Excellent Letters; & I am sure he must be an excellent Man. They are such-thinking, clear, considerate Letters as Frank might have written …
Dear friends and readers,
Another two weeks, another letter. Two days have passed since the last letter, and we have an even more snowy journal letter. It consists of four entries over 4 days; she begins on Saturday, and for the next three days, the day she sits down again is underlined: Sunday, Monday,Tuesday. This time it’s confusing to go strictly chronologically (close read in the order of the letter) as the letter is disjointed, moving back and forth associatively and according an immediate stimulus; but to go thematically altogether loses the sense of context. So I move back and forth.
Topics include: personal relationships that count, two court cases, snowy weather, literary remarks. This is interwoven with telling of social visiting (or entertaining the courted Fanny Austen Knight), theater going, visits, walking, shopping and clothes.
Here is the full text.
The particular interest of the letter is Henry is reading Mansfield Park and Austen watching him keenly; he tries to please her. She has begun Emma; Emma is on her mind and we see her going to the theater where she sees plays that influenced her conception and shows familiarity with a number of actor and singer’s careers; Robert Wm Elliston, Edmund Kean, Catherine Stephens.
It may not be a coincidence that she named her secondary heroine, Miss Smith, after seeing a Miss Smith on the stage.
Young men are courting her niece, Fanny, and she must stand by, be chaperon, facilitator, watch Fanny make choices she would not make, go out in the snow to keep Fanny active. Edward is involved in two court cases and writing a woman friend. She is famously unimpressed by Byron’s Corsair and plots her and Cassandra’s movements around what they surmize Henry wants and, together with Madame Bigeon, are sure to get raspberry jam for him.
I am again close reading with Diana Birchall.
Ford Madox Ford, The Corsair’s Return (1870): Pre-Raphaelite painting of an episode from Byron’s The Corsair
We might compare this rapid getting down of journal entries, to be sent to her sister, to Frances to her sister, Susan. The comparison falls down here, though, as I do not recall Fanny Burney ever apologizing to Susan for writing to her or deprecating her anger or scolding for writing too much. “Do not be angry with me for beginning another Letter to you.” Jane and Cassandra’s relationship is still fraught with opposing attitudes and needs.
Diana remarked: “It is two days since the last letter, and Jane Austen is still at Henrietta Street. And she begins with one of her most famous sayings: ‘I have read the Corsair, mended my petticoat, & have nothing else to do.’ This is usually taken to mean that she was not overly impressed by Byron, and we can easily imagine it would have been a very Sir Walter Elliot/Admiral Croft situation (“reciprocal compliments, which would have been esteemed about equal”).
Since the poem quickly became well-known and was seen as seethingly exciting & lurid, Austen is making a statement by making it the equivalent of mending her petticoat. Maybe Austen senses what others feel are false titillation while they sit in their secure parlors.
Diana: “Nasty weather, “Thickness & Sleet,” and “Getting out is impossible,” but yet social life goes on. Young Wyndham Knatchbull accepts an invitation and is thought of as “he may do for Fanny,” but she will later marry his older brother, whose wife will die first. They are to see friends, Mrs. Latouche and Miss East, and to avoid Miss Harriet Moore, friend of Henry’s. A domestic detail: Henry is out of Raspberry Jam, Madame Bigeon offers some – so will Cassandra bring a pot when she comes?
They are expecting and on Sunday considerably after four o’clock Edward and Fanny arrive. For their sakes young Wyndham has been invited (for Fanny), they are stuck going to Mrs Latouche and [her daughter] Miss East in two weeks. She groans (half-dreading it already), and is not made more sociable by Miss H. Moore’s (Harriot’s note) apologizing for not returning Jane’s visit and says they (Henry and Jane) can come this evening. “Thank you says Jane” ” but we shall be better engaged.” Not keen on any of it as usual.
In this letter we see that Fanny Austen Knight was the object of courtship by three suitors: Wildman, Wyndham, and Plumptre — not to omit the presence of George Hatton hanging around at a distance. She was an heiress, young, very conventional, pretty enough. What’s not to like? for a similar kind of male.
First, it seems that the niece did not share her aunt’s taste in men. We’ve seen this before and the first candidate is reacting to what happened before: Jane on Saturday: “Young Wyndham accepts the Invitation. He is such a nice, gentlemanlike unaffected sort of Man, that I think he may do f for Fanny; — has a sensible, quiet look which one likes.” Fanny had discouraged the young man previously, for on Sunday we read: “This young Wyndham does not come after all; a very long & very civil note of excuse is arrived. It makes one moralize upon the ups & downs of this Life … ”
As Jane turns away from, dismissed Byron’s Corsair with remarks on mending her petticoat, so on Sunday what appears to me her own disappointment — she would have enjoyed the conversation of an intelligent young man — is turn off by talk of clothes. I have determined to trim my lilac sarsenet with black sattin ribbon just as my China Crape is, 6d width at bottom, 3d or 4d at top. — Ribbon trimmings are all the fashion at Bath, & I dare say the fashions of the two places are alike enough in that point, to content me.” The “me” is underlined in the original. The whole utterance connects back. She, Jane, is content with this fashion, but not Fanny is what’s implied — just as Fanny didn’t want Mr Wyndham but Jane had looked forward to him.
But note Diana’s reading of the break aways in Jane’s later talk on the theater: “Then the inevitable topic of finery arises again, and it is amusing that a letter or two ago she was talking of how vulgar women are who wear veils, but as is only human, she now proposes to buy one herself! … More finery – lilac sarsenet, black sattin ribbon, China Crape, and the bon mot, “With this addition it will be a very useful gown, happy to go anywhere.”
Then on Sunday, the two Austens, Henry and Jane, waited until after 4. Imagine them watching clock as they sit and say read (Henry reading Mansfield Park) or write: Jane writing Emma and letter to Cassandra: a “grand thought” for her and Cassandra’s gowns (Cassandra not forgotten). The “roads were so very bad! as it was, they had 4 horses from Cranford Bridge [expensive]. Fanny was miserably cold at first, but they both seem well” — – No possibility of Edwards’s writing.” Now recall Austen has just apologized for writing again so soon, so it’s she not Cassandra who is expecting this writing. He’s had enough apparently.
The court case: Robin Vick (N&Q)explains that James Baigen, “the boy,” was 10 when he stabbed Stephen Mersh who did not die; James’s father was a yeoman farmer. Wickham who sent a letter advising a second prosecution against Edward’s view was a Rt Honorable, served on the Grand Jury under Sir Wm Heathcote for 1814 summer assizes (he’s in the DNB, diplomat, gov’t minister), recently retired a few miles from Chawton. There was no second prosecution. Chapman though there was but the later trial Austen mentions is of her brother, Charles, a court martial.
We may speculate it was two boys fighting; it’s obvious the right thing is to let him off; he’s 10 and prisons were terrible places (you could get a disease; you had to have money for food). We don’t know how old Mersh was but he was okay at the time of the trial. Mr Wickham’s letter which so entranced Jane might have been a philosophical punitive point of view (from which perspective hard to say). Wiser heads prevailed. Quietly again and again we glimpse a Tory/conservative Jane (imperialist, anti-Rousseau new ideas about children). Austen calls him and “Excellent Man” and says just such a letter would Frank have written. It might be he concedes a humane point of view well. Frank I recall was a flogger to the point he was warned he had better restrain himself.
“Excellent Letters; & I am sure he must be an excellent Man. They are such thinking, clear, considerate Letters as Frank might have written.” Were I Marianne and this an utterance by Elinor I would find her cause for starting to ask about the state of my interlocutor’s heart. Frank’s letters (those left) are simple and direct; he’s another “not clever enough to be unintelligible” so Austen would like that, and he is often humane when he writes — he remarkably writes eloquently against bombing as particularly vicious (you don’t risk yourself, you kill non-combatants who don’t have a chance against you) which is however the opposite of what Jane’s admired Paisley advocated.
There is one cross-out — it’s a reference to a Bridges named Edward. So here we have this antagonism to Edward Bridges again, this needling souring of a romance once he married his “poor Honey” (Austen’s famous nasty slur) and then seemed to show up as a flirting man to Jane. In context “Edward is quite [About five words cut out]” is not a reference to Austen’s brother but the party coming.
Frank an excellent man through and through and Edward Bridges a grating annoyance.
So much for the aunt’s imagined male love life.
Because Edward and Fanny have come there is therefore much theater-going, visiting and visitors, which requires fixing clothes and shopping with local news from Edward and his worries over a coming lawsuit seeking to unseat him from Godmersham, indeed take all his income. Looking ahead thematically to the other court case mentioned later in the letter: Austen was not correct as Edward did not escape the lawsuit; his opponents did not “knock under” easily but had to be paid a cool 20,000 pounds before they would go away. Before Wyndham’s letters arrives, it is good to see both Edward and Jane agreed on not prosecuting the boy further. I note Edward is friendly first with Fanny Cage and now Louisa. He keeps writing to Louisa. I take it he did think about remarrying, but 11 children and one dead wife was enough (as we are told in the family hearsay)
Diana on Sunday: “Some observations of Fanny, how she liked Bath, the play, the Rooms, the company, the accounts of Lady B. After a break, Jane writes, “Now we are come from Church, & all going to write.” She continues, remarking that everyone has been in mourning (for the Queen’s brother), “but my brown gown did very well.” Another mention of General Chowne from the last letter, “he has not much remains of Frederick,” she says, belaboring the joke that probably refers to his playing that part in Lovers Vows. Young Wyndham makes his excuses after all, and Jane exclaims mock-melodramatically, “It makes one moralize upon the ups & downs of this Life …
Back to domestic matters – buttonholes, travel (Cassandra will travel post at Henry’s expense), a rise in the cost of tea, and inquiries about the Mead and a cook. Then she moves on to Monday …”
In numerous passages in this letter Austen registers the state of the snow.
Sunday as they wait: “Getting out is impossible. It is a nasty day for everybody. Edward’s spirits will be wanting Sunshine, & here is nothing but Thickness & Sleet; and tho’s these two rooms are delightfully warm I fancy it is very cold abroad.”
Monday: “Here’s a day! The Ground covered with snow! What is to become of us?– we were to have walked out early … Mr Richard Snow is dreadfully fond of us. I dare say he has stretched himself out at Chawton too.”
Gentle reader, have you ever been on a vacation or holiday with people about whom you are kind of burden you must entertain and the weather gets in the way. What shall she do with Fanny who wants thrills and people. Go out anyway. And close reading has turned up another negative use of Richard. I should add that to my blog on negative Richards in Austen’s fiction and non-fiction (from clergyman to Dick who if the Musgraves had any sense they are better off without)
They went as far as Coventry anyway but that was it; they had to put a visit to Spensers off: “It was snowing the whole time”.
It’s in this section we again have signs of this awkwardness between her and Henry or Henry and everyone. He does not say what he wants to do. They cannot just ask him it seems. They must listen carefully for hints. Now Jane realizes by this “careful listening” that Henry really wants to go to Godmersham for a few days before Easter & has promised to do it.”
This being the case Cassandra need not worry she’ll have to stay in London after Adlestrop and she must hurry to come. Indeed it might work out easier if she Jane does not return from Streatham to meet with Cassandra to go home to Chawton but rather Cassandra can join her at Streatham.
Such a “great comfort” to “have got at the truth.” Really? She means temporary relief.
They are very chary around this prickly Henry. And she falls to working out that Henry cannot leave for Oxfordshire before the Wednesday which will be the 23rd — we are talking two weeks ahead and more and he is a mercurial man. That I do agree, mercurial is the word for him (reminding me of Henry Crawford in these movements of his). If he does, they will still not have many days together. It seems she would like to enjoy London with Cassandra and this is not something the sisters are openly willing to admit. They are to be used by others first.
Henry is meanwhile omnipresent as he is in all the letters — coming down the stairs — where she lives with him. She’s intently aware of his presence. Maybe he’s only mentioned twice, but we are to recall (as Cassandra would) that Gen Chowe is a Tilson, and therefore Henry’s business partner. He makes the second directly literary remark of the letter:
– Henry has this moment said that he likes my M.P. better & better; he is in the 3rd vole. — I believe now he has changed his mind as to foreseeing the end; — he said yesterday at least, that he defied anybody to say whether H.D. would be reformed, or would forget Fanny in a fortnight.
Jane pleased; he’s gotten the point. The novel is built on real life contingency, and Henry from all we’ve seen no one to trust at all. Despite her fears that the first part of the novel, the play acting, would be seen as far more entertaining, Henry has in fact liked the courtship and ball part and Portsmouth too. he says “better and better.” That must have pleased her too.
No raspberry Jam for the master of the house says Mme de Bigeon. Cannot Cassandra bring a pot? She is still recording Henry’s state of health as dubious: as he comes down the stairs, “seems well, his cold does not increase.”
Edmund Kean (1787-1833) as Shylock
Austen jumps about as usual (writing associatively) and when Henry comes over “just this moment” to make his remark about MP which means he’s reading it while she’s writing this late Sunday entry (late in the evening we must imagine) her mind reverts to “Kean” who “I shall like to see again excessively, & to see him with You too; it appeared to me as if there were no fault in him anywhere; & his scene with Tubal was exquisite acting.”
So she’s moved by the man’s loss of his daughter. This is a new attitude (I did talk today of how there is no monolithic 18th century).
Sarah Smith Bartley by Samuel Lane
We were quite satisfied with Kean. I cannot imagine better acting, but the part was too short, & excepting him & Miss Smith [Sarah Bartley], & she did not quite answer my expectation, the parts were ill filled & the Play heavy. [We were too much tired to stay for the whole of Illusion (Nourjahad) which has 3 acts;-there is a great deal of finery & dancing in it, but I think little merit. Elliston was Nourjahad, but it is a solemn sort of part, not at all calculated for his powers. There was nothing of the best Elliston about him. I might not have known him, but for his voice.-
Diana: “A spirited discussion of an evening at the theatre; about Kean she says enthusiastically “I cannot imagine better acting,” but apart from that “the parts were ill filled & the Play heavy.” They were too tired to stay and see another spectacle, “the whole of Illusion (Nourjahad) which has 3 acts; – there is a great deal of finery & dancing in it, but I think little merit.” Theatrical evenings must have been lengthy! She writes animatedly of the actor William Robert Elliston. “Elliston was Nourjahad, but it is a solemn sort of part, not at all calculated for his powers. There was nothing of the best Elliston about him. I might not have known him, but for his voice.” Jane Austen has seen him before, more than once; and we may satisfy our curiosity on the subject because the “Austen Only” blog has an excellent piece on him and what Jane would have seen and known.
I’ll add that Nourjahad would be one of these oriental allegories, perhaps ultimately from Francis Sheridan. Kean was in temporary decline by this time. We see in the life Diana said how hard life was for theater people. Theater was a many-hour experience, with the first play, afterpieces — often mocking. She did not like the performance of MofV except for Shylock, “heavy”.
On Monday they went again and saw “The Devil to Pay” a comic farce. “I expect to be very amused. — Except Miss Stephens [later Countess of Essex], I dare say Artaxerxes will be very tiresome.” so she saw Dora Jordan who was said to be inimitable in farce (Coffey’s Devil to Pay). She’s not keen on the pantomime or famous clown cited by LeFAye, but now likes the actress she expects to see best.
Penny Gay and Paula Byrne in their respective books about Jane Austen and the theater have written about this farce and the comedy. Gay provides a picture of Dora Jordan in the role (p 21). Remember she was then living with the prince and often pregnant; so this is idealized. Bryne goes on about Jordan and makes much much more about Austen’s remarks on the play here. I see nothing in Austen’s letter to justify saying that she is using her time at the theater as a point of reference. The point of references are the people around her who matter to her, their strong concerns (next time Fanny and her beaux) and hers (her book which Henry is reading, Edwards’ problems and doings, with Frank as our star to aspire towards).
The last reference to the theater is on Farmer’s Wife by Dibdin which again has Miss Stephens, the entry is Tuesday . Read the lines: Austen is going to see Miss Stephens and does not think the interest she feels warrants a Box which Henry wants:
Mr J PLumptre joined us the later part of the Evening — walked home with us, ate some soup, & is very earnest for our going to Covent Garden again tonight to see Miss Stephens in the Farmer’s Wife. He is to try for a Box. I do not particularly wish him to succeed. I have had enough for the present.
Mr J. Plumptre is one of the suitors vying for Fanny’s hand. Wildman, Wyndham, Mr Plumptre. He was the suitor used in Miss Austen Regrets as he did get further and they were serious for a while — we will see this in Austen’s later letters. Plumptre clearly wants to go to the theater to be with Fanny and he is getting a box to please Fanny and her family. As the article cited by LeFaye in the notes will tell you it’s not The Farmer’s Wife that influenced Emma, but The Birthday which is a translation from Koetzbue anyway, not a farce either.
Byrne does deal with The Birthday, but Margaret Kirkham’s section on Emma on both Barrett’s burlesque novel, The Heroine, and Koetzbue’s play and Dibdin’s free translation is much more to the point. See JA, Feminism and Fiction
Not to say that Dora Jordan is not of real interest as a performer and for her life story as a woman of Austen’s time (see Claire Tomalin’s excellent biography). She worked very hard, lived well for a short time, very well, but she was providing the ready money, and then she was dumped, was badly treated at the end, her children taken from her. She had no rights that were respected at all. But Austen does not mention her name. It’s Miss Smith who disappoints her and Miss Stephens whom Austen says goes to the theater for — as well as Edmund Kean.
From Diana’s conclusion: “By a little convenient listening,” she tells Cassandra candidly, “I now know that Henry wishes to go to Godmersham for a few days before Easter, & has indeed promised to do it.” This gives Cassandra fore knowledge, so she and Jane can better contrive and make plans. “It is a great comfort to have got at the truth,” says Jane. A very clear glimpse of what maneuverings and uncertainties surround their movements.
Now who gave her the ermine tippet? “You cannot think how much my Ermine Tippet is admired both by Father & Daughter. It was a noble Gift.” Father and daughter being Edward and Fanny I suppose.
A brief mention of the lawsuit Edward would become involved in, not amounting to anything yet. In the next sentence she anticipates seeing The Devil to Pay, and expecting to be very much amused. Artaxerxes she dares to say will be tiresome. More finery – “I have been ruining myself in black sattin ribbon with a proper perl edge; & now I am trying to draw it up into kind of Roses, instead of putting it in plain double plaits.” This has to do with Caps, very fancy affairs at that date.
Now she hastily and effusively thanks Cassandra for a letter, and passes on news and messages from Edward – he is amazed at “64 Trees,” and gives directions about a Study Table that is to arrive at Chawton. The evening has been rather tiresome: “Mr. Hampson dined here & all that,” and she was “very
tired of Artaxerxes,” as she thought she would be, though “highly amused with the Farce, & in an inferior way with the Pantomime that followed.” Mr. Plumptre wants them to go to Covent Garden the next night to see Miss Stephens in The Farmer’s Wife. “He is to try for a Box. I do not particularly
wish him to succeed. I have had enough for the present,” Jane Austen finishes.
Her appetite for plays and London is evidently not insatiable.
If you go through the thread of just this you discover that much of it is the result of trying to entertain Fanny amid the persistent snow and the mentions of clothes come up either as a way to turn away from the disappointed romancing (Jane is the one sometimes disappointed as when Wyndham doesn’t come) or fill out where she is bored or to address Cassandra.
So Jane is not only trying to satisfy Fanny but is soothing Cassandra whose letter arrives the very moment they return from the theater and she hastens to thank her. So good of her, “Thank you thank you.” Casssandra home with Cassy with those fleas. There might seem to be a disconnect here because at the opening Jane is so worried lest Cassandra get angry at her writing. But there is not.
What we have in Austen in this letter is someone trying to please others. No wonder she didn’t get to write as much as we’d like (or she would have).
In this letter the underlying temperament is closer to Fanny Price and Anne Elliot than many would be willing to acknowledge … she is trying to get out of the time there what she can. She likes Miss Stephens, she likes Kean, she likes the landscape. She does not tell us about her writing Emma – that’s hers to keep unspoiled. She is working with Madame Bigeon and Cassandra to supply Henry with raspberry jam.
There Jane did not have to produce acquaintances, she could make them up. There her satire could make her powerful — within limits for after all the NA manuscript was not returned. I sympathize very much.
in the prince’s library as laid out kindly by his librarian, Mr Clark (Miss Austen Regrets 2008)