A Mill Pond as Wide as the Sea

by Sherwood Smith

Rebecca West once said about Jane Austen:

Really, it is time this comic patronage of Jane Austen ceased. To believe her limited in range because she was harmonious in method is as sensible as to imagine that when the Atlantic Ocean is as smooth as a mill-pond it shrinks to the size of a mill-pond.

On one of my gazillion rereads of Northanger Abbey, I was paying attention to the differences between young female slang and male slang. This was sparked by an Andy Hardy movie that my daughter and I watched, in which Mickey Rooney’s character was instructing his father in hip slang for females—droop, break, zip—as opposed to the slang of his father’s day—wall flower, cut in, and I-forget-what. To us, the dress and hair of the droop that everyone so rejected was no different than the young lady with zip. They all looked forties. And the guys looked equally droopy.

Back to Northanger.

The Thorpes were Austen’s examples of heedless slang. Isabella is profligate with language, if nothing else. She cannot say five minutes, she speaks of ages, these ten ages, this age, this hour at least. She’s thrown into agonies, she’s in ecstasies, any female she wants to be seen being nice to is as beautiful as an angel or the sweetest girl in the world. “Were I in command of millions, were I mistress of the whole world, your brother would be my only choice.” “You shall be infinitely dearer to me than my own sisters.” That said while she’s busy looking about the ballroom for a better target, once she’s safely attached Catherine’s inexperienced brother.

Thorpe’s slang is not expressed in terms of emotion. Instead, the exaggeration is all in outward display. “This horse cannot run less than ten miles an hour. Tie his legs and he will still get along.” “Did you ever see such a little tittuppy thing in your life? There is not a sound piece of iron about it. The wheels have been fairly worn out these ten years, and as for the body, upon my soul, you might shake it to pieces yourself with a touch. It is the most devilish little ricketty business…I would not be bound to go two miles in it for fifty thousand pounds.”

What we find in Austen is that females did not emulate males, even the most marriage-mad. They had their own slang, their own rules for interactions, their own lives, yes even when a male wasn’t in the room.

Austen usually illustrates her point through the action in her novels, but she comes right out to address the reader from the women’s side—in Northanger Abbey, when she defends novels (she does it twice, actually) and in Persuasion, when Anne and Captain Harville stand at the inn window and debate emotions, Harville saying that histories are proof of males being stronger, a point which Anne will not accept because the pen has always been in male hands.

That exchange is serious. The defenses of the novel are mock and serious both. Austen uses satire to puncture male assumptions of superiority; last night when I finished chapter three, there was that mocking paragraph after Catherine (the heroine) meets Mr. Tilney (the hero):

Whether she thought about him so much, while she drank her warm wine and water, and prepared herself for bed, as to dream about him when there, cannot be ascertained; but I hope it was no more than in a slight slumber, or a morning doze at most; for if it be true, as a celebrated writer has maintained, that no young lady can be justified in falling in love before the gentleman’s love is declared, it must be very improper that a young lady should dream of a gentleman before the gentleman is first known to have dreamt of her.

What male pomposity was she skewering with her sharpened pen? None other than the literary titan Richardson, in Rambler #97.

Note the horrors of women getting to go to restaurants, and this huffy observation: Yet settlements are expected, that often, to a mercantile man especially, sink a fortune into uselessness; and pin-money is stipulated for, which makes a wife independent, and destroys love, by putting it out of a man’s power to lay any obligation upon her, that might engage gratitude, and kindle affection.

Jane Austen was writing during a time when the idea of romantic love was going through as much revolution as politics in various capitals, a revolution that continued to swing the pendulum all through the following century; Jane Carlyle and Mrs. Hemans were once well known for their forward views, though they and their issues have become so invisible that few read those women now.

Not that Austen began the war. She was just a skilled banner carrier, as was Lady Mary Chudleigh, who wrote in 1703:

“To the Ladies”

WIFE and Servant are the same,
But only differ in the Name:
For when that fatal Knot is ty’d,
Which nothing, nothing can divide:
When she the word obey has said,

And Man by Law supreme has made,
Then all that’s kind is laid aside,
And nothing left but State and Pride:
Fierce as an Eastern Prince he grows,
And all his innate Rigor shows:
Then but to look, to laugh, or speak,
Will the Nuptial Contract break.
Like Mutes she Signs alone must make,
And never any Freedom take:
But still be govern’d by a Nod,
And fear her Husband as her God:
Him still must serve, him still obey,
And nothing act, and nothing say,
But what her haughty Lord thinks fit,
Who with the Pow’r, has all the Wit.
Then shun, oh! shun that wretched State,
And all the fawning Flatt’rers hate:
Value your selves, and Men despise,
You must be proud, if you’ll be wise.

Sherwood Smith is a member of Book View Cafe

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A Mill Pond as Wide as the Sea — 14 Comments

  1. Remember the story of Mrs. Gaskell receiving a royalty check for one of her novels? Her husband was respectful and supportive of her work, but regarded the money as his own. He buttoned it up in his pocket without a word of apology.
    I think the fact that Mrs. Gaskell related this story is telling.

  2. That was handed off by Dickens, I believe–she had to go pick up her royalty. Dickens handed it to her husband, who indeed kept it, and nothing more was said.

    BTW can you recommend a good bio of Dickens? Reread Our Mutual Friend recently, which I think his best book.

  3. My fav is Little Dorrit, but Our Mutual Friend is more daring in some ways. But I don’t like Wrayburn and I don’t believe in his transformation.
    I do not know of any good bios of Dickens though. Sorry.

  4. Well, legally Mrs Gaskell’s money was Mr Gaskell’s, wasn’t it? IIRC it wasn’t until 1870 in the UK that a woman could hold any property in her own name rather than her husband’s, and any money she might earn was certainly considered to belong to her husband. By law, it did.

  5. Jane Austen was brilliant. I never tire of reading anything she’s written over and over again.

  6. Pingback: Sunday Morning Reading « Writing and Rambling

  7. Excellent essay! I love that about Northanger Abbey. You can really heard the difference in the voices of serious/decent people and frivolous/shallow people as well as the different ways these things manifest in men and women because of their positions and concerns in that society. That Catherine is young and ignorant gives us a better chance to discover how her world works, which is really neat. From a remove of 200 years, everything seems foreign. Like you said about all the people in that movie seeming 40s, everything in the book seems Regency society from here, but then it does to Catherine, too. It’s neat to disentangle the different pieces of it alongside her, and then of course, if you learn more, you start to notice more acid wit (which is fantastic), but I like that even if you don’t know all the references, the story holds up. It’s like the Mean Girls of its time.

  8. Julia: very, very true about its being the Mean Girls of its time. Austen is so funny, so witty, her stories so engaging, that I don’t think readers realize how sharp her observations were about human interactions, and how much agency she gave to women.

  9. Also, the more the author and her work matured the deeper and broader it became. So many don’t like Mansfield Park and I too tended to dismiss it as not up to Austen standard when I was younger. But the more mature I become the more brilliant becomes Mansfield Park. This may be perhaps more so than even the adored by me and so many, Persuasion, that includes essential secondary characters such as Mrs. Smith and her past and present in the novel.

    Love, C.

  10. Let us be just to Harville. He brings up the point that men wrote them; Anne agrees that they can’t be used, and then argues that it would be impossible to adjudicate, since they start out with a bias in favor of their own sex, and then get it confirmed by circumstances, many of which would be wrong to reveal.

  11. On Austen maturing — this is particularly impressive when you read her juvenelia. Most of it anticipates the satiric aspects of Northanger Abbey, but you can see her growing in Catherine, or The Bower, which shows more of the powers she had later.

  12. Mary, but nobody is speaking ill of Harville.

    Very true about Austen’s development showing through the successive fragments of her juvenilia.