Hot off the Presses!! ~ Jane Austen’s Regency World Magazine, No. 68


New issue of Jane Austen’s Regency World!

The March/April 2014 issue [No. 68] of Jane Austen’s Regency World magazine is now published and will be mailed to subscribers this week.  In it you can read about:

  • William Beckford, the remarkable author and architect who led a somewhat sordid life
  • Joanna Trollope on her rewriting of Sense & Sensibility for HarperCollins’s Austen Project
  • Mary Russell Mitford, the writer who sought to emulate Jane Austen
  • How Jane Austen supported her fellow writers by subscribing to their books
  • The story of Julie Klassen, marketing assistant turned best-selling Regency romance novelist


Plus: News, Letters, Book Reviews and information from Jane Austen Societies in the US and the UK.

And: Test your knowledge with our exclusive Jane Austen quiz, and read about the shocking behaviour of our latest Regency Rogue

You should subscribe! Make sure that you are among the first to read all the news from Jane Austen’s Regency World

[Images and text from JARW Magazine, with thanks]

c2014 Jane Austen in Vermont

A Gift

“Happy Christmas” from Jane Austen in Vermont!

Our gift today shares short comments from a reader of Austen in 1836. Thanks to R.W. Chapman, we possess the reactions of family and friends that Jane Austen herself collected (printed in his volume of Austen Juvenilia). Here – in the diary of Ellen Tollet of Betley Hall (edited by Mavis E. Smith and newly published) – we see reactions to the novels from a reader with no ties to Austen. Miss Tollet perhaps treasured copies of the first edition, but likely came to read Austen because of the reprintings of the 1830s (for instance, see our 1833 copy of Sense and Sensibility). She does, however, mention “volumes” which indicates the sets – three volumes for all except Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (which appeared together in four volumes) – of the originals printed during Austen’s lifetime.

The first reference Miss Tollet makes of Austen is this entry of Saturday, 2 January 1836:

Cold, bad day – snow on the ground. Set Charles [her brother] to read ‘Mansfield Park’. How I delight in that book! I fancy all the people so well. I confess I think Edmund and Fanny too much alike to marry. I think he is something like W. Egerton [a family friend] though, of course, taller or more like a hero rather. [page 99]

Miss Tollet notes more Austen at the end of February:

Began to read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ to Mary [her sister-in-law]. A very good book for the purpose, but I don’t like it so well as ‘Mansfield Park’ or ‘Persuasion’. It is a broad farce and the humour less delicate, and the story not so feeling or pretty. [p. 118: Thursday, 25 February 1836]

Days later she expounds on her views, and we perceive something of the reading habits of this young woman (born in 1812):

Read for the tenth time [!] the third volume of ‘Pride and Prejudice’. How excellent it is! Mr Bennet is enchanting, but Lydia’s disgrace far too bad. Great want of taste and delicacy towards her heroines. [p. 120: Tuesday, 8 March 1836]

In this day of television and film adaptations, it is refreshing to read (however short) comments about and reactions to Austen’s characters and situations (see also the post on Miss Russell Mitford). We invite readers to share with us their finds, among nineteenth century letters and diaries, revealing just what Austen’s early crop of readers thought and felt.

Mary Russell Mitford and Jane Austen

Many Austen fans know well the description of Jane Austen by writer Mary Russell Mitford (1787-1855):

     “À propos to novels, I have discovered that our great favourite, Miss Austen, is my countrywoman; that mamma knew all her family very intimately; and that she herself is an old maid (I beg her pardon – I mean a young lady) with whom mamma before her marriage was acquainted. Mamma says that she was then the prettiest, silliest, most affected, husband-hunting butterfly she ever remembers; and a friend of mine, who visits her now, says that she has stiffened into the most perpendicular, precise, taciturn piece of “single blessedness” that ever existed, and that, till ‘Pride and Prejudice’ showed what a precious gem was hidden in that unbending case, she was no more regarded in society than a poker or a fire-screen, or any other thin upright piece of wood or iron that fills its corner in peace and quietness. The case is very different now; she is still a poker – but a poker of whom every one is afraid. It must be confessed that this silent observation from such an observer is rather formidable. Most writers are good-humoured chatterers – neither very wise nor very witty: – but nine times out of ten (at least in the few that I have known) unaffected and pleasant, and quite removing by their conversation any awe that may have been excited by their works. But a wit, a delineator of character, who does not talk, is terrific indeed!” [April 3, 1815 (vol. 1, pp. 305-7)]

Two generations of this family were Austen neighbors. The Rev. Richard Russell, Mary Russell Mitford’s maternal grandfather, was the rector of Ashe, a parish about two miles from Steventon. Upon his death in 1783, his widow and daughter moved to nearby Alresford – and it was in Alresford that Mary Russell Mitford was born – on 16 December 1787, two years after her parents’ marriage (17 October 1785).

Therefore, food for thought regarding the description of Jane Austen as “the prettiest, silliest, most affected, husband-hunting butterfly” – “Miss Russell” would have been talking about Jane Austen as a ten-year-old (or younger) child! Remember Jane’s girlish scribblings found in the marriage register of Steventon!

sillhouetteReading the entire quotation over, one wonders if MRM truly meant to imply that Jane was ‘thin,’ as most critics take her comment to mean and then go on to compare it to the silhouette (at right). What if MRM wrote without any real emphasis on the words ‘thin upright piece of wood or iron’ and instead concentrated on the image painted by ‘that fills its corner in peace and quietness’? There is indeed a delightful picture in the thought of Austen as ‘a wit, a delineator of character’ who sits, watches — and then writes!

MRM continues, and begins to qualify the description of Austen:

     “After all, I do not know that I can quite vouch for this account, though the friend from whom I received it is truth itself; but her family connections must render her disagreeable to Miss Austen, since she is the sister-in-law of a gentleman who is at law with Miss A.’s brother for the greater part of his fortune. [original footnote: Every other account of Jane Austen, from whatever quarter, represents her as handsome, graceful, amiable, and shy.] You must have remarked how much her stories hinge upon entailed estates; doubtless she has learnt to dislike entails. Her brother was adopted by a Mr. Knight, who left him his name and two much better legacies in an estate of five thousand a year in Kent, and another of nearly double the value in Hampshire; but it seems he forgot some ceremony – passing a fine, I think they call it – with regard to the Hampshire property, which Mr. Baverstock has claimed in right of his mother, together with the mesne rents, and is likely to be successful.”

A trying time for all three of the Austen women: Mrs Austen, Jane and Cassandra; they were in danger of losing their home if Edward lost this case.

If we concentrate solely on vol. I of The Life of Mary Russell Mitford (ed. by Rev. A.G. L’Estrange, 1870) we read early comments on Austen’s work (and note here: they knew the identity of the author?!?) that are fascinating, untainted-by-the-movies reactions to Austen’s characters.

“The want of elegance is almost the only want in Miss Austen. I have not read her ‘Mansfield Park;’ but it is impossible not to feel in every line of ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ in every word of ‘Elizabeth,’ the entire want of taste which could produce so pert, so worldly a heroine as the beloved of such a man as Darcy. Wickham is equally bad. Oh! they were just fit for each other, and I cannot forgive that delightful Darcy for parting them. Darcy should have married Jane. He is of all the admirable characters the best designed and the best sustained. I quite agree with you in preferring Miss Austen to Miss Edgeworth. If the former had a little more taste, a little more perception of the graceful, as well as of the humorous, I know not indeed any one to whom I should not prefer her. There is not of the hardness, the cold selfishness, of Miss Edgeworth about her writings; she is in a much better humour with the world; she preaches no sermons; she wants nothing but the beau-idéal of the female character to be a perfect novel writer; and perhaps even that beau-idéal would only be missed by such a petite maîtresse in books as myself…” [20 December 1814 (vol. 1, p. 300)]

What prompted this post was a footnote in a book on the Shaw-Lefevres (relatives of Emma Austen-Leigh): “Compare Harriet Martineau’s opinion of Mary Russell Mitford, in her Autobiography, ed. by Maria Weston (Boston, 1877): “I must say that personally I did not like her so well as I liked her works. The charming bonhommie of her writings appeared at first in her conversation and manners; but there were other things which sadly impaired its charm…. What concerned me was her habit of flattery, and the twin habit of disparagement of others. I never knew her to respond to any act of course of conduct which was morally lofty. She could not believe in it, nor, of course, enjoy it: and she seldom failed to ‘see through it’, and to delight in her superiority to admiration.” This delving to find someone to describe MRM was due to “Miss Mitford’s vitriolic attack” (in a letter of 1807 in L’Estrange’s Life) of the Lefevres. A Strong Supporting Cast, a Shaw-Lefevre biography by F.M.G. Willson, even calls MRM “a near but hostile neighbour”. And yet here is what MRM says about Emma:

“… go for amusement to Miss Edgeworth and Miss Austen. By-the-way, how delightful is her ‘Emma!’ the best, I think, of all her charming works.” [2 July 1816 (vol. 1, p. 331)]

Find out for yourself what MRM has to say about Austen and her novels: vol I; vol II; vol III.  [Note: vols I and III are the Bentley (London) edition; vol II is the last of a 2-volume set published in NY by Harper & Brothers. Once again doesn’t have all of a set!]

With new editions of diaries and letters appearing seemingly monthly, let us know what reactions to Austen or her novels YOU have come across from the pens of similar first-generation readers during the 1810s and 1820s!