Masterclass with Miss Austen

Okay, time to come clean.

I spoke at length about my enjoyment of Catherine Cuthbertson’s Rosabella; but while it’s true enough that I enjoyed the book on its own merits, as I was reading it I began to enjoy it simultaneously on a different level entirely; because the further I read, the more I became convinced that when Jane Austen was making her various comic attacks upon the excesses of the popular novel, Catherine Cuthbertson was one of the authors she had in mind.

Granted, at first glance this may seem unlikely – the writing and publication dates of the ladies’ respective efforts, for one thing, would seem to rule this possibility out. So perhaps it’s all just a coincidence. I did, after all, describe Rosabella as “a typical 19th-century sentimental novel”; if Miss Cuthbertson was, likewise, a typical 19th-century sentimental novelist, she may have been only one of many guilty of the transgressions which Miss Austen mocks.

And some of the issues in question are certainly generic. Pardon me for quoting this passage from Love And Freindship in full, but it cracks me up every time:

A Gentleman considerably advanced in years descended from it. At his first Appearance my Sensibility was wonderfully affected and e’er I had gazed at him a 2d time, an instinctive sympathy whispered to my Heart, that he was my Grandfather. Convinced that I could not be mistaken in my conjecture I instantly sprang from the Carriage I had just entered, and following the Venerable Stranger into the Room he had been shewn to, I threw myself on my knees before him and besought him to acknowledge me as his Grand Child. He started, and having attentively examined my features, raised me from the Ground and throwing his Grand-fatherly arms around my Neck, exclaimed, “Acknowledge thee! Yes dear resemblance of my Laurina and Laurina’s Daughter, sweet image of my Claudia and my Claudia’s Mother, I do acknowledge thee as the Daughter of the one and the Grandaughter of the other.” While he was thus tenderly embracing me, Sophia astonished at my precipitate Departure, entered the Room in search of me. No sooner had she caught the eye of the venerable Peer, than he exclaimed with every mark of Astonishment –“Another Grandaughter! Yes, yes, I see you are the Daughter of my Laurina’s eldest Girl; your resemblance to the beauteous Matilda sufficiently proclaims it. “Oh!” replied Sophia, “when I first beheld you the instinct of Nature whispered me that we were in some degree related–But whether Grandfathers, or Grandmothers, I could not pretend to determine.” He folded her in his arms, and whilst they were tenderly embracing, the Door of the Apartment opened and a most beautifull young Man appeared. On perceiving him Lord St. Clair started and retreating back a few paces, with uplifted Hands, said, “Another Grand-child! What an unexpected Happiness is this! to discover in the space of 3 minutes, as many of my Descendants! This I am certain is Philander the son of my Laurina’s 3d girl the amiable Bertha; there wants now but the presence of Gustavus to compleat the Union of my Laurina’s Grand-Children.” “And here he is; (said a Gracefull Youth who that instant entered the room) here is the Gustavus you desire to see. I am the son of Agatha your Laurina’s 4th and youngest Daughter…”

The sentimental novel is notorious for its belief in this kind of sympathetic recognition, of course, and was so long before Catherine Cuthbertson ever picked up a pen. Just the same, it is an indisputable fact that, almost thirty years after Jane Austen wrote her burlesque of the genre, the same sins were still being committed in the same sorts of novels. Rosabella does not have an outright “Gustavus scene”, as I like to call them, but its heroine spends the whole five volumes being “drawn” to particular people, to whom she is at length revealed to be related (one at a time, though, not all at once); and the girl who starts out as a destitute orphan ends up at the centre of an extended family of quite remarkable proportions.

Then there’s the fainting. We recall Thomas Macaulay keeping a tally of the fainting in Miss Cuthbertson’s Santo Sebastiano, published in 1814, and we certainly know that her taste for fainting scenes hadn’t dissipated at all by 1817. Miss Austen’s own opinion of fainting was also made clear in Love And Freindship, wherein the characters spend an inordinate proportion of their time indulging in that particular pastime, to their ultimate cost:

It was too pathetic for the feelings of Sophia and myself —We fainted alternately on a sofa…

“Beware of fainting-fits… Though at the time they may be refreshing and agreable yet beleive me they will in the end, if too often repeated and at improper seasons, prove destructive to your Constitution… One fatal swoon has cost me my Life… Beware of swoons Dear Laura… A frenzy fit is not one quarter so pernicious; it is an exercise to the Body and if not too violent, is I dare say conducive to Health in its consequences—Run mad as often as you chuse; but do not faint—“ 

Miss Cuthbertson’s faints, on the other hand, are executed with great gravity. What’s more, her men faint, too. Here, for example, is Egremont hearing Rosabella’s story:

As she proceeded, his sympathizing and attentive preceptor beheld horror and despair diffusing itself overy every line of his expressive countenance; and when Rosabella came to her final close of all she yet knew of her sad history, he fell on the sofa beside her in a death resembling swoon…

What would they do without sofas? 

Much as I wanted to believe that this was not a coincidence, that it was not simply a case of Miss Cuthbertson being a sufficiently generic novelist to commit all of the revelevant crimes against literature, I didn’t see at first how a more direct relationship between the two women was possible. But then two points occurred to me: firstly, that Miss Cuthbertson may have maintained the same style of writing all throughout her career, which began in 1803; and secondly, that the main source of my suspicions, Northanger Abbey, while mostly written as we know around 1798, was revised twice before it was published, the first time also in 1803, the final time as late as 1817 – the year of Rosabella‘s publication.

In Northanger Abbey, Austen repeatedly draws a contrast between behaviour that is “natural” and behaviour that is “heroic” – that is, the behaviour of a heroine. No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine, Austen remarks at the outset, then goes on to tell us why. It is the entire lack of heroine in her composition that first attracts, then captivates Henry Tilney: “You feel, as you always do, what is most to the credit of human nature.” When the odious John Thorpe manoeuvres Catherine into what seems like an an act of great rudeness towards the Tilneys, who are subsequently cool towards her:

Feelings rather natural than heroic possessed her; instead of considering her own dignity injured by this ready condemnation — instead of proudly resolving, in conscious innocence, to show her resentment towards him who could harbour a doubt of it, to leave to him all the trouble of seeking an explanation, and to enlighten him on the past only by avoiding his sight, or flirting with somebody else — she took to herself all the shame of misconduct, or at least of its appearance, and was only eager for an opportunity of explaining its cause.

In other words, Catherine doesn’t create trouble by dramatising everything, least of all herself. This is most significantly illustrated when after her first enjoyable encounter with Henry Tilney, she sees him a second time, but in company with another young woman:

He looked as handsome and lively as ever, and was talking with interest to a fashionable and pleasant-looking young woman, who leant on his arm, and whom Catherine immediately guessed to be his sister; thus unthinkingly throwing away a fair opportunity of considering him lost to her for ever, by being married already. But guided only by what was simple and probable, it had never entered her head that Mr Tilney could be married… And therefore, instead of turning of a deathlike paleness, and falling in a fit on Mrs Allen’s bosom, Catherine sat erect, in the perfect use of her senses…

It was this specific passage that anchored my suspicions about Miss Austen and Miss Cuthbertson, because Rosabella (and for all I know, Miss Cuthbertson’s other heroines) is repeatedly guilty of exactly this kind of melodramatic misinterpretation. Compare the language of this following passage to that in which we hear of Catherine Morland’s “simple and probable” reaction, and you’ll see what I mean:

…for in that very chaise Rosa beheld Lord Montalbert performing a têteà-tête journey with Lady Meliora Monson! Could Rosa doubt what sanctioned this? No, she could not; and in heart-rending agony poor Rosabella fainted.

And okay, maybe seeing a young man and woman alone together might lead you to assume an intimate relationship; but there’s no excuse whatsoever for this:

    But instead of these eager glances encountering her whom they sought, or any of the fugitive party, she suddenly beheld those whom of all the world she expected least to see there—Mr Trench and Egremont—not the Egremont overpowered by horror and distress she had last beheld him, but in all the brilliant bloom and animation of health and happiness; on whose arm familiarly hung a young female of uncommon loveliness, elegantly attired, and to whom his attention was wholly devoted at the moment, listening to what she was uttering with the most intense interest and a countenance beaming with affectionate admiration.
    To the prompt apprehension of the dismayed Rosabella this lady stood confessed as the mysterious cause of their sudden heart-rending separation; and with this belief a pang, stunning to every faculty, shot through her anguished bosom; and whilst endeavouring at articulation, to inform her companion she was not well, she fell, bereft of sense and power…

And the young woman on Egremont’s arm? His friend’s wife, who he has been asked to escort. Bereft of sense, indeed…

Just look at the parallels between this passage and that describing Henry Tilney escorting his sister: parallels that last right up to the denouement of each, when they abruptly part company. Amusingly, although the satire is Miss Austen’s, the exaggeration is all Miss Cuthbertson’s. Thus, for Catherine, It never entered her head that Mr Tilney could be married, while to Rosabella, with her “prompt apprehension”, This lady stood confessed as the mysterious cause of their sudden heart-rending separation. You’ll never find a better illustration of the difference between “natural” and “heroic” behaviour.

I could go on – and on. There are plenty of other specific examples I could quote – like the fact that when Rosabella’s motives are misunderstood, instead of trying to fix things regardless of who is at fault, like Catherine Morland, she stays silent, In the pride of conscious rectitude… – but in the end it’s not the details themselves which are convincing so much as the cumulative effect of, as it were, reading this novel through the prism of Jane Austen’s teasing.

I might also add that while I believe that Miss Austen read Miss Cuthbertson’s novels, Miss Cuthbertson apparently did not return the favour; or at least, she couldn’t have read Emma. I refuse to believe that if she had done so, she could possibly go on to write a novel wherein all the married people are referred to as cara sposa / caro sposo – and with a straight face:

“…which, I trust, may prove a happy one,” said Lady Derville; “and that Mrs. Dolittle will, by the safe convoy of your treasure home, restore you to yourself; as I very much wish my old cheerful friend, Mrs. O’Dowd, and her gallant caro sposo, to give me the pleasure of their company this day at dinner…”

“…my head was so empty of mundane knowledge, that, had you managed me, instead of turning me out of doors, I would have flown with you from the aforesaid Myrtle’s Town to the land of uncontrolled marriage. So, rely upon it, child, it was all your own romantic sentimentalities, that alone prevented your being now my cara sposa…”

“You could not have a better counsellor than my sposa,” said Lord Flowerdew; “adopt her plans, and the pelf will fly. Clothe the naked, feed the hungry, liberate the debtor from prison, visit the sick, comfort old age, and provide refuge for the destitute for that is the way my cara spends her sposo’s money in the country…”


Now…although through reading Rosabella I became convinced in my own mind that I was on the right track here, I might have kept all this to myself if it were not for one final touch – not the last straw so much as the cherry on the sundae. I’ve gone on trying to dig up some biographical information about Catherine Cuthbertson, although with no success. However, it did occur to me that while I call her, and was searching for her, under the name “Catherine”, her contemporary readers tended to refer to her as “Kitty”. And it was when I was searching for “Kitty Cuthbertson” that I came across this, in an essay by Martin Steinmann Jr, one of the editors of the book From Jane Austen To Joseph Conrad:

There was only one novel-reading public, and every novelist had this public in mind. Today the publics of Dr Cronin and Joyce are quite discrete (how odd it would be to find that Kingsley Amis reads Faith Baldwin, as Jane Austen did Kitty Cuthbertson, with pleasure)…

My friends…I could not even BEGIN to tell you how utterly full of myself I felt, when I came across that passage.

Mind you, that remark of Steinmann’s comes completely unsupported; no source is given for his assertion. However, its very matter-of-factness gives me confidence in its accuracy. I’m guessing that Miss Cuthbertson is discussed somewhere within Jane’s letters, which shame on me, I’ve never read. Does anyone out there know for certain?

15 Responses to “Masterclass with Miss Austen”

  1. It seems entirely plausible, but I have no solid data. I’ll ask about a bit. (I’m very fond of Northanger Abbey, though many of its daggers are hurled more at The Castle of Otranto and its kin…)

  2. Without having researched this at all, my feeling is that while the first draft of Northanger Abbey, written in the 1790s, mostly poked fun at Gothic novels, by the time the revisions were complete it had expanded its purpose to take in the sentimental/didactic novel, which had evolved out of the Gothic and was no less mockable, as well.

  3. (mimmicking the Austen way, an attempt)

    Dear Liz,
    Having read your “Masterclass…” article, I must confess (or “feel obliged to assert, you choose) that I truly believe that clues find US, and not that we merely come to them by chance. What a marvellous Find, a real Find! Now, I have not yet come to read Rosabella, but I do know what you felt while writing this article, while doing your “research.” I too can freely claim to take pride in having solved my own little “mystery” unasked— well, not a mystery proper, perhaps, but again, the feeling equals that of unveiling a great truth. Or so I am led to believe.

    The adrenaline, the shock, that risk-sport-like moving sensation that you are somehow standing miles away from all those who, like yourself, have read Jane Austen but failed to (or never even made an attempt to) discover the kind of facts that underline her prose. And when I say that I “take pride in” matching facts, or evidence, or whatever that is, I do not mean, not in the least, that Darcy-like sense of pride, no. Perhaps it has more to do with vanity, with Emma’s vanity, rather than with pride.

    You see, there is this scene in SENSE & SENSIBILITY, described by Margaret herself, where Willoughby cuts off a lock of Marianne’s hair… Well, let me tell you that while I was doing my first year in Literary and Scientific Translation, during one of our English Literature lessons, we came to discuss Alexander Pope’s, “The Rape of the Lock.” There is a scene in this poem that seemingly matches the one described by Margaret, as follows:

    He takes the Gift with rev’rence, and extends
    The little Engine on his Finger’s Ends:
    This just behind Belinda’s Neck he spread,
    As o’er the fragrant Steams she bends her Head:
    Swift to the Lock a thousand Sprights repair,
    A thousand Wings, by turns, blow back the Hair,
    A wretched Sylph too fondly interpos’d;
    Fate urg’d the Sheers, and cut the Sylph in twain,
    (But Airy Substance soon unites again)
    The meeting Points that sacred Hair dissever
    From the fair Head, for ever and for ever!

    And then, Margaret recalls in conversation with Elinor:

    “But, indeed, Elinor, it is Marianne’s. I am almost sure it is, for I saw him cut it off. Last night after tea, when you and mama went out of the room, they were whispering and talking together as fast as could be, and he seemed to be begging something of her, and presently he took up her scissors and cut off a long lock of her hair, for it was all tumbled down her back; and he kissed it, and folded it up in a piece of white paper; and put it into his pocket-book.”

    Now, I was eighteen years old and had read all of AUsten masterpieces so far when my mind made the instant association with Jane Austen’s S&S, I had, like you, no evidence to support my linkage except for my own knowledge of both sources. Had Jane intended the allusion? Or was I, mad for her literature, just making things relate with one another?

    Since I was barely installing the Internet service, I only relies on the printed versions of S&S that I had at home to check. So, I went on to check… Turned out that I had one particular “Oxford World’s Classics” version of S&S in English that I had not yet come to read (I’d read the novel from the library edition, and then bought my own, but had never read the latter yet!). I knew this edition counted with an extra “Explanatory Notes” section by the end of the book, so I searched there first thing, hoping that there would be some note related to the scene retold by Margaret in Chapter XII. Eventually, after flicking through the never-ending pages of this section, I found it:

    46 I SAW HIM CUT IT OFF: the erotic significance of a man’s cutting off a lock of a young woman’s hair is most memorably stated in Alexander Pope’s THE RAPE OF THE LOCK (1714).

    Further, there is in Oxford’s edition a section entitled “A CHRONOLOGY OF JANE AUSTEN” which is devided into “Life” parallelled with “Historical and Cultural Background.” Although there is no record here of Jane having read THE RAVE OF THE LOCK (as there is, on the other hand, a bundle of records regarding her reading of THE MYSTERIES OF UDOLPHO &c.), I trust that Jane had read Pope’s poem by the time she included this scene in S&S. It can’t simply have been done pointlessly, can it? I mean, it wouldn’t be the first time that Jane mocks, as Pope did in his heroic epic, the ide aof the token of love, as it is. Besides, according to these records I am revising at the moment, there is a line that reads, within the “Life” left-hand part of the section, “1797 – […] begins revision of ‘Elinor and Marianne’ into Sense and Sensibility [….]”. By 1797, Jane was 22 years of age: she can’t have read Pope without a laughing eye, nor could she have skipped such a poem, given that it is, in tone, the perfect match to her own “mock” style, always somehow embedded within some scene or another.

    I must stop writing now, or else you will think me a… Well, the word escapes me.

    Hope you have enjoyed my experience. I have certainly sympathised with yours first time I read it— which was, yesterday evening.

    Ever yours,

    (from Argentina!)

  4. Forgot to write, that ther eis also evidence supporting me in the fact that through the characters of Willoughby and Marianne, Jane echoes the voices of Shakespeare and other authors, and here I’ve found this, my triumph over my own self!!!!!! Just have look, please:

    “You have ascertained Willoughby in every matter of importance […] You know what he thinks of Cowper and Scott; you are certain of his estimating their beauties as he ought, and you have received every assurance of his admiring Pope no more than is proper […]”

    Aha, now there can be no doubt. Jane knew Pope just as she knew Radcliffe and Scott and whoever! The cuttinf off of Marianne’s lock IS an allusion, there cna be no doubt.

    I remember that when I went to my Literature teacher then, in 2008, when I had only lately made my “discovery”, she barely looked at me with a dead-pan face, and uttered, nonchalantly, as it was, “Well… it might be…”

    Again, I believe that these things come to us, they FIND us, not we them. It feels surreal—but, alas! They ARE surreal, for Heaven’s sake!

  5. I don’t think begging a lock of hair was a rare thing in the culture of that time… it might just as much be something she heard of from the real experiences of acquaintances, as something she read.

  6. It’s not that it was uncommon; the issue is that (certainly by Austen’s time, maybe not in Pope’s) that it was one of those things that was only proper if a couple were engaged. That’s the point in S&S – that Marianne is assuming too much about Willoughby’s intentions and permitting him privileges he hasn’t earned. The Pope allusion is to underscore how wrong Marianne is in allowing it.

    Anyhoo— Hello, D.M., and welcome! Thank you for visiting and sharing your own Jane Austen discovery. She was certainly a very well- and widely-read woman and I’ve no doubt these references were something she expected her readers to pick up on. At this distance, however, we can probably be forgiven for patting ourselves on the back! 🙂

  7. ha ha ha, yes, please, lyzardqueen!

    I didn’t go on with the Christian issue and the symbolism behidn Willoughby’s gesture because I’d already written too much! Willoughby is “impertinent” and Marianne is so blind that she allows for (almost) everything that comes in the way of Willoughby, I know…

    Anyway, may I just quote your article on my Blog, lyzardqueen?? I’ll let the source be known and everything! and I’ll be posting the link to it as well!

    thnx 4 ur comments about it— it’s a lovely website u have!

    in the meantime, may I present you with an article I wrote on Dec.2010 about the coming motion picture… Pride and Prejudice and Zombies:


  8. Always very happy to be quoted – thank you!

    Apropos, my brother gave me Little Vampire Women last Christmas..this phenomenon just might possibly be getting out of hand, don’t you think?? 🙂

  9. You welcome! The “article” is rather a compilation of our mutual replies over here… Available at:

    OMG, yuck, ugly! I had no idea about Little Vampire Women!!

    Not fair, why don’t they get their own story and plot and background and characters and setting and, well, ideas??!!!!

  10. Yes, these things are amusing as a one-off joke, but when they begin to turn into a cottage industry, it’s time to worry. And it would be rather nice if people could stop plundering poor Jane and, as you say, occasionally have an original thought.

  11. Yeh, I hope so! Not that I’m a groundless a rebel against the industry in itself, but it’s just that, as you put it, it’s too much already… But, anyway, what cna we do about it (if anything) but write?

  12. Yes, that pretty much is my answer to everything. 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: