Tag Archives: sense and sensibility

Pretty British Literature Handouts

Partly because I am trying to show off the pretty handouts I have created using Apple iWorks’s Pages, and partly because I wanted to try out Issuu, here is a collection of handouts for British literature.

What a pretty way to share handouts!

Accessing Austen Part 4: Old Maids and Entailments

Mr. Bingley, Jane, Mr. Darcy, and Elizabeth at their double-wedding ceremony in <em>Pride and Prejudice</em>
Mr. Bingley, Jane, Mr. Darcy, and Elizabeth at their double-wedding ceremony in Pride and Prejudice

When students read Pride and Prejudice, they often have difficulty understanding why Mr. Collins will inherit Mr. Bennet’s estate when he has five daughters who might inherit.  They also wonder why Elizabeth would be encouraged to marry her cousin, Mr. Collins.  That’s just … ew … right?  The answer to both of these mysteries is, essentially, money.

Austen writes of a very real problem for women in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s.  Their only prospects for support were the families of their birth, if they remained single, or their husbands.  Women had little opportunity to support themselves, as so many occupations were closed to them; therefore, it was very important for women to marry well.  In Austen’s era, the eldest son inherited property through a system known as entailment, which not only prevented the property from being broken up, but also prevented fathers from disinheriting their eldest sons or passing their property on to their daughters.  If property is passed through entailment, readers might wonder why Mr. Collins has a different last name from Mr. Bennet.  This circumstance may be due to the fact that Mr. Collins (or an ancestor) changed his name because he was designated an heir of another relation.  In Emma, Frank is known by the last name Churchill (rather than Weston) upon being adopted by his aunt.  He is designated the heir of his aunt and uncle.  Jane Austen’s brother Edward changed his name from Austen to Knight when he was named heir of a cousin named “Knight,” and later on her nephew, James Austen, became known as James Austen-Leigh under similar circumstances.  Take a look at this explanation of the Collins entailment for more information.

Mr. Collins would be an attractive husband for his daughters in Mr. Bennet’s eyes because his estate would still pass on to one of his own children, after a fashion, if Mr. Collins became his son-in-law.  At this time, it was not unheard of for women to marry second or even first cousins.  In fact, if most of us trace our family trees back to the 1700’s, it is more likely than not that we will find ancestors who married their cousins.  It was a really good way of keeping property in the family, and at that time the relations were considered distant enough.  Lady Catherine de Bourgh famously insulted Elizabeth because she had plans for her own daughter, Anne, who is Mr. Darcy’s first cousin, to marry Mr. Darcy.  Perhaps our modern sensibilities challenge the notion that marriage between cousins is acceptable, but we also aren’t faced with the same lack of eligible and proper spouses that Austen’s characters often were.  At any rate, Mr. Collins is described as a distant relative, and his exact connection to Mr. Bennet is not clear.

Entailments were one reason why it was so important for women to marry.  Jane Austen’s own family included one sister and six brothers.  The two sisters (Jane and Cassandra) never married, and they had to rely on their parents and later their brothers for support.  Of course, Jane earned some money after her novels were published, but not only would it not have been proper for her to set up a house for herself, but it also would not probably have been possible.  The precarious situation of women who didn’t marry is probably best described in Emma in reference to Miss Bates, whom Emma insults at a picnic on Box Hill.  Emma’s insult prompts Mr. Knightley to remind Emma of Miss Bates’ situation:

“Emma, I must once more speak to you as I have been used to do: a privilege rather endured than allowed, perhaps, but I must still use it.  I cannot see you acting wrong, without a remonstrance. How could you be so unfeeling to Miss Bates?  How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age, and situation?– Emma, I had not thought it possible.”

Mr. Knightley continues later in the conversation:

“I acknowledge; and, were she prosperous, I could allow much for the occasional prevalence of the ridiculous over the good.  Were she a woman of fortune, I would leave every harmless absurdity to take its chance, I would not quarrel with you for any liberties of manner.  Were she your equal in situation– but, Emma, consider how far this is from being the case.  She is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and, if she live to old age, must probably sink more.  Her situation should secure your compassion.  It was badly done, indeed!”

In Persuasion, Anne Elliot finds herself in an unpleasant situation because she is unmarried.  When the Elliot family removes to Bath, Anne is compelled to move as well — despite the fact that Bath is her last choice —  because though she is 27, she is unmarried and depends upon her family for support.  What’s more, at 27 and 29 respectively, Anne and her sister Elizabeth’s prospects for finding a husband are looking fairly dismal.  Contrary to popular belief, women didn’t necessarily marry at 15 or 16, but they did tend to marry in their early 20’s (anthropologically speaking, this is sound, as women are most fertile at that age).

Wealthier families could often afford to give their daughters money when they married; thus, it was preferable for men, too, to find a wealthy wife who would bring money into the marriage.  In Northanger Abbey, both John and Isabella Thorpe become disenchanted with Catherine and James Morland once they find out marrying into the Morland family won’t bring them the money they were hoping for after seeing the Allens’ wealth and leaping to conclusions.  Later, General Tilney throws Catherine out on her ear when he discovers she doesn’t have what he considers enough money to marry his son Henry.  Lack of money to bring to a marriage is what makes the Bennet girls and the Dashwood girls in Sense and Sensibility fearful of their prospects of making a good marriage.

In presenting these concerns about marriage and money, Austen was painting an accurate picture of a woman’s place in her time.  I think it is a very good thing that our students have difficulty understanding why making a good marriage (by that, I mean marrying a wealthy man or woman) was so important in Austen’s novels.  It means that times have changed, and now it is much easier for a us to marry for love or even not to marry, for, in Jane Austen’s own words (in a letter to her niece Fanny Knight), “nothing can be compared to the misery of being bound without love.”

This post is the fourth in a series on teaching Jane Austen’s novels.

Accessing Austen Part 3: Manners, Manners

In reading Jane Austen, one of the things I think students might find most foreign is the very different sense of propriety.  Manners and customs were quite different from our own time as evidenced in her novels.

The first thing students might notice is that her characters tend to refer to each other as Mr. Darcy or Miss Dashwood rather than Fitzwilliam or Elinor.  Students tend to think this formality is cold and detached; however, at that time, it would have been considered inappropriate to address most people by their first names.  Exceptions could be made for married couples, siblings, and friends of the same gender.  For example, in Northanger Abbey, Catherine becomes close enough to both Isabella Thorpe and Eleanor Tilney to eventually address them by their first names, but when she first becomes acquainted with both, she refers to them as Miss Thorpe and Miss Tilney respectively.  After Mr. Knightly has asked Emma to marry him, the following amusing exchange takes place:

“‘Mr. Knightley.’–You always called me, ‘Mr. Knightley;’ and, from habit, it has not so very formal a sound.–And yet it is formal. I want you to call me something else, but I do not know what.”

“I remember once calling you ‘George,’ in one of my amiable fits, about ten years ago.  I did it because I thought it would offend you; but, as you made no objection, I never did it again.”

“And cannot you call me ‘George’ now?”

“Impossible!–I never can call you any thing but ‘Mr. Knightley.’ I will not promise even to equal the elegant terseness of Mrs. Elton, by calling you Mr. K.–But I will promise,” she added presently, laughing and blushing–“I will promise to call you once by your Christian name.  I do not say when, but perhaps you may guess where;–in the building in which N. takes M. for better, for worse.”

Emma is clearly joking with Mr. Knightley, but there is something to her assertion that she thought calling him by his first name would be offensive.  Indeed, some married couples continued to refer to each other as Mr. __ and Mrs. __.  Indeed, in the opening of Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Bennet refers to her husband as “My dear Mr. Bennet.”

In addition to this rule for address, rules for visiting were also fairly conservative in the eyes of modern readers.  Early in Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Bennet expresses a desire to visit Mr. Bingley, but she says to her husband, “Indeed you must go, for it will be impossible for us to visit him if you do not.”  As Mr. Bingley is a man, it would be improper for him to become acquainted with the Bennet ladies without Mr. Bennet.  Indeed, it was considered highly improper for unmarried men and women to be alone together without a chaperon, which is a rule her characters are known to fretfully break on occasion.  For instance, Catherine Morland is talked into going to Blaize Castle by Mr. Thorpe on the grounds that if she does not go, his sister Isabella will be the only woman on the trip, and think how that would look!  Catherine later frets about the appearance of riding alone with Mr. Thorpe, and even her chaperon in Bath, Mrs. Allen, frets that she should not have allowed Catherine to go.  Indeed, Marianne Dashwood visits Combe Magna — unchaperoned — with Mr. Willoughby.  Let’s not even get started on Mr. Wickham and Lydia!  However, I contend that Austen usually punishes her characters who deviate too far from social norms.  Marianne loses Mr. Willoughby to a woman who has more money, and Lydia winds up with a nasty jerk of a husband who only marries her because Mr. Darcy — Mr. Darcy! — gives him money to pay off his debts if he marries her.  Of course, Marianne winds up with an arguably better man in Col. Brandon, but poor Lydia is most likely doomed to an unhappy marriage and a whisper of scandal hanging about her for the rest of her life.

Country dances provided an opportunity for couples to meet and mingle.  If you’ve read Gone With the Wind, you may recall that Scarlett’s youngest sister, Careen, begs her parents to be allowed to go to the ball that evening after the Wilkes’ barbecue; however, because she is not yet “out” in society, she cannot go to a ball.  Presumably, girls would “come out” at marriageable age, which was perhaps a bit younger for Scarlett and her sisters than it usually was in Austen’s time.  After a girl’s “coming out,” she could go to balls and dances.  It was considered rude to decline a gentleman’s offer to dance and then agree to dance with another gentleman, and likewise, a young woman had to be careful how many times she danced with a particular gentleman or tongues would wag.  Isabella intimates that she has danced with James Morland too many times, and thus they will be gossiped about in Bath (yet she dances with him again anyway) in Northanger Abbey.

If it became known that an unmarried man and woman corresponded with each other, others would assume they were engaged.  Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax in Emma keep their correspondence very quiet.  The only hint that Jane might be corresponding with someone comes when Mrs. Elton chides her for going to the post office in the rain.  When Elinor Dashwood finds out that Lucy Steele and Edward Ferrars are writing each other, she is sure they are engaged (which they are), and when she wonders whether or not Marianne and Mr. Willoughby are engaged, she looks for correspondence to confirm her suspicions.  Of course, it’s interesting when characters break this rule of etiquette.  Who could forget the scene in which Captain Wentworth writes his letter to Anne to set the record straight after overhearing her (Persuasion) or Mr. Darcy’s hand-delivered letter to Elizabeth?  In both cases, the gentleman was discreet about delivering the letter lest gossip ensue (and each feeling fairly certain their affection was unreturned).

Propriety was a large concern in Austen’s novels.  Characters strove to appear to be doing the correct and/or acceptable thing in society.  Those characters who didn’t — such as Marianne or Lydia — were frowned upon by others in society.  While today’s teenagers might relate to Marianne and see Elinor as detached or cold, one could argue that Elinor’s strength is that she always maintains proper decorum even in the face of being hurt by doing so; therefore, in the end, Ms. Austen rewards her heroine with the true love she thought she had lost.  Indeed, most of her characters who act with propriety come out all right in the end.

In composing this post, Notes on Random Topics from Pride and Prejudice from the Republic of Pemberley was very helpful, as was David M. Shapard’s The Annotated Pride and Prejudice.

This post is the third in a series on teaching Jane Austen’s novels.

Accessing Austen: How Rich Was Mr. Darcy?

Quite apart from reading and appreciating Jane Austen’s language, it has been my experience that students have difficulty understanding her world. For example, is Mr. Darcy really rich? After all, £10,000 doesn’t sound like a lot of money. What’s a pelisse anyway? What’s with all the letter writing? What’s up with all the tea? Of course, these questions probably barely scratch the surface, but you get the idea.  In this new series, utilizing Jane Austen blogs and Web sites, I intend to attempt to gather resources that will help high school students access Jane Austen’s world.

Money (and its lack) is referenced often in Jane Austen’s work. In fact, the first line of Pride and Prejudice, references money: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Indeed, two single men of good fortunes appear in this novel — Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley. Mrs. Bennet, excited at the prospect of one of her daughters snagging Mr. Bingley, says, “A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls!” [I love Mr. Bennet’s reply, but as it doesn’t touch on my point, I shall restrain myself from expounding upon it.] Exactly how much is that? To modern sensibilities, that doesn’t sound like much of a fortune. The wonderful blog Jane Austen’s World has a post, “Pride and Prejudice Economics: Or Why a Single Man with a Fortune of £4,000 Pounds Per Year is a Desirable Husband,” which describes several monetary references in Austen’s novels and letters in modern terms. Mr. Bingley’s £4,000 a year would be £135,840 in modern terms. If your students are American, they’re most likely still in the dark. Currency converters abound all over the Internet, but my handy converter on my iGoogle home page says that this sum is currently equal to $265,841.29. Not too shabby. Not insanely rich, but certainly extremely comfortable and wanting for nothing. So what about Mr. Darcy’s £10,000 a year? Roughly £339,600, or $664,603.21. Well over half a million a year certainly puts Mr. Darcy in the upper echelons of society, not to mention this sum is only 4% interest on his entire “vast fortune.” And the poor Dashwoods, who had to get by on only £500? Well, they’re certainly not well off by anyone’s measure, but they (sadly) pull in about the same amount as a teacher’s starting salary in many areas of the country — about £16,980, or $33,230.16. Jane Austen’s World also has an interesting discussion of Marianne Dashwood’s assertion that £1,800 to 2,000 is a “moderate” income.

This post is the first in a series on teaching Jane Austen’s novels.