We None of Us Expect to be in Smooth Water All Our Days; Elopement, Kidnapping and What Austen Wrote About

This week has seen the media full of articles, even podcasts on Jane Austen as the world acknowledges the bicentenary of her death. Accordingly we were sent an article about charting data points in her novels by someone who knows us well. If we’re understanding it right, the writer and her collaborator took a sample of popular vocabulary of the time and then somehow charted its usage in Austen. The conclusion was that Austen focuses on the mundane and ordinary in life, instead of on, and here we quote, ‘Big dramatic things; war, elopement, murder, highwaymen, kidnapping, ghosts, gambling, shipwrecks, pirates.’

Now, we tend to think that any reader worth their salt would have reached the mundane and ordinary conclusion on their own time. It’s that more than anything else that causes scholars to compare Austen and Pym, but that’s a different essay.

About those big dramatic things though. We’re going to gracefully sidestep the issue of war. It’s tacitly in the background of both Mansfield Park and Persuasion, but that’s sort of the writer’s point. We’ll even grant the point about murders, highwaymen, kidnapping, etc. Forget Harriet and the roadside gypsies, Mr. Elton in that carriage bound for Hartfield. Elopement though? Either we’re reading a very different Austen or something about the data sample fundamentally misunderstood Jane Austen.


The famous example is, of course, Lydia Bennet, who runs off with Wickham. But she’s far from the only one. Even within the bounds of Pride and Prejudice she is preceded by Georgiana Darcy, whose elopement with Wickham only falls short because Darcy gets wind of the plan in time.

Similarly in Sense and Sensibility Colonel Brandon’s ward Eliza attempts an elopement, and while that doesn’t succeed either, she does become pregnant. Lucy Steele, on the other hand, avoids pregnancy but does run off with Robert Ferrars, thus throwing the Dashwood household (both of them) into emotional chaos prior to Edward Ferrars’s arrival at Barton Cottage in time to set everything right.

In Mansfield Park not only does Maria Rushworth elope with Henry Crawford, she’s committing adultery in the process. Readers will recall she was Maria Bertram in her first iteration.

And we would be remiss if we forgot Isabella Thorpe, whose marriage to the elder Tilney brother almost certainly counts as elopement by General Tilney’s standards. In fact, she’s something of a precursor to Miss Bertram, since at the time of the marriage she’s meant to be engaged to James Morland.

Now linguistically it seems unlikely that any of these examples would be caught by the data set in use because Austen’s prose while beautifully balanced is not always explicit. As one scholar memorably said, ‘a duel isn’t a duel…and many readers miss the fact of Fanny Price’s pregnancy at the end of Mansfield Park.’ We’re paraphrasing, but simply put, Austen hardly ever calls a thing by its rightful name. Colonel Brandon and Willoughby don’t duel, they ‘me[et] by appointment, [Willoughby] to defend, [Brandon] to punish his conduct.’ And while Austen doesn’t write a kidnapping in the sense the writer means, she does have the Thorpes abduct Catherine in their carriage. Later, Anne Eliot is reluctantly escorted back to Upper Cross by the Crofts, not forgetting Mr. Elton’s holding Emma hostage in that carriage. In all of these scenes, the heroine is reluctantly coerced, and every one of them feels transgressive in its way.

Austen’s great skill isn’t that she neglects worldly affairs for the drawing room, but that she brings them into it. She domesticizes the Gothic with laundry lists, makes violent the fashionable barouche, and turns ha-has –great stalwart of pastoral artwork that they are – into signs of impending ruin.

Does Austen call an elopement an elopement? Probably not. Do they feature? Certainly. It’s all there, if one only goes looking. It turns out though that it might take the more mundane, human eye to spot  –and what could be more Austen-esque than that?

*For those of you with a wish to read the article in question, this is it. We'd love to hear your thoughts!



Northanger Re-Visited

Ever behind-times with reading contemporary books, we spent yesterday and today reading Val McDermid’s retelling of Northanger Abbey. This is part of the Austen Project, which accoringt to The Guardian is endeavouring to make Austen’s ‘timeless classics’ more accessible. Now we tend to be of the opinion that timelessness should convey accessibility by default, but that wasn’t our reason for railing against the first 60 pages of McDermid’s Northanger.  In fact what irritated us was that those first 60 pages read not like an adaptation, but like a bizarrely translated version of Austen into ‘modern’ English. In some cases, lines like the  the inexplicably memorable ‘Do you know muslin, sir?’ actually are translated. Thus Mrs. Allen’s question to Henry becomes, ‘Are you in textiles, sir? A designer perhaps?’ We can’t put our finger on why this rewrite loses the elegance of Austen to us; it just does.

The thing about that kind of self-conscious referentiality is that if you’re going to make the reference, if you want the prose to shout, ‘See what I did?!’ it’s neater to simply insert the quote being nodded to because similarly, ‘No one should emerge from their teens with the name thier parents chose for them’ while no less true than Austen, falls short of its original, ‘no girl wants to be called at sixteen what she was called at six.’ Well it does for us. Why? Partly it’s because language, like clothing, goes through fashions. The cadence of Regency Era English cannot be converted into modern-day English by simply swapping the words about and really, why should it? We would never attempt this kind of word-for-word updating with Old English because whatever the practice then, it is now not normal  to the verb at the end of a sentence put. Austen’s English might lack declensions but the theory is the same; any attempt to directly update it word-for-word sounds at best like a round of I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue and at worst stilted.

In the case of Austen’s prose though, it’s more than the prose fashion of the period because her writing stands stylistically apart from her contemporaries. Put her beside Maria Edgeworth and you’ll see what we mean. It’s not only the balanced sentences and the elegance of her writing, there’s an asperity to Austen’s wit that is not only too often overlooked but makes her style nigh impossible to replicate. It is -dare we say it? -a truth universally acknowledged that no one but Jane Austen could write like Jane Austen.

In proof of this McDermid’s story takes off when she relaxes the paint-by-number approach to retelling, stops trying to tick referential boxes and settles into narrative adaptation. Twilight -obsessed, vampire mad Cat Morland is a stroke of genius. John Thorpe is if possible worse than before because one thing that does translate is his obnoxious preoccupation with speed and stylish transportation.  In an inspired scene set in the run-up to arriving at Northanger, McDermid leans heavily on the idea (implicit in Austen’s prose) that Catherine’s first sleepless night is largely fuelled by Henry’s extravagant fantasies about the place. Better than that, here Catherine encourages him in his hyperbole, even plays along a little, giving her more agency than might be expected by readers familiar with Northanger. In so doing, it gives her the inner life that Austen never quite convinced us Catherine had. We loved her, of course, but Catherine Morland never felt to us as if she was prone to thinking, which explanation we used to playfully cite in lectures for the lack of third-limited prose.

In that sense, McDermid succeeds at re-enervating a beloved classic. True to the spirit, rather than the letter of the text, the book fizzes with energy. The only catch for us is the jarring hyper-modern lingo. For instance returning to her rectory home by coach, Cat texts her father,  ‘Fone dead b4. Mist u.’ Look, we get that kids texting use numbers for letters, and abbreviate whole words. But ‘Fone’ for ‘phone’ and ‘mist’ for ‘missed’? It’s not only that though. We’ve never heard teenagers talk the way Cat Morland and Bella Thorpe do, even allowing that we use ‘totally,’ ‘like,’ and ‘so’ considerably less than your average teenager. We know girls of 17. Whatever and however they write online, we have yet to hear one say in all seriousness that something is ‘totes amazeballs.’ Granted, we may be out of the loop. But of one thing we are certain; no girl of seventeen has called anything ‘the bees knees’ since our last encounter with an Enid Blyton book -except Cat Morland and Ellie Tilney, naturally.

In all fairness, we think this kind of hyper-exaggerated slang is intended as satire in the way that Austen’s Northanger was initially a vehicle for the satirisation of the inflammatory register of the Gothic fantasy and the hyperbole of the language of sensibility. The fact that we can’t tell, and the fact that it too often reads like a dire effort to capture modern parlance is problematic. Luckily for our nerves -which were close to resembling Mrs Bennet’s at her most overwrought – it relaxes considerably once Cat is ensconced at Northanger Abbey.

And as quibbles go, we’ll take it, because there is wit and sparkle -and some beautiful similes -to be had from McDermid’s prose. Read it, indulge in and enjoy it. Just don’t, for God’s sake, ask for or expect Austen, because that is unreasonable and unfair in the extreme.

Strawberries and Austen

This evening’s Advent tea sample assures us it is serenity in a tin, which assertion we’re disinclined to question, since after all the chaos that is a High Anglican Advent Service, we welcome the concept. It’s not just the choreography at Mass either. We’re supposed to be moving back to Canada, Marschallin-cat and all, and are presently making arrangements. Also we’re applying via UCAS for teacher training, but no two universities use the same application window, and they still make more sense than the Canadian courses we’ve looked at. Serenity in tins or otherwise is readily welcomed.

This particular cupful tastes and smells of strawberries. There’s reship in there too, but it seems mostly to colour the tea, not flavour it. Consequently we’re sitting here drinking tea and thinking of Emma and Highbury where strawberries meant ‘English verdure, English culture English comfort seen under a sun bright, without being oppressive.’  Except that the light’s gone and we’re in Scotland.

With her in mind though as we drink our strawberry tea, here’s a poem by Jane Austen, who we’ve credited with many things previously, but never verse.

Happy the Lab’rer

Jane Austen

Happy the lab’rer in his Sunday clothes!
In light-drab coat, smart waistcoat, well-darn’d hose,
Andhat upon his head, to church he goes;
As oft, with conscious pride, he downward throws
A glance upon the ample cabbage rose
That, stuck in button-hole, regales his nose,
He envies not the gayest London beaux.
In church he takes his seat among the rows,
Pays to the place the reverence he owes,
Likes best the prayers whose meaning least he knows,
Lists to the sermon in a softening doze,
And rouses joyous at the welcome close.