I think Jane Austen is stalking me

I haven’t been writing my blog lately because I’ve been busy writing my book.  At the moment I’m wrestling with chapters 6 and 7.  It’s 1822. Walter has arrived back in Britain, having made a fortune – over £100,000! – in China. I’m trying to set the scene for this transition point, and I keep tripping over Jane Austen.

In many ways, at this point in his life Walter Davidson was a quintessential ‘single man of good fortune…in want of a wife’. It’s a real phenomenon, and one that Jane Austen obviously knew: first, you make your fortune in some far off outpost of empire (or Yorkshire, in the case of the Bingleys), then you return to your local community, or a friend’s community, and shortly afterwards marry an appropriate girl within the extended family circle. Men like this are peppered throughout her novels.

Here’s Captain Wentworth in Persuasion:

Yes, here I am, Sophia, quite ready to make a foolish match.  Any body between fifteen and thirty may have me for asking.  A little beauty, and a few smiles, and a few compliments to the navy, and I am a lost man…

Frederick Wentworth made his fortune from prize money in the navy (like Jane’s brothers Francis and Charles). In Emma, Mr Weston made his from trade, possibly in the East India Company.

A few months after his arrival, Walter Davidson went home to Scotland to see his family, taking with him a friend he had met on the ship home, Thomas Coats, who had retired from the East India Company. Within a month, Thomas asked Walter’s sister to marry him. Ann Davidson was nearly 42 when they married and moved to his estate near Newcastle. As with Miss Taylor’s marriage to Mr Weston, this late romance was a matter of satisfaction to all the family:

…how much the marriage is to Miss Taylor’s advantage;…how very acceptable it must be at Miss Taylor’s time of life to be settled in a home of her own, and how important to her to be secure of a comfortable provision…

Walter fell in love equally rapidly with a cousin, Anne Mathison. It was when I reread a letter from him saying that their marriage was delayed because Anne’s father was in Jamaica, trying to sort out financial problems with his estates there – just like Sir Thomas Bertram in Mansfield Park – that I began to feel seriously haunted by Jane Austen.

I first read Pride and Prejudice as a set text in our first year of high school.  I was 13 – and I have loved her novels ever since.  I still reread them regularly. Well, maybe not Northanger Abbey…. But how legitimate is it to use them to illustrate Walter’s world? Just how reliable are they as a guide to Regency England? And how will a reader respond to such references, particularly if their ideas are shaped by television and cinema, rather than the original novels?

Jane Austen on a ten pound not

She always did have a very straightforward attitude towards money

The real Jane Austen knew something of Walter’s world, and I think that many of her insights are valuable. Her brother Henry was a banker (though a much less successful one than Walter), her parents knew the East India Company through their friendship with Warren Hastings, and her nephew Edward Austen-Leigh was a school friend of another of Walter’s cousins, Walter Farquhar Hook, at Winchester.

As a young curate on the Isle of Wight, Walter Hook read Pride and Prejudice in 1822, and wrote to his mother:

Did you ever read ‘Pride and Prejudice’?  I sent for it a few weeks ago when I had a cold, which stuffed up my nose and caused a ringing in my ears, and the weather was rainy, so that I was too poorly to read anything serious, and not in a humour for poetry.  It amused me very much; it is a regular gossip throughout.  I found myself in a pleasant family circle, and listened to the gossip without having the trouble of joining in it; and at last became so interested in their welfare that the mamma herself could not have been more anxious about marrying her daughters than I was.  I loved Lizzie; but I should have married Jane if I had had my choice….

Perhaps he ordered the book because he knew her nephew, but Hook still represents a lost world of readers who discovered Pride and Prejudice for themselves, before it was a set text, a Penguin Classic, a TV blockbuster – and definitely without a single zombie in sight.

We can’t go back there now.  It seems to me that Jane Austen’s novels are now so freighted with secondary meanings that they can no longer be used to illustrate their own time.  If I was writing about the Church of England in the 1860s I would unquestionably refer to Trollope’s Barchester novels, but I think – very sadly – that the Jane Austen references will have to come out.

There’s an Australian connection too – or rather, an Australian-related puzzle. The first colonial surgeon in New South Wales was a ne’er-do-well medical student called D’Arcy Wentworth, ‘a handsome, tall man with blue eyes who was invariably popular with all classes and both sexes’.  In 1787, he appeared at the Old Bailey charged with 3 counts of highway robbery, but his influential relative Lord Fitzwilliam managed to get him off the charges on condition that he went to New South Wales as colonial surgeon and stayed there.

It has to be pure coincidence – but I’d love to know how Jane Austen came to give his names to 2 of her romantic heroes, Fitzwilliam Darcy and Captain Wentworth.

W. R. W. Stephens, The Life and Letters of Walter Farquhar Hook, D.D., F.R.S. (1881) is available here

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11 responses to “I think Jane Austen is stalking me

  1. rockchicklibrarian

    Doesn’t Colonel Brandon in “Sense and Sensibility” make his money in the East India Company too? Austen obviously knew a good trope when she saw one!

    • Yes, that’s right! Clearly trade was okay, as long as it was nicely tucked out of sight – whereas Lizzie’s Uncle Gardiner is a bit too close to his warehouses for comfort.

  2. She haunts me too! In researching a family history I came across a woman called Lydia, youngest of a genteel family, who ran away to London with a regiment man and married just after her 16th birthday. She originally lived some 60km from whereas Jane Austen lived and the elopement took place around the time of the rewrite of Pride and Prejudice – I’ve always wondered whether Jane Austen heard about the scandal, whether that sort of thing happened all the time and its not that big a coincidence, and whether ‘my’ Lydia read Pride and Prejudice and saw herself in it too. Randomly, ‘my’ Lydia got sent to Australia herself, being one of those people who is constantly in trouble!

  3. I don’t see why Jane Austen (or other novels) can’t be used as a reference; Personally, I don’t find the secondary meanings blocking out what can be excellent mental time-travel. And we need to remember that, sadly, there’s still a large group of people who have never read Jane Austen and haven’t seen the movies, other than modern adaptations, and so have no secondary meanings to block. Novels are very important historical sources, more for their descriptions of daily life than their plots, of course. (And it’s the throw-away lines that can really illuminate a scene, such as when Henry in “Northanger Abbey” chats idly about muslin with the ladies (we learn a lot about muslin); Colonel Brandon shows that men wore flannel waistcoats, not just satin; Frank Churchill repairing Mrs. Bates’ glasses…) Trollope is also excellent for this, since he firmly kept his works, as did Jane, in the realities of life. But if nothing but non-fiction will do, I recommend Roy & Leslie Adkins’ “Jane Austen’s England”.

    • Thanks Eve. I agree – there are a lot of things to be learned from novels. Nobody ever says what they eat for breakfast in formal correspondence – but we know Jane Fairfax ate bread and butter! A couple of people have told me I should keep the Jane Austen references, so you are no doubt right. And thanks for the Adkins reference – I’ve just ordered it from my local library. Daniel Pool’s book, What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew is good too.

  4. Pingback: What do I do with the Egyptian mummy? | Historians are Past Caring

  5. The result of more googling. From a history of Haydon bridge, published in 1876.
    “THOMAS COATS, ESQ.
    The subject of this notice, Thomas Coats, Esq., of Lipwood
    House, Haydon Bridge, died on the 13th of January, 1828, aged
    53 years. The early part of his life was devoted to the service of
    his country abroad, but the latter part was passed in the active
    exercise of benevolence, and in the endearing virtue of domestic
    life at home. In September, 1821, Mr. Coats, who had returned
    overland from India, presented to the Literary and Philosophical
    Society of Newcastle a very fine Egyptian Mummy, in perfect
    preservation, and of great value.”

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