‘Oh! it rains again; it beats against the window’–
We were obliged to turn back before we go there, but not soon enough to avoid a Pelter all the way home. We met Mr. Woolls — I talked of its being bad weather for the Hay — & he returned me the comfort of its being much worse for the Wheat — Jane Austen to her nephew, 9 July 1816
Dear Friends and readers,
These four letters form a group: They are all to James’s children and written in the season after Austen was forced home to Chawton because of Henry’s bankruptcy, unable to oversee the publication of Emma. She is feeling this. She is also feeling her fatal illness, and her letters show a lack of energy, a plangency.
No 140, Sunday 21 April to Caroline (age 11); No 141, two months later a short one, Sunday 23 June to Anna Lefroy; No 142, a couple of weeks later, on Tuesday 9 July to James-Edward Austen-Leigh; and finally No 143 six days later, Mon 15 July, to Caroline again. After that summer, with the next letter written in September, with Jane having spent the summer at Cheltenham and staying on.
That LeFaye does not note this summer-long stay seems to me nearly criminal of her in an edition of this woman’s letters. In the first to Caroline Fanny Austen Knight and her father, Edward were coming for a visit and Tomalin tells us from Fanny’s notes it was the time of this visit Jane Austen showed outward signs of sickness: Fanny walked with “At Cass” and not “At Jane.” LeFaye does include this in her Family Record:
From DLF’s ‘Family Record':
…Certainly by the spring of 1816 Jane already knew there was something wrong with her and had arranged to visit Cheltenham to drink the spa water, which was advertised as being ‘singularly efficacious in all bilious complaints, obstructions of the liver and spleen’, for on 22 May, the day after Fanny and Edward had left Chawton, Cassandra and Jane arrived at Steventon on the first stage of their journey into Gloucestershire. They stayed at Cheltenham for a fortnight and on the return trip called on the Fowles at Kintbury. Fulwar Fowle’s eldest Daughter, Mary Jane, told Caroline Austen afterwords ‘that Aunt Jane went over all the old places, and recalled old recollections associated with them, in a very particular manner — looked at them, my cousin thought, as if she never expected to see them again — The Kintbury family, during that visit, received an impression that her health was failing — altho’ they did not [underlined] know of any particular malady.’
It was once thought that Austen died of Addison’s disease (Zachary Cope, “Jane Austen’s Final Illness,” British Journal of Medicine (July 18, 1964), with an alternative view suggesting tuberculosis (Katherine White); a more recent considered view (accepted by Tomalin), which takes into consideration all her immediate symptoms, is she developed Hodgkin’s lymphoma. See Annette Upfal, Jane Austen’s lifelong health problems and final illness: New evidence points to a fatal Hodgkin’s disease and excludes the widely accepted Addison’s, Medical Humanities, 31: (2005):3-11. A third hypothesis is that of Linda Robinson Walker, “Jane Austen’s Death: The Long Reach of Typhus,” Persuasions On-line, 31:1, Winter 2010. Recent sequels (The Mysterious Death of Jane Austen by Lindsay Ashford) and blogs suggest the preposterous theory she was murdered — somehow people cannot accept that death is natural (see also Jane’s Death: a Medical Mystery).
No. 140, To Caroline Austen, Sun 21 April 1816, Chawton to Steventon
Austen seems talking down more than usual; she is not keeping up the fiction she did before of Caroline as her equal; she is clearly talking to an 11 year old, and we are hampered by a lack of notes about ages. Caroline was bron 1805; Mary Jane, Frank’s daughter, 1807 and Cassy, Charles’s, 1808 – as cousins peers and there is an exchange of gifts going on, Mary Jane’s birthday is next Saturday and there will be a family party, and Jane clearly wants to invite Caroline as she thinks Caroline will enjoy it and the other two cousins like to have her there, but if you read not so carefully you still pick up that Caroline’s difficult mother who would not let Anna Lefroy go to London or Godmersham or parties at times is now being difficult over this party. Austen is trying to persuade her though reverse logic — of course Mary Lloyd Austen will be reading this letter over Caroline’s shoulder. So Austen says of course there may be circumstances to make the visit inconvenient, and goes on how they are ashamed to invite Mary as such a time for she will come during Wash Day (a really rigorous day because washing was a huge day long chore) and Monday will be the last day she might avoid this, but if she would come “so much the better.” Why? because (as she does not say) Caroline will then be able to come.
She opens with the death of the unmarried sister of Thomas Austen of Adlestrop — Austen and her mother visited them in 1805 (was it?) and they liked one another. The woman was in her eighties and Austen points out to the 11 year old who it is implied was sad about the death (so maybe she liked this aunt who maybe was kind to her?). “The death of a person at her advanced age, so fit to die, & by her own feelings so ready to die, is not to be regretted.”
I don’t know about that — again not to overdo Jane’s illness but she might be thinking of herself so much younger and not well.
She left 10 pounds to Mrs Austen who is not exactly rich.
Then a letter from the Leigh-Perrots whose health is not in great shape either.
A list of who is coming: not just Fanny and her father, but son Edward. Henry has been at Godmersham for 2 weeks. WE remember that Henry loved to stay there, enjoyed it very much (silly book has him in love with Elizabeth — Mysterious Death of it’s called), has been there 2 weeks. A place which maybe enabled him to forget his worse than poverty. So it did him much good.
Austen sends the first bit of flattery to Mary: Henry says how much he enjoyed hhimself at STeventon. I suggest that’s thrown in lest Mary resent Henry enjoying Godmersham and thus (by implication to a mind like hers) somehow deprecating Steventon.
Mrs Austen her usual hypochrondiac self but writing to Caroline Jane takes Grandmamma’s unwellness seriously in tone. But read the content and it’s says she always has a pain in the head – perhaps it is lessening and working outside hard will help her recover. I think were Austen in strong linguistic spirits there would be irony here but I don’t feel it. Then Cassy’s present to Caroline, for her wax doll, and the series of hopes the Steventon family can come. If her papa, (James) came Wednesday, he could (should) bring Caroline with him and that would suit everyone — but gain there is a kind of chary tone here, for maybe Mary will not like it.. And then the passages about Mary Jane’s birthday and attempt to soften and get Mary to agree to come and allow Caroline to.
Apparently the letter is cut here – I suggest perhaps some frank speaking to Mary? at any rate someone described what was here: a mention of JEAL, the sad weather (it’s raining in the first 3 letters) for Easter and all one can say for the ride on Saturday then was it brought JEAL home.
Jane Austen likes JEAL a lot as we will begin to see. He was smart, as literary a person as she could come across — they shared a feeling together I think, got along.
Diana Birchall’s rejoinder:
Another letter to Caroline, and a rather flat, dull one, for Jane does not confide in or open her heart to the eleven-year-old. Enclosed is a note to James, to announce the death of Mrs. Elizabeth Leigh, Cassandra’s godmother, sister of Rev. Thomas Leigh of Stoneleigh Abbey, at age eighty. Jane utters a few conventionalities – lost a valued old friend, death of someone of such an advanced age, ready to die, not to be regretted. She has left a token twenty pounds (“a little remembrance”) to Mrs. Austen, who is “not quite well” and “seldom gets through the 24 hours without some pain in her head.”
Comings and goings: Edward and Fanny are coming from Godmersham, spending two days in Town, then arriving at Chawton. Edward’s daughter Cassy (age ten) has worked a “whatever it may be” for Caroline’s wax doll. James is to come to Chawton on Wednesday, and Jane hopes that “if it suited everyone” Caroline might come too. Next Saturday will be a Fair at Alton, and Mary Jane’s birthday (Frank’s daughter, just turning nine). Jane says they are “almost ashamed” to ask Caroline’s Mama “to be at the trouble of a long ride” because they “must wash.” Presumably the house was turned upside down during a grand wash…
Now I read Ellen’s notes on this letter, and see that she, too, feels Jane’s lack of spirits, maybe owing to the beginnings of her illness; and she does seem to be “talking down” and taking less pains to write an amusing letter to the girl. It’s a good point that Ellen makes that Jane is flattering Caroline’s mother Mary here with solicitousness hoping to get her to bring Caroline to the children’s party.
No 141(C), To Anna Lefroy, Sunday 23 April 1816
Two wry letters, meant to be funny in part but I do not think this “fun” comes across. I’d call the second oddly flat and at moments tedious. The first very short so I have placed it inside the blog instead of linked in through the comments.
My dear Anna
Cassy desires her best thanks for the book. She was quite delighted to see it: I do not know when I have seen her so much struck by anybody’s kindness as on this occasion. Her sensibility seems to be opening to the perception of great actions. These gloves having appeared on the Piano Forte ever since you were here on Friday; we imagine they must be yours. Mrs. Digweed returned yesterday through all the afternoon’s rain and was of course wet through, but in speaking of it she never once said “It was beyond everything,” which I am sure it must have been. Your Mama means to ride to Speen Hill tomorrow to see the Mrs. Hulberts who are both very indifferent. By all accounts they really are breaking now. Not so stout as the old Jackass.
Yours affectionatelyy J.A.
Chawton, Sunday; June 23rd Uncle Charles’s birthday
The first to Anna who has sent Cassy a book – alas we don’t know which one. We do know that Cassy has shown shrewdness, an ability to write a letter herself, and humanity (to servants and the poor seeing them as people). That Cassy was struck is made fun of – maybe she was alive to the gentleness and kindness of Anna; Aunt Cassandra seems to Cassy have been perceived as stern. Austen makes fun of Anna’s gift as a great action.
The gloves left on the pianoforte must be Anna’s. We do know from this Anna had visited Friday. Then mockery of Mrs Digweed’s inability to use language expressively – in the next letter Austen herself complains and sounds plangently desperate over the rain (and it would have been hottish too) so when she says “it must have been,” she is not mocking the idea that Mrs Dignwood got soaked.
Does “breaking” means the Miss Huberts are now very sick – their health indifferent. Their old jackass is doing better – unless she is referring to a servant (then nastily). It was her youngest brother’s birthday and she records this on the letter.
Diane Reynolds’s rejoinder:
I found this a cryptic letter, one that cries out for explanatory notes, though none are provided. I agree with Ellen that JA is going for humor–first, a sort of over-the-top hyperbole I would say–that falls a bit flat: “Cassy desires her best thanks for the book … I don’t know when I have seen her so much struck by anybody’s kindness … Her sensibility seems to be opening to the perception of great actions.” Is this mockery of Cassy’s words or actions–probably not, as she is a young child. More likely it’s JA’s continued irritation at Anna–perhaps the book was lent with an air of bestowing great favor that annoyed Jane. Perhaps Jane is simply out of sorts.
She apparently has sent Anna’s gloves back with the letter, and in her typical roundabout fashion, rather than say, “we found your gloves,” she writes “these gloves, having appeared on the Piano Forte ever since you were here on Friday [only two days past], we imagine they must be yours.” Is this supposed to be dry wit? Jane comes across as a bit haughty, as she often does to Anna.
From hyperbole to dry wit, neither quite hitting the mark–I am sensing impatience, irritation. Perhaps she doesn’t feel well.
Then, more acerbic writing, with her typical mocking of people who say whatever is the current cant, in this case, the rain as “beyond everything.” As Nancy has informed us how bad the weather was that summer, JA probably heard “it was beyond everything” so often she was ready to scream. In this case, she appreciates Mrs. Digwood, though “wet through,” for NOT saying “it was beyond everything.” Austen is ever sensitive to language; rote repeated lines grate on her nerves. I remember similar feelings after 9/11–that feeling I would scream if anyone said “nothing will ever be the same again” one more time. One wonders too if this was a dig at Anna for repeating the phrase. The mentality is, of course, seamless with the novels, where Austen is quick to mock the tiresome repetitions of stock phrases. What’s not seamless with the novels is Austen’s hinting her thankfulness at being spared–in the novels, of course, we would simply have spoken or narrated cant repeated.
Now for the cryptic lines: “Your Mama means to ride to Speen Hill tomorrow to see the Mrs. Hulberts who are both very indifferent. By all accounts they are breaking now. Not so stout as the old Jackass.” The Hulberts are listed in Le Faye’s index, so JA is referring to real people: One sister died at Bath in 1819; the other died in 1840 at age 96. They are the kind of single women who would interest JA. But what on earth do her lines mean? I am assuming they both are or have been ill, which is the reason for the visit. What does “they are breaking now” mean? That a fever or cold is breaking? Or that they are getting sicker? Presumably getting sicker as they are “not so stout as the old Jackass.” But who is the old Jackass? Le Faye offers no explanation, though the letter cries out for one. And so we are left to wonder.
My sense is that the letter–note really–was written hastily to go with the gloves and left unrevised. Austen does not feel the need to be careful with Anna as with Stanier Clark or Lady Morley.
Nancy Mayer on the weather that summer and Jane Austen’s mood.
This one to James-Edward Austen-Leigh shows how much she favors him — I suspect because he’s a boy. She says she is grateful for every single line he sends. Then unusually for her she takes someone’s sickness seriously: Mary Lloyd Austen. LeFaye refers to Caroline’s Reminiscences and offers a page. It’s not a long line and she should have simply reprinted it. Caroline tells that her mother was very unwell and (like Jane and Cass) earlier in the year went to Cheltenham; they took Caroline and Mary Jane (another of these girl cousins). I would wonder if she made it up (so she could go too – the way Mary Musgrove resents others going anywhere and insists on going) but it’s clear that she did have some illness. The next line reminds us these are family letters and Austen is giving the news of Chawton to those at Steventon because she tells JEAL to thank his father for his share in the letter telling of his wife’s illness.
And then she goes on about the rain, bad, really bad, too bad, she begins to think it will never be fine again – except usually when you finish the sentence the weather has changed when you get to its end.
Then we get a paragraph crowded with detail of in the family is going where and how. What interests me is Jane is not included in any of these trips. She is to sit home in the dank rain. Was this the result of her not feeling well? She’s really left out. WE may suppose she’s happy to be home and writing Persuasion or rewriting NA – or fixing the juvenilia or Lady Susan or one of her fragments.
After the flat listing of who’s going where, a feeble attempt at making fun. JEAL had apparently dated his letter from home so no need to tell his aunt he’s home. She milks this as far as she can, and then tells of the boys she’s seen pass by and how she wrote (her letter went with the Cheese) and she cannot bear not to be thanked. She understands he cannot come visit until his mother is well — he must’ve been making an excuse for not coming .
Remember she is not going places like other. (I feel for her.) Maybe a change of scene would be good for him – he must go to Oxford. A note worrying lest he not get the better education his brains deserve butt his brigs on an associated joke, maybe physicians will order him to sea (those of her men not clergyman are sailors, and then by association the pond – we know from photographs right near the Chawton house before it was renovated in the mid-20th century there was a huge ugly puddle in the street. Austen sees it. She lives in a house by a very considerable pond and then the plangent lament.
The last part seems poignant to me from what’s not there. She doesn’t get to go, conversations she doesn’t get to haved. As ever she mentions the servants as real presences in their lives. One has gone and is replaced by William who sounds like he’d do for Downton Abbey. She is self-conscious about others seeing how much she writes – given the thin paper especially (cheap). Doesn’t she have anything else to do? Well nothing she’s rather. I understand this myself … He’s no reader so he will count the lines. The unacknowledged desperation of this realization …
The PS has been taken to be about Charles’s trial and that we must read about in the articles cited in the notes. Basically he was court-martialed because his ship wrecked; not his fault, but nonetheless it was a career blow it took a long time to recover from. I feel for him too this morning. His family would suffer – and we know that Henry has gone bankrupt so these are not good times financially for the Austens – nor for the health of Jane or her sister-in-law it appears. But it could also be about Henry’s bankruptcy proceedings.
This letter feels so poignantly touching -and its areas of gentle humor just enhance what is very obviously to me -JA’s real knowing & loving regard towards Edward (JEAL). And with Jane Austen being only a year away from her own earthly ending — these lines seem just presciently sad to me: “…& has been too bad for a long time, much worse than anyone can [underlined] bear, & I begin to think it will never be fine again.” Of course, she then quickly softens it all by adding:
“This is a finesse of mine, for I have often observed that if one writes about the Weather, it is generally completely changed before the Letter is read. I wish it may prove so now, & that when Mr. W. Digweed reaches Steventon tomorrow, he may find you have had a long series of hot, dry weather….”
I think this letter has been well covered. JA’s tone strikes me as almost frenetic, over-the-top, as if she doesn’t really have much of substance she wants to say to JEAL. She goes on about the miserable weather and then seems embarrassed to be doing so — it would be the repetition of the dull and commonplace that irritated her — so she begins weaving a story about the weather becoming dry and warm just because she is going on about how wet and unbearable it is, and probably mocking too the people who say they can’t “bear” it anymore.
She mocks JEAL for telling her he’s home when it would be obvious from the post-mark, perhaps going on too much about it, then giddily chides him for not thanking her for the letter that accompanied a cheese: “I cannot bear not to be thanked.” This is self-mockery, of course, but also true — she notices and points out the oversight. Are the first lines to him: “Many thanks. A thanks for every line” a reproach? Or mockery?
I think of Emma when JA hopes that JEAL’s physician will prescribe for his cure “the Sea”–or Chawton, “by the side of a very considerable pond.” (According to Le Faye, there once was a pond there.) I like JA calling a downpour of rain a “pelter” and enjoy the line, more true than she could know, that the post-chaises carry boys “full of future Heroes, Legislators, Fools, and Vilians.”
Weather … illness … visits … all motifs of Emma, the surface of country gentry life. What lurks beneath is Jane’s declining health, and the mention of Charles’s court martial–Le Faye tells us he was acquitted for the sinking of his ship.
I took the paper being so thin to mean it was almost see-through so that someone could almost read it from the other side if JEAL held it up. Is this true? All we are told of it is “two leaves quarto, wove.”
See Robin Vick, “Some Unexplained References in Jane Austen’s Letters,” N&Q, NS 41 (1994):318-21; Southam’s book, Jane Austen and the Navy (for the full story of Charles’s court martial and later career); Clive Caplan, “We suppose the trial to take place this week,” Report for 2008 (2009):152-59: he argues the paragraph refrs to HTA’s bankruptcy.
No. 143, Mon 15 July 1816, to Caroline at Steventon
The first paragraph is in response to a short fiction Caroline has written! Remember how Caroline had begun to write when she saw her sister, Anna, writing. Austen is looking for a compliment when she admires the girl’s handwriting; the story was supposed to be comedy apparently but let’s recall just about all the comments in these letters treat Austen’s books as comedy — rendering them innocuous. She likes that Caroline is exposing absurdity (so Caroline is imitating the aunt) and wishes the burlesque information abouit the father having become a father one year after marriage be included. Why it’s funny to be a father at 22 after you married at 21 I don’t know. Anna Austen Lefroy got pregnant almost immediate
Then we get one of these odd wacky descriptions of wild burlesque very like what is found in the juvenilia. Austen never outgrew this — we can see aspects of it in her Plan of a Novel. She “had an early opportunity” to send Mary Jane Caroline’s letter (so they are exchanged around) by throwing it out the window. Mary Jame (Frank and Mary’s daughter) thanks Caroline, passed her time at Chawton happily, did not miss Cassy much (had she gone to visit her father at last).
Not to be outdone in the art areas, MaryJane has apparently made a drawing or story or needlework: the temple of Diana would be about marriage. She is glad that Caroline is writing again: the heroine of Caroline’s story is Fanny — or maybe Fanny is a small doll stuck or it was a manuscript in Caroline’s stays? doesn’t make much sense that except maybe she was hiding her story from her mother.
Austen concludes on Edward’s visit. She likes everythinga about the young man — he was intelligent, sensitive, a reading man – and I believe she is glad he is getting closer to her age; she ends on a joke that she of course does not get older so the two are coming nearer all the time. In fact as children grow into young adults they come nearer and nearer to us.
It’s a cheerful note and would not occasion any observation about a lack of energy only that it follows the other three and thus feels to be in the same quieter vein. Maybe she is writing Persuasion just now.
Diana Birchall summed up the group:
#141C to Anna (Sunday 23 June 1816) is short, but with a couple of Austenian silkenly neat turns of phrase, the kind she does almost by rote reflex – that Cassy is so delighted at receiving a book, it shows that “her sensibility seems to be opening to the perception of great actions” (i.e., sending a book, ludicrous exaggeration). The felicitous appearance of the gloves. The critique of cant (“it was beyond everything”). And the Mystery of Speen Hill – what was the situation with the elderly Mrs. Herberts? I agree with Diane that “breaking” must be in sense of their health breaking up. Note the sardonic tone, the rude joke about Anna’s stepmother Mary Austen who is riding to Speen Hill: “Not so stout as the old Jackass” (which is to bear her weight).
#142. (Tuesday 9 July 1816) There is something uncomfortable, I agree with Ellen and Diane, about this letter to her nephew, young JEAL. It is as if she is making a studied attempt to produce the jocularity and lightness agreeable to a young man, but she isn’t feeling it. She does try…the “finesse” about the weather, calling it bad in hopes that in the general way of things it will change before the letter is read. “…when Mr. W. Digweed reaches Steventon
tomorrow, he may find You have had a long series of hot, dry weather” is in the nonsense vein of “Oh, Susannah!” (“It rained all night the day I left, the weather it was dry…”) A patch of circular logistics, Yalden’s Coach clearing off some, others going to Town, a party going to Broadstairs, the Kent beach town later associated with Charles Dickens.
She writes a rather long witticism about JEAL not mentioning coming home, so she imagines him confined by illness, “dating from Steventon in order, with a mistaken sort of Tenderness, to deceive me.” This falls unusually flat; she doesn’t usually belabor a nonworking witticism this heavily or this long. It shows she’s not quite on her game – or her feelings aren’t in this forced letter – or she’s concealing that she’s feeling badly about something else. Even so, she can’t help but paint a wonderfully imaginative and hilarious word picture about schoolboys: “We saw a countless number of Postchaises full of Boys pass by yesterday morning – full of future Heroes, Legislators, Fools, and Vilains.”
It sounds a little like Sanditon, her telling JEAL, “…a little change of Scene may be good for you, & Your Physicians I hope will order you to the Sea, or to a house by the side of a very considerable pond.” Burlesque, of course, as why would a physician specify a pond; but it’s uncanny when you think of what is going on in Chawton today with the terrible flooding. You can see pictures here, as well as the appeal for funds from Chawton House Library
A couple of years ago the Chawton AGM was a rainy one, and I remember standing on the spot in the picture, which was ankle deep in water – no wonder it should be so much more badly flooded now! And yes, to echo Ellen, how very strongly and poignantly Austen’s words resound at this moment: “Oh! it rains again; it beats against the window.” That sentence is real, if her joking is not; it feels straight from the heart, what she is really feeling and thinking. Almost, “I cannot get out, said the starling.”
The description of the soggy journey in the Donkey-carriage, with its expressive word Pelter, is more vivid than anything else in the letter, and more successfully jocular: “We met Mr. Woolls – I talked of its being bad weather for the Hay – & he returned me the comfort of its being much worse for the Wheat.” I have nothing more to add to the reference to Henry’s bankruptcy, except the obvious one of this being why she does not seem quite comfortable within herself in this letter.
#143, to Caroline Austen. Monday 15 July 1816.
Another shortish letter to a young niece, with the requisite couple of jokes (if Caroline’s handwriting improves soon she may not have to shut her eyes at it), and the venerable old man in a story being only 22. The description of throwing the letter to Mary Jane and having the girl communicate through her, is an attractive, playful word picture. Diana’s Temple may have been another youthful manuscript, but I don’ t know what the lost Fanny might be – a small pet? A joke about age and it’s done.
I call attention once again to the plangency of Austen’s remark about the beating rain. She was desolate when she had to leave London suddenly and couldn’t be there to superintend the publication of Emma further. Now she is sensing deeply that she won’t see London again. We are lacking the savage wit we’ve had, a certain kind of joke that hardly finds social acceptance because she has not the strength or energy,but she jokes on too.