“We Must Bring Her Forward”

“Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.” ― Thomas Gray


Today we take a short excursion of thought whereby Gray’s Elegy, Mrs. Elton, and my roses will be connected for the briefest of time.

You see, I can now say ‘my roses’. They are my cherry on the top of what has been a long —and long hoped for—move.

(The WordPress photo challenges are always fun to try and incorporate into a literary theme. This week’s challenge relates to ‘the cherry on the top’ motif; in other words, some extra nicety that makes a good thing even better.)


The 1959 home we just moved into came with a garden that someone…years ago…once tenderly cared for. Sweet old shrubs and cherry trees; a plethora of apples and dreams of apple pie. This house would have been wonder enough. But the cherry on the top? Two little bedraggled rose bushes. In the words of the beloved garden writer Louise Beebe Wilder, my ‘thoughts are alight’ with them, my heart aglow with a surge of motherly feelings toward my new charges. They shall be given a bath, some nourishment, and a nice pruning. (I will also be adding to their ranks!)

These roses, blooming alone and lovely on neglected bushes for who knows how many years, brought to my mind the well known verse of Thomas Gray, quoted above from Elegy In A Country Churchyard.

Thomas Gray

One thing leads to another. As I can never think of those lines without thinking of Jane Austen’s character Mrs. Elton, there is another, even more subtle ‘cherry on top’ with this post.

We have, in large part, the memorable Mrs. Elton to thank for bringing Thomas Gray’s poetry into modern circulation.

In her novel Emma, Jane Austen created a small masterpiece within a masterpiece in this characterization. Every time Augusta Elton opens her mouth, she relates far more about herself than she intends.

‘Miss Woodhouse, we must exert ourselves and endeavour to do something for her. We must bring her forward. Such talent as hers must not be suffered to remain unknown.—I dare say you have heard those charming lines of the poet,

‘Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
‘And waste its fragrance on the desert air.’

We must not allow them to be verified in sweet Jane Fairfax.”

The intent of Mrs. Elton, as she addressed these words to Emma—her greatest rival for power in the social arena of Highbury, has been seen by scholars as a pointed insult. A slight taunt, a challenge, as it were, borne along by dulcet tones speaking ‘those charming lines‘. Of course there was nothing charming about Mrs. Elton, and of course Emma, as a cultured young woman of her day, would have been quite familiar with Thomas Gray. By Austen’s day he was considered The Poet of the English. And Emma the novel, is essentially, Austen’s paean to all English-ness.

The fact that Mrs. Elton mis-quoted (did Austen intend butchered?) such a well known, beloved poem of England hands the veiled insult right back to the giver. Jane Austen’s brilliance in characterization extended to even the slightest nuances of conversation.

In reading Jane Austen, there is always deliciousness to be found. Sometimes, though, she gives us that extra little cherry of genius on top.

And my two rosebushes will no longer blush unseen.


Miss Bates: In Praise of Thick Shoes


‘It is the ambient air of Highbury which most charms us in this book. The little town and its inhabitants are so real, so actual, that it is hard to believe we have never been there. The very cobbles, glistening after a sharp shower, are nearly solid enough to walk on….Miss Bates is somehow a vehicle of this ambience.’  —Margaret Kennedy, ‘Jane Austen

In my reading life, I am never far from Jane Austen. Even when reading the works of other authors, there she is. While reading a novel that might seem completely unrelated to Jane Austen—she appears. The hero or heroine is reading her, or refers to her, and the narrative device thus employed is almost always used as a character statement of approbation. That last word, by the way—approbation—entered my vocabulary by way of Jane Austen.

In social media, there is Jane, looking fresh and updated. This morning my newsfeed greeted me with the happy declaration that a movie adaptation of Sanditon is currently being filmed. Lady Susan is on its way to a theater near me. I am very excited about Sanditon—with the usual caveats and hoverings of motherly concern. How will they cast the indomitable hypochondriac Diana Parker? Or the robustly sickish Arthur? Sidney with an ‘i’ had better be good…we’ve waited a long time to meet him. (It’s very important to get it right; this is the novel Jane was working on just before she died.)

Were I inclined to be interested in zombies and vampires, there too, even so, I would find Jane.

“One man’s style must not be the rule of another’s.” Mr. Knightley, Emma

Most prefer finding Jane via the usual routes. Her words. As if millions didn’t already know this…her words are superb.


Recently, I’ve been revisiting her novel, Emma, in both annotated and abridged forms. The annotated was by treating myself to this beautiful edition, pictured here. (published by Harvard University Press.)IMG_1095

Plus I’ve just finished the absolutely stellar audio version of Emma read by Jeremy Northam. This is an abridged version, (sad to say) but so worth feeling cheated! His rendering of Mrs. Elton, …“Maple Grove…” “….barouche landau…” gave me many laugh out loud moments.

A very good reason to brush up on my Emma is the lovely series going on right now at sarahemsley.com. Called Emma In The Snow, it is in celebration of the fact that this year marks 200 years since the publication of Emma. There are fascinating angles from a wide range of authors being discussed on Sarah’s blog, and even a diehard ‘Janeite’ will find new insights and reasons to love her novels.

For me, Emma has many attractions. One of them seems undervalued by many, and that even goes as far back as Austen’s lifetime, when Emma was first published.

‘…the faults [of Emma] are said to lie in the minute detail of the plan, and in a certain tedium in the presentment of such ‘characters of folly kind simplicity ‘ as Mr. Woodhouse and Miss Bates.’ (Quarterly, Jan. 1816)

While Austin Dobson wrote, in his forward to the novel:

‘Yet a genuine admirer may perhaps allow that some of the excellent Miss Bates’s speeches, even though they should be taken by the reader in double-quick time, would no be the worse for curtailment.’

Oh, but we could not have it so! The charms of Miss Bates are certainly more appealing given the distance of 200 years and the fact that she’s not in my living room right now swallowing up all breathable air. Yet, she is, for all that, ‘a loveable creature’. When Emma hurts her in a fit of spite, we feel it keenly.

But in terms of plot device? Miss Bates is extraordinary. In her, Jane Austen has created an efficient information delivery system. The kindly old spinster is to the ordinary chatterbox what the diesel engine is to the electric toy train. With rushing speed, a lot of ground is covered. Much vital information is conveyed, to those who are actually paying attention. This is the secret to Miss Bates. She is a brilliant contrivance and her effect cannot be reduced by a single syllable.

“So very obliging of you!—No rain at all. Nothing to signify. I do not care for myself. Quite thick shoes.”

On a side note, this style of running conversation, which is honed to perfection in Emma, Jane Austen also gives to Mrs. Augusta Elton. In Augusta’s case, though, it is more of a self-congratulatory rodomontade, and she reveals mostly her own self in ways that do not flatter her. Again, a brilliant device for helping us get to know the ‘charms’ of the new bride in the briefest possible time.

Miss Bates is all about other people and her lively interest in the goings on of Highbury. A useful person for the narrative, indeed, when you have clever little deceit mongers afoot like Frank Churchill, or the murky, convoluted doings of the superbly self-deceived Emma.

To be honest, the first time I read Emma, I was inclined to read over these verbal passages swiftly, anxious to get back to the ‘action’. I have had real life talkers in my family that could give Miss Bates a run for her money, so I am used to the exasperated tune outs one must resort to in an effort to keep things moving. It’s only in recent years and retrospect that I have begun to appreciate this clever literary device used by Austen.

Recently, while enjoying Margaret Kennedy’s discussion of Jane Austen’s works, I was delighted to read of her own thoughts in this regard. Margaret Kennedy calls Miss Bates ‘a vehicle’ of the marvelous ambiance Austen has created in Highbury.


Kennedy took the time to list some of the information that Miss Bates conveyed during her two monologues at the Highbury ball. An impressive feat. Miss Bates, we’ll remember, comes in excitedly talking: (I’ve left Ms. Kennedy’s intensively worded paragraph as is because it is something of a marvel, in itself!):

‘[Miss Bates] is frequently used by Austen to convey the scene and to tell us what everybody else is doing so that her speeches are highly informative although a general impression of triviality and incoherence is preserved. One monologue from her saves pages of narrative. She makes, for instance, two long speeches during the ball at the Crown, during which we learn that: It is raining. That the landlady of the Crown is standing in the passage to watch the guests come in. That Mrs. Weston is probably expecting a baby. That Miss Bates’s mother is spending the evening with Emma’s father. That it is in order to hold an umbrella over herself and Jane Fairfax that Frank Churchill has been hanging round in the passage all this time. That he has spent much of the day with them under the convenient and standing excuse of mending old Mrs. Bates’ spectacles. We learn also the names of many of the guests and that Mr. Elton is not the only clergyman present, the names of Jane’s partners for the first four dances and that none of them has been Frank Churchill because he means to secure her for supper and must not be dancing with her too often. That the long passage to the supper room has been covered with matting and a draughty door nailed up. That Frank Churchill is so eager to put Jane’s tippet on her shoulders and march her off to the corner he has selected in the supper room that he nearly takes her out before anybody else. That Mrs. Elton will have none of this and firmly takes place of everybody. That Mrs. Elton is still wearing her bridal lace and consequently claims a brides’ privileges. That Frank does maneuver Jane into his chosen corner at supper. That the Hartfield supper has consisted of tea, baked apples, biscuits, wine, and a fricassee of sweetbreads with asparagus which poor Mrs. Bates has not been allowed to eat because of Mr. Woodhouse thought it indigestible. That the two old people played backgammon. That Miss Bates herself for all her chatter has managed to slip out unobserved after the first four dances, has run through the rain in thick shoes to Hartfield, taken her old mother home, put her to bed and returned without disturbing anybody.

‘If people had ever listened to Miss Bates they would have known a great deal more of what was happening at Highbury.’

You see how useful Miss Bates is?

Margaret Kennedy concludes her marvelous summation with the opinion:

‘Emma is not a better book than Mansfield Park but it is a worthy successor. It has a smaller canvas, a less ambitious theme, but it has this almost miraculous reality.’



‘Laughter, light, and beauty’; still thinking of Jane

vintage painting

William Henry Margetson (1861-1940)

Are you coming?

In anticipation of the ‘Invitation to Mansfield Park‘ celebration happening at the blog hosted by writer Sarah Emsley, and as I wrote about here and here; it seemed a good time to refresh my library of Jane Austen choices. If you could see my library, you would probably ask the same question my husband regularly asks: “Do I really need more books?”

This is not actually my library but more how my husband envisions it.

This is not actually my library but more how my husband envisions it.

Apparently so….I am ever so grateful to Vic of Jane Austen’s World for her lovely article describing the new Harvard University Press editions of Jane Austen’s works. While waiting anxiously for the Mansfield Park edition to be released, I did give myself a running start on eventually acquiring the complete collection.

Here you see Emma….these books are beautifully done, and well worth the modest cost.

The beautiful annotated edition from Harvard University Press

I can’t wait to sit at the fireside with old Mr. Woodhouse and go strawberry picking with Mrs. ‘E’ and her caro sposa in these lovely pages.

While waiting for the Harvard UP edition of Mansfield Park, one can read the brilliant article on other, older editions and the publishing history here. Deb at Jane Austen In Vermont hosts a wonderful blog on all topics related to Jane Austen, even spin-offs and adaptations, such as here:

A spin-off from the novel Mansfield Park

Another blog I’ve been enjoying recently is the Mansfield Park blog dedicated exclusively to the Austen novel of the same name. Recent posts have featured some exquisite examples of dialogue from favorite characters of the novel, including this gem from the selfish Mrs. Norris:

‘Mrs. Norris … consoled herself for the loss of her husband by considering that she could do very well without him.’ 

One of the things we love about Jane is her ability to sum up the essence of personality in a neat, concise statement. This quality is praised by Frank Swinnerton, in his review of her work:

‘But not alone are these novels memorable as works of art, as Henry James defined such things to be. They have other and more endearing characteristics which we should do ill to neglect. They have that beautiful whimsical irony which relates the author to Cervantes and to Shakespeare, and which makes “Don Quixote” and the Shakespearean comedies still so freshly charming—that detached and loving nonsense that gives them intimacy, and allow us to see deeper into the author’s heart than any other quality has ever done.

Her books, from “Northanger Abbey” to “Persuasion”, are full of friends, whom we judge as friends—some of whom, perhaps, as Mrs. Norris, or Mary Musgrove, or Mr. Woodhouse, we are inclined to judge as relatives—and the wiser we grow in the estimation of character the more we find that Jane Austen knew about character, so that she could actually, without caricature, present it as idiosyncrasy.

Like her own Nurse Rooke, “she is a shrewd, intelligent, sensible woman. Hers is a line for seeing human nature”; but she was also like her own charming Elizabeth, who said: “I hope I never ridicule what is wise and good. Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies, do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can.”

That laughter is what brings light and beauty into the novels, and what makes them so agreeable at this time. Her books seem as natural as our own happy memories, as dry and convinced as our own private judgments, and as wise as oracles and unpretentious as simplicity itself. ‘

Well said, Mr. Swinnerton…even back in 1920 the reading public was sorely in need of ‘laughter, light, and beauty‘ …and it continues to be the reason why we love Jane Austen’s novels in 2014.

So…are you coming to Mansfield Park?