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Thursday, 26 May 2016

The Austen-Edgeworth connection

Left: Maria Edgeworth from Life and Letters of Maria Edgeworth ed A Hare (1895)
Right: Jane Austen from A Memoir of Jane Austen by JE Austen Leigh (1871)
Two of the women I am researching for my book—What Regency Women Did For Us—were novelists. One is undoubtedly today’s best known Regency novelist – Jane Austen; the other is the lesser known Maria Edgeworth. You might be surprised to hear that it was not always that way round. Back in their day, it was Maria Edgeworth who was the more famous of the two and the more commercially successful. Indeed, she probably earned more money from her novels during her lifetime than any of her contemporaries.

Maria Edgeworth wrote both fiction and non-fiction works and became well-known after the publication of Essays on Practical Education in 1798, which she co-wrote with her father, Richard Lovell Edgeworth.

The Leigh Perrot connection

I don’t know whether Maria’s family knew the Austens, but her father was certainly acquainted with Jane’s great aunt and uncle, the Leigh Perrots. Richard Lovell Edgeworth became acquainted with the Leigh Perrots when living in Berkshire before Maria was born. His memoirs include a letter written by James Leigh Perrot in 1795 confirming his observations of Richard’s experiments in telegraphic communication back in 1767.

Richard wrote to congratulate the Leigh Perrots in 1800 after Mrs Leigh Perrot was successfully cleared from false charges of shoplifting.

Richard Lovell Edgeworth
from Memoirs of Richard Lovell Edgeworth (1821)
I wonder whether Jane and Maria ever met. I haven’t come across any evidence of such a meeting. However, they were definitely aware of each other’s work and read some, if not all, of it.

Austen on Edgeworth

In a letter to her niece Anna, an aspiring author, Jane Austen wrote:
“I have made up my mind to like no novels really but Miss Edgeworth's, yours, and my own.” (1)
Belinda, one of Maria Edgeworth’s novels, was published in 1801 and Jane made reference to it in Northanger Abbey. Although the first draft, then entitled Susan, was written in the late 1790s, Jane revised the manuscript before selling it to the publisher Crosby in 1803. She mentions Belinda in her wonderful defence of the novel, along with Cecilia and Camilla, two books written by Fanny Burney:
“‘And what are you reading, Miss——?’
‘Oh, it is only a novel!’ replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference or momentary shame. ‘It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.’” (2)
Top: Illustration from Belinda
by Maria Edgeworth (1848 edition)
Bottom: Illustration from Northanger Abbey
by Jane Austen (1833 edition)
Edgeworth on Austen

Maria Edgeworth clearly enjoyed reading Jane Austen’s work. She wrote in a letter to her cousin:
“We have been much entertained with Mansfield Park.” (3)
When Emma was published, Jane sent a list of people to her publisher to whom she wanted a set of volumes sent, unbound, labelled ‘from the author’. Maria Edgeworth was one of those to whom Emma was sent.

We know that Maria received the volumes because she wrote to her aunt:
“The authoress of Pride and Prejudice has been so good as to send me a new novel just published, Emma.” (4)
But the most fascinating passage I have come across is in a letter that Maria Edgeworth wrote to her aunt in 1818, after reading Northanger Abbey, and whilst she was in the middle of reading Persuasion:
“I entirely agree with you, my dearest aunt, on one subject, as indeed I generally do on most subjects, but particularly about Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. The behaviour of the General in Northanger Abbey, packing off the young lady without a servant or the common civilities which any bear of a man, not to say gentleman, would have shown, is quite outrageously out of drawing and out of nature. Persuasion— excepting the tangled, useless histories of the family in the first fifty pages—appears to me, especially in all that relates to poor Anne and her lover, to be exceedingly interesting and natural. The love and the lover admirably well drawn: 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? And is not the first meeting after their long separation admirably well done? And the overheard conversation about the nut? But I must stop: we have got no farther than the disaster of Miss Musgrave's jumping off the steps.” (5)
My daughter Belle on The Cobb steps, Lyme Regis
I find Maria Edgeworth’s criticism of General Tilney’s behaviour very interesting, especially in the light of a much later letter to a friend in which she discussed her writing technique. Her argument was that even if such inconsistent behaviour as the General’s was exhibited in real life, it was unbelievable unless the reader knew that it was true.
“I acknowledge that even a perfectly true character absolutely taken as a facsimile from real life would not be interesting in a fiction, might not be believed, and could not be useful. The value of these odd characters depends, I acknowledge, upon their being actually known to be true. In history, extraordinary characters always interest us with all their inconsistencies, feeling we thus add to our actual knowledge of human nature. In fiction we have not this conviction, and therefore not this sort or source of pleasure even if ever so well done; if it be quite a new inconsistency we feel doubtful and averse; but we submit when we know it is true: we say, ‘don't therefore tell me it is not in human nature.’” (6)
(1) From The Letters of Jane Austen selected from the compilation of her great nephew, Edward, Lord Bradbourne, ed Sarah Woolsey (1892).
(2) From Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (1818).
(3) From Life and Letters of Maria Edgeworth (1895), in a letter to Miss Ruxton dated 26 December 1814.
(4) From Life and Letters of Maria Edgeworth (1895), in a letter to her aunt dated 10 January 1816.
(5) From Life and Letters of Maria Edgeworth (1895), in a letter dated 21 February 1818 to her aunt, Mrs Ruxton in Life and Letter vol 1
(6) From Life and Letters of Maria Edgeworth (1895), in a letter dated 6 Sept 1834 to Mrs Stark in response to the criticism of her cousin, Colonel Matthew Stewart, on her novel, Helen.

Sources used include:
Austen, Jane, The Letters of Jane Austen selected from the compilation of her great nephew, Edward, Lord Bradbourne ed Sarah Woolsey (1892)
Austen, Jane, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (1818)
Austen-Leigh, James Edward, Memoir of Jane Austen (1871)
Edgeworth, Maria, Belinda (1801)
Edgeworth, Maria, The Life and Letters of Maria Edgeworth, ed by Augustus JC Hare (1895)
Edgeworth, Richard Lovell and Maria, Memoirs of Richard Lovell Edgeworth esq (1821)

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

1816: the year without a summer

A wet day on the beach in Weymouth, Dorset
We might joke that you can blink and miss the English summer, but what if it really was cancelled this year?

Two hundred years ago, in 1816, people in England and much of Europe were bemused by a summer that was noticeably colder and wetter than usual. This was bad news for a society that depended largely on a good harvest for its wellbeing. It was even worse news for nations ravaged by the recent Napoleonic wars.

1816: the year without a summer

A priest in northern Portugal wrote:
“July of 1816 was a particularly unusual month concerning both rainfall and temperature. I am 78 years old and I have never seen so much rain and cold, not even in winter months.” (1)
Scientist Luke Howard (1772-1864), who kept detailed records of the weather in London for forty years from 1801, noted that much of 1816 was wetter and colder than usual. In September he toured parts of Europe and observed that along the length of the Rhine:
“Not meadows and villages alone but portions of cities and large towns lay long underwater; dikes were broken, bridges blown up, the crops spoiled or carried off by torrents and the vintage ruined by the want of sun to bring out and ripen the fruit.” (2)
The Times newspaper of 13 July 1816 reported that heavy rain in Switzerland and Germany had led the Rhine to flood in Holland. 
“Farmers who had cut their hay eight days ago have lost the whole, it is all washed away; the grass which is yet standing is now rotting in the ground.” (3)
Flood waters in Weymouth, Dorset, in 2012
The eastern United States was also affected by the adverse weather. Six inches of snow fell across New England on 6 June 1816. This and continued heavy frosts destroyed crops and killed livestock. Famine drove people to eat hedgehogs, nettles and pigeons.

The effects of the exceptionally cold year stretched into future years. In 1817-18, the price of bread almost doubled as supplies of grain and flour ran short. Over half a million barrels of flour came into Liverpool in 1818, the year that Britain imported more food than ever before.

Britain, with its well-developed trade network and relatively easy access to ports, was not as badly impacted by food shortages as other nations. Areas where travel was more difficult, such as central Europe, saw food prices spiral and people going hungry. Demonstrations, riots and looting were not uncommon, as people were desperate to express their frustration and feed their families.

Did the poor summer of 1816 create a monster?

The bad weather in England drove a group of writers to head for Switzerland. On arrival, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and his young lover, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later Shelley), enjoyed a few days of good weather before being driven indoors by continued storms and rain.
“It proved a wet, ungenial summer, and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house,” wrote Mary Shelley in 1831. “‘We will each write a ghost story,’ said Lord Byron; and his proposition was acceded to.” (4)
As a result, Mary was inspired to write Frankenstein, creating a monster that’s become an established character in popular culture.

Frontispiece of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1831 edition)
The cause of the year without a summer

Modern scientific study now links the poor weather of 1816 to a massive volcanic eruption in April 1815, on the other side of the world.

Mount Tambora, on the small Sumbawa Island in Indonesia, exploded dramatically in mid-April 1815. The eruption was the largest volcanic event for hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of years. It threw around 160 cubic kilometres of material into the atmosphere, which would have been enough to cover the entire surface of the UK in ash up to 45 cm (18 inches) deep.

The eruption killed tens of thousands of people and could be heard hundreds of miles away. But in 1815, news travelled more slowly than soundwaves and it was months before the story of the eruption reached Britain.

Even then, no one understood the impact the event would have on the weather. It’s taken scientists nearly two hundred years to connect the Mount Tambora eruption with the dismal summer of 1816 and its consequences.

Aerial view of the caldera of Mount Tambora,
Sumbawa, Indonesia - photo by Jialiang Gao (6)
Reports from the scene of the Mount Tambora eruption

Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781-1826), Lieutenant Governor of British Java, recorded and published accounts of the eruption.
“The first explosions were heard on this Island in the evening of the 5th of April; they were noticed in every quarter, and continued at intervals until the following day. The noise was in the first instance almost universally attributed to distant cannon.” (5)
“On the following morning, however, a slight fall of ashes removed all doubt as to the cause of the sound, and it is worthy of remark, that as the Eruption continued, the sound appeared to be so close that in each district it seemed near at hand.” (5)
The inhabitants of Java thought that a nearer volcano had erupted, but in reality, the source was hundreds of miles away.
“From the 6th, the sun became observed: it had everywhere the appearance of being enveloped in fog, the weather was sultry and the atmosphere close and still; the sun seemed shorn of its rays, and the general stillness and pressure of the atmosphere foreboded an Earthquake.” (5)
In the following days, the sky filled with ash. Some accounts talk of days being so unnaturally dark that candles were needed throughout and visibility was reduced to a few metres.

An account from a sailor recorded:
“On the 11th April, while at sea far distant form Sumbawa, he was in utter darkness; that on his passing the Tomboro Mountain at a distance of 5 miles, the lower part of it was in flames, and the upper part covered with clouds; he went on shore for water and found the ground covered with ashes to the depth of three feet, several large prows thrown on the land by a concussion of the sea, and many of the Inhabitants dead from famine.” (5)
Some reported how for miles the surface of the sea was covered in a solid mass of pumice stone, up to several feet deep.

View in Bima, Sumbawa, Indonesia from The Cruise of the Marchesa (1887)
Cold weather and dramatic sunsets

Today, science tells us that the volcanic eruption created a huge cloud of sulphur. Over the following months this spread across much of the world, acting as an almost invisible barrier to the heating effect of the sun.

The painter Joseph Turner (1775-1851) is famous for his moody skies and rich sunsets. The colours of these dramatic sunsets were affected by the sulphur in the sky following volcanic eruptions: Tambora in 1815, Babuyan in the Philippines in 1831 and Cosiguina in Nicaragua in 1835. Study has shown that when the air was dirtiest, the sunsets were reddest.

Although Turner’s most famous sunsets were painted after these later eruptions, we can be fairly confident that there must have been some spectacular sunsets in 1816 too. A small compensation for those who had to endure the year without a summer.

Sunset? by JMW Turner © Tate (1856)
Used under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (unported)
(1) From Iberia in 1816, the year without a summer by RM Trigo et al (2008).
(2) From The Climate of London by Luke Howard (1818).
(3) From The Times newspaper Saturday July 13 1816 p3 © Times Digital Newspaper Archive
(4) From the introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1831).
(5) From Narrative of the Effects of the Eruption from the Tomboro Mountain by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (1816).
(6) Photo by Jialiang Gao ( under a Creative Commons licence via Wikimedia Commons.

Sources include
Howard, Luke, The Climate of London: Deduced from Meteorological Observations (1818)
Raffles, Sir Thomas, Narrative of the Effects of the Eruption from the Tomboro Mountain, in the island of Sumbawa on the 11th and 12th April 1815 (1816)
Shelley, Mary, Frankenstein (1831 edition)
Trigo, RM, Vaquero, JM, Alcoforado, M, Barriendos, M, Taborda, J, Garcia-Herrera, R and Luterbacher, J, Iberia in 1816, the year without a summer in the International Journal of Climatology © Royal Meteorological Society (2008) website
Times Newspaper Archive Online