engaged in a campaign to collect £10,000 to purchase the letter that Cassandra Austen wrote to her niece Fanny immediately after Jane Austen’s death.  To secure the letter, this sum must be collected within less than three months.  Please read about the letter and consider contributing to the fundraising campaign.   [ The letter is CEA / 3, dated July 29, 1817 – Le Faye, 4th ed., p. 363 – you can read the text here]

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About the Author:  A 20-year career in management and technology consulting, degrees in English and Administration, and a stint as JASNA’s International Visitor to Chawton in 2013 created the foundation for Linda to write her 2015 book, Jane Austen, Edward Knight, & Chawton: Commerce & Community.  The book is available from Amazon, Woodpigeon Publishing, and Jane Austen Books in the U.S., and is available in the shop at Chawton House Library.  Linda blogs about new findings and supplemental research at chawtoncommerceandcommunity.blogspot.com. [Please note that Linda will be donating all profits from U.S. sales to the JASNA 2016 AGM.  For those of you attending JASNA-Vermont’s 7 June 2015 meeting, I will have copies for sale.]

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Book Giveaway:

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Thanks you so much Linda for your guest post on Edward Knight! Readers, please leave a comment or question for Linda in order to be entered into a random drawing to win a copy of Jane Austen, Edward Knight, & Chawton: Commerce and Community. Deadline is next Friday May 22, 2015 at 11:59 pm. Winner will be announced on May 23. Limited to domestic mailings, sorry to say, but don’t let that keep you from commenting!

Chawton House Library today - cTony Grant

Chawton House Library today – cTony Grant

[Tony Grant and I visited CHL last May on a very rainy day –
his picture was better than mine so I use it here with thanks!]

c2105 Jane Austen in Vermont

Some of Jane Austen’s Characters in Mansfield Park ~ Guest Post by Chris Sandrawich, Part III

Gentle Readers: Here is Chris’s third post on Mansfield Park – let’s hear what he has to say about Mrs. Norris!

Some of Mansfield Park’s characters

by Chris Sandrawich

Mrs Norris is a really interesting character and quite important to the plotting of the whole novel. It is after all her idea, and her desire, that brings Fanny Price from Portsmouth to Mansfield Park. It is also her wish, mainly to avoid any expense, that her own involvement will be at arm’s length and that Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram will raise Fanny and house her. The inter-relationship of Sir Thomas Bertram with Mrs Norris is also very important especially as it affects Fanny Price, but also as it affects Maria and Julia.

Just as with the naming of the novel giving links to the slave trade what may we make of the name Norris? In Jane Austen’s day a notorious slave trader Robert Norris gave evidence in support of the slave trade which is staggering when compared to the reality of extreme over-crowding with the slaves’ transportation: However, during a Parliamentary investigation, a witness for the slave trade, Robert Norris, described how ‘delightful’ the slave ships were. The enslaved people, he suggested, had sufficient room, sufficient air, and sufficient provisions. When upon deck, they made merry and amused themselves with dancing… In short, the voyage from Africa to the West Indies was one of the happiest periods of their life! Is the naming for Mrs Norris, the story’s villain, coincidental? Perhaps it is, but as with the use of “Mansfield” I think Jane Austen was making a direct reference to the slave trade.

Mrs Norris - 1986

Mrs Norris (Anna Massey) – BBC, 1983

Mrs Norris and Sir Thomas are both powerful characters who create change and affect other characters. About the only character not affected by them, or anything much really, is Lady Bertram who carries on relaxing on the sofa with Pug in much the same way no matter what is going on. It’s been suggested that she’s quietly boozing liqueur or stoned on laudanum but I rather think that in the gene share out her two sisters got all the ‘activity genes’ the family could spare. The mention of Pug raises one of Jane Austen’s rare mistakes. In Chapter VII of Volume I, Lady Bertram says “ . . . . . calling for Pug, and trying to keep him from the flower beds” but much later on in Volume III she is thinking of offering Fanny a puppy next time Pug has a litter.

Mrs Norris and Harry Potter? J K Rowling’s website claims that her favourite author is Jane Austen. So is the choice of name, Mrs Norris, for the Hogwarts’ Caretaker’s nosey, busybody cat who is forever on the prowl a co-incidence? I checked out this notion elsewhere on her website and an unsupported claim for a deliberate choice is made; but the jury is still out, I think.

Sir Thomas Bertram fatefully misjudges Mrs Norris. He thinks she is kind and well-meaning, as Mrs Norris does herself, and his authority as a father already weakened by his remote and austere countenance – which creates a gulf that separates him from his daughters and Fanny – allows a vacuum that Mrs Norris fills. Sir Thomas believes his approach and that of Mrs Norris will combine and average out in their effect producing overall a beneficial result. However, his daughters simply avoid showing their real selves to him, and take the full measure of Mrs Norris’s flattery and blindness to their faults that allows them to think and do as they wish, and not as they should. Mrs Norris is free to oppress and bully Fanny unmercifully and all in the name of maintaining the distinction between her and her cousins.

Mrs Norris habitually claims to be poor, She does not have much income, she says, and often she exclaims that she will not “Withhold her mite” when suggesting she may make a contribution. To be fair to Mrs Norris I do not think she meant the coin, ‘the Mite’ defunct since Tudor times and a small fraction of an old penny. No, she’s probably alluding to

Widow's Mite - wikipedia

Widow’s Mite – wikipedia

the “Widow’s Mite” mentioned by both Mark and Luke in the bible, were Jesus suggests two such coins from a poor widow were worth more to God than the extravagant but proportionately lesser contributions of richer people. This is typical of Mrs Norris’ style: do not give much but make out it is proportionately worth more than others give, and every time there is a suggestion of cash contributions required talk of the mite.

This works perfectly in the case of the cash given to William by Lady Bertram and Mrs Norris when he leaves for Portsmouth with Henry Crawford. Here is the extract from Chapter 31 (in which it has already been discovered that William has been made a Lieutenant), which is very funny:

 She was very glad that she had given William what she did at parting, very glad, indeed, that it had been in her power, without material inconvenience, just at that time to give him something rather considerable; that is, for her, with her limited means, for now it would all be useful in helping to fit up his cabin. She knew he must be at some expense, that he would have many things to buy, though to be sure his father and mother would be able to put him in the way of getting everything very cheap; but she was very glad she had contributed her mite towards it.”

“I am glad you gave him something considerable,” said Lady Bertram, with most unsuspicious calmness, “for I gave him only 10.”

“Indeed!” cried Mrs. Norris, reddening. “Upon my word, he must have gone off with his pockets well lined, and at no expense for his journey to London either!”

“Sir Thomas told me 10 would be enough.”

Mrs. Norris, being not at all inclined to question its sufficiency, began to take the matter in another point.

Austen-Leigh in his book A Memoir of Jane Austen said that Jane Austen told her family that the “considerable sum” given was only £1. So we can see that Mrs Norris is perfectly happy to leave her sister in ignorance and thinking she had given much more than the £10 Lady Bertram had given.

How badly off is Mrs Norris? We are told she is on £600 pa or £36,000 – £480,000 which if you remember Edward Ferrar’s situation in Sense and Sensibility is very much the same as he was willing to be happily married on, although in the end he gets slightly more. Families on £850 pa could afford to run a carriage. There is no mention of her rental terms on Sir Thomas’s land but we can assume she negotiated herself a peppercorn rent. With her energy and a restless eye on opportunity one imagines that a steady flow of produce from the Bertram’s kitchen gardens and fields along with game and fruits in season comes her way. She also spends much of her time at the “big house” taking her meals there as well as benefitting from any heating and lighting. Every servant could be frightened or cajoled into helping Mrs Norris walk off with anything useful so as not to be on the wrong end of a bad report from Mrs Norris. It would be a powerful motivation. She has some servants of her own but not many. Louis Simond in his book gives many useful figures and a manservant at that time would cost £40pa but a maid only £15 as would a cook. I find it hard when I speculate upon her budget to see how she spends, when begrudging every penny lost in expense, even up to one third of her income. After all a Curate’s rate of pay for performing all that the Rector ought to do was generally £50pa and he did not starve. If Mrs Norris is managing to add £400 a year to her capital then over the period of the novel you could argue that she adds £4000 to her savings and another therefore a further £200pa to her income. She lives alone and walks everywhere and at all times avoids any expense. The conclusion must be that Mrs Norris is miserly natured and is unreasonably worried that she might starve.

Her relationship with the Grants gets off to a frosty start over “dilapidations” which is a technical term and refers to the sums required to make good an ecclesiastical property on handing it over. I imagine, because the actual conversations are never revealed, that Mrs Norris was well-armed in advance for Dr Grant opening the subject and responds with a torrent of words. A torrent of words is her basic strategy. Dr Grant may soon have been fed up with hearing, “Good as new” and “Fair wear and tear” as well as “Widow’s mite” and be pleased to save his ears by dropping the subject and be left to restore the property at his own expense and then be grumpy about it later.

HM Brock - Mrs Norris - Mollands

HM Brock – Mrs Norris – Mollands

We see early on in the novel how Mrs Norris “beats down” opposition to her own viewpoint by a shrewd mixture of anticipating the points to be made against and rebutting them with a torrent of words. She manages the “debate” by being the only speaker and takes both sides in turn ending up as Judge and Jury as well as speaking for and against the motion. When, right at the start of the novel, Mrs Norris is giving her views on the advisability of bringing Fanny to Mansfield Park she cleverly forecasts all Sir Thomas’s fears and as soon as he starts to air his doubts interrupts him and gives him answers to all objections whether stated or not. She does in fact construct a flow of nearly 400 words by the end of which he is left with nothing to say but to agree. It might be noted that Sir Thomas’s principal concern that he would be raising Fanny to marry one of his sons turns out to be well-founded.

We see Mrs Norris throughout the novel acquiring cloth, or wood materials, or cut flowers. In her shining hour with the visit to Sotherton she comes back with: a beautiful little heath from the gardener, a large cream cheese from Mrs Whittaker, and four beautiful pheasant’s eggs as well. Fatefully she has been so busy angling for these gifts, “but they were forced upon me” that she has no idea whatsoever what Maria was up to in the wilderness. Her actual supervision when acting “in loco parentis” is negligible and both Julia and Maria are happy to know it will be.

It was most unfortunate that Sir Thomas ever suggested to Mrs Norris that the distinction between his daughters and Fanny needed to be preserved at outset and he sees this as a delicate and difficult task and tragically leaves its implementation to Mrs Norris who sees it as an easy task. She just bullies Fanny unmercifully. She keeps Fanny low and never stops reminding her that her only role, for which she must be eternally grateful, is as an unpaid helper. This, of course, includes helping Mrs Norris do anything she asks. Sir Thomas initially misjudges Mrs Norris by thinking her kind and benevolent, and certainly Mrs Norris so little knows herself that she thinks of herself as the most liberal-minded sister and aunt in the world.

Certainly by the end of the novel Sir Thomas when reflecting on all that has gone wrong:

  • Blames himself for allowing Maria’s marriage and owns that his daughter’s true sentiments being insufficiently known to him was his fault alone
  • Suffers much anguish over the poor education and upbringing of his daughters, as it became obvious that they did not adhere to their first duties and that he did not know their real character and temper
  • He had hoped that his gravity and Mrs Norris’s favouritism would cancel or average out in effect, but he realises that his daughters merely hid their behaviour from him and that the excessive indulgence and flattery from Aunt Norris was a real evil
  • Realised that his opinion of Mrs Norris had been steadily sinking since his return from Antigua, but that he had badly formed his opinion of her in the first place.

It’s a miracle in a way that with Sir Thomas’s grave manner and blindness, Mrs Norris’s perpetual bullying and Julia and Maria’s unsisterly contempt and aversion to include Fanny in anything; that Fanny grows up untouched by all the negativity and criticism direct or implied.

CE Brock - MP - Mollands

CE Brock – MP – Mollands

“The kind pains you took to…persuade me out of my fears”

Fanny after a slow low start, with Edmund’s support and kindness, educates herself finding the correct manner in which to regulate her behaviour and to view the world and so Fanny gradually rises on the stepping stones of her dead selves to become all that Sir Thomas, or any parent, could want in a daughter. Let’s remind ourselves of her development from age 10 to the night of her coming out ball:

  • She was small for her age with no glow of complexion nor any other striking beauty, exceedingly timid and shy, and shrinking away from notice, but her air though awkward was not vulgar, her voice was sweet when she spoke and her countenance was pretty
  • Young pretty and gentle . . . . . . she had no awkwardnesses that were not as good as graces . . . . . . she was attractive, she was modest, she was Sir Thomas’s niece and soon said to be admired by Mr Crawford . . . . . .

And Jane Austen cleverly maintains the same basic character but subtly presents her significant development as well.

As Fanny grows from obscurity to become the star attraction Mrs Norris’s star falls from her position of influence and power to the restriction of living with her disgraced niece Maria and to be well aware of Sir Thomas not wishing her back. So, we have looked at how Fanny has developed in appearance but what of her mind? We get a clear idea of the growth in Fanny’s mental powers, her clear reasoning, her unfailing moral standards, her lucidity and passion in the outpouring she gives on the subject of memory to an unlistening, inattentive Mary Crawford. Fanny is talking of how the effect of nature has changed the view being looked at when she warms to her subject and says,

“. . . . . . . and perhaps, in another three years, we may be forgetting—almost forgetting what it was before. How wonderful, how very wonderful the operations of time, and the changes of the human mind!” And following the latter train of thought, she soon afterwards added: “If any one faculty of our nature may be called more wonderful than the rest, I do think it is memory. There seems something more speakingly incomprehensible in the powers, the failures, the inequalities of memory, than in any other of our intelligences. The memory is sometimes so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient; at others, so bewildered and so weak; and at others again, so tyrannic, so beyond control! We are, to be sure, a miracle every way; but our powers of recollecting and of forgetting do seem peculiarly past finding out.”

Going back to Thomas Lister’s comments on Jane Austen, she scarcely does more than make them act and talk and we know them directly” I think we have from this wonderful effusion on the subject of memory we get a pretty clear idea of the pace, power and wide range of Fanny’s mental development.

Thomson-MP-Rushworth

Thomson – MP – Rushworth

At the novel’s beginnings we are given a view of Mr Rushworth and it provides a good illustration of Jane Austen’s sharp eye for comedy. Mr Rushworth has the floor, and is on ‘home ground’ and in full flow talking about Sotherton and the improvements he might make, when Lady Bertram makes a remark taking him into new and uncharted waters.  He begins to reply to her suggestion that he should create a pretty shrubbery as an immediate response to her idea but gradually loses way as he tries to work in all of the following:

  • His agreement with Lady Bertram’s idea
  • His desire to pay her a compliment
  • Although submitting to her taste he wants to make clear that he had always thought it was a good idea himself
  • Mentioning that whilst a shrubbery aids the comfort of women generally
  • There is one particular woman he is most anxious to please

And we get the wonderful picture of a weak intellect seizing up under the weight and strain of its own thoughts as Mr Rushworth grinds to a halt. Jane Austen does not waste time in giving a detailed description of his talk running out of steam she merely remarks, “that he grew puzzled” and she has Edmund putting an end to the speech with a proposal for more wine. This establishes Mr Rushworth’s limitations from the start, and at his expense.

Concluding Remarks

For a great work like Mansfield Park any mere article would be too short, and by only dipping into aspects and parts of the novel many things are left unsaid. I have touched on the importance of Stoneleigh Abbey to this novel and to the wider aspects of Jane Austen’s work, the role possibly played by Cottesbrook Hall, and the influence of Shakespeare on this novel especially. I hope that you have enjoyed looking afresh at Mrs Norris, and I am sorry my talk did not have time for more.

Sources read as background or alluded to in this paper:
1. George Crabbe – The Parish Register
2. Paula Byrne – Biography of Dido Elizabeth Belle
3. Austen Family letters.
4. Transactions No’s 3 and 6 especially Nell Poucher Jane Austen in the Midlands
5. Stoneleigh Abbey The House, It’s Owners, It’s Lands edited by Robert Bearman
6. AustenOnly website maintained by Julie Wakefield
7. Shakespeare’s Plays
8. J K Rowling’s novels and website
9. Jane Austen’s novels

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Thank you Chris for sharing your many thoughts on Mansfield Park with ‘Jane Austen in Vermont’! Readers: please leave any question or comment for Chris below – he will get back to you right away.

c2015 Jane Austen in Vermont; text by Chris Sandrawich, images as noted]