2018 Reading List

2018 Reading Schedule

January 20  What Regency Women Did for Us by Rachel Bowles – moderated by Nina.

February 17 The Making of Jane Austen by Devoney Looser – moderated by Diana.

March 17  Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld – moderated by Barbara.

April 21 Hermsprong; Or, Man as He is Not by Robert Bage – moderated by Priscilla;

May 19  A Secret Sisterhood: The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlote Bronte, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf by Emily Midorikawa et al – moderated by Mary.

June 16  Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell – moderated by Hillary.

July 21 Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence by Carla Berkin – moderated by Roberta.

No meeting in August.

September 15  Persuasion by Jane Austen – moderated by Linda.

October 20 The Genius of Jane Austen: Her Love of Theater and Why She Works in Hollywood by Paula Bryne – moderated by Phyllis .    

November 17 Horatio Hornblower:   Hornblower and the Atropos by C.S. Forester – moderated by Cathy. And an essay entitled “Sleeping with Mr. Collins” by Ruth Perry, access at http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/printed/number22/perry.htm – moderated by Gracia Fay.

December  Jane Austen Birthday Celebration! Place and date to be determined.

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Discussion Questions–May 2018

 ‘There is no surer foundation for a beautiful friendship than a mutual taste in literature.’     ~ P.G. Wodehouse

A Secret Sisterhood: The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf

  1. Do the central relationships of the book belie its title? In her forward, Margaret Atwood speaks of “forgotten friendships” which seems rather more apt than the provocative “secret sisterhood.”

According to a number of reviewers the relationships between Charlotte Bronte and Mary Taylor and Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield were well known. The friendship between Anne Sharp and Jane Austen, while not unknown, is expanded upon; the relationship between Harriet Beecher Stowe and George Eliot is referred to as more an on-off correspondence rather than the deeper relationships of the others.

  1. Do you find that the book is about more than the mere facts of these friendships?
  2. What was the impact of these friendships on the writings of the women? Do Midorikawa and Sweeney seem to be saying that these pairs of writers provided support and encouragement and sounding boards for each other that were unavailable from other sources, such as family or male friends and acquaintances?

In the epilogue, the authors state “Four decades after the death of Jane Austen, George Eliot read the work of her forebear before embarking on her first novel. Some seventy years later, Virginia Woolf’s book-length essay of A Room of One’s Own, published in 1929, acknowledged the debt she owed, not just to Jane, but also to Charlotte and Marian. ”

  1. What did you think of the writing style of the authors? Engaging? Dry? Academic? Informal?
  2. The earliest biographers of Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot and particularly Jane Austen created a mythology around them of eccentric, sometimes lonely women who toiled in isolation, publishing under pseudonyms or anonymously. Do you think this “misinformation”affected the literary reputations of these writers?
  3. The authors indicate that the motivation of Jane Austen’s family (particularly Cassandra) for actively omitting Anne Sharp from any account of the author’s life was more than just the unsuitable crossing of class boundaries. If you agree with their assertion of jealousy as primary motive, what does that say about Jane and Cassandra’s relationship?
  4. The epilogue continues the narrative by mentioning 20th Century pairs of female writers: Winifred Holtby & Vera Brittain; Jean Rhys & Eliot Bliss; Zora Neale Hurston & Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings; Maya Angelou & Toni Morrison. Did you find these glimpses of more tales of female literary pairings tantalizing—did they make you want to delve further into these stories?
  5. The authors themselves show us an example of modern literary friendship and support, in addition to collaboration in writing this book. Is this an added layer of interest to the narrative, or is the insertion of their own story a distraction from the focus of the book?

Discussion Questions – March 2017

This month’s meeting will be held this coming Saturday, March 18 from 11:30-1:30 pm, at the E.P. Foster Library. Linda & Diana will lead the discussion on two books: The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith and Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth.

The Vicar of Wakefield
1. Critics disagree as to whether to consider this novel a satire. While some see it as an earnest expression of sentimentality, others point to Goldsmith’s use of irony to defend it as a satire. How did it strike you?
2. One could easily argue that the string of calamities in the novel’s second half is exploitative and unrealistic. Many have likened it to The Book of Job. Did the plot seem plausible or contrived to you? If Jane Austen was writing the book, how might she have written this story differently? (She mentions the book in Emma, Miss Smith telling Emma that Mr. Martins has read that book, at least, if not Romance of the Forest.)
3. This book was immensely popular in its day, but hotly debated. Some thought it a perfect morality tale, others thought it ridiculous. What books currently can you think of which share this kind of dual notoriety?
4. Being an Irishman, and writing about the English, does Goldsmith reflect a noticeable bias in this book? As the son and grandson of Anglican clergymen, he shared a childhood similar to Austen’s. He was described by his friends as being the polar opposite of her in temperament, though.  Many writers think of their books and characters as their children. How do you think Goldsmith felt about his characters?


Castle Rackrent
1. The narrator, Thady, has been analyzed several ways. What do you think the author’s view and intent was concerning him? Was he the simple, honest, loyal servant he claimed to be? Or was he manipulating the situations and weaknesses of his employers so as to promote his own family?
2. Like Huckleberry Finn and The Catcher in the Rye, the book is primarily narrated by a main character. But Edgeworth interrupts this with commentary to explain terminology, laws, etc. Does this improve the book or is it distracting?
3. “’The cracked looking-glass of a servant’” was what Stephen Dedalus called Irish art, but this particular mirror held up to the nature of Ireland is wielded by a woman who was no servant, but whose hybridity–born in England of Irish stock–gives her special claims to knowledge and power.”—David Richter.  “Thinking of Castle Rackrent as an Irish slave narrative helps illuminate Edgeworth’s motivations as writer and historian: she records Thady’s tale as instruction for an English readership just as American editors of slave narratives did for their northern readership, she mediates the narrative with an editorial presence, she establishes complex characterizations of both the peasantry and the Ascendancy class in the figures of Thady and Sir Condy, and she advocates a revised treatment of the English-ruled tenant system in Ireland. In this way, Edgeworth emerges as neither an apologist nor an abolitionist, as various critics have deemed her but, rather, as a reformist of a system that she understands to be profoundly flawed and unfair. Edgeworth pinpoints the fundamental injustice of the Ascendancy through the often comic voice of one of its oppressed, rendering the narrative both more powerfully authentic and less directly confrontational to its English readership than it might be in another form, and therefore ultimately more effective in conveying her reservations about the Ascendancy.”—Kate Cochran.  Did you detect Edgeworth identifying with anyone in the book, championing the British or the Irish? Or did she seem to be detached?
4. Jane Austen’s relationship with LaFoy was complicated by his family’s problems in Ireland. How might she have viewed this book, considering her own relative poverty and limitations within the class system of England? 

Discussion Questions – The Wanderer

Thank you Mary for such thoughtful points to discuss!


The Wanderer, or Female Difficulties by Fanny Burney

This novel is very long and complex and so I have had some problems in structuring questions for our discussion. What I’ve come up with here are more like premises followed by questions.

1. There are a large number of social and philosophical points which are explored in varying degrees, e.g., racism questions, the rights of a husband over a runaway wife, an intensive discussion of atheism, women’s rights, snobbery in the upper class, middle-class insularity and xenophobia, doubt or suspicion of the existence of an afterlife, family duty/obligation, social mores and stereotypes. Pick one and discourse a bit on how it was used in the novel.

2. The main character, Ellis/Juliet is completely closed off, and the reader has no more idea than those around her of what she’s thinking and what her real background and family are—or even why she feels she has to withhold her identity—until the secret comes out and the other characters find out who/what she is. This makes it difficult for us as readers to sympathize or identify with her. She doesn’t even have much to say—making it even harder. How do you think it would have influenced either the character of Juliet, or the advancement of the plot if the reader was let into the secret closer to the beginning?

3. The aim of Burney is pretty clearly to show the difficulties a gentlewoman alone, with no resources to fall back on, faces in the world (or at least the world of England in the 18th century. Although she is described as having great propriety, she is surrounded by people who know something to her discredit and they seem sure to show up at times when they can do the most damage. Do you find the constant coincidences hamper the flow, or do they contribute to the overall progression of the novel?

4. Many if not most of the subsidiary characters are not admirable people. Please choose one (or more) from the following list to describe their characteristics, their relationship to Juliet and how significant they are to the maturing of the plot? Gabriella, the Bishop, the Marchioness, Lady Aurora Granville, Lord Melbury, Lord Denmeath, Elinor Joddrel, Selina, Mrs. Maple, Mrs. Ireton, Mr. Ireton, Sir Jasper Harrington, Giles Arbe, Miss Arbe, Miss Blydel, Admiral Powell, Ambroise, the pilot

5. The contemporary critic and professor Juliet McMaster compares Burney’s The Wanderer, or Female Difficulties with Austen’s Mansfield Park. She notes the similarity of Juliet and Fanny in their tastes and in their appreciation of the beauties of nature. These two novels are also similar in their darker tone and the series of trials and persecutions endured by the two women which call for great fortitude. What are some other similarities between the characters of Juliet and Fanny? What similarities are there in the plots of the two novels?

6. McMaster also compares the heroes, Albert Harleigh and Edmund Bertram, both staunchly moral, both winning the love of the heroine, but she is unsure that either fully deserves that love. She sees the “happy” endings as muted– and possibly not so happy after all. Do you agree?


Please note that our February meeting has met with scheduling difficulties, and our usual location is not available. Alternative locations are being discussed and will be posted here, and on the email list.