Dear friends and readers,
Although I wrote about Austen’s 16 letters to Anna last year and individually, I thought I’d write again and provide an over-view since on Austen-l and Janeites we are now up to letters 103 (mid-July, 1814, Chawton to Steventon) and 104 (10-18 August 1814, Chawton to Steventon) in our journey through all Austen’s letters. These are the 2nd and 3rd of 16, the first is letter 76 (29-31, October 1812, a burlesque of novel; see also Isobel Grundy’s essay
Lady MacLairn, The Victim of Villany by Rachel Hunter
There are left to us 16 altogether and letters 103 and 104 show Jane Austen and her mother awaiting Anna’s coming wedding and Jane responding to an novel Anna was in the midst of writing, a novel which seems to be a close imitation of her aunt’s. The real poignancy of the set is they exist and we have them only because Anna herself gave them up to her brother when he was writing his biography. Anna was one of the three children of James who tried to transmit knowledge of the aunt. It is true that Austen’s remarks on her niece’s manuscript cannot be taken as general criticism since they are meant just for Anna’s eyes, but that Austen would necessarily be kind is not so; we’ve seen by this time Austen’s hostility to her niece (growing since Anna began to have courtships) to the point that Anna would not bring her fiance over to Chawton unless both her aunts were not there.
On the 8th of November Anna would marry Ben Lefroy
An image of their marriage license
In the 16 letters we will see much hypocrisy and lack of sympathy, including one where Jane pretends to sympathize with Anna’s purchase of a piano for herself and admire her furniture, after which Austen writes to Fanny saying she expects to find in the future Anna will regret this self-indulgence and mocks the furniture. And In the these remnants Anna has to have seen how her aunt really felt about her; one of them she herself tore up and left only a remnant and yet despite the pain she helped her brother. By contrast, Fanny had about 30 and only 5 have been retrieved — by her son, Brabourne.
First a general account: Basically the first half of the remnant of 103 is by Mrs Austen, Jane’s mother, Anna’s grandmother. The grandmother’s letter functions as a sort of an excuse for not having made any or more wedding clothes or trousseau items (in her Notes and Queries it seems that LeFaye assumes when Anna stayed at the cottage in May the grandmother was making her trousseau, but that’s not the way the words read here and I don’t know what her evidence is), and Austen’s is a reiteration that it’s fine if Anna does not come over. I include in my first blog the full text of Caroline’s letter describing the bleak wedding ceremony, its lack of any celebration. It’s striking to see Anna’s continued dependence as she’s nonetheless sent her aunt and grandmother a manuscript piece of her novel.
This is a poignant as well as savagely cut letter (as is the fifth chosen by Todd and Bree, Letter 113). Pp. 1 and 2 are missing. In the text as we have it, Mrs Austen writes first. She asserts she is “well in health” just weak in her eyes. She says when she reads or writes it’s without glasses and since she needed glasses she had not read or written anything. Anna is about to get married and Mrs Austen is begging off making her any clothes. She did not have the spare time to do a full trousseau for the wedding. In the opening lines we see that Anna sends a MS rather than come over; the grandmother will sit and think of the niece because the niece is not coming over and she has not been there for 3 or 4 weeks. The grandmother is glad the niece has not come over sooner, for at this point she can no longer sew anything. I agree it’s not clear how much she has sewn, but there is a apology in the third line with the implication that the grandmother has indeed sewn all that is needed.
The family did not want this wedding. Anna herself was caught between a rock and a hard place. Live with the stepmother and she never gets to go anywhere; who wouldn’t escape to a man who presents himself as a figure of high integrity even it means he is unlikely to take sinecures (after all her father did not want to do it — harassed by his wife into it).
At the close of this fragment Mrs Austen suddenly assures Anna how much she, Mrs Austen, loves Anna; indeed she loves “very few bettter.” What can she talk about? fruit and flowers. Also that she has been thinking about Anna, and worried about the married life to come, Anna’s future, what her life will be like once she marries.
Ann Murray’s Mentoria (1801): google book cover; Jane Austen wrote a poem to Anna years before and placed it in this book as a gift
We then turn to Jane who provides a postscript. Jane says she is glad her niece has not come sooner — she is about to come over. So another part of the letter is about why Anna had not been coming over. Anna knew the relatives were not keen. Perhaps the front part of the letter had Jane’s doubts about the young man — or it could have been the stepmother or problems with James, the father — not a happy man as we’ve seen.
In the context of this Austen’s few remarks about Anna’s fiction are sent. Alas, the novel was destroyed by depressed Anna. Anna’s daughter, Fanny Caroline left a note to explain how her mother had destroyed the manuscript one night in a sudden fit of despair in the 1820s by throwing it in the fire.
What do we see in Austen’s comments shorn of the novel they are about: a fiction must have intense energy flowing through (“the spirit does not droop at all”); characters must be mixed not all good or all bad; verisimilitude again: a high status woman would not be introduced to a mere slip of a girl. The name Cecilia (from Burney and made popular) that Anna had made too good a heroine (too “aimable” is the tactful way of putting this), but Jane says she is still interesting. (Jane Austen had amiable heroines later on and before mid-1814.) She finds Lord Orville stiff and unnatural (unreal); her good hero, Mr Knightley (sans peur et sans reproche) is not even though very good he is natural in presentation, believable. Darcy is not so nice: and her other heroes are flawed.
In my blog I also include a brief life of Anna (her husband died young and left her with too many children and much of her later existence was spent in penury), then go on to describe and discuss Anna’s continuation of Sanditon because even if Anna destroyed this novel we do have this plus her one published romance, Mary Hamilton, a book like Persuasion in mood. Anna also much later on wrote some awful religious-didactic children’s stories.
See Diana Birchall’s paraphrase and reading. I agree the grandmother’s tone is cool and the aunt bland.
Like others I recognize the importance of this letter – there are a couple of others to Anna where we see Austen open up her way of thinking consciously about fiction as she wrote as well as read it; and there is one to JEAL, the nephew. Austen did recognize her older brother’s children had gifts. if she does not go in for “wild screams of praise,” that shows respect to Anna; overpraise is a sign of non-serious dismissal.
In the blog I began by reprinting the whole letter. I did that for each of the first three letters to Anna. I’ve taken to doing this for all Austen’s letters (only now I’ve begun to put the text in the “comments” part of the blog) but I wasn’t doing it at the time. Then I made real efforts by reading all the letters about this specific novel to work out something of the novel’s characters and story. Again I’m by no means the first person to try and I read some other critics’ efforts.
I agree with Diana Birchall on the general principles we can call them that the particular remarks exemplify: literal versimilitude very important in Austen’s mind, intense application of time and space to keep to a diurnal imitation of reality; psychological probability, no extravagances of phrase. Admittedly what Austen is instructing her niece on are surface elements; there are some underlying assumptions (about how necessary it is to get a reader to believe in, immerse him or herself in a fiction). Like Jane Austen herself, Anna’s characters wandered around the seacoast of southern England, the spas. Austen treats of these only as problems in verisimilitude. Anna’s female characters must not risk any untoward or too inviting behaviors. They should be above all discreet. Ireland won’t do but some of Anna’s Irish characters will.
I”ll add that it seems to me Austen also reads for suspense and thinks Anna should keep suspense up. She tells which characters she likes (whatever that means) and wants to see more of. She also likes sketches of life so to speak – the sketch of Clanmurray “and your picture of the two poor girls enjoyments is very good.” I surmize there was irony in Anna’s work here:she was exposing how little enjoyment the heroines had; Austen would enjoy wry exposures where much is left implicit.
Then Fanny Caroline, Anna’s daughter’s important note which I’ll simply reprint again:
The story to which most of these letters of Aunt Jane’s refer was never finished. It was laid aside for a season because my mother’s hands were so full she lacked the leisure to continue it. Her eldest child was born in October , and her second in the Sept. following  and in the longer interval that followed before the birth of the third  her Aunt died and with her must have died all inclination to continue her writing. With no Aunt Jane to read, to criticise and to encourage it was no wonder the MS every word of which was so full of her, remained untouched. Her sympathy which had made the real charm of the occupation was gone and the sense of the loss made it painful to write. The story was laid by for years and then one day in a fit of despondency burnt. I remember sitting on the rug and watching its destruction amused with the flames and the sparks which kept breaking out in the blackened paper. In later years when I expressed my sorrow that she had destroyed it she said she could never have borne to finish it, but incomplete as it was Jane Austen’s criticisms would have made it valuable.’ Fanny-Caroline Lefroy, MS Family History (Hampshire Record Office, 23M93 / 85 / 2).
By these ‘later years’, however, Anna had evidently forgotten that she did make an attempt to continue with her story, for in a letter to JEAL, dated 26 October 1818, she says: ‘I am in the middle of a scene between Mrs Forrester & Mrs St. Julian — I hope I shall do it tolerably well, because it requires to be done so-I want to get a good parcel done to read to you at Christmas but you know how little time I have for any thing of that sort-’ HRO 23M93/86/3. Fanny Caroline Lefroy, MS Family HIstory (Hampshire Record Office)
I then went over Mary Hamilton the one extant romance type novel Anna did publish – beyond her continuation of Sanditon (which I reviewed with Letter 103 above). We see how intensely emotional – but not superficially so — was Anna’s romance writing, it’s very like Persuasion in feel. I summarize it.
Then I try to contextualize the letter differently: I bring in remarks about Anna (some unkind) and what is known about their relationship just then – that is clearly an influence here. How Austen seems to want a community of women and yet does not seek to make Anna part of it – the way she did Fanny, e.g., Austen does not care for Anna’s emotional character and genius and either ignores or wants to change it. Austen does worry about Anna’s future with some responsible caring words to her brother, Francis, but these are offset by words which blame Anna without taking into account why Anna makes the choices she does.
I’ll leave anyone who is interested to read the quotations. That Jane Austen was hard (I think unfairly sometimes) on her niece and her husband, Ben (when Ben did not want to do what might lead to a promotion and Anna supported him in this) is suggested by Fanny Caroline’s further note defending her mother against her great-aunt’s strictures:
My father although deeply attached to my mother was far too high-principled and conscientious to take Holy Orders for the sake of being immediately married. Possibly he had not yet quite decided on his profession, at all events he was not ordained until three years afterwards. As to my mother’s reluctance to go to Chawton, sent away as she was to mark my GodMother’s anger with him, it was not possible she should go with any other feelings.’ –Lefroy Notes.
After I posted the above on Austen-l and Janeites, Diana wrote:
Ellen, wonderful overview of the Anna letters. Jane Austen certainly had some mixed feelings about her. I’m now thinking that Letter 104 may be disingenuous … she doesn’t want to give Anna any real, deep, serious criticism or advice; just superfluities. And this may be because she doesn’t think that Anna has it to be a fine novelist, like herself. Yet she doesn’t want to discourage her or hurt her feelings, so she gives her some mild praise, “there, dear” pats on the head, and minor unhurtful critical comments just to make the thing smoother, close up some holes and inconsistencies. She’s not truly trying to affect, help, change, improve. Just to patch up the most egregious errors, so it can perhaps come out as a nice ladies’ novel … but she isn’t giving it the deep compliment and respect of treating it seriously, by the standards of her own.
To which I replied:
There’s a strong tendency to try to separate Jane Austen’s writing and fiction off from the writing of the rest of her family, and to insist Austen’s superiority was seen then as people see it today. The epitaph describes her gifts as strong intelligence, rather than having a strong imagination or gift for writing (not mentioning the novels as unmentionable). The family did encourage her to write during the 1790s but we do not know they did while she was in Bath. We do feel they must have known by the end, and there is Henry getting her work published (and spending his own money); there are her brother James’s and nephew’s poems to her about her work; Caroline’s awe in her life of her aunt, and all the effort both James-Edward Austen-Leigh and Anna took to memorialize her and put what had not gotten into print they had control over into print. Francis had kept all Jane’s letters and probably never would have wanted them to be destroyed. But none of this is cause enough to separate her work off. She did not, they did not, no one in her era did (even Scott does not see her as somehow different or much much better than his other women writers).
If it’s true that Austen’s letter shows condescension and dismissal, and I have half-agreed, and if we are seeming to to take a uncharitable view of Austen’s reaction, this uncharitable view is one we find Austen voicing again and again. Partly because she spent so many years unpublished, we have seen her throughout (but especially before published) trash and speak out harshly against most novels & authors she reads — the exceptions being the super-respected males (Johnson, Cowper). Understandably still (this being the one thing she has that gives her respect and yet among most people
she’s an old maid with no dowry, getting on), she will brook no sister near her throne. And it’s not that she’s not eager to recognize some quality near hers; she often genuinely reacts against qualities in novels she doesn’t like and burlesques. I suspect that Anna’s fiction is an imitation of her aunt’s but (from Mary Hamilton) much more romantic. This won’t do entirely since Jane Austen goes into oodles of praise for her nephew in a couple of years (as we’ll see, Letter 146, Mon-Tues, 16-17 December 1816), but then he is a man, and (as I suggested) watch out for people who over-praise. Trollope makes this explicit: cleverer than Southey we might say he advises a friend always overpraise a woman’s work, it’s not something you should take seriously.
So it may be her hostility is to Anna. Anna to me shows such pathos. She is trying to regain back her aunt’s respect and love. She must’ve seen how much Fanny was preferred, how better a time in life Fanny was having. No groups of suitors for Anna. Few visits to London. Good thing she got married
too: we see how her stepmother discouraged her father’s writing and sensibility proclivities (deep resentment there).
OTOH, we have no proof that Austen could write deeper criticism. The criticism we see here is just what we see her write for her own fiction. She is one of those authors unable to articulate consciously what is really valuable in what she writes. Her theory which enables her to delve reality is this literal verisimilitude, hold to it. So it could be this is her calm strong praise to talk about this novel the way she talks about her own.
We may hope it made Anna feel good. We can see that later on she may have seen the other disparaging remarks and certainly Fanny Caroline, the daughter, knew about this.
If anyone were to attempt a new edition (hard because now all sorts of copyrights have been claimed to stop you), there’s an argument for 1) printing the letters in groups, as Austen’s letters to Anna separately as a group, to Fanny, what there is to Frank, etc. 2) reprinting with them (as is done in the Burney correspondence) the Austen family letters that are
left, including (importantly) Eliza Hancock de Feuillide Austen’s and Philly’s letters to her. It would not produce huge amounts of text, but say a three volume set. With unbiased notes, set up alphabetically you might really have a usable scholarly resource.