Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in Current Austen Affairs

THE GOOD:  Dr. Cheryl Kinney Speaks at JASNA-Southwest Conference

Our local JASNA-SW Jane Austen's birthday celebration at the Los Angeles Athletic Club was one of our most wonderful meetings in years. Great turnout, speakers, authors, food, good cheer. For many, the outstanding feature was a talk by Dr. Cheryl Kinney. She is a Dallas gynecologist as well as Austen scholar, who was co-coordinator of the Ft. Worth JASNA AGM, and is one of the best speakers I've ever heard. She's got it all: intelligence, wit, sparkle, liveliness, allied to serious knowledge. Listening to her you are learning while being diverted, and are aware that this is a remarkable woman as well as speaker. I took a few notes on her intensely interesting speech, and here are a few of the odd and alarming facts I learned about her subject, which was "A Dangerous Indulgence: Women’s Health in Jane Austen’s Time."
In Jane Austen's day, men used to make medical decisions for women. The women of the household did all the nursing, however. Women were not allowed to be trained to use forceps, yet midwives often knew more than doctors: for instance, in a cookbook of the era, in the back pages dealing with health matters, a midwife wrote about how bed linen should be changed to stop the smell of infection. This means that 50 years before Lister, women knew about infection.
Barber poles were white, and with a red stripe it meant the barber was also a surgeon.
Christie's auctioned off an 1810 condom recently, for L20,000.
Abortion medications were sold everywhere, and could kill you.
Douching could kill you too, as it was done with dirty water and could cause infection.
Mr. Woodhouse's medical advice was all good - London really was unhealthy! Bad water, typhus, plague, abounded.  VD was everywhere, spread by upper class men.
The Royal Navy spread clap (gonorrhea) due to stowaway prostitutes.

A lovely young lady at sea
Who complained that it hurt her to pee
Said the brawny old mate
That accounts for the state
Of the cook and the captain and me.

Women in Jane Austen's day had menopause at age 44. Women were bled once a month for menopause troubles, by an apothecary. One treatment involved leaving leeches in the vagina for hours. With cervical cancer, women simply rotted inside.

Giles King-Lyford treated Jane Austen in her last two weeks, and she improved during that time. He was one of four sensible thinking physicians, and took excellent care of her, apparently until others were brought in. In Austen's detailed observations of her illness she described Addison's Disease 30 years before doctors did.
Dr. Matthew Bailey may have written something about her illness in his private diary - but it is in family hands and they won't release it.

To hear a podcast of a talk Dr. Kinney gave on "Jane Austen and the Body" at the Chicago Humanities Festival, click on this link. Her thesis is that “Austen-itis” as the recurrent use of sickness, health, frailty, and injury to develop Austen’s characters, drive her plots, and establish the comedic side of characters’ suffering.

"Jane Austen turned herself into a physician whose patient was society." - Dr. Cheryl Kinney

THE BAD:  Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James



Oh lord. I thought to write a regular book review, just like a proper book blogger, but really I haven't the patience. This book was very much anticipated, since to have England's surviving grande dame mystery writer take on Pemberley, sounded an intriguing, possibly amusing prospect. But it's a disappointment, and I think the book will fail to please both Austen-lovers and P.D. James lovers alike. As one of the former category I was shocked to see an egregious error smack dab in the middle of page one. James calls Mr. Collins a nephew of Mr. Bennet, not his cousin. This may seem a very minor detail, but it informs you right up front and center that you are not going to be in the hands of someone who truly inhabits the world of Austen or cares about the details, so you are likely to be ceaselessly irritated; and it also distracts you from reading enjoyment as you sit there gobsmacked that an author as eminent and best-selling as P.D. James does not have a competent editor or copy editor!
Still, I moved past that, as it would be absurd to let one error put the kibosh on an entire book. Although there were other errors (as her continually describing the Hursts as splendidly rich, when clearly they were spongers), the book didn't turn out to be distressfully messy in that respect. Instead, James fell into another grievous and more serious error - she proceeded to recap and summarize Pride and Prejudice for almost the next solid fifty pages. This was done in a stilted, stupefying way that is incredibly tedious to anyone who knows the book, but also does Pride and Prejudice a disservice by making it sound so tortuous and dull that the P.D. James fans who aren't familiar with P & P would hardly be moved to become so!
Once this section is over, the mystery begins, and James starts to write in a more natural style. Unfortunately the mystery she now unfolds is so dim and low-key, the book is anything but an exciting page-turner. Wickham is drunk in the Pemberley woods when his friend Denny is shot. He is tried for murder. There's a turgid, complicated explanation at the end which I won't go into, but I can't imagine a non-Janeite understanding the half of it, or a Janeite believing it. There are flashes of nice descriptive writing in the woodland scenes, with James wielding prose in a masterly way; and her depiction of early 19th century jurisprudence is well researched and well handled. But oh, dear. If a neighbor hadn't given me this, I never would have read it to the end. P.J. James has amused herself with a stab at being a sequelist, but she is unlikely to amuse very many others.
THE UGLY:  "The Portrait" and Publicity

On December 5, The Guardian headline read, "Jane Austen Biographer Discovers 'Lost Portrait.'" It's a headline that's both sensational and misleading, as is much of the article. The facts are that this "new" portrait has been in a private collection for years, and was auctioned at Bonham's in March, when Dr. Paula Byrne and her husband acquired it. Deirdre Le Faye wrote about the portrait in the 2007 edition of the Jane Austen Society Report, calling it an "imaginary portrait," done perhaps as early as 1818, possibly by the Revd William Jones, who liked to portray authors he admired.
Byrne is quoted as saying, "When my husband bought it he thought it was a reasonable portrait of a nice lady writer, but I instantly had a visceral reaction to it." This seems extremely disingenuous. Byrne was not unaware of the Le Faye article, or that "Jane Austin" (sic) was written on the back of the portrait. Yet the Guardian present the sequence as: "when Byrne...with an Austen biography due out in 2013, was given a portrait of a female author acquired by her husband, Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate, at auction, she was immediately struck by the possibility that it could be a lost drawing of Austen." This beggars belief. Her husband thought he was just buying a nice lady writer portrait? Of course they knew that the picture had been bruited about as a possible Jane Austen portrait, real or imaginary. That's why they were at the auction in the first place!
Byrne says, "The idea that it was an imaginary portrait – that seemed to me to be a crazy theory. That genre doesn't exist." Doesn't exist? What was Jane Eyre doing, for instance, but drawing "fancy portraits" of people from imagination? Obviously it was a thing people did do. In fact, Le Faye's 2007 article is illustrated with several other "imaginary" portraits of Austen. But Byrne says, "[Le Faye] "thinks it is an imaginary portrait. I did try so hard to find one single example of an imaginary portrait, but nobody could find one – they just don't exist." And she asks, "Why would someone have wanted to draw her from their imagination, when she was not popular at that time?" Well, maybe after Austen's death, those who lost her wanted to remember her. How about that for a reason?
Myself, I like the portrait; it does strongly resemble pictures of men of the Austen family, with their long noses, though her nephew and first biographer's description specifically says her nose was small. But what she was doing sitting near a cathedral with a cat (she didn't like cats), and wearing a lot of jewelry, simply seems to indicate that it was not drawn from life.
Byrne is also quoted as saying, "The previous portrait is a very sentimentalised Victorian view of 'Aunt Jane,' someone who played spillikins, who just lurked in the shadows with her scribbling." But what does a Victorian portrait (she means the altered and engraved 1870 version of Cassandra's original sketch) have to do with the case? A late, altered portrait is not pertinent. That the one Byrne bought is of a distinguished-looking author, "very confident in her own skin, very happy to be presented as a professional woman writer and a novelist, which does fly in the face of the cutesy, heritage spinster view," may fit in with Byrne's own (ironically imaginary!) vision of what Austen looked like, but has absolutely no bearing on the question of whether the portrait was taken from life.
Upon buying the portrait, Byrne approached the BBC and they started filming a documentary about it that will be aired later this month. The unavoidable conclusion is that Byrne and her husband bought the portrait to use as part of a campaign to build herself up as the author of *the* new major biography, in a bid for major league fame. The documentary is publicity to showcase "their" discovery. But it's not their discovery. It's their calculated purchase. To me this resembles the "arsenic" story in which a mystery writer recently hypothesized, as a vehicle for book promotion, that Austen was murdered. It's all about the limelight and nothing but the limelight - for the authors. Jane Austen doesn't need it; they do. Funny how both of these stories turned up almost at the same time; it's the way things are done in book promotion now. Find some manuscript or picture, hook your book to it, the truth doesn't matter, all that matters is what you make the public think. The public, not thinking about it very hard, now thinks that Jane Austen may have been murdered with arsenic, and that a brilliant scholar uncovered a new portrait of Jane Austen. Let's buy their books! And they may be good books, too; I'm told the mystery is excellent. This means more sales of good books, so where's the problem? Truth, inconvenient truth, is the problem. Mind you, I have nothing at all against book promotion, in fact I support it enthusiastically. And I have nothing against discoveries. But when people deliberately say they discovered things they didn't, in service of promoting a book, yes, it bothers me. The portrait itself is very interesting. It makes the subject look rather like an early 19th century Virginia Woolf.
"Ambition! Ambition! Cromwell, fling away ambition. By that sin fell the angels."


Arnie Perlstein said...


People will think you're exaggerating about Cheryl's astoundingly good performance at the JASNA SW Calif. event, but as you know, your opinion was universally acknowledged by every person in attendance there, including myself, who had the unenviable task of following Cheryl! She really is an extraordinary talent.

Cheers, ARNIE

Anonymous said...

Bravo! This is the most sensible, intelligent, informative thing written on that lost portrait, and I enjoyed all of your commentary!

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Ellen said...

Cheryl's topic is important -- and alas -- relevant, as women's health issues relating to sex, having children, gynecological issues is still fraught by misinformation, pressure, downright misogyny, poverty (women are poor).

I pass on P.D.James as I'm no mystery reader.

Je suis d'accord avec toi on Bryne.

My blog on it:


lyn said...

Excellent commentary on the "new" portrait Diana. I'm looking forward to reading Byrne's book (I think!) but this beat-up over the portrait is just distracting & publicity-seeking, as you so rightly say.

Elaine said...

I foun the P James a bitter dissapointment as well. Stilted, badly written it falls between two stools, the only scene worthy of any note was the courtroom scene where I felt the author ws on safe ground. Otherwise pretty poor. WHY did she write it?

Susan said...

I have been struggling to read Death Comes to Pemberley so I'm glad I'm not the only one. I also saw the reference to Mr. Collins as Mr. Bennet's nephew. I was also shocked she thought Lady Anne Darcy lived longer than Mr.Darcy. Colonel Fitzwilliam says that he has been guardian of Georgiana with Darcy since the death of Lady Anne. (pg. 25) How could an editor allow such an egregious error?

Vintage Reading said...

Very much enjoyed reading your thoughtful post. The Austen-industry is now almost as crowded as the Mitford-industry!

Have no idea about the authenticity of the portrait but I felt a shiver down my spine when I saw it in the newspaper. Instinctively I felt it was a genuine likeness.

Laurel Ann (Austenprose) said...

Diana, we are agreement on all three points: Cheryl Kinney's excellent talk, PD James puzzling new mystery AND the hair raising flag waving by Paul Byrne. It makes me ill. In defense of Lindsay Ashford, the author with the arsenic theory, I think that she IS an excellent writer, and that the press is to blame on how the story was presented. She was terribly misquoted. She never said Austen was murdered by arsenic, just that it was a possibility that medicine that she was given may of contained it and killed her. We will never know for sure unless they test the hair again. As always, your insightful bite of the news is spot on.

Desperate Reader said...

I really don't believe in the portrait, and certainly don't believe in the story about it's discovery. William Blake famously drew sketch books full of imaginary portraits(or as he would have it visionary heads)which is just one reason why it's nonsense to say the genre didn't exist. Also the background is clearly fanciful and I don't like that cat which seems to me to add a whole level of sentimentality that feels all wrong. Nothing about it says 'from life' to my eye and yes, it does feel like a cynical marketing ploy.

Regencyresearcher said...

Lady Anne? Anne de Bourge doesn't have Lady before her name.
P.D. James didn't do enough research on the criminal process before the Police act of 1827 or so. In any event, the trial would not have been at Old Bailey. Old Bailey was the court for metropolitan London. Most counties didn't have magistrates, they had Justices of the Peace.
I wish I could have heard Dr. Cheryl Kinney.
I think the portrait might be of some on but it doesn't resonate with me as Jane Austen's. Odd how such "discoveries" are made coincidental to the publication of a book.

Vic said...

Oh, dear, I just ordered Death Comes to Pemberley for my Kindle. I shall have to beware. As for the supposedly new portrait of Jane Austen, I would never have supposed that the distance between her brows and the top of her skull would be so tiny. Sorry, but that detail alone turned me off that portrait forever.

Anonymous said...

I think this posting misses the point - Byrne makes clear in the pre-publicity for her film that she knew about LeFaye's "imaginary portrait" theory but thought that it was implausible: people only started doing "imaginary portraits" of Austen after the cult of Jane emerged in the late 19th century. She obviously thought the portrait was worth investigating to find an alternative explanation: that sounds like scholarly adventurousness, not self-promotion. Has anyone ever seen an "imaginary portrait" of an early 19th century writer? Rev Jones talked about them but never produced any, and he had never heard of Jane Austen. "Memorial portraits" maybe, like Severn of Keats and several of Byron, but they were all based on life portraits. The pre-publicity says that Byrne has evidence dating the portrait to 1815. That means it has to be either Austen or another woman writer - her husband seems to think the latter, but who could it be who was about the same age as JA and looked so uncannily like her brothers?

Laurel Ann (Austenprose) said...

Dear Anonymous, your defensive comment might have more credibility regarding Byrne's pre-publicity of the alleged "new" Jane Austen portrait if you were honest and claimed a persona. As it stands, it reads like the authors publicist orchestrating damage control, or worse yet, her family.

Henry Kirke White said...

More questions not less now we've seen the programme! Deirdre's imaginary portrait theory and Paula Byrne's Eliza Shute link to St Margaret's equally unconvincing wouldn't you say?
Sorry about Anon tag - didn't have a google id at the time!

Diana Birchall said...

Tsk! Henry Kirke White isn't a real name, it's a poet contemporaneous with Austen who died young. There are some imaginary portraits of him floating about! ;-) Methinks our legs are being pulled, Austenprose. However, no hard feelings, Mr. - er - White, except that we are excessively annoyed at not being able to see Byrne's television program. It's not being shown over here in the benighted boondocks.

The Passing Tramp said...

A writer of James' eminence (and sales!) in the world of crime fiction probably doesn't get serious copy editing. Look at the dreck that was being published by an octogenarian Agatha Christie forty years ago. Postern of Fate, the last novel Christie wrote, makes no sense whatsoever.

To eb sure, James did better than that with her latest, but there are much better books even within this specialized niche of Jane Austen-inspired mystery.

Vera Nazarian said...

What a fascinating post, Diana!

Thank you so much for putting your clear-minded perspective on all these three topics!

Paula Byrne said...

judge for yourselves -- my film is currently available in full on youtube @

I guess it's pirated, so may not stay there for long!