An Extraordinary Ordinary Woman (review)

August 27, 2017 at 1:36 pm (books, diaries, entertainment, history) (, , , )

James Boswell sums up in one sentence his idea of good biography:

I cannot conceive a more perfect mode of writing any man’s life than not only relating all the most important events of it in their order, but interweaving what he privately wrote, and said, and thought.”

Susan M. Ouellette, who presents the entire extant diary of Phebe Orvis Eastman, first provides an adroit clarification of the diary, in a set of essays. The diarist, of course, never wrote with the intention of publication. Her thoughts are personal and private – and, at times, (well-labeled by the editor) cryptic. This layout, of essays then diary, guides the reader to pick up on the crumb-like indicators within the diary. Ouellette has uncovered a good deal of the life of Phebe Orvis Eastman — before, during, and after the diary, which makes for a rounded biographical profile. She also informs the reader about the era in which Phebe lived.

Extraordinary Ordinary Woman

An Extraordinary Ordinary Woman: The Journal of Phebe Orvis, 1820-1830 tells of life on the American “frontier,” first in Vermont and then in the vicinity of Canton, New York. A young nation, the United States was still at war with England during Phebe’s childhood (she lived from 1801 to 1868). The geography of her diary is not the cosmopolitan perspective of Philadelphia, New York, or Washington; nor even from some great plantation. Thereby supplementing those perspectives, it enlarges our knowledge of young women in post-Revolutionary War America.

Phebe’s immediate family had staked claims and worked to clear the land and worked to create their community. (Vermont joined the Union as the Fourteenth State in 1791.) Phebe’s picture of rural Vermont, in the decades beyond that first settlement, offers readers first-hand experience of a growing, interconnected community. And through her move to a less congenial, even “wilder” frontier, Phebe’s own words involve us as witnesses to her personal pain and turmoil.

Phebe Orvis lived a somewhat carefree life as a young woman in Bristol, Vermont. Ouellette’s earliest chapter covers the tragedy of Phebe’s early life: Her mother died when Phebe was just a toddler. The baby’s age and gender (she was the fourth child, but the only daughter) resulted in her living not with her father and siblings, but with her aging maternal grandparents.

Readers of The Midwife’s Tale, featuring Maine’s Martha Ballard, will find a similarity here in the craft-skills taught to young women. Phebe Orvis is a weaver, spinner, and sewer; for instance, when Phebe writes of “Finished my web”, she is telling readers that she has yet again begun a weaving project. Such projects probably helped to fund the classes she took at the Middlebury Female Seminary.

Phebe Orvis is a serious student – and among the early cohort of women attending Willard’s establishment (though Willard herself had moved on by this time). Phebe’s “formal education” is unfortunately cut short, and readers feel her disappointment, and her reticence in doing what is requested of her: She moves to Parishville, New York, to help at her aunt and uncle’s Tavern. This transition led her to marry a man who was not her first choice for a life-partner. Ouellette uncovered in the diary the subtle “ceremony” of gifts exchanged (and ultimately returned), which points out a certain young man as Phebe’s prior attachment.

The Eastmans married in 1823; it is the marriage, the arrival of children, and the constant scratching for a living in New York, which concerns the remainder of the diary, which ends in October 1830. The blank pages that follow serve as silent testament that life went on, even if the woman writing could see no reason to spare the time to record more of that life. Phebe Orvis Eastman retained her diary, and even placed a few later inserts inside it. The diary meant enough to her, at the very least as evidence of early concerns and feelings, to have preserved it.

And others preserved it after Phebe’s death.

Special mention should be made of the late Mary Smallman, who encountered the diary after it surfaced again in Plattsburgh, NY. She transcribed the diary and dug about for information about the mystery diarist. Safe in her hands at a time when few put value on such manuscripts, Smallman ultimately deposited the diary and support materials with the Saint Lawrence County Historical Association (NY).

As with any primary source, records helped to fill out details, but aspects remain that can never truly be known. This book, with the diary in its entirety, ably supported by informative essays, is a window into early 19th century America. That its roots begin in Vermont makes it special to me, a native Vermonter, like Phebe. The physical world she knew nearly two hundred years ago can still be discerned.

Maps provide visuals for those needing to conceptualize the placement of Bristol, Middlebury, and Vergennes, Vermont; also, Saint Lawrence County, New York. An index is included. The size of the book – being both taller and wider than the average hardcover – somehow makes it a bit unwieldy; being produced in hardcover rather than paperback might have minimized that sensation. A tighter layout of the diary entries might have allowed for slightly larger type without increasing page count. Generous spacing between lines tries to compensate for the font and font size. Notes and a bibliography bring the book to 380 pages (Excelsior Editions, SUNY Press; $29.95).

Diaries, in general, are filled with the insignificant, and Ouellette has done the hard work of teasing out the significance behind the diarist’s little clues of life-events. This single volume diary indeed covers (as Boswell prescribed) “all the most important events” in the life of this Vermont girl, from her days as a single woman seeking education at the Middlebury establishment founded by Emma Willard; to her employment in New York, which brought her into the company of Samuel Eastman, whom she eventually married. The diary tells her story; the essays and finely-tuned editing makes Phebe’s history accessible to all readers.

*

Susan Ouellette, a history professor from Saint Michael’s College (VT), has written on Phebe Orvis Eastman over the decade that researches into the diary have taken. One of the more accessible (it’s ONLINE) is her article “Religion and Piety in the Journal of Phebe Orvis“, in the Vermont History magazine. The book An Extraordinary Ordinary Woman: The Journal of Phebe Orvis, 1820-1830 is the richer for this lengthy gestation.

See also:

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Jane Austen’s Transatlantic Sister

July 17, 2017 at 11:05 pm (books, history, jane austen, jasna) (, , , , )

I just ordered a book I’ve waited several months for its publication (see what it is), and tonight I find another that “I can’t wait to read!”

Fanny Palmer Austen

We all will have to wait until OCTOBER – by which time it will be JASNA AGM time for those going to Huntington Beach, CA.

Jane Austen’s Transatlantic Sister: The Life and Letters of Fanny Palmer Austen, by Sheila Johnson Kindred is EXACTLY what I love to read – Fanny, the wife of Charles Austen (Jane’s youngest brother), was a “naval wife”. Letters exist which give voice to Fanny’s experiences in Bermuda, Nova Scotia, and (of course) England.

“Fanny’s articulate and informative letters – transcribed in full for the first time and situated in their meticulously researched historical context – disclose her quest for personal identity and autonomy, her maturation as a wife and mother, and the domestic, cultural, and social milieu she inhabited.”

“Enhanced by rarely seen illustrations, Fanny’s life story is a rich new source for Jane Austen scholars and fans of her fiction, as well as for those interested in biography, women’s letters, and history of the family.”

Hazel Jones (Jane Austen & Marriage) calls Fanny Palmer Austen an “unsung heroine” and she finds Jane Austen’s Transatlantic Sister “the first extensive study to focus on a man’s naval career from a woman’s perspective.”

To whet your appetite, sample some of Fanny’s letters in Deborah Kaplan’s book Jane Austen Among Women.

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Celebrating UNDER-RATED Women!

March 6, 2016 at 8:55 pm (books, europe, history, people) (, , , )

March is Women’s History Month – and author Charlotte Frost has given me a boot in the rear by giving me notice of a New Book and a hitherto unseen History Blog.

The Blog is History in the Margins. “A Blog about History, Writing, and Writing about History.” Recent posts have discussed “Confederate Nurses”, new books (including a tie-in with the PBS series Mercy Street), and of course the New Book I mentioned at the top of the page.

marie von clausewitzMarie von Clausewitz:
The Woman Behind the Making of On War

What is MOST striking, is the informative interview with the author Vanya Eftimova Bellinger, on History in the Margins. Some wonderful moments, like seeing she has a connection to Norwich University (a short-ish drive from where I live) to the vicarious *THRILL* of some letters just turning up! She also touches upon the thoughts that resonate with ME about the “why” behind such thing as Women’s History Month.

Women from the past MATTER. And the more women whose lives are dusted off and introduced, the more the realization will grow that WOMEN have voices, and they have IMPORTANT things to say.

Marie von Clausewitz sounds a woman so like the Smiths & Goslings: she SAVED everything. But: a miracle when one realized (200 years later) that these items STILL exist!

My Sunday today began with remembering a Clephane relative of Margaret (Lady Compton, Emma’s cousin-in-law) was fighting on the British side during the American Revolutionary War. Today ends with anticipating a good read about a German woman, a patron of the arts, a writer whose best known work has only her husband’s name on the cover.

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Announcing: Online Articles

March 6, 2015 at 11:46 am (books, entertainment, history, jane austen, people, portraits and paintings, research) (, , , , , , )

As a writer – especially with as LARGE a project as Two Teens in the Time of Austen (<=click to see how the volumes break down) – articles have enabled me to hone little details into precise pictures-of-a-moment. Alas! readership depends on those who stumble upon the journals or magazines.

So I’ve decided to write “for myself”. These Online Articles will be much lengthier, more in-depth than blog posts, and cited (where appropriate) like journal articles. I hope you will enjoy them; and I invite comments on them.

I open the series with the original manuscript of artist Margaret Meen‘s “history” = Margaret Meen: A Life in Four Letters.

flowering of kew

Miss Meen (like Cassandra Austen, she later employed the “brevet rank” of Mrs) is a fascinating woman. At the time of writing the article, my BIG surprise was to discover how much of a fan she had in author Richard Mabey; and by extension, Martyn Rix who reviewed Mabey’s book The Flowering of Kew (1988). The explosion of information on the internet meant _I_ could supply a lot of the biographical information unavailable to them in the 1980s — all thanks to the existence of four letters written by Miss Meen, saved from a conflagration of Chute correspondence!

But I’ll leave you to read about her letters – and her life – on my Academia.edu page. Check the site often for further articles (I’m working on one relating to Sense and Sensibility) in the future.

* * *

March 7th: apologies for those viewing the page, who then could NOT then download the article without logging in to Academia.edu (although it does allow for log-ins via Facebook and Google).

Once articles are online a bit longer, they will search – but I want interested readers to have “access” now!

Here’s a current screen-shot [click pic to follow link] (the “info” button was toggled, which is why the upper portion shows the abstract &c):

meen article

“Margaret Meen: A Life in Four Letters”

I want people to see a “page” view, but also have the ability to download (and save, if you wish) the PDF. The link attached to the screen-shot enables the “preview” (the article runs four pages), but the “download” still asks for a log-in.

If I come across a better link, I’ll post it.

further info on Margaret Meen ILLUSTRATIONS:

I should also take the opportunity to add some links – there ARE images of Miss Meen’s wonderful Flower Paintings — combined with those from my Smith Sisters of Erle Stoke Park (as I’ve long mentioned on this blog). See Artwork Done By on this site; then click on the RHS pic. Or direct to the Royal Horticultural Society site, and either click on EMMA SMITH [who is “Aunt Emma” to my Emma Austen] or search for MEEN – which brings up all five artists.

You should “hit” on 48 images; and can either view them as larger thumbnails in a grid, or a row of images and descriptive text.

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The Diary of Mary Hardy 1773-1809: a 25-Year Task

June 11, 2013 at 9:00 pm (books, diaries, history) (, , , , , , )

Today I’m in conversation with Margaret Bird, of Kingston upon Thames, England, editor of the delightful series of Mary Hardy diaries. Margaret “stumbled by chance” across my blog “Georgian Gems, Regency Reads & Victorian Voices” and found her own book under discussion!

Margaret Bird: In the small hours I found myself watching a delighted reader across the Atlantic turning the pages of one of the four weighty Diary volumes. I saw you confiding to viewers what you found appealing about the content and, just as importantly in these days of e-books, about the look and feel of the book. Within hours Kelly and I had exchanged a series of e-mails, and with permission that YouTube video was featuring as a link from the Mary Hardy websites. As the editor, designer, typesetter and photographer I instantly warmed to someone who so obviously revelled in the visual and tactile quality of the volumes.

Please fill us in on who Mary Hardy was.

MB: I need not take long to explain who Mary Hardy was, as she features on these websites:

http://maryhardysdiary.co.uk

http://www.burnham-press.co.uk

Briefly, Mary Raven was born in 1733 into a shopkeeping and farming family in a remote village in central Norfolk, a county on England’s North Sea coast. She married an excise officer, William Hardy, in 1765. They had three children, to whom both were devoted. Her husband turned to farming, malting and brewing in 1772. She died in 1809; her husband in 1811.

None of that suggests anything out of the ordinary. What is really extraordinary is the document she left us: a 36-year daily diary recounting the world of work, of farming and manufacturing, of the drinks trade, distribution and transport, and of family and religion. It is not a literary affair. In their trademark terse style Mary Hardy and her young nephew, the brewery apprentice Henry Raven, have left us manuscripts which in word count (573,000 words) amount almost to the length of the Old Testament of the Bible.”

mary-hardyWill you tell “Two Teen” readers about your “25-year mission” to bring Mary Hardy to the public?

MB: In September 1988 Ronald Reagan still had some months left to him in the Oval Office. The Berlin Wall was to stand for more than another year. Margaret Thatcher had two years more to serve as Prime Minister. It was in September 1988 that I took on the task of working on these manuscripts, which were—and are—still in the hands of Mary Hardy’s descendants.

I was drawn to the texts for many reasons. Although I live well over four hours’ drive from where they are set I knew the fields and waterways of the diarists’ villages very well as all my life I have gone boating on the rivers of Norfolk. Our family boat was berthed in the same village where the Hardys had lived and where they launched their own sailing wherry to carry their produce to the port of Great Yarmouth.

In 1980 some Norfolk friends told me about the brief extracts already published by one of Mary Hardy’s descendants, and I immediately set about reading the book in a library in Norwich. Eight years later an article by a wherry skipper who drew on those extracts made me resolve to transcribe and publish the diary in full. I now know that well under 10 per cent of the text had by then reached the public domain. I had not the slightest idea it would take me 25 years of continuous research and striving to accomplish the initial part of my mission.

A daunting task under any circumstances, did you do your own transcriptions of the diaries?

MB: Yes, throughout it was the joy of feeling myself in the much-loved landscape and waterways as I transcribed the photocopied manuscripts at home that sustained me through the quarter-century.

Having the project take so many years of intensive work, was there any downside?

MB: It was not all unalloyed pleasure. Compiling the 460 pages of index was testing in the extreme. I had to do it the moment I started transcribing the text in 1988 as I needed the navigational aid of an index. This I referenced not to page numbers (the final pagination then of course being unknown), but to the fixed point of the date of the diary entry. As that method of indexing proved such a useful database in its own right I retained it in the published version, so the reader can now draw useful conclusions just from a search of the index without looking up the actual entries.

The index is very impressive – and especially useful in this age of limited indexes in books and the easy ability to “search” online texts. How has technology impacted your ongoing work with the diaries?

MB: By far the most difficult task was keeping up with changes in computing technology. The eventual 2500 printed pages were first transcribed on an Acorn Archimedes, with a dot-matrix printer.

Ten years later I transferred to a completely new system: a Dell computer with laser printer, into which I scanned the whole book from First Word Plus into Adobe PageMaker. No electronic transfer was possible. It was all from hard copy, requiring tens of thousands of corrections to the resulting corruptions.

Eleven years later I acquired an HP computer and mercifully was able to complete an electronic transfer into Adobe InDesign—which nevertheless took nearly three years.

You sound dedicated not only to the material, but to a certain presentation of that material. Can you elaborate?

MB: Much remained constant. Right from the start I vowed to set the book on A5 pages as I liked to handle small books. Coffee-table tomes I find unmanageable. This is a book which can easily be read in bed.

Also right from the start I vowed to have one or more illustrations on every double spread, to draw the readers’ eyes onto the page. The long captions are designed to entice readers so that they can keep going when the laconic style of the diary text seems difficult to fathom. At times an image can shed light more clearly than a note.

Right from the start I elected to have sidenotes (in which the editorial annotations are placed not at the foot of the page but in the outer margins). This is laborious as there is no automatic way of setting and numbering such notes. Instead they have to be “embroidered” onto the page, and I often felt I was creating a cross-stitch sampler or a gros point tapestry rather than a printed spread.

Being immersed in the life of people long dead sooner or later takes on a life of its own; you want to talk about them, share “finds”. I imagine family and friends have greatly supported your project?

MB: My wonderful family have given me enthusiastic support and help throughout and have joined me in exploring the ground in Norfolk and beyond. They consistently applauded what I was doing. But when I explained to many other interested people the principles behind the book’s layout their reactions ranged from bafflement to ill-concealed scepticism.

In this day of publication “wariness”, was it important to bring out a full diary? And you’ve plans for a 4-volume companion set!

MB: These long, long manuscripts are now published in full. The four hardbacks contain Mary Hardy’s abridged text, and her nephew Henry’s full text. Again right from the start I realised I had to abridge. The dross of the dullest entries would drive out the gold dust of the more interesting ones; and the thought of having to index the 160,000 words which I have instead consigned to a separate paperback publication The Remaining Diary of Mary Hardy was not one I relished. Some of the website pages set out my decision-making process. By publishing the dross, however, I have enabled database-compilers to access the complete text.

Lastly I always knew that bringing out the Diary was not enough. As a result four volumes of commentary and analysis will follow, explaining the background in 39 chapters and highlighting what is significant about the Diary. There is no room in the Diary volumes for graphs and tables.

You’ve published a set of four diary volumes, plus the “Remaining Diary”; have you been pleased with public reception of Mary Hardy?

MB: Yes, very. The volumes of Diary came out at the end of April 2013. The book launch in Norwich Cathedral proved a really happy evening, with nothing but smiling faces among the many who had helped me. Our thoughts that evening also strayed to those who had not lived to see the launch, but who had been steadfast and unwavering in their support.

To my delight the readers have responded warmly and very positively, and I am getting heartening feedback. This sometimes centers on the very aspects of page layout and indexing which had seemed so controversial in the preceding 25 years.

And I think that aspect of my reaction is what attracts you to the YouTube video!

MB: Yes, I was entranced. Here was someone who had sought the book from across the ocean; who delighted in the pictures, layout and index; and who wanted to share that delight with others.

May all my other readers experience something of your joy, and my own, in a project which in its physical form represents the creative force I have put into it during the past 25 years.

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“I indulge my Obsession”: Jane Austen and Hazel Jones

May 16, 2013 at 10:35 am (books, entertainment, history, jane austen) (, , , , , )

Calista in England alerted me to this interesting online interview with Jane Austen and Marriage author Hazel Jones.

jones

I loved her book (see my online review of it), mainly because of the attention she paid to diaries and letter contemporary with those written by Mary and Emma.

In her interview you will find out,

  • Why she adores Henry Tilney, and which actor is her favorite portrayer of that character
  • Which Austen character she finds ‘a complete turn off’
  • Which character she would ‘return’ as, if given the opportunity – and why she chose as she did!

Of course, you’ll also learn about Hazel’s Jane Austen courses…

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Wild for Regency Antiques

March 20, 2013 at 7:26 pm (entertainment, history, research) (, , , , , )

Yesterday I went *wild* for “pinning” Regency Antiques and Furniture, and fleshed out a board that had only a couple of dull pieces. I never really thought about it before, but items like Tea Caskets, Writing Slopes, and Ormolu Lustres were items used every day by the Smiths & Goslings. Peppering their reimagined homes — on Portland Place, at Suttons and Roehampton Grove — with furnishings and knickknacks enables me to fully see their everyday existences.

It wouldn’t surprise me if they had a piece similar to this George I Bookcase (I’m in love…); and check out the *fun* Nutmeg Grater in the “shape” of Brighton Pavilion!

Now this pinning is fun, because I could never afford the Brighton Pavilion grater (there’s NO price listed; and you know the old saying: “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it”), but it will forever be on my Pinterest Board!

What grabbed my attention, and what I’m blogging about today, however, was in seeing the several models of “Regency work tables”. I give as a for-instance, this lovely piece:

work table

I was QUITE perplexed by the fabric “bag” which they all had, dangling like the utter on a cow. It wasn’t until searching specifically for regency work tables tonight that I found one piece illustrated by several photos, one of which included its “bag” pulled out. Ah… ha…!

work table2

I had assumed that the “bag” was more flexible and maybe, just maybe, dropped in from the top. Nope. Pulled out, it seems quite a “constructed” box, doesn’t it; and it obviously slides into place. Ingenious, when you think about “tidying up” your space. Grab your work basket and — slip — under the table it goes, all nice and neat.

In the booklet Scenes from Life at Suttons there is brief mention made of the work basket — quite obviously the pieces distributed to the poor at the year’s end, that the Smith girls worked on periodically. I need to hunt up the passage I’m recalling (so do check back), but my impression was that if you had a spare moment you grabbed a piece of clothing and sewed. Perhaps this was where such works-in-progress were stored!

* * *

NB: www.onlinegalleries.com has been my “place” of antiquing choice. Please, let me know YOUR favorite online shops.

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An Invitation

March 24, 2011 at 5:54 pm (people, places, research) (, , , , , , , , , , )

Just a short note to say “thank you” to those visitors who take the time to read this blog.

I reserve *special thanks* to those with items — diaries, letters, book sources — who’ve contacted me and shared their thoughts, and especially, their items. I’ve also met some people who always manage to bring smiles to my face whenever I hear from them. Such interaction and friendship are more meaningly than I can express.

Seeing search terms on the site statistics, today made me think to tell readers that I have more information than many a time does not hit the blog. These extended families are HUGE – and my main interest covers what is a large chunk of time (1800-1842), but at the same time extends in both directions: children lived into the late Victorian times (and sometimes beyond), as well parents and grandparents bring the research span into the mid-18th century.  A lot of people, a lot of family “lines”, a number of generations… Whew!

But I’m always happy to hear from people, and help in any way that I can. So write if you’re interested in specific people, even if you don’t see them often on the blog.

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Jane Austen’s Business

February 20, 2011 at 12:00 pm (books, chutes of the vyne, people, research) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Or, James Austen’s Shopping Spree:

A most useful account of soon-to-be new husband James Austen, eldest brother of Jane, when he was setting up a household with his first wife, Anne Mathew (mother of Anna Austen Lefroy), in 1792. The list (and costs) make for interesting reading.

The purveyor was RING BROTHERS of BASINGSTOKE; among their many clients: The Chutes of The Vyne. The company ledgers reside in the Hampshire Record Office (Winchester), although this list is taken from the delightful article written by Edward Copeland entitled “The Austens and the Elliots: A Consumer’s Guide to Persuasion (in: McMaster & Stovel, eds., Jane Austen’s Business: Her World and Her Profession). Ring Brothers is the same firm from which came the beds Rev. Austen purchased for his two daughters, as well as a little writing table.

Among the furniture items listed for purchase by James Austen:

A 2-foot 10-inch Mahogany Pembroke table on casters (£1 18s)
An Oval Mahogany Card Table, lined in green cloth (£2 2s)
2 Mahogany Convenient Stools (£1 11s)
2 Mahogany beds on casters (£4 4s)
A 4-poster bed on casters (£1 18s 6d)

Household “necessities” include a Dumb waiter on casters (£2 2s)
2 Mahogany Face Screens on Claws (£1 1s)
flat irons
a twenty-gallon tub
a deal ironing-board
a nutmeg grater
and “other backstairs necessities” (costs: unspecified by Copeland)

Another day evident found James bringing home such items as:
Best Urn Topped Shovel Tongs & Poker (8s)

My favorites are the eventual “extravagances”:
a clock — “arch head’ model, with a walnut case (£7)
sopha – “with all the extras of covers, pads, pillows” (£7)

I can’t wait to delve more into the Ring Brothers’ files at HRO. Another item for my list!

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Women’s History and Jane Austen

March 10, 2009 at 6:40 pm (books) (, , , )

Although I study Jane Austen’s novels, I look for what they can tell about the time period; and compare them to the diaries and letters of the Goslings and Smiths in order to flesh out how their lives would have been led. When I read Jane Austen’s works, it is usually for pleasure and certainly never for dissecting them into quiz questions. There is simply a lot I do not recall about them – no bad thing, as it allows me to read them more than once, for the enjoyment of her language if nothing else.

So when on Sunday, March 1st, our JASNA chapter’s guest speaker Prof. Mary Ellen Bertolini (Middlebury College) mentioned the essays of Tony Tanner (who wrote these mainly in the 1960s-1980s) as being insightful commentaries on Austen, I trotted over to the university’s library and took it out. Right away the title of one essay sounded arresting: “The Anger in the Abbey” – about Northanger Abbey, of course. (Tanner treats this last published book first, in consequence of its being written c1803).

Austen provides a particular image of Catherine Morland when she has Catherine speak about her dislike for history. But only after Tanner’s stressing one piece of Catherine’s comment did my little grey cells begin to grasp that the comment may be taken at face value — or more than face value. Here is Tanner:

“I should like to draw attention to a conversation in chapter 14 during which Catherine expresses her distaste for ‘real solemn history’. Compared with the Tilneys’ liking for ‘history’ this might seem to indicate a certain shallowness or callowness of mind on Catherine’s part. Yet she does make one telling point which is usually overlooked. One reason why ‘history’, as then written, does not appeal to her is this: ‘the men are all good for nothing, and hardly any women at all–it is very tiresome [emphasis added].”

It is a comment we can associate with the Austen who wrote her comic History of England.

I know I enjoy reading the letters of the women of the two families I am studying — perhaps simply because, being a woman, they touch on the fundamentals of life that interest me: travel, family, friendships. Business matters or how many birds were bagged over a shooting weekend I can live without! But I never THOUGHT about Catherine Morland’s comment (and the hidden meaning behind it) before: Was Jane Austen, then, an early advocate for what we would now call Women’s Studies??? Perhaps so…

I must say, after pondering the TYPES of information we historians can find about those who lived a couple hundred years ago, it does rather boil down to: When they were born and to whom; who they married; their children; and when they died. So who can ever blame Austen for concentrating on the most ‘interesting’ part of any person’s life: her character’s family and whose family that someone marries into.

I had reason to look up letters of Emma Austen’s maternal grandmother: she writes of visiting a Mrs Carr and says “to our great surprise [we] were informed that she was at liberty to say every thing was now settled Between her Brother Henry Greg [sic& Miss Gosling  the Greggs are as you may suppose in high Spirits  the Goslings not much delighted  Old Mrs. Gosling sais she will not consent but I think Miss Gosling is determined… poor Mrs Gosling finds the Pill rather disagreeable to swallow“. Miss Gosling, by the way, is Mary Gosling’s Aunt Gregg – her father’s sister. Born c1770, she would have been about 24-years-old at this time (spring 1794), and the lone chick left in her mother’s nest. Mrs Smith adds something to which many woman might relate: “I fancy her home was not comfortable  the Mother is an odd woman“. Oh dear!

My point in bringing this up is that this little snag in the lives of the Goslings and Greggs is just what sucks one into their lives, it entices you to tease out more of their story (though whether more can be found, in any instance, never mind this one, is another story). What was Old Mrs Gosling like? If her daughter (Maria Gosling) was unhappy, what about her son William and his Eliza (for she evidently lived long periods with them)? And here is the very type of story we love Austen for! The push and pull of family, versus the new family a woman wants to make for herself. It is actually surprising how many couples, in just this extended family, encountered problems with familial opposition: Augusta Wilder seems not to have been the dessert of choice for Henry’s father — though Henry was besotted with her; Richard Seymour’s sister was actually talked out of marrying the man of her choice (he did not make enough money); and yet she finally married him. And another couple in Richard’s family, brought down upon themselves the rath of the potential father-in-law — before they too wed. Such tales are why Austen’s novels seem timeless — as well as perfect mirrors of her time.

And why I will never read them in order to remember how much Lady Catherine spent on her chimney piece, or what type of dog Henry Tilney keeps!

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