Marian Veevers

Author of Jane and Dorothy

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Random thoughts - mostly about the Lake District and the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.


By marianveevers, Aug 18 2017 10:06AM

Elizabeth Bennet's northern tour was shortened because of her uncle's business commitments and did not reach as far as the Lake District. Though initially disappointed about this, Elizabeth did not, of course, regret in the end the alteration of plan – for she found more than enough to amuse her in Derbyshire!

But I do sometimes find myself wishing that she had been able to travel a little further north. And sometimes I amuse myself by wondering about which places she would have visited, the course her journey might have taken, the views she might have stopped to admire.

Elizabeth's creator was – according to brother, Henry Austen – 'enamoured of Gilpin on the Picturesque'; so Elizabeth would probably have carried a copy of that gentleman's Observations on the Lake District and the West of England with its instructions for appreciating picturesque beauty. And picturesque beauty, according to the rather didactic Reverend Mr Gilpin, was 'that kind of beauty which is agreeable in a picture'.

So I like to imagine that Lizzie and her aunt and uncle might have found their way to one of my favourite places in the Lake District: a place where a scene is actually turned into a picture – and even has a frame around it.

The grotto beside the small waterfall at Rydal Hall was built for some of Westmorland's earliest sight-seers in the seventeenth century, and, by 1797 when William Gell made his tour of the area, it was one of the accepted places to visit. In his journal he describes how, under the shrubbery, 'is conceald the lower cascade, and it is so artfully contrived as to make what is really nothing in itself at least pleasing if not grand.'

Walking away from the hall itself – which he describes as 'handsome and spacious' – he says,

'We passed along a short winding path, closely bordered with young spruce or Silver firs, till we came to the door of a little low summer house, which on opening, presented us through a large square window in the opposite wall with a miniature of as beautiful and romantic a fall of water as the imagination can conceive, within so very limited a compass.'

I even like to think that this exquisite little view would have been so memorable as to ensure that it, at least, would be remembered exactly and not 'jumbled together' with other experiences, in the way which Jane Austen had clearly found insufferable as her acquaintances recounted their own travels.

The grotto still exists in the grounds of Rydal Hall and has recently been beautifully restored. Standing in it and looking out at the scene, the modern visitor is taken back two hundred years or so to share a delightful experience with travellers such as the Gardiners and their niece.

By marianveevers, Jun 22 2017 10:17AM

There's no doubt about it, William Wordsworth's friend, Robert Southey, was a handsome man. There is a print of him hanging in an upstairs room at Dove Cottage and when I introduce him to visitors, many – particularly the ladies in the company – are very favourably impressed by his looks. Some have even paid him the ultimate compliment of seeing in him their idea of the hero of Pride and Prejudice.

The fine features and the elegant Georgian outfit are certainly suggestive of a Darcy – though maybe he is rather slight and fragile looking for the master of Pemberley, whose height wins Mrs Bennet's admiration. But the comments I've heard have set me thinking…

Perhaps there is something in Mr Southey's air: a mixture of hauteur, self-assurance and reliability that brings Mr Darcy to mind: something that says here is a handsome fellow with inner strength and hidden depths. The sensual man that Coleridge's portraits reveal certainly looks more like the kind of character who might persuade a girl to elope to Gretna Green – and then take her no further than a bed in a sleazy area of London. And Wordsworth's hard, driven look… No, it's no good, my imagination fails me. I can't fit William Wordsworth into a Jane Austen novel.

But maybe there was just a touch of Darcy in Southey. Like Mr Darcy who intervenes so gallantly to save Lydia Bennet from ruin, Robert Southey also protected a lady's reputation when he sternly insisted the young and highly unreliable Coleridge should marry Sarah Fricker. The reputation in this case was not damaged by elopement, but partly by what Jane Austen would have termed Sarah's 'unguarded behaviour ', namely 'walking about Bristol with two such remarkable and well-known young men as Coleridge and Southey'; and partly as a result of a rumour that Coleridge and Southey's radical philosophy of Pantisocracy 'dispensed with the marriage tie'.

But even as a young man Robert Southey was not so radical he did not believe his friend should do his 'duty' and stand by the young lady.

'And they are really to be married!' cries Elizabeth Bennet when she hears of her sister's approaching wedding. 'And for this we are to be thankful. That they should marry, small as is their chance of happiness, and wretched as is his character, we are forced to rejoice! O Lydia!' In fact Sarah's friends might, with some justice, have made a similar lament. Samuel Taylor Coleridge had not quite a wretched character (I wrong him a little by turning him into a Wickham), but he was a confirmed opium addict and the union which Southey had promoted was to prove excruciatingly unhappy.

Robert Southey married Edith, Sarah's sister, and worked steadily towards success and respectability – eventually becoming Poet Laureate in 1813. That Darcyesque sense of responsibility remained strong and it was he who provided support for Sarah and her children as her relationship with Coleridge disintegrated.

In many ways it was a happy home that was shared in Keswick by the Southey and Coleridge families. Robert Southey certainly seems to have possessed those 'strong domestic habits' which Jane Austen admired in a man. 'A house,' he believed 'is never perfectly furnished for enjoyment unless there is a child in it rising three years old, and a kitten rising three weeks.'

We are never told Mr Darcy's opinion of poetry, children or kittens. (And, personally, I deeply regret the last omission. After all, what are £10,000 a year and extensive grounds if a man can't cuddle a kitten? I've always thought that a few cat hairs on the immaculately fitted waistcoat, a slightly chewed cravat, would be necessary to produce the ideal Regency gentleman.) But I think I'm justified in seeing a little hint of Fitzwilliam Darcy in Robert Southey.

However, I cannot believe that Mr Darcy – for whom Jane Austen herself must have had a deep affection – would have shared Mr Southey's opinion on one very important subject. 'Literature,' he told Charlotte Bronte when she sought his advice, 'cannot be the business of a woman's life, and it ought not to be.'

No! Mr Darcy would never have said that…would he?

By marianveevers, Jun 8 2017 01:20PM

Today is the day! No, I'm not talking about the General Election which has been so very inconsiderately scheduled; I refer, of course, to the publication of my new book Jane and Dorothy: A True Tale of Sense and Sensibility. For the last three years it has occupied my thoughts – and now it is out there, in the hands of readers. This, as every author knows, is an odd, confusing day of triumph, anxiety and surprising anti-climax.

But today Jane Austen and Dorothy Wordsworth, the two talented women who never met in their lifetimes, but who have been brought together (perhaps a little surprisingly) between the covers of my book, continue to occupy my mind. Have I done justice to the remarkable lives of these two women who faced the same injustices and restrictions of Georgian life and battled, in their own ways, to find meaning and a degree of autonomy?

Jane was such a reserved person, it has not been any easier for a twenty-first century writer to get close to her than it was for her acquaintances over two hundred years ago when she confessed to her sister that she had difficulty in finding people 'agreeable'. In only two of her surviving letters do the strong feelings which are evident in her novels, break out. And those are the letters which she wrote about her delectable dancing partner, Tom Lefroy. It is the uncharacteristic exuberance of these two letters which helps to convince me that her passion for this young Irish law-student was highly important in her life. But research into the life and character of Mr Lefroy, left me in serious doubt as to their happiness together had they married. The man revealed in Tom Lefroy's letters is not a bit like the exciting, rather dangerous young man portrayed in fictions such as Becoming Jane. And I believe there was another, more important, reason for Jane's disappointed hopes than simply her lack of fortune.

Dorothy seems, at first, to be an easier person to understand. 'What is uppermost in my mind I must write,' she once told a friend, and promised to always share the secrets of her heart. Here, we might suppose, is a 'sensibility' to contrast with Jane's 'sense'. But, as I got to know her better, I found Dorothy frequently obscured her feelings; there is an obliqueness and confusion in her writing which hints at unhappiness. Speculation about the exact nature of the loving relationship she enjoyed with her brother William began during her own lifetime and still continues. My research revealed a heart-breaking complex of emotions, and one simple fact which may have impacted deeply on Dorothy's chances of happiness and made it impossible for her to live at peace with the man she loved.

So, have I done justice to Jane and Dorothy? This is publication day; and that question is no longer one for me to answer. It is for my readers to decide.

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