Friday 28 May 2010

Jane Austen and Vicars

Farringdon Church, two miles from Chawton. Jane often walked here and knew the vicar well. She probably attended services here.
Steventon Church, where Jane's father the Reverend Austen was the vicar. Jane was christened here and attended services every week.

This is rather an intriguing sign. It is the sign outside the church in Farringdon."NORTHANGER BENEFICE," no less.

Chawton Parish Church.
St Nicholas.

The main church in Alton.
Alton was the local town to Chawton and Jane often went here shopping. She would have known this church.

A print showing Southampton High Street in the 18th century. All Saints, Dr Mant's church, is the Greek porticoed building on the left.

I'm not sure Jane would approve but I'm sure some of her vicar characters would not be averse to some ,"rumpy pumpy," don't you think.

The new Vicar was up early one Sunday morning, walking around his new parish, after leaving his wife in bed with the Sunday papers, her cup of tea, and a pack of cigarettes.One of the old villagers came up to him and said. “Good morning, Vicar, how be you and the wife?”

The Vicar said, “Good morning my man, I am fine, the wife is fine also. I left her in bed smoking.”
The villager said, “Arr, Vicar, that’s the way to fuck ‘em!”
(Mr and Mrs Norris from Mansfield Park, when they first moved into the living of Mansfield? Perhaps not! )

Jane Austen's relationship with vicars was an integral part of her own life, her father and two of her brothers, James and Henry were vicars. Henry became a curate in various parishes after his bank failed. Many of the most prominent and sometimes important characters in her novels are vicars. Mr Elton in Emma, and Mr Norris, who we never meet and Edward Bertram in Mansfield Park are amongst them.
Being a vicar in the 18th century was a lower middle class occupation. Vicars and vicars wives and families were a specific strata of society. It was considered a way of making a living with property and income attached.

When Emma is discussing with Harriet the suitability of Mr Elliot as a suitor, her considerations are,

" He had a comfortable home for her, and Emma imagined a very sufficient income; for though the vicarage at Highbury as not large, he was known to have some independent property;......"

In Mansfield Park, Mr Norris, never appears, he is merely spoken of by his wife. His character seems to be a foil by which the personality and character of Mrs Norris is accentuated even more sharply.He dies early in the novel . When he is dead Mrs Norris,

"consoled herself for the loss of her husband by considering that she could do very well without him..."

That seems to be a chilling comment. For a person to be unloved and not cared for to that extent by somebody who purports to love them, is quite horrific. Mrs Norris shows her total self interest to a degree, with that statement. Mr Norris may well have been the sort of vicar who only cared about house and income but he doesn't deserve that level of indifference from his wife.

Edmund Bertram, on the other hand, is different. If a definition of a good christian is to judge them by their actions not just their speech, then Edmund portrays what a good christian and vicar should be.

Edmund's thoughtfulness towards Fanny and the quick actions he takes to make her comfortable and the care he shows her are all traits which make him material for a truly christian vicar.

When Fanny is pining after her brother and childhood playmate,William, Edmund, immediately supplies her with writing materials and sees that Fanny's letter is franked and posted.

" If that be all your difficulty, I will furnish you with paper and every other material, and you may write your letter whenever you choose."

Edmund puts himself out considerably for Fanny when he exchanges one of his own three horses for a horse more suitable for Fanny to ride, so she may get exercise.Nothing is too much for him.
Edmund requires a home and some income though. His father is acutely aware of this,when Tom, the elder, reprobate, brother, has squandered a proportion of his fathers wealth on betting and gambling and Sir Thomas is then unable to offer Edmund the living of Mansfield immediately after Mr Norris's death.
" you have robbed Edmund for ten, twenty, thirty years, perhaps for life."

We all need to have food and shelter and clothing on our backs.

The passage in Mansfield Park that really sets out the difference between the materially interested vicar and the true Christian is the discussion between Mary Crawford and Edmund when Miss Crawford finds out that Edmund is to become a vicar. You can immediately see the change in attitude Mary has to Edmund from that moment onwards.

Edmund relates a sort of manifesto about what he thinks a clergyman should be and should not be,
"A clergyman cannot be in a high state or fashion. he must not head mobs, or set the tone in dress. But I cannot call that situation nothing, which has the charge of all that is of the first importance to mankind, individually or collectively considered temporally or eternally- which was the guardianship of religion and morals and consequently from the manners which result from their influence."

Edmund himself is a great example of ,"the manners which result."

Jane throughout her life had first hand knowledge of clergymen. Her father and brothers amongst many. She knew what was good and bad about the profession. She had real life examples to provide her with evidence.

In some of her letters written while living in Castle Square, Southampton, she mentions, Dr Mant, who was the rector of All Souls, a church in Southampton High Street near The Bargate.

Dr Mant had been an Oxford Fellow like her own father, George Austen. Dr Mant was a super star in the firmament of the clergy, having written influential books and pamphlets about theology. He was also a charismatic preacher and Jane often mentions listening to his sermons. He also had been the headmaster of King Edwards Grammar School in Southampton for a number of years. However, Jane suggests a salacious side to him. How much a slightly cruel joke, pointed at her best friend Martha Lloyd, or how much truth there is behind it, it is impossible to ascertain. Jane relates how Mrs Mant left Southampton with her children for a while to get away from the attention her husband, religious super star, that he was, seemed to be attracting.

To Cassandra Austen Tuesday 17th January 1809 from Castle Square,

"Martha & Dr Mant are as bad as ever;he runs after her in the street to apologise for having spoken to a gentleman, while she was near him the day before.- Poor Mrs Mant can stand it no longer; she is retired to one of her married daughters."

Dr Mant was obviously a clergyman on a steep successful career slope. But fine words and sermons don't make Dr Mant, Edmund Bertram's idea of a true vicar. Dr Mant had been a headmaster and given some of his life to educating children which is a giving profession and requires the understanding and development of others. But which sort of vicar was he truly, an Edmund or a Mr Elliot. We cannot tell. He had a very interested following though.

I am sure Jane got her understanding of what a good clergyman is from the experience of her own father and brothers, but did they also provide some of the attributes of Mr Norris and Mr Elliot?

After all, George Austen, Jane's father, retired as vicar of Steventon and moved to Bath. Bath, the 18th century equivalent of Blackpool or Coney Island.

Wednesday 12 May 2010

The Cobb and The Undercliff at Lyme Regis

Walking in The Undercliff. A sheer cliff face in front of us.

The wind nearly blew us off the Cobb.

"Granny's Teeth," also known as the steps Louisa Musgrove jumped down from.

A view of Lyme looking back from The Cobb.

Half way there. We walked for eight miles from Lyme along The Undercliff to Seaton, which is a small village across the border from Dorset in Devon.

Forcing our way through the undergrowth.

I think this says 1826. Your eye sight might be better than mine. It was carved here by the engineers who repaired the Cobb years after Jane died.

A view of the upper and the lower Cobb.The Cobb itself twists to the right after passing these fishermens huts. You can see the top of one of the other sets of steps in the bottom right of this picture.

A view of The Undercliff from the Cobb. It is recorded, not in Jane's own letters but in letters written by either one of her brothers or one of her nieces, that Jane walked in the Undercliff.

The Cobb looks like a black twisting beast in stormy weather. It feels and looks savage.
Two friends of mine riding the back of, "the beast."

The top part of the Cobb slopes outwards towards the sea. It's not always easy to keep your footing.

We got to the end.

It depends on the weather conditions. The Cobb at Lyme can look and behave like an evil spirited leviathan;a Moby Dick. It's a savage beast. At other times it can be a gentle, peaceful and calm creature.

Jane Austen used the Cobb at Lyme for the setting of an integral scene in her novel, Persuasion. The accident on The Cobb, to Louisa Musgrove, in Persuasion, brings Anne Elliot to the fore. She is looked to by Captain Wentworth and the others to take charge.

John Fowles, who lived in Lyme for most of his life, used Lyme , The Cobb and The Undercliff as  the settings for his novel ,The French Lieutenants Woman.These topographical elements of Lyme are like a group of brooding characters within Fowles' novel and shape the action as much as the human characters.The undercliff is  where Sarah Woodruff , the heroine of The French Lieutenants Woman, walked on her own, creating gossip and tittle tattle amongst the stiff spinsters who kept their disapproving, hawk like eyes on her every movement. It is a special place.

Lyme is the place that Mary Anning, in the early 1800's,  discovered the first Ichthyosaur. The cliffs at Lyme reveal  fossils from the Jurassic period, 190 million years ago. Many of her finds are now in The Natural History Museum in Kensington. Lyme has become a fossil hunters paradise.

Myself and some of my friends wanted a weekend away so we decided on Lyme.  We tend to go to places for the local beer and perhaps the beautiful scenery rather than the literary connections. We enjoyed some of the excellent eating establishments in Lyme looking out over the harbour and the cobb and also some of the pubs in the narrow lanes and back streets of the town. We walked for miles along the undercliff from Lyme to Seaton. Much of the walk was under a dense rich canopy of tall growing, ash and lime. It is about an eight mile walk and the walking is quite tiring. At times we had to wend our way through long grasses and along twisting narrow paths.We couldn't always see far ahead. I think this always makes a walk harder. If you can see into the distance that gives you a target. We had to keep going at a steady pace. It wasn't an easy walk. 

As it's name suggests, The Undercliff, is situated on the side and underneath the top of the cliffs that stretch along the Dorset Coast.It is a world heritage site and recognised by UNESCO. There have been many landslides along the coast here. It has been active for 20,000 years. More recent landslips have been recorded in 1775, 1828, 1839 and in 1840. The so called, "Great Slip," occurred in 1839 and was recorded in great detail. These slips happen because of the geological strata of the rocks that form the coast at Lyme. Chalk and sandstone, which are pervious and allow rainwater to percolate through them, sit on top of clays and limestone which are not pervious. The water percolating through the above rocks acts as a lubricant when it reaches the impervious clays and this can cause the top layers to slip over the bottom layers.These slips have created platforms and shelving along the face of the cliff.

The Undercliff is south facing. It has sea breezes but it also has the protection of the cliffs above.This creates a unique environment. It is sheltered and it gets most of the days light. It is a micro climate different from the sea before it and different from the land above and behind it. It is  verdant, almost like a small rainforest.

Saturday 8 May 2010

8th MAY VE Day celebrations

The 8th May. It is 65 years since victory over Europe was achieved.
Here are some pictures of that time.
Waiting for a bus in Whitehall.
Young ladies in the East End. They were tough, full of earthy humour and bomb proof.Do you get their sense of humour? The morning after the night before.
Putting flags up in their garden to celebrate.Crowds in Piccadilly Circus. Notice the statue of Eros is boarded over to protect it from bomb blasts. Singing and dancing in the streets. Having a celebratory drink in a local pub.
Dancing near Regent Street. Churchill with the Royal family on the balcony of Buckingham Palace.
My family, 1944. My grandmother , great grandmother, Aunt Marjorie, my grandfather and my mum. My uncle Howard had been killed earlier that year in a bombing raid over Southampton. My aunt Marjorie in the backgarden. Notice the vegetables and fruit trees. One of the slogans during the war, was "DIG FOR BRITAIN." It meant dig, to grow your own food but also to dig air raid shelters to provide protection from bomb blasts. Here's my mum with the Anderson shelter in the background. It was made of corrugated iron sheets for the walls and the roof, a hole dug 4 or 5 feet into the ground and the earth piled back on top of the roof and walls. It sounds a little makeshift but it worked. Obviously an Anderson shelter wouldn't save anybody from a direct hit but they were effective as a protection from bombs landing nearby and the ensuing blast and shrapnel.

Sunday 2 May 2010

Mummers and May Day celebrations

I've just read an interesting entry on Mary Simonson's Blog ( Austen Inspired Fan Fiction by Mary Simonson)about mummers and May Day celebrations here in England.

I live not far from Wimbledon Common and Wimbledon Green. Every Easter and every May Day, Mummers and Morris dancers perform outside the Crooked Billett and Hand in Hand Pubs next to Wimbledon Green on the edge of the common. You will find Morris men in action in English villages throughout the Summer months.

Three years ago some children and parents from my school, that run a morris dancers society called the, Spring Grove Morris Men, performed on The Green. They have a web site called Spring Grove Morris Men. They offer morris dancing lessons for free, if you are interested.

Some of my family and many of my friends were in the crowd watching them.