“The bride and bridegroom set off for Kent from the church door.” -Pride and Prejudice

The list of characters who get married in Austen’s novels is long: Mr. Willoughby and Miss Grey, Marianne Dashwood and Colonel Brandon, Eleanor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars, and Lucy Steele and Robert Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility; Mr. Collins and Charlotte Lucas, Lydia Bennet and Mr. Wickham, Jane Bennet and Mr. Bingley, and Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice; Mr. Rushworth and Maria Bertram and Edmund Bertram and Fanny Price in Mansfield Park; Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston, Mr. Elton and Augusta Hawkins, Harriet Smith and Robert Martin, Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax, and Emma Woodhouse and Mr. Knightley in Emma; Eleanor Tilney and her aristocratic lover and Henry Tilney and Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey; and Louisa Musgrove and Captain Benwick, Henrietta Musgrove and Mr. Hayter, and Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth in Persuasion. Not only is this a lot of people, it’s also an equal number of women and men–an equal number of brides and bridegrooms, if you will.

But in Austen’s six novels there are nineteen instances of bride, not counting the reference to Byron’s “Bride of Abydos” in Persuasion, and there are only two instances of bridegroom. Granted, thirteen of the occurrences of bride are in reference to one particular (and particularly annoying) bride, Mrs. Elton in Emma; but the word is also used three times to refer to Maria Bertram and once apiece for Charlotte Lucas, Lydia Bennet, and Miss Taylor. The only bridegrooms named as such are Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice and Mr. Rushworth in Mansfield Park.

So two and a half times as many as many brides as bridegrooms appear in Austen’s novels, and they’re mentioned many more times–almost four times apiece on average, compared to the single mentions of Mr. Collins and Mr. Rushworth as bridegrooms–evidence, perhaps, of the fact that in the world Austen depicts, notwithstanding the iconic and ironic opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice, marriage is much more crucial to the security of her female characters than to her male characters.

One further note: Neither Mr. Collins nor Mr. Rushworth is a sensible or sympathetic character, and much the same could be said of Mrs. Elton, Lydia Bennet, and Maria Bertram. Perhaps Austen, with her keenly satiric eye, saw the ridiculous in matrimony and particularly in British wedding customs, and thus avoided using the words bride and bridegroom except for ridiculous characters. Or is the discrepancy due to the fact that the main characters–i.e., those who aren’t comic/satiric objects–get married only at the end of the novels? In the final chapter, when the plot is being wrapped up, Austen tends to present events in summary rather than in detail. She doesn’t actually describe the protagonists’ weddings and post-wedding social visits, so she doesn’t have much opportunity to deploy the words bride and bridegroom at that point.




Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


“The Netherfield ladies would have had difficulty in believing that a man who lived by trade, and within view of his own warehouses, could have been so well-bred and agreeable.” -Pride and Prejudice

“Such as Mrs. Elton appeared to her on this second interview, such she appeared whenever they met again,—self-important, presuming, familiar, ignorant, and ill-bred.” -Emma

The original sense of breed had to do with giving birth to young, or with controlling the conditions under which an animal reproduces so as to select for desired characteristics. But by Austen’s day, the word had a transferred sense as well, pertaining to the creation of desired habits or manners by training. (Johnson’s dictionary includes both the original sense, “To procreate; to generate; to produce more of the species,” and this transferred sense, “To educate; to form by education,” along with a number of related and figurative senses.)

In Austen’s six novels, breed and its participle bred occur more than fifty times, typically in the phrases good breeding and ill breeding and the hyphenated compound adjectives well-bred and ill-bred. As Austen’s books are comedies of manners rather than eugenic or racist tracts, it’s probably unsurprising that she uses breeding and bred almost exclusively to refer to the effects of nurture rather than nature: breeding, for her, is the process of having one’s manners and values shaped by early acculturation in genteel society.

But what are we to make of two two passages in Sense and Sensibility that use breed and bred in reference to animals? First there’s the moment in Chapter 12 when Willoughby gives Marianne a horse “that he had bred himself on his estate in Somersetshire”; then there’s the narrator’s sardonic comment at the end of the novel that after breaking Marianne’s heart and marrying Sophia Grey, Willoughby found “no inconsiderable degree of domestic felicity” in “his breed of horses and dogs, and in sporting of every kind.” A gentleman with a country estate and an interest in field sports (Willoughby is a “good shot,” remember) might very well involve himself either in selectively controlling the reproduction of his horses and dogs to favor certain desired traits, or in training the young so produced. I’m inclined to take these two passages as referring to the former activity rather than the latter, for no good reason other than the fact that deciding which stallion to bring together with which mare (and which dog with which bitch) would be much less onerous than the actual work of training a foal or puppy to be a competent steed or hunting dog. Given Willoughby’s flighty nature, I suspect that he might lack patience for the long-haul process of animal training. But I may be wrong.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


“I do not like the evangelicals.”

Jane Austen, in a letter dated January 24, 1809.


“I am by no means convinced that we ought not all to be evangelicals, and am at least persuaded that they who are so from reason and feeling must be happiest and safest.”

-Jane Austen, in a letter dated Nov. 18, 1814.


So which was it? Did Austen dislike evangelical Christians, or did she admire them?

Let’s start by considering whom Austen was writing to in each instance, and on what topic. The first quotation is addressed is to Jane’s sister Cassandra–her best friend and most frequent correspondent–in the context of discussing a popular book; the second is to her brother’s daughter, who was contemplating marriage to an evangelical man.

On the face of it we would expect greater honesty in a letter to a beloved sister on a topic in which neither the writer nor the recipient is deeply invested emotionally; by contrast, an aunt writing to her niece about that niece’s potential fiancé might well feel obliged to suppress her own feelings somewhat. On the other hand, Jane’s letters to Cassandra, though intimate and confiding in many ways, often mask that intimacy behind a layer of playful irony that is largely absent in her letters to Fanny.

A second possibility is that Austen’s ideas evolved as she matured and came to view religion with more seriousness. After all, more than five years passed between the first letter and the second. In this regard, it’s worth bearing in mind that 1814 also saw the publication of Mansfield Park–the most serious of any of Austen’s novels in its treatment of religion.

But Austen wasn’t turning into an “evangelical” of the kind she had professed disliking. Many evangelicals at the time were setting up their own chapels, a trend that Austen alludes to in Mansfield Park when she has Miss Crawford tell Edmund Bertram that “At this rate, you will soon reform every body at Mansfield and Thornton Lacey; and when I hear of you next, it may be as a celebrated preacher in some great society of Methodists.” But despite Mary Crawford’s satirical prediction, Edmund is committed to his vocation as an ordinary Anglican parish priest. He takes his religion seriously, but he isn’t a “dissenting” or separatist Christian.

Nor, for her part, was Austen; she remained fully committed to the established church. In a second letter to Fanny, on November 30, 1814, less than two weeks after the previous one, Austen writes:

“I cannot suppose we differ in our ideas of the Christian religion….We only affix a different meaning to the word evangelical.”

She doesn’t elaborate on this difference in interpretation, but we can make some inferences. She respects religious fervor when it’s based on reason and feeling; she suspects many self-identified evangelicals of lacking one or the other of these qualities.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


“Mrs. F. A. seldom either looks or appears quite well. Little Embryo is troublesome, I suppose.”

Like the second passage on mead I quoted in my last post, this one comes from Austen’s letter to her sister Cassandra dated September 8th 1816. You’ll search in vain for the word embryo in any of Austen’s novels, though pregnancy is alluded to from time to time, in a euphemistic way, usually using the word situation, as in “The rest of his letter is only about his dear Charlotte’s situation” (PP).

(This is why anyone who really wants to get to know Austen’s vocabulary has to read more than just the six novels! There were things that she thought about, talked about, and wrote about–such as the physiological realities of pregnancy and childbirth–that she would never have considered putting into a published book. As a lexicographer, I wish I could extend my dictionary project to cover all of Austen’s surviving writings, including her letters, but the manuscript is already half a million words long.)

When I first came across Austen’s reference to “Little Embryo,” I initially thought that she was being sloppy in her terminology. After all, embryo usually refers to the earlier stage of human development. After it grows to the point where it’s large enough to start kicking–which is what I presumed Austen meant by “being troublesome”–it’s no longer an embryo but a fetus. But I was wrong in two respects.

First, in Austen’s lifetime this distinction hadn’t become widespread; Johnson’s Dictionary, for instance, defines embryo (or embryon) simply as “the offspring yet unfinished in the womb” and fetus as “any animal in embryo; any thing yet in the womb; any thing unborn.” By the mid-19th century, with advances in obstetrics the distinction was beginning to crystallize; a medical dictionary from 1855 defines embryo as “the fecundated germ, in the early stages of its development in utero,” noting that “at a certain period of its increase, the name foetus is given to it, but at what period is not determined.” A few decades later, the New Sydenham Society’s 1882 Lexicon of Medicine and the Allied Sciences calls embryo a “term for the foetus in utero before the fourth month of pregnancy.”

But when I looked more closely at the dates, I realized that all those considerations are moot. When Austen wrote the letter quoted above, it’s impossible that her sister-in-law Mary Gibson Austen (“Mrs F. A.”) had known she was pregnant for long; “Little Embryo” would eventually turn out to be Elizabeth Austen, born April 15, 1817, more than seven months after the date of the letter. If Mary was experiencing discomfort at eight weeks, the trouble was almost certainly morning sickness rather than the baby kicking in her womb. And at that point “Little Embryo” was indeed an embryo, by any definition.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


“Henry accepts your offer of making his nine gallon of mead thankfully.”

“We hear now that there is to be no honey this year. Bad news for us. We must husband our present stock of mead, and I am sorry to perceive that our twenty gallons is very nearly out.”

All right, actually the word mead doesn’t appear in any of Jane Austen’s novels. The two instances above come from her letters to her sister Cassandra–the first dated December 2, 1815 and the second dated September 8, 1816.

Mead, a fermented beverage made from honey and water, is best known as the favored drink of the Vikings. It’s repeatedly mentioned in the Old Norse Poetic Edda, where, for instance, the watchman of the gods is described as joyfully drinking “the good mead” (enn góþa mjöþ). It also was popular among the Anglo-Saxons. In Beowulf, for instance, the young warrior Wiglaf attempts to rouse his companions to join him in defending the king, reminding them that in past days they had pledged him their loyalty “when we drank mead” (þær we medu þegun) in the royal hall.

Depending on how much honey you add to the water before the fermentation, mead can be of varying strength. If brewed with only a pound or so of honey per gallon, the resulting drink might be somewhat weaker than beer, and twenty imperial gallons of it would be roughly equivalent to 160 pints of ale. If brewed with four pounds of honey per gallon, twenty gallons of mead would be equivalent to more than 120 bottles of wine–no trivial amount for the four ladies of the Austen household at Chawton Cottage to get through!

Who was drinking all that mead, I wonder–and why is the beverage never mentioned in the novels?



Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment


“It is not my way to bother my brains with what does not concern me.”

To us, bother may appear like a perfectly ordinary and unexceptionable piece of vocabulary. But though you can find it in the writings of such respected 18th-century authors as Jonathan Swift and Laurence Sterne, it doesn’t even have an entry in Johnson’s dictionary. Why? Apparently at that time bother was considered an Irish dialectal word rather than a properly English one. Swift and Sterne, after all, may rank among the great figures of 18th-century English literature, but both were Irish by birth.

The origins of bother remain somewhat uncertain, but it’s probably a variant of the English word pother, which was roughly synonymous with it. Johnson does enter pother in his dictionary, defining it with the verb senses “to make a blustering ineffectual effort” and “to turmoil; to puzzle” and with the noun sense “bustle; tumult; flutter,” but he dismisses it as “a low word.”

By the early 19th century, bother was still not completely naturalized in English; the line quoted at the top of this post represents the word’s only appearance in any of Austen’s novels. It’s significant, of course, that this line is spoken by one of Austen’s more slangy characters, Northanger Abbey‘s John Thorpe, who (unlike his rival Henry Tilney) cares little for dictionaries and usage manuals. In contexts where we might use bother, Austen’s more genteel characters tend to use other words: to-do, fuss, trouble, vex and so on.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Blaize Castle

“Blaize Castle!” cried Catherine. “What is that?”

“The finest place in England—worth going fifty miles at any time to see.”

“What, is it really a castle, an old castle?”

“The oldest in the kingdom.”

“But is it like what one reads of?”

“Exactly—the very same.”

“But now really—are there towers and long galleries?”

“By dozens.”

Actually, “Blaize Castle” (more often spelled “Blaise Castle”) was historically the name of a country house in Gloucestershire, about twenty miles northwest of Bath. Far from being the medieval structure Catherine Morland imagines in Northanger Abbey, Blaise is a Georgian mansion whose architecture displays, as an 1819 travel guide puts it, “no appearance of a castle.” In the mid-18th century the estate’s owner erected a small faux castle on the grounds, and by Austen’s day the preexisting name “Blaise Castle” had popularly been transferred from the country house, which doesn’t look like a castle, to the folly, which does. However, even the castlelike folly doesn’t have dozens of towers and long galleries as John Thorpe claims in the passage above; the entire structure consists of a single round tower about twenty feet in diameter, with three smaller turrets.

Is John Thorpe lying, then, in an attempt to persuade Catherine to join the proposed excursion? Possibly–but it seems at least as likely that he himself has never been to Blaise Castle, and that he’s merely telling her whatever she wants to hear without regard for the truth. To borrow a technical term from the writings of philosopher Harry Frankfurt, John Thorpe is not so much a liar as a purveyor of bullshit. As long as he can persuade a pretty girl to go for a ride with him, Thorpe doesn’t care whether he’s telling the truth or not.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment