Sunday, January 31, 2016

Six months with Jane Austen: Sense and Sensibility, inheritance, and money

"Passion subdued by Reason." The Lady's Magazine, March 1795.

This is the first in a series of monthly posts focussing on the social contexts of the six novels Jane Austen prepared for publication. These posts will accompany my own re-reading of the novels, and my hope is that they may inspire your own reading or re-reading. This time: Sense and Sensibility (1811).


Questions of inheritance are central to all of Austen's novels, but are particularly fundamental to Sense and Sensibility. The book opens, in fact, with a description of a will: that of Henry Dashwood's rich uncle.
The old gentleman died: his will was read, and like almost every other will, gave as much disappointment as pleasure. He was neither so unjust, nor so ungrateful, as to leave his estate from his nephew;—but he left it to him on such terms as destroyed half the value of the bequest. Mr. Dashwood had wished for it more for the sake of his wife and daughters than for himself or his son;—but to his son, and his son's son, a child of four years old, it was secured, in such a way, as to leave to himself no power of providing for those who were most dear to him…. [1]
The uncle's estate, Norland Park, is bequeathed to John Dashwood, Henry's well-to-do son by his first wife, as a trustee for his own son.

Why does the uncle bypass Henry in his will? In Austen's England land was economic, social, and political power, and estate owners wanted to ensure that family land, and thus power, would remain intact. Under the principle of primogeniture, the eldest son inherited the vast bulk of the land, houses, and associated income from an estate (although other members of the family could be granted inheritances of cash and securities, personal property, or annual incomes). [2]

In the absence of an eldest son—the rich uncle in Sense and Sensibility is childless—an estate could be bequeathed to a relative (usually male) in a collateral line. After the death of its owner, the estate would be held in trust for the future heir, who would inherit either when he came of age, when he got married, or on the death of an intermediate possessor. That intermediate possessor was prevented from selling any part of the estate or bequeathing it elsewhere. (This is the situation in Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion, where the Bennet and Elliot family estates have been entailed on male cousins.)

A wife did not automatically inherit her husband's property. It was common for her at the time of her marriage to receive a jointure (typically, a life interest in the rental income from a portion of the estate designated to support her after her husband's death). She could only inherit an estate as a freehold if her husband made that provision in his will. There are two wealthy widows in Sense and Sensibility, Mrs. Ferrars and Mrs Smith, both of whom control the disposition of their estates.

Daughters could inherit, and in the absence of a will, entail or settlement they would be considered heiresses if there were no son. But daughters, unlike sons, inherited in common. In Emma, Austen's fourth novel, the heroine Emma Woodhouse and her elder sister Isabella are the co-heiresses of their father's estate, Hartfield. But it was rare for estates to be divided among siblings in this way, because if the practice continued the subsequent generations in each branch of the family would receive smaller and smaller portions of the original estate as it became divided among more and more descendants.

Clearly, the uncle in Sense and Sensibility does not want Norland to be divided among Henry Dashwood's three daughters. Both Henry and his son John apparently receive life tenancies; the true heir is John's son. We're told that "the whole was tied up for the benefit of this child, who, in occasional visits with his father and mother at Norland, had so far gained on the affections of his to outweigh all the value of all the attention which, for years, he had received from his niece and her daughters." [3]

As a tenant for life Henry is unable, "by any charge on the estate, or by any sale of its valuable woods," to ensure that his wife and daughters receive an income from the estate after his death. [4] Those with only life interests were forbidden from setting up a jointure ("a charge on the estate") or from selling any part of an estate (including its "valuable woods"). The uncle's estate must be held intact.

So when Henry himself dies—an untimely event which occurs within a year and in the very next paragraph—John, as trustee for his son, receives all the land of the estate and its associated income. (Later in the novel we learn that John plans to cut down a grove of old walnut trees on the estate in order to build a greenhouse. If he were only a life tenant, he would seem to be barred from cutting down trees. However, exceptions were made if trees were to be cut down for either firewood or in the course of "improvements" to the estate, and John portrays the building of a greenhouse and the planting of a flower garden as improvements. We can guess, though, that the greedy John is likely to profit handsomely; walnut was and is a wood highly prized by cabinetmakers.)

Unable to pass on the Norland estate to his wife, Henry could only bequeath his personal property ("china, plate, and linen" [5]) and his personal fortune of £7000. Combined with the daughters' bequests from their uncle of £1000 each, that means that Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters have a total capital of about £10,000. This sum would translate into an annual income of about £500 (exactly how will be discussed in the section "Money," along with the adequacy of this income for a family of the Dashwood's social standing).

On Henry's death John and his family can and do take immediate possession of Norland. Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters Elinor, Marianne and Margaret suddenly find themselves guests in the home that was once theirs, a situation that proves to be anything but comfortable. The Dashwood women are placed in a position of irksome dependency on John and his mercenary and controlling wife Fanny. Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters ultimately find it impossible to continue to live at Norland, and move to Barton Cottage, on the Devonshire estate of their relative Sir John Middleton.

The move separates Elinor from Edward Ferrars, Fanny's brother. Edward has been visiting his sister and her family, and as a result has come to know Elinor. Fanny's harshly disapproving reaction to the discovery of their growing attachment is what precipitates the move from Norland. That move not only disrupts the nascent relationship of Edward and Elinor, it also takes Marianne into the neighborhood of the young, handsome, but rakish gentleman Willoughby, and the older, more upright and more reticent Colonel Brandon. Both men—Willoughby openly, and Brandon silently—fall in love with the vivacious Marianne. The story begins.

"I wish as well as every body else to be perfectly happy; but, like every body else it must be in my own way. Greatness will not make me so."
"Strange that it would!" cried Marianne. "What have wealth or grandeur to do with happiness?"
"Grandeur has but little," said Elinor, "but wealth has much to do with it."
"Elinor, for shame!" said Marianne, "money can only give happiness where there is nothing else to give it.  Beyond a competence, it can afford no real satisfaction, as far as mere self is concerned."
"Perhaps," said Elinor, smiling, "we may come to the same point. Your competence and my wealth are very much alike, I dare say; and without them, as the world goes now, we shall both agree that every kind of external comfort must be wanting. Your ideas are only more noble than mine. Come, what is your competence?"
"About eighteen hundred or two thousand a year; not more than that."
Elinor laughed. "Two thousand a year! One is my wealth! I guessed how it would end." [6]
Money changes everything, as a philosopher once said. And in Sense and Sensibility, the financial standing of every character is known, weighed and discussed openly by the other characters. To make sense of this information, it's helpful to understand something about how, in Austen's day, capital was converted into income, and what differing levels of income might mean. [7]

Austen's novels take place among the landed gentry and the class that historian Alan Everitt has called the "pseudo-gentry": those who were roughly of the same social class as the gentry, such as clergymen, but who did not themselves own estates. These classes typically invested large capital sums in government bonds, the "consols" (for "Consolidated Annuities"), which paid a fixed rate of interest that depended on when they were purchased. The nominal rate of interest on consols was 3%; however, Austen was writing at a time of war, and consols tended to be discounted, sometimes substantially. The cheaper it is to purchase a bond of a particular value, of course, the greater the return. The average return on consols for the first decade of the 1800s was 4.8%. There were also instruments called "Navy 5 percents," which were generally not discounted. [8]

So as an approximate rule of thumb the interest income derived from invested capital would be around 5% of the total. The Dashwood women's combined capital of £10,000 would thus result in an annual income of about £500. How adequate an income was this for a family of four women of the Dashwood's social class? For a partial answer, we can turn to the odious Fanny Dashwood: "...what on earth can four women want for more than that?—They will live so cheap! Their housekeeping will be nothing at all. They will have no carriage, no horses, and hardly any servants; they will keep no company, and can have no expenses of any kind! Only conceive how comfortable they will be!" [9]

Out of this income, the women would have to pay rent on the furnished Barton Cottage (offered "on very easy terms," but not rent-free [10]), purchase food, clothing, and other daily necessities, pay postage, offer presents and alms, and pay the wages of three servants ("two maids and a man" [11], costing together perhaps £50 per year, plus room and board). As Fanny points out, they would not be able to afford to keep horses or a carriage, making them dependent on others (or on paying their way) for travel of more than two or three miles. While the Dashwood women are hardly impoverished, they are certainly facing severely reduced circumstances and increased social isolation.

What about the incomes of the other characters in Sense and Sensibility, and in particular, the beaux of Elinor and Marianne?
Willoughby: "...though Willoughby was independent, there was no reason to believe him rich.  His estate [in Somersetshire] had been rated by Sir John at about six or seven hundred a year; but he lived at an expense to which that income could hardly be equal, and he had himself often complained of his poverty." [12] In his relative "poverty," of course, Willoughby keeps a carriage and carriage-horses, as well as hunting horses and hounds.

Colonel Brandon possesses an estate, Delaford, that helps to generate an income of "two thousand a year without debt or drawback." [13] Brandon keeps horses and a carriage, and can make occasional visits to London. He also has the power of bestowing the Delaford living—that is, a life position as the rector of Delaford parish, which has an accompanying income of about £200 a year.

It was not uncommon at this time to sell livings when they became vacant. John Dashwood is amazed that Colonel Brandon simply gives the living to Edward Ferrars as a gift. As John says, "...for the next presentation to a living of that value—supposing the late incumbent to have been old and sickly, and likely to vacate it soon—he might have got I dare say—fourteen hundred pounds...I wonder he should be so improvident in a point of such common, such natural, concern!" [14]

Edward Ferrars "was the eldest son of a man who had died very rich" [15], and in the ordinary course of events would have inherited the entirety of his father's estate. But we learn that "except a trifling sum [which turns out to be £2000], the whole of his fortune depended on the will of his mother." [16] Two thousand pounds would generate an annual income of about £100 a year—four times the annual income of an ordinary laborer, and twice that of a typical clerk, but not much money on which to maintain one's social standing in the gentry or pseudo-gentry.

Even when Edward receives the Delaford living, which will add £200 to his annual income, in Colonel Brandon's view it "can do no more than make Mr. Ferrars comfortable as a bachelor; it cannot enable him to marry." [17] And although Elinor is quite prepared to marry him anyway, "they were neither of them quite enough in love to think that three hundred and fifty pounds a-year would supply them with the comforts of life" (the additional £50 a year, of course, coming from Elinor's £1000 legacy). [18]


If an inheritance sets this plot in motion, two disinheritances lead to its resolution. Willoughby is the heir presumptive to the rich Mrs. Smith, an elderly cousin, who owns the Allenham Court estate. But when Mrs. Smith learns that Willoughby has seduced and abandoned Colonel Brandon's niece-in-law and ward Eliza, and is unwilling to marry her, he is "formally dismissed from her favour and her house." [19] Willoughby, no longer heir to Allenham, later confesses to Elinor that he had decided "to re-establish my circumstances by marrying a woman of fortune." [20] The woman he chooses, Miss Grey, has a fortune of £50,000, sufficient to add £2500 a year to his income. He breaks with Marianne, making it possible, after the passage of time, for Colonel Brandon to declare his feelings for her.

And when Mrs. Ferrars learns of Edward's secret engagement to the pretty but penniless, "artful, and selfish" Lucy Steele [21], she disinherits him in favor of his younger brother Robert, who is then "considered as the eldest son." [22] Robert is the immediate recipient of sufficient money to supply him with an income of £1,000 a year, and also has the expectation of inheriting the entire Ferrars estate on the death of his mother.

Robert's income is more than three times that of Edward; this is sufficient to convince the conniving Lucy (who "has next to nothing herself" [23]) to shift her allegiance from Edward to Robert. She works to make Robert attached to her, and once she is secure of him, breaks her engagement to Edward. As soon as he learns that he is free, Edward rides to Barton to propose to Elinor.

In the end, Marianne achieves her competence, and Elinor her wealth. With Colonel Brandon's £2000 a year, Marianne achieves what she considers "a very moderate income...A proper establishment of servants, a carriage, perhaps two, and hunters, cannot be supported on less." [24] And when Mrs. Ferrars relents a bit, and provides Edward with £10,000 on his marriage, it boosts his and Elinor's income to £850 a year—a level at which they may be able to afford a carriage, but at the least secure many of the "comforts of life."

And as for Lucy Steele? "The whole of Lucy's behaviour in the affair, and the prosperity which crowned it, therefore, may be held forth as a most encouraging instance of what an earnest, an unceasing attention to self-interest, however its progress may be apparently obstructed, will do in securing every advantage of fortune, with no other sacrifice than that of time and conscience." [25]

Next time: Pride and Prejudice and the marriage market
Last time: Six months with Jane Austen: The plan

Other posts in the "Six months with Jane Austen" series:

  1. Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility, Volume I Chapter i; Chapter 1. (References to Austen's novels will be given both by volume and chapter and by sequentially numbered chapters, so that they can be found in many editions; of course, quotations can also be found by a Google search.)
  2. This and the subsequent discussion of English inheritance law is indebted to Eileen Spring's Law, Land, and Family: Aristocratic Inheritance in England, 1300 to 1800 (University of North Carolina Press, 1993). I alone, however, am responsible for any misunderstanding or misrepresentation of the texts I cite. 
  3. Austen, Sense and Sensibility, I. i.; 1.
  4. —, Sense and Sensibility, I. i.; 1.
  5. —, Sense and Sensibility, I. ii.; 2.
  6. —, Sense and Sensibility, I. xvii.; 17.
  7. This and the subsequent discussion of the economics of the gentry and pseudo-gentry in Austen's time is indebted to Edward Copeland's Women Writing About Money: Women's Fiction in England, 1790-1820, Cambridge University Press, 1995.
  8. Robert D. Hume, "Money in Jane Austen." The Review of English Studies, New Series (2013), Vol. 64, No. 264, pp. 289-310. doi: 10.1093/res/hgs054
  9. —, Sense and Sensibility, I. ii.; 2.
  10. —, Sense and Sensibility, I. iv.; 4.
  11. —, Sense and Sensibility, I. v.; 5.
  12. —, Sense and Sensibility, I. xiv.; 14.
  13. —, Sense and Sensibility, II. viii.; 30.
  14. —, Sense and Sensibility, III. v.; 41
  15. —, Sense and Sensibility, I. iii.; 3.
  16. —, Sense and Sensibility, I. iii.; 3.
  17. —, Sense and Sensibility, III. iii.; 39.
  18. —, Sense and Sensibility, III. xiii.; 49.
  19. —, Sense and Sensibility, III. viii.; 44.
  20. —, Sense and Sensibility, III. viii.; 44.
  21. —, Sense and Sensibility, II. i.; 23.
  22. —, Sense and Sensibility, III. v.; 41.
  23. —, Sense and Sensibility, III. i.; 37.
  24. —, Sense and Sensibility, I. xvii.; 17.
  25. —, Sense and Sensibility, III. xiv.; 50.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Whole lives: Carrie Brownstein, Patti Smith, and Elvis Costello

Carrie Brownstein, Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl (Riverhead Books, 2015)

Carrie Brownstein was and is a guitarist and vocalist in Sleater-Kinney. Her excellent memoir Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl—the title is taken from a song on the 2005 album The Woods—will draw you in even if, like me, you can't quite be described as a fan of the band (although by the time you finish it you probably will be).

It is about much more than being a fairly famous performer. Brownstein offers moving accounts of what it was like to grow up in the 70s and 80s in a suburban family with deeply hidden emotional fissures; to find music as a refuge, as a solace, as an escape, and as a means of expression; to enter the adult world with deep uncertainty about your future and purpose; to try to find like-minded people as friends, partners, mentors, and co-creators; and to struggle to hold on to what you've achieved while at the same time allowing yourself and your partners room to grow and change.

Of course, there is plenty of vivid detail about grungy practice spaces, the grind of travelling in drafty vans and sleeping on people's floors, and the terror and exhilaration of standing up in front of an audience to play. For those who have romantic notions of what touring in a rock band is like, Brownstein's book will be a sobering reality check.
In 2000, Greil Marcus named us the best rock band in America in Time magazine...Here we were, "America's Best Rock Band," unloading our equipment that had been shipped home from overseas, that we'd just picked up from the airport by ourselves: drums, amps, road cases. We did not even have the help of a friend or crewmember to carry everything out of our van and into Janet's basement, down rotted steps with very low headroom. You had to duck or you'd give yourself a concussion. "Best Band in America" and my back is about to go out again because I'm carrying a sixty-pound amp into a practice space the size of a pantry in which Janet's aged marmalade cat had sprayed multiple times. It smelled like piss and dryer sheets. This was us having "made it!"
Brownstein leaves no doubt, though, that it can all be worth it for a transcendent moment making music. At the end of the book, describing how it felt to step onstage for the opening show of the tour for the first Sleater-Kinney album in a decade, 2015's No Cities to Love, she writes, "I was home."

Patti Smith, M Train (Knopf, 2015)

M Train is Patti Smith's deeply personal memoir covering the period from her move to Detroit in 1980 up to the present. In its format and associative structure it is clearly influenced by W. G. Sebald's unclassifiable works such as Rings of Saturn, but like Smith's great cover versions of songs by other artists, it emerges as something uniquely her own, expressed in her own unmistakable voice.

In the time period covered by the book Smith lost the love of her life, Fred Smith, and her brother Todd; re-emerged as one of the most compelling performers you will ever have the privilege to see; and watched as her beloved New York City was devastated by Hurricane Sandy and struggled to recover. But to focus on the external events it describes is to miss the flavor of this reflective and intimate book.

M Train is the perfect companion volume to Smith's previous memoir, the brilliant Just Kids (Ecco, 2010). That book describes her first move to New York in the late 60s, her chance encounter with Robert Mapplethorpe, and the development of their transformative artistic and personal partnership. In my post "Favorites of 2010: Books," I wrote that "Just Kids is written in an autodidact's style which is direct, genuine, unsentimental, at times incantory, and like her music, utterly compelling." The same can be said of M Train.

Patti Smith performing Bob Dylan's "Changing of the Guard" from Twelve (my favorite rock recording of 2010):

Elvis Costello, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink (Blue River Press, 2015)

In addition to borrowing his sartorial style from Buddy Holly—the horn-rims, the suits and ties—1970s-era Elvis Costello also adopted Holly's concise songwriting style. Back then Costello wrote fierce two- and three-minute songs which didn't need to be longer, and which would have been less effective if they were.

His biting, bitter lyrics were so dense with wordplay that their manifest meaning was sometimes anything but straightforward. The latent meaning, though, was always clear: Costello himself memorably said in an early interview that his songs were all about "revenge and guilt," although "resentment and anger" might be equally true.

The gift for the telling detail seems to have abandoned Costello almost entirely when he sat down to write his memoir, though. This rambling, confusingly arranged book would be twice as good if half its ink had really disappeared. But of course, as his incredible creativity in the period 1977-1982 (in 1980 alone he released 40 songs in the US), various nasty drunken comments, and many ill-advised choices show, Costello famously lacks an internal editor; it's just unfortunate that his publisher couldn't supply him with an external one.

Of course, brevity has its limitations (that could almost be an Elvis Costello lyric), and we can be glad that Costello has occasionally allowed himself a more expansive canvas, as on 1982's Frank Sinatra-Nelson Riddle influenced Imperial Bedroom. But my admiration for Costello did anything but grow after spending 670 pages in his sometimes enjoyable, sometimes annoying, sometimes evasive, and sometimes tedious company. As he writes with self-lacerating wit (on page 372), "The trouble with finishing any autobiographical tome like this is that for every mildly diverting tale or precious memory, you eventually arrive at this thought: I don't much care for the subject." It's a feeling the reader may come to share.

As someone once almost said, you may feel I'm unkind, but I'm being as nice as I can.

A blast from the past: "Lipstick Vogue" from the furious This Year's Model (1978):

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Favorites of 2015: Bollywood song picturizations

In this coda to my "Favorites of 2015" series I'm going to count down my five favorite Bollywood song picturizations from films released in 2015. This is a little bit different from a list of my favorite songs, although of course a good picturization needs to start with a good song. It's also definitely not a list of songs from my favorite films. I've only seen two of the films on this list: one (Tanu Weds Manu Returns) was distinctly lacking and the other (Dilwale) was almost wholly misconceived. But these are the picturizations that best combined inventive or spectacular settings, appealing actors, and, yes, good tunes:

5. "Ghani Bawri," Tanu Weds Manu Returns (starring Kangana Ranaut, R. Madhavan, and Kangana Ranaut, directed by Anand Rai, music by Krsna Solo, lyrics by Raj Shekhar, sung by Jyoti Nooran)

In "Favorites of 2015: Bollywood" I named TWMR as "the sequel most in need of a sequel." But "Ghani Bawri," powered by Jyoti Nooran's vocals and Kangana Ranaut's compelling performance(s), is a song I never tire of watching. To set the scene, Tanu (Ranaut) is crashing the wedding of her ex-husband Manu (Madhavan) and his new bride Kusum (a much younger woman who looks suspiciously similar to Tanu—does this seem like a good idea?):

4. "Gulaabo," Shaandaar (Fabulous, starring Alia Bhatt, Sanah Kapoor, and Shahid Kapoor, directed by Vikas Bahl, music and lyrics by Amit Trivedi, sung by Vishal Dadlani and Anusha Mani)

I have no idea how or whether the carnival/smugglers setting and Alia Bhatt's very cute drag king act fit into the plot of Shaandaar, but of course, it doesn't matter—"Gulaabo" is offbeat and lots of fun:

3. "Prem Ratan Dhan Payo," Prem Ratan Dhan Payo (A treasure called Prem (Love), starring Salman Khan and Sonam Kapoor, directed by Sooraj Barjatya, music by Himesh Reshammiya, lyrics by Irshad Kamil, sung by Palak Muchhal)

On Namaste America's survey of most-requested songs from 2015 this morning (the program which inspired this post), host Obaid Kadwani could barely contain his sneer at this "throwback to the 90's." Sorry, but if "throwback" means beautiful settings and costumes, spectacular dancing (surprisingly well executed by Sonam Kapoor, who is not known for her grace on the dance floor), and the traditionally-flavored music by Reshammiya (with vocalist Palak Muchhal uncannily channeling Shreya Ghoshal), then I say bring on more throwbacks:

2. "Pinga," Bajirao Mastani (starring Priyanka Chopra, Deepika Padukone, and Ranveer Singh, directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, music by Bhansali, lyrics by Siddharth–Garima, sung by Shreya Ghoshal and Vaishali Made)

Okay, this song really is a throwback—to the astonishing "Dola Re Dola" from Devdas (2002). But who cares? While neither Chopra nor Padukone may quite be at the level of Madhuri Dixit or Aishwarya Rai in Bhansali's earlier film, they are two of the best dancing actresses in Bollywood, filmed in the sweeping style that Bhansali has made his trademark. A song as gorgeous as this one is all the justification needed for self-borrowing:

1. "Gerua," Dilwale (Brave Heart, starring Kajol and Shah Rukh Khan, directed by Rohit Shetty, music by Pritam Chakraborty, lyrics by Amitabh Bhattacharya, sung by Antara Mitra and Arijit Singh)

The movie is a loud, violent, incoherent mess. DIrector Rohit Shetty and writer Yunus Sajawal should be ashamed for providing a such a weak platform for the reunion of SRK and Kajol (the movie could easily lose every scene in which they don't appear together). But this song offers breathtaking—and scary, because there's little or no bluescreen CGI involved (as you can see in the "making of" video linked below)—natural settings, lush music, and the legendary chemistry between the two stars:

This song also has the best "making of" video ever; too bad the gentle humor and emotional warmth so evident in this short were not used as a model for the rest of the film.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Six months with Jane Austen: The plan

Jane Austen [?], by Ozias Humphry, 1788 or 1789 (detail) [1]

Hasn't enough been written already about Jane Austen? Perhaps it's just my impression, but I seem to be detecting a bit of Austen fatigue. It may be an unintended result of the celebrations of the 200th anniversaries of the publication of her novels (Emma's bicentenary was December 23; next will be those of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion in December 2017, as well as that of Austen's death in July of that year). Or perhaps it's the fallout from the many popular television and film adaptations of her books. But it's remarkable that Pride and Prejudice did not make the top ten of any of three recent lists of the 100 best novels in English (to be fair, Robert McCrum in the Guardian picked Emma instead).

If Austen is indeed slipping in critical estimation, I think it may be partly due to a misperception that her novels don't engage with the wider world. As one historian writes, "Jane Austen is commonly regarded as an artist standing outside her own time" [2]. And Austen herself, just about the time she was writing Emma, famously told her niece Anna that "3 or 4 families in a country village is the very thing to work on" [3]—implying not only an intimate scale and heightened realism, but an insulation from larger social, political and economic concerns. For some readers her novels may have come to seem too genteel: what relevance can love stories set among the 19th-century British gentry have for our time of seemingly endless war, rising inequality, and human trafficking?

But war, inequality, and human trafficking were inescapable features of Austen's world as well, and the novels actually say quite a bit about these issues—though often implicitly rather than explicitly. I don't mean to suggest that Austen's novels should be read primarily for what they reveal about these concerns: they will forever be read with the greatest pleasure for their "knowledge of the human heart" [4]. But they can be further illuminated and enriched by some awareness of the fabric of the British society of her time.

At least, that's my experience, and I hope it will be true for my readers as well. Over the course of the next six months I'm planning to post about the social context of each of Austen's six novels. I'll proceed in the order in which they were published, beginning with Sense and Sensibility (1811) and ending with Persuasion (1818). These monthly posts will accompany my own re-reading of the novels; another hope is that they may inspire your own reading or re-reading.

I'm doing this not because I'm the world's greatest expert on Austen or on British society during the reign of George III. In fact, quite the reverse: I have trouble distinguishing a barouche from a phaeton or remembering the difference between a guinea and a pound. But it's precisely because I'm not an expert that I want to learn more about the social dimension of Austen's work, and share what I learn.

Of course, there are annotated versions of the novels, and a shelf-ful of books written about the world of Austen by people far more expert (and far better writers) than I'll ever be. But I want to do something a bit different from annotation: I don't plan to explain the meaning of individual words or identify quotations except as they reveal something that Austen is saying about her characters, their circumstances and relationships that would otherwise be hidden from a modern reader. And while there are entire academic and commercial publishing industries seemingly built on Austen, the amount of material is overwhelming. I don't intend to be exhaustive, but to pull together different strands from my reading to highlight issues of particular interest in a concise and useful way. (Longtime E and I readers may be justly skeptical of that "concise" promise, but I'll do my best.) I will list the sources I'm using for each post for those readers who want to explore further on their own.

Although it will draw on articles, books, websites and blog posts, this project was chiefly inspired by two writers in particular. The first is Jocelyn Harris, whose book A Revolution Almost Beyond Expression: Jane Austen's Persuasion (University of Delaware Press, 2007) opened my eyes to the significance of the details of the naval allusions in Austen's final novel. And the second is Paula Byrne, whose The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things (HarperPress, 2013) is a fascinating (and very entertaining) examination of a series of objects—among them a family silhouette, an Indian shawl, and a pair of topaz crosses—that illustrate key aspects of Austen's life, work and world. Despite Byrne's tendency to write "must have" and "certainly" where she should have written "may have" and "possibly," her book would have made my Favorites of 2015 list if I had encountered it in time.

Rest assured—or be forewarned—that over the coming months I will continue to post on Indian and non-Indian films, opera and other music, and books that have nothing to do with Jane Austen. But while Austen's novels, like Shakespeare's plays, are "not of an age, but for all time" [5], I hope that learning more about how they reflect the specific era in which they were created will make them more meaningful, and if possible even more enjoyable. So, like Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility, "'I have formed my plan, and am determined to enter on a course of serious study...By reading only six hours a-day, I shall gain...a great deal of instruction which I now feel myself to want'" [6].

Next installment in this series: Sense and Sensibility, inheritance, and money

Other posts in the "Six months with Jane Austen" series:
A note to my readers: This is my 301st post, and sometime in the next few weeks Exotic and Irrational Entertainment will have surpassed 300,000 page views. Many thanks to all my readers and commenters over the last eight and a half years; it means a great deal to me that so many people have taken the time to visit, consider my thoughts and share their own.

  1. The picture at the head of this post is the so-called "Rice Portrait," which is possibly of Jane Austen at about age 13. The controversy over the portrait, and the evidence of its authenticity, is very thoroughly discussed in The Rice Portrait of Jane Austen.
  2. Oliver MacDonagh, Jane Austen: Real and Imagined Worlds, Yale University Press, 1991, p. 146.
  3. Jane Austen in a letter to her niece Anna Austen, 9 September 1814. Emma is, of course, a novel about three or four families in a country village.
  4. Walter Scott, "Art. IX. Emma, A Novel" [review]. The Quarterly Review, Vol. XIV, No. XXVII, October, 1815, p. 189.
  5. Ben Jonson, Preface, Mr. William Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies (first folio), 1623
  6. Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility, Ch. 46

Saturday, January 2, 2016


Charulata (1964), directed by Satyajit Ray, screenplay by Ray based on Nashtanir (The Broken Nest, 1901) by Rabindranath Tagore.
I know now that he who hopes to be universal in his art must plant in his own soil. Great art is like a tree which grows in a particular place and has a trunk, leaves, blossoms, boughs, fruit, and roots of its own.
—Diego Rivera [1]
We often speak of art as being a universal language. Perhaps, but it generally isn't one that can be read without a dictionary. Art is created within, and refers to, a social and cultural context. The more we understand about that context the more fully we can perceive a particular work's meanings.

Satyajit Ray's Charulata is set during the Bengal Renaissance of the late 19th century, and is filled with allusions to political leaders such as Raja Rammohan Roy and Surendranath Banerjee, and writers such as Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (Chattopadhyay). For help in decoding some of the film's allusions I recommend watching some of the extra features included on the 2013 Criterion DVD reissue—in particular, the interviews with actors Soumitra Chatterjee and Madhabi Mukherjee, and the scholars Moinak Biswas and Supriya Chaudhuri—and reading the extensive booklet essay by Philip Kemp. There is also at least one workmanlike if not particularly elegant English translation of Tagore's brilliant Nashtanir [2] (which differs in several significant details from Ray's scenario). All were helpful as I attempted to understand some of the nuances of Ray's great film.

Charulata is a portrait of the marriage of Bhupati (Shailen Mukherjee) and Charulata (Madhabi Mukherjee). Bhupati is well-meaning, but completely consumed by his political interests. His absorption by events in the larger world has left him oblivious to those happening in his own home, particularly Charu's feelings of exclusion and neglect:

The outlet for Bhupati's political passions is a self-financed English-language newspaper promoting Indian autonomy, The Sentinel, which he edits and publishes. Bhupati's paper also supports his shiftless brother-in-law, Umapada (Shyamal Ghosal), and Umapada's wife Mandakini (Gitali Roy), whose utter conventionality makes her a poor companion for Charu.

Be careful what you ask...
Charu is left to spend her days embroidering, spying on passers-by, playing cards, and re-reading novels. We frequently see her peering through a pair of opera glasses at the passing world, emphasizing her enforced role as observer instead of actor:

Early in the film she pulls a copy of Bankim's Kapalkundala off the shelf. It's a novel about a young girl, a "child of nature" whose free spirit is shackled when she marries; the story ends tragically when Kapalkundala is (unjustly) suspected by her husband of infidelity. It will turn out that Bankim's story will have multiple points of connection to Charu's experience.

Charu is bored, lonely and frustrated—until Bhupati's handsome cousin Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee) arrives for an extended stay. He enters as a storm is blowing up (metaphor alert!), and his first utterance is a quote from Ananda Math, another novel by Bankim, signalling his affinity with Charu.

Amal steps into the role of debar, a Bengali term which usually refers to a husband's younger brother. A debar's interactions with his sister-in-law are relaxed, intimate and playful, even a bit flirtatious. And in the case of Amal and Charu, they are heightened by their shared interest in literature and music. At Bhupati's urging, they begin to spend time together out in the neglected garden (symbolism alert!), and each encourages the other to write.

Speaking of symbolism, note Amal's Krishna-flute.
Charu soon begins to feel jealous whenever Amal offers his attention to Mandakini, and she insists on monopolizing all the little domestic—almost wifely—favors the women perform for Amal, such as paan-making. Just as Charu is barred from the political world of her husband, so she tries to exclude Manda from the intimate artistic world she shares with Amal.

Amal has a story published in the literary journal Sharoruha (The Lotus). Charulata is upset at Amal's sharing his writing outside their circle of two, but her sense of hurt spurs her creativity. She soon finds her subject, and her style, in memories of her native village. When her piece is published in another, more prestigious journal, Visvabandhu (The Philanthrope), Amal is stunned, but recognizes that her talent is greater than his own:

When he urges her never to stop writing, Charu bursts into tears:

Her sudden upsurge of emotion stuns and embarrasses them both. It's clear that an emotional storm is indeed brewing. If Bhupati's tragedy is that he does not comprehend others' feelings, Charu's tragedy is that she doesn't fully understand her own.

If you haven't yet seen Charulata, be forewarned that spoilers follow.

When Bhupati discovers that his brother-in-law Umapada has been embezzling funds from The Sentinel, he is devastated: his faith in solidarity is shattered, and he shuts down the paper. When he complains bitterly to Amal of Umapada's betrayal, Amal feels a twinge of conscience. He recognizes that he and Charu have grown too close, and are on the verge of another betrayal. That night Amal leaves the house, and Kolkata, without notice.

To try to forget about the immediate past, Bhupati takes Charulata on a trip to the seaside. He despairs about The Sentinel, but Charulata suggests reviving and expanding the paper: he can continue to publish political essays in English, while she will act as editor for literary writing in Bengali. Bhupati is struck by the brilliance and simplicity of Charulata's solution, and this new idea seems to bring them closer together. They return to Kolkata to carry out her plan.

When they enter their house, a letter from Amal is waiting for them. Charu, thinking she's alone, is unable to prevent her supressed emotions from surfacing. She breaks down in tears, sobbing hysterically and crying out to the absent Amal, "Why did you leave?"

Charu doesn't realize, though, that Bhupati is a witness to her grief. He is suddenly confronted with the unwelcome knowledge of his wife's love for another man—and of his own role in her emotional infidelity. It is a moment as stunning and profound as that in the final paragraphs of James Joyce's "The Dead."

The film ends with a series of freeze-frames, as Charu and Bhupati tentatively reach out to each other, but before their hands touch. Ray later said in an interview that the freeze-frame was his attempt to find a visual equivalent for Charu's final utterance in Tagore's novel: "Thak" (translated by Lago and Sen as "Let it be" [3]). Ray said, "I have the feeling that the really crucial moments in film should be wordless." [4]

The freeze-frame ends the film on an ambiguous note: will the couple reconcile, or will Bhupati's stark awareness of Charulata's love for Amal (perhaps symbolized by the harsh illumination of the servant's lamp) prevent them from finding a new basis for their relationship? The answer is deliberately left open; however, in Tagore's novella it is clear that the couple will separate, perhaps permanently. Charu may be facing not only the end of her marriage, but, without the inspiration of Amal or the outlet of The Sentinel, the closing off of her means of self-expression.

—End of spoilers—

Charulata is the middle film of Ray's trilogy featuring Madhabi Mukherjee (it followed the previous year's Mahanagar). After the following year's Kapurush (The Coward), a relative financial failure, she and Ray never again worked together. Their artistic separation is to be regretted; Charulata is perhaps her greatest performance and one of Ray's finest films.

  1. Diego Rivera, My Art, My Life: An Autobiography. Dover Publications, 1991, p. 31
  2. Rabindranath Tagore, The Broken Nest, translated by Mary M. Lago and Supriya Sen, University of Missouri Press, 1971.
  3. Tagore, p. 90.
  4. "Ray on 'Charulata': An interview with Andrew Robinson," Criterion DVD booklet, p. 27.