Jane Austen and her family’s entertainment culture

Stream: Jane Austen
Date: Friday, 20 May 2022
Time: 1.30 pm – 3.00 pm

Abstract

Jane Austen grew up within the entertainment culture of her close-knit, clever, highly literate family in Steventon Parsonage. Her brothers James and Henry, as well as, most interestingly, her mother, were writers of comic verse, and competed with each other with parodies, charades and riddles, amusing themselves and teasing their relatives. This paper argues that the young Jane absorbed this culture and that it pervades her later writing. I shall focus on Northanger Abbey, treating this novel - unpublished in Austen's lifetime, as juvenilia. In 'Catherine' (the title under which Jane Austen knew her manuscript) Henry Tilney, perhaps ten years older than she is, makes a surprising but telling remark to Catherine: 'I am authorized to tease you on this subject whenever we meet, and nothing in the world advances intimacy so much'. Taking my lead from this remark, I explore the notion, activity and scope of teasing in two forms: as a conversational tactic by Austen's characters, and as a technical tool by the author. The dual, uncertain, unverifiable meaning that a 'teasing' offers advances her readers' engagement, enabling them to feel when they catch on, that they are as Katherine Mansfield observed, her intimate friends. A crucial aspect of the entertainment culture at Steventon was performance: engagement with the other, with the object of your teasing, but also and most famously, the performance of plays, so frequently that their friends and neighbours called them the 'Steventon Theatricals'. The School for Scandal was one of these plays and this paper will also attend to the interchanges of Sir Peter and Lady Teazle.

Author

John Wiltshire (Presenter), La Trobe University
John Wiltshire is an Emeritus Professor at La Trobe University, Melbourne. He has published several books about Jane Austen, including, most recently, The Hidden Jane Austen, and has edited Mansfield Park in the Cambridge Edition. His most recent book is Frances Burney and the Doctors: patient narratives then and now. Besides later eighteenth and early nineteenth century literature, he publishes in the new field of Medical Humanities.