You are now collecting your People delightfully, getting them exactly into such a spot as is the delight of my life; — 3 or 4 families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on — & I hope you will write a great deal more — to Anna Austen (later Lefroy), 9-18 Sept 1814
What should I do with your strong, manly, spirited Sketches, full of variety & Glow? — How could I possbily join them on to the little bit (two inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labor? — to JEAL, 16-17 Jan 1817
I feel myself getting stronger than I was half a year ago, & can so perfectly well walk to Alton, or back again, without the slightest fatigue that I hope to be able to do both when Summer comes — The Piano Forte often talks of you; — in various keys, tunes & expressions I allow — but be it Lesson or Country dance, Sonata or Waltz, You are really its constant Theme — to Caroline, 23 Jan 1817.
Dear friends and readers,
I again group four letters by Austen to her nephew and nieces (see 140-43). These are not solely to James’s children, one is to Cassandra-Esten Austen (Cassy), Charles’s daughter, companion and of an age to be a peer to Caroline. While Austen has by this time known much pain, debilitation, loss of mobility and bodily strength (probably girth too), she experiences a remission lengthy enough to renew hope (see above quotation), rewrite the ending of Persuasion and write an astonishing rapid draft of Sanditon over the next 4 months when she was again driven to put her pen down. In JEAL’s memoir which covers precisely this time, he confirms that she was working on Persuasion and (as dated on the manuscript) it was on 17 January 1817 that she began writing Sanditon.
When summer came she was literally dying in Winchester and dead by July. Cancer (aka the lymphoma) can come on rapidly & devour you. For those interested in cancer treatments here’s an early case described of a person who (in effect) does not have chemotherapy (drastic strong measure so one is seen to be doing something even if badly understood) nor the terrifying operation removing central organs (the latest expensive measure). We see the disease take a natural course which includes a surcease for a precious few months. Nowadays she’d go on a trip (last journeys anyone?) At any rate here is evidence she did not herself always act on a premonition she was dying; it was intermittent. She was not always on the other side of a fence looking at people from the aspect of someone mortally ill.
These letters show JEAL and Caroline were seeking Austen’s approval and supporting her morally (what shows more admiration than imitation) by writing novels or scraps of them on their own, sending them to her, and she reciprocates with generosity. A few of her comments to JEAL (and Anna earlier in 1814) have been ceaselessly cited and discussed. In all three cases, Anna’s novel which she paid the compliment of really detailed responses), Caroline’s short pieces and now Edward’s Scott-like attempt, Austen is pretending to regard them as working in the same light or level of seriousness as she does. She knows they do not, and one assumes that she feels assured of the profound difference between her fiction and theirs. But that she can pretend otherwise and it pass muster suggests Clare Harman is right when she writes the family did not see her novels as above other novels of her era and perhaps equally valued James’s poetry, if not as much because it couldn’t sell (bring fame, money, respect) but as that which the period took seriously.
We should note that the way she often treats her own fiction as amusement, how when even praising the novels of others (which she is not inclined to do) she does not discuss any serious ideas in them, is just the way she is treats JEAL’s probably Scott-like stories and her young niece’s efforts. Anna’s novel written in 1814 was given the literal verisimilitude treatment along with how consistent are the characters and how much they make us laugh.
Letter 146, to JEAL, Mon 16-17 Dec 1816, Chawton to Steventon
19th century illustration of a wild scene conjured up by story-telling from the past in Scott’s Antiquary (alluded to by Austen in this letter)
There is a deliberate effort to be far more cheerful than the writer really is; the letter has the effect of putting on a show. Everyone so well (Anna too, though again we catch Austen declining one of Anna’s dinner invitations), Uncle Henry in excellent looks, all health and good humor, pickled cucumbers extremely good. She feels herself working something up as she refers to her use of the word “uncle;” he must not tire of it “for I have not done with it.” She makes fun too of the way JEAL will now tell her of his miseries and crimes, on the point of hanging himself once, now that his school days are over. She will soon turn to writing a lightning quick draft of Sanditon and deal with what she feels in her body happening — making fun of just the pain she has known and probably began to know again towards the end of the draft. I believe her the walk to Anna is beyond her strength and she would need Uncle Charles plus donkey carriage.
The second paragraph is her insisting on Henry’s health, his good looks — which again is part of this vein of denying: she has denied endlessly that Henry has been upset for real about what happened to him — when she herself has given much evidence to the contrary during their tours around southern England just afte Eliza died, but in a continual denying vein — this a characteristic response, how she got through life we might say, at least on the surface. We must concede her response to her mother’s continual hypochrondia (given how long Mrs Austen lived) — that she’s not really ill at all — seems to have been born out by Mrs Austen’s long life.
She’s avoiding Anna again: whether perfectly recovered or sick, she does not want to go to Anna’s house; the rest on the uncles and then the usual joking about who she is glad to marry. It’s painful when she does not empathize with other women in their conditions as women — in life and in her books or those of others — but she doesn’t.
This is such a famous letter and the central portion where Austen characterizes her fiction deprecatingly discussed so many times it’s natural to feel we can have little more to say and I won’t go on to discuss at whether her fiction is trivial (it’s not), on a very narrow range of topics, or if this comment refers to her artistic techniques (I think it does). Rather let’s look at the remark in its social context.
Her allusion to Scott’s Antiquary suggests she and her nephew had been reading the novel together — in Scott’s novel his character launch into tales from the past, wild and whirling whose point is rediscovery of the past not just recovery and a reinstatement of Sir Arthur’s daughter (disinherited and therefore one would think someone Austen from her fiction might sympathize with); the scene Austen specifically alludes to is a famous powerful landscape storm sequence. Just the sort of thing Austen made fun of in Brunton’s Self-Control only (admittedly) much much better done. The Antiquary is a work of genius. Probably (given the love and preference for Scott JEAL evidences in his Memoir of his aunt) JEAL has been trying to imitate Scott with his “glowing” and “manly spirited sketches.” — Austen is a jealous reader of other people’s novels, of her rivals of which Scott she knew was one but whom she could not dismiss as unrealistic in the way she could Mary Brunton when Brunton did traumatic weather scenes. She did see Scott’s greatness.
Patrick Allen Fraser, A Scene from the Antiquary (1842)
She also alludes to Hannah Cowley’s Which is the Man? A comedy (1786). She tells JEAL to tell his father what he will — but then switches and says, no, James must not be left off the hook, kept out of the loop as he must make a tenant pay his rent. This sounds like a family joke referring to Mary Lloyd Austen in a hidden way.
Another by Cowley: “The charms that helped to catch the husband are generally laid by, one after another, till the lady grows a downright wife, and then runs crying to her mother, because she has transformed her lover into a downright, husband.” Cowley’s lines evoke the grim realities of marriage which Austen lightly refers to here.
Her comical acceptance of Mr Papillon as a suitor seems to have been a family trope — I wonder if they tired of it. In Miss Austen Regrets he does — am is irritated and hurt. By the end of the letter it’s obvious the family is back from legacy hunting.
2008 Miss Austen Regrets (based partly on the letters, partly on Nokes’s biography): Jane (Olivia Williams) teasing Mr Papillon who does not enjoy being mocked
On Janeites and Austen-l there was a reading of the letter which asserted Austen was mocking, ridiculing her nephew in effect throughout. Mockery as a tone includes ridicule; there is no ridicule at all here. The tone is one of friendship. I agree Austen maintains a distance in her letters to Anna and there is in the opening to Edward here something similar (but the tone is kinder), lightly making fun of his supposed stories of anguish revealed at last — perhaps to forestall him? The opening paragraph does not really have him in mind: she is — as she does in her juvenilia and perhaps first drafts of her novels — opting for repression of all deep emotional states by making fun of them. We will glimpse for a moment a startling distance between Austen and Fanny Knight in the opening of a later letter where she appears to be openly regarding Fanny as a specimen under glass of young girl’s absurdities in love – and makes Fanny uncomfortable.
The thesis she is mocking and resentful would make her really feel threatened by these family writings. Everything we have suggests it was this family writing that allowed her to write. Other families would have inhibited her (as Mary Lloyd Austen jealously tried to stop her husband and step-daughter from fulfilling their gifts). She is half-joking that she and her nephew must steal one of Henry’s sermons and put them in our novels but as companions, as two people gayly pretending to make mischief.
She doesn’t want Henry to be the complicated man he was as that makes him less manageable to her mind. She avoids them when they present depths — that’s the avoidance of Anna who is now a mature woman (with a full sexual life too). Cassandra was her shelter against the world and she builds conventional walls and understandings. JEAL is as yet a boy and that’s why she can condescend in the friendly way she does: no threat; nor Caroline.
I admit to a certain discomfort in how Austen can so easily write to people so much younger than she and act as if they were her peers. Caroline is 9. It’s unsettling when she giggles with Fanny Knight in London over Mr Haden — as if she too were a 16 year old innocent girl titillating herself. These are not acts put on: for whose benefit would be the mockery? Even assuming Cassandra reading over the shoulders could understand her letters this way, would she enjoy such laughter at her nephew or any of her nieces? Hard to say. Cassandra did laugh at Cassy with Austen when Cassy first came to stay and feared bugs in the beds. Are we to imagine Austen enjoying her mockery alone? Rather she partly identifies with this younger generation.
My feeling is the occasionally ummediated identification comes from Austen having not been given enough experience outside her family on her own utterly — to cope with money and sex too. She longed to travel on her own, but there were many areas she was kept from experiencing. Money matters and sexual experience directly especially.
Letter 147 (C). To Anna Lefroy. Thurs? Dec 1816
A loosened flexible corset: meant for pregnant women
To Anna she sends thanks for a turkey in the form of comical-benign or sweet information that Mrs Austen, the grandmamma, is grieving Anna did not keep it for her family. Austen again promises to come over. Had we not read the many previous letters we would dismiss this last as, well, after all it’s January and Austen is ill, but having gone through quite a number where she is avoiding going over to Anna, I suspect Mrs Austen is alone in wishing to get to Anna soon. They are in the position of Miss and Mrs Bates in Emma who are sent fowls and other eatables.
It is sad to think how Anna and Austen were once loving half-mother-aunt and girl and then close as aunt-and-young woman, but then became estranged when Jane took the attitude of the family towards Anna’s courtship years and marriage to Ben. As a later letter suggests some of her discomfort now is to see her niece continually pregnant and not well. After all it’s not a joking matter as she says then.
148. To Casandra-Esten Austen. Wed, 8 Jan 1817
Designs for toy alphabets (a set is used in Emma)
Cassy, still very young so she gets a mirror letter congratulating her on her 9th birthday. My dear Cassy it begins … and ends Your affectionate Aunt. A transcription I thank the members of Janeites for providing. One must have patience for this sort of thing: a love of word games, good nature too — it would also be seen by her brothers and their wives.
I wish you a happy new year. Your six cousins came here yesterday, and had each a piece of cake. This is little Cassy’s birthday and she is three year’s old. Frank has begun learning Latin. We feed the robin every morning. Sally often enquires after you. Sally Benham has got a new green gown. Harriet Knight comes every day to read to Aunt Cassandra. Goodbye my dear Cassy.
Letter 149. To Caroline Austen. Thurs, 23 Jan 1817, Chawton to Steventon
Muzio Clementi piano belonging to Jane Austen
She sits there looking at a comfortable long blank sheet of paper and really delights in the sense of presence she will have as she talks to her niece. In making “a handsome return” to Caroline’s 2 o3 3 notes, we see how happy she was to have Edward’s visits and seems to take his fiction seriously. She teases how “vile” she & Mrs Austen were to keep him from Anna – who also needed his intelligent kind company, but they were ruthless. A play on words from butter to better (vowels). No one seems to know where the evening party was held, but Clearly JEAL was a center. How he must’ve remembered such a time happily – the mood of his book comes from such experiences. Here is one of its sources: he wanted to relive these happy times, to thank her, do her justice, make sure she was remembered. At the party he read his chapters aloud and all took an interest. Mr Reeves is a name from Sir Charles Grandison. And we see Austen take the superficial attitude towards fiction she consciously does when describing it in her letters – either she condemns or talks in terms of literal verisimilitude or approaches the fiction as how “amusing”.
An association makes her remember Caroline’s similar efforts – to please the aunt no doubt too, and join in with brother and sister. Austen sensed something snobbish in using French for a malapropism for the character. I take “Lunar” to be a reference to the group that met calling themselves the Lunar Society and that’s interesting because it shows her awareness of philosophical cults in her time. She did know Maria Edgeworth enough to send her a copy of Emma so she might have been able to hear of Edgeworth, Day and that group’s activities. They were located in Birmingham:
Then she does not forget the servants: Cassy has sent them some small remembrance and Austen characterizes Sally quickly, and a bit condescendingly but she likes Sally and recognizes her good nature: “Sally has got a new red Cloak, which adds much to her happiness, in other respects she is unaltered, as civil & well-meaning & talkative as ever.
Upstairs and downstairs are intermingled in a cottage like Chawton.
Caroline’s cat brought a dormouse to her (?), and Austen laughs: only think, and well, I never …
Caroline would want Cassy to return as a playmate and companion, but March is her time to come. Austen seems to imply that Cassy is not much of a letter writer to Caroline – so there is an awareness between them of different people’s natures and capacities (Cassy not as articulate as Caroline). Everyone of course sends their love (remember Mr Knightley’s comment on that sort of thing), then Charles’s desperate sickness, and her usual refusal to admit to this: “He has a said turn for being unwell.” After all the man has just been court-martialed, his first wife dead, an array of children to care for, a sister-in-law to keep, his career is in total disarray. Who would not be ill. He has a great eruption in his face and symptoms which look like rheumatism.
Then she gets to herself and it’s worth quoting again: “I feel myself getting stronger than I was half a year ago, & can so perfectly well walk to Alton, or back again, without the slightest fatigue that I hope to be able to do both when Summer comes. Because of her better health and strength she has been able to go over to Frank and Mary and enjoy herself with them and their children. She teases that she may be be excused for “loving them” on the supposition that perhaps Caroline will be jealous of her cousins.
The postscript about her playing the piano is revealing and touching: she is saying when she plays she thinks of Caroline. Caroline comes across in her late short memoirs as sensitive, intelligent, really like Anna and Austen does lend herself to the girl and have a real relationship. The girl is yet though not into puberty, still young, not someone to arouse any feelings of disquiet over what’s to come, or what she will be. In the event she never married and lived a very quiet life. Austen says she wishes Caroline could come over as easily as her older brother, but the girl is much more easily domineered and controlled by her mother than the boy. Perhaps she felt such affection for Anna too when Anna was young.
From the online digital edition of Austen’s manuscripts: the cancelled penultimate chapter of Persuasion
Some general comments: there is enough in the letters (remnants though they are) to outline a sense of Austen’s politics and morality, central to what we find in her novels, an element shaping them. I don’t think she’s the arch-conservative Marilyn Butler makes her out to be, but we do see Austen become more conservative in her later years. Early on she was rebelling and resentful that as a woman her needs for career fulfillment were utterly ignored: she was to marry and all effort was for her brothers and used metaphors about why should she not go and hang herself. Then she wanted to set up housekeeping with Martha Lloyd and her sister. Not allowed.
But as she aged, she accepted the imposition of a conventional life-style — as many people do, because they become tired of banging their heads against a wall that is not coming down and want to identify with the culture they find will give them the only respect they can socially find,in her case as a woman writer on the meagre terms her milieu would give her. She had time and space and peace to write publishable versions of her books and was given help (by Henry) to get them into print. So she is gaining some respect, money, more self-esteem — through her books.
You can trace the changes by reading what she reads – that means more than the novels, but also books like Buchanan’s and Paisley’s (for violent imperialism both). Sometimes too — used very carefully — you can sense things about her texts by the people drawn to them to write a sequel type (feminists, PD James a conservative mystery writer) when the sequel is reasonably intelligent (it need not be a work of art) – and of course good critics.
She was also a strong partisan for most of her family members for most of her life — putting aside her own vulnerability when young, thwarted desires (to set up housekeeping with Cassandra and Martha Lloyd) — but there she could see straight too and in a couple of remarks referring to the aunt, the portrait of Mrs Norris as a smoocher, and remarks in the letters she drew a line at pretending her aunt was decent person — partly that’s the result of the way the aunt treated the Austen family.
She carried on put off by the evangelicals (we see that in her reaction to Cooper’s sermons — the cousin) as well as direct didacticism of the type we see in Hannah More but she is influenced by the mood of the times, part of her times. Her books are most of the time resolutely secular. Rare instances of allusions to religion outside Mansfield Park include Marianne confessing to Elinor that had she self-destructed she would not have had time to confront God in the afterlife.
When she writes her novels, another writing self comes forth, the one Proust speaks of in his novels, and an eye which can see further into experience archetypally and overcomes her conscious inhibitions. The draft concluding chapters for Persuasion that we have show her to be writing comically, slightly farcically, the working on those bits of ivory over and over, released something deeper and emotional and the scene become a deep meditation on loss, compensation and solace, the different way men and women experience life.
Rather than moving in the direction of cool mockery, I suggest (agreeing with Marvin Mudrick here) that Jane Austen feared what she most loved – what she feared were precisely the kind of passions she herself is intensely drawn to and in her deepest emotional life in the novels acted out. What we see in the letters is a continual distancing, much guardedness, but as she draws close to the end of life sudden bursts of open plangency and reaching out. One feels so alone, so helpless and vulnerable when one lays dying in such pain, with only opium to moderate the intensity.