Dear friends and readers,
A second letter from Cassandra, this time to her sister’s close friend, Anne Sharp, governess (once at Godmersham) and paid companion, which is not exactly a warm generous letter of shared grief. It seems to me prompted by one from Miss Sharp to her, perhaps plangent, in the throes of grief (one hopes) under control – seeing the response she elicited. I present the readings of this letter as they occurred on Janeites and Women Writers @Yahoo and Austen-l, so I am again grateful to have two guest bloggers with me.
Monday 28 July 1817
My dear Miss Sharp
I have great pleasure in sending you the lock of hair you wish for, & add a pair of clasps which she sometimes wore & a small bodkin which she had had in constant use for more than twenty years. I know how these articles, 1 trifling as they are, will be valued by you & I am very sure that if she is now conscious of what is passing on earth it gives her pleasure they should be so disposed of. — I am quite well in health & my Mother is very tolerably so & I am much more tranquil than with your ardent feelings you could suppose possible. What I have lost no one but myself can know, you are not ignorant of her merits, be who can judge how I estimated them? — God’s will be done, I have been able to say so all along, I thank God that I have. — If any thing should ever bring you into attainable distance from me we must meet my dear Miss Sharp. —
Beleive me very truly
Your affectionate friend
Cassandra Elizth Auster.
Diana Birchall began it:
There are two letters still in this collection, and here is the first of them. A short note from Cassandra to her sister’s friend Anne Sharp. It is eight days since the letter to Fanny, and she writes: “I have great pleasure in sending you the lock of hair you wish for, &, I add a pair of clasps which she sometimes wore & a small bodkin which she had in constant use for more than twenty years.”
I wonder what the clasps were – hair clasps? The bodkin is variously described as a needle, or a hairpin. They were generally silver, and here’s a picture of one:
In the Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Hamlet is quoted (“When he himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin”), which is appropriate, as Jane Austen knew her Shakespeare so well. Here it is described as “a stiletto worn by ladies in the hair,” which in something called the Seven Champions, “Castria took her silver bodkin from her hair, and stabbed to death first her sister and herself.”
Assuredly, Jane Austen did not use her bodkin for murder, but a bodkin seems to have multiple meanings. Some definitions call it a blunt large-eyed needle, while others call it “a long hairpin with an ornamental head.” Women used bodkins for threading and rethreading ribbons, cords and laces; their chief purpose was to thread bands or cords through corsets and bodices. Some had a little scoop on the end, for scooping earwax which was used in handling the sewing-thread! (I get the idea that this was earlier than JA’s more elegant day though.) It is mentioned on the Jane Austen UK site, that such sewing implements had to be wrapped up to be kept from rusting, and oil from the hair was used by running the needle through one’s hair. Ear-wax and hair-oil on the garments one was sewing!
Bodkins used in sewing had a hole like a needle, while the merely ornamental might not; however, women are described as using them as hairpins tucked up under their caps, and then taking them out to use in sewing. I wish we knew just how Jane Austen wore or used this bodkin, which according to Cassandra she had owned since her early twenties; but one article says “In the 18th and 19th centuries, bodkins could appear hung on chatelaines, or as part of matching sewing and needlework sets. Bodkins could be worn on a dress as a clasp, or wrapped in chenille used decoratively. Another article calls the bodkin an antique comb. Even after all this, I’m not sure whether Jane Austen used a bodkin to tie up a braid or knot of hair, or if she used it solely in sewing. That she had it “in constant use,” sounds more active than ornamental.
Cassandra writes that trifling though these articles are, she knows Miss Sharp will value them. Rather strangely she writes, “I am very sure that if she is now conscious of what is passing on earth it gives her pleasure they should be so disposed of.” Really? Whether you believe in an afterlife or not, this is surely a strange locution – is that what JA is doing in Heaven, watching out for where her bodkins go?
Cassandra goes on to say that she and her mother are well, and, she adds revealingly, “I am much more tranquil than with your ardent feelings you could suppose possible.” This tells us something about Miss Sharp, about Cassandra, and about Jane, who had this ardent friend and this dry, practical sister. Then Cassandra shows a bit of superior status, to let Anne know she is the one who was closer to Jane, who knew her best: “What I have lost, no one but myself can know, you are not ignorant of her merits, but who can judge how I estimated them?” That seems rather tactless, surely. Why should Anne Sharp be no better than “not ignorant” of JA’s merits? Why is Cassandra parading her superior closeness and knowledge of the subject? There can only be one reason: she had been made to feel uneasy, perhaps a bit jealous, that this Anne Sharp was possibly as much to Jane as she was herself. She would not have had to make this point otherwise.
She ends with another bit of religious sentiment that reads oddly today: “God’s will be done, I have been able to say so all along, I thank God that I have.” We may connect this with her taking Jane’s death as retribution on herself, as she does in the previous letter.
Even her closing, friendly sentiment shows superiority! “If any thing should ever bring you into attainable distance from me we must meet, my dear Miss Sharp.” What about something bringing Cassandra into proximity with Miss Sharp? Must Miss Sharp always be the one to travel?
It seems a very friendly note on the surface, and is signed, “Your affectionate friend,” but there are little stiletto pricks with the bodkin, I think!
Diane Reynolds followed suit:
In this brief note, written a few days after the funeral, Cassandra is obviously tidying up her sister’s effects and so sends Anne a few modest items: a lock of hair, a pair of clasps and a small bodkin “which she had in constant use for more than 20 years.” A bodkin was a small pointed device for punching holes in fabric but also a stick for holding hair in a knot. I am imagining this bodkin as the sewing device.
C is stoic, not sentimental. She is not going to make a shrine or museum of her dead sister’s things. She is sensibly dispersing items whose lingering presence would have no use and which would no doubt give pain as reminders of loss.
Anne’s inner circle status is clear, especially when C writes that “I am very sure if she [Jane] is now conscious of what is passing on earth it gives her pleasure” that Anne has these personal items. They are “trifling,” but we can imagine JA would indeed be pleased to see them helping a single woman and close friend with little money.
Once again, we see C deflecting pity or emotional outpourings, while at the same time acknowledging Anne’s intimacy with Jane, and perhaps making a barbed comment: “I am much more tranquil than you, with your ardent feelings, could suppose …” My sense, however, is, rather than attack Anne’s emotionalism, she is simply erecting a wall, saying “I am fine, please don’t gush to me about this terrible event.” She goes on to acknowledge, that Anne is “not ignorant of her [JA's'] merits.” However, “what I have lost, nobody but myself can know” and “who can judge how I estimated [Jane's merits]?” This is a moment where I wish C had been more forthcoming and HAD estimated her sister’s merits, but … ah well. C appears in a hurry or not inclined to write at the moment (she must have had a heavy load of correspondence to deal with] or not inclined to confide in Anne, so she turns to a platitude to deflect her recipient: “God’s will be done, I have been able to say that all along, I thank God that I have.” The task of sending the items now done, the reason for the note finished, C ends the missive, as warmly as she can inviting Anne Sharp to visit should Miss Sharp ever come into “attainable distance” from C. (She makes no offer to travel to visit Anne.) She does end on “my dear Miss Sharp” and signs off as “very truly … your affectionate friend.” We do feel amid the stoical stance, affection for this friend.
However, while, Cassandra cannot unbend for Miss Sharp, thank goodness for Fanny Knight, who C will be much more willing to confide in in the final letter.
And I chimed in:
I’m glad both Diane and Diana have already written (if others have I won’t know until tomorrow or until the next Janeite digest comes into my box). this way I can feel surer my reaction is accurate: through the attempt to be cordial, warm, and acknowledge how special Anne was to her sister, Jane, Cassandra is curt, erecting a distance, and herself seems to doubt they will ever meet again. Curtness: “I am very sure that if she is now conscious of what is passing on earth it gives her pleasure they should be so disposed of.” It’s the “so disposed of” that carries the curtness: disposed of, An online dictionary specializing in connotations of words says “if you dispose of something, you get rid of it.” “Trifling as these articles are, they will be valued by you. There is a sting there even if the overt message is an acknowledgement that the smallest thing from jane means a lot to Anne.
Erecting a distance: I take Cassandra’s reference to herself and her grief to be in answer to a letter Anne wrote in which she tries to condole and fine words adequate, do justice to this great love of Cassandra’s and Cassandra does not care for others trying to characterize her grief, however compassionately meant. “What I have lost no one but myself can know …” I feel a kind of huff here: “you are not ignorant of her merits.” What a backhanded way to put it — from Jane’s letter it sounded as if Jane late in life felt Anne understood her, counted on this. It’s a quiet discounting of Anne’s position. “who can judge of how I estimated them.” Let us assume Anne was self-controlled and did not respond what feels natural: “I was not judging how you estimated them, my dear Cassandra.” Cassandra would perhaps have preferred conventional cliches: today she would have no trouble receiving many; “We are so sorry for your loss and have this problem about your papers ….”
We can’t know if the next line was a response to lamentations by Anne about Jane’s early death or sufferings but it feels like a response to that kind of statement: “God’s will be done, I have been able to say so all along, I thank God I have.” (Anne reading this: Well sorry I didn’t come up to your exemplary gratitude. I have these ardent feelings.)
Mrs Austen is “tolerably so,” — that’s a phrase used in impersonal social situations.
And then finally goodbye. Cassandra’s words are: “If anything should ever bring you into attainable distance …. ” Cassandra does not expect it: “if anything”? hardly likely it seems. Then of course we must meet. But as Diane points out it is Miss Sharp who must get herself near, not Cassandra.
There are no letters to Martha Lloyd: partly they were destroyed them all but also Martha was still silently there — in May. What was there to discuss after Jane went to Winchester — letters were passed round. They had said their goodbyes. Had there been, I wonder what Cassandra would have written — not quite the same vein as I agree it’s also a matter of Miss Sharp’s rank. Martha did work as a companion, but only and off. She had a family to turn to. MIss Sharp has only her jobs — governess. For those who’d like to see a frank (shameless) expression of this have a look sometime at Elizabeth Eastlake’s famous diatribe on Jane Eyre. Hireling — that’s Jane’s words for musicians (the Burneys would not like to have heard that one).
I agree that Anna went down when she married and that was part of the alienation; for a time after Jane’s death, her husband did become a vicar, but he died young and she returned to penury and dependence. The first words of Cassandra’s final letter show a real warmth in contrast: read it three times too.
Diana points us to the peculiarities of ideas religious feelings prompt Cassandra to utter. I am surprised at the “if” — “If she is now conscious.”
Martha Lloyd Austen — late in life, now married to Francis: perhaps his way of re-asserting his deep connection to his sister, as it was disapproved by Mrs Leigh-Perrot, a act of imagined shared contra mundum
Was Cassandra a snob? cold to Miss Sharp? Diane saw more “than a few hints of snobbery,” and that Cassandra was “a barbed writer” like her sister, cozying up to the higher status Fanny Knight. There was snobbery in JA’s attitude towards Anna Lefroy.” I’d like to remark also on Martha’s ghost-like presence and Cassandra’s coming great long loneliness — however she might deny this. She lived on past the death of her mother, and from what documents we have it seems she and Henry grew close, while Fanny Knight as Lady Brabourne kept her distance.