Dear friends and readers,
It’s no surprise the first letter we have after Austen’s trip to Cheltenham is some fragments put together after pages 1 and 2 were destroyed, the top of page 3 and top of page 4. I do not think I speculate too wildly to suggest in these Austen described her symptoms and they were dire enough for someone to erase altogether. That Austen was willing to write them down shows an unconventional attitude, prosaically so. Or that she had some sharp things to say about Mary Lloyd Austen with whom Cassandra stayed on — along with sweet Caroline. The long letter written 4 and 5 days later (145) is mostly sheer reportage, invigorated by a return of Austen’s comic, satiric, frankly honest and qualifying tones from earlier letters and some references to her writing (of Persuasion). What we have left of this one is but the remnants of such a one, minus much of the spirit.
Wednesday 4 September 1816
[First leaf, pages 1 and 2, missing, and also top of p. 3J ... Letter today, His not writing on friday gave me some [?worry] but now its] coming makes me more than amends. — I know you heard from Edward yesterday, Henry wrote to me by the same post, & so did Fanny — I had therefore 3 Letters at once which I thought well worth paying for! Yours was a treasure, so full of everything. — But how very much Cheltenham is to be preferred in May — Henry does not write diffusely, but chearfully; at present he wishes to come to us as soon as we can receive him — is decided for Orders &c. — I have written him to say that after this week, he cannot come too soon. — I do not really expect him however immediately; they will hardly part with him at Godmersham yet. — Fanny does not seem any better, or very little; she ventures to dine one day at Sandling & has suffered for it ever since. — I collect from her, that Mr Seymour is either married or on the point of being married to Mrs Scrane. — She is not explicit, because imagining us be informed. — I am glad I did not know that you had no possibility of having a fire on Saturday — & so glad that you have your Pelisse! — Your Bed room describes more comfortably than I could have supposed. — We go on very well here, Edward is a great pleasure to me; — he drove me to Alton yesterday; I went principally to carry news of you & Henry, & made a regular handsome visit, staying there while Edward went on to Wyards with an invitation to dinner; — it was declined, & will be so again today probably, for I really beleive Anna is not equal to the fatigue. — The Alton 4 drank tea with us last night, & we were very pleasant: -Jeu de violon &c. — all new to Mr Sweney — & he entered into it very well. — It was a renewal of former agreable evenings. — We all (except my Mother) dine at Alton tomorrow — & perhaps may have some of the same sports again-but I do not think Mr & Mrs Digweed will add much to our wit. – -Edward is writing a Novel — we have all heard what he has written — it is extremely clever; written with great ease & spirit; if he can carry it on in the same way, it will be a first rate work, & in a style, I think, to be popular. — Pray tell Mary how much I admire it. — And tell Caroline that I think it is hardly fair upon her & myself, to have him take up the Novel Line …
[top of p. 4 missing] … but the coldness of the weather is enough to account for their want of power. — The Duchess of Orleans, the paper says, drinks at my Pump. — Your Library will be a great resource. — Three Guineas a week for such Lodgings! — I am quite angry. — Martha desires her Love — & is sorry to tell you that she has got some Chilblains on her fingers — she never had them before. — This is to go for a Letter. — Yours affectionately
[Postscript below address panel] I shall be perfectly satisfied if I hear from you again on Tuesday.
It might be surprising that Jane has come home. Wouldn’t the water do her any good? So I wonder if she didn’t like the life there as she hadn’t liked Bath. As we have lost so much from this one even the phrases left lose context, still she does say early on “how very much Cheltenham is to be preferred in May.” So she is writing to concur with something Cassandra said critical of Cheltenham just then. Perhaps too there was tension between Cassandra and Mary Lloyd Austen — ever irritable, perhaps snobbish — as in the character of Mary Musgrove who also insisted she must come along and stayed on. Some of Mary Musgrove’s characteristics are adapted from this sister-in-law. Not that the waters would have done Austen any good, and in her novels and letters too she voices much skepticism over doctor’s medical abilities.
The paragraph we have that comes first is a thicket of news about the family. We don’t know whose not writing troubled Austen; Austen returns to showing her gratitude for letters (I enjoy them too though mine come by email): she is glad to have 3 before her. There is a lot about Henry in his part and strong undercurrents hard to decipher: he writes concisely, but cheerfully (to me – and I was glad to see Paula Byrne in The Real Jane Austen concurred) this suggests that cheerful was not his mood before – he is relieved to be deciding for orders, and wants to come as soon as possible. She has written welcoming: after this week he cannot come too soon, but she knows he is wanted at Godmersham where he’s liked (and has been always, before Elizabeth died too). Fanny comes to mind, and Austen is alert to ill health: Fanny no better – a dinner did her in for a bit. And Fanny brings to mind suitors so we hear Mr Seymour now on the point of or marrying Miss Scrane.
A half joke: she is glad to hear there was no possibility of a fire Saturday and Cassandra had her pelisse. The bedroom is more comfortably described than Austen could suppose possible; i.e., it may be described as comfortable but Austen doubts it really is. Now we may think of Charlotte Lucas putting best face on things. A trait of Cassandra’s we’ve seen before, one Jane sees through which we’ve seen before.
Then Edward’s children and Austen’s true delight in JEAL – who is writing a novel – we will hear her delight in this in the context of an often quoted description of her own (the “little bit [two Inches wide] of Ivory”) about this. LeFaye thinks it was during this time that Jane showed JEAL some of her Juvenilia and JEAL added to it. We don’t know that. All these novels are tributes to Jane but it must be said that the idea theirs are somehow in the same league as hers and her taking this seriously (she seems to) should give us pause about what confidence she has that she is recognized –- not much at all. She enjoyed her visit to JEAL and has softened to poor Anna: really too tired to make a dinner (we will get to the “poor animal” passage by Jane pitying what Anna’s endless pregnancies and miscarriages will and are doing to her).
Jane’s description and hurried comment to Mary is to flatter Mary about her son but shows aesthetic values Austen consciously adhered to: “extremely clever … written with great ease & & spirit .. first rate work, in a style I think, to be popular.” She herself is not writing in this way any more; Persuasion reads easily but is written with great depths of feeling, and not in style necessarily to be popular -– it has a lot of harder wit in its opening, more references to the world of navy and servants and money, and is quite different from Emma (consciously so I think), situated between bouts of Napoleonic wars. The remark to Caroline is intended to make her feel included. She is kind to this niece: “and tell Caroline that I think it hardly fair upon her & myself, to have him take up the Novel line … “ (as I suppose she was to Anna when Anna was still a child).
She did enjoy an evening with Frank and his wife, Miss S. Gibson (who in the next letter Mary has urged JEAL to flirt with) naval friend, Lt Mark Halpen Sweney – like “old times:.” “a renewal of former agreeable evenings.” This sort of thing went into Persuasion too. As LeFaye says, “jeu de violon” (Jeu de volant”) is a game. The name evolved the same way the French card game vingt-et-un became the English pontoon
She is looking forward to Alton tomorrow. The remark about the Digweeds (not “add much to our wit”) is about how someone part of a party who does not fit in quite can hurt the fun – as they feel excluded – we learn in the next letter that actually the Digweeds indeed did enter into the fun of the day.
I suggest the second fragment paragraph is about Cassandra’s life at Cheltenham: “the coldness of the weather is enough to account for their want of power. She plays at gossip about the rich: Duchess of Orleans drinks at “Austen’s” pump. The library there a great resource for Cassandra while said lightly is seriously meant. Then the truth about the lodgings but said jokily: “Three guineas a week for such lodgings. – I am quite angry.” Three guineas shows the Austen were part of the elite wealthy of the era, if on the fringes.
Martha as ever by Jane’s side, she sends love and Jane says she’s “sorry” she has chilbrains on her fingers -– I’ll get, that’s painful. So not very warm in their Chawton cottage.
She will be satisfied if Cassandra can manage another letter in a week. Mary is a demanding person …
How much I long at least to have the left out pages – they could have been about her novel writing a little in the context of this illness.
And like Pepys who ends, “so to bed,” so Austen ends, “This is to go for a Letter.”
Christy Somers noted a short article by Carolyn S. Greet, in Jane Austen Reports for 2003, “Jane and Cassandra in Cheltenham. Diana Birchall summarized:
It sets our scene: In the spring of 1816 Jane and Cassandra paid a visit to Cheltenham, primarily for the sake of Jane’s health. Other members of the family had previously visited the little town, including James and his wife Mary, as Jane had mentioned in a letter of 1813. Cheltenham was then in its fashionable heyday, with its attractions being both therapeutic and social. It was still small and rustic compared with Bath, and all the buildings were still grouped along the single mile-long High Street. It was not litwith gas until 1818, and had a single set of Assembly Rooms, theatre,libraries, shops, and lodging houses. There is a description of the saline wells, which people drank from in the morning, for a laxative effect. It’s impossible to say which well Jane patronized, though in September when Cassandra paid a second visit Jane wrote, “The Duchess of Orleans, the paper says, drinks at my pump.”
The season was from May to October, and Jane preferred it in May when it was quieter. The early balls of 1816 were held during a period of extensive rebuilding. When Jane and Cassandra were there, the main drama, with performances three times a week, was The Merchant of Venice, followed by The Romp. In some plays roles were taken by “An Amateur.” The versatile Mr. Hall gave “imitations,” with the “whistling orator, or a Dissertation on the Letter S.” Other attractions included puppet shows and masquerades, featuring dresses and masks from London, in honour of Princess Charlotte’s nuptials. An artist, Mr. Dinsdale, exhibited paintings in his house, and there were rather Victorian sounding lectures such as a discussion of vaccination, and an exhibition in which “the principals and practice of AErostation were rendered familiar by “pleasing philosophical experiments.”
Cheltenham had at least six libraries, one with a reading room eighty feet long, in which a hundred London, Irish and provincial papers were taken weekly. The handsome shops were described, including the innovation of a seller of “ready-made dresses.” An estimated 12,000 visitors in 1816 meant lodging could be less than desirable, and Jane was indignant on Cassandra’s behalf in September: “Three guineas a week for such lodgings! I am quite angry.” She hopes she will find another “in some odd corner, that would suit you better,” and adds, “Mrs. Potter charges for the name of the High Street.” Cassandra’s main complaint was a piano player, about which Jane wrote, “Success to the Pianoforte! I trust it will drive you away.”
On the whole, not much of an article, just a few tidbits from contemporary guidebooks.
In the letter of 24-26 December 1798 in a visit to Bath which for Austen was a gay time, she wished gowns “were to be bought ready made” (LeFaye, 31). Greet is quoting from the next long letter which we will go over in a close reading next week. Now they are available, but it seems Jane is much happier with her beloved friend (Martha) and congenial family at home (Frank and JEAL among them) than she was at Cheltenham.