Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Chawton House Library Reading Group

The next meeting of the group will be on Monday 18 January and we will be reading:

The History of Mary Prince: a West Indian Slave (1831) by Mary Prince. It can be purchased from the Chawton House Library online store

The inclement weather meant that the Reading Group did not meet on Monday 21 December (we would have been snowed in at Chawton!) and I have promised the group members that we will discuss The Sylph by Georgiana Cavendish first and then move onto Mary Prince, so that no reading, or preparation for the session, will be wasted.

Letters Written in Sweden, Norway and Denmark by Mary Wollstonecraft

The book in October for the reading group was Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark, first published in 1796. It was Wollstonecraft’s last book published during her lifetime and the most popular. The book consists of twenty-five letters written whilst Wollstonecraft travelled round Scandinavia with her baby daughter Fanny.

The letters are primarily a travelogue of the countries Wollstonecraft visits, describing the countries, the people and the beautiful landscapes. She also comments on the political problems, she witnessed. In Norway, in letter thirteen she describes how peasants are recruited into the army, and how unfair the system is that they are not allowed to choose whether they go into service at sea of for the army: ‘And what appears more tyrannical, the inhabitants of certain districts are appointed for the land, others for the sea service.’ Compared with her other travels in France and England, the old aristocracy in Norway and Sweden seemed harsher to her. For instance she saw how criminals are enslaved in Norway, and how the people of Christiana rose to protest the cost of grain: ‘They threw stones at Mr. Anker, the owner of it, as he rode out of town to escape their fury.’

However one of the main themes throughout the book is Wollstonecraft’s questioning of commerce in the countries, and she does not hide her dislike of it. She discusses the war economy that has developed in Scandinavia, creating an unjust taxation on the people involved in the conflict. Her conclusion results in poor commerce, as well as allowing more merchants to take advantage, of more people. She believes that commerce: ‘wears out the most sacred principle of humanity and rectitude.’ She compares the systems in Norway and Sweden to those in England and France, believing that commerce helped with revolution but the people there should be careful of relying to heavily on the system, otherwise it will turn back to the old ways of governing. And by the end of her travels she is particularly scathing: ‘men, indeed seem of the species of the fungus; and the insolent vulgarity which a sudden influx of wealth usually produces in common minds.’

The book is very emotional one, as well as political. Wollstonecraft initially took the trip for her lover Gilbert Imlay, to retrieve a stolen treasure ship for him (although this is never mentioned directly in the book itself) in hope that this would mend their fading relationship. Her feelings over Imlay are reflected in many of the letters, particularly towards the end of the book, when she perceives that Imlay is no longer committed to the relationship or their daughter. The letters do not mention Imlay specifically as they are all written in the first person, but whilst discussing her ideas on commerce, it can be seen that she attacking a specific person: ‘Ah! I shall whisper to you –that you—yourself are strangely altered since you have entered deeply into commerce.’ This is from letter twenty-three when she is in Hamburg, where Imlay was supposed to meet her but failed to, so her emotional state had worsened and this can be easily felt through her writing. A result of this is she leaves for London earlier than expected and so ends the book, giving it a slightly rushed and unfinished feeling to it, reflecting the author’s troubled emotional state.

Morwenna Roche

Friday, 20 November 2009

A Simple Story by Elizabeth Inchbald

Inchbald's A Simple Story was the reading group's first book of of the 2009-2010 season. The title seems to deliberately provoke us into thinking what is simple about this story. The plot is far from simple, some of the characters are forced to navigate complicated social situations and we are left at the end with the unsatisfactory assertion that daughters require 'a proper education'. Who though in this story does receive a proper education?

The narrative spans two generations and Inchbald does not neatly resolve the problems of the first generation with a happy marriage promised between the second generation, as Emily Bronte does later in her two generation tale Wuthering Heights. In the first half of the novel the troubled courtship of Miss Milner and Dorriforth ends in their marriage but at this point, at the end of volume II, the reader knows it is a doomed marriage. Dorriforth, now Lord Elmwood, puts a mourning ring on his bride's finger.

Inchbald's ironic treatment of which of these two has received a proper education prompts us to question what an education is, should be and what its purpose is. Miss Milner, we are told, is a spoiled and indulged young woman who has not received a proper education. She abandons herself to frivolity and does not apply herself to the correct forms for ideal female behaviour in the opinion of other characters. She is however sensitive and responsive to the circumstances and emotions of those she cares about. While she can be impulsive, she is also more consistently compassionate towards others than any other character in the novel. Dorriforth has received the proper education for a man of his position but he is dogmatic, and unyielding, in his judgement of others. It is quite clear that he falls in love with Miss Milner despite himself and his education has taught him nothing about human understanding and compassion. The differences in temperament between the two leads irrevocably to the breakdown of their marriage.

Matilda, their daughter, grows up in rural isolation with her exiled mother. After her mother's death she lives in a house her father rarely visits under the condition that he is never to see her. She does meet her cousin, Rushbrook, and they become friends - again two characters of very different temperament. This time Rushbrook is the giddier one despite a correct education for a young man of his status. He is the heir to the Elmwood title, not Matilda, and Matilda schooled 'by adversity' is the more serious and bookish. In exile with her mother she had the run of a library and occupied herself with reading. A phenomenon amongst several women Inchbald was acquainted with who had intellectual ambition but no formal education. At the end of the novel we our left with no clear sense that Matilda will accept Rushbrook's proposal of marriage; we are also left wondering who in this novel has had a proper education. In some respects Miss Milner's open spirit with genuinely felt emotional responses seems the more attractive, even if she is finally broken.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

National Poetry Day

Aphra Behn: The Libertine, 1640-1689

A THOUSAND martyrs I have made,
All sacrificed to my desire,
A thousand beauties have betray'd
That languish in resistless fire:
The untamed heart to hand I brought,
And fix'd the wild and wand'ring thought.

I never vow'd nor sigh'd in vain,
But both, tho' false, were well received;
The fair are pleased to give us pain,
And what thay wish is soon believed:
And tho' I talked of wounds and smart,
Love's pleasures only touch'd my heart.

Alone the glory and the spoil
I always laughing bore away;
The triumphs without pain or toil,
Without the hell the heaven of joy;
And while I thus at random rove
Despise the fools that whine for love.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Next CHL Reading Group meeting

Time has passed so rapidly and our next meeting is on Monday 21 September and we are reading Elizabeth Inchbald's A Simple Story. To purchase this book visit our page on Amazon:

It will raise funds for the Library and help us to keep developing the collection.

Friday, 21 August 2009


CHL Library news and quirky personal peccadilloes

The Madwoman in the Attic

This week's Times Higher Education features The Madwoman in the Attic by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar under its series on the literary canon ('The Canon', p. 47). A text I'm glad to say we have in the collection here at Chawton House Library. Deborah D. Rogers, professor of English at the University of Maine, ends her article with a question often raised about the recovery of women writers: '... some argue that ghettoising female authors is no longer necessary to counteract their marginalisation. For them, the time has come for a more integrative history of literature. But, echoing my children's complaints on long drives, I can't help but ask: "Are we there yet?"'

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Hester Thrale Piozzi

It's excellent to see Hester Thrale Piozzi, TLS August 7 2009, featured in the Life and Lives of Dr Johnson (just as she should be!) at The National Portrait Gallery. The exhibition runs until December 13.

Read Man of Fetters: Dr Johnson and Mrs Thrale by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker:

and search our online catalogue for Thrale Piozzi holdings at Chawton House Library:

Friday, 14 August 2009

Villette by Charlotte Bronte and Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell

As I've been on annual leave there has been time to listen to the radio and BBC Radio 4 have featured dramatisations of both Villette and Ruth. Catch up with them on i-player:

There's also been lots of fun with Desperate Romantics and BBC 2:

Friday, 31 July 2009

Explore the inside of the collection at Chawton House Library

There is now a recommended reading page on Amazon that gives a taste of the first and early editions held in the collections at Chawton House Library:

Explore the collections using the online catalogue as well;

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Reading Group Books

Use this link to buy the books for the 2009 - 2010 session of the Chawton House Library Reading Group:

The list can be found on the blog at:

I hope that many of you that can't make it here will read along and post your comments on the books as they are reviewed.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Chawton House Library Books - a new series of reprints

Chawton House Library houses a unique collection of early women’s writing from the period 1600–1830. Housed in the Elizabethan manor that once belonged to Edward Knight, it is a library with a direct connection to his celebrated sister, the novelist JaneAusten (1775–1817) who moved to Chawton with her mother and sister in 1809. The library contains early (and frequently rare) editions of novels, plays, memoirs, poetry and travel writing by women, as well as works on education, history, science and botany. One fascinating section of the collection offers literature pertaining to women’s lives in the long eighteenth century: cookery books, guides on how to manage domestic servants and setting down exactly what is required of a lady’s maid, how to dress and educate one’s children, instructions on how to behave and what to read to improve oneself. It is this area of the collection that this series will celebrate. Jane Austen’s interest in the domestic in her letters to her sister Cassandra has enchanted generations of her readers. Writing from Chawton, Austen rejoices in a great crop of Orleans plumbs, whilst lamenting the wretched appearance of Cassandra’s mignionette, and relating that Miss Benn has a new maid from near by Alton; she tells her sister that they will have ducks next week, and enquires after ‘peices for the Patchwork’; she says of their cook that she is ‘tolerable’ and that ‘her pastry is the only deficiency’; she approves Fanny and Cassandra’s bonnets, and tells of her pleasure in ‘receiving, unpacking & approving our Wedgwood ware’. Austen’s letters to Cassandra are a rich source for piecing together female domesticity in the early nineteenth century. One can, however, have too much of a good thing: Austen famously writes, after a visit from her brother Edward to Chawton in September 1816, ‘Composition seems to me Impossible, with a head full of Mutton Joint and Rhubarb’. Austen’s major preoccupation at Chawton was, after all, not the running of a household, but rather the publication, revision and composition of her six novels, all of which were sent out from Chawton to be published between 1811 and1818. In these classic works of English literature, the way in which the domestic informs the narrative intrigues a twenty-first century reader. Would Betty’s sister, an excellent housemaid who works very well with her needle, have done well as a lady’s maid for the Dashwoods in Sense and Sensibility? Can we ever have such an intricate understanding of the variety and merits of strawberries as the party at Donwell Abbey in Emma? It is to the literature of Austen’s own period that we must turn for answers to these, and many other, vexing questions. For those who wish to understand Mr Woodhouse’s discourses in praise of gruel in Emma, Mrs Bennet’s anxiety when there is not a bit of fish to be got and Lizzie Bennet’s preference for a plain dish over a ragout in Pride and Prejudice, these reprints of rare texts from the Chawton House Library collection will have much to offer. What precisely were the ‘usual stock of accomplishments’ taught to Henrietta and Louisa Musgrove at school in Exeter in Persuasion, and why does Lydia gape at Mr Collins’s reading of Fordyce’s Sermons in Pride andPrejudice? Some answers will be found in Chawton House Library reprints of conduct literature. And for a true understanding of what it might mean for Fanny Price to be scorned by her better-dressed cousins for having only two sashes in Mansfield Park, for Henry Tilney to understand muslins particularly well in Northanger Abbey, and indeed just how Lucy Steele might have gone about trimming up a new bonnet, with pink ribbons and a feather, in Sense and Sensibility, instruction will come from reprints of works on eighteenth-century dress and fashion. All profits from this series of reprints will go directly towards the Chawton House Library acquisitions fund, helping us to improve and expand the library collection for generations of future readers.

Gillian Dow
Chawton House Library

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Images and music

People who know me, know I'm a Persephone Book fan and I've been enjoying the Persephone Post's collection of images It made me wonder if all of you out there have recommendations for a soundtrack? I can think of several: Jacqueline Du pre playing Elgar, Dusty Springfield and Joy Division's 'Love will tear us apart', just to get started ...

Monday, 6 July 2009

Fashion and dress in the collection

Fashion as we know it - a series of rapidly mutating trends in the style of the dress - began in the eighteenth century. The way a person dresses, the clothing they select, sends out a set of social signals that communicate class and status. It is also the most personal form of self-expression and the choice of what both covers and decorates the body leads us to form conclusions, conscious or unconscious, about each other.

Jane Austen’s letters reveal her interest in being fashionable: ‘My black cap was openly admired by Mrs. Lefroy, and secretly I imagine by everyone else in the room’ (Steventon to Godmersham, 1798). Her niece, Fanny Knight, owned copies of La Belle Assemblee, like those on display here, and periodicals such as these, or Ackerman’s Repository and the Lady’s Magazine contained engravings of the latest styles. Newspapers also offered information on current fashions. This commodification of dress for the leisured classes gave employment to writers and illustrators, just as today fashion magazines thrive on the twice-yearly output of the fashion industry.

News of fashion spread by word of mouth and by letter remained important, especially for those without access to periodicals. Austen demonstrates this in an 1814 letter to Martha Lloyd: ‘I am amused by the present style of female dress; the coloured petticoats with braces over the white Spencers and enormous Bonnets upon the full stretch, are quite entertaining. It seems to me a more marked change than one had lately seen.’

Dress in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, as displayed here, was an indicator of a person’s wealth and status and considerable expense was necessary to maintain a fashionable lifestyle. Fashion demanded followers from all classes and again Austen was a participant, if not victim, in the need to consume the latest trends. She wrote from London in 1811: ‘I am getting very extravagant & spending all my Money …’ and she lists two different muslins and Wedgwood as items on her shopping list. Remaining fashionable required more than lengths of fabric: there were also ribbons and other trimmings, sewing and embroidery threads, buttons and, maybe, a dressmaker. Then there were shawls, cloaks and hats, bonnets and caps, veils, headdresses, shoes and gloves, not forgetting, fans, bags, reticules, jewelry, and underneath it all underwear and stockings.

In Austen’s Persuasion Sir Walter Elliot is ridiculed for his vanity and obsession with fashion. He examines himself in the mirror, feels that Lady Russell could do with the help of some makeup and recommends Gowland’s Lotion for improving complexions. A real product of the period, Gowland’s Lotion was advertised in 1814 as a solution to face and skin problems just as facial skincare is sold today. For those that could afford more than a sliver of soap toilet waters were a fashionable part of personal hygiene and in 1822 George IV’s perfume bill was £263. It is still possible to buy some of the fragrances made around this time, which were eau de colognes and single flower waters, especially lavender, rose and orange flower.

In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) by Mary Wollstonecraft, Austen’s contemporary, an interest in fashion as a form of 'slavery': 'The air of fashion which many young people are so eager to attain, always strikes me like the studied attitudes of some modern prints, copied with tasteless servility after the antique; the soul is left out, and none of the parts are tied together by what may properly be termed character.' Wollstonecraft dressed with apparent carelessness which signalled her seriousness as a philosopher, just as in the twentieth century Katherine Hepburn wore old clothes, safety-pinned, to show she had not been seduced by Hollywood's glamour.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

The Compleat Housewife

Chawton House Library has published a new edition of The Compleat Housewife by Elizabeth Smith. It is a transcription of the 15th edition first published in 1753 with the frontispiece and original title page in facsimile; also, some of the fold-out table settings in the original book have been reproduced as the end-papers. The Compleat Housewife was first published in 1727 and it was the first cookbook available in the US when it was published there in 1742. It famously contains the first known recipe for ketchup, which was then a condiment using anchovies and was inspired by oriental condiments such as soy and oyster sauce.

Copies of the book are available from Chawton House Library and, shortly, online from the website for £18.00. It is a beautifully bound hardback book that will transport readers to life in the eighteenth century. It is also the first in a series of reprints from the Library's collection that will focus on the domestic aspects of life in the eighteenth century and the profits will go directly to the Chawton House Library acquisitions fund.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Monday, 22 June 2009

The Massacre featured on BBC R4's Today programme

You can listen to the feature about Inchbald's suppressed play The Massacre on Radio 4's Today programme:

and you'll find a biography of Inchbald, with a bibliography, on the Chawton House Library website:

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Elizabeth Inchbald in production

Last year the Theatre Royal Bury St. Edmunds toured productions of Elizabeth Inchbald's Wives as they were and Animal magnetism, and the Reading Group had an enjoyable evening watching them in the audience at the Haymarket, Basingstoke. These two productions were laugh-out-loud comedies and the success of this revival has led to the Theatre Royal reviving Inchbald's tragedy The Massacre:

The performances are from June 23 - 27 2009. Hopefully, it will go on tour and reach as wide as possible an audience.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Orange news

A second posting today, as I catch up with news about women writers and readers - at the beginning of this month the Orange Prize was won by Marilynne Robinson and her novel Home This April I was in Iowa City for the British Women Writers Conference 2009 and had an interesting conversation with a woman over my supper one evening about the work of Marilynne Robinson. Robinson teaches at the University of Iowa and the city has a vibrant community of creative writers.

Dorothy Whipple on the BBC

I have just discovered that Radio 4 is running a series of readings from Dorothy Whipple's The Closed Door Persephone Books have re-published Whipple's books and their list includes The Closed Door among other titles including the increasingly popular Someone at a Distance. The episode I listened to was 'Family crisis', a story in which an unmarried daughter in her late 20s can no longer be taken for granted.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Jane's Fame

Author of bestselling biographies Claire Harman was a Visiting Fellow at Chawton House Library in 2008. BBC Radio 4 have adapted her latest book Jane's Fame for their book of the week at the beginning of June. It starts on Monday 1 June:

It is being read by actress Alice Krige and will be on at 9.45 every morning or you can catch up with it on BBC i-player.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Reading Group 18 May 2009 - The Last Man by Mary Shelley

Our final session of the 2008-2009 schedule was held at the Thedden Grange, home of Sheila, one of the group members. We thoroughly enjoyed the wonderful lunch prepared for us all and the house was so beautiful some of us wanted to move in! Thedden Grange has Austen/Knight/Lefroy family connections and made a more than appropriate setting for our discussion of this month's book, The Last Man by Mary Shelley, which though set in 2073 is a Romantic novel with an apocalyptic vision strikingly like a John Martin painting.

The future visions of Shelley imagine Britain as a republic with a benign protector voted in for 3 years, and after a brutal war between Greece and the Turkish Empire there is a brief period of peace and progress in a democratic Europe; winged flying machines are also imagined, where hot air balloons have mechanised feathered wings to increase their speed. Notably there is no use of steam power's applications at the time Shelley is writing - her Utopia is one of education; reading, writing, discussion and moral imperatives. The Industrial Revolution' s dirt and danger has no part in Shelley's London with its new museum celebrating the achievements of humankind, or the idyl of Verney's life in Windsor. The world Shelley creates is destroyed by pestilence, an indiscrimate destructive force that sweeps away not only those that Verney loves, but all of humanity leaving him alone, the last man.

What Shelley does supremely well is to display a perceptive understanding of human nature and human relationships. At the age of 26 she creates characters whose lives, experiences, thoughts and actions demonstrate considerable experience and understanding of human desires, and the consequences of peoples' choices. In her letters at the time of writing the novel she expresses her own feelings of desolation at losing nearly everyone she has loved - bereft, alone like Verney. She writes of love and loss, betrayal and forgiveness, of noble ambitions and the waste of war. Humanity can apply itself to overcome the problems it creates for itself but it is defeated by inexplicable events like Shelley's epidemic, or the real events of the volcanic explosions of Krakatoa (1883), or Mount Tambora (1816) which inspired Byron's poem 'Darkness'. In The Last Man some of the characters are defeated, like people in Shelley's own life, by despair and take their own lives. Verney is unable to do this and continues on his own,' A solitary being is by instinct a wanderer', hoping that each new place will ameliorate his condition. Verney, like other survivors in Shelley's writing voyages off in a boat at the end and we have the image of a solitary figure sailing away to an unknown fate.

The Last Man is a novel which has transparently autobiographical influences, in particular Adrian who is clearly a portrait of Percy Pyssche Shelley, and Raymond of Byron. The author creates a sympathetic character in Raymond, good, kind and brave, but human and able to behave badly. He is, however, not morally corrupt and in her grief over Byron's death Shelley creates a friend's portrait of Byron that is very much at odds with his public persona.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Mary Wollstonecraft - 250 years on

The BBC are celebrating the 250th anniversary of the birth of Mary Wollstonecraft with a series of three letters addressed to her The first is by Janet Todd on Wollstonecraft's treatise Thoughts on the Education of Daughters and there are 3 days left to listen to it on BBC i-player. The second will be Richard Reeves updating Wollstonecraft on her ideas about republicanism. The BBC link will take you to the information page with the episode and schedule details.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Reading Group schedule 2009 - 2010

The reading group has continued busily since September 2008 reading a range of books including The Grasmere and Alfoxden Journals by Dorothy Wordsworth and The Wanderer by Frances Burney. As a slight departure, the final book of the 2009-2010 season will be Elizabeth’s Gaskell’s Ruth because 2010 is the bicentennial anniversary of Elizabeth Gaskell’s birth and she had local connections, owning a house, The Lawns, in Holybourne, Alton.

18 May 2009 The Last Man by Mary Shelley

Summer break from June 2009 – August 2009

21 September 2009 A Simple Story (1791) by Elizabeth Inchbald

19 October 2009 Letters written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796) by Mary Wollstonecraft

16 November 2009 Millenium Hall (1762) by Sarah Scott

21 December 2009 The Sylph (1779) by Georgiana Cavendish Devonshire

18 January 2010 The History of Mary Prince: a West Indian Slave (1831) by Mary Prince

15 February 2010 Oroonoko: or the history of the royal slave (1688) by Aphra Behn

15 March 2010 Coelebs in search of a wife: comprehending observations on domestic habits and manners, religion and morals (1809) by Hannah More

19 April 2010 The Wonder (1714) by Susannah Centlivre

17 May 2010 Ruth (1853) by Elizabeth Gaskell.

For more information please contact the Library on 01420 541010 or