Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Jane Austen and a shop in Devon

This happened when I was about 10, which would make the year 1959. We were driving home through Devon after visiting my English grandmother in a nursing home in Teignmouth (my father’s mother that is, an explanation I wouldn't need to give were I writing in Swedish).  Passing through a town my mother caught sight of a shop sign and called out to my father to stop and go back because the name on the shopfront was Household. I glimpsed it fleetingly, it looked a substantial affair. No, it was just a household stores said my father. My mother insisted she was sure Household was the proprietor’s actual name, and with so rare a surname it must be some sort of relation, we ought to call and say hello. But my father drove stolidly on refusing to turn back and investigate. Later my mother explained to me the reason for this strange behaviour: my father would be ashamed to be related to anyone engaged in trade.  But it looked like a big shop I protested. No matter, this was the way he had been brought up; my granny, my mother told me, was a snob. We had a small car and a small rented flat in Brighton, and what made me ashamed was that the stuffing was coming out of the arms of the sofa.

Title page of Emma, published
200 years ago this month
(though it says 1816, hmm)
The memory came to me because I'm working on the question of Jane Austen and snobbery. I've promised to lead off a discussion on this topic in a small book group we have in Cork - the Cork Friends of Jane Austen that’s what we call ourselves.  Several prominent snobs feature in Jane Austen’s works. Emma, Darcy, Sir Walter Elliott are names that spring to mind, and the snobbery theme is a staple of Jane Austen criticism. For example in a famous 1957 essay the critic Lionel Trilling wrote of Emma: “Her self-love leads her to be a self-deceiver. She can be unkind. She is a dreadful snob.”  One occasion of her snobbery - and this takes us back to the shop in Devon - is when a family by the name of Cole give a large evening party, an enterprise Emma treats with disdain.  "Nothing should tempt her to go”; the Coles were "of low origin, in trade, and only moderately genteel  …  they ought to be taught that it was not for them to arrange the terms on which the superior families would visit them".  

I must make it clear my mother didn't blame my father for his attitudes, she accepted it was part of his upbringing and couldn’t be changed. And I suppose I must extend the same charity to my grandmother, who grew up part of the landed gentry; my mother grew up in the north of Sweden, the daughter of an engine driver.  I also need to add something about the state of the sofa.  This was due to my parents spending far more than they could afford on my expensive schooling. For better or worse that’s made me what I am, so it's not my place to complain about the stuffing.  

I'll finish on a puzzle. It occurs to me to ask whether and how Jane Austen and her contemporaries talked about snobbery, since according to my understanding, the word was not yet in use.   Did they have another word for it? I don't think they did. I can't help wondering if there's something anachronistic going on when we talk of Jane Austen and snobbery.  It's something I should like to explore, if only I knew where to begin.  I hope to have an answer by the first Tuesday of February.

Note : The Trilling essay is “Emma and the legend of Jane Austen” in Beyond Culture, 1965. The Emma quotation is from ch 25.