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Jane Austen

Nora Bartlett


Jane Stabler

Texte intégral

  • 1 Nora Bartlett, ‘An Excerpt from my Unpublished Writing’, in On Gender and Writing, ed. by Michelene (...)

1Nora Bartlett (1949–2016) was an inspirational teacher of nineteenth- and twentieth-century fiction at the Universities of Oxford and St Andrews. Among her many areas of expertise, she was a superlative reader of Jane Austen, whose novels she first enjoyed at the age of six and carried on reading and re-reading almost every year for the rest of her life. After her death from an aggressive and terrifyingly swift oesophageal cancer at the age of only sixty-seven, her husband, the historian Robert Bartlett, gathered her Jane Austen papers and identified a press that would publish them. They were to appear as Nora had delivered them, written in an informal oral register for a general audience. Nora was well aware of recent Austen scholarship, but she recognised that for the vast majority of Austen’s readers who were not academics, the shared pleasure and sometimes frustration of reading the novels themselves and their relationship with what Nora called ‘the texture of reality’ was what should be at the heart of any literary discussion.1 Her Austen talks are presented here as she left them, with minimal editorial intervention to identify quotations and provide the necessary critical context that Nora would have given in extempore asides to her audience. Nora knew Austen so well that she usually quoted short passages from memory and she drew other allusions freely from her extensive reading across all periods of literature and film. Her occasional creative reimaginings of Austen are the effect of Austen’s immediacy, a process of readerly response Nora describes in her first talk (‘we speak in our heads lines she never wrote’), which is often revealing in a different way from an accurate quotation. Where this is the case and Nora’s distinctive inflection serves as a vehicle for a motif in the talk as a whole, her gloss on Austen or other authors has been left intact and the original reference is given in a footnote.

  • 2 Nora Bartlett, ‘Deaths and Entrances: The Opening of Sense and Sensibility’, Persuasions On-line, 3 (...)
  • 3 Nora Bartlett, ‘Silence as a Weapon of Self-Defence in Sense and Sensibility’, in Emotion, Violence (...)

2These talks were written over several decades, and delivered on separate occasions to Jane Austen Society of Scotland gatherings, undergraduate literary societies, book clubs, to her students in continuing education programmes and the occasional academic symposium. Some of them subsequently appeared as blogs, generously donated to former students; some sections were eventually published as parts of more academic articles in journals such as Persuasions.2 Nora’s insights about the significance of mourning at the start of Sense and Sensibility, for example, appeared in a Festschrift for the legal and literary scholar, William Ian Miller.3 Across all these talks, readers will recognise the way Nora circled around particular themes, studying them from a variety of angles and turning them about so that her regular audience could appreciate different facets of apparently familiar plots.

3The final versions of all the talks that follow were selected by her husband. They exemplify Nora’s deep but lightly worn erudition, her sense of humour and her generosity of spirit. We can savour her quizzical observations of family life, forbearance of more egotistical members of the academic community, concern for the young men and women who were her students and how they might flourish, an American concern about British standards of healthcare (mediated by her sister, who remained living in Rochester, New York, where Nora grew up), relish of tray bakes and a wonderful capacity for fellowship with others. Nora was a tireless correspondent, managing to sustain an astonishing number of multi-stranded conversations through text, email and shared New Yorker cartoons. Like Austen, Nora enjoyed a strong epistolary connection with her sister, who was a confidante and the alibi for her stringent observations of human foibles; unlike Austen, Nora shared her intellectual life with her husband for whom she was the first and best reader of all he wrote.

  • 4 Nora Bartlett, ‘An Excerpt from my Unpublished Writing’, p. 11.

4These are the critical essays of someone who was clearly herself a novelist. In 1983 when she was in her early thirties, Nora published a wryly self-deprecating article on what it was like to be an unpublished novelist. Some of the insights she articulated courageously and unself-sparingly in that short but very powerful piece of writing help to explain her close attention to Austen’s sense of herself as a writer. Nora described her own writing life as ‘a pattern of continual interruptions’.4 Unlike Austen, it was the experience of motherhood at the age of twenty-four that propelled her into writing her first novel: ‘nothing in my life’, she wrote, ‘ever surprised me so much as what happens to women when they have children’. She continued:

  • 5 Ibid.

At the time I found it awful, or mostly awful, but now it seems to me as if my previous life had been a dim, flat, verbal thing, a spoken monologue that ran on and on in my head detailing the elements of existence as they presented themselves to me. My son interrupted that, and the way that interruption feels, still, is that he gave me the world.5

5Although it came from a different source, it was this profound capacity for curiosity, warming to interest in other existences that made Nora and Jane Austen into like-minded novelists. Nora’s explanation of the difference her first son made to the way she looked at and interacted with the world captures what it is that draws people to read and to write fiction:

  • 6 Ibid.

What he kept on teaching me was that he was a different person from me, separate, with a different body and mind and imagination. Not just that his sex was different but that he was quite other, and this made me begin to wonder, as I never had before, what other people’s experience of the world was like.6

  • 7 Ibid., p. 15.

6Nora’s novels were not unread, but she remained unpublished. First Impressions, Jane Austen’s first novel to be submitted to a press, was rejected unread and despite having three novels in a state of near completion when she moved to Chawton, Austen remained unpublished for the best part of a decade. Nora was acutely alert to the effects of being able or not to try out a narrative voice with a readership; her own ‘shame and misery’ about publishers’ rejections sharpened her perceptiveness about the different stages of Austen’s writing career and the significance of her shift from being unpublished to being read by a larger audience than the family circle.7 It was Nora who first drew my attention to the way in which Austen’s work on her mature novels was braided so that she was likely to have been working on Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park at the same time; preparing Mansfield Park for the press at the same time as beginning work on Emma, and writing Persuasion while Emma was in the press. To be able to hold such different works in her head at the same time is a sign of Austen’s creative genius; it is also a variety of multi-tasking that Nora would recognise as an integral part of quotidian domestic existence. For Nora, the connection between Austen’s fiction and lived experience is vital, and this is evident in her approach to the novels. ‘Emma in the Snow’, for example, grew out of at least two real-life events: an email exchange with a fellow American about the dismal paucity of snow in the UK and (during the same winter) a day when an unusually heavy night’s fall of snow in Fife meant that the editor of this volume was snowed-in in a hill-top hamlet waiting for the local farmer’s tractor to clear the road so that she could get into St Andrews to teach a morning seminar on Emma. Digging had commenced at first light, but after two hours, the communal spade-work of several households had only removed a few feet of the snow drift across the lane. Nora telephoned shortly after 8 a.m.; she lived on the main road in the west end of St Andrews and had already (like Mr. Knightley) walked into town and back to ascertain whether it was possible to get to the grocery store. Solicitous and animated as ever, she enquired if I would like to borrow her now grown-up children’s sled for my son and whether she could call on the local taxi firm for an estimate of when the inland road to my village would be clear. I explained my anxiety about the 10 a.m. Emma class; if I was still stuck, would she be able to take the class for me?—Nora almost whooped with joy, said that she had just been re-reading Emma for something else and that she would gladly step in. Four hours later, when I finally managed to inch my car down to the main road and into town, Nora was waiting with an exuberant account of how, following the student presentations, the lesson plan had been put aside and the whole seminar devoted to a discussion of the significance of the snow in Emma. She had also made brownies for the class, and gave me some to take back with the sled.

  • 8 Caroline Walker Bynum, Dissimilar Similitudes: Devotional Objects in Late Medieval Europe (New York (...)

7Nora’s unfailing kindness and resourcefulness made her a wonderful teacher; she always found something good to extract from even the most dismally truncated exam script and her willingness to listen attentively marks her readings of Austen. In the following extracts from the fragmentary ‘Pauses in Jane Austen’, readers can hear what made her such a great explicator of Austen’s artistry. Nora focuses on Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion; her pairing of textual examples, with sideways glances across Austen’s works always throws light on what her friend, Caroline Walker Bynum brilliantly calls ‘dissimilar similitudes’.8 To examine the pauses in these two novels, Nora begins with the ‘short pause’ after Mr. Collins’s proposal to Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice:

  • 9 Nora Bartlett, ‘Pauses in Jane Austen’, unpublished material from lecture notes.

This is a strong example of how Jane Austen uses the ‘pause’ to create comedy, as in Persuasion, where in Chapter iii Sir Walter Elliot shows his ignorance of the world, the law, and his own dire economic straits by declaring loftily that he is ‘by no means’ certain ‘as to the privileges’ attached to the tenancy of Kellynch-hall—the tenant may be limited in his access to Kellynch’s ‘pleasure-grounds […] shrubberies […] flower gardens.’
After this preposterous statement there is ‘a short pause’ while his steward, Mr. Shepherd, is clearly biting his tongue to keep either from laughing or from replying with the sharpness which the comment deserves: he knows more than anyone what a jam the Elliots are in and how much they need this tenant, and he knows the law—but he is used to crawling to Sir Walter, has become of necessity what the Scottish call a ‘sook, ’ or suck-up, and will reply, as his clever daughter Mrs. Clay will always reply to the patronizing comments of Sir Walter and Miss Elliot, diplomatically, flatteringly. They are playing a long game with their short pauses.
So, the ‘pause’ is often a moment when a character is suppressing a laugh, or an angry reply: it stands for a rebellion that does not take place, or takes place only internally. But there are other types of pause also, and one occurs in Pride and Prejudice a little later, in Chapter xxi, when Jane Bennet has received, and relayed to Elizabeth, the distressing news of the Bingley party’s sudden departure from Netherfield. Elizabeth is listening, and forming her own opinions of, the ‘high-flown expressions’ of Miss Bingley’s letter. She knows, however, that Jane’s view of the sisters is different from hers, so replies carefully, ‘after a short pause, ’ not showing her own sense that the female Bingleys are treacherous snobs and false friends, because she knows that that would both hurt the tender-hearted, trusting Jane, and alarm her about their brother. Instead she is, like Mr. Shepherd, tactful: ‘may we not hope that […] the delightful intercourse you have known as friends, will be renewed with yet greater satisfaction as sisters.’
In that ‘short pause’ Elizabeth was thinking what to say: and though Jane Austen presents her characters’ thoughts with incomparable depth and subtlety in her use of free-indirect discourse, where the narrative mingles with the character’s thoughts, here she allows the reader to invent or imagine what kind of thinking has gone into those ‘short pauses’: Mr. Shepherd wants to move the topic on to a more realistic plane, and wants not to lose his job; Elizabeth wants to give her beloved sister the kind of comfort in this unexpected turn of events that she believes is genuinely appropriate to the situation. Both characters, in highly contrasting circumstances, are taking care with their speech.9

8This extract illustrates quintessential Nora Bartlett: penetrating analysis of a moment, warm colloquial summary of the situation (Sir Walter being ‘in a jam’; Mr. Shepherd being ‘a sook’), and the affirmative recognition of an unspoken act of kindness. Perhaps most the most striking trait of all is Nora’s identification of patterns of behaviour in Austen’s fiction, an incisive recognition which can only come from years of immersion and deep contemplation of the novels. Her quick eye unerringly picked out the recurring motifs that create the rich texture of relationships in Austen’s fiction, such as the pattern of maternal absence and a male mentor, or a mother favouring the child who most resembles her, or the different ways in which the act of attending or attention is refracted across members of the same family. Nora’s inside-out knowledge of the texts also alerts us to Austen’s innately dramatic presentation of dialogue, enabling readers to recognise and assess points of contrast and progression—as when Nora points out that Henry Crawford realizes that he could ‘so wholly […] confide’ in Fanny in the same room in the Parsonage in which he and Mary callously planned to make ‘a small hole in Fanny Price’s heart’ (Mansfield Park, II xii 341; II vi 267). As well as her formidable grasp of plot devices, Nora was also attuned to the sound of Austen’s prose. Again, Nora skilfully links this to her audience’s experience of navigating the everyday:

  • 10 Ibid.

But the pauses also produce a kind of realism in the rhythms of speech as Jane Austen’s novels display it: we all know from our own experience of conversation, formal or informal, that we are often required to pause before speaking—like Mr. Shepherd and Elizabeth, we are deciding what to say next. In Pride and Prejudice, despite the ‘sparkling’ reputation of its dialogue, there are many such pauses—even with Mr. Wickham, so easy to talk to that a clever young woman ought to be more on her guard, there are ‘many pauses’ and ‘trials of other subjects’ while Elizabeth tries to maintain her composure as she and Wickham mount their joint attack on Mr. Darcy’s character. And in her talk with Mr. Darcy, there are so many pauses that one is tempted to wonder if Jane Austen is thinking of the famously tongue-tied heroine created by her beloved Fanny Burney in Evelina, who, dancing with her high-born admirer at her first London ball, can say nothing at all.
Elizabeth, not quite so simple, nevertheless experiences in her first dance with Mr. Darcy, ‘a pause of some minutes, ’ and is forced to blurt out—here abandoning tact—that there are ‘no other two people in the room who have less to say for themselves.’ Later, in Mr. Darcy’s first, unsuccessful proposal at the Rosings parsonage, there will be ‘a pause’ on his part, in which his thoughts are embodied in physical reactions that Elizabeth cannot help seeing and experiencing—‘his complexion became pale with anger, and the disturbance of his mind was visible in every feature’—this ‘pause was to Elizabeth’s feelings dreadful.’ She does not realize, but the reader probably does, how much her feelings are already blending with Darcy’s: the reader can feel the intensity of her erotic response to Darcy—amidst all her resentment and rage—in that ‘dreadful pause.’10

9‘She does not realize, but the reader probably does’, is Nora’s characteristic way of sharing her perceptions. She is pointing out something that not all readers will have noticed—certainly not all first-time undergraduate readers—but at all stages, her critical commentary embraces and carries with it everyone in the room, generously extending textual exploration to all those present instead of the more common and disingenuous use of ‘the reader’ which, in a lot of criticism, tends to mean ‘me’. In the last paragraphs of her drafted talk on pauses, Nora returns us to one of the eleven pauses in Persuasion, which she considers ‘the briefest and greatest of her novels’:

I have looked at one comic [pause] and want to end with one luminous and serious one, complicated by its being heard not only by those in the conversation, but overheard by the silent, pensive Anne. This is Captain Wentworth and Louisa Musgrove, nutting and flirting in the hedgerows in Chapter x while Anne is left alone, neglected by all, feeling no connection with anything but the melancholy autumnal landscape. Louisa, that healthy, lively, commonplace young girl, is expressing her resentment of her sister-in-law Mary’s snobbishness:
‘She has a great deal too much of the Elliot pride—we do so wish that Charles had married Anne—I suppose you know he wanted to marry Anne?’
After a moment’s pause, Captain Wentworth said, ‘Do you mean that she refused him?’
‘Oh! Yes, certainly.’
‘When did that happen?’
Louisa is not imaginative enough to wonder at this abrupt shift, this surprising interest in Anne, on the part of a man who has been studiously ignoring her for weeks, but the reader thinks his or her way deep into that pause: later Captain Wentworth, referring to that refusal of Charles, tells Anne, ‘I could not help thinking, “was this for me?”’ But there is more—as in the later moment when he responds to Mr. Elliot’s admiring glance at Anne on the Cobb at Lyme, he is suddenly seeing Anne again as she had once appeared to him—young and beautiful and desirable, stepping toward him beckoningly, freed from the ghastly nun-hood of the years between. There are many moments in the novel which show the ways in which these two cannot get away from each other, but here, as often, it is displayed in a pause, spoken in silence.

  • 11 Obituary of Mary Ellmann, whose work ‘has the disadvantage of needing to be read’ (Nora Bartlett, ‘ (...)

10Here, as so often in her talks, Nora allows her listeners to linger over the cadences of an Austen novel and to let the resonances of the scene ripple out in the minds of the listeners. She had a lovely reading voice and beautifully articulated quotations were at the heart of all her talks. Nora always preferred to plant questions rather than hammer out a thesis, she is a skilful interpreter both of what is said and what is unsaid, but she never presses too hard on the unsaid, being wary of the egotism involved in much ‘against the grain’ critical theory, which drowned out the voice of the writer with strident polemic. A tolerant and humane feminist and former Trotskyist herself, she could be acerbic about academic books with loud titles, ‘which achieve their real influence on people who do not have to read them, who get all they need out of the title’.11 Instead, her talks on any given topic always set out to ‘think about it with you’ and to ‘help us to see it better’. Like all teachers, she was concerned about the correction of error, but she preferred to do this through a mutual appreciation of nuance: seeing clearly and accurately was part of Austen’s art, and reflection on that art was a way of inculcating the clear and accurate perception which is always the necessary first step toward social amelioration.

  • 12 Nora Bartlett, ‘An Excerpt from my Unpublished Writing’, p. 15.

11One of the advantages of being published, Nora wrote, was that it would enable her ‘to yell more’.12 Her work on Jane Austen evinces a strong sense of political purpose and if one were pushed to categorise her methodology, it would be ‘close reading with an agenda’. Her feminism, inflected by left-wing Catholicism, comes through in her attention to Austen’s depiction of how families work (or not), and especially how women perform the roles of being sisters, mothers and grandmothers. She explores perennial women’s questions such as women’s involvement in their own oppression, how dangerous the world is for unprotected women, and how to recognise and guard against the particular threat of the predatory, but attractive male. Her aesthetic and moral sensibility led her to weigh continuously what she called the ‘education and miseducation of the heart’, the importance of scrutinizing behaviour, of being aware of the existence of others beyond the borders of the self, and the bleak moral paradox that proper delicacy about the feelings of others more often than not leads to characters being alone. The modern existential problem of loneliness is one of the unrecognised features of Austen’s world that Nora brings into focus as well as being one of the issues that she sought to combat in her life and work.

  • 13 ‘Nora Bartlett‘, Mark Liddell (November 24, 2016), (...)

12After Nora’s death, one of her former tutees, Mark Liddell, posted a witty, moving account of her determination to correct a tutorial group’s failure to appreciate the greatness of the film It’s a Wonderful Life.13 Mark used a line from the film as an epitaph for Nora: ‘Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?’. The angel Clarence speaks here of a male character and, apposite as those words are, it is keeping with the spirit of this book to pair his epitaph with another, which celebrates the difference made by female character. Nora had an effect on those around her of the kind George Eliot describes on the last page of Middlemarch, where we are told about the ‘incalculably diffusive’ effect of a good woman. It is one of the hallmarks of Nora’s Austen talks that, like her life, they have a far-reaching after-life. ‘She was a great loss, greater than I recognized until now’, as one of the peer-reviewers of this volume observed: Reflections of a Reader allows us to see just that.


1 Nora Bartlett, ‘An Excerpt from my Unpublished Writing’, in On Gender and Writing, ed. by Michelene Wandor (Boston: Pandora, 1983), pp. 10–16 (p. 11).

2 Nora Bartlett, ‘Deaths and Entrances: The Opening of Sense and Sensibility’, Persuasions On-line, 32.2 (2012),

3 Nora Bartlett, ‘Silence as a Weapon of Self-Defence in Sense and Sensibility’, in Emotion, Violence, Vengeance and Law in the Middle Ages: Essays in Honour of William Ian Miller, ed. by Kate Gilbert and Stephen D. White (Leiden: Brill, 2018), pp. 344– 50,

4 Nora Bartlett, ‘An Excerpt from my Unpublished Writing’, p. 11.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid., p. 15.

8 Caroline Walker Bynum, Dissimilar Similitudes: Devotional Objects in Late Medieval Europe (New York: Zone Books, 2020),; the book is dedicated to Nora.

9 Nora Bartlett, ‘Pauses in Jane Austen’, unpublished material from lecture notes.

10 Ibid.

11 Obituary of Mary Ellmann, whose work ‘has the disadvantage of needing to be read’ (Nora Bartlett, ‘Mary Ellmann’, The Independent (June 7, 1989), p. 18).

12 Nora Bartlett, ‘An Excerpt from my Unpublished Writing’, p. 15.

13 ‘Nora Bartlett‘, Mark Liddell (November 24, 2016),



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