Monday, January 25, 2016

Jane Austen Tech Geek

Farleigh Hungerford Castle 1730. A ruin near Bath.

"As they drew near the end of their journey, her impatience for a sight of the abbey...returned in full force, and every bend in the road was expected with solemn awe to afford a glimpse of its massy walls of grey stone, rising amidst a grove of ancient oaks, with the last beams of the sun playing in beautiful splendour on its high Gothic windows." Northanger Abbey chapter 20.

Northanger Abbey is Jane Austen's masterpiece exploring the real versus the imaginary. Catherine Morland is the heroine of Northanger Abbey, although "No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be a heroine." As she grows older her passion is for Gothic novels.

When visiting Bath with her friends Mr. and Mrs, Allen she meets Henry Tilney who "seemed to be about four or five and twenty, was rather tall, had a pleasing countenance, a very intelligent and lively eye, and, if not quite handsome, was rather near it." Eventually, Catherine receives an invitation to visit the Tilney home at Northanger Abbey. Of course, the opportunity to visit an ancient abbey brings out the inner Gothic in Catherine and she expects old ramparts, turrets, and dark drafty corridors.

On the way to the abbey, Henry fuels her Gothic interests. "How fearfully will you examine the furniture of your apartment! -- And what will you discern?-- not tables, toilettes, wardrobes, or drawers, but on one side perhaps the remains of a broken lute, on the other, a ponderous chest which no efforts can open, and over the fire-place the portrait of some handsome warrior, whose features will so incomprehensibly strike you, that you will not be able to withdraw your eyes from it."

Catherine in primed for a true Gothic adventure. However, when she arrives at the abbey she finds it is actually furnished with all the modern comforts. "An abbey!--yes, it was delightful to be really in an abbey!--but she doubted, as she looked round the room, whether anything within her observation would have given her the consciousness. The furniture was in all the profusion and elegance of modern taste. The fireplace, where she had expected the ample width and ponderous carving of former times, was contracted to a Rumford, with slabs of plain though handsome marble, and ornaments over it of the prettiest English china."

I always enjoy the mention of the Rumford as it was designed by one of the cadre of scientists and engineers who, in the 17th and 18th centuries, began creating our modern world.

But what is a Rumford? The Rumford was a new design for a fireplace. It was originally proposed by Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford.

Benjamin Thompson 1753-1814

Benjamin Thompson was born in 1753 in Woburn, Massachusetts. He met and married a wealthy widow named Sarah Rolfe and through her acquired a property called Rumford in Concord, New Hampshire.

Thompson was a Tory and was forced to abandon his property and his wife and flee to England during the American Revolution. After the war he moved to Germany, where he became an aide to the Prince Elector Charles Theodore. Working for Prince Charles he created the Englischer Garten in Munich in 1789. For his efforts, Charles made him a Count of the Holy Roman Empire and he took the name Rumford after his property in New Hampshire.

The beer garden "Am chinesischen Turm" in the Englischer Garten Munich
"Englischer garten gfo2 by Fritz Geller-Grimm

Thompson was a scientist and engineer. His most important contribution to science was his recognition that heat was a result of the motion of atoms and not a liquid, as was commonly believed. As an engineer, he developed the Rumford fireplace that appears in Northanger Abbey to Catherine's disappointment. Rumford's design angled the walls of the fireplace and narrowed the neck of the chimney in order to produce a better updraft. This led to more efficient burning and much less smoke in the room.

Thompson published his ideas in 1796, and his fireplace was an immediate success in London. Very soon after, fashionable drawing rooms became much less smoky.

Jane Austen worked on Northanger Abbey (called Susan at the time) between 1798 and 1799, and she incorporated the latest technology to let readers know just much the real Northanger Abbey differed from Catherine's vision. This is just the first of several rude awakenings Catherine will receive during her visit.

As a final note, you can still buy a Rumford fireplace today. They generally produce less emissions then regular wood burning fireplaces. Sitting beside a modern Rumford might be a the best way to read a Gothic novel, or a Jane Austen satire of a Gothic novel.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Emma Leads

A View of Box Hill, Surrey, 1733. George Lambert - Tate Britain

"Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her." Emma chapter 1

Emma is two hundred years old this year. It was actually published on December 23, 1815, but the publisher put 1816 on the title page, thus giving us an entire year to celebrate what many consider to be Jane Austen’s finest novel.

JASNA CWNY will kick off this celebration year with a discussion of Emma led by our own Celia Easton.  How shall we begin to approach Emma? “With one thing very clever, … or two things moderately clever--or three things very dull indeed…” ? Well, there certainly will not be anything dull about our discussion. We can expect many things very clever.

First of all there is Emma herself. Jane Austen is said to have created a character that only she could love. Emma is a difficult character. She is a snob. She desires an invitation from the Coles so that she can turn it down. She is manipulative in trying to arrange Harriet’s life. She is conceited, and always looking for a compliment.

But Emma has a conscience and does sometimes see her own shortcomings.

“Since her last conversation with Mrs. Weston and Mr. Knightley, she was more conscience-stricken about Jane Fairfax than she had often been.--Mr. Knightley's words dwelt with her. He had said that Jane Fairfax received attentions from Mrs. Elton which nobody else paid her.

"This is very true," said she, "at least as far as relates to me, which was all that was meant--and it is very shameful.--Of the same age--and always knowing her--I ought to have been more her friend.--She will never like me now. I have neglected her too long. But I will shew her greater attention than I have done."” Emma chapter 34.

It’s interesting that the other snobbish, manipulative, and conceited person in the novel is Mrs. Elton. Perhaps Mrs. E can be seen as a more vulgar version of Emma. Emma has many reasons to dislike Mrs. Elton, but perhaps the real reason is that she can see a more raw version of herself. The difference, of course, is that Emma has her revelation on Box Hill. With the help of Mr. Knightley, she learns to recognize herself. If Pride and Prejudice is story of how Elizabeth and Darcy learn to understand each other’s character, Emma is a story about learning to recognize one’s own character.

There is a great deal of contrast between the turmoil Emma experiences on Box Hill and the tranquility of the view.

"Boxhill, Surrey through trees" by Flickr user lostajy - Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons 

Having mentioned Mrs. Elton, I can't help including one of my favorite Jane Austen zingers. At the end of Volume II Mr. Knightley and Emma are discussing who is busiest. Mr. Knightley is enjoying the conversation and trying not to show it.

"Mr. Knightley seemed to be trying not to smile; and succeeded without difficulty, upon Mrs. Elton's beginning to talk to him." Emma chapter 36.

We could spend the entire hour discussing our favorite quotes. However, there is so much more. What should we understand of Mr. Woodhouse? He is one of the most respected but most difficult characters in Highbury. The populace of Highbury would starve if he had his way. (see here for an interesting post about diet in Jane Austen's time) And what about Frank Churchill? Is he hero or villain, or something in between? With Jane Austen it is often not clear.

We could easily spend winter, spring and summer reading and discussing Emma, but we shall at least be assured of a lively and engaging hour of discussion at our next meeting.

See you there.

Event: JASNA CWNY January Meeting
When: Saturday, January 16, 2016 at 1 pm
Where: Barnes and Noble, Community Room, Pittsford, NY