Austen Essays and Research

Jane Austen and The Donegal Connection

Dr Sophia Hillan has kindly provided this article on her book, 'May Lou and Cass: Jane Austens Nieces in Ireland,' for the JASI, for which we are very grateful.  

When Jane Austens niece Anna began to try her hand at writing, her aunt gave her two pieces of advice. One was to keep to two or three families in a country village, and the other was to avoid writing about Ireland. You know nothing of the manners there, she told her. She could never have guessed that three of Annas cousins, Marianne, Louisa and Cassandra Knight  May, Lou and Cass  would live out their lives there, through famine, bitter land wars and political upheaval,  or that they would lie buried,  far from England,  in almost forgotten graves. She might have been more surprised still to discover that they would most uncannily live out the plots of her novels,
            I have had the privilege of telling their story, with its uncanny echoes of Jane Austens plots, in May Lou and Cass: Jane Austens Nieces in Ireland. There was no need to write it as a novel, for the facts of their lives are stranger than fiction. Yet, theirs was a story played out far from the Regency world where these girls  grew up,  expecting to live  a calm and ordered life in England. Their father, Edward, Janes older brother, was more fortunate than his siblings in being adopted by wealthy relatives, and his eleven children grew up comfortably between his country estates in Kent and Hampshire. A bank failure in 1816 then caused Edward to suffer heavy losses, as Cassandra Jane, the youngest of the sisters, realized when she met her real life Mr Darcy, in 1827.  Like Elizabeth Bennet, she was twenty: he, a handsome Irish nobleman named Lord George Hill, was twenty-five. Jane had been dead for ten years: yet here was one of her plots unfolding. They fell in love: he proposed, and she accepted. Then his mother, the formidable Lady Downshire, forbade the match, dismissing Cassandra in a phrase worthy of Lady Catherine de Bourgh herself: "No money: all charms!". Jane Austen knew that a young man, however handsome, needed money to survive in the world. Lord George, a career soldier, had charm, education and looks but, as a posthumous son, very little money, and none if he offended his mother. It took her eight years to relent, during which time, just like Anne Elliot in Persuasion, Cass almost married someone else. In the end it was  Janes sister Cassandra Austen, who persuaded Cass, sitting in Chawton Cottage where Jane had written her finest work, that she must not marry the wrong man. No sooner had she done so than Lord George himself, to everyones delight, arrived in person at  Chawton Cottage, and renewed his proposals. Everything seemed perfect again.
Or, was it? Cass married Lord George, in a grand society wedding at St Georges, Hanover Square, on a blustery October day in 1834.  It should have been joyous. Yet, the weeks and days before,  full of  whirling autumn storms, rainswept journeys and catastrophes like the burning down of the Houses of Parliament  make it seem more like a  tale by Charlotte Bronte  or Charles Dickens than Jane Austen. Cassandra looked like a victim, her brother Charles wrote, as if she was going to be buried alive. It was an inauspicious beginning. As Jane Austen hinted at Persuasions end,  no-one can guarantee happiness in dangerous times, and these young  people were about to leave for Ireland, where  the inevitability of dangerous times was a given.
            Eight years later Cassandra died, suddenly, following the birth of her fourth child. What was Lord George to do?  In Persuasion, Jane Austen has Anne Elliot suggest that a mans love does not survive the death of the beloved. Captain Wentworth indignantly asserts the opposite.  It seemed that Anne was right: after Cassandra died in 1842, it fell to Lou to leave her family, move to Ireland and bring up  her sisters four children.  By 1847, she and Lord George were married. It was not straightforward: under Lord Lyndhursts Act of 1835, marriage to a deceased wifes sister was forbidden, and they had to marry abroad. In 1851, the case was discussed in the House of Lords. Poor Louisa, still struggling with the realities of life in famine-stricken Ireland, had to endure an investigation to establish whether she and her family were  now acceptable to society. George Eliot or Anthony Trollope might have tackled that: hardly Jane Austen.
Marianne  May  the third of the sisters, was thought by the family to be very like poor Aunt Jane. Slight and dark, sharing her aunts clear eye and lively wit, she was considered bewitching beautiful by her cousin James Edward Austen Leigh, Janes first biographer.  Still, someone, had to look after the familys widowed father, Edward, when the two eldest girls, Fanny and Lizzy, married so, like Jane, she was relegated at nineteen to the role  of spinster aunt, dependent on the men of her family. She ran her fathers great household,  without complaint, for over thirty years until, on her fathers death, her brother, like Sense and Sensibilitys John Dashwood, required vacant possession, and Marianne lost the only home she had ever known.  Over the next thirty years she moved from brother to brother as housekeeper until, in 1884, almost eighty-three, with no more brothers to look after, she travelled to Donegal to care for her last sister, Louisa,  remaining even  after Louisa died, through all the upheaval of Land War and Home Rule agitation,  until her own death in 1895.
She is buried beside Louisa, on a windswept hill  in Donegal.  Lord George, however, is not there.  Like Captain Wentworth, he remained in his heart true to his first love, Cassandra.  They were buried together, ten miles away: Louisa lay alone until Marianne joined her.  Janes nieces,  three clever, brave, pioneering women, did not ask to go home to England. There was no need: they were already home.

Dr Sophia Hillan was Assistant Director of the Queen’s University of Belfast’s Institute of Irish Studies. Her
publications include, In Quiet Places: Uncollected Stories, Letters and Critical Prose of Michael McLaverty (1989);  The Silken Twine: A Study of the Works of Michael McLaverty (1992) and The Edge of Dark: A Sense of Place in the Writings of Michael McLaverty and Sam Hanna Bell (2001). 

Read Sophia's Blog at


Worlds Apart - A Comparative Study into the World of 
Jane Austen's Emma and Charlotte Bronte's Wuthering Heights 

by Michelle Burrowes JASI 2013

History tells us that Emily Bronte was not a fan of Jane Austen, yet the world she created in Wuthering Heights was not so very different from the world of Austen's  Emma. 

Part of the wonder and attraction of Wuthering Heights is the unmistakeable wildness of the landscape.   The rhythm of the language and the speed of the narrative seem to echo the non-relenting gusts of the north wind as it rages through the moors.  The world Emily Bronte creates is synonymous with the characters who live there, both isolated and insular.

As such, it has many similarities with Hartfield, home of the Woodhouse family, in Jane Austen's Emma.  Although Hartfield is not 'removed from the stir of society', as Wuthering Heights is, it is still some sixteen miles outside London and is quite separate from the 'large populous village' of Highbury, just a lawn and a few shrubs beyond it.  The class structure at the time of Austen's novel does not allow the Woodhouses to mix socially with the local people, but forms a rigid barrier between them.  This  induced isolation compares easily to the geographical distance between Wuthering Heights and the rest of the world.  Therefore, on one level, the worlds of Cathy Earnshaw and Emma Woodhouse are quite similar.  

Both girls live within small communities, meeting the same people, day in and day out.  Emma has a wider choice of acquaintance, but, due to her father's 'habits of gentle selfishness', she rarely encounters people outside 'his own circle'.  Cathy, on the other hand, has no such luxury.  Her select number of companions dwindle as illness and death steal them from her.  It is possible, then, that both girls experience the same sense of isolation and seclusion: one due to geography and the other due to social class.

The insular world's of Wuthering Heights and Hartfiled allows the women little scope to canvass lovers.  As a result, the love relationships in both novels tend to be incestuous in nature, with few exceptions.  Focusing here on Cathy and Emma, we see how both suffer from 'the boy next door syndrome' and marry the nearest neighbouring bachelor who comes to call.  However, our heroines have a particularly close relationship with the men they love.  Taking Cathy first, we can see how her relationship with Heathcliff is much more incestuous that her marriage to Edgar.  As children they were very close, sharing the same house and crying the same tears at the death of the man who had been a father to them both.

Nelly remembers that they shared a room, and says, 'I ran to the children's room: their door was ajar... The little souls were comforting each other with better thoughts than I could have hit on.'   With Hindley away at college, they each clung to the other as the only family they had left in the world.  Mr. Earnshaw named Heathcliff after a son who had died and in that way Heathcliff replaced Cathy's dead sibling and became a foster one.  It is because of the close, familial relationship between Cathy and Heathclff early on in the novel, that readers are sometimes bemused by the almost incestuous nature of their adult relationship.

Emma's romance with the owner of Donwell Abbey is not so unusual until we consider that he is, in fact, her brother-in-law.  Indeed, Emma's sister Isabella had once been 'a favourite of Mr Knightley herself. (having) been first with him for many years past'.  But, as we know, Knightley falls for Emma and becomes intimate with the family at Hartfield, visiting in all kinds of weather and taking advantage of an open-invitation just to be close to Emma.  His ability to scold and chide her inappropriate behaviour shows us their relationship early on in the text is more like that of big-brother-little sister, than of lovers.  Indeed, the eighteen years age difference between them can only have emphasised this point.  It is clear that Emma once saw Knightley as a brother, for when she decides to dance with Mr Knightley at the Crown Ball, she says, 'you know we are really not so much brother and sister as to make it at all improper'.  

However, it is not really so surprising that both Cathy and Emma pitch their hearts so close to home, considering that Wuthering Heights and Emma were published in the eighteenth century when marriage between close relatives, such as first cousins, was seem as perfectly normal practise.  It displays yet another similarity between the two fictional worlds of these novels.

The parallels between Emma and Cathy do not stop there.  Consider how both girls are viewed as real beauties, with Cathy described as 'the queen of the countryside, and Emma as having rare beauty in 'face and figure'.  Both, in their mid-twenties, are the picture of health and with their enchanting looks no doubt had many admirers.  In the novels, we meet some of them.  However, the ability of the girls to attract men does not necessarily correspond with their ability to understand men.  Indeed, these two heroines show a distinct inability to understand the workings of the male mind.

For example, when Cathy learns of Heathcliff's return, she immediately assumes Edgar will accept him as a friend.  She forgets everything that has passed between the two men and crushes their hands together in a forced hand shake.  Cathy has no understanding of their feeling at this moment.  Edgar hates Heathcliff because he has possession of his wife's heart, while Heatcliff returns the feeling because it is Edgar who possesses his beloved's hand in marriage.  The depth of hatred they feel for each other knows no bounds, yet Cathy expects and insists that the rivals become friends.

Emma Woodhouse is just as naive about how men think.  She confidently takes it upon herself to find a wife for Mr Elton and delightedly decides upon Harriet as the perfect choice.  Mr Knightley tries to warn her against meddling in Elton's affairs, saying that that the clergyman would never marry the illegitimate daughter of nobody knows who.  But Emma is decided.  She boasts to Knightley, 'I know that such a girl as Harriet is exactly what every man delights in'.  But Emma could not be more wrong.  Elton tells her directly, 'Everybody has their level; but as for myself, I am not, I think, quite so much at a loss'.

Both Cathy and Emma misjudge relationships between the sexes.  In Wuthering Heights, Cathy gets completely carried away with sentiment when Heathcliff returns from his time away and it is left to Edgar to warn her to curb her excitement and not to behave in an 'absurd'  way in front of the servants.  Cathy seems to have no idea of what constitutes proper behaviour between men and women.  As a girl, she lavishes Heathcliff with 'girlish caresses', and does not think to alter her behaviour towards him as she gets older.
Emma too has difficulty judging her relationships with men.  When Mr Elton pounces on her in the carriage, after the dinner at the Randalls, she can only wonder at his presumption that she feels anything but friendship for him.  However, later, after some contemplation, she realises that 'especially of late, (she had) thought his manners to herself unnecessarily gallant ... she had never ... suspected it to mean anything but grateful respect'.  Yet, Emma had been warned by Mr John Knightley to regulate her behaviour towards Mr Elton, saying, 'I think your manners to him encouraging'.  

How embarrassing it is for Emma to realise that her behaviour had been so ill-construed.  While she was trying to encourage his attentions to Harriet, he was forming an attachment with herself.  Conversely, Emma believes that Frank Churchill is in love with her, when he is actually in love with Jane Fairfax   She even believes he means to propose to her soon.  The trip to Box Hill sees Emma flirting unashamedly with young Churchill.  She allows his deceptive displays of flattery, seeing it as a game almost, but when his secret engagement to Jane is revealed, she is mortified, knowing how her behaviour must have hurt Jane, and how her behaviour towards Frank was more intimate than propriety usually allowed.  Emma saw love where there was none, and was blind to it when it was offered.  Like Cathy, Emma seems to have a distinct ability to misjudge relationships between the sexes and, in turn, be misjudged herself.

Despite their ineptitude at reading people, both girls manage to find a certain degree of happiness in the novels.  How Cathy and Emma find love differs greatly and their stories are told in very different ways.  The result are two very different novels, yet, as I have shown, Austen and Bronte created two female characters that had much more in common than people often imagine.

Written by Michelle Burrowes for the JASI 2013


A Closer Look at 'The Lizzy Bennet Diaries',
 written by Mike Dillon, Dublin. 

It is a truth universally acknowledged that 'Pride and Prejudice' is one of the most classic novels ever written. For centuries it has enthralled readers with its biting wit and charming characters, and the snapshot it provides of nineteenth-century culture is a large part of what makes it such an intriguing story to consume. As such, it is no wonder that countless people have retold this story through different lenses - from the 1995 BBC miniseries to Bridget Jones, Lizzy and Darcy's story has been permuted and filtered into different forms, in many cases so far-gone from the original text that one must search deeply to find the connections between them. But perhaps the most daring adaption produced thus far has been the web series 'The Lizzie Bennet Diaries', which ran over the course of a year and told the story of 'Pride and Prejudice' through the medium of the video blog of a twenty-first century graduate student. It showed her coping with the trials and tribulations of dealing with her two sisters, Jane and Lydia, her mother's frantic attempts to marry them off before they are evicted from their house, and (most importantly), how she fell in love with William Darcy, the wealthy CEO of a technology company, Pemberley Digital.

Anybody who has read the novel will have cocked their head at this synopsis which is so very similar yet so undeniably different to the original - and understandably so. But what makes the web series so fascinating is the broad way in which it adapted the novel - it sacrificed the petty details and updated others to make for a story which held the same weight which the original did at the time it was written. This thread of updating rather than emulating is sewn throughout the series with a fine hand - Charles Bingley, the wealthy bachelor of the novel, becomes Bing Lee, a medical student with a promising future. The number of Bennet sisters is reduced from a hectic five to a more manageable, modern, three (although Mary and Kitty both have occasional appearances as a cousin and a kitten, respectively). The impetus for Mrs. Bennet to marry off her daughters is changed from an unwritten social expectation to a pressing financial requirement, echoing a struggle many people face in the modern day, making the situation much more understandable. 

But the alterations to the story stretch far further than in names and numbers. The series' depiction of women and power is one which is far more fitting for a modern world than the outdated customs of the novel. In a time where a woman couldn't own property, vote, or hold any meaningful career, Lizzy Bennet stood out as a feminist heroine, challenging the cultural perceptions and ideas which clouded the views of the people of the time. She was not content to be told whom she had to marry, she turned down two marriage proposals from wealthy men, and she was in all parts a "headstrong, obstinate girl" who was never afraid to speak her mind. But when this 1800s heroine is lifted straight out of the pages of the book and flung carelessly into the modern day, it is all too easy for her to lose that unique sarcastic edge which makes her so likable. 'The Lizzie Bennet Diaries' chose to present her struggles and decisions in a modern-day context while letting her retain the sassy, self-assured personality which defines her as a character. This freedom to let her be herself is something which is offered to all of the characters - Lydia is just as reckless and carefree as she was before, Jane is just as lovely and wholesome, Mrs. Bennet is still a parodic pastiche (although we only see her through Lizzie's imitations). After all, what makes the novel so memorable is the distinct characters who inhabit its world. They are all unique people in their own right, and 'The Lizzie Bennet Diaries' managed to preserve this while still making the characters people you can imagine existing in the real world.

Of course, one can't discuss the characters of the novel without also discussing their individual stories. Each has their own side-plot which keeps you interested in them and ensures that they always remain at the forefront of your mind. This, again, is something which the series excelled in preserving. Instead of being the all-consuming social prison sentence marriage once was, it is now a lot freer as a concept, and not nearly as wrapped up in the concepts of wealth, class, and social standing. As such, the series had to find a new way to represent what a marriage proposal meant, and why turning one down was so unusual. In the novel, Mr. Collins's proposal would ensure Lizzy a reasonably well-off life, a home to live in, and lots of opportunities to have children. But in the series, Mr. Collins instead offers her a job with his company, funded by his venture capitalist Catherine de Bourgh, which, considering the Bennet family's financial standings, would be insane to turn down. Lizzie refusing the offer is something that, while appearing perhaps an obvious choice to the reader, is now seen as a lot more of a moral dilemma to the viewer. And in our society, where eloping with someone no longer means cutting yourself off from the rest of the world, George Wickham marrying Lydia doesn't mean nearly the same thing as it did in the novel. Again, the series decided to emphasise how poor Lydia's decision was by mutating it into something which could have ruined her future had it not been stopped, through his threat to release a sex tape of her. 

Over all, 'The Lizzie Bennet Diaries' was a fantastic idea wonderfully executed. Far too often, 'Pride and Prejudice' is brushed aside as boring, uneventful, and inaccessible. But the series managed to prove that the novel's characters and themes are just as important now as they were then - though some details were changed to make them more relatable to a modern audience, some plot lines altered to make them more impactful, the story and its core message remained fundamentally the same. It is the same story it always was. It is still a story about love and hate, marriage and independence, and pride and prejudice.