Thoughts on Megan Garber’s Essay–Colin Firth’s Shirt: Jane Austen and the Rise of the Female Gaze

Photo credit BBC/UK Telegraph

There have been a lot of Jane Austen articles and/or clickbait online this year–they have been so plentiful that I’ve been saving the links to re-read and digest them.  Usually I print them out and save them for the train ride commuting to or from work.  Megan Garber, wrote a very interesting essay back on July 17, 2017 via The Atlantic online. The complete title as noted above is — Colin Firth’s Shirt: Jane Austen and the Rise of the Female Gaze.

Ms. Garber starts off with the recent exhibit held at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC: “Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity.” Sadly I did not make it down to DC to see this exhibit, I did however enjoy many photos by writers, and Janeites who did travel there and posted the photos online.

One of the key items on display she describes was, “the shirt,” the tunic worn by actor Colin Firth in the BBC’s 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.  Ms. Garber contends, as many others that the scene where Mr. Darcy was a pivotal cinematic, soon to become iconic moment, “he dives in –clad in nothing, at this point, but his breeches and THE SHIRT.”  Correctly, Ms. Garber notes the displeasure of many Austen scholars and perhaps some more traditional Janeites, since that scene is no where in the book at all and that the film’s director Andrew Davies took a bit of liberty objectifying Darcy, “proud and prejudiced and Fabio-ed.”

Would like to pause here and say a couple of things.  First, Pride and Prejudice  was the first Austen I ever read, back in the early 1990’s as part of a classic novel course in college.  A young 20-something I was juggling a modern/popular novels class at the same time–which lead to the unfortunate timing of reading Gone with the Wind at the same time as Moby Dick — kid you not.

At the time, I liked Pride and Prejudice, but I sort of was bemused by the barriers drawn between economic class levels, the idea that everyone was worried about everyone’s honor, and of course marrying off the girls. In short, I missed a lot, in a word — whoosh.

Our classics teacher did show us a film version of Pride and Prejudice, the old Hollywood black and white version starring Greer Garson–who was a lovely Elizabeth Bennet, and Sir Laurence Olivier was a dark, brooding Mr. Darcy.  To be noted, the Hollywood version of this film did not follow Austen’s book very closely either, most notably inserting the archery scene. Also the ending was tweaked with Darcy’s aunt, Lady Catherine paying a faux visit to truth test Elizabeth’s intentions, and not to express her blustering outrage as in the book.  Most of all, the gowns are not period appropriate, it’s like someone raided an old Civil War stockroom on a studio back lot, and then decided to call it a day.

My mum still loves this version, and Olivier’s portray of Darcy is her favorite.  Generational speaking, I’m more partial to the 1995 version which yes did spur me to re-read Pride and Prejudice, which was the beginning of my becoming a Janeite.  The scene that most impresses me is when Darcy visit’s Elizabeth at the Collin’s parsonage cottage, and is sort of trying to find out how she would feel about living so far away from her parents at Longbourne.  This scene was in the book where they discuss travel distances and “good road,” and I think Mr. Firth, did a really excellent, subtle job of Darcy’s sort of trying to find out how she felt, in of course in his planning to propose to her. Lizzie of course has no real idea what he is fishing for here–she’s is freaked out and put out by his surprise visit.

On going back to the essay, Ms. Garber makes an interesting point that the pond dive sort of humanizes, if not objectifies Mr. Darcy into a characterization beyond a stereotype–of a wealthy man, “both something simpler and more radical: a sex object.”  Agreed, it’s interesting and certainly an ongoing debate among Janeites — the idea of a favorite Austen hero, romantic lead is often divided, and again I think generationally.  Although these days, I tend to agree with the younger Janeites and vote for team Captain Wentworth.

Darcy though I would say is the origin of the bad boy with the heart of gold–again really an iconic character in literature, film and even sadly in real life.  Sometimes you people who are obsessed with the “bad boys” or “bad girls,” and I think they are sort of mistaken in their reality–that this person is misunderstood in some way– they will not accept that is not going to turn around into someone they can love forever.  And I’m not citing Austen here, because I don’t think the majority of these people have even read Austen–although I do think it remains a strong and much large part of inter-relational culture.

If I had to give a current pop culture example I would cite, MTV’s Catfish the TV Show, which although it has been scripted and edited, revisits the same theme again and again, as people falling for the perfect persona online–the illusion–but they cannot one hundred percent connect with this person–even the evasive and/or bad behavior does not seem to dissuade them.  The people featured on this show/or who participate–seem to almost know they will be disappointed and deceived but seem to need some sort of closure to the deception that they participated in, sometimes sadly for years–in the hopes this person would turn around and there would be some sort of a resolution of being together.

Austen often deals with the idea of illusion in Pride and Prejudice, the idea of giving a poor first impression is significant, from Mr. Darcy’s rude dismissal of Elizabeth, to Mrs. Bennet’s gossiping tenacity, and Mr. Collin’s braying condescension–these characters are imprinted on the reader’s experience and we see though–Austen’s intentions behind some of their motivations later with Darcy trying to explain to Lizzie that he has issues talking with strangers (social anxiety), and ties back in somewhat the reality of Mrs. Bennet’s ongoing quest to marry of her daughters bringing her almost to a nervous collapse.  Mr. Collins, not so much–I think Austen was just having fun with the obnoxious parson persona–and I think also sometimes Austen used her own mother’s ailments to inspire Mrs. Bennet’s nerves.

Garber’s article continues on, tackling Austen’s other characters, including Willoughby and Mr. Collins, “Austen had her own Willoughby, it seems — Thomas Lefroy, an Irish political, whose family disapproved of the match–and also perhaps, her own Collins: Harris Bigg-Wither, a man of wealth and education whose proposal of marriage she accepted in December of 1802 and then, the next day refused.)  To note, I’m not really in hundred percent agreement with either of Ms. Garber’s theories here.  Lefroy is long thought to the be the model for Mr. Darcy.  To say, he’s the model for Willoughby is interesting, but I think Austen pulled the model for both Wickham and Willoughby more from the general fear and/or experience of the times.  To my knowledge, Lefroy never had any kind of a scandal of  running off with a girl and then abandoning her.  As for Mr. Bigg-Withers, the Austen’s remained connected to the family, and while he was certainly solvent, I think there are many theories about why Austen refused, most of all through her letters to younger nieces and the importance of marrying for love.  Which Garber points out, was a new-fangled concept in those days. Here is a link to the article, and it is worth a read:  https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/07/who-gaze-on-the-men-in-jane-austen/533415/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Letter to Cassandra Sunday, November 1798

One of many letters sent by Austen from Steventon to her older Sister Cassandra at their brother’s Godmersham Park estate — per the notes another letter missing in between in Austen’s correspondence.  Austen starts off with a bit of wicked wit, apparently the sisters were exchanging news between Godemersham and Steventon: “I shall not take the trouble of announcing to you any more of Mary’s children, if, instead of thanking me for the intelligence, you always sit down and write to James.  I am sure nobody can desire your letters so much as I do, and I don’t think anybody deserves them so well.  Having now relieved my heart of a great deal of malevolence, I will proceed to tell you that Mary continues quite well, and my mother tolerably so.”

Austen continues on with family news including an update on their brother Henry and his commission as well as news of extended family, neighbors, her report on a very small ball, Nanny (Mrs.) Hilliard, and the Littleworths — per the notes the Littleworths were often employed as servants by the Austens at Steventon.

Gives her sister also a shopping update about items purchased from a traveling pedaler  including Irish linen, detailing amounts and quality.  She then updates her sister on their father’s reading purchase, “We have got ‘Fitz-Albini’; my father bought it against my private wishes, for it does not satisfy my feelings that we should purchase the only one of Egerton’s work of which his family are ashamed.  That these scruples, however, do not at all interfere with my reading it, you will easily believe. We have neither of us yet finished the first volume.  My father is disappointed — I am not, for I expected nothing better.”

Continues on with the literary review for her sister: “There is very little story, and what there is told in a strange, unconnected way.  There are many characters introduced, apparently merely to be delineated.”

Austen then skips over to news about Mr. Austen selling sheep and requesting some of their brother Edward’s pigs before returning to literature and books incorporating mention of a favorite poet.  “We have got Boswell’s ‘Tour to the Hebrides’, and are to have the ‘Life of Johnson’; and, as some money will yet remain in Burdon’s hands, it is to be laid out in the purchase of Cowper’s works.”  Per the notes, Burdon is probably a reference to a book seller.

The letter concludes with Austen updating her sister on her efforts at correspondence which as seemed to exhaust her although she sends a whimsical message to her nephew Edward, “so that altogether I am tolerably tired of letter-writing, and, unless I have anything new to tell you or my mother or Mary, I shall not write again for many days; perhaps a little repose may restore my regard for a pen.  Ask little Edward whether Bob Brown wears a great coat this cold weather.”

All notes/cites to Jane Austen’s Letters, collected and edited by Deirdre LeFaye, Fourth edition, Oxford University Press, 2011.

 

 

 

 

 

Letter to Cassandra Sat. 17-Sunday 18 November 1798 — an update on Tom Lefroy.

Per the notes there is a letter missing here between–Saturday October 27th and Sunday the 28th and this letter — the notes also state the manuscript of this particular letter — is untraced since its first publication, possibly sold via auction/sale in 1893.

In the back and forth with writing to her older sister Cassandra who is at Godmersham in Kent, Jane Austen seems to be filling her in and updating her on their mother’s health issues at home in Steventon, “my mother has had no relapse, and Miss Debary comes.”   Again the notes clarify, Miss Debary is to help manage the parsonage while Mary Lloyd was giving birth/having her baby.

Austen next delves into Mrs. Austen’s recent improvements, “She was able to sit up nearly eight hours yesterday and to-day I hope we shall do as much.”  The notes/commentary here state here there were edits or redactions made by Cassandra and later by Lord Bradbourne who inherited it, and likely sold this letter by auction. It is unknown why — I’m presuming perhaps it was a bit of wicked wit regarding her mother’s care-taking that Cassandra censored because Austen wrapped it up with, “So much for my patient — now for myself.”   There is no way to know though.

Austen then relays news about a recent visit from Mrs. Lefroy and an update on Tom Lefroy — often thought to be the inspiration for Mr. Darcy or perhaps some of her other main male characters or love interests.  Apparently Austen was hitting a bit of a wall with his aunt, but Mr. Austen got the update after all,  “She did not once mention the name of the former to me, and I was too proud to make any enquiries; but on my father’s afterwards asking where he was I learnt that he was gone back to London in his way to Ireland, where he is called to the Bar and means to practise.”  (Underline annotation and spelling are Austen’s own.)

Jane Austen’s interest is prevalent as she continues to tell Cassandra quoting via third party a recent letter Lefroy sent to his aunt about the Austen family, “‘I am very sorry to hear of Mrs. Austen’s illness.  It would give me particular pleasure to have an opportunity of improving my acquaintance with that family — with a hope of creating to myself a nearer interest.  But at present I cannot indulge any expectation of it.'”

Austen seems very particular to be “quoting” Tom’s letter to his aunt — although it’s really uncertain if his aunt, Mrs. Lefroy was really being honest about what Tom wrote or not.

The meaning here via Austen’s own interpretation seems to be he liked the family, but could not visit again and did not want to say he was going to try again–or for all purposes he did not want to get anyone’s hopes up, etc.

Apparently, Jane Austen took Mrs. Lefroy mostly at her word, and writing to Cassandra to confirm, “This is rational enough; there is less love and more sense it it than sometimes appeared before, and I am very well satisfied.”

Perhaps Austen was recounting a sort of release to her older sister, in confirming that Tom would not return so she was certain whatever small time frame of a relationship they had together was certainly now over. “It will all go exceedingly well, and decline away in a very reasonable manner.”

And I’m sort of moved by Austen’s use of the words “decline away.”  I’m presuming she is talking about their attraction and feelings that developed only to lapse with the reality of their living situations and perhaps feeling that she held stronger feelings for him,  “There seems no likelihood of his coming into Hampshire this Christmas, and it is therefore most probable that our indifference will soon be mutual, unless his regard, which appeared to spring from knowing nothing of me at first, is best supported by never seeing me.”

Austen here seems to be accepting of a couple of things: 1) that perhaps she misread Tom Lefroy’s feelings for her as not being as strong as her feelings for him, or 2) he indeed had feelings for her that were soon dismissed or discarded when he learned of her background and he is not going to visit or tempt himself with a visit to see her.

Continues to tell Cassandra, that his aunt didn’t really help soothe her feelings on the subject, “Mrs. Lefroy made no remarks on the letter, nor indeed say anything about him as relative to me.  Perhaps she thinks she has said too much already.”

Austen here is playing it over and over a bit in her mind — perhaps missing her older sister terribly in trying to maybe talk out her feelings or misgivings about them via this letter.  The rest of Mrs. Leroy’s visit relays nephews and notes about family and mutual friends, before changing the subject.

Seems like Austen is being a little bit cheeky here to her sister, “My mother desires me to tell you that I am a very good housekeeper, which I have no reluctance in doing, because I really think it my peculiar excellence, and for this reason — I always take care to provide such things as please my own appetite, which I consider as the chief merit in housekeeping.”

Jane Austen continues the letter with household news, butchering, upcoming balls, the purchase of a post-chaise carriage, and also she is liberally sarcastic regarding news around Mary Lloyd’s preparing for child-birth, her health, nursing and other issues.  There is an edge here in the domestic litany with an undertone  of wit — again I think an understanding of relationship and private sayings between sisters.

Austen continues asking about their nephew George, and despite all the local and household news including the birth of a new nephew James-Edward Austen — mainly think this letter was really giving Cassandra the news about Tom Lefroy and her confirmation that she is never to see him again.

Once again back to the notes, the letter that follows this one is also possibly missing. Overall Austen’s feelings or misgivings about Tom seem to weigh heavily on her.

All notes to: Jane Austen’s Letters, Fourth Edition, Collected and Edited by Deirde LeFaye, Oxford University Press, 2011.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Letter to Cassandra Sat. 27-Sun. 28 October 1798

In this letter over a weekend, Jane Austen writes from her home at Steventon to her older sister Cassandra at Godmersham Park in Kent.  Apparently, Cassandra remained to help their sister in law with the birth of a new baby (William).

Begins by thanking Cassandra for her recent correspondence, “Your letter was a most agreeable surprize to me to day, & I have taken a long sheet of paper to show my Gratitude.”

Austen recounts the journey home to Steventon, which mostly catches Cassandra up on the health and ailments of their mother Mrs. Austen and the various remedies proscribed for these maladies, which included Laudanum and Dandelion Tea.  “We met with no adventures at all in our Journey yesterday, except that our Trunk had once nearly slipped off, & we were obliged to stop at Hartley to have our wheels greazed.”

Once home Austen details domestic tasks, “I went to Mrs. Ryders & bought what I intended to buy, but not in much perfection. — There were no narrow Braces for Children & scarcely any netting silk; but Miss Wood as usual is going to Town very soon, & will lay in a fresh stock.”

And sends her sister a dose of her wicked wit, “I bought some Japan ink likewise, & next week I shall begin my operations on my hat, on which You know my principal hopes of happiness depend. — I am very grand indeed.”

With Cassandra away at her brother’s Godmersham estate and her mother ill, Austen was pretty much running the Steventon household, “I carry about the keys of the Wine & Closet; & twice since I began this letter, have had orders to give in the Kitchen: Our dinner was very good yesterday, & the Chicken boiled perfectly tender; therefore I shall not be obliged to dismiss Nanny on that account.”  Per the notes, “Nanny” is probably a servant Mrs. Hilliard (Anne Knight),  It’s confusing there are a lot of Knights to keep track of in both the family and the neighborhood.

“Almost everything was unpacked & put away last night; — Nanny chose to do it, & I was not sorry to be busy,  — I have unpacked the Gloves & placed yours in your drawer. — Their colour is light & pretty, & I believe exactly what we fixed on.”

Proceeds to catch Cassandra up on neighborhood gossip, comings and goings, including another dose of her wicked wit, that I think was particularly intended only for Cassandra to read — before recounting the poor conditions of the roads traveling back from Kent.

Austen then comments on what seems to have been Dordy (little George) her nephew’s tidings sent via her older sister’s latest correspondence, “My dear itty Dordy’s remembrance of me is very pleasing to me; foolishly pleasing; because I know it will be over so soon.”

Next is an account of unpacking recent literary additions, “The Books from Winton are all unpacked & put away; — the Binding has compressed them most conveniently, & there is now very good room in the Bookcase for all that we wish to have there.”  The notes, did not provide any information on Winton’s per an internet search they seem to still be online shop based in England for rare and vintage books and previously were independent bookstores but the physical retail stores have now closed.  I’m not sure these bookstores go back to Jane Austen’s time, and only did a very quick online search.

And Austen then adds a commentary on her handwriting, “I am quite angry at myself for not writing closer; why is my alphabet so much more sprawling.”  This digression ends with a return to family and local news, including a visit from James Digweed, “I gave him his brother’s deputation.”  These were the papers allowing him as a tenant to go shooting at Steventon alluded to previously.

Austen includes further updates on Mrs. Bennett’s health and progress healing, “My Mother has not been down at all today; the Laudanum made her sleep a good deal, & upon the whole I think she is better; — I shall be able to be more positive on this subject I hope tomorrow.  My father & I dined by ourselves — How strange!”

Austen closes sending kisses to her brother Edward, favorite nice Fanny, little George (Dordy), and leaves off saying, “Tis really very kind in my Aunt to ask us to Bath again; a kindness that deserves a better return that to profit by it.”  Per the notes, the Aunt most likely is Mrs. Leigh-Perrot — although I find it unclear if this is wife of Mrs. Austen’s brother James. Regardless this woman was extending another invitation to visit and stay in Bath which Austen found very kind and generous.

All spellings and grammar in quotes are by Austen, retyped directly. Per the notes, this letter was sold in 1999 via auction to a private collector for 32,000 British pounds.

All notes from, Jane Austen’s Letters, Fourth Edition, Collected and Edited by Deirdre LeFaye, Oxford University Press, 2011.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Letter to Cassandra — 24 October 1798

Here, Jane Austen is quite literally: “on the road again”  traveling with her parents home.

This letter was written from the Bull and George, “a coaching inn,” that was located in Dartford, Kent.  Per the notes, Dartford was originally a market town with manufacturing 19 miles southeast of London, and “the first post-town on the Dover road; now nearly part of Greater London.”

Jane Austen is reporting news, details and mishaps to her older sister Cassandra, as they traveled through Kent, starting with: “You have already heard from Daniel, I conclude, in what excellent time we reached and quitted Sittingbourne, and how very well my mother bore her journey thither.”

Two observations here: 1) the Austens had left and were returning home but Cassandra apparently stayed behind for a longer visit, and 2) Daniel via the notes, was very likely a coachman from Godmersham estate owned by Austen’s brother Edward Austen Knight (EAK),  and apparently Daniel worked for EAK for quite some time — per the notes: “possibly the Daniel Boys who was buried at Godmersham on 22 December 1835 aged 73.”

Again via the notes, — Sittingbourne is a “country town” in Kent, 46 miles southeast of London, and 16 miles from the Godmersham estate.

Mrs. Austen seems to wax and wane in her traveling and health complaints, as Austen notes about their mother: “I am now able to send you a continuation of the same good account of her.  She was very little fatigued on her arrival at this place, has been refreshed by a comfortable dinner, and now seems quite stout.”

Per previously reading the notes to these letters, and paraphrasing other Regency era references — during this time period, the word “stout” was used to convey “healthy” or “being of good general health and nourishment.”

Their visit at the country town of Sittingbourne was short: “It wanted five minutes of twelve when we left Sittingbourne, from whence we had a famous pair of horses, which took us to Rochester in an hour and a quarter; the postboy seemed determined to show my mother that Kentish drivers were not always tedious and really drove as fast as Cax.

Per the notes, Cax is probably a misprint or a misreading of Cox or Cook’s which was a coach company — running a route from Salisbury to London and back. Another example of Austen’s wicked wit here — basically writing to Cassandra about how they had a crazy-fast driver, in comparing him to the London route drivers — which I guess had a reputation for speed at the expense of safety — in any case, Cassandra I presume would have gotten the reference and or joke.

Austen’s letter then gives another update on Mrs. Austen’s well being:  “My mother took some of her bitters at Ospringe, and some more at Rochester, and she ate some bread several times.”

Apparently there were several inns located in Dartford, Kent, during the time Jane Austen visited during her travels, “but the best was the Bull (later called the Royal Victoria and Bull), opposite was a smaller establishment, the Bull and George.”

Austen then details their quarters at the Bull and George, which again was the smaller inn, located in Dartford, which she noted, resulted in some compromise, “We have got apartments up two pairs of stairs, as we could not otherwise be accommodated with a sitting-room and bed chambers on the same floor, which we wished to be.”

And then kind of a major crisis:  “I should have begun my letter soon after our arrival but for a little adventure which prevented me.  After we had been here a quarter of an hour it was discovered that my writing and dressing boxes had been by accident put into a chaise which was just packing off as we came in, and were driven away towards Gravesend in their way to the West Indies.  No part of my property could have been such a prize before, for in my writing-box was all my worldly wealth, 7l, and my dear Harry’s deputation.”  (The underline is Austen’s own notation.)

Okay so her writing box was put on the wrong coach en route to the West Indies no less.  Austen seems to be upset more about the money kept in the box, and EAK apparently had issued a letter to allow their neighbor Harry Digweed back home — giving Henry the right to shoot on the Steventon estate — so Austen was acting as a courier and transporting this official letter.

Although I think the worldly or historical impact would have been the loss of her literary work in the writing-box.  Austen seems more matter of fact — fixated on the loss of the money.  Luckily, Mr. George Nottley (via the notes could have been Knottley), the landlord of the George & Bull inn in Dartford stepped in, “immediately despatched a man and horse after the chase, and in half an hour’s time I had the pleasure of being rich as ever; they were only got about two or three miles off.”  Phew crisis avoided.  (The spelling ‘despatched’ is Austen’s own.)

Austen continues noting the journey has been pretty pleasant and goes into accounts and exchanges about the weather, and a little account about their dad via a little book and reading update, “My father is now reading the ‘Midnight Bell,’ which he has got from the library, and my mother is siting by the fire.”  The notes describe this book as: The Midnight Bell, a German  Story, Founded on Incidents in Real Life, by Francis Lathom (1798), with a reference to Austen’s Northanger Abbey, chapter six (6).  So another connection from Austin’s letter to a novel she wrote. It’s unclear though which library Austen is referring to here in this letter — thinking possibly it was from the library at Godmersham or from a lending library back at home — although I think the former is more likely as they were leaving EAK’s estate and traveling back to Steventon.

Austen closes this letter with the uncertainty of their scheduling and route home, and noting the strong opinions of the inn’s landlord which differ from the Austens, “Our route to-morrow is not determined.  We have none of us much inclination for London, and if Mr. Nottley will give us leave, I think we shall go to Staines through Croydon and Kingston, which will be much pleasanter than any other way; but he is decidedly for Clapham and Battersea.”  (The spelling ‘to-morrow is Austen’s own.)

The very last line: “God bless you all!”  And then she adds a postscript, referencing the nickname of EAK’s second son George, “I flatter myself that itty Dordy will not forget me at least under a week.  Kiss him for me.”  (The underline is Austen’s own.) Think this is a reference to why Cassandra remained, most likely to help with EAK’s children.

Addendum here per the notes, in this collection of Austen’s letters: “Letter missing here, dated Thursday 25 October 1798.”  Which denotes a missing letter in chronological order, etc.

All notes unless otherwise noted are to: Jane Austen’s Letters, Fourth Edition, Collected and Edited by Deirdre Le Fay, Oxford University Press 2011.