Fanny Austen Knight, drawn by Cassandra Austen
Dear friends and readers,
This letter has several themes and a striking incident described: a fire near Castle Square. Cassandra has insisted that Elizabeth Austen is recovering fine, but Jane is not so sure; the letter repeatedly shows how on the edge of poverty was life for genteel unmarried women: Martha anxious to get back to her position as a paid companion, Austen and her mother picking pieces of dresses apart to provide for mourning, they cannot afford petty gambling; Martha worries Anne Sharpe is without a job. We see once again Jane Austen’s intense bonding with Martha. And in one line in the kind of impersonal oblique way Ann Radcliffe sometimes describes central events in her narrative, Austen refers to her refusal of Edward Bridges’s proposal of marriage to her — which she could not accept.
Often a letter which reads one way in a quick over-read yields something different once we go over it, or some really salient element only emerges after reading slowly. To me the salient element in this letter is the depiction of the women’s household as a household of women. Mrs F-A and Frank are not returning: from Yarmouth has come the exaction of Mary’s “flannels and furs.” She will need these things for the coming winter.
We see a trio forming and reforming of Austen, her mother, and Martha. Austen wants to add to this: Fanny is “almost another sister,” and of course from far there’s Cassandra part of this world. Austen is worried that Martha is not happy to be there or keen to stay; she seems so “if Looks & Words may be trusted,” but the qualification is itself a doubt, though one reason Martha may now want to get away is she is acting as Mrs Dundas’s companion and Mrs Dundas will not want to be without her. Martha is a woman without money and a job, a place, is a place. Since Frank and Mary are not gone it’s not a question of discomfort. We see Martha worries about pleasing Mrs Dundas: Mrs Dundas wants a piece of Catherine Big’s wedding cake.
We have them making do: the picking apart of these dresses to make strips of cloth to make new mourning; Austen can’t afford the gambling (even at 3 shillings). This lack of money comes out again in her mentioning how Martha brought “several good things for the larder” and baskets sent from a possible landlord at Alton. He probably looks forward to Henry’s money and connections operating for him too. A large amount of space also given over to a dangerous fire which could have threatened them and how it hurt others. No safety net in this world.
Only a phrase but that is not the way to weigh importance at the time it happened (when we don’t know); there seems to be a reference to a proposal that Edward Bridges made to Jane Austen and she refused. I’ll go back and re-look at the letters LeFaye references; the casual easy tone of Austen’s reference suggests that Mrs Bridges is one again a kind sensible woman. She has not regarded this refusal as reason to feel slighted, has not take a tribal offense which the Big sisters seem to have.
A lot of home-y details, like the problem of opening a drawer, perhaps a contractor pretending more needs to be done to a chimney or perhaps the Austens unwilling to spend what they need to to keep the thing from crumbling. The chimney might be (in effect) in the yard and Austen’s not facing up to this. As tenants, they might have been expected to fix, and yet have no stake or permanence to depend on. A large amount of space also given over to a dangerous fire which could have threatened them and how it hurt others. No safety net in this world.
Emma Thompson as Elinor Dashwood assuring her mother, Gemma Jones as Mrs Dashwood, she does not want to starve them only make ends meet (1995 S&S)
Sound familiar? I now think Emma Thompson’s having the Dashwoods worry about food and the taking over of this in Davies’s S&S bare cottage does seem right.
Edward Austen Knight as the touring gentleman
The first section is about the worlds of Godmersham: we can read in Austen’s words and tone that despite Cassandra’s assurances on Tuesday of Elizabeth’s “hitherto happy recovery” she does not quite believe this and worries what is about to be. For example, the word “hitherto” and then this plangent style: “I hope to hear of its’ advancing in the same stile …:
If she were religious, she’d have said pray, but she’s a secular person.
The tone then changes to assurance: ” – We are also very glad to know that you are so well yourself, & pray you to continue so. “Pray” here does not literally mean pray it’s more like “prego” or as in “pray be careful.”
The next lines tells us that Cassandra left in a hurry (see letter 56):
I was rather surprised on Monday by the arrival of a Letter for you from your Winchester Correspondent, who seemed perfectly unsuspicious of your being likely to be at Godmersham; — I took complete possession of the Letter by reading, paying for, & answering it; –and he will have the Biscuits to day, — a very proper day for the purpose, tho’ I did not think of it at the time
Austen is baking cookies and sending them by mail? or did she send money for cookies? I assume the former because I remember when I lived in England (later 1960s) one could send jars of jam through the mail. Why Austen did not think it to the purpose for Edward to have biscuits on his father’s birthday is not said, and this odd (in the sense of not explained) utterance is followed by another more odd:
I wish my Brother joy of completing his 3oth year — & hope the day will be remembered better than it was six years ago
What catches people’s attention is that mistake of 30 for 41. If it’s deliberate, it’s a joke that needs explaining, and it just might be explained by the next phrase: she hopes it will be remembered than it was 6 years ago. This is not the first time Austen in these letters has looked back with a curious precision to precisely a day precisely so many years ago.
Things that happened hit Jane Austen hard and she remembered them not only as to what happened but precisely when. Her books are formed on calendars, and I still intend (maybe this coming year at long last) to write up for publication my conviction of bad Tuesdays in 5 of the 6 famous novels (not NA) and also The Watsons.
Six years ago to the day was October 9 1802. What can have happened. There is no child listed as born in 1802; of course Elizabeth could have had a miscarriage but I suspect this is some incident in which Austen herself was involved. The Harris Bigg-Wither proposal was Dec 2nd, 1802, so that’s not it. These were the Bath years with summers traveling. Something got in the way of Edward remembering his day happily.
My suggestion is that if Jane Austen deliberately mistook the year of Edward’s birth or just got confused suddenly, and made it 11 years earlier it may have something to do with her mind dwelling on Oct 9, 1802. It was a Sunday.
Then many notes of poverty: chimney, Eliza surprised Cassandra has satin with such a good appearance, picking dresses apart to use the cloth again, and losing 4 shillings over this sewing which brings to mind at a card game she didn’t want to play in in the first place and lost further precious bits of sums at.
The Masons are now repairing the chimney, which they found in such a state as to make it wonderful that it shd have stood so long, & next to impossible that another violent wind should not blow it down. We may therefore thank you perhaps for saving us from being thumped with old bricks. –
Arnie Perlstein had come up with an elaborate theory that Austen was referring to the familiar Three Little Pigs fable. The first problem is that in its present form it apparently dates back only to the later 19th century
My first reply:
Arnie you are bringing in what’s not necessary, thought of by Austen (not in the text) and distracts us from its meaning. The Austen don’t have the funds to satisfy contractors who exaggerate what’s needed, but they do need to fix their chimney. No fairy tale here.
This fairy tale or older folk tale has nothing to do with Austen’s letter — though I suppose we could stretch it and ourselves see an analogy here: the pigs are threatened with loss of home unless they build with brick. The Austens are threatened with loss of chimney as winter comes on, but they have no money for new bricks. Anyway the chimney isn’t there, and the wolf at the door has nothing to do with whatever this house is made of, but they’re not having enough money themselves to maintain themselves in comfort.
However, we are dragging in something not at all in Austen’s mind. We know this fairy tale, she shows no knowledge of it in any form.
Then a qualification: I admit the “blowing down” does remind me of the three little pigs: “I’ll huff and puff and blow your house down.” But Jane Austen did not grow up in the US in the 1950s; I also was familiar with HennyPenny, Chicken Little and Foxy Loxy, to say nothing of Brer Rabbit and Uncle REmus (racist southern Aesopic tales still read in the Bronx in children’s libraries).
Apparently the chimney is in bad shape at the same time as Jane registers scepticism at the contractors insisting on more work needing to be done. To anticipate, if “Mr Floor” (referred to later as another tradesman) is an invention, it’s by association: the bricks will thump on the floor.
Now it was Cassandra who foresaw what was happening and hired the contractors. Again, she had gone off in a hurry. So she is to be thanked as well as by Eliza for a present of “dyed sattin, which is made into a bonnet, & I fancy surprises her by its’ good appearance. -”
I’d like to note here Jane is still placating Cassandra to some extent, still trying to please. This is not as bad as when they were young and Cassandra scolded, but Jane has not lost the habit of deference.
The sending satin to Eliza reminds her of the mourning they must somehow get together.
My Mother is preparing mourning for Mrs E. K.-she has picked her old silk pelisse to peices [sic], & means to have it dyed black6 for a gown-a very interesting scheme, tho’ just now a little injured by finding that it must be placed in Mr Wren’s hands, for Mr Chambers is gone. — As for Mr Floor, he is at present rather low in our estimation; how is your blue gown? – Mine is all to peices. — I think there must have been something wrong in the dye, for in places it divided with a Touch.–
Apparently the mother couldn’t do it alone — or needed Cassandra’s help, so they must send to and pay for a dressmaker (Mr Wren, Mr Chambers). Note the subsidence world where tailors will take old pieces of cloth, dye them and re-sew them. No one would do that today except in impoverished countries like those in Africa or the Sudan or Bangladesh. The US has not gotten there as yet (give us time, the republicans are working at it even as I type).
Austen’s joke. Was she needled by Cassandra over her melancholy when they were together?:
There was four shillings thrown away; — to be added to my Subjects of never-failing regret
So she makes fun of herself for having nothing more tragic than this; she makes fun of melodramatic utterances and sadness and regret, and yet it matters.
For then she moves on to the quadrille:
We found ourselves tricked into a thorough party at Mrs Maitlands, a quadrille & a Commerce Table, & Music in the other room. There were two pools at Commerce, but I would not play more than one, for the Stake was three shillings, & I cannot afford to lose that, twice in an eveng- The Miss Ms. were as civil & as silly as usual.
Then Austen turns to telling of what is to come later today so we may suppose this part of the letter written in the morning.
A manual fire pump, 18th century
Perhaps Austen’s reference to the silliness of the Maitland cousins brought Martha to mind by association for the first of a number of references to her in this letter is prompted.
You know of course that Martha comes today; yesterday brought us notice of it, & the Spruce Beer is brewed in consequence.–
Like Jane, Martha likes to drink; Jane looks forward to their talk as opposed to what she has had to endure the other night at cards.
And then thinking of people dispersed from their home (now sadly depleted):
On wednesday I had a letter from Yarmouth to desire me to send Mary’s flannels & furs &c-& as there was a packing case at hand, I could do it without any trouble. –
Remember Mrs Elton on these schemes of living together:
“Shocking plan, living together. It would never do. She knew a family near Maple Grove who had tried it, and been obliged to separate before the end of the quarter” (Emma, 3:17, p 469).
Alas Frank’s plan for his wife and mother and sisters and their friend didn’t last much longer. So perhaps a memory of Castle Square lies behind Mrs Elton’s tart observation, not to be wholly dismissed. Mary sending for winter things announced her intention never to return to live there (never of course is meant in Mary Crawford’s sense of the word).
And then the story of the fire:
On Tuesday Eveng Southampton was in a good deal of alarm for about an hour; a fire broke out soon after nine at Webbes, the Pastrycook, & burnt for some time with great fury. I cannot learn exactly how it originated, at the time it was said to be their Bakehouse, but now I hear it was in the back of their Dwelling house, & that one room was consumed. — The Flames were considerable, they seemed about as near to us as those at Lyme,? & to reach higher. One could not but feel uncomfortable, & I began to think of what I should do, if it came to the worst; — happily however the night was perfectly still, the Engines were immediately in use, & before ten the fire was nearly extinguished-tho’ it was twelve before everything was considered safe, & a Guard was kept the whole night. Our friends the Duers were alarmed, but not out of their good Sense or Benevolence. — I am afraid the Webbes have lost a great deal-more perhaps from ignorance or plunder than the Fire; — they had a large stock of valuable China, & in order to save it, it was taken from the House, & thrown down anywhere. — The adjoining House, a Toyshop, was almost equally injured -& Hibbs, whose House comes next, was so scared out of his senses_ that.he was giving away all his goods, valuable Laces &c, to anybody who wd take them. — The Croud in the High St I understand was immense; Mrs Harrison, who was drinking tea with a Lady at Millar’s, could not leave it twelve o’c1ock.-Such are the prominent features of our fire. Thank God! they were not worse.–
This an effective description and I take its length and coherence to result from Jane herself having been concerned.
We learn a fact about her life we would otherwise not know. Lefaye (from others) have discovered that on 5 Nov 1803 there was a big fire at Lyme Regis. So were we to make a chronology we could place Austen and parents there. In November. Off season. Cheap. Where and when Persuasion is set. Did Austen have that romantic encounter that year? I’m inclined to suggest yes as the twig that led to Persuasion.
Here is the value of paying attention to the small details literally there.
And people are cited of a lower order, not quite gentry, certainly not pseudo-gentry (related to aristocrats like the Austens, and probably no connection like Hastings): Duers, Webbs, one of whom was a pastry cook. They became hysterical; they make me think of Mr and Mrs Cole, just rising in the world. Imagine how hysterical they’d get if that very expensive piano Mrs C just gloats over got caught in a fire.
A toyshop though next door. So the Webbs live amid and among tradesmen.
Austen’s Emma is herself involved with this level of person. Jane goes further and interests herself in servants we’ve seen.
I bring this out to show how wrong are the older movies and how fatuous the view of Jane as living in a idyllic upper class world which reeks from many programs and pop re-tellings of her life.
Fire immense. I take it Millar’s was far from the center of the fire.
A sincere ejaculation: “Thank God! here were not worse.” So she laughs at little at the absurdities of people but what is the loss of china however expensive or laces to life. When we are dead we are dead forever.
Sir John Middleton and servant bringing two baskets of provision and a dead bird to Barton Cottage (2008 Sense and Sensibility) — in life below it’s Henry who sends the provisions; or Martha who brings some
And so we reach Saturday and Martha is now there and I see the rest of the letter as an outpouring of intensely happy feeling, relief, because of the friend’s presence.
Saturday. — Thank you for your Letter, which found me at the Breakfast-Table, with my two companions. –
Two is underlined.
Then writing on by association:
I am greatly pleased with your account of Fanny; I found her in the summer just what you describe, almost another Sister, & could not have supposed that a neice would ever much to me. She is quite after one’s own heart; give her my best Love,I° & tell her that I always think of her with pleasure. —
Olivia Williams and Imogen Poots as Jane and Fanny Austen as confidants (2008 Miss Austen Regrets)
I suspect this is also about Elizabeth, the mother. Fanny’s behavior at this juncture is both decent and ironic. She does what she has to, feels for this poor mother of hers, but also is controlled. This is not a letter worried about Elizabeth nor really keeping in mind what Cassandra is knowing just then.
I am much obliged to you for enquiring about my ear, & am happy to say that Mr Lyford’s prescription has entirely cured me. I feel it a great blessing to hear again.
There is then a veritable outpouring of excited details. Whether Martha is pretending to be happy or is happy, her presence has stirred Austen to uncharacteristic sheer bubbling over:
Your gown shall be unpicked, but I do not remember its’ being settled so before. — Martha was here by half past six, attended by Lyddy; they had some rain at last, but a very good Journey on the whole; & if Looks & Words may be trusted Martha is very happy to be returned. We receive her with Castle Square-Weather, it has blown a gale from the N. W. ever since she came-& we feel ourselves in luck that the Chimney was mended yesterday. — She brings several good things for the Larder, which is now very rich; we had a pheasant & hare the other day from the Mr Grays of Alton. Is this to entice us to Alton, or to keep us away? — Henry had probably some share in the two last baskets from that Neighbourhood, but we have not seen so much of his handwriting even as a direction to either. Martha was an hour & half in Winchester, walking about with the three boys & at the Pastrycook’s. — She thought Edward grown, & speaks with the same admiration as before of his Manners; — I am glad you are to see Harriot, give my Love to her. – I wish you may be able to accept Lady Bridges’s invitation, tho’ I could not her son Edward’s; — she is a nice woman, & honours me by her remembrance. – Do you recollect whether the Manydown family send about their Wedding Cake? – Mrs Dundas has set her heart upon having a peice from her friend Catherine, & Martha who knows what importance she attaches to the sort of thing, is anxious for the sake of both, that there shd not be a disappointment. — Our weather I fancy has been just like yours, we have had some very delightful days, our 5th & 6th were what the 5th & 6th of October should always be, but we have always wanted a fire within doors, at least except for just the middle of the day. — Martha does not find the Key, which you left in my charge for her, suit the Keyhole — & wants to know whether you think you can have mistaken it. It should open the interior of her High Drawers but she is in no hurry about it.
And then she breaks off until the next day.
The sense of fresh air weather, breezes, is strong and reminiscent of her ability to convey this of March in Portsmouth. She is just elated.
We’ve seen already details showing the hunt for a new place, that the landlord in Alton might think Henry a money-maker he wants to connect to (letter 56).
Harriot is now a woman oppressed by Mr Moore.
The indirect way Austen refers to a marriage proposal is striking; she is not interested in Mr Brydges and grateful to his mother for not becoming insulted.
Hugh Bonneville as Edward Brydges assuring Olivia Williams as Jane Austen he would not have encumbered her with children, would have supported her desire to write (2008 Miss Austen Regrets)
I can see why Miss Austen Regrets made a big deal of Edward Bridges; it’s significant that Austen didn’t want him either.
Mrs Dundas the woman Martha has been staying with. It may be that Martha too has kept away because she wants work, as a companion, beyond Frank’s marriage to Mary.
So much on weather here, how she loved landscape and the natural world. Martha was to be given keys to make her one in charge too (the keys were highly symbolic for housekeeping in this century and the next — remember Esther Summerson). But they are not in a hurry; they are not vexed and troubled now.
The text becomes a love missive here, out of her heart.
Sylvestre Le Tousel as Fanny Price in her fireless plain attic room (1983 Mansfield Park)
We begin with registering deprivation as a matter of course. Fanny Price’s living without a fire was based on her own experience. She and her mother endured it as far as they could. Upstairs is probably smaller. Two more of these maiden lady friends: Miss sister to a Captain foote who was related to someone who married into the Bridges (as we surmise Jane could have). Mrss Wethered not mentioned even in LeFaye’s second index.
Sunday — It is cold enough now for us to prefer dining upstairs to dining below without a fire, & being only three we manage it very well, & today with two more we shall do just as well, I dare say … Miss Foote & Miss Wethered are coming.
A present to decorate the house has arrived:
My Mother is much pleased with Elizabeth’s admiration of the rug-& pray tell Elizabeth that the new mourning gown is to be made double only in the body & sleeves. —
And now Martha’s discomfort is brought out because Cassandra had demanded to be told it was not so. This is a way of controlling the depths by asserting the opposite to be true. The letter gives us the feeling Martha was indeed rejoiced to be with Jane again, but also (above and here again) she won’t stay. She does not want to live with them. The scheme did not suit (Mrs Elton with her hard assessments of other people’s motives and feeling by her own would not be surprised we know). The excuse is understandable. She is companion to Mrs Dundas. And she does say she wishes to stay to Xmas. Since that’s 2 months away she does want to be with Jane.
Martha thanks you for your message, & desires you may be told with her best love that your wishes are answered & that she is full of peace and comfort here. — I do not think however that here she wilI remain a great while, she does not herself expect that Mrs Dundas will be able to do with her long. She wishes to stay with us till Christmas if possible.
A servant they are living in close proximity to and thus Jane can identify with to some extent. Like herself, Lyddy will not be in service once she leaves.
– Lyddy goes home tomorrow; she seems well, but does not mean to go to service at present.
Then another of these Father’s instructions kind of books is part of the discourse. Percival had given a copy to Edward (her brother or nephew not clear) to give to her. I wonder if she found it better than Forsythe. She says nothing further of it. The Wallops would get central attention by 18th century person: they were members of the family of Earls of Portsmouth. That’s why their return counts Mr Harrison’s duty call (shows his face), a Southampton family. This showing face counts even more among those on the edge:
– The Wallops are returned.-Mt John Harrison has paid his visit of duty & is gone. — We have got a new Physician, a Dr Percival, the son of a famous Dr Percival of Manchester, who wrote Moral Tales for Edward to give to me. —
Catherine Bigg I assume:
When you write again to Catherine thank her on my part for her very kind & welcome mark of friendship. I shall value such a Broche very much. –
Goodbye my dearest Cassandra [continued below address panel] yrs very affec1y JA.
And Martha who will leave Jane to go where an income or place is waiting for her plus them turning black pelisses into new ones is again showing need, subsidence. Unmarried women are so dreadfully poor.
Have you written to Mrs E. Leigh? – Martha will be glad to find Anne in work at present, & I am as glad to have her so found.We must turn our black pelisses into new, for Velvet is to be very much worn this winter
Pip Torrens as as worried lonely widower Edward Austen Knight (2008 Miss Austen Regrets)
To sume up: this one has Cassandra having insisted Elizabeth is recovering (she’s not and that’s important in the Austens moving into Chawton cottage the next year); it shows women living on a
very tight budget, forming a trio-quartet household again; it mentions the probable marriage proposal of Edward Brydges and her rejection of it. A fire, A falling chimney, cannot afford 3 shillings gambling on cards, picking dresses to pieces, an immense fire, baskets of provisions, Alton as a possible place to move, living without a fire.
Even if Austen seems more concerned over the chimney, fire, her own life, I should emphasize that when Elizabeth died, yes, it was a tragedy for her, 11 children plus miscarriages inside 14 years. Poor woman. But when she died, then Edward could ask his mother and sisters to come live near him – not before. So it’s an ill wind that blows no body any good. Edith Lank used to continually made the case that Elizabeth’s dislike of Jane was such that she kept Edward from providing a place he could have done years earlier. But Edith got off Austen-l
I’ll give it to Edward he didn’t marry again and inflict this kind of pattern on another woman. Maybe the spectacle finally did sicken him. He must have seen his wife’s body in private after each time she endured whatever she did. Frank too had had enough when Mary died.
Letters 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56
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