Jane Austen in Covid
by Jane Stabler
Jane Austen has kept a lot of people company during the lockdowns of 2020-2021; Nora Bartlett’s book, Jane Austen: Reflections of a Reader, explains why. The book is a posthumous publication; Nora Bartlett died from a cancer of the oesophagus at the age of only sixty-seven. Editing her talks during lockdown, I was acutely aware—like everyone—of daily freedoms suddenly withdrawn: walking outdoors; travelling anywhere beyond the immediate locality; meeting friends and family members; face-to-face communication; shared meals; unmasked smiles; ungloved touch. Our newly circumscribed existence forced me to reappraise those aspects of Jane Austen’s world which used to govern the lives of her female characters alone. Jane Austen’s fiction recreates the claustrophobia and the long vistas of enforced waiting which defined the daily experience of nineteenth-century women. Covid has made all of us suddenly aware of a new set of social expectations and rules for conduct, together with a depressing sense of diminished expectations. For months now, many of us have been plunged into the listlessness of Catherine Morland when she is sent back to Fullerton at the end of Northanger Abbey before Henry Tilney unexpectedly arrives or we have felt our spirits quail along with Emma Woodhouse’s as she faces the challenge of how to get ‘tolerably through the evening’ at the beginning of Emma or we have experienced Fanny Price’s desperate wish in Mansfield Park to escape to read in peace in the spare room, despite its lack of heating.
Nora Bartlett first read Jane Austen when she was six years old and continued to read and re-read the novels for the next six decades. She discusses the way one’s reading experience of Austen changes over time, the way we never step into the same river or the same novel twice (although people watching re-runs of the 1995 Andrew Davies Pride and Prejudice probably are stepping into the same river twice). The paperback copy of Pride and Prejudice accompanied Nora to palliative chemotherapy sessions and a few days before she died, she fought through the fog of morphine to send an email: ‘Jane, this is idle in the extreme, but when you are back could you send me the quote from Maria Edgeworth about touch in ch. 9 in Persuasion—the letter to the friend saying something like, “could you not feel it?” I am sure it must be in X’s book, but weirdly I can't find that–penalty for lumping together books by size and not alphabetically by author, grrr (to self) wonder if it is in the Norton, hmmm....’. ‘Hmmm’ was one of Nora’s characteristic shorthand expressions for ‘this is worth pondering further’. All the things she singled out for attention were worth pondering further, and this was no exception: Edgeworth’s sentence moves by steps into the feelings of Anne Elliot: ‘Don’t you see Captain Wentworth, or rather don’t you in her place feel him taking the boisterous child off her back as she kneels by the sick boy on the sofa?’ ‘Don’t you in her place feel?’ goes to the heart of why Austen has been such a great escape through lockdown—her novels remind us of what it is to crave and finally to be granted the contact with the rest of the physical world.
‘Jane Austen’s novels are very often treated’, Nora Bartlett writes laughingly, ‘as though they were written by a brainy middle-aged spinster who was not much interested in bodies […] but even her later novels, concern themselves with the workings of the body—sick or well’. This new book highlights the deft touches with which Austen conveys our dependence on the tactile. Here, Nora illuminates, for example, Austen’s capture of the thrilling shock when Marianne Dashwood is lifted up by Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility:
He lifts her without hesitating (‘without farther delay’), despite her maidenly protests, and ‘doesn’t let go’ until he sees her safe. Here he shows a readiness to touch, to act, both strength and tenderness. He is going to turn out to be a cad in Volume II, but before we are distracted by that, we ought to note how much male nursing he seems capable of giving. The key seems to be the capacity for gentle, but unhesitating, action.
This extract is from ‘Courting and Nursing in Jane Austen’s novels’. It was written a long time before the pandemic, but with the timeless relevance of all really good literary criticism, Nora Bartlett goes on to show how Austen relays the physical actuality of the sickbed, the mental stamina required for nursing, and those steely, compassionate feats of repetition before which we all now stand in awe. Penetrating analysis tracks the crisis of Marianne’s fever, alert to the way that one long chapter watches Marianne, hour by hour, through Elinor’s eyes, and through the interventions of Mrs Jennings:
It is beautifully staged: Mrs. Jennings thinks that
Marianne will die and surely her expectation, withheld from Elinor
through an uncharacteristic tact, but communicated in her more usual
incontinent fashion to her maid, is part of the brilliant presentation of
Marianne’s illness, in which the steep rise of her suffering and delirium,
the depiction of Elinor’s terror when Marianne becomes irrational
and babbles incoherently about their mother and London all has to be
attended to closely by the reader, for whom after however many readings
Marianne’s recovery is always an achievement and a relief. And surely a
part of the technical production of that suspense, that uncertainty about
these events, even for the re-reader who has long known the outcome, is
the weight of Mrs. Jennings’s pessimism, Mrs. Jennings who has nursed
her husband in his last illness and perhaps has sat by many deathbeds.
This pessimism adds substance to the undeniable drama of this
episode, as the old lady’s unwise communication to the maidservant is
brought home to the waiting and exhausted Elinor through her second
sleepless night: ‘the servant […] tortured her more, with hints of what
her mistress had always thought’.
The insight about how indirectly information about a patient is often delivered is strikingly original, as is Nora Bartlett’s sensitivity to the way Austen’s prose recreates the hesitant perception that a very sick patient might have turned a corner:
This scene is so beautifully constructed that, though I have read
the novel many times and I know Marianne gets better, I cannot stop
reading until the night is over and the apothecary had made his second
visit in twelve hours (those were the days) and ‘About noon […] she
began—but with a caution—a dread of disappointment, which for some
time kept her silent, even to her friend—to fancy, to hope she could
perceive a slight amendment in her sister’s pulse’.
Nora Bartlett’s book casts new light on Austen’s ability to make touch come alive; she shows us exactly why Anne’s response to Captain Wentworth’s assistance with the clinging child is so tumultuous. Calling it a ‘whirling moment’ of physical intensity, Nora Bartlett traces Austen’s skill in building up Anne’s long years of sensory deprivation, the flickering hope that her self-imposed sentence is at an end, the agony of suspense before the pulse of her life begins again after an almost unbearable postponement. All these insights and more make this warm, funny, compelling book a remarkable companion to the companionship of Austen’s fiction.
Jane Austen: Reflections of a Reader by Nora Bartlett, edited by Jane Stabler is an Open Access title available to read and download for free or to purchase in paperback, hardback and various eBook formats here.