Silver bodkin, 18th century or earlier

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.
ChawtonJuly 28th
Miss Sharp

A pair of belt clasps


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.


At the Atlas Theater, 1333 H Street, NE

Dear friends and readers,

I thought I’d recommend to those who live in or near the DC area to come to the Atlas Theater to see and hear Alexandra Petri’s witty allusive comedy, Miss Emma’s Matchmaking Agency for Literary Characters (directed by Joan Cummins). I also take this opportunity to recommend and describe briefly a few new recent books of Austen criticism.

Emma painting Harriet as a way of seducing Mr Elton (1996 Emma by Andrew Davies)

Izzy has blogged praising the play, and capturing its central core. A large part of the fun are the continual parodies and allusive recreations of lines and remembered scenes or images from the apparently famous and still read (or assigned in school) literary works in which the characters who Miss Emma (Lilian Oben) is determined to marry off appear. It’s one of a large number of events (plays, concerts, musicals) that comprise this year’s Capital Fringe Festival.

What was especially cheering to me was that just about all the members of the audience “got” the jokes and puns. What a motley set of books — it appeared that most people in an audience of 40 or so people knew enough of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Sherlock, Jane Eyre, Great Gatsby, but also Oscar Wild’s Portrait of Dorian Grey, Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar not to omit Austen’s Emma. I’ve gone to three plays thus far and this was the biggest audience, notwithstanding that Fugard’s Master Harold and the Boys is a known powerful masterpiece and was done in central DC. The audience had a larger share of middle-aged women dressed conservatively than is usually seen at Fringe plays. Austen drew ‘em in.

I probably will not be able to convey an experience of the delights of the play as I can’t remember its lines accurately. The fun also depends on delivery, as when Daisy Buchanan (Milica Boretic) falls languidly all over the body of Don Juan (Admad Helmy) because his shirt is just so b-e-a-u-t-f-u-l. A minimum of iconic costume brought before us (to add to my list above) Captain Ahab, Philip Marlowe (a hilarious send-up of the prose style and tone of the books was uttered by Caleb Erickson), Prince Charming, Holden Caulfield (as depressed and defensive as Esther Greenwood), Nancy Drew and Medea. Each actor/actress played several roles and Emma, as in Austen’s book, managed to make mighty mismatches as well as close matches that somehow still didn’t seem to work. As Yvette remarked, the central pair, Don Juan, doing community service work at such an agency to make up for his rakish history, and Emma were dressed in modern dress. After all the mis-couplings and sly send-up of normative romance ideas, it was deflating to be given a happy ending, with Emma ending up with Don Juan! Austen labelled the character in a burlesque play centering on him “a compound of cruelty and lust”.

Maybe it was an unusually enjoyable “sequel” or development out of Austen, because is the author was hardly slavishly attached to re-inventing the original text — all the while (oddly but not inaccurately) I was aware the original character was exposed as egoistic, uncomfortable with sex, not knowing herself very well. There was a moment when Emma realizes that Don Juan must marry her, I hoped for a line about an arrow through her heart, but it did not come. Disappointingly, Petri never lifted an allusive line from Austen’s Emma: the character was got right: she has to assimilate those who come before her into her world-view, she vicariously enjoys this, she is not keen on actual physical sex at all, but that Don Juan was substituted for Mr Knightley measures the distance we have come as women to what we tolerate and accept and supposedly want in man from Austen’s ideals.


Stoneleigh Abbey

Claire Harman reviewed yet another book on Jane Austen of the “and” type for the Times Literary Supplement, June 27, 2014. This one couples her name with the noun, Adlestrop. Jane Austen and her mother visited Adlestrop, one of the wealthy branche’s of the Austen families property: Victoria Huxley, Jane Austen and Adlestrop. The last time they came was with the Rev. Thomas Leigh who wanted to lay claim to the property; his wife, Mary, wrote a family history of the Leighs which included the Austens, and the fine old pile of stone everyone coveted (at least they did the rents). The book’s source then seems genuinely to add to the stock of primary documents from which secondary studies are written, and for that reason and Harman’s judgement that Mary Leigh quotes accurately from it, that I mention it here as worth perusal. It is said to be “scholarly, detailed, meticulous;” you learn that Warren Hastings has a house nearby — another way the Austens could connect to him.

Scan 6
Illustration for a postcard

In a recent JASNA newsletter, a perceptive review of Paula Byrne’s successful and original (if idiosyncratic) study of Austen’s life, The Real JA: A Life among Small Things, views and (occasionally) writing too: Devoney Looser has a good review on Paula Byrne’s The Real JA: A Life among Small Things. Looser gives credit where it’s due — the real originality of the way the book proceeds from a small concrete objects genuinely associated with Austen to some explication of her writing, an aspect of her life or times that is then shed light on persuasively. Looser also critiques Byrne in ways academics don’t often — that suggests that despite all her efforts Byrne has not quite ‘arrived” — Looser does not accept the portrait nor the characterization of Austen Byrne is determined to turn her into. What I did like best was Looser’s insight was that behind all Byrne’s efforts is areally a desire to find an Austen desirable to men, avidly wanted by men and I’m with her in thinking this no more ‘real” or desireable than the stories of the gentle asexual spinster who wrote out a compensatory need to romance.

This is Byrne’s best book thus far: it has the most life in its style — it has a nice mood I’ll call it. And she’s interesting on these small things — the problem is (as Nancy Mayer has suggested) there is a quiet skewing going on and sometimes misinformation. Like her other three she is strongest at providing context even if the context is sometimes not proven or not quite apt. I’m enjoying it because she goes on at length about details often left out in accounts which stick to a general trajectory design.

Byrne’s chapter on cocked hats is a case in point. She brings out a great deal of interest about Henry’s life including how he managed to avoid getting involved in a mutiny and the cruelty that was meted out to the people who led it — and state terror against the local community sympathetic to the mutineers, themselves hungry for bread. Byrne then turns to P&P and asserts that all this is in P&P. No it’s not. Austen only takes the non-violent and more bright aspects of local militias and the slight references to say flogging remain slight …

Her book on Jane Austen and Drama may be read for the interest of the drama for again and again similarly she asserts that this or that is in a book or influenced Austen when there is no such proof nor does she demonstrate one.


Elinor (Hattie Morahan) and Marianne (Charity Wakefield) in a fundamental clash (2008 S&S by Andrew Davies)

Simlarly packaged, John Mullan’s What Matters in Jane Austen. Mullan’s book is the same size, has a similar kind of cartoon picture, similarly readable, hagiographic, and he goes on about small things in Austen — in his case the how accurate she is — almost crazily so — when it comes to time, distance, and details about her characters lives which he does go into to show how meaningfully she uses these. He too weighs in on Austen’s character and is of the school that is willing to admit (as I see it) that she hardly knew any literary people in her era, was not known by anyone beyond her family-friend circle. He is not willing to admit that this made part of the limitation of her outlook and book’s perspectives but is is implicit in how he works her actual literal concrete details that she so literally and painstakingly developed as probable narratives.

Mullan has a chapter on sisters and finds on the whole more antagonism and indifference as much as closeness. I believe him when he says there are only 5 significant conversations between Elinor and Marianne and the first two give Marianne these comic cliches (as jokes partly) and the last is the Imlac conclusion to the novel. By contrast there are 12 private ones between Jane and Elizabeth in P&P, many nuanced and long: I know I made the experiment of counting scenes between Jane and Elizabeth in the 1995 P&P and found Colin Firth right to suggest he was hardly in it: the movie can be better thoroughly analysed as the journey of two close sisters. He goes over first names: the only wife to address her husband by his first name familiarly (without the Sir Lady Bertram uses) is Mary Musgrove and he does similarly: the conversations show a lack of respect. Admiral Crofts talks of Sophy but she addresses him as Admiral. Telling details on widows and widowers too.

He carries on bringing home to you aspects of Austen’s text that are really there and people are inclined to deny or overlook. By the time he finished with the importance of weather, I realize why she said she works with twigs to make trees. Remember how she complains in her letters she doesn’t get much “experience” (in her imagination she does, but what we are confronted with does matter). You thought there are no lower class people or servants in Austen. Think again. I knew that in MP the names and people are there and pile up – and that they are often connected to Mrs Norris who is seeking power over these people but also connected to them. But Mullan almost persuades me the servants and lower classes are there — not quite as he does not quite persuade me the seaside works as a danger throughout the novels.

Then he gets to characters who never talk – are never quoted directly — and who are never on stage. Emma is littered with such absent presences — now think of Mrs Churchill. I didn’t realize Captain Bentick is never directly quoted. I’m not sure Mullan’s explanations are satisfying — he’s a bit too popular and coy but that this pattern of characters who are important but not there in some sense and never speak does tell us something about the author psychologically and I’m not meaning to me snarky and call her anal-retentive.


Mannydown where Austen danced at assemblies and which she could have been mistress of had she chosen to marry and have children (18th century print)

Yes; I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible — Catherine Morland, Northanger Abbey

I wish I could read D. Miller in detail understanding his sentences one by one, for his view of the inward retreating life of Austen would help make us understand her books deepl. His book is ostensibly on Austen’s style: she takes the distanced stance she does in order to detach herself from a stigmatized self. According to Miller, Austen uses her satiric distanced narrator to keep at bay the social doom that would follow if she ever wrote as the person she was. Thus her real self can not appear in her fiction. No successful unmarried woman can be found, no artist. Instead we have a narrator unmarked by all the things that make for a particular persona, and the characters too must not be witty in the way she was — only the narrator is permited the caustic hard statements. It’s a kind of refusing personhood in her very own book. In her books all we get are women gung ho on marriage, which was far far from her case.

He also goes into the nuances, the melancholy of the style, the more than occasional harshnesses, and what he calls the paranoia. This could have some connection to her crueller portraits of young women who are isolated and powerless too. His book on inward policing in imbricated ways in novels (Dickens’s, Trollope’s) very worth while too — if you can decipher the sentences.


Look down and see what death is doing — Paulina of the dead Hermione, Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, Act III

Jane Austen’s tomb and ledger at Winchester Cathedrale

Dear friends and readers,

Cassandra’s moving eloquent letter, what today would be called “grief-work.” Jane wrote her last work, a poem July 15th, Wednesday, and she died in the small hours between night and morning, July 18th, 1817.

The four novels she managed to publish; she left behind ms’s of sufficiently finished novels for Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, as well as several unfinished or first drafts of novels, her juvenilia, poems, stray satire (“Plan of a Novel”) and two-thirds as many letters as we have now.


Cassandra (Greta Scacchi) facing Fanny Knight Austen (Imogen Poots) shortly after Jane’s death (2008 Miss Austen Regrets)

CEAl1. From Cassandra Austen to Fanny Knight. Sunday 20 July 1817 Winchester Sunday

From the opening we gather that Fanny has been doubting whether Aunt Jane really loved her — Fanny has picked up the distanced stance Austen shows in some of her letters to Fanny and probably has also discussed some of what happened when the Fanny and Jane were together at Godmersham and Henry’s lodgings/houses in London. Cassandra is concerned to persuade Fanny otherwise; Cassandra also asserts that Fanny’s “benevolent” purpose was useful: Aunt Jane enjoyed Fanny’s letters. I am drawn by the attempt not to say untruths: Jane Austen is described as reacting “not unchearfully.” That does not mean cheerfully.

She was fatally ill and those dying often begin to cut themselves off from life and the living, whether to preserve their strength or what nature does as the active body and mind begin to lose their energy to react and to perceive. So she did not show the interest in the final letters Cassandra claims she was roused by earlier.

Jane died Friday, the 18th and it was on Tuesday “her complaint” returned — whatever was the central core pain; she slept much of the last days. Again that is said to be common. The dying sleep more and more.

Then the famous passage — how much Jane meant to Cassandra, precisely what she meant to her. It is less often pointed out that the sentence ends with one of these comments I find outrageous if it is literally meant and I fear it is.

I have lost a treasure, such a Sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed, — She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow, I had not a thought concealed from her, & it is as if I had lost a part of myself. I loved her only too well, not better than she deserved but I am conscious that my affection for her made me sometimes unjust to & negligent of others, & I can acknowledge, more than as a general principle, the justice of the hand which has struck this blow.

Cassandra conceives there is a supernatural being who has inflicted on Jane Austen, another person from herself, an early death in hideous pain, the humiliation of her twisted and weakened body to teach Cassandra a moral lesson. Were that so, were there such a malevolent irrational unjust creature; if people could, they ought to hunt it from the universe (much as we are encouraged to envision heroes and heroines in Dracula stories hunt out the vampire). There are some ideas it is our duty not to defer to — I refer to the way such ideas function socially, they distract from action to do something about whatever it is that has killed the person if this is possible. Psychoanalytically one might understand such trains of thought as strongly narcissistic or therapeutically masochistic, the person finds comfort in imagining there is some meaning here focused on her, feels guilty she is still alive, does not want to believe the death is natural and meaningless and determines she is punished this way. That Cassandra could write such a sentence, shows the difference between her mind and her sister’s. No where in Austen’s writings does she avail herself of this kind of literal nonsense.

I find it interesting as a revelation that Cassandra says she will not suffer materially from her feelings. Is that so? She is presented as stoic by Austen much earlier too — when Tom Fowles died. Perhaps a stance of self-control, or maybe she was inclined not to give way to feelings psychosomatically. It is also said that sometimes the person deeply involved with the beloved is so stunned as to experience a kind of “novacaine” effect: they are in a state of near hysteria, PTSD, so as to be at a distance from the death, not realize it cognitively fully until weeks or months later when this first state wears off.

We then have a depiction of the dying itself — which I would be inclined to believe unqualifiedly in except that we do have that poem on Winchester races — so it was not all piety, gratitude and acceptance. The poem was apparently composed or dictated on the 15th so perhaps the writing and mood occurred before the “complaint” came back so forcefuly and Austen went into her last phase. I’m told (and have seen) that sometimes before the onset of death moves into the very worst of the ordeal, there is a suddenly very good day (insofar as strength, consciousness, being there and alive are concerned).

Over the course of this year and a half we have enough evidence to visualize a radical deterioration of Austen’s body and looks, especially towards the end. Around the time of the famous phrase about her mother having the couch and she three chairs propped with pillows (not in Cassandra’s selection but from either the Austen papers or RA Austen-Leigh’s book) we can see she is so weak she cannot sit up. Imagine what that looks like. The last half year and more there is a nephew around to carry her. She tells us she is every wrong color. Beyond the ordeal of severe intolerable pain (opium doesn’t get rid of that, and makes you drugged; it’s cocaine that does the trick and that does not come in until the later 19th century — and is today forbidden medicine, a great cruelty I’ll mention here as part of the endlessly stupid and counterproductive so-called war on drugs) – beyond that ordeal it’s humiliating to have your body look the way it does. That’s why Austen does not refer to it.

Imagine too how exhausted she would have been. Go back to the picture that Cassandra drew of her when she was in health. The dark eyes, the intensity, the lack of sleep — she suffered bad headaches and troubles with her eyes when in health.

Cassandra says she has nothing to reproach herself with insofar as these last hours are concerned, she did not willfully shirk any thing she could do for her sister. That means sometimes she too was too exhausted and had to rely on Mary Lloyd Austen and Martha Lloyd. There is no mention of Martha in this letter (ever discreet Cassandra), but in Jane’s last letters there are ambiguous references to Martha, one of which suggests she was with Jane and Cassandra in May. Whether Martha was still there the last week we cannot know. Edward visited, James, Henry was in and out and there on Friday.

Jane was begging for death just before, saying she could hardly have patience, was near beyond endurance. Had they had anesthesia she would have been begging for it — but that mercy was not available to her either. Only oblivion and in those last hours she is recorded as saying that”s what she craved — death.

On the Thursday Austen had been anxious about some errand that Cassandra did — one wonders what it was that bothered her as she lays dying. Fanny is under the impression that Cassandra wrote Charles that day, no it was Mrs Austen, the mother. After that Austen lost it altogether from pain and Lyford came with opium, enough to make her insensible. The concluding ordeal. Cassandra sat with Jane’s body and head in her lap — Jane she could not hold up her head.

Didn’t they have pillows? Could not they have made a sort of bolster? If so, if they had, apparently her head could not be stable enough to satisfy them. It rolled and so Cassandra did 6 hours, Mary Lloyd Austen 2 and Cassandra until Jane died. Cassandra was gratified to be the one who closed her eyes. There is no mention of when Austen’s heart stopped beating — that’s death.

And then we get this image of “a beautiful statue” — which is how Cassandra wants to see it and maybe did. A sweet serene air quite pleasant to contemplate. But the dead do not look like Madame Tussaud’s wax figurines. They look like corpses and it’s creepy. Remains of real people who lived and whatever happened to them. A lot of people can’t bear to see the corpse when rigor mortis sets in and it does so pretty quickly. Some people go ston-y, some look like mummies (the elderly) and some if it’s a gradual decrease of blood pressure and the body dies bit by bit (as apparently Alexandre d’Arblay did) some of the extremities can look like puffy wax. Cassandra does not want to articulate what she saw as she looked down to see what death was doing; she preferred to see in the oblivion, the absence at long last of the terrible pain — Jane knew no more — a serene look, which is often claimed as a sign the person went to heaven.

For a second time she addresses Fanny on the assumption that Fanny is feeling all she is, the first time to say she hopes she is not upsetting her, the second time with the usual Christian metaphors — she has forgotten what she said earlier when she uses the word “merciful.” The truth is she is not thinking about her words literally. Cassandra does not talk about sleeping or resting — she could not fool herself as she had been through it with her sister. She does earlier use the phrase “the poor suffering soul.” It has the ring of a priest’s rhetoric.

I offer Shakespeare’s tough line, who if you read him is ever accurate: In Winter’s Tale Paulina looking down at the dead Hermione: Look down and see what death is doing — in this case “and what the ravages of disease have done.”

The following Thursday would be the funeral — Maggie Lane describes it in her Jane Austen’s Family through Five Generations; she quotes part of letter by Edward, Jane’s brother, to his son, several days before where Edward reports that Jane knew her situation, that Mrs Austen was intensely grieved but nothing compares to Cassandra’s affliction; he says Jane is much altered since James-Edward has seen her last — Caroline’s Reminiscences suggests that this was so by the spring: she was allowed to come upstairs briefly and registers a shock. (The scene is the one where Jane offers a chair to the married woman as opposed to herself, unmarried.) Edward too denies there was “very severe pain.” It does seem as if Jane Austen was one who lost blood pressure gradually: “Lyford said he saw no signs of immediate dissolution but added that with such a pulse — 120 — it was impossible for any person to last long.”

The casket seems to have been carried by Edward, Henry and Frank and James-Edward. Charles not there. He is often not there, the one further away in all Jane’s letters. James was too ill to come again, but wrote a poem entitled “Venta! within thy sacred fane” (which suggests he had read his sister’s last poem); he does convey awareness and envy that his sister’s gifts were fulfilled (a woman’s) and not his (as others have said), but also love and appreciation of her, a deep sense that to have had her around was a kind of gift. Like Henry, he is also concerned that everyone should know her satiric bent (which people must have known about) never “hurt the feelings of a friend:”

In her (rare union) were combined
A fair form and a fairer mind
Hers, Fancy quick, and clear good sense
And wit which never gave offence:
A Heart as warm as ever beat,
A Temper even calm and sweet:
Though quick and keen her mental eye
Poor natures foibles to descry
And seemed for ever on the watch
Some traits of ridicule to catch.
Yet not a word she ever pen’d
Which hurt the feelings of a friend
And not a line she ever wrote
“Which dying she would wish to blot,”
But to her family alone
Her real & genuine worth was known:
Yes! They whose lot it was to prove
Her Sisterly, her Filial love,
They saw her ready still to share
The labours of domestic care
As if their prejudice to shame;
Who jealous of fair female fame
Maintain, that literary taste
In womans mind is much displaced;
Inflames their vanity and pride,
And draws from useful work aside.

Such wert Thou, Sister! whilst below
In this mixt scene of joy and woe,
To have thee with us it was given
A special kind behest of Heaven …

The usual custom was followed and only the men were at the burial. Perhaps Mary Lloyd and Cassandra washed the corpse and dressed it, covered it with sheets.

To us it may seem somehow unusual that someone should be buried in the cathedral (we think how crowded it could get) but apparently in this era not so. Austen was related to clergy, her mother had relatives in academia and the aristocracy, Henry was now a curate. He was back and forth, had been there by the Friday. Henry is still there, will go to Chawton Monday and be back with Cassandra on Tuesday.

She says she didn’t mean to write at length but the subject compelled her. I am mot sure which Mrs Bridges (Fanny’s mother’s family) is to be “remembered kindly to Cassandra,” who is with Fanny. As usual LeFaye does not tell us. One has to wade through a family history in the appendix and guess the woman as Jane Hales from the J.


Again Diane Reynolds was the only person on the list to write about the letter as a whole: I thank her for keeping up the reading and discussion with me until the end.

JA has died two days before, on a Friday. Cassandra is still in the first shock after the death, what we might call a liminal state, and means only to write a short note amid all the business at hand. However, she ends up writing a longer epistle, one that she says gives her comfort or “draws her on” — the words will pour out.

Ellen has covered this quite well. I can’t, however, help but repeat a few points and perhaps add a bit, for this is a long letter. I canthink of few more sincere — or better — expressions of a lifetime of a loving relationship than this: “I have lost a treasure, a Sister, a friend such as never can be surpassed,–She was the sun of my life, the gilder of any pleasure, the soother of every sorrow, I had not a thought concealed from her, and it is as if I had lost a part ofmyself.” If Jane Austen had never written a word, such an ability to enter into a long-lasting loving relationship with another gave her life dignity and worth. Any one who has lost a dearly loved other — or who dearly loves another — can only respond with a yes to Cassandra’s words. We see too that the sisters found in each other the kind of relationship one usually finds in a spouse — and we see in this the kind of emotional support, the buttress against loneliness, that allowed each to stay single, especially Jane when faced with Bigg Wither.

Yet we see too CA’s sang froid – -or at least stoicism — or attempt at it: “You know me too well to be at all afraid I should suffer materially from my feelings …I am not at all overpowered and very little indisposed, nothing but what a short time with rest and change of air will remove.” I cannot but think of Elinor Dashwood and to think that the genesis of her character (and Marianne’s) came from the discussions CA and JA must have had about histrionic people. Of course, CA will suffer deeply — how could she not — but it is true often in the first relief of a loved one in pain dying and amid all the immediate concerns, we think we will get over it easily. It is impossible to feel a loss until the person has been really gone for a time. Or perhaps CA knows all this and simply wants to comfort Fanny.I also read in this C’s desire not to be pitied, certainly not by this niece.

As is so often the case in death, it is the living who must be attended to and comforted, including Fanny, who must be reassured that Jane did love her. That reassurance is first and foremost on Cassandra’s mind and she addresses it in detail, going over the pleasure FK’s letters brought JA, and I note, along with Ellen, the
moments of faint praise–JA responded “not unchearfully” to Fanny’s last letter and was in a “languor” that dampened her enthusiasm. Fanny was not stupid, and she noted JA’s irritation with her. I can’t help but wonder if a worried letter from FK had recently arrived that C here addresses and later burnt.

As she goes on to write, Cassandra says she hopes her recounting of JA’s last moments don’t “break your heart my dearest Fanny.” In some ways, Fanny is an intimate Cassandra can confide in — but in some ways a person who perhaps can be dumped on–perhaps Cassandra feels a bit of guilt that might indeed be saying what could break Fanny’s heart — or perhaps the hearts of people FK might share the letter with. Perhaps, however, she wants others beyond FK to read all this.

I am surprised that the funeral/burial will not be held until six days after the death — the body will be decomposing and smelling unpleasant unless some sort of embalming has been done. Were people embalmed at that time? We get the image of JA in her coffin with ” a sweet serene air over her countenance” — I can only imagine the open coffin in the rooms where they were/are staying. I know for a long time it was considered important that people die with a serene expression rather than in struggle — as people did and do — as it gave reassurance that the person had gone to heaven and was not fighting demons dragging them to hell. Cassandra repeats those conventionalized hopes, and with a note of sincerity, hopes to meet with Jane in the afterlife. She really can’t bear the thought of never seeing her again. I agree with Ellen that Cassandra must not be thinking entirely straight when she opines that JA’s death is a punishment or correction to CA for loving her too much and at the expense of others. She is distracted, trying to cope with her grief. Today, she might write in Buddhist terms of letting go of attachment — in either case, we can hardly in our better moments regret having loved deeply or feel that a loving God would punish that.

I thought that beyond Austen’s head moving back and forth, that the caretakers, especially Cassandra, took some comfort in being able to lay Jane’s head on their laps, though I also think it means Jane was tossing about a bit more than C lets on. To me, it bespeaks some struggle — I imagine it was more than “a slight motion,” but that she possibly was struggling through the opium to say something or struggling against death–that it was not an entirely serene passage. Anyway, it is impossible to know. Even if it gave them some comfort, I don’t think they would have rested her head on their laps for so long without some feeling of need. But again, this is speculation.

I too wonder what errand Jane was so anxious about on her deathbed that C had to run out and do it. I would love to know.

CA comes across to me as intelligent and canny, her chief conventionalities written to forestall any trouble from Fanny, as in, don’t worry if I have given you too many details, for “you will apply to the fountainhead for consolation … our merciful God is never deaf to such prayers as you will offer.” (Is this a bit of acid flattery, worthy of her sister–or is it sincere? There’s certainly a bit of flattery in assuring Fanny she is the first to be written to after Mrs. Austen.) I do read a bit of defiance in the assertion that Jane’s soul lies “in a far superior mansion” to Winchester Cathedral, and find it telling that her burial there “satisfies” because JA admired the building so much rather than out of religious sentiment about being closer to God in a sanctuary. I also read a bit of acid in her hopes that none of her brothers “suffer lastingly from their pious exertions” in attending the funeral. It would, at the very least, be human to wonder why Jane and not them?

The funeral will be early, so as not to interfere with church services, and CA will head back to Chawton right afterwards, having no reason to stay in Winchester. Henry will soon be at Chawton — CA thinks that will help. I am imagining the mother at Chawton. It seems as if she is not to attend the funeral? That seems hard to believe but perhaps it was too much for her.

I am glad we have this letter.


Extract from the diary of Mary Austen, nee Lloyd, (1771-1843)


17 July 1817 “Jane Austen was taken for death about ½ past 5 in the Evening”
18 July 1817 Jane breathed her last ½ after four in the morn; only Cass[andra] and I were with her. Henry came, Austen & Ed came, the latter returned home”
Hampshire Record Office ref 23M93/62/1/8


I too am glad we have this letter. Sex is apparently no longer a forbidden subject — I say apparently because much about sex is still not truly discussed at all or distorted. But we still have a number of verboten ones: money, especially among friends and at work (that helps the employer enormously); particulars about religions and death — these two are everywhere in Cassandra’s letter and the whole text becomes a source of anxiety as well as controversy if we deconstruct its layers.


Jane Austen drawn by Cassandra, meditating a landscape scene?

Dear friends and readers,

So we come to the last two letters. These are not her last writing; that is the poem she wrote, probably dictated (the handwriting is said probably not hers) on July 15, 1817:

Written at Winchester on Tuesday, the 15th July 1817

When Winchester races first took their beginning
It is said the good people forgot their old Saint
Not applying at all for the leave of Saint Swithin
And that William of Wykeham’s approval was faint.

The races however were fixed and determined
The company came and the Weather was charming
The Lords and the Ladies were satine’d and ermined
And nobody saw any future alarming.–

But when the old Saint was informed of these doings
He made but one Spring from his Shrine to the Roof
Of the Palace which now lies so sadly in ruins
And then he addressed them all standing aloof.

‘Oh! subjects rebellious! Oh Venta depraved
When once we are buried you think we are gone
But behold me immortal! By vice you’re enslaved
You have sinned and must suffer, ten farther he said

These races and revels and dissolute measures
With which you’re debasing a neighboring Plain
Let them stand–You shall meet with your curse in your pleasures
Set off for your course, I’ll pursue with my rain.

Ye cannot but know my command o’er July
Henceforward I’ll triumph in shewing my powers
Shift your race as you will it shall never be dry
The curse upon Venta is July in showers–’.

Winchester, Queen Eleanor’s garden

Venta Bulgarum was the Roman name of Winchester and each July on St. Swithin’s day a steeplechase race was held (see a Day in Winchester).

James-Edward Austen-Leigh in middle age

Letter 160. to James Edward Austen, Tuesday 27 May 1817, Mrs Davids, College Street, Winchester, to Exeter College, Oxford

I find the opening sentence of this letter to be filled, redolent with a generous reaching out. Austen’s illness made her grateful to those who cared for her. The next three lines suggest hope has sprung again (“eternal in the human breast”): her handwriting may not be anything to boast of, but she is gaining strength, up from 9 am to 10 at night, though on a sofa, she eats with Cassandra “rationally.” In fact, her handwriting betrays her. She registers a deep desire not to have that so, but she cannot write any better. She had not been having rational meals nor had been able to cope with them. She claims to employ herself, walk from one room to another. The new Dr Lyford claims he will cure her (the job of the doctor in this era was to provide hope), if not she will write a formal complaint.

With that joke, the brave face breaks down a bit, and I feel by the end of the letter it’s clear she knows she is dying and this is a near deathbed letter. Nothing specific just a feeling as she writes.

An account of her trip, with the loaned carriage very little fatigue but apparently not room for Henry and nephew even in the rain — it rained all the way and to see them getting soaked distressed her. We can see he family rallying round her aware this is the last as they keep trying to visit as they can: nephews one of which is sick himself. Mr Heathcote (whose wife we remember from the previous letter procured the cottage for them) will call on JEAL soon (to tell him of the aunt’s condition).

Then this return to a new trembling emotionalism; she hopes if ever Edward is ill, he will be “as tenderly nursed.” Blessed alleviations and she has been assured she is worthy of their love — so she was herself feeling overwhelmed, guilty. She concludes remembering Martha (who occurs in letter to Anne Sharpe just before) who sends her best love — again she may be there.

Diane Reynolds’s reading:

As Ellen points out, we are very near the end: one more letter written by JA after this one, then 3 letters that Cassandra wrote that I am inclined to want to do as well: two to Fanny and one to Anne Sharp.

JA is fewer than two months from death as she writes to her nephew. It is more pleasant for her to write to JEAL than his parents, and she uses the letter as an opportunity to send thanks to them through JEAL for the loan of the carriage. Martha must have visited, for she uses the fact of JA writing to JEAL to send her love and hence not have to write a letter herself: people work through others so as to reduce their own letter writing burden.

Austen mentions that because of the carriage she was able to travel with “very little fatigue”–but she still had some. As Ellen points out, it distressed her that Henry, who rode on horseback beside them, was caught in the rain. I would imagine that, given her own weakened state, she felt perhaps more acutely than otherwise his sufferings. I agree too that the siblings are saying their goodbyes: it must be clear that she is dying.

Yet she does insist to JEAL that she is getting better and the letter provides a window into her life at Winchester–convalescing on a sofa during the day, eating “rationally” with Cassandra, whatever that means–I take it to mean taking meals in the normal way, and feeding herself–she is able to “employ” herself–does this mean she can read, write a little, possibly sew?–it implies she is not reduced to simply lying on the sofa. She is in place with a bow window in the drawing room overlooking a garden, no doubt pleasant at the end of May.

As Ellen mentions, JA is able to joke at the possibility of her death. People are visiting.

The end of the letter expresses again her gratitude at the kindness of friends and relations, wishing the same for JEAL should he be ill, and saying he would deserve such care. She jokes that she is not worthy of it–but it is not entirely a joke. She is not used to being so regarded–but it may also allude to being a difficult patient, in more pain that she admits.

The notes say the handwriting in this letter–as JA herself says–is shaky. One wonders if some of her “employ” is fiction writing, but at this point that must be doubtful.

The symptoms of her illness are distressingly vague. If it is cancer, we must imagine her in a good deal of pain–but she does not, for obvious reasons, mention that to her nephew. Euphemism is the rule of the day.


Henrietta Street Fireplace — one of the objects in the places where Jane probably saw Francis Tilson now and again

Letter 161 (C): To ?Frances Tilson, Wed 28/Thurs 29 May 1817, Mrs David’s, College Street, Winchester

Diane began it:

We have come, after a long journey, to the last extant JA letter. According to La Faye, the original was probably lost. What we have, says La Faye, are the scraps of it used by Henry in his Biographical Notice. The date is probably the end of May, and it is probably written to Frances Tilson. Le Faye’s biographical index identifies the recipient as the wife, nee Sanford, of one of the partners in Henry’s failed bank: the name of the bank was Austen, Maude and Tilson. Frances was about 2 years younger than Jane and would die six years later. (If we are entertaining conspiracy theories, is Frances’ death mysterious?)

I don’t think of Tilson as a JA intimate and have to wonder why JA is writing to her from her deathbed–almost–and about family matters that were considered unfit for publication. It’s not hard to surmise that she was writing frankly of the combination of the bank failure and the lost inheritance to someone she felt comfortable approaching. I can imagine Henry was perhaps suspected of deceit by his former partners in claiming he had an inheritance coming–perhaps he held out hopes that this could right things–and Jane may well have written, even at his behest, to defend her brother, insisting that they all did indeed expect the inheritance. Or I can also imagine her pouring her heart out to a sympathetic person on the “inside-” someone who would already know details hidden from others– in frustration at the bank failure, the inheritance going elsewhere and the shock it caused.

In what little we have, Austen seems at pains to paint a tender portrait of herself as an invalid, selflessly attended by Cassandra and her “beloved family,” perhaps to soften a bad family impression and raise sympathy. As she said to JEAL, she is mostly on the sofa, able to walk from room to room and tended without complaint by Cassandra. She adds that she has been out in a sedan chair once and hopes to be graduated to a wheel chair. She cries over the care of her family and prays “to God to bless them more and more.” Perhaps this a plea to friends to treat them gently.

Then we get an editorial comment, presumably by Henry. According to him, Jane “touches” with “gentle[ness]” on “domestic disappointment.” One has to imagine the uncle’s will is the subject–though, in reality, who knows? The particulars “do not concern the public.” (They do.) But he cannot allow himself to “suppress”–an interesting word choice–the expressions of “sweetness and resignation” of “our authoress.” We then get this scrap from Jane mid-sentence: “But I am getting too near complaint. It has been the will of God, no matter how secondary causes may have operated…” The key phrase to me is the “secondary causes.” Even while asserting the will of God, “sweet” and “resigned” Austen has hardly forgotten the malevolence she perceives at play.

More cuts and then another editorial comment on how quickly JA “could correct [another telling word choice] every impatient thought. [She is not allowed impatience] and turn from complaint to cheerfulness.”

The final bit of the letter that follows shows a flash of Austen’s characteristic humor: she advises Frances that a person La Faye identifies as Captain Benjamin Clement is a “respectable, well-meaning man” and his wife and daughter, she hopes, won’t this time wear too short skirts: “I hope (since the fashion allows it) with rather longer petticoats than last year. She has not lost her touch. Clement was also, at least some Clement, a partner in the bank, so this upcoming meeting might also be about bank fallout. Allowing herself this joke says to me JA was comfortable with Frances.

One can imagine Frances handing Henry a too-hot-to-handle letter and he quickly framing it in terms of Austen’s sweetness lest any rumors leak out. Or one can imagine, if Austen wrote the letter at his behest, that he would know to ask for it back, and thus get hold of a potentially damaging epistle. But this is all imagining.

We end in midstream, Austen still holding on to a slim hope of recovery or partial recovery, still acutely concerned about the family misfortunes and still poking fun at people. It will take Cassandra to tie up the loose ends in the letters that follow her sister’s death.

I added:

Diane has written very perceptively about this one, working out why one of Austen’s last letters would be to the wife of Henry’s business partner, and how Henry came to have a copy of said letter. i am just adding a few thoughts.

I agree there is enough here to suggest Jane knew Francis well — women whose husbands/brothers/fathers (men) are in business together might well. There are many references to Tilson and his wife visiting. I note that last group includes Catherine Anne-Prowting. (She was the sister-in-law of Captain Benjamin Clement who with his wife is also referred to.) It was to Miss Prowting Jane sent a copy of Emma when Miss Benn died before Jane could give Miss Benn hers, and (to me), a offer with pathos as Austen is excusing herself for sending this book, saying she did so because Miss Prowting read with Miss Benn novels by Jane, making light of this one (Emma) as easy reading, to be kept or read or not as Miss Prowting feels, as certainly the volumes “are not wanted at home” (Letter 136, early 1816).


It need not have been a letter “too hot to handle.” If Henry made himself appear someone who had expectations, it was common to do so if you did. We’ve seen these letters were handed about; maybe there was nothing in it which Henry could not see and it became the focus of a discussion about moneys — the domestic disappointment could be the legacy that didn’t come through or something else.

I find it an ironically fitting letter to end the collection with. We have staring in front of us all the evidence we might want of how the relatives censored the letters, only let through what at any given point in Austen’s life could be seen as socially acceptable or better than that, exemplary, and when not, something one could explain away as non-serious joking, so much trivia that didn’t matter to her. Here Henry has drawn on precisely those passages which show the family and Cassandra as selflessly devoted (and maybe she was in this last illness when it became apparent her sister was dying) and Jane all gratitude. He wanted also to show her submitting herself to God and not complaining, but since he could not find a sentence which was not purely that and only sentences where that came in as a qualification of what she had said, he has to fill in some explanation. They liked to present her as a “joker:” ho ho ho, that Jane, joking even in death. (That’s how the last ironically exalted verses were seen).

Anti-climactic too.



JEAL has real literary gifts, real talent — as did his older sister, and, as seen in her Reminiscences, Caroline too. His evaluation of his aunt is sentimental and unreal, an angel in the house, but the portrait is filled with useful information, and later especially scenes of her writing her books, commenting on them. Seen as a fragment of his own autobiography (which many biographies are), it makes good sense: Chawton was a haven from Steventon at the time and Jane Austen the playful spirit in it. She colluded in presenting a non-sexed version of herself to others.

From somewhere in his memories of The Vinea second slender book and his letters in Austen papers (plus his daughter’s biography of him) you discover he loved the novels of Walter Scott. Scott was bought but often to show off and look like you like what others are said to be liking — but he was no favorite of non-readers or non-serious readers. JEAL himself says he had to leave the room when people began to make fun of Scott. He loved Thackeray in ways that show a strong literary taste — it was the style he liked.

I remember vividly (because it’s unusual) that JEAL wrote some very bitter words about his uncle’s leaving all his money to the wife after having given the family an explicit impression (not quite a promise) there would be immediate relief for each nuclear family (as we would call them). I don’t think religion has anything to do with this level of reality. Some are in the Austen papers; some in his daughter’s biography of him. He called his uncle a “sneak” — this word “sneak” is used of this man by other people at the time of the original theft of the lace. Something in his behavior struck people that way. JEAL was angry remembering how his aunt in later years would threaten to disinherit him in order to pressure him to do this or that. Luckily she approved his choice of wife — Emma, an heiress. And he used angry words of her — words which bring to mind Mrs Norris. He does not at all allude to any characters in the novels over this.

While he does not say this, I suggest that part of his anger was on his father and then his mother’s behalf. As I’ve suggested, a fair reading of that household (through James’s poems) suggests much tension and bullying on the part of the wife who disliked all this reading and intellectuality of which she had none. She cannot have been keen on Anna the stepdaughter’s writing either (she was openly antagonistic to this girl and would not speak to Eliza). We see how she would withhold permission from Caroline to visit her cousins. She wanted her husband to take two sinecures and there were open quarrels over that. He was too much the idealist. He did die young — she didn’t kill but this relationship didn’t help him to live long; Jane took it that he sided with his wife and estranged himself willingly in some ways but she may have been wrong. And as I’ve suggested the picture of Chawton by JEAL is in comparison to Steventon.

Now the withholding of this money cannot have made them happier even if James was made executor: it was not his.Then when he dies, the wife is left with a tiny amount of money — doled out by the aunt — JEAL does mention this.

He saw his aunt’s books through Victorian lenses: that means she is looked upon as leaving out much that matters: the great books of the Victorian period give us a wide picture of the world, society, over social and political criticism. JEAL does not see that his aunt’s books belong to a genre of women’s novels but then no one talked that way. And many women did and some still do what they can to separate themselves from their female sources: Burney certainly did.

JEAL had an agenda for the memoir. He wanted to and did believe in the happy home. It was important to him to believe that. More: against the wishes of a part of the family, he wanted to write up the life of this difficult woman – she had not married, she had not done what others did and they didn’t want prying. Not only did he write up the life but he published Lady Susan (a daring text) and The Watsons (which placed characters in a milieu he knew very well was that of Austen’s father). The point not to lose sight of is twofold: some members of the family copied out these letters; they were not quite private, but what has been called confidential papers (to be circulated among family and friends and kept); second that JEAL published it at all.

A similar case as to publishing about Jane Austen’s life may be made for Brabourne only for Brabourne it was easier as mores had changed some more and due to JEAL’s memoir and the Steventon edition, Jane Austen became a more widely read author and it openly redounded to Brabourne’s credit to publish her letters. The doctored nature of them is par for the course: Anna Barbauld did it to all the correspondence she edited, including Samuel Richardson’s.

Cambridge facsimile reprint


Miss Austen Regrets (20008): Mrs Austen Phyllida Law) realizing how ill her daughter Jane (Olivia Williams) is

Galigai de Concini for ever & ever — Jane Austen

Dear friends and readers,

We draw near the fearful close; the third from the last letter by Jane Austen, to a dear friend, once governess at Godmersham, and since a paid companion, Anne Sharp. It’s the only one Between Anne Sharp and Jane Austen that we have; from this and others to Cassandra we can tell Anne and Jane wrote to one another and since they were often apart, this one letter may stand for thick packet of lost or destroyed letters.

In this wrecked correspondence nearly a month has passed since Jane dictated her will, thinking the end was upon her, but here she is, not dead yet, feels some recovery, but has (as she tells her friend) “been very ill indeed. An attack of my sad complaint seized me within a few days afterwards” after Anne Sharpe’s “kind letter” arrived (missing) — the most severe I ever had … ” After the longish opening detailing her sickness, the news of her going to Dr Lyford at Winchester and how fills the middle third of the text; then the last third: Anne has been ill herself, and has catered to those who thought themselves ill, and Jane’s reversion to comments on illness close the missive.

This is a precious text so I bring it into the blog:

159. To Anne Sharp
Thursday 22 May 1817
Chawton May 22d.

Your kind Letter my dearest Anne found me in bed, for in spite of my hopes & promises when I wrote to you I have since been very ill indeed. An attack of my sad complaint seized me within a few days afterwards — the most severe I ever had — & coming upon me after weeks of indisposition, it reduced me very low. I have kept my bed since the 13. of April, with only removals to a Sopha. Now, I am getting well again, & indeed have been gradually tho’ slowly recovering my strength for the last three weeks. I can sit up in my bed & employ myself, as I am proving to you at this present moment, & really am equal to being out of bed, but that the posture is thought good for me. — How to do justice to the kindness of all my family during this illness, is quite beyond me! — Every dear Brother so affectionate & so anxious! — And as for my Sister! — Words must fail me in any attempt to describe what a Nurse she has been to me. Thank God! she does not seem the worse for it, & as there was never any Sitting-up necessary, I am willing to hope she has no after-fatigues to suffer from. I have so many alleviations & comforts to bless the Almighty for — My head was always clear, & I had scarcely any pain; my cheif sufferings were from feverish nights, weakness & Languor.- This Discharge was on me for above a week, & as our Alton Apothecary did not pretend to be able to cope with it, better advice was called in. Our nearest very good, is at Winchester, where there is a Hospital & capital Surgeons, & one of them attended me, & his applications gradually removed the Evil. — The consequence is, that instead of going to Town to put myself into the hands of some Physician as I should otherwise have done, I am going to Winchester instead, for some weeks to see what Mr Lyford can do farther towards re-establishing me in tolerable health. — On Saturday next, I am actually going thither — My dearest Cassandra with me I need hardly say — And as this is only two days off you will be convinced that I am now really a very genteel, portable sort of an Invalid. — The Journey is only 16 miles, we have comfortable Lodgings engaged for us by our kind friend Mrs Heathcote who resides in Winchester & are to have the accomodation of my elder Brother’s Carriage which will be sent over from Steventon on purpose. Now, that’s a sort of thing which Mrs James Austen does in the kindest manner! — But still she is in the main not a liberal-minded Woman, & as to this reversionary Property’s amending that part of her Character, expect it not my dear Anne; — too late, too late in the day; — & besides, the Property may not be theirs these ten years. My Aunt is very stout — Mrs F.A. has had a much shorter confinement than I have — with a Baby to produce into the bargain. We were put to bed nearly at the same time, & she has been quite recovered this great while. — I hope you have not been visited with more illness my dear Anne, either in your own person or your Eliza’s. — I must not attempt the pleasure of addressing her again, till my hand is stronger, but I prize her invitation to do so. — Beleive me, I was interested in all you wrote, though with all the Egotism of an Invalid I write only of myself. — Your Charity to the poor Woman I trust fails no more in effect, than I am sure it does in exertion. What an interest it must be to you all! & how gladly should I contribute more than my good wishes, were it possible! — But how you are worried! Wherever Distress falls, you are expected to supply Comfort. Lady Pilkington writing to you even from Paris for advice! — It is the Influence of Strength over Weakness indeed.-Galigai de Concini for ever & ever. — Adeiu. — Continue to direct to Chawton, the communication between the two places will be frequent. — I have not mentioned my dear Mother; she suffered much for me when I was at the worst, but is tolerably well. — Miss Lloyd too has been all kindness. In short, if I live to be an old Woman I must expect to wish I had died now, blessed in the tenderness of such a Family, & before I had survived either them or their affection. — You would have held the memory of your friend Jane too in tender regret I am sure. — But the Providence of God has restored me — & may I be more fit to appear before him when I am summoned, than I sh” have been now! — Sick or Well, beleive me ever yr attached friend

J. Austen

Mrs Heathcote will be a great comfort, but we shall not have Miss Bigg, she being frisked off like half England, into Switzerland.
Miss Sharp
South Parade

This seems to be the one of the lesser guarded texts we have in the collection, and singularly free of barbed undercurrents and hedgings, no exaggeration, no hypocrisy: Mary Lloyd Austen is “not a liberal minded woman” and Anne is not to expect (as apparently Anna has hinted) that the expectation of eventually getting the Leigh-Perrot fortune as James’s wife will “amend that part of her character.” It’s said quietly, justly, nothing hidden but not overstated either. The letter is not a projection of love and friendship as intense exhilaration such as she wrote Martha Lloyd just before visiting her and just before Austen’s parents made their fateful decision to give up Mr Austen’s position as Vicar and thus the vicarage; it’s the loving friendship of an older woman. The way Jane addresses her friend as “my dear Anne” throughout captures a quiet affection an expectation that she will be understood. I know we’ve seen unkind remarks by Jane Austen about Anne Sharpe in letters to Cassandra, but none of the kinds of sarcasms she indulged in felt here.


8 College Street, Winchester where Austen spent the last weeks of her life

The first third of the letter. Jane tells her friend Anne she, Jane, has been very very sick indeed, but (and here we can see this is a sincerely held posture) has had some recovery and feels some hope again. For three weeks not out of bed except when somehow or other gotten onto a sofa. Did someone carry her downstairs? She can employ herself (is she referring to sewing?) and is equal to getting out of bed. Her mind is steady enough that she can write and write coherently. Then lines of gratitude really felt; some people when helped this way feel anger — not at the person who is helping as long as the person is kind as well as physically helpful for real; others take over their death, control it but from this letter (and others), it does not appear that Austen was took herself over. Her whole life had taught her to give in to others. She expresses gratitude to God (not exactly something I am comfortable with but this is what she expresses) for leaving her clear intellects. She had had high fever nights but no pain (well let’s take that with a grain of salt); one of her worst symptoms is “the discharge.” I’m not sure what fatal illness this symptom can be linked to but half-remember lymphoma has what could be called “a discharge.” These are intimate details to write.

The Alton apothecary, Mr Curtis, has been honest: her condition is beyond him. Lyford was a respected physician in the era; I remember he was called for the king (who wasn’t?) and his practice is in Winchester so they will not be going to London (where other famous physicians resided) but the closer Winchester. She does not mention that it’s also closer. When someone is so mortally ill moving them causes them great pain and can damage them further. She makes a joke of it: “I am now really a very genteel portable sort of an Invalid.” The phrase makes what has happened to her body feel less serious. Another friend, Mrs Heathcote (Althea Bigg’s widowed sister), has found comfortable accommodation and (will miracles never cease – -unexpected) James lends his carriage.

But notice that Austen herself seems to have wanted to go to London: “The consequence is instead of going to Town to put myself in the hands of some Physician as I should otherwise have done …” And she is not aware how close she is to death. For she talks of going to Winchester for “some weeks” to see what Dr Lyford can do further to “re-establish” her “in tolerable health.” This implies going somewhere else afterward.

Mrs Heathcote, an old friend with enough money and connections, has supplied a place for them to come to where they can be comfortable; Mary Lloyd Austen the carriage. This is the sort of thing she does well says Jane: implication she enjoys showing her relative power and wealth but we must not expect (as Anne has implied) that she will change at all because she and James have the reversionary legacy; that is, if and when Jane Leigh-Perrot predeceases James, he will inherit the whole. Besides which the property may not be theirs for 10 years.

This is a bit reminiscent of Fanny Dashwood’s way of summing up Mrs Dashwood’s life expectatany; she may well live for more than 15 and then an annuity will cost Fanny and John so much more; who knows how long she may live. Ditto Jane L-P who in the event easily outlived James. “My aunt is very stout” says Jane.

Stoutness brings to mind poor Mary Gibson Austen having given birth and survived — as she was to die not far off from these traumas (medically speaking childbirth is danger and trauma). Jane jokes Frank’s wife has suffered in bed a far shorter time and now has a baby as her reward. Jane cannot say the same: “we were nearly put to bed at the same time” is revealing. Jane Austen was surrounded by women continually impregnated and aware she was not — we’ve seen how she regards her books as her babies, S&S was her “suckling child.” We could say while Mrs F. A. was breeding, Miss Austen produced a final enough version of Persuasion and NA and brilliant white-hot first draft of Sanditon — but as they were not published Austen could not know if they’d ever see the light of day and be read and knew the 2 apparently finished were not quite finished. They were not yet born and must be brought forth by others.

Then Anne’s burdens of people. Austen (as one will who writes a letter) remembers she has been speaking of herself all this while. She describes Anne as charitable to her employer (kinder than under human ways she need have been). An irony: this provides such an interest to you all (the employer’s illness). This is Anne’s job, incessantly to supply comfort whatever distress she feels too. Austen gave this role to Elinor Dashwood early on (emphasized in Emma Thompson’s script). People write to her friend even from Paris, and the place brings up an old association.

Galigai de Concini for ever & ever. I used to think this a reference to a witty French philosophe’s letters (Ferdinando Galiani, very popular) suggesting a world of Enlightenment Jane and Anne had shared together as young women, but Chapman says it’s a reference to a devastating story of a woman burned to death who asked what she had used on her mistress to “charm” her (the mistress was getting back at this poor woman), answered the power of strong souls over weak. I wish I knew the Voltairian context: he would be telling the story with sardonic irony perhaps. The full context is court intrigue and a woman sacrificed as a scapegoat (see Marie de Medici, wikipedia). This was their shared motto: the source is as revealing as the surface content. A servant women (maid of honor at court) burnt to death as a witch. Strength may influences weakness, but with such strength you may garner envy and blame and be at high risk of destruction you are powerless to avoid or escape from. We must not press this dark conclusion too literally or far: remember Austen is dying.

Then the close of the letter: although Jane is headed for Winchester, Anne should continue to send her letters to Chawton as the communications between the two households “will be frequent.” That Austen’s mother suffered much as she watched Austen suffer “but is tolerably well.” She would survive a long time…. Anne has asked after Martha who here appears as “Miss Lloyd too has been all kindness.” From the next letter it appears that Martha came to the house once more.

Austen ends with ironical barbed gratitude — and a still living hope she may survive yet because she says “If I should live to be an old woman” she would never again now the tenderness she has in these last weeks. She must expect towish she had died now rather than have to remember back from some much less kind time in the future. And then the sweet line: “You would have held the memory of your friend Jane too in tender regret I am sure” — were she
to have died now.

She becomes religious in her sentiment and wording: she says that God restored her (writing this letter you see) so she’s more fit to appear before him than she would have been before this new (partial) recovery.

Sick or well she is ever Anne Sharpe’s attached friend.

And then a line which shows life also goes on as it did: yet another plan for a small community of women Austen has been dreaming up thwarted. Mrs. Heathcote will be at Winchester, but Miss Althea Big is being frisked off to Switzerland “like half England.” I imagine Austen would have liked to see the continent; as far as we can tell she never left the the part of the British isles which includes England and Wales, was never to Scotland.

Two more readings:

Diane Reynolds:

In this letter, we see flashes of Austen’s lively humor — “I am now a very genteel, portable sort of an invalid”–and “we shall not have Miss Bigg, she being frisked off like half of England, into Switzerland” — but she is very ill, ill enough to have alarmed and caught the attention of her extended family. She mentions their great kindness and especially that James’s wife Mary is sending over the carriage from Steventon to transport her and Cassandra to Winchester so that Jane can be treated by a Mr. Lyford. Before that, she was treated by the Alton doctor or apothecary, Mr. Curtis, a Quaker, but he no longer knows what to do for her — and, not being a quack, has told her so.

She mentions that if she had not had good results from the Winchester doctor, she would have gone to London — one wonders if she would have sought out Hadon — was he even in London or was he by this time in Malta? – -and one wonders how much of the decision making about her medical care was done by the family, on whom she was still dependent, and how much by Jane herself? No doctor at this time could have done her much good, though it would be interesting to know more about her symptoms than the conventionalized language Austen uses can tell us. My sense is that she wanted to go to London and was overruled.

Austen is acerbic about her sister-in-law: of sending over the carriage: “Now, that’s the sort of thing which Mrs. J Austen does in the kindest manner!” This “sort of thing” is the small charity of consumption, the gesture that changes nothing materially for her poorer relations, for JA hastens to write that Anne should not see the loan of the carriage as any sign of a larger generosity on Mary’s part: “she is in the main NOT a liberal-minded woman” and as to the will–the expectation of a fortune when Aunt LP dies–”amending that part of her Character [her cheapness], expect it not my dear Anne;– too late in the day, too late in the day.” (One wonders too, if the too late in the day, repeated twice, isn’t also a passing allusion to Austen’s own state.) As Austen notes, Mrs. LP is “very stout”–and it is JEAL who inherits.

The letter is full of the kindnesses her family bestows on her, the best indication we have that she is demonstrably dying. The kindnesses withheld during life, such as the loan of the carriage — and we think of her having to beg and arrange her life around other people’s travel plans– are now pouring out. That she is being treated with more regard than she is used to comes clear in the letter and to my ears, while conventional in language, strains beyond conventional sentiments to a genuine awareness of the kindness: “Every dear Brother so affectionate and so anxious!” Or it is just conventional language, what she is expected to say? She does say it. Later, too, conventional language contains a touch of typical, clear-eyed sardonic humor: “if I live to be an old woman I must expect to wish I had died now, blessed in the tenderness of such a family”–”before I had survived …their affection.”

JA compares her “confinement” to that of Frank’s wife, who has just had a baby, noting hers has been much shorter than JA’s–”with a Baby to produce in the bargain. We were put to bed at nearly the same time, and she has been quite recovered this great while.” It’s interesting that Austen draws this parallel. Is she suggesting that she, who chose
the path that would avoid all the “confinements,” is now wondering why this has happened to HER? This was not how it was supposed to be.

The letter is double edged — implicit throughout it is Austen’s contrast between how she has typically been treated–a throwaway younger daughter/sister who never married and thus became a burden — and the kindness with which is now treated. Often I have wondered too, why it is only on the point of death that dependent people, like children, are given favors? The family is both kind and concerned — and one imagines, controlling how and where she is being treated. She expects the kindness will not last should she recover — and she expects, still, to recover: “But the Providence of God has restored me.”

Austen is able to poke fun at herself still: “I was interested in all you wrote, though with all the Egotism of an Invalid I write only of myself.” She will move to talking about Anne, but I also sense that Austen wrote this letter to send a record, a diary account of sorts, to someone close to, but not part of, the family. Between the lines
she has recorded that she wished to go to London — “as I should otherwise have done–” and that she knows Mary’s unusual burst of generosity is not a reformation. Tensions still exist. The family is kind now … but permanent change has not happened.

In speaking to Anne of Anne, the “Fanny Knight” tone reappears — Austen is distancing herself, perhaps lightly mocking Anne’s angelic — or heroic–charity with an edge of hyperbole. “But how you are worried! Whenever Distress falls, you are expected to supply Comfort. Lady Pilkington writing to you even from Paris for advice! It is the Influence of Strength over Weakness indeed.”

Austen still has some humor to bestow, she is still herself — but sadly, she is dying, a fact her family is more aware of than she is, unless she is doing her best to hide it from Anne.

Diana Birchall:

Nearly a month after writing her Will. She is in bed, having been very ill indeed. “An attack of my sad complaint” seized her, “the most severe I ever had – & coming upon me after weeks of indisposition, it reduced me very low. I have kept my bed since the 13 of April, with only removals to a Sopha.” Still not having given up hope, she assures her friend, “Now I am getting well again, & indeed have been gradually tho’ slowly recovering my strength these last three weeks. I can sit up in bed and employ myself, as I am proving to you at this present moment, & really am equal to being out of bed, but that the posture is thought good for me.” But there is no point in simply repeating this letter fully, for sentence upon sentence in it is heartfelt, poignant, the dying woman opening her heart to her friend, sincere and with every word given weight. From this letter comes much of what we know about her last illness; of her deep gratitude to her family, all of whom were attending her anxiously, we have no difficulty in believing; and of her intimate friendship with Miss Sharp, to whom she writes as openly of Mrs. James Austen’s character and expectations (“But still she is in the main not a liberal-minded Woman, & as to this reversionary Property’s amending that part of her Character, expect it not my dear Anne; – too late, too late in the day.” Too late for Jane too, with a little bitterness evident in her saying, “& besides, the Property may not be theirs these ten years. My Aunt is very stout.” Another touch of bitterness, softened by whimsicality: “Mrs. F.A. has had a much shorter confinement than I have – with a Baby to produce into the bargain.” She realizes how much of this letter is about her own condition (with all the Egotism of the Invalid I write only of myself”), but she notices how everyone consults Anne and asks her for advice (“Wherever Distress falls, you are expected to supply Comfort”).

The “Galigai de Concini for ever & ever” reference is fascinating, and I will indeed turn to the lists to see what everyone makes of it! On the face of it, she is referring to the way Lady Pilkington, writes “even from Paris” for advice – “It is the influence of Strength over Weakness indeed,” meaning the governess’s strength, the lady’s weakness. Darn Deirdre anyway for giving the French of what “the sorceress” answered when asked what charm she had put on her mistress, but not translating it. I must go to the Digests and see if some sharp elf has done that.

The letter nearly finishes with the famous and touching thought, “In short, if I live to be an old Woman I must expect to wish I had died now; blessed in the tenderness of such a Family, & before I had survived either them or their affection. – You would have held the memory of your friend Jane too in tender regret I am sure.” She still flatters herself with slight hopes of recovery. “But the Providence of God has restored me – & may I be more fit to appear before him when I am summoned, than I shd have been now! – Sick or well, believe me ever yr attached friend, J. Austen.” She does not stop with the heartfelt sentiment, but tacks on a gay riposte instead, surely to send off her no doubt sad correspondent with a smile: “Mrs. Heathcote will be a great comfort, but we shall not have Miss Bigg, she being frisked off like half England, into Switzerland.” She can still write of frisks…

Ruth Wilson as the quintessential governess in Sandy Welch’s Jane Eyre

The Eleanore Galigai Concini reference is tantalizing. Christy Somers provided us with a text showing Maria Edgeworth used the reference in her Absentee (1812) to make the same kind of meaning:

….to the effect of Mrs. Dareville’s mimicry, was almost too much for Lady Langdale; she could not possibly have stood it, but for the appearance of Miss Nugent at this instant behind Lady Clonbrony. Grace gave one glance of indignation which seemed suddenly to strike Mrs. Dareville. Silence for a moment ensued, and afterwards the tone of the conversation was changed.
‘Salisbury!—explain this to me,’ said a lady, drawing Mr. Salisbury aside. ‘If you are in the secret, do explain this to me; for unless I had seen it, I could not have believed it.
    Nay, though I have seen it, I do not believe it. How was that
daring spirit laid? By what spell?’
    ‘By the spell which superior minds always cast on inferior spirits.’
    ‘Very fine,’ said the lady, laughing, ‘but as old as the days of Leonora de Galigai, quoted a million times. Now tell me something new and to the purpose, and better suited to modern days.’
    ‘Well, then, since you will not allow me to talk of superior minds in the present days, let me ask you if you have never observed that a wit, once conquered in company by a wit of a higher order, is thenceforward in complete subjection to the conqueror, whenever and wherever they meet.’
    ‘You would not persuade me that yonder gentle-looking girl could ever be a match for the veteran Mrs. Dareville? She may have the wit, but has she the courage?’
    ‘Yes; no one has more courage, more civil courage, where her own dignity, or the interests of her friends are concerned…..

Was this where Jane Austen came across the reference? it is also referred to by Lord Chesterfield. So it may at once time been a familiar story among readers. Nonetheless, I’m with Diana in preferring the general sense of an apparently incorrect explanation:

I’m not satisfied that “Galigai de Concini for ever and ever” only refers to Anne Sharp’s mental ascendancy over Lady Pilkington. “For ever and ever” has a poignancy in this context that seems to be Jane referring to her long friendship with Anne. I like Ellen’s initial thought that it refers to something Jane and Anne shared together when younger. It has the sound of a rallying cry, a heartfelt farewell: a Long Live Us, us being two strong minded women in inferior, and similar, positions, who have always confided the slurs and stings they’ve received, to one another. (Another set of letters the family would have destroyed.)

William Morris Hunt, Girl Reading (1853)


Detail from Elizabeth Belle Lindsay and Lady Elizabeth Murray attributed to Johann Zoffany: Belle

Dear friends and readers,

Carolyn Steedman whose important book, Labours Lost: Domestic Service and the Making of Modern England, I reviewed here, recently told me that the film-makers of Belle overlooked a document that at the very least would have changed the cast of characters in the movie (and its story) considerably: Elizabeth Lindsay (Dido Belle’s legal and perhaps her familiar name too) had a full brother, John (named in the document) and Elizabeth’s father, John Lindsay (played by Matthew Goode in the movie) a sufficiently long-term and continuing relationship with Elizabeth’s mother to father two children by her and in his will ask his legal wife, Mary, to make sure the money that had been provided for them in trust became theirs. These three people, the son, John, the unnamed slave woman (concubine, slave-mistress?) whom John Lindsay lived with, and John Lindsay’s legal wife, are erased from the movie and just about every story told about this family group.

This has been public knowledge for at least 12 years: in footnote 93 of “Lord Mansfield’s Women” (from which Steedman’s shorter chapter of the same name in Labours Lost was adapted), Past and Present, 176 (August 2002):105-143, Prof. Steedman writes:

`Scone Palace, Murray Family Papers.  Earls of Mansfield. NRA(S) 0776.  Second Series, Bundle 2346.  Incl. attested copies (1793) of will and codicils of William, Earl of Mansfield.  Second Series, Bundle 54.  Accounts and Vouchers 1774-78 [this is in error for 1798]. `Important Notes respecting the state of Lord Mansfield’s affairs …’; `Notes respecting the state of Lord Mansfield’s affairs made by me in a Conversation I had this day with Mr Way and signed in Mr Way’s presence. December 19 1786′.  Dido was very well set up.  Her father had left money in trust for her and for another illegitimate child about whom nothing is known.  PRO,  PROB 11/1167. `I further give and bequeath unto my  dearest Wife Mary Lindsay One Thousand pounds in Trust to be disposed by her for the benefit of John and Elizabeth Lindsay my reputed Son and Daughter in such Manner as she thinks proper’.  Will dated 29 September 1783.’[Note 1 -- a correction from the ODNB]

Prof Steedman puts it in conversational English to me in an email in this way:

So there was another child, almost certainly Elizabeth’s (Dido’s) brother. And by the same mother, again, almost certainly. So the usual `fathered on a slave women during the Siege of Cuba’ may well mask a much longer relationship. And Mary Lindsay, wife of Sir John Lindsay, was charged with the care of both children. What happened to the the boy? He was alive in 1783. An important factor of Elizabeth Lindsay’s emotional landscape may well have been the loss of her sibling. Or perhaps she saw him every day, and no one spoke of him. Sir John and Lady Mary Lindsay are the people to pursue if we want to know more about all of this.

So documents show Elizabeth’s brother was still alive in 1783. What happened to him? why was he not equally favored? were there no rumors because he was a boy and thus could not have been anyone’s slave-mistress?

We may infer that one reason this familiar family pattern in slave-owning families has escaped the Mansfield official histories is it is uncomfortable to people to have again to recognize that a white man is bigamously living with two women, one of which is his overt property (Elizabeth Lindsay’s mother) and the other his de facto property, Mary. (Valerie Martin’s Property about a slave-owning family down south, which won the Orange Prize in 2003, puns on this). And to have again to remember how siblings and half-siblings could find themselves alienated or used by one another when one was treated as a full family member and the other as a semi-servant or slave. (Another fiction by an American women writer, Louisa May Alcott’s The Brothers, treats of this frequently poisonous reality.)

I was very glad when Prof. Steedman contacted me because she gave me a chance to return to her Labours Lost to do justice to a chapter I know I wrote too little about: “Lord Mansfield’s Women.” In my review of Belle, I placed Elizabeth and her cousin, Elizabeth Murray (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Belle Dido, and Sarah Gadon as Elizabeth Murray), in the context of their automatic dependence on Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and the other central women we see in the movie: Lord Mansfield’s wife, Lady Betty (who in life died in 1784 and is played by Emily Watson, one of my favorite actresses); the girls’ governess, Lady Mary Murray (Penelope Wilton, another); plus an unnamed black woman servant who seemed to be treated as a household servant rather than a slave (that is someone with the status of a person, and the rights accruing to her by law and custom but whose player I cannot recognize from the cast listing). Not a very wide purview with all characters’ circumstances allegorized in accordance with the movie’s idealizations.


The above grouping includes Lady Ashford (who schemes to get Dido’s legacy for her second son and is played by Miranda Richardsxon) and omits the one black woman servant I’ve mentioned whom we see serving the girl cousins in the movie. (We also see white women servants.) Lord Mansfield’s women in the article and book include the daughters of Mansfield’s brother, sixth Viscount Stormont, Anne and Marjory Murray,” plus of course (in the movie) his great-niece, Lady Elizabeth Murray, daughter to his nephew and importantly actual heir, David, seventh viscount. These three were all cousins to Dido Elizabeth Belle, “the black girl at Kenwood” (as she was called by rumor), an illegitimate daughter of Mansfield’s nephew on his sister’s side, Sir John Lindsay (once again, in the movie played by Matthew Goode).

Wmn Hogarth’s depiction of six of his servants

The context Steedman’s work places all our heroines in is somberer and includes a wider purview: women servants and women slaves. Her essay (and chapter) focuses specifically on women domestic workers, women servants who worked for others in their houses and on their lands in the eighteenth century, and is about the effort made by officials of various sorts, including or especially Lord Mansfield, to give each of such women the least benefit possible from the law of settlement as working women. This law had become a centerpiece in 18th century decisions concerning impoverished (which many many were) working women, the pre-19th century version of laws concerning the working poor: Steedman writes:

Under the whole complex of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century legislation that set the Old Poor Law in place, there emerged a dominant mode of operation: that a poor or indigent person claiming relief from a local authority was required in various ways to demonstrate his or her ‘settlement’, that is, that he or she ‘belonged’ to that place, and was among its settled poor. Settlement could be acquired in a variety of ways, most commonly by being born to a father who possessed it, and by never moving from a natal parish; though it still had to be confirmed by magistrates, through the examination of an applicant for poor relief, for it to be legally activated. ‘Earning’ it by service was the next most common route, and it certainly produced the most litigation. A man or a woman hired to work in a particular place, and fulfilling the contract for a year’s agreement to serve, had an important claim to settlement, and thus to relief. ‘Serving’ meant many kinds of work done for a master or mistress under a hiring agreement; but in the eighteenth century the most common kind of service agreement was to work as a domestic. Settlement through domestic service was something that a woman could ‘earn’ out of her own labour, and, in certain circumstances, pass on to her children (p. 106)

What I (reading the article) and others (quoted in the article) have found remarkable is how much time and money was spent on arguing the grounds for a settlement in the narrowest way and depriving a woman of her entitlement as a indigent person to a place in the community in which she was working and a sum to live upon. They sought to curb the working person from earning a sort of property right (to stay somewhere, to have access to money) by her labor. The cost of the litigation was far more than the tiny sums that would have been paid out to each. It was more important to make sure that no person was assigned the right to any portion of property (gotten ultimately from forms of taxes) that the establishment could avoid. The supposed purpose of the law was to relieve poverty and maintain the indigent within a community, not as some more recent historians have had it regulating “the labour market, labour relationships and labour migration,” though it is true that as one reads through the stories of the six women servants, Tabitha Reynolds, Elizabeth Lamb, Hannah Wright, Phoebe Beatson, Ursula Owens, and Hannah Phillips, and one woman slave almost treated as a servant, Charlotte Howe, it seems the aim of each parish was to see the woman was carted to another parish.

Lord Mansfield agreed: “He frequently lambasted ‘the litigious zeal of public bodies’, eager to see every disputed settlement case ‘travel through every stage which the law allow[ed]‘.”

Mansfield routinely condemned ‘the litigation of the poor laws, which are … a disgrace to the country’. According to Cecil Fifoot, he thought them ‘a dropsey … swollen to monstrous proportions’ by ‘the invitation offered to each parish to cast its burden upon its neighbours’. ‘There ought to be no litigations at all in the settlement of the poor’, wrote an equally exasperated Thomas Ruggles in 1793 (p. 109).

Of interest and relevant today still are the reasons or norms used to treat some of the women more harshly than the others. Each of their stories teaches us lessons about who gets to make a judgement call on the value and indeed existence of the labour of someone in law. A woman earned the right of settlement either by working in a parish for a full 365 days (a year) or by having been born or married to a man who was himself recognized as having the right of settlement (though his work, where he was born, his family) in a parish. It will be immediately seen that one way to deprive a woman was to fire her before she finished her year out. (This reminds me of how my grandmother was deprived of her pension from Bordens Milk company when she grew old: she was a cleaning woman and a couple of years before her retirement, her immediate boss began to give her much harder work than he had done, so hard that she had to retire before she could earn her full right to pension. This was deliberate.) To be hired and stay employed by someone for a full year was for many women “virtually the only method to gain one’s own settlement.”

Each case as argued in these courts is so complicated I can’t go over them here, but can only offer a few details from what went on in these seven stories (pp. 113-40):

Tabitha Reynolds and her three youngest children (Sarah, five years old; John, aged three, and Mary, one year old) were removed to Leeds from Doncaster on the order of two West Riding justices, at the very end of December 1767, and the struggle was over whether she would be taken in at Leeds. She had had two husbands, one of whom disappeared on her and was declared dead, and on whose behalf she was perhaps entitled to a right of settlement (she would be regarded as under coverture), the second referred to as “the Pauper,” and three children, but she had also been hired (signed a contract) and worked for a full year in her own right in Methley. She is quoted: “she was hired for a year … & served such year Service & consequently was then legally settled there.” She did finally end up at Methley. That her children were perhaps “bastards” was held against her, for at the same time it was recognized that as their mother they were inseparable from her as they were under seven years of age.

The problem Elizabeth Lamb faced was if she was a servant in husbandry (which would have provided more protection as indoors work): she was to work in a dairy but not to milk the cows and was declared unfit for service: here we see the magistrates’ jurisdiction and of course they were inclined to favor the master.

Hannah Wright had nearly earned her right to settlement when three weeks before her year was up her master discovered she was pregnant (outside marriage) and turned her off. Here the question was not what kind of work, but the “right [of an employer] to dismiss his servant if he had ‘just and reasonable cause’; there could be no doubt ‘but that a criminal conduct like [hers] amounts to a reasonable cause’.” She had received her full wages for work done, but was deprived of the right to refuse to consent to a dissolution of the contract. Hannah Wright is recorded as saying:

was willing to have staid her year out, if she might; but … it was not material to her whether she staid or went, as she had received her whole year’s wages; and that she was not half gone with her child when she left her service; and hoped that she could have done the work of her place to the end of the year.

Here Lord Mansfield agreed her “criminal conduct” was the test, ignoring as everyone else did the question of her consent to be dismissed. Mansfield often comes out harsh here.

Ursula Owens’s employer tried to dismiss her just before the end of her year and was not able to; Mansfield did not decide for her, but “Judges Dunning and Sylvester spoke of her loss of settlement, ‘her only one, which she deserves so well’, saying that ‘Justice as well as reason of the thing are here with the Settlement’. ‘Service wanted 7 days of a Year but whole years wages pd gains a Settlement’, run the notes on the back of the papers in the case.”

Hannah Phillips gained her settlement (in her natal village, so partly based on her father’s earned right) even though she accepted food and clothes in lieu of cash on the grounds (in her words) that “it was better for her to have clothes, as she was connected with bad friends, who would take her money.” When she was dismissed 2 and 1/2 years later, the lengthily-argued case turned on “whether she had been ever hired for a year.” The judges decided for her.

From Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party: Sojourner Truth’s Plate setting

Charlotte Howe was the most powerless and is never quoted. She was purchased in America “as a negro slave,” transported across the Atlantic (how this happened has a couple of versions) and treated as the servant of the Captain (Howe) who brought her into the household. When he died, it was argued at a

“quarter sessions and again at King’s Bench that, as she had ‘lived as a servant from year to year, and therefore is to be considered a servant as far as the laws of England will permit… it would be hard if a person of this description should not be maintained and taken notice of by the law’. She had acted as a servant, said the attorneys; she had displayed a clear understanding of the nature of her obligation, ‘as she never thought of quitting the service of the family till her master’s death: [and] that to deprive her of her settlement, the court must hold that she might have gone away at any time … But Mansfield cut briskly through the narration of her circumstances, with the observation that ‘it cannot be contended that this was a voluntary hiring, and [it is] therefore not a service … .”

There can be no hiring of herself out as Charlotte was a slave: she did not own herself. Mrs Howe’s will had left one servant some luxury goods and 30 pounds upon condition of the servant living with Mrs. Howe when she died and staying in the house for 3 months afterward; 20 pounds for the poor of the parish, nothing for Charlotte. At the time of this will, the Times retold Charlotte Howe’s story sympathetically and asked (somewhat rhetorically) “‘whether a negro slave can obtain settlement in a parish?” But to have rights, benefits, entitlements, you have to be recognized as belonging to a legal category which can have them. Charlotte Howe did not.


At the end of her cases, Steedman reminds the reader (who may not know this) that fourteen years after Mansfield made his famous judgement in the James Somerset case, he said “all he had done fourteen years before, he said, in the case of James Somerset the slave, was to ‘go no further than to establish, that the master had no power to take the slave by force out of the Kingdom’ (p. 138). She then goes on to say that two weeks after Mansfield delivered his judgement about Charlotte Howe “Mansfield drew up (yet another) codicil to his will: ‘Besides the annuity I give Dido the sum of Two hundred pounds to set out with’. The timing is probably quite coincidental: he was always upping the Kenwood girls’ inheritance.” Still she would like to find “in some recess of Mansfield’s consciousness, between two young black women, from vastly different social circumstances, in that frisson of anxiety, that uncertainty of future, in the words ‘to set out’.” And it is in this place in her article that footnote 93 occurs (p. 139).

I agree with Steedman that the recent tendency to blur different kinds of labors and workers so that “unfree labor” begins to look like “free labor” and vice versa is to ignore as unimportant that “that serfdom, debt bondage, service, penal servitude, indentured service, and slavery were — and actually are — rather different conditions.” For a start, a slave woman is answerable with her body and has no way of refusing to have whatever kind of sex her master might want; she can be sold off at will. An indentured servant is much worse off than someone who can just quit (or be fired). (A contemporary trafficked woman is a new dire category for women to endure.) In the cases at hand, the person’s gender, kind of work, original status (birth), and the state of her body at the time of her work counted enormously. Whether she had young children. Prof. Steedman sums up in her article what we learn from all Lord Mansfield women in accordance with the theme of her later book: there is an

enormous and ubiquitous section of the eighteenth-century workforce, which is still almost entirely neglected by historians of eighteenth-century labour and society. They were women workers, who on the fragmentary and faint evidence of their narratives, believed that domestic work was work; that their energies (which earned them sometimes money, sometimes clothes and keep, sometimes a settlement) was exercised in some- thing called work, which arose out of the job in hand. Hannah Wright, four months or so pregnant, was sure she could ‘have done the work of her place to the end of the year’ (the year of the contract of hiring). We may dimly discern a belief in their entitlement (especially on the part of Charlotte Howe) to the major benefit that domestic service brought, inaugurated by act of parliament in 1662.100 Tabitha Reynolds and Hannah Wright may also have known what differences illegitimacy made to the legal ability of their children to inherit their mother’s settlement. And they must have known what their historians have only recently understood, that the Law of Settlement was ‘in fact, the most important branch of law, if judged by the number of lives affected and lawyers’ hours expended’ (and the reason why a manual like Burn’s Justice of the Peace ‘had to go through so many editions’, in the attempt to keep up with the high court judges’ almost daily adjustment of it) (p. 142).

Elizabeth Murray blurred into Elizabeth Lindsay, with the white maid fixing the latter’s hair

I find myself thinking about how in the film and many a novel the crucial differences in status between the groups of women Mansfield and his male relatives married, fathered, brothered, sonned, nephewed, and the groups of women such men hired or used as slaves is repeatedly similarly blurred too. As if status and class don’t matter.

The information in Prof Steedman’s book and article bring home to us that the painting attributed to Zoffany does not show us someone who can stand for any kind of general condition of women free or slaves or servants. Elizabeth Lindsay was unusually lucky in having been able to escape the usual conditions of her combined status and gender. The favor of one rich and powerful man, Lord Mansfield, a distant uncle, did this for her. Still I wonder why she smiles in the way she does: she had to have come into contact with many more people than him. We may hope for her that the husband Lord Mansfield chose for her was after Lord Mansfield died as good to her.


Gretta Scacchi as Cassandra Austen looking down at Jane towards the end of Miss Austen Regrets — Cassandra is the silent continually-there and caring presence throughout these last letters

Dear friends and readers,

This week we are chronologically up to one of the few openly vulnerable and near despairing letters of Jane Austen, this the first and only one we have to her younger brother, Charles, telling him how very ill she has been, of the shock and dismay of the family when upon the death of the wealthy uncle, James Leigh-Perrot, they learned he had deliberately misled them to believe he would relieved their exigent needs by immediate legacies, sorrow over what was thought to be the hopeless case of Charles’s young daughter, Harriet with her “water on the brain,” and Jane’s inability to travel without a hired coach, due to her weak and pained state. The second has a claim to uniqueness too: this is the only letter we have to Jane Austen by a member of her family (the others are business letters, letters from the Rev Clarke): written a day after hers to Charles, Edward Cooper proves himself not to be the fatuous cant-filled evangelical implied by Austen in an earlier letter, but someone perceptive and brave enough to put down in print his sense of a double-dealing betrayal. And twenty days later Jane Austen’s will as dictated to Cassandra.

Cooper’s letter first appeared in Richard A. Austen-Leigh’s invaluable edition of the Austen Papers, published in 1940. He was a grandson of Austen’s nephew, James-Edward Austen-Leigh, who was responsible for the memoir, publication of Lady Susan and The Watsons; and like his grandfather dedicated to publishing and sharing with the public papers about the life and work of Jane Austen; with his uncle William Austen-Leigh (one of James-Edward’s sons), he produced the family biography, Jane Austen: her Life and Letters, and by himself other articles and notes. The papers contain letters by nearly all the near family members of Jane Austen, and by her cousins, people related by marriage, including Mr and Mrs Austen, Henry and Frank Austen, Thomas Leigh, letters by and to Warren Hastings, a series by Eliza de Feuillide to her cousin Philadelphia Walter, letters of Jane Leigh-Perrot to a cousin, James-Edward Austen-Leigh’s letters. They begin with the important biographical explanation by Jane’s father’s grandmother as to how she and all her children but the eldest were deprived of an inheritance and how she worked all her life to try to provide enough for her sons to become gentlemen. They end with Francis’s letters late in life to interested Americans conceding that Harville (and by extention Wentworth) contain aspects of his character. He recognizes himself in them. The letters and documents are set up as correspondences so you can read with understanding of what was said and what is replied. Essential context for Jane’s letters and what is known of her intimate life. They were reprinted by Thoemmes Press in 1990 with an introduction by David Gilson.

Charles Austen

157. To Charles Austen. Sunday, April 1817. Chawton

This is the letter before her will — as in the case of many women from the medieval period to the later 19th century (until 1870, the Married Women’s Property Act), it’s an informal letter signed by her — and co-signed. Most of such letters show a pathetic few belongings, cherished by the dying person, a tiny bequest. So here we have the bequest; after Jane died, Cassandra distributed Jane’s belongings and in lieu of the usual sheerly physical items, shared out writing by Jane.

Her letter to Charles tells of how sick she has been — unable to write “anything not absolutely necessary.” So that means she has not lost sufficient control of her consciousness to put together sentences. (I’ve seen that in cancer; the person cannot write at all, cannot understand what he or she reads.) Bilious attack is bile — she’s sick to her stomach, nausea, and it feels acidic. She’s had high fever.

But it is also a relapse — so she was this bad before. The news the uncle misled them and left everything to the stingy (kleptomaniac) corrosive-tongued aunt then hit her hard. Foolish she says, but she could not get over this important disappointment, understandably. She asked that Cassandra return from the funeral (so women did attend even if not at graveside). Mrs Austen, as ever phlegmatic on the outside, and, as people do often do, making excuses for that which hurt them (it’s an assertion the world is fair): oh he never expected his wife would outlive him.

No? he did make the will knowing the money was his.

Mrs Austen wishes her younger children had got something immediately — James got the vicarage, Edward adopted a rich man, and Frank doing very well with his prizes and working for private companies. But Charles in need and Jane with the small sums she’s made from her books.

Austen concedes the aunt is just now so miserable they are feeling more regard for her than they ever did before. To paraphrase Mr Bennet, not to worry, none of this would last, neither her affliction nor liking her more — and with good reason, especially James-Edward Austen-Leigh whose life she made a misery eventually by tyrannizing over him with threats of disinheritance. Now her immediate prostration makes them feel for her. Mrs L-P had lost her one companion and thorough friend.

Austen is not surprised at Harriet Palmer’s illness — well her older sister, dead in childbed, the infant dead, 4 children now to care for, one with a mysterious brain problem (perhaps autism of some sort now emerging), who would not be ill. Charles’s mother-in-law feeling better. Charles’s diaries show his real involvement. Apparently their cousin Cooke showed real kindness and affection — since this is not common, Austen rightly emphasizes this and wants to convey it. The Cookes are the same favored kindly Cookes of Bookham that we meet in Frances Burney d’Ablay’s life, and one of the few direct connections between FBA and Jane Austen. One might have expected some explicit talk by the Cookes about the Austens (including Jane and her novels) to enter FBA’s voluminous life-writing, but there is apparently no reference to Jane Austen at all. On the Cookes of Great Bookham, Jane’s two visits (1799, 1814), see Lucinda Brant, In Jane’s Visting Footsteps.

The rectory, demolished 1961

In the PS she remembers that Harriet, the sister-in-law has been asking to see her. Perhaps to be nice, as Harriet must know how sick her sister’s husband’s sister was, Austen says she can only come if a hackney coach is sent (that costs, this is not a group which keeps carriages). A moment of levity that connects to some private teasing — she hope Cassy takes care the coach is green. Was green a favorite color of Cassy?.

She realizes she didn’t use black-edged paper to signal their mourning for the uncle.

She ends the letter itself with a “God bless you all” — more emotional than usual — and that Charles should “conclude me to be going well if you hear nothing the contrary.” Meaning no news is good news — shall I paraphrase Mr Bennet again? no, just say often for the powerless the best news is not to hear anything from anyone for why would they be contacting you? most letters are after all about business. There’s a telling dialogue about letters and how when you pay people they will work for real and continually (otherwise not is implied) in Emma between John Knightley and Jane, but I digress …

Diane Reynolds responded:

Ellen has covered this letter well, and despite Austen’s attempts at humor–that Cassy must send a green hackney chariot for Jane should Jane be needed to visit, it is arguably more relentlessly dark than anything we have yet read. She is badly ill and her illness magnified by the “shock” of the uncle’s will, leaving the bulk of the money to the (nasty) aunt. The will has “brought on a relapse.” But my sense from the Le Faye notes is that the “younger Austen children” — that would include Jane, no (?), would inherit a 1000 pounds each should the aunt pre-decease them. Maybe some of the shock is the misery ofJane knowing she won’t live long enough to inherit–or am I entirely misreading this?

Jane tries to rouse herself to better cheer in the middle of the letter, speaking of being “better this morning” and “coddled,” mentioning her mother never had great expectations from the inheritance, but wished more for her younger children–and sooner. JA even expresses sympathy for the misery of the aunt.

As I think of the great importance in Regency England of inheritance, I think too of the new book, Capital by Piketty, that posits we are turning a corner in the US where inheritance will assume such importance–a time when people will inherit more than the average person can earn in a lifetime. The importance of this loss to the
Austens was great.

In the last part of the letter, JA is back to illnesses — Miss Palmer and Harriet. But she tries to end on a more cheerful note, with the joke about the green chariot–which also communicates how ill she is.

See also Diana Birchall’s reading.


Rev Edward Cooper, Rector of the Church of St Michael and All Angels, Hamstall Ridware, Jane Austen’s first cousin ( their mothers were sisters and granddaughters of Theophilus Leigh of Adlestrop)

Letter from Rev. Edward Cooper to Jane Austen -Hamstall, April 7, 1817

Edward Cooper’s letter is important because of the rarity of any letter to Jane Austen. That there is none other by any family member seems such an unexpected thorough-going absence it feels the result of an agreement, a plan. They all agreed to destroy whatever they had written to her — for surely some members of her family kept copies of what they had written. To us today it seems a lot of effort, but people did it; before computers when I was young people used carbon paper and thin tissue sheets to make typed and written copies. I also knew that ironically (and unfortunately) that Edward Cooper was someone who Jane Austen is down as to some extent despising, feeling he was somehow dull or ludicrous in his evangelical enthusiasm, or maybe it was that she wasn’t having any of it. He grated on her.

Now reading it in the light of all the letters we have, especially the most recent again we have an instance of Jane Austen maybe being wrong about people. Cooper seems not only intelligent but he appeals by his frankness; he is disappointed, he was led to believe he would be getting something. His letter confirms that the uncle was himself knowingly giving the wrong impression in order to make sure the family remained nice to him, grateful until he died. It’s interesting Cooper suggests he had reason to believe nonetheless he was “no great favorite” with the uncle; as far as we have documents (from James-Edward later and his daughter Mary), this might have been the aunt’s doing; it is just the sort of thing a Mrs Norris might do: sow discord to keep the uncle estranged from others and tied to her. Since we are not to speak ill of the dead Cooper turns round to say after he wants to think charitably of the uncle so if in thought or act the uncle did think unjustly of he, Cooper, he forgives the uncle. A bit absurd but no more than some of the contradictions on behalf of morality we find in other of the relatives’ letters (including Cassandra): when they get to heaven, they will understand one another.

Note though he does not want to write James, who as eldest son was one of the executors – thus could push things his own way and was to inherit after the aunt. (In the event James Austen predeceased Jane Leigh-Perrot.) He’s unwilling to write because he does feel uncomfortable in talking to someone who will be taking all the advantage of this title — so he foresees that James will somehow show off, not be tactful and asks that Jane ask her brother to lay aside this status. Also what is the requisite period of mourning? One black suit for his boys should be enough — he is thinking of the cost of mourning clothes, of dying the boys’ regular clothes.

The letter also shows that this man had no idea Jane was dying. Cassandra had told him both were unwell to explain why she Cassandra had no time to write. There is this strong tendency in this family to secrecy — as a girl Austen in her Juvenilia mocked this whispering secresy (especially one of her playlets), but by the time she was writing the novels it had been inculcated into her as thoroughly as any of George Austen’s children. In effect Edward Cooper has been lied to enough to fool him. There are no phones, no internet, no trains, no cars: it’s easy to fool people who are outside walking distance. To be fair, there is still a strong inhibition today against telling that someone is actually dying and when they have died, including cause of death in the obituary.

His tone would be quite different were he to know how ill his cousin, Jane, is. If you you look carefully you see the main evidence for Cooper’s dullness are quotations from Jane Austen — irritated by his overt perhaps proselytizing evangelicalism. The man was not a genius, but this is the letter of a frank person who is alive to the nuances of things around him and willing to articulate them (thus refreshing and giving us truths hard to find written down in the case of the Leigh-Perrots and now James).

St Michael’s Church, Hamstall Ridware, Staffordshire (recent photo)

Again Diane:

It reinforces how the blow of the inheritance going to Aunt LP reverberated through the family. People needed and expected that money. Rev. Edward sounds utterly stunned — and is reaching out in shock to a sympathetic party, which meant JA’s attitude, as well the expectations of she and her sister and mother, must have been known to him. I find it interesting that he wrote to her, even though he knew she was sick, rather than her mother or Cassandra. He evidently felt more assured that she would feel as he did. Obviously, this is also a way to avoid writing a letter to James he simply can’t bear to write — he seemingly can rely on Jane to be a tactful–or at least reliable — intermediate.

Given that this was a family that gives no sign of pie in the sky fantasies or wishful thinking, people truly were led to believe they would inherit, leading one to suspect a level of cruelty in this whole affair. We feel how far up the class ladder the lack of social safety net went–these gentry people really needed this money. This appears to have the shock the unexpected loss of a good job would have on a modern person–or perhaps the shock of the sudden closing down of a business that had employed more than one family member.

For a gathering together of what is known about Edward Cooper and what Jane wrote see Jane Austen in Vermont, a 2013 Midlands tour to the UK.


Sylvie Herbert as Madame Bigeon — showing real identification and interest — in the film she dines with the family, sits by Jane in front of their London fire (Miss Austen Regrets, 2008)

It does not seem out of place to reprint Jane Austen’s will here too — numbered as one of the letters in Deirdre LeFaye’s edition:

158. To Cassandra Austen
Sunday 27 April 1817

I Jane Austen of the Parish of Chawton do by this my last Will & Testament give and bequeath to my dearest Sister Cassandra Elizabeth every thing of which I may die possessed, or which may be hereafter due to me, subject to the payment of my Funeral Expences, & to a Legacy of £50. to my Brother Henry, & £50. to Mde Bigeon – -which I request may be paid as soon as convenient. And I appoint my said dear Sister the Executrix of this my last Will & Testament.

Jane Austen
April 27, 1817.
My Will.-
To Miss Austen

Jane Austen had a very bad day or night indeed, so harrowing they thought she was near death. Most comments are on the 50 pounds to Madame Bigeon, but we could equally wonder why Austen felt she owed Henry 50. She might have wanted to send this sum to Madame Bigeon to signal to Madame how grateful she felt towards Madame for her years of faithful friendly work for Henry and herself. We should remember that throughout Austen’s letters once she is in Bath we find she is friendly with servants, sometimes eats with them, takes books out of the library for them, treats them with respect, and then and in later years (at Godmersham for example), identifies herself with governesses in the great houses where she is a visitor.

Diana Birchall:

Solemn and moving. It is time. All to Cassandra, who will be Executrix (interesting that women, denied so much, could do that), except for legacies of fifty pounds to Henry (who needs it) and the same to Mme. Bigeon, his housekeeper.



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