Cowper: Fanny Price

Fanny, who was sitting on the other side of Edmund, exactly opposite Miss Crawford, and who had been attentively listening, now looked at him and said in a low voice– O Brother, where Art thou

“Cut down an avenue? What a pity! Does that not make you think of Cowper? ‘Ye fallen avenues, once more I mourn your fate unmerited.’ ”

Mansfield Park, Jane Austen

Fanny Price, like Austen, was very fond of William Cowper, a poet of the eighteenth century. He was not a Romantic poet, but his brooding, melancholy, emotional writing had great influence over poets of the Regency, such as Wordsworth and Coleridge. Cowper suffered bouts of insanity and deep depression–he wrote various hymns preserved today in the Sacred Harp (think O Brother, Where Art Thou?) but it was his poetry, encouraged by various women in his life, that gave him a much-needed outlet for his despair.

In Nature he sought solace:

Who loves a garden loves a greenhouse too.
Unconscious of a less propitious clime,
There blooms exotic beauty, warm and snug,
While the winds whistle and the snows descend.Crazy Kate from Cowper's "The Task" by Fussli - the depths of despair
The spiry myrtle with unwithering leaf
Shines there, and flourishes.

The Task, Book III, The Garden

But humanity, like nature, eventually dies:

I was a stricken deer, that left the herd
Long since: with many an arrow deep infix’d
My panting side was charged, when I withdrew,
To seek a tranquil death in distant shades.

What does it mean to have a Regency-era character who adores Cowper? He might be depressed and perhaps thinking of his own death. She might look upon the trees in the park,  and find comfort from the stress of every day living, as Fanny does in Mansfield Park:

“Here’s harmony! Here’s repose! Here’s what may leave all painting and all music behind, and what poetry only can attempt to describe. Here’s what may tranquilize every care, and lift the heart to rapture!”

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The Real Regency Reader: Jane Austen

“It is difficult to think of a novelist who makes reading a more animating part of her characters’ lives than Jane Austen.”

–John Mullan, What Matters in Jane Austen?: Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved (2013)

We know how Northanger Abbey’s heroine, like Cotillion’s Kitty, was much guided by knowledge gleaned from novels and therefore committed foibles as a result of such reliance. Or Fanny of Mansfield Park who had rather more learning from books than those rich Bertram girls who supposed her ‘stupid at learning.’ Already mentioned is Sir Elliot of Kellynch Hall in Persuasion whose reading was limited to the Baronetage and so, too, was his conversation. Recall in Pride and Prejudice Miss Bingley’s spectacular attempts at diverting Mr. Darcy from his book when a day earlier she had attacked our darling Lizzie for not playing cards because she loved books.

1940's Pride and Prejudice, starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier

1940’s Pride and Prejudice, starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier

I did not understand the significance of reading in Jane Austen’s world until it was illuminated by Professor Mullan:  being literate during the Regency means reading books. In Sense and Sensibility, Lucy Steele is illiterate not because she can’t read, but because she does not read.

“Lucy’s ignorance of books will be as much a torment to poor Edward, her future husband, as her cunning and self-interestedness.”

This blog has mentioned the value of book collecting during the Regency, A library of any size was a mark of distinction because it conferred upon those who had access to it an erudition valued in those days. Professor Mullan points out that Austen had no more than two years’ formal schooling but yet had access to her father’s library which was vast for a country clergyman.

One must suspect that her admiration for books and reading must reflect what Regency readers must have thought:

“I only mean what I have read about.  It always puts me in mind of the country that Emily and her father travelled through, in The Mysteries of Udolpho (Penguin Classics). But you never read novels, I dare say?”

“Why not?”

“Because they are not clever enough for you — gentlemen read better books.”

“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.” — Mansfield Park