From Miss Austen Regrets (2009): Fanny (Imogen Poots), sulking, having now permanently alienated John Plumptre; contrasted to Anna (Sally Tatum), married to Ben, absorbed in her first child, Jemima (scripted Gwyneth Hughes, produced Anne Pivcevic)
Dear friends and readers,
Two letters Jane Austen wrote to her nieces on the same day, taken together (and looking at the whole extant correspondences of Austen with these two young women), they testify to the fraught relationship of Jane to her older brother’s oldest and gifted daughter, Anna Austen Lefroy; and to something too identifying or (conversely) disingenuous in her relationship with her fourth and rich brother’s oldest and somewhat obtuse or just ordinary daughter, Fanny Austen Knight.
The relationship of Anna and Jane is fascinating, and one would think might have attracted a biographer or romancer by this time. Even though much more attention has been paid in the public media to Fanny Austen Knight, Lady Brabourne — many more records, progeny to work at it (Lord Brabourne), she was richer, and connected to influential people, many more children, a biography (Almost Another Sister, Margaret Wilson), in fact if you look at the letters we have and what we know of the girls’ lives during Austen’s life, the relationship with Anna is goes deeper, back in time to intimate acquaintance in the girl’s youngest years (after Anna’s mother died), through to her tough time as an adolescent, two romances, both attempts to escape home, to her hard marriage with its continual pregnancies (Jane died before she could see more).
There are years where Jane was one of three substitute mothers. There’s Jane’s tense relationship with Mary Lloyd Austen, who took Steventon, detested Jane’s favored cousin, Eliza: Anna’s stepmother, overtly unashamedly no friend of Anna either. The empathetic poem found in the gift book, Mentoria, and Jane’s odd triumph over her niece’s meagre balls. The later ungenerous mocking poem: the estrangement when Anna grows up; Austen’s seeming to take the family side but having her own point of view a compound (I suggest) of envy as well as discomfort at Anna’s very different response to repression. Anna’s imitation of her aunt’s novel-making to try to reach her aunt, her finishing Sanditon and writing one passably readable romance in a similar vein (Persuasion like) of her own. Anna’s destruction of Which is the Heroine, her cutting up her aunt’s letters, with a last phase the one where Anna helps her brother, JEAL, make the memoir.
I’ve summarized but consider the two relationships with young men Anna had and how Austen though or felt about these; the father-brother James’s early years as poet and his wife’s squashing him. That in marrying Ben who wanted a kind of high integrity Ben resembles James Austen nagged by Mary to take the extra position.
For Fanny by contrast, at least in the extant few letters we have, Austen is reveling in living at Godmersham, and watching Fanny flirt and make a display of herself (probably unconsciously) Aunt Jane much preferring the serious deep young man and then (possible) a momentary rivalry over the visiting apothecary, Haden. This includes confiding in her and being confided in for a short time by a girl who is superficial and does not value the young man Austen thought her best offer.
In its close, Gwyneth Hughes’s film takes the easy way out by simply representing Jane as jealous of a heterosexual romance between Haden and the younger Fanny. But there is something somewhat different testified to in these letters, something going on between the three women.
It is true though that in later letters we will see Jane giggle with Fanny in ways that are embarrassing if you remember she’s a 40+ woman. The way she takes sides in the following two letters is not the act of an older aunt. She was infantilized in some aspects of real life experience by her family. Thus her letters to Fanny while in themselves a goldmine for understanding themes in the courtship romances that are the 6 famous novels are not rooted in deeper feelings shared by Fanny.
I’ll even say that such a story – the two women, aunt and niece — would make a much more interesting and contemporary plot-design than the usual heterosexual romance mythos Austen followed and those who have written about or represented her have followed too. Jane sort of reached out in that direction in a harsh way in Lady Susan’s hostility towards her daughter, Frederica, but cut that off with (once again) heterosexual marriages and liaisions for both.
I was thinking about Austen and Anna again tonight because I came across a similar use of writing a fiction novel in Joan Didion’s Blue Nights. Joan Didion’s daugther, Quintana, when she was young, wrote a novel “just to show” her parents. Quintana was much younger and the novel very fragmentary but one can see in it the same desire to please,and probably to address aspects of the relationship between the older authority figures and the young girl. Austen does not go over Anna’s plot-design without any awareness of this kind of subtext or its deeper themes (she does this in all her criticism in the letters) but I speculate its very much there.
I went to look at letter 113 and found I’ve written a full blog on it parsing the references to Anna’s novel (insofar as we can tell what is the story) and setting the letter inside the whole relationship discerned from the 16 extant letters. So it may all be read there.
From Diana’s rejoinder:
Ellen says this letter shows Austen “straining to be pleased,” and that’s what I think too. It’s all reassuring compliments that don’t sound sincere. The backhanded “I have been very far from finding your book an Evil, I assure you.” The “I think you are going on very well” and “Indeed, I do think you get on very fast” – so strained; the extravagant compliments on “Newton Priors” (what?): “I never met with any thing superior to it.”
I’ll just add to Diana’s rejoinder, that I take the line by Austen which appears to repeat something Anna wrote, viz., “do you find my book an evil,” to refer not to its quality but rather sheer disapproval of novel-writing for a now married woman. In the next letter we shall (to me alas) see that behind Anna’s back (so to speak) Austen disapproves of her buying a piano, a new pelisse: the ideal of sacrifice for a woman and that her first duty is to please the husband and buy for him or any children, keep a narrow budget is behind that, and I suggest behind Anna’s comment. Maybe it was something said to her by the people she was living with who noticed her writing away, and maybe she also sense from her aunt the same attitude at least towards her. And if Anna did sense a lack of enthusiasm towards her novel, Anna put it down to social disapproval. To her face Austen denies this, but we can see she participates in it in the next letter to Fanny. It’s common for people to make an exception for themselves (oh it’s fine if I do it) and not others.
Anna’s first months of marriage do not seem to me to be easy ones. She is so eager for visits from people who did not want her to marry Ben in the first place and let her know it by the wedding they gave her.
Letter 114, to Fanny Austen Knight, Wed, 30 Nov 1814, from Hans Place to Godmersham
First, the text:
Wednesday 30 November 1814
23 Hans Place, Wednesday Nov: 30.
I am very much obliged to you my dear Fanny for your letter, & I hope you will write again soon that I may know You to be all safe & happy at home. — Our visit to Hendon will interest you I am sure, but I need not enter into the particulars of it, as your Papa will be able to answer almost every question. I certainly could describe her bed-room, & her Drawers & her Closet better than he can, but I do not feel that I can stop to do it. — I was rather sorry to hear that she is to have an Instrument; it seems throwing money away. They will wish the 24 G’. in the shape of Sheets & Towels six months hence; — and as to her playing, it never can be anything. — Her purple Pelisse rather surprised me. — I thought we had known all Paraphernalia of that sort. I do not mean to blame her, it looked very well & I dare say she wanted it. I suspect nothing worse than its being got in secret, & not owned to anybody. — She is capable of that you know. — I received a very kind note from her yesterday, to ask me to come again & stay a night with them; I cannot do it, but I was pleased to find that she had the power of doing so right a thing. My going was to give them both Pleasure’ very properly. — I just saw Mr Hayter at the Play, & think. his face would please me on acquaintance. I was sorry he did not dine. here. — It seemed rather odd to me to be in the Theatre, with nobody to watch for. I was quite composed myself, at leisure for all the agitation Isabella could raise.
Now my dearest Fanny, I will begin a subject which comes in very naturally. — You frighten me out of my Wits by your reference. Your affection gives me the highest pleasure, but indeed you must not let
anything depend on my opinion. Your own feelings & none but your own, should determine such an important point. — So far however as answering your question, I have no scruple. — I am perfectly convinced that your present feelings, supposing you were to marry now, would be sufficient for his happiness; but when I think. how very, very far it is from a Now,& take everything that may be, into consideration, I dare not say, “determine to accept him.” The risk is too great for you,unless your own Sentiments prompt it. — You will think me perverse perhaps; in my last letter I was urging everything in his favour, & now I am inclining the other way; — but I cannot help it; I am at present more impressed with the possible Evil that may arise to You from engaging yourself to him — in word or mind — than with anything else.– When I consider how few young Men you have yet seen much of — how capable you are (yes, I do still think. you very capable) of being really in love-and how full of temptation the next 6 or 7 years of your Life will probably be — (it is the very period of Life for the strongest attachments to be formed) — I cannot wish you with your present very cool feelings to devote yourself in honour to him. It is very true that you never may attach another Man, his equal altogether, but if that other Man has the power of attaching you more, he will be in your eyes the most perfect. — I shall be glad if you can revive past feelings, & from your unbiassed self resolve to go on as you have done, but this I do not expect, and without it I cannot wish you to be fettered. I should not be afraid of your marrying him; — with all his Worth, you would soon love him enough for the happiness of both; but I should dread the continuance of this sort of tacit engagement, with such an uncertainty as there is, of when it may be completed. — Years may pass, before he is Independant. — You like him well enough to marry, but not well enough to wait. — The unpleasantness of appearing fickle is certainly great — but if you think. you want Punishment for past Illusions, there it is — and nothing can be compared to the misery of being bound without Love, bound to one, & preferring another. That is a Punishment which you do not deserve. — I know you did not meet-or rather will not meet to day — as he called here yesterday-& I am glad of it. — It does not seem very likely at least that he should be in time for a Dinner visit 60 miles off.
We did [not] see him, only found his card when we came home at 4.-Your Uncle H. merely observed that he was a day after the Fair.-He asked your Brother on Monday, (when Mr Hayter was talked of) why he did not invite him too?-saying, “I know he is in Town, for I met him the other day in Bond St,” Edward answered that he did not know where he was to be found. — “Don’t you know his Chambers? –” “No.” — I shall be most glad to hear from you again my dearest Fanny, but it must not be later than Saturday, as we shall be off on Monday long before the Letters are delivered — and write something that may do to be read or told. I am to take the Miss Moores back on Saturday, & when I return I shall hope to find your pleasant, little, flowing Scrawl on the Table. — It will be a releif [sic]to me after playing at Ma’ams — for tho’ I like Miss H[arriet] M[oore] as much as one can at my time of Life after a day’s acquaintance, it is uphill work to be talking to those whom one knows so little.-Only one comes back with me tomorrow, probably Miss Eliza, & I rather dread it. We shall not have two Ideas in common. She is young, pretty, chattering, & thinking cheifly (I presume) of Dress, Company, & Admiration. –
Mr Sanford is to join us at dinner, which will be a comfort, and in the event while your Uncle & Miss Eliza play chess, he shall tell me comical things & I will laugh at them, which will be a pleasure to both.-I called in Keppel Street & saw them all, including dear Uncle Charles, who is to come & dine with us quietly to day. Little Harriot sat in my lap — & seemed as gentle & affectionate as ever, as pretty, except not being quite well. — Fanny is a fine stout girl, talking incessantly, with an interesting degree of Lisp and Indistinctness — and very likely may be the handsomest in time. — That puss Cassy, did not shew more pleasure in seeing me than her Sisters, but I expected no better; — she does not shine in the tender feelings. She will never be a Miss O’neal; more in the Mrs Siddons line.-
Thank you — but it is not settled yet whether I do hazard a 2n Edition [of MP]. We are to see Egerton today, when it will probably be determined. — People are more ready to borrow & praise, than to buy – -which I cannot wonder at; but tho’ I like praise as well as anybody, I like what Edward calls Pewter too.-I hope he continues careful of his Eyes & finds the good effect of it.
[Continued below address panel] I cannot suppose we differ in our ideas of the Christian Religion. You have given an excellent description of it. We only affix a different meaning to the Word Evangelical.- Yours most affectionately
Miss Gibson is very glad to go with us.
Jane Austen writes from 23 Hans Place, Henry’s house in London. It’s the very same day she wrote the sweet complimentary letter to Anna. Hot on the heels of it, she turns to write to Fanny, in rather a catty strain that is somewhat startling if you’re not used to seeing Jane Austen this way. But two faced she most distinctly is here, with a very disagreeable way of triumphing and sneering at Anna, behind her back, to her cousin. We must keep in mind that in all honor these letters were private correspondence not meant to be seen by others; and let her who has never sneered cast the first stone; but I can’t think who in her novels behaves like this. Well … Lucy Steele? What a harridan she sounds. However, I do think it’s for a purpose.
She can hardly wait in her hot haste to tell Fanny her petty and spiteful criticisms of the young household at Hendon. Of course the reason she is doing it, is because she knows this is exactly what Fanny wants to hear. Clearly relations between the two motherless nieces of the same age, are not pleasant. Why their 39-year-old aunt, nearly twenty years their senior,should participate in this – rivalry? – is troubling. It’s pandering. But let’s listen:
“I was rather sorry to hear that she is to have an Instrument; it seems throwing money away. They will wish the 24 Gs. in the shape of Sheets & Towels six months hence; – and as to her playing, it never can be anything.”
This reminds us of Mrs. Elton’s parading about giving up music after her marriage; perhaps it was seen as silly for a young married woman to keep up schoolgirl accomplishments. Jane Austen, with her own piano playing, would probably be a fair judge of Anna’s skill, which may indeed have been poor; but even so it does seem rather mean-spirited for Jane Austen and Fanny to decide how Anna and her husband should spend their money. Then:
“Her purple Pelisse rather surprised me. – I thought we had known all Paraphernalia of that sort. [Note the "we."] I do not mean to blame her, it looked very well & I dare say she wanted it. I suspect nothing worse than its being got in secret, & not owned to anybody. – She is capable of that you know.”
Has this genius of English literature nothing better to do than put her head together with one 21 year-old niece and carp like a crow about what the other niece has in her closet? Again, I submit that she is feeding Fanny in kind, telling Fanny the magpie-like details that would interest her. Yes
it’s meant to be private and it’s not our business to judge, but it’s unsettling to see this truly great mind pandering to this shallow girl. Her motive, however, must have been the desire to attach Fanny, to create affection, which after all is understandable.
Then, two-facedly, “I received a very kind note from her yesterday, to ask me to come again & stay a night with them; I cannot do it, but I was pleased to find that she had the power of doing so right a thing.” Pretty preferment! How judgmental – and what different language she uses when she writes to Anna directly!
After a comment on seeing Mr. Hayter (a friend of Fanny’s brother) at the theatre (where she saw Isabella, already described to Anna), Jane Austen embarks on the full business of the letter. It consists of a great deal more advice on Fanny’s marriage prospects, in the same way she has written to
her before: a somehow uncomfortably, unsuitably, almost inappropriately eager interest; vacillating back and forth, changing her mind, her advice, her thinking; it’s almost creepy. It’s startling that LeFaye, in her Family Record calls the first we have of these letters “charming and sympathetic” (14 November).
She’s back at it again: “You frighten me out of my Wits by your reference. Your affection gives me the highest pleasure, but indeed you must not let anything depend on my opinion. Your own feelings & none but your own, should determine such an important point.” In other words, she’s afraid Fanny took her at her word and is taking her advice just because she gave it – and she doesn’t want to be responsible.
Yet she has “no scruple” in continuing, in giving more advice. “I am perfectly convinced that your present feelings, suppose you were to marry now, would be sufficient for his happiness; but when I think how very, very far it is from a Now, & take everything that may be into consideration, I dare
not say ‘determine to accept him.’ The risk is too great for you, unless your own Sentiments prompt it. – You will think me perverse perhaps; in my last letter I was urging everything in his favour, & now I am inclining the other way”
Well, yes, she IS being perverse; why would anybody want advice this convoluted, this undecided, this constantly changing? It is as if Jane Austen’s excitement at being in the important position of counselor and confidante to a wealthy young lady, has gone to her head. Listen to her dither:
“When I consider how few young Men you have yet seen much of – how capable you are (yes, I do still think you very capable of being really in love – and how full of temptation the next 6 or 7 years of your Life will probably be – (it is the very period of Life for the strongest attachments to be formed) – I cannot wish you with your present very cool feelings to devote yourself in honour to him. It is very true that you never may attach another Man, his equal altogether, but if that other Man has the power of attaching you more, he will be in your eyes the most perfect.”
Perhaps we learn more about Jane Austen’s own experiences and disappointments from this, than we do of what is actually going on with Fanny. Austen seems to be writing about herself, anxious that Fanny should not repeat her own mistakes (whatever they were). It is a little like Lady Russell advising and persuading Anne Elliot; but what is Jane Austen saying? That Fanny should not accept the first eligible man who proposes for her, even though he is a paragon, because she seems cool toward him and it’s possible somebody she can love more deeply may come along in the next few years. But maybe no such person will come along. And maybe Fanny could be perfectly happy with this Plumptre anyway! It’s no wonder Fanny can’t make up her mind what to do, in the face of such advice!
Her creepy agitation and contradictory advice continue: “I cannot wish you to be fettered. I should not be afraid of your marrying him; – with all his Worth, you would soon love him enough for the happiness of both; but I should dread the continuance of this sort of tacit engagement, with such an
uncertainty as there is, of when it may be completed. Years may pass, before he is Independant. – You like him well enough to marry, but not well enough to wait.”
She writes like one who has no idea what she is writing, which we don’t expect in so great a writer; but after all she is human, inexperienced, and probably made a botch of her own love life, so that both young and pretty nieces may despise her a little. Certainly Anna did not take auntie’s advice
when she came to wed.
Jane Austen goes on about Fanny’s predilection to fickleness: “The unpleasantness of appearing fickle is certainly great – but if you think you want Punishment for your past Illusions, there it is – and nothing can be compared to the misery of being bound without Love, bound to one, & preferring another. That is a Punishment which you do not deserve.” Well, who does? Is this why Jane Austen did not marry Harris Bigg-Wither? She obviously had trouble herself making these important decisions – and there was no decision that could be more important to a woman in that era. This may be why her agitation may seem strange to people of our century; but the necessity of getting it right was absolutely everything and all there was in those days. She probably did feel her responsibility terribly, since Fanny was attending to what she said, in a way Anna never did. That was flattering, but burdensome.
There’s some business about Plumptre being in town, and the family not seeing him; and she urges Fanny anxiously to write, “and write something that may do to be read or told.” This is a very rare allusion as to the different levels of correspondence – the private correspondence, which we are reading here, and then what may be made public, which Jane Austen is telling Fanny to be sure and write for appearance’s sake.
Then she writes of her weariness of having to chaperone the young Miss Moores, Harriot and Eliza, “for tho I like Miss H.M. as much as one can at my time of Life after a day’s acquaintance, it is uphill work to be talking to those whom one knows so little. – Only one comes back with me tomorrow,probably Miss Eliza, & I rather dread it. We shall not have two ideas in common. She is young, pretty, chattering, & thinking cheifly (I presume) of Dress, Company, & Admiration.” But there is some compensation in Mr. Sanford coming to dinner (one of Henry’s associates); “in the evening while your Uncle & Miss Eliza play chess, he shall tell me comical things & I will laugh at them, which will be a pleasure to both.” It’s nice to see her contemplating one genuine pleasure at any rate!
We see that Jane Austen is not considering herself as a third twenty year-old giggling with her nieces; after all, age was “older” then and late thirties was deeply into middle age. I think she is unused to taking responsibility. She has never been a mother, she has had few household duties, so few that when she does one (like making orange wine or pouring out laudanum drops) we hear about it, it’s exceptional. She’s a little like Fanny Price, so astonished to find herself in the position of person responsible for advising and educating Susan. I think she truly is concerned for both nieces, and plays them off against each other in order to reach each one on an intimate footing. This is unwise and unattractive, in the older and supposedly wiser person; but perhaps almost necessary if she wanted to get on with both girls. I wonder if there was very bad blood between them.
She finishes off with some observations on her visit to the Charles Austen family in Keppel Street, and how the motherless little girls are. One is not quite well; another has “an interesting degree of Lisp and Indistinctness” (like the little Dashwood boy in S & S?), while “that puss Cassy, did not shew more pleasure in seeing me than her Sisters, but I expected no better; – she does not shine in the tender feelings. She will never be a Miss O’neal; more in the Mrs. Siddons line,” Jane Austen jokes. More tragic than romantic, therefore. And not much tenderness shown for another family of motherless nieces, come to that. Just a caustic joke. Her correspondent probably had no tenderness for the Charles Austen children either.
The second edition of Mansfield Park is to be settled (there was none, and she changed publishers), and she very understandably writes, “People are more ready to borrow & praise, than to buy – which I cannot wonder at; but tho’ I like praise as well as anybody, I like what Edward calls Pewter too.” Naturally…
A word about the definition of Evangelical, and this completes this really very revealing letter. It gives a slice of Jane Austen’s life, to be sure, but not a very attractive slice. A bit of the stereotyped warped spinster – having missed the boat on the most important aspect of a woman’s life in
her time, she’s interested in the fate of her nieces, but not in a way that could be construed as helpful. Disappointment, jealousy, resentment seem to breathe here, not what you expect of the wise all-knowing author of Mansfield Park; but it is a reminder that she was after all human.
My rejoinder: this letter contains some of the worst behavior Austen exhibits in the letters; while it’s supposed private, since Austen knows the family letters are shared, it’s clear that she is not that worried lest anyone see her resentment and sneers towards Anna. I don’t know that Austen was a good judge of piano playing and she was no concert artist; she herself says she was not a good judge.To write to a super-rich heiress of Godmersham about Anna buying herself a pelisse is in bad taste; Anna is “capable” of that you know — of buying a garment without telling others. I don’t think it understandable that she should feed the shallow Fanny what it seems Fanny wants; why should she take sides this way; she prefers Fanny because Fanny entertains her, and the center of the letter worries that what she says while entertained will be taken too seriously. She also just finished writing soothing praise to Anna we must suppose she doesn’t mean (or only when the wind is in the northwest).
She is back to worrying the question of Fanny’s marrying Plumptre. She now regrets having let Fanny know how much she admires him (serious reading young man with much [naive?] integrity. I won’t go through the zigzags: it’s clear she feel Fanny ought not to marry John Plumptre because she doesn’t value (=love) him. She does think Fanny capable of real and deep attachments so Fanny will be in danger lest after she marry she finds someone she could love. Yes it uncomfortable to be exposed as wavering (fickle) but better than than a lifetime of “Misery being bound without love.” In the event Fanny married pragmatically a much older rich, well-connected man with several children; we can’t say she didn’t love him, but it was a judicious choice — except maybe his age will give us pause. Perhaps she sought a father-figure …?
Henry’s presence — in the room? Henry wants to know why Fanny’s brother did not invite Hayter (as Edward’s friend). Then visiting Henry’s lady loves whom Jane is decidedly unkeen on. She does look forward to talking to one of Henry’s associates; she enjoys his sense of humor in conversation.
Charles’s presence: Keppel Street was where the Palmers lived. She talks of his children’s growing up behavior, and (as we’ve seen her do before) and then plays with them as toy like counters instead of people by assuming Cassy will be in the Mrs Siddon’s line I like that Charles and Fanny’s children are gentle and affection; it speaks well for Charles and Fanny.
She’s not sure a second edition of MP would sell. Praise is easy, not so for buying. Jane makes her remark she likes Pewter as well as Edward. She imagines Fanny agrees with her ambivalence towards evangelicals.
Anna is marginalized in Miss Austen Regrets, hardly seen, and what drama there is comes from Mrs Austen’s scorn for Jane’s Emma in comparison to Anna’s Jemima. And yet the movie does sense something happening here that’s important. Jane couldn’t enjoy Anna the way she enjoyed Fanny — and enjoyed making up heterosexual fulfilled romances in her novels. Anna was a threat from within, and then an irritant, perhaps because she was too like Austen and yet made choices Jane denied herself or didn’t want. Perhaps the film should have included Martha Lloyd or some other of Jane’s beloved female friends.
At any rate a much more interesting perhaps disquieting story of Jane and her niece, Anna (who did marry, have daughters, and had a hard old age), across their shared lives remains to be told.