Tag Archives: Elizabeth Bennet

Travels with Jane

Reuters image from artsbeat-austen-blog480, featured in NYT article cited below Reuters image from artsbeat-austen-blog480, featured in NYT article cited below

I have to comment again on the new ten-pound banknote that will begin featuring Jane Austen in 2017.  I was curious about the images in the background.  The image in the center of the round seal shows Jane Austen bent over her little writing table.  She famously wrote in the drawing room, in the middle of family life.  Some years ago I visited Chawton Cottage, where Jane spent much of her time during the last years of her life.  She wrote on a little round table placed in front of a window overlooking the road outside.  I stood awhile in front of the table, trying to imagine the drawing room door creaking.  That was the signal for Jane to tuck her pages away and turn her attention toward a visitor.

I wondered if the mansion in the background was meant to represent Pemberly, the home of Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. But then, Pemberly was a fictional creation.  Instead, it appears the mansion pictured is Godmersham Park.  Jane’s brother was adopted by a wealthy family and eventually inherited the mansion and property.  Jane and her family spent a lot of time there–welcomed as poor but genteel relations, I gather.

The planned quote below Jane’s portrait is “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!”  Some people object because the line is spoken by a decidedly mercenary character, Caroline Bingley.  In The New York Times article I cited in my last post, “Jane Austen, Wallet-Sized,” there’s a suggestion for a different quote.

John Mullan, a professor at University College London, proposed another line from Pride and Prejudice.  His suggestion comes from the middle of the novel, when Elizabeth Bennet is invited on a road trip with her aunt and uncle.  The dastardly Mr. Wickham has just deserted Elizabeth for a certain very rich Miss King.  On a three-week trip, they hope to travel as far as the Lakes.  Elizabeth was not in love with Wickham, but still she welcomes the diversion.  She exclaims, “What are men to rocks and mountains?”


Then as now, getting to the Lake District in northern England takes some doing.  As it happens in the story, Elizabeth’s aunt and uncle have to cut their trip short because of business–they are in a class that works for a living.  So instead of going to the Lakes, they can go only as far as Derbyshire.  “Elizabeth was excessively disappointed; she had set her heart on seeing the Lakes…But it was her business to be satisfied–and certainly her temper to be happy; and all was soon right again.”   Every reader of the novel knows that the shortened trip put Elizabeth Bennet at Pemberly at the same time Mr. Darcy happened to be there, sealing her fate and his.

Her biographers agree that Jane Austen herself was traveling in Derbyshire at the time she was writing the novel.  I can only imagine that she was as agreeable and happy a travel companion as her beloved heroine, Elizabeth Bennet.


Jane Austen, Wallet-Sized

It was big news this week when the Bank of England announced that Jane Austen’s face will appear on 10-pound notes beginning in 2017.

Reuters image from artsbeat-austen-blog480, featured in NYT article cited below

Reuters image from artsbeat-austen-blog480, featured in NYT article cited below

Notice the quotation below Jane’s portrait?  It reads, “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!”  Now critics are complaining that these words were spoken not by one of Jane’s heroines, but by a materialistic snob in Pride and Prejudice, Caroline Bingley.  When she speaks the line in the book, it’s only to try to gain the attention of Mr. Darcy, which to her consternation Elizabeth Bennet is monopolizing in the drawing room.

I look forward to a  lively debate about what quotation would be more suitable.  I don’t mind this one, though.  After all, Jane Austen was a wise enough writer to allow characters other than her heroes and heroines to speak the truth once in awhile.  I’m thinking of Elizabeth Bennet’s mother, described as “a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper.”  Yet she speaks sincerely and truthfully about the difficulties of marrying off five daughters with no fortunes of their own. “If I can but see one of my daughters happily settled at Netherfield…and all the others equally well married, I shall have nothing to wish for.”

This brings me to one of my favorite lines in Jane Austen, and indeed in all of literature: the opening line of Pride and Prejudice.  It reads, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”  That one line encompasses not only the whole plot of the great novel, but the workings of an entire social and economic system.

In a recent interview, another of my favorite authors, Hilary Mantel, commented, “I love Jane Austen because she’s so shrewdly practical; you can hear the chink of cash in every paragraph.”

I’m sure Jane would be amused and delighted to find herself on the face of a ten-pound note, whatever the quotation under her portrait.

The article about the new currency is at


The interview with Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall  and Bring Up the Bodies, is at


Join me next time for more explorations into the art, history, and literature of Europe and the British Isles.


Jane Austen in Tel Aviv

I just saw a fine Israeli movie, Fill the Void, that could have been written by Jane Austen–if she’d spent some time in an ultra-orthodox Hasidic community in Tel Aviv. The director, Rama Burshtein, is an insider in this community–and she specifically said she had Jane Austen in mind when working on this movie.

"Fill the Void" poster, from Ebert review cited below

“Fill the Void” poster, from Ebert review cited below

The men wear prayer shawls, various Old-World-looking hats, and ringleted forelocks.  The women wear modest but attractive outfits, with a lot of fussy detail. The women clearly take great care with their appearance. Turbans cover their hair once they are married.  Only the single women are bareheaded. The sexes are informally separated during gatherings at homes or in the synagogue–the women sit in the next room, but everyone can see and speak with everyone else if they try.

Movie still, Karin Bar, Creative Commons Share Alike 3.0

Movie still, Karin Bar, Creative Commons Share Alike 3.0

As in an Austen novel, the purpose of a woman’s life is to marry.  Here, the point is not so much to marry a rich man–it seems that in this group, an adequate income is assumed.  (The rabbi distributes money on request during a holiday celebration. Is this communal money, or is it the private money of the rabbi? I couldn’t tell, but the rabbi’s wife clearly knows all about whatever finances are involved). The point here is to marry within the group, and to marry someone compatible. Compatibility is very hard to gauge, though, when there is no dating as we know it.

There is a very constrained code of behavior, as in an Austen novel. I’m thinking of Elizabeth Bennet’s horror, in Pride and Prejudice, when oafish Mr. Collins walks right up to Mr. Darcy and begins babbling about a mutual acquaintance, WITHOUT A FORMAL INTRODUCTION.  In the Israeli movie, single men and women are strictly shielded.  In the opening scene, a mother and daughter stalk a prospective bridegroom in a grocery store, just to get a glimpse of him from a distance. As in an Austen novel, the women never question their place in this social system.  They just accept it as their reality.  However, just as in Austen novel, the women have their ways of influencing the men who are nominally in charge.

It goes without saying that to everyone in this community, this way of life, though constrained, is precious. In the sorrowful history of the last century, countless communities like this one disappeared forever.

The plot is simple:  an 18-year-old girl is giddy with the prospect of marriage to the young man glimpsed in the grocery store.  But her family hesitates because a tragedy intervenes, and the young man’s family withdraws the offer.  The tragedy is that the girl’s pregnant sister dies suddenly in childbirth, leaving a tiny son and a grieving widower who, everyone agrees, must marry again.  There is an offer from a woman in another Hasidic community in Belgium.  The girl’s mother can’t bear to part with her first and only grandchild.  So she puts pressure on the widower, some years older, to marry her 18-year-old daughter.  She puts even stronger pressure on her daughter, even though her husband, the rabbi, does not think the match appropriate.

Movie Still, Karin Bar, Creative Commons Share Alike 3.0

Movie Still, Karin Bar, Creative Commons Share Alike 3.0

The way the dilemma works out is fascinating and touching.  A senior rabbi, meeting with the couple, asks, “How does the girl feel about the match?”  The girl replies, “It is not about feelings.  It is the right thing to do.”  He smiles gently and says, “It is ONLY about feelings.”  I can see the appeal of this way of doing things.  The elders are wise and loving.  They have seen a lot of life, and they truly have the best interests of the young people at heart–mixed, of course, with their own very human needs.

The rituals depicted are ancient, mysterious (at least to me) and moving.  We see a mourning group sitting shiva, a Purim holiday celebration, Sabbath meals, formal community gatherings, a circumcision, a betrothal, and a wedding.

One big difference between this world and Jane Austen’s world is that here, there seems to be no dissembling or hiding of one’s true feelings.  The emotions of the community members are palpable, whether in joy or in sorrow.  In this insular community, I suppose no secrets can be kept for long.  And anyway honesty is clearly a core value. At times of high emotion, the people have a habit of rocking back and forth in their seats–so they really wear their hearts on their sleeves.

But as in an Austen novel, a person’s fate turns on a look, a gesture, a few quiet words spoken, a note quickly written and read just in time by the right person.  As in an Austen novel, a woman’s fate depends on her luck in marriage. I have not been to Tel Aviv, and if I go I will probably not see the inside of a Hasidic community.  Many cultures have contributed to the Europe we know today. I very much enjoyed this intimate and detailed look into a culture that somehow feels both alien and familiar.

The film has won numerous awards.  The ending is ambiguous; one hopes these characters have made choices that will make them happy.

The late Roger Ebert had a very sensitive review of the movie.  It is at http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/fill-the-void-2013. The Variety review, which mentions the Jane Austen connection, is at http://variety.com/2012/film/reviews/fill-the-void-1117948164/.

If I Could Choose a Tiara…

My choice would be the Devonshire Tiara. It’s ensconced in a display case among many other treasures at Chatsworth, one of my very favorite English stately homes.

And my favorite wearer of this tiara?  That would be Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire. Her home, Chatsworth, has been the seat of the rich and influential Cavendish family since 1549, when Bess of Hardwick decided to settle in the area.

Bess of Hardwick was a remarkable woman who deserves a few posts of her own, along with posts about glorious Hardwick House nearby. Both houses are in Derbyshire, in the magnificent walking country that Elizabeth Bennet famously visited in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Many people think Chatsworth was a model for Mr. Darcy’s home, Pemberly.  Jane Austen herself was staying in the nearby town of Bakewell while she was writing the novel. But I’m told that Chatsworth was actually mentioned, separately from Pemberly, in the novel. (Some scholars read Jane Austen very carefully!)

Chatsworth, like Highclere, is still in the family of the heirs to the property.  But keeping it so has been a saga of its own.  Credit in recent years goes to my favorite duchess, Deborah Devonshire.  She was the youngest of the six famous Mitford sisters.  She married Andrew, a younger son of the Cavendish family, in 1941.

When the heir, Andrew’s older brother William, was killed in action in World War II, Andrew suddenly became the heir and Deborah was in line to become the Duchess.  In 1950, the 10th Duke died and Andrew became the 11th Duke. Deborah became the Duchess.

In her memoir, Wait for Me, Deborah describes how the Cavendish family had carefully (and legally) planned to circumvent the “death tax” laws by signing over the property to the heir a number of years before the death of the sitting Duke.  But the 10th Duke died very unexpectedly just a few months short of the effective date.  So the tax blow was crushing.  Deborah rolled up her sleeves and turned Chatsworth into a thriving, money-making enterprise that still honors history and shares its glories with the public.

When the American businessman Joseph Kennedy was ambassador to England, his daughter Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy met and married William Cavendish, then heir to the dukedom.  He was killed in combat, and she died in a plane crash shortly after the war.  She is buried at Edensor, the village at Chatsworth.  President John F. Kennedy became a great friend of Deborah’s.  (I’m assuming he called her Debo, as she was always known to her friends.  I imagine she called him Jack). She and her husband were invited to his Inauguration in Washington.  She gleefully attended, but kept committing the faux pas of calling it his “coronation.”  Irrepressible–that’s how I like my duchesses!

Today, Deborah is the Dowager Duchess–which means her husband has died, a new Duke is in place, and the new Duke’s wife is the actual Duchess.  (This is the same situation as on the show Downton Abbey, where Violet Crawley, played by Maggie Smith, is the Dowager Countess of Grantham). Deborah is 93 now, the last of the famous (some say notorious) Mitford sisters.  She lives in the village of Edensor, which is part of the Chatsworth estate. She still oversees the commercial enterprise she created.  She loves Elvis Presley. And she keeps prize chickens, some of which roam the beautiful grounds at Chatsworth.

Chatsworth Chickens

Chatsworth Chickens

Join me next time for more explorations into the art and history of Europe and the British Isles, with a special emphasis on colorful personalities!

What Jane Austen Saw

Through the wonders of technology, we are all invited to stand alongside Jane Austen at an art exhibit she attended on May 24, 1813–two hundred years ago.  The date was just a few months after the publication of Pride and Prejudice.  Jane mischievously told her companions that she fully expected to see her heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, in a portrait.  Elizabeth had just become Mrs. Darcy, of course.  “I dare say Mrs. D. will be in yellow,” Jane wrote to her sister.

Jane Austen Jane Austen

The exhibit was a retrospective of work by Sir Joshua Reynolds, who had been painting the rich and famous for decades.

In 1769 he was knighted by King George III, who appreciated the “Grand Style” in which Reynolds painted his mostly wealthy subjects.  When he painted unnamed allegorical or mythological figures, the models tended to be rich and/or famous, and everyone knew who they were.

As it happened, Jane did not find a likely image of Elizabeth.  She joked later that surely Reynolds had painted her, but Mr. Darcy must have valued the portrait too much to put it on public display.  Jane did, however, enjoy mingling with the celebrities who crowded the exhibit.  We could think of this exhibit as the very first edition of the tabloids we all see in grocery checkout lanes (and read as a guilty pleasure). Everyone who was anyone wanted to fall under the gaze of Reynolds, just as our celebrities hire publicists to get themselves on the covers of magazines.

Sir Joshua Reynolds was also renowned for tender portraits of children. My very first post described one of my favorite paintings by Joshua Reynolds, “Lady Caroline Scott as Winter,” painted in 1776. The post is at https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2012/11/20/winter-as-a-child/. ‎The portrait is in private hands, but I saw it in a special exhibit at the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum two years ago.

“Lady Caroline Scott as Winter”

This child was an exact contemporary of Jane Austen.  I like to imagine that Lady Caroline attended the same exhibit, and maybe rubbed shoulders with Jane.

We tend to think of Jane Austen as a country mouse, a spinster who spent her days waiting on her family and shyly writing her novels in secret, in her spare time.  Actually, she was fun-loving, always ready for a dance or an outing. She knew all about balls and country homes because she attended many balls, large and small.  And she had relatives with grand country homes.

To enter the exhibit, go to www.whatjanesaw.org/.  The complete original catalog of the exhibit is there.  If you click on a picture, an enlargement comes up, along with a description.  If you have trouble getting into the site, go to the article below and click on the link. Historians at the University of Texas at Austin meticulously recreated the original exhibit, using accurate historical sources.  So we can see the arrangement of the actual paintings in the 3 rooms of the exhibit.  We can try to imagine Jane’s assessment of each painting–I’m hearing pithy comments, aren’t you?

There’s an excellent article about the online exhibit in The New York Times at


Join me next time for more exploration into the art and history of Europe and the British Isles, with some detours into literature too!

Why Do Americans Love Downton Abbey?

I can’t speak for everyone, but I like the show for the sheer Englishness of it.  The show actually depicts a long-vanished England, so there’s an element of nostalgia, too.  And the England depicted never did really exist except for a very tiny minority of aristocratic people and the comparatively small number of ordinary people who served them in their grand country homes.  So there’s a large element of fantasy.

Even today, as England becomes more and more diverse, I love the uniquely English expressions, habits and ways of looking at the world. For example, here is a sign that stands outside the very old, very ornate gate of the private driveway of Chatsworth House, in Derbyshire:


The hand-lettered sign reads “Dead Slow. Hoot.”  What does it mean?  I could not think of any legitimate reason that as a lowly tourist, I could drive up to the private gate and demand entry.  But I think the sign means that drivers are to approach the gate as slowly as humanly possible, and then  to sound their horns to be let in.  The word “Hoot” implies, of course, a decorous tap, not a prolonged blast. Apparently there is no automatic opener and no card-recognition system on the 18th-century gate.  Someone will have to run out, confer with the driver, and swing the gate open.

Notice also the gathering of people and animals beside the gate.  The wearing of practical rain gear and the watering of dogs are hallowed activities in the countryside of England. So is the visiting of stately homes–it has been a favorite pastime at least since the days of Jane Austen.  In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet famously changes her fate when against her better judgment she tours Mr. Darcy’s estate, Pemberly, and comes face to face with Mr. Darcy himself. Many people believe that Jane Austen based Pemberly on Chatsworth House.

I just read that the “real” Downton Abbey, Highclere Castle, is completely sold out of pre-bookable tickets for the coming opening times, mid-July to mid-September.  There are some tickets available to walk-ups, usually after 2 pm.  However, if I were traveling to England this summer, I would not let that worry me. I would go instead to Chatsworth House, and then I would go to at least a dozen other stately homes.  They’re all over England, and each has its own story every bit as fascinating as the fictional one so many of us love.

I’m going to write in coming posts about English country houses I have visited.  Join me next time for more explorations into the art and history of Europe–with the British Isles thrown in!