Jane Austen’s Portsmouth And the Dynamics of the Price Family

JASNA-StLouis-Fall-Program-MansfieldPark-Portsmouth-PhyllisThorpe-TobyBenis

Your Fall Program presenters were Phyllis Thorpe (L) and Toby Benis (R) – both JASNA-St. Louis members.

At the Saturday, Sept. 26, meeting of the St. Louis Metropolitan Region, Jane Austen Society of North America, members and guests experienced not one but two insightful presentations concerning Austen’s 1814 novel Mansfield Park.

The presentations were offered by members Phyllis Thorpe and Toby Benis.

Last year, at JASNA’s Montreal AGM, Phyllis participated in a panel discussion, “Mansfield Park Pathologies,” moderated by past JASNA president and University of Colorado scholar and professor emeritus Joan Klingel Ray. Phyllis’ subject was “Fanny Price: the Lost Child in an Alcoholic Family.” On Sept. 26, Phyllis reprised her presentation before Toby’s exploration of the city of Portsmouth and its civic and military history.

With help from volunteers, who participated in a tableau, Phyllis explored the dynamics of the Fanny’s large family and the role each member played in it. (Fanny’s role: invisible child.) With an alcoholic father whose only interest seemed to be reading the navy news and visiting the dockyard, his family was left to its own devices. The result was a noisy, chaotic household with a mother often at wit’s end.

Thanks also go out to Phyllis’ partner, Dr. Andrei Laszlo, who was her able assistant, helping the tableau “come to life.” The tableau offered a perfect lead-in for Toby’s reflections on “Jane Austen’s Portsmouth.”

Fanny’s uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram, had sent Fanny back to her family in Portsmouth as punishment for not consenting to marry young, rich Henry Crawford. Sir Thomas hoped that a re-acquaintance with the noise, poverty, and disorder of the Price household would make Fanny realize what she could have with Henry.

Toby, a professor of English at Saint Louis University, reminded her listeners that most of Austen’s novels are set in the bucolic countryside—think rolling hills, picturesque villages, and quaint farms—not in a congested, dirty, urban environment. With the use of period maps and quotes from Edward Daniel Clark, a Georgian clergyman, naturalist, travel writer, and contemporary of Austen, Toby highlighted the background of Portsmouth and explained its importance as a city and a navy base, especially during the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars (1792–1815).

Portsmouth, Toby said, was called the Key of England because of its enormous strategic importance. Yet its civic boosters envisioned it as a spa town also, she added, but despite its coastal location and the new craze for seaside spas, Portsmouth was, in the eyes of many, not a sufficiently healthy environment for R&R. It lay low on the coast, with backwaters and ditches creating “bad air.” It was awash in soldiers, marines, sailors, and dockyard workers. Its bars were always full (and overpriced, according to contemporary accounts) and the area was considered damp and “aguish.” Fanny, at age 10, leaving such an environment to live at Mansfield Park, is deemed in poor health. Her cousins, by comparison, exhibit a healthy glow and are pictured as advanced for their age.

Fanny, as a near-adult returning to Portsmouth, finds herself banished to an unhealthy environment and an unpleasant situation concerning space, sound, and air. Her living quarters in the Price house are cramped; there is constant noise; and the house is disorganized and never tidy. She misses the order and gentility of Mansfield Park and, not surprisingly, grows despondent.

Yet now on her own, but also having benefited from Edmund’s influence, Fanny grows up while confined to Portsmouth and her parents’ household. She makes a space upstairs for herself and her sister Susan to read and contemplate, and she helps create some order downstairs (e.g., the silver knife episode).

Finally, in discussing Portsmouth—as well as Fanny and Edmund—Toby highlighted one of the “evangelical” themes of Mansfield Park, pointing out the difference for evangelical advocates between the city (Portsmouth) and the village (Mansfield Park). In the novel, Edmund observes that the city dilutes the efficacy of the clergyman because his parishioners cannot observe his behavior. He believes strongly that a clergyman should lead by example and that he should know his people and his community, and this is best accomplished in an environment where a clergyman is in daily contact with his parishioners, i.e., in the country. Fanny, in Portsmouth, comes to imitate Edmund’s preferred clerical conduct by initiating a well-regulated home.

Toby noted that from an evangelical perspective, Fanny’s evolution in Portsmouth highlights the influence of women in the home by illustrating her sense of obligation and gratitude, her devotion to duty, and her help in the shaping of Susan’s character.

Toby’s presentation was not only informative about Portsmouth and the setting for the chapters about Portsmouth in Mansfield Park, but also about how much Fanny grew and matured during her sojourn in Portsmouth. You might say the plan that Fanny’s Uncle Thomas concocted to bring Fanny to her senses served its purpose, but not in the way he anticipated. Also, one can see why the novel is often called an evangelical novel, or a novel of morals.

The two presentations fit together, hand in glove; they certainly precipitated some stimulating conversation afterward. One member wrote in an e-mail, “I thought the talks were wonderful, and I so enjoyed the conversation after. [I am] looking forward to participating more.”

Another wrote, “This afternoon’s JASNA meeting was just wonderful. I learned so much. It really adds depth to the novel to have this background.”

As both Phyllis and Toby noted, one can find something new each time Mansfield Park is read.

It would have been interesting to see how Austen continued to evolve as a writer had she lived longer.

 

 

 

JASNA StL News & Notes – August 2014

 

JASNA StL founding member Phyllis Thorpe recently passed along two links of interest to readers of Jane Austen.

The first: a link to a July 6 “Charlie Rose” conversation with John McQuillen, the curator of the Morgan Library’s current “Marks of Genius” exhibit. The interviewer is guest host Jon Meacham, whose favorite author, it turns out, is Miss Austen. (If you want to skip the political talk, however interesting, that precedes the interview with Mr. McQuillen, scroll to near the end of the program.)

http://www.charlierose.com/watch/60414985

The second: an article in the current issue of the Atlantic, “The Economics of Jane Austen” by Shannon Chamberlain, who discusses the influence Adam Smith may have had on Jane Austen’s views on money and morality. Interesting, to say the least.

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/08/the-economics-of-jane-austen/375486

 

Notes from our New York Colleagues

In addition to Phyllis’ correspondence, our New York colleagues Linda Dennery and Meg Levin passed along the following recently:

For the last three months, Sarah Emsley’s blog has been offering guests the chance to discuss Mansfield Park, Jane Austen’s third novel, which was published in 1814 and is the theme of this year’s JASNA AGM. Authors include Elaine Bander, Cheryl Kinney, Juliet McMaster, Sarah Seltzer and Juliette Wells. Go here to read the latest one and scroll down the page for earlier posts, beginning May 9: sarahemsley.

If you’re not familiar with W.H. Auden’s poem in which he feigns shock at how Jane Austen could “Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety/The Economic basis of society,” you can find the poem and the views of other famous authors on the following page: here.

The Jane Austen Centre in Bath has unveiled a new waxwork figure of Jane Austen, based on contemporary descriptions and the sketch by her sister Cassandra. Go here to view a video of how it was made: Wax Jane.

 


 

Assessing Belle

 
(Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2014)
 

Last Thursday, May 8, several JANSA-StL members, ourselves included, attended a preview of the new costume drama Belle at Plaza Frontenac. Just released by Fox Searchlight Pictures, Belle, as you may know already, is set in Georgian England and is based on the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle (1769 – 1804), the illegitimate, biracial daughter of Admiral Sir john Lindsey (1737 – 1788), who was raised as part of the family of Lindsey’s uncle, William Murray (1705 – 1793), first earl of Mansfield and Britain’s “Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench” from 1756 – 1788.

British actress Gugo Mbatha-Raw (center) stars as Belle in the new movie of the same name. In the foreground is Canadian actress Sarah Gordon, who plays Bell’s half-cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray. Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

British actress Gugo Mbatha-Raw (center) stars as Belle in the new movie of the same name. In the foreground is Canadian actress Sarah Gordon, who plays Bell’s half-cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray. Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

As you might expect of a British costume drama, Belle is well done: good acting; sumptuous costumes and sets; attractive, multidimensional characters; and an engaging story that, incidentally, offers not a little food for thought as it reflects both on Dido’s complex, contradictory status in 18th-century society and in her adoptive family, and on Murray’s pivotal role in several important cases relating to slavery and the slave trade. (In the movie, readers of Austen will detect familiar allusions to the “governess trade” and the “marriage trade” as well … and they may wonder what influenced Austen to name her third published novel Mansfield Park.)

Elsewhere you can find more formal reviews of the movie and more in-depth reflections on its creation and the real-life characters it depicts. (The production notes for the movie run to 48 pages; so reviewers have an abundance of background material from which to choose in preparing their reviews.) We can only say that, for us, Belle offered two hours well spent.

A final observation: Stephanie Merry, in her favorable Washington Post review, noted that Belle gives fans of romantic period drama something to tide them over until the next Jane Austen adaptation. That’s true, of course, but Belle is a bit more than that, as we’ve noted: It stands on its own as a good movie and good entertainment. Enough said.

—Jim Heine & Rose Marie Nester

[cryout-button-color url=”http://www.jasna-stl.org/2014/05/30/at-google-director-amma-asante-talks-about-her-movie-belle/” color=”#47AFFF”]See Amma Asante talk about her movie Belle on Google.[/cryout-button-color]

 


 


Report on Mansfield Park Readings, presented March 29, 2014



On Saturday, March 29, 2014, St. Louis Region Janeites and guests from around the St. Louis area congregated at the Tavern of Fine Arts for lunch and readings of their favorite scenes from Mansfield Park.  As with our Pride and Prejudice event last year, The Tavern of Fine Arts offered a special cocktail for the occasion: “the Mansfield Park.”

James Heine, Rose Nester, Rhoda Richmond, Jennifer Darnell, Lynette McFarland, Miranda Miller, Andromeda Williams, and Shirley Bassett read selections from Mansfield Park.

Because Mansfield Park is one of the most controversial novels of Jane Austen, comments from her family and friends collected by Jane Austen were also read.  The readings themselves gave a glimpse into the world of Fanny Price, her cousins, visitors to the park, and her family in Portsmouth.

Some attendees brought their books and were willing to read a selection too, if time allowed.

Miranda Miller and Andromeda Williams attended in beautiful Regency costumes, adding greatly to their readings.  They also gave a description of how the costumes are made and the undergarments that are part of the costume.  It certainly gives one a new appreciation for what women wore during that time period, as compared to the freedom and ease of clothes today. It was later discovered their guest, Toya Huston, designed Andromeda’s costume.    

Everyone showed a great understanding of Mansfield Park with each of their readings.
Some comments:

“…a wonderful job of organizing the nice event today. I really enjoyed my first visit to the Tavern. My food was very good…  Service very nice… And, of course, the readings – I loved them, and I admire anyone who does public speaking. …the acoustics are good. The podium was charming.”



Jayme Blandford, a literature teacher from St. Charles Community College, was a first-time attendee and is excited to do more.  She is presenting a paper at the Popular Culture Association Conference in Chicago in April regarding the film Austenland.  The paper’s title is “Austenland: The Modern Janeite’s Fantasy Come to Film.”

    Many were interested in repeating this event for the 200th anniversary of the publication of Emma.

In preparation for the March meeting Sheila Hwang, a professor from Webster University, and Regional Coordinator Rose Nester were interviewed for the KDHX program “Literature for the Halibut,” which you can find at the following link:  http://kdhx.fm/archives/archive_gen.php?show=literatureforthehalibut .  The link will be available until April 7, 2014.

 

Austen lovers to celebrate 200th birthday of ‘Mansfield Park’

 

“The following appeared online at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (www.stltoday.com) on St. Patrick’s Day. Jane Henderson is the book editor for the Post-Dispatch and writes about books and publishing at her “Book Blog.”

 

Readers from the local chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America will gather March 29 at the Tavern of Fine Arts.

Last year the group had a good crowd for its celebration of “P&P.” But as member Jim Heine notes, Fanny Price is no Elizabeth Bennet:

“After being dazzled by the incandescent Elizabeth Bennet, encountering Fanny Price is something of a shock. Elizabeth is brilliant and witty; Fanny, reserved, reticent, occasionally fearful (with good reason), and even, at times, priggish. And as the nexus of the story, Mansfield Park itself is far different, for example, from Longbourn, Netherfield, Rosings, or Pemberley. You find no comic relief at Mansfield Park, as there is in the various homes of Pride and Prejudice—no Mrs. Bennet or Mr. Collins to laugh at, no Mary Bennet to amuse you, no incisive retorts to make you smile. Where Pride and Prejudice offers joy, Mansfield Park reminds the reader on almost every page that Fanny’s fate is held by people whose moral compasses are in doubt, and who seem bent on using Fanny to serve their selfish ends. It probably takes a second reading of Mansfield Park to appreciate Fanny’s character and plight, and to appreciate Austen’s construction of the novel.”

Toward the end of “Mansfield Park,” Fanny does receive some good news — which almost sends the meek one searching for a “cordial.” In honor of Fanny, the Tavern will create its own drink for the event.

In a press release, the JASNA chapter says

“JASNA members and friends will read favorite scenes from ‘Mansfield Park’, first published in London by Thomas Egerton on May 9, 1814, and offer insights on its themes and relevance for today. For more information, e-mail or call Rose Marie Nester, JASNA St. Louis regional coordinator, at 104voce@att.net or 314-752-3752. Lunch will be available after 11 a.m. and throughout the afternoon from the Tavern of Fine Arts menu. The event is free and open to the public.”

The event is from 1-3 p.m. March 29. The Tavern of Fine Arts is at 313 Belt Avenue.

 


Jane Henderson is book editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Follow her online at stltoday.com/books and on Twitter @stlbooks.

http://www.stltoday.com/entertainment/books-and-literature/book-blog/austen-lovers-to-celebrate-th-birthday-of-mansfield-park/article_a6249ac3-fab0-5013-ab27-49425ab2f93d.html