"Saving the Best of the Coveys": Sport in the Novels of Jane Austen

By Wedge, Phil | Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature, Fall-Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

"Saving the Best of the Coveys": Sport in the Novels of Jane Austen


Wedge, Phil, Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature


Although sport would seem to serve a minor purpose in the novels of Jane Austen, field sports, exercise, and the playing of games serve as background to the country lives of many of Austen's characters, her men in particular. From young Catherine Morland's preference of cricket and "base ball" over dolls (1) and books, (2) in Northanger Abbey, to Charles Musgrove's avid interest in shooting in Persuasion, sport figures in each Austen novel, often linked in subtle ways to courtship, though perhaps Mr. Elton's "court ship" riddle in Emma was not very subtle word play, even if Emma Woodhouse managed to misread its message! The manner in which men pursue field sports, particularly hunting and shooting (3) or talk about them, also seems to reveal something about their characters, as with John Thorpe's bragging about his hunters in Northanger Abbey. Similarly, in Sense and Sensibility, John Willoughby may be a good shot, but he also "sports with" (4) Marianne Dashwood's affections, as her sister Elinor asserts. Pride and Prejudice has its share of sport as well, from the gambling Wickham pursuing Lydia Bennet to the ever-hopeful Mrs. Bennet assuring Mr. Bingley that her husband will "save all the best of the coveys" for him. As in this novel, shooting/hunting seasons and courting season often coincide in the works of Jane Austen.

Although biographer Claire Tomalin suggests Austen was "likely to take up boys' games" (5) as a child, a la Catherine Moreland, because her father boarded some of the boys he taught at school when she was young, there is little evidence outside the pages of Northanger Abbey to support such suppositions. (6) She did apparently have good hand-eye coordination, based on her feats at "bilbocatch," (7) and she enjoyed taking part in games with her nephews and nieces, including battledore and shuttlecock, reporting in a letter of 1805 that she had been practicing with six-year-old nephew William and they had "frequently kept it up three times, & once or twice six" (109). The Austen men, father George, brothers Henry, Edward, Frank, and Charles, (8) as well as various nephews and neighbors, were mostly avid about field sports. Jane's letters to her sister Cassandra, in particular, often include news of her brothers/nephews' sporting endeavors, sometimes satirically, sometimes not. In a letter from 1796, dated September I the traditional opening day for partridge season (9), Jane jokes to Cassandra, "there are a prodigious number of birds hearabouts this year, so that perhaps 1 may kill a few" (7). Two weeks later, she reports that Edward and Frank "went out yesterday very early in a couple of Shooting Jackets, & came home like a couple of Bad Shots, for they killed nothing at all. They are out again to day, & are not yet returned--Delightful Sport! They are just come home; Edward with two Brace, Frank with his two and a half. What amiable Young Men!" (Le Faye 10). Austen may joke with her sister, and presumably with the brothers, about the two "Bad Shots" who come home empty-handed, but her humorous judging of them as "amiable Young Men" based on their bagging nine birds is interesting, considering even in jest she attributes a good character trait, being "amiable," to the success of these sportsmen. Austen will play with the same sorts of moral judgments of male sporting characters in particular in her early novels. Since her early novels, Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813) and Northanger Abbey (1818), all were drafted and revised long before publication, dating of Austen compositions is difficult of course, not to mention dating when sporting scenes were developed in them. I, therefore, propose to examine these three novels first, followed by the novels drafted in the later years, Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1815), and Persuasion (1818). Just as Austen's style and themes altered to some degree from the earlier novels, so too did her use of sport in them, both in terms of sophistication and in terms of its importance to underlying themes in the novels. …

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