Archive for September, 2011

Helen Allingham (1848-1926), Aitre, St Maclou, Rouen (1890s, a French girls’ school)

A colorized version of an 18th century French rococo print of Madame d’Epinay visiting Voltaire on his Swiss country estate

Dear friends and readers,

Earlier this year (February to be exact), a very few of us on Eighteenth Century Worlds at Yahoo, read and posted together on Sarah Fielding’s David Simple and then her The Governess; or Little Female Academy. I’ve been meaning to blog at least about The Governess and am now prompted to as it appears one evening at Godmersham, Jane and Cassandra and a few friends (with Anne Sharpe looking on) acted some version or playlet taken from this text out. Imagine that. Wouldn’t we love to have that fragment? (I’ll write about this in a separate blog and if I have time also about our group read on Eighteenth Century Worlds of Sarah Fielding’s David Simple.)

Mary Cadogan’s preface sets the book in the context of stories of girls’ schools, and says it’s among the first, perhaps the first to offer a realistic account of the experiences of children everyday — and here i School. So it’s the great-great…. grandmother of Katy Did books. Fielding shows us the world of girls’s peer groups. The first book for boys in this vein was also by a woman, Harriet Martineau The Crofton Boys. Fielding entertains with little biographies, stories, fables (her preface has two of these).

Fielding’s dedication and preface has the same strong austere stance we felt in David Simple and there is even towards the end of the preface a rather darker comment which brings us into DS’s world when she warns you against certain behaviors of people who say they are your friends but are “not your real Friend,” and if you don’t have “resolution enough” to break from them “in the end will fling you to death.”

The plot-design: as the extended title says it’s book about girls’ schooldays: at the center is Mrs Teachum; each of the chapters is named after the day of the week on which each of the girls tells a story, sometimes autobiographical, sometimes about characters given type names and sometimes fairy tales. The book opens with a dedication, preface and opening: we are told how Mrs Teachum came to have a school, how it’s small and exclusive, the nine young ladies are presented and we learn of them each through their fight over the apples.

The book’s problem is Fielding thinks she has to produce good girl messages. Children’s literature when seriously considered is a problematic genre because of who writes the books, what they are sold for. They are said to be “children’s books,” but they are written by adults with adult interests in mind. It emerges as a popular genre in the 18th century: see Defining her Life: Conduct and Courtesy.

Another variant of the type; so too Swiss Family Robinson

The one thing that made be said for good girl messages as delineated by Fielding is at heart it’s a quietist view — resignation and compromise for peace of mind (common in women’s books in a way):”Remember,” Mrs. Teachum warns, “that Innocence of Mind, and Integrity of Heart, adorn the Female Character; and can alone produce your own Happiness, and diffuse it to all around you.” This is how Jane Eyre ends; her innocence of mind and integrity of heart are now going to strengthen and rejuvenate her “master’s,” Rochester’s, bringing him back from his brink of bitterness and despair. “Le repos” at the end of French 17th century romances like LaFayette’s La Princess de Cleves takes us along the same route.

See also my blog, Felicite de Genlis, writer, educator, mother.


From The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969): her girls

Dedication and preface:

The dedication and preface appealed to me for their high-minded tone. Yes our “true Interest is concerned in cherishing and improving those amiable dispositions into Habits.” On the fray over the apples: I’d like to suggest Fielding begins with an insuperable problem in education, one Felicite Genlis confronted quickly too — and it’s the one I pointed out that engaged me. What do we do about how people have bad natures? Today it might be put as the problem of bullies and society’s acceptance of this. I don’t know how better to put it. Fielding goes into the minds of the girls and shows that the moral teachings and appeals that Jenny Peace make have no echo in the minds of the girls; they just feel more resentment.

Each time Jenny seems to make a dent in the girls, it emerges that the girl is just thinking another version of resentment, ago, aggression and how to get back, about her pride and so on. Genlis presents herself as overcoming this in the individual case by moral blackmail, absolute repression, punishment and reward but (as I said) I didn’t believe it and when Genlis’s real daughter (upon whom Adele is modelled) grew up if you read her letters you find she seethes with resentment, alienation &c&c

I can see how Sarah Fielding would regard marrying for survival (not just money, but house, food, everything that came with it) is a form of prostitution. It’s a good analogy as in this period women had few options but marriage to maintain themselves in safety and decency; many did resort to prostitution and then they were treated terribly. This was enough to drive women into marriage — despite the loss of their control over property, that a man could beat, eject, basically do with his wife as he wished if he was prepared to abuse and threaten her. We see women’s lack of control or custody of their children (after 7).

I and a friend, Diana, were upset by the story of the wanton killing of Jenny’s cat. Here’s the passage:

When I was about Eleven Years old, I had a Cat that I had bred up from a little Kitten, that used to play round me, till I had indulged for the poor Animal a Fondness that made me delight to have it continually with me where-ever I went; and, in return for my Indulgence, the Cat seemed to have changed its Nature, and assumed the Manner that more properly belongs to Dogs than Cats; for it would follow me about the House and Gardens, mourn for my absence, and rejoice at my Presence: And, what was very remarkable, the poor Animal would, when fed by my Hand, lose that Caution many Cats are known to be possessed of, and take whatever I gave it, as if it could reflect, that I meant only its Good, and no Harm could come from me.

I was at last so accustomed to see this little Frisk (for so I called it) play round me, that I seemed to miss Part of myself in its But one Day the poor little Creature followed me to the door; when a Parcel of School-boys coming by, one of them catched her up in his arms, and ran away with her. All my Cries were to no Purpose for he was out of Sight with her in a Moment, and there was no method to trace his Steps. The cruel Wretches, for Sport, as as they called it, hunted it the next Day from one to the other, in the most barbarous manner; till at last it took Shelter in that House that used to be its Protection, and came and expired at my Feet. I was so struck with the Sight of the little Animal’s dying in that manner, that the great Grief of my Heart overflowed at my Eyes, and I was for some time inconsolable.

What bothers me in the cat story is the mother of Jenny then uses it as a lesson to teach Jenny to accept misery and cruelty in existence — without so much as admitting the foundation of her preaching is that the creature is just a cat. And all Jenny tells us she learnt to control her grief and accept, nothing about the cat. This erasing of the particulars of the incident is fatal.

A dialogue about Monday:

Shot from Cocteau’s La Belle et la bete

Caroline wrote:

Since I teach fairy tales, I was delighted to reach the “Monday” chapter, with “The Story of the cruel Giant BARBARICO, and the good Giant BENEFICO, and the pretty little Dwarf MIGNON.” This is a fascinating fairy tale and certainly illustrates how Sarah Fielding influenced Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont in her imitation, Magasin des Enfans, which includes “Beauty and the Beast”

For this list, however, what really interests me is the way in which this tale revises the first two volumes of _David Simple_ in the genre of the fairy tale. One clue to this revision is Mrs. Teachum’s explanation of how to read the tale
symbolically: “For a Giant is called so only to express a Man of great Power; and the magic Fillet round the Statue was intended only to shew you, that by Patience you will overcome all Difficulties.”

Here we have another tale of the powerful abusing the weak. Barbarico hoards his wealth and torments the more vulnerable (little) people. He snatches Fidus. However, we also see the power of friendship: Fidus is befriended by Mignon, while elsewhere the kind and wealthy Benefico befriends Amata, who is betrothed to Fidus. The patience of Mignon and others frees them; and the giant Benefico slays Barbarico, takes the wealth, and redistributes it among Barbarico’s
victims. He also (like David) takes the key characters into his castle. Lovers and siblings are reunited. The little community lives happily ever after

What struck me about Monday is how adult the emotions are that Sarah Fielding attributes to the fairy tale figures. This is not general language, but filled with subtle psychological motivation and a desire to torment and inflict pain and power I’d expect to find much more in say a Kafka short story. The fairy tales I’ve read — or remember reading — do not delve one figure’s love of tormenting another. As a consequence of this depth of psychological acuity and particulars, I felt the “burden” of the experience went far beyond what Sarah Fielding consciously presented as the moral.

Tuesday into Wednesday:

This day opens with the girls learning much better lessons from the fable they heard than talk about what they liked best. I was amused by the characterization of their dialogue as simply seeking for pre-eminence and how Fielding saw going down to particulars and keeping talking about them will eventually end in quarrels. She would have not been surprised as quarrels on listservs.

We have two girls described and a brief resume of each one’s life by her. The concision of the treatment a little disguises how this is novel matter put into didactic form. Sukey Jennet’s life also shows us how a child can be brought up to be a domineering heartless person if she is taught repeatedly others are not equal to her as human beings — and she is to have her own way in everything.

I was troubled in Sukey’s story where they see the woman beating her daughter for lying. I know that maybe Fielding felt she was showing this is not the way to stop someone from lying but it seemed to me the text half-supported the woman doing the beating. It’s suggested in a way that for some only beating will stop lying. That may be so — for a while. When the person grows up, they have no reason not to revert; worse, they have been taught to beat others this way, that it’s acceptable.

We see how authority is based on physical size; I’m not sure that Fielding meant me to see it this way but I do.

Not that I’m keen on lying; it is a real problem in life — Fielding has focused on a second insoluble problem in trying to educate someone to be moral. The first was the intransigence of “bad” elements in our nature; the second is this resort to lying to cover up, manipulate, defend one’s pride &c


Maggie Smith as the less than truthful Miss Jean Brodie

Wednesday and Thursday

I found myself really troubled by the moral lesson drawn from the story of Chloe and Caelia. Sarah Fielding does not appear to recognize the treacherous character who causes the mischief is Sempronius. If someone thinks that Sarah Fielding does see it’s he who nearly breaks this family up permanently, please to argue this point with me because it’s important. In the early phase of David Simple, it may be remembered that David does not marry a young woman who he falls in love with but whom her father first pressures to marry someone else, and when that falls through, partly because she does not want to marry simply for money, David still walks away from her as someone horrible. He cannot allow that she could be tempted or pressured.

Sempronius lies to Chloe. He pretends he is thinking of marry Caelia and coming to her for advice; he implies if she will tell him Caelia is no good, he won’t want her and will want Chloe.

This is a strong temptation. We are told these girls are broke; they need to marry; the aunt won’t live forever, plus unmarried women even with an income were at all sorts of disadvantages in the communities of 18th century England. So she lies and says Caelia is artful and envious.

Then what does he do? he goes to Caelia to try the same trick on her. Caelia is self-sacrificing and presented as abject, and goes out of her way to overpraise the sister. So he decides he’ll take Caelia. But he doesn’t right away. Instead he lets them all stew and be miserable and wretched. Chloe who is humane feels bad already and confesses.

Then what happens. He gets to marry Caelia. We are told the moral of this is “the miserable effects of deceit and treachery” where the line is aimed at Chloe. The deceitful and treacherous person was Sempronius.

Why did Caelia marry him? We are not told it was that she needed financial support in a way that brings that motive out clearly. Rather we are left to think she likes this guy.

Fielding is telling a story which shows us the desperation of women and how men can play ugly tricks on them. She does not see this — or if she does, she doesn’t register this in the text.

Then we get two stories where the lesson is how wretched and miserable comparing yourself with others makes you. Dison dies of her envy. We are told that Patty Lockit didn’t feel this way when brought up in a large group and so much younger; but when she went to live with a Cousin who was smarter, she learned to hate her. The villain in this piece is the maid Betsy who sets Patty on.
To be sure Betsy is no friend to Patty; but the solution that going to live in this house filled with girls seems to me to ignore what has happened.

Is Fielding showing us the reality that social structuring such as we have in society and competition as a leading value is insidious and poisons our lives. No. She is blaming the victims — victims of their own weakness to be sure. What then is her solution? Living among all these girls. We have no reason to believe in their hearts the same kind of invidiouis feelings will not emerge — in the first story she did not at all convince me that Jenny Pearce’s preachings changed the nature of the girls she presented, and in these two tales we have enough to show us that people tenaciously hold on to their egoistic passions.

Now the life of Lucy Sly intervenes as a story where a girl learns of the misery of a life of lying which leads to hatred of those around her. Now I agree with the thrust of this one — partly because it’s so short Fielding does not go on to make inferences. Yes the person who lies in this way often does it out of intense envy and when they can’t break out of it, and see how they are fooling you, they can see how inferior and hypocritical they are, and hate the person lied to all the more, despise him or her as someone easily fooled. The emotions here the person is habituated to are probably part of why our society is such a seething place. But I cannot help but point out, Fielding does not reform Lucy. If anything this parable undermines all the others about the schools’ efficacy.

Lying by the way is a way of getting through life for many as long as the lie is superficial (student with a late paper, student who cut a class, contractor who pretends he will start work earlier than he means to) or in business (ah ha) where it’s a matter of money and property and vying for position. When it comes to the private lives Fielding depicts here people are found out when it goes on for any time especially when it concerns something important They stay together as a ritual or convention to keep the peace but are not fooled after a while. And lying is a pain: you have to keep your stories straight and after a while will contradict yourself.

From Caroline, a rejoinder:

“I also find “The Story of Caelia and Chloe” troubling. This tale insists that Chloe’s envy and lies are wrong not just in themselves but because they upset the community: Caelia is unhappy, Sempronius is angry, and Amanda is bewildered by the confusion in the household. In other words, it’s important to be a good girl not just because it’s the moral thing to do but because it’s the socially acceptable thing to do.

This point again reflects Sarah Fielding’s position–the genteel woman dependent
on a community for support–and she takes it to a disturbing level by showing the potential consequences: death. Chloe’s deceit nearly brings her to the grave, and the near-death is not just an excess of sensibility but a sense that she no longer belongs: “For she thought within herself, I shall now make my dear Cousin happy, by removing out of her Way an Object that must imbitter all her Joy.” This is the ultimate good-girl lesson. Behave, or you won’t be wanted any more.

This lesson does seem harsh for children because it’s presented in a realistic tale.

For more on this tale, see comments.
Friday through Saturday:

I’ve now read Hebe’s — or Sybella the fairy’s — tale too. In fact there are at least three mothers and several different natured daughters. I agree that the women are made all powerful in this story, but what struck me — perhaps from memories of Genlis’s book (which this one is perpetually bringing to mind — is the moral: a daughter must obey her mother. As Caroline says, these morals that are derived from these tales cannot begin to control the details and probably Fielding knew it, but to me this disconnection or forced connection is both funny and important. The larger “submit” Before authorities is in Genlis too.

Again Caroline:

It seems to me that Fielding continues with these conservative messages in Mrs. Teachum’s “The Assembly of the Birds. A Fable.” The fable focuses on a contest to see which bird is happiest. The first bird, a Parrot who lives in a golden cage as the pet of a fine lady, replays the moral of David Simple: dependence on the elite leads to misery. The second bird, a daw, is exposed for its borrowed plumes, while the gorgeous peacock nearly expires from envy of the nightingale’s beautiful voice. The nightingale is vain and therefore prey to the hawk, etc. True happiness, we discover, is exhibited by the dove. While these morals do not warm my very modern soul, I do like the way that Fielding teaches another valuable lesson: how to read. Again and again, her characters model reading, summary, analysis, and reflection. So while the book PREACHES some conservative messages, it DOES a very progressive thing: it takes seriously the life of a girl’s mind. It insists on true understanding and application of readings, and to demonstrate those points, it shows the girls relating their life-stories. Simply telling those (fictional) life-stories affirms their value, which could be seen as empowering to girls. You, [insert reader’s name], matter.

Sunday and Monday again:

From 2oth century production of Steele’s The conscious Lovers

Fielding offers two characters who come to visit the school, girls recently raised to the peerage as daughters: Lady Caroline who has turned into an utter snob, and Lady Fanny who paradoxically ugly prides herself ridiculously on her beauty. They are matched by descriptions and life stories of girls similarly making themselves ridiculous — and miserable — due to their overvaluation of status and non-existent beauty (Nancy Spruce and Betty Ford)

I think again Fielding is reaching out to something fundamental she thinks gets in the way of genuinely ethical development of girls: the focus on their physical appearannce, and (I’d put it) in the light of the disvaluation of girls/women as such an egregious over-emphasis on social class and rank status. I am bothered by her presenting Lady Fanny and Betty Ford as ugly and not attacking the overvaluation of beauty in the first place and why it’s there. Maybe that’s asking too much, but Madame Genlis does go this far in her Adele and Theodore regularly.

Monday is more interesting. The girls do not play-act Steele’s Funeral; instead they produce moral readings of it. I’m struck by a kind of transvaluation of values I came across when I read Catherine Trotter on The man of Mode. Far from amusement, Trotter saw in the central male a figure who spelt misery for women, a man bad to women and not just getting away with it, but of high status because of this. The girls do not read Steele to laugh or say they laugh but as a psychologial inner history. The reading is misogynistic — blaming Lady Brumpton. As I recall Anne Oldfield played Lady Harriot, and recently this play and Steele’s work in general has been praised as sentimental and sentimental comedy seen as bringing in a pro-woman’s point of view, but that was for The Tender Husband and Conscious Lovers. Still I’m struck by how if Fielding reacted with adverse dislike to the cruelties of the play, as I recently did to Murphy’s The Way to Keep Him, and Trotter to The man of Mode why or if she missed totally this vein of feminism.

To conclude: Maybe I’m reading too much into the text, perhaps as a result of having read other of these books supposedly just on education, but I see it as a serious book meant for adults beyond literal advice on how to teach children. For example, the first phase showed us the girls’s bad nature and how hard it was to improve, even to reach. Tuesday brought in lying, another serious obstacle if you are intent on teaching girls how to live ethically, grow up to be decent happy people, indeed what is the good life. Then there is corporal punishment — and I still think Sarah is not against it. The fairy tale itself had a burden of adult perception: for example the enjoyment of tormenting of one person by another. I don’t remember that being analysed and brought out in any thing like this way by any fairy tales I read when young.

It is true that unlike Locke’s treatise or Rousseau’s Emile, Fielding’s book is obviously meant for children to read too, but Genlis’s Adele and Theodore can be read by adolescents at any rate and Epinay’s dialogue had it been published and disseminated (I’m not sure it was) are dialogues children could read. Genlis’s resembles Fielding’s in the austerity and disciplinary approach it takes. Epinay is much kinder, more aware of the necessity of following individual needs rather than repressing them

Women wrote these sorts of books. Charlotte Smith’s is relieved because it’s about the natural world, stories of animals, botany, nature at the same time, filled with poetry. Genlis’s is at its most powerful when she inserts novels. Mostly though the books are didactic morality on the surface. Later famous ones include Hester Chapone’s letters. I’m not sure how many children really read such books but they are readable by younger people. And it’s true that this one is situated in a school so you could say we have the first glimmerings in this book of What Katy Did.

What Katy Did Next by Susan Coolidge

And Austen’s own novels, with their emphasis on education, and direct allusions (at least in Emma) to some of this previous literature are another kind of legacy.


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Riversdale House Museum

Dear friends and readers,

ON Saturday morning, the Admiral (aka Jim) was kind enough to drive me way past Washington D.C., past Ivy Park (now a depressed area) into nearby Maryland, where a highway and several sudden turns took us to historic landmark house, Riversdale, built, decorated, & furnished under the direction of Rosalie Stier Calvert. The team of women running our local JASNA-DC group had set up a delightful treat for us: an instructive and pleasant visit to a local house-museum truly relevant to understanding Jane Austen’s era.

Rosalie and her oldest daughter, Caroline

I found myself walking through a neo-palladian mansion in a large green landscape, and then outside to a fruitful (herbs, garden produce) garden and finally dependency house. The Calverts were a wealthy and powerfully-connected family during the French revolution, and when they came to the US became part of the people in the US who counted. The family were French Catholics who had lived in Belgium and, like many of these French aristocratic types fled either in the 1790s or just after Napoleon took power. Napoleon’s amnesty in 1803 had an important qualifcation: you were urged to return and if you did not, your property would be confiscated. So Rosalie’s father returned, and and gave to her and her husband a goodly sum of money (big) and this house he was building at the time.

We know a great deal about this house and family because they left ample records, and in particular the woman responsible for the building of the house left a large cache of letters which have been edited and published: _Mistress of Riversdale: The Plantation Letters of Rosalie Calvert, 1795-1807. Rosalie’s years cross with Jane Austen’s — she too died young, at 41: She was a highly intelligent if at times startingly arrogant and admirably determined woman (sufficiently sheltered so that she thought herself more immune than she was). Her house represents a fine house such as it would be in Jane Austen’s era, some of it is due to Calvert’s taste, care, and power of personality. She may have been a lonely woman. Her writing was done on a desk now in the master bedroom — where one sees the bed she gave birth to nine children on and slept with her husband. She was away from the world she wanted to imitate, and while she was often visited, and had many relations, and probably friends, as Mistress of Calvert, she may have felt isolated. She spoke French and retained intense memories of Europe and Europe’s customs. She wanted very badly to dress in fashions used in Europe. When I read her letters I hope to discover something of the way she felt over her husband having a slave mistress and many children by her in a cabin on their estate.

The docent who took our group round a tour of the conversations. I did learn on the tour by asking questions about the master of the house, George Calvert

Calvert is himself a person of note sufficient to merit a wikipedia article. I want to emphasize his relationship with his wives and children. Wives. He had a slave mistress and numerous slave children as well of course as Rosalie Stiers Calvert, his (wealthy) wife who died young partly from exhaustion (9 pregnancies in a very few years of marriage), and typhoid. It’s thought that George, his ancestors and said the black family was treated decently by Calvert: he freed his mistress and moved her to where she was safe from re-captivity and did the same for his black children. The docent said he did not follow the instructions he was supposed to have with his inheritance from his wife but used it as he saw fit. He did not give his white daughter a dowry since she displeased him by her marriage choice: a lawyer (!), a man who has to earn his keep and food (as in Trollope’s HKHWR Hugh Stanbury is not approved of by the Rowleys ), but he gave his other two daughters dowries and provided handsomely for his white sons.

A third person who lived in the house was of interest to us, Francis Adam Plummber. There is an exhibit in the dependency house, about him. Francis Adam Plummer, a male black man who was a slave to the Calverts. He was apparently recognized as intelligent by someone and taught to read and to write. And he was given sufficient materials and time to keep a diary. This is so rare. I’ve been to numerous houses here in the south where the large number of black people who lived side-by-side with their owners simply were erased from history. All that’s left are slave cabins or occasional photos.

What a poignant story. When he grew older, he was permitted to marry a black woman owned by a family not far away and she got pregnant by him. And he was permitted to visit her and their children. Stories of how happy all this was are belied by he and his wife’s plans to escape. They almost managed it. When they were caught they were punished in a variety of ways (including probably savage whipping), some of the children were sold away and nearly the wife. Why she was not sold I cannot say as pleadings did no good. Instead a sister was sold away. He had to live separately from these children, lost contact with them and this wife for many years. At the time of the Emancipation Proclamation they tried again but did not realize (as many people appear today not to) it did not apply to all states — only those states Lincoln wanted to weaken. So they were seized and imprisoned. Imagine this. Finally after the civil war they did gain their liberty, human status, and Plummer became a paid foreman. A whitewashed account. The site tells you more about the publication and diary and great granddaughter responsible for the exhibit about Plummer in the Dependency today — still relegated you see. You can see a transcription of said diary.

As to the Dependency building, on Saturday morning it was filled with cooking and food preparation materials, with utensils and dishes of all sorts, plenty of forks and spoons. Big rich houses would have these small square houses nearby: used for hired and indentured servants, as kitchens, for overseers’ families. Chawton cottage is a nice version of these — in the later 19th century it was knocked up into flats for people lower in class than the Austens.

When I exclaimed about Plummer’s sad brief life, the guide who was there and telling us about the cookery things she had about her, the publications of recipes and the like, responded in that way so many people do: well, said she, he had it very good in comparison to so many other slaves. So? why do people respond in this appalling way, why do they endlessly accept harsh horrible injustices when they see them by calling them not so bad as over here. Not that they care about them for real.

Here is a site devoted to him. You learn about the publication of the diary and great granddaughter responsible for the exhibit about Plummer in the Dependency today — still relegated you see. You can see a transcription of said diary.

On ritual occasions: the descendents of Plummer and this slave mistress (whose name I never learned) and the still very wealthy white Calverts come to the house which is in a remarkable state of unspoiled existence and is under renovation and restoration.

Back to our visit: The greatest learning experience was the house: it’s physical self and its accoutrements. It’s strictly neo-palladian. A central block with two symmetrical wings. The windows all square and symmetrical. The rooms have high ceilings and simple lines. Among the more beautiful things I saw was a wallpapered study supposedly used by George, the husband, for reading. Probably he didn’t read in it that much.

The paper is some of it the original papers (one of the panels and placed under glass) and is a long scene of beautiful green landscape in which you watch a hunt. Very like a medical tapestry then. We see the way people dressed then. There was something Hubert Robert about the way the figures were represented in the last panel. The wallpaper may pro-king as it begins with the house Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI stopped fatally at on “the night of the Varennes flights,” and was herself arrogant enough to insists on silver not pewter dishes and thus gave away to an innkeeper who she was. Or it could be more simply nostalgic — for what never was.

On the other hand, the Calverts were good friends with the Custises and George Calvert knew George Washington. Washington was to the British a traitor; had Washington been seized by the British, they would have hung him. The founding fathers were albeit somewhat conservative ones economically as we might see it, and they allowed for slavery in the constitution, nonetheless, radical in their enlightenment thought. They were helped by the French revolutionaries.

We saw a beautiful dining room where every attempt was made to recreate the original ambience and even re-create or bring back literally those things originally there. Faux-marbel lines the bottom half of walls; copies of the paintings of Rosalie and her daughter and George by Gilbert Stuart are on the wall; so too one by Rembrante Peake of Rosalie’s father. A lovely porch-like area was next to that with grand windows facing out to the vast lawn. The next room was the ladies’ withdrawing room; it had some original pieces. The stairwell was a turning one with a square window. AT its bottom a lovely neo-classical statue originally had a candle in her hand. It must have been a dark walk up. Upstairs we saw a room painted yellow: that meant it was for lesser people as yellow was cheaper. A blue room (lapis used) with a beautifully carved ceiling was for special guests. A nursery on the end. And (as I’ve detailed above), a master bedroom where Rosalie slept with George, gave birth, wrote her letters.

Where did the hired and indentured servants and the slaves live? The slaves were (it seems) mostly in cabins outside the house. Inside the house there was a door on one of the corridors on the second floor which led to now invisible quarters. There the servants could sleep ever at hand to be called — or live. I remember seeing the rooms meant for servants on separate back stairways in other houses like this. In some pre-Civil War houses, there was an effort made to re-structure and re-build the house to destroy these rooms, to make them invisible. This was not done here.

It does seem that the Calverts moved out of this house as a permanent place to live later in the century. They had a home in Manhattan to which they brought the furniture they valued. Some of this they have returned to this house. It must have been thought when the house was built, it would become part of a network of powerful houses. That’s not quite what happened. The district of Columbia did not grow large until the 20th century; it became the focus of a major war. (We did see left-over canon, probably from the revolutionary war, on the lawn.) Now, as I’ve said the house is to the side of a poor area leading out of Washington. Miles and miles of railway lots, empty lots, garages and auto-fix places, punctuated by little oases of shops now and again. Just directly around the house is a neighborhood of older lower middle class homes. It’s rather isolated in its present spot. Perhaps that helps keep taxes down, though it’s probably that as a historic landmark site, the people who manage the house get a break. As it is sobering to learn of Francis Adam Plummer’s story, so to see the surrounding area also teaches one a lesson about the US today.

We ate a luncheon concocted to be as closely 18th century as Maryland cookery and availability allowed. It was mostly heavily overcooked kinds of paste from cheese, meats on hard bread cookies, a savory pie (from sweet potatoes and a custard) and some greens (represented in their natural state in a garden in the landscape). There was a knowledgeable costume and food historian as well as a lecture by an independent scholar, Clarissa Dillon. Before the tour of the house, we heard a woman who knew a lot about food in the dependency house. Another woman told us quickly a history of the family. A third had prepared the food. All these were short but informative talks.

The longest talk was by Clarissa Dillon. She knew a lot about food and drink in this era, and read aloud to us many details from sheets of recipes she had brought with her. Unfortunately she had a chip on her independent scholar’s shoulder against “academics” who she repeatedly stigmatized as not knowing food in a practical sense, as not approving of the earlier era so not presenting it on its own terms. She cited no one and did not appear to know Maggie Lane’s Jane Austen and Food, which might have given her some pause. She was quite right to say to study Austen’s texts as a way of learning what people in Austen’s era ate or drank would be a frustrating business, but appeared to think the novel that had the most references to food is Sense and Sensibility. It’s Emma that is the novel rich in particular references to food and drink. She herself has made some of the drinks of Austen’s era (wines, beer, spruce beer, port) and brought some hypocras and ratafia for us to try. She had some handsome bottles from the era (practical and strong glass).

I must admit I did not care for the food nor the drink: biscuit dough turned into hard cookies that only break apart after you crunch down — did they not have yeast? Ratafia seemed to me medicinal. They sugared their drinks intensely; it didn’t help their teeth. The desert had real apple and cream. The meal bought home to me that most Americans easily can eat a much more varied diet today. Ms Dillon did remark on how poor many Americans have become and now resort to cheap rice for their diet. Food stamps help. Alas, junk food with a lot of grease as well as sugar is a staple of the American diet today. But if you have the money of course, in my areas there is a weekly farmers’ market for local produce; we have the food gourmet-type supermarkets (Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Wegman’s) and lots of Safeways, all of which provide a vast variety of food and drink not dependent on the seasons. And we didn’t have to spend hours making any of it. Austen herself prepares mead with her relatives; like the Claverts (apparently) she locked up the sugar, wine and anything else valuable or rare or which could be stolen and sold (by servants desperate for some cash).

The whole experience was highly instructive, and I found in the bookstore below a $25 copy of the marvelous book (mentioned above) which describes Riversdale life best: Mistress of Riverdale: The Plantation Letters of Rosalie Stier Calvert, 1795-1821, ed Margaret Law Callcott. I’d go back to see and learn more. In the meantime I’ve an idea I’m in for a real treat in this book. From what I saw quoted on the walls of the Dependency building from Rosalie’s diary and what I saw of her taste in the house, she was an intelligent woman.


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Dear friends and readers,

Four months have gone by and many letters missing (letter 44). We hear nothing of the plan to live with Martha Lloyd. Anne Sharpe is now at Godmersham, wandering in the grounds as a governess-servant. The plan to live together as a women friends group got nowhere. Squashed. No funds? or some other unmentioned objection.

The sisters, Jane and Cassandra, undergo a process of switching — or swapping if you emphasize it’s not they who decided but others’ desires, urging, invitations. One is now at Goodnestone Farm, the Bridges’s family house. Whence the mention of a man living there, Edward Brydges — early on let us recall perhaps a suitor (he [played by Hugh Bonneville] is made much of in Miss Austen Regrets). The switching puts me in mind of Ayala’s Angel by Anthony Trollope: the relatives in Ayala keep switching two sisters depending on who a particular sister has pleased or displeased.

They had been to Eastwell: this is a place I do know something of as I learned a good deal about it when I did my work on Anne Finch, Countess of Winchelsea (1661-1720) who lived there probably in the mid-1690s and again from 1704 to her death. Her husband unexpected inherited it, but she had no children. Yes a lovely place and now a hotel.

The letter seems on the surface cheerful but not another swap seems about to take place: that when Cassandra comes to Godmersham, Jane can go to Goodnestone. Jane seems to want this — get away from Godmersham — but there’s an enigmatic reference to Harriot who Jane defies to accept this self-invitation of hers (Jane is inviting herself). Elizabeth longs for Cassandra to take care of one of the daughters, Lizzy.

And also it ends on Austen’s portrait of herself as a “sister sunk in poverty.” She cannot afford to give more than 10 shillings as tip to one of the servants, Sackree. The nursemaid. I remember Richardson saying how badly he was treated when he didn’t tip someone and how no one from the family helped him out. She has had to spend some of her tiny reserve to keep up with these Bridges and Austen Knights.

I know I’ve been emphasizing that Austen in her letters at least treats servants as people. I didn’t sufficiently emphasize how in the previous letter she talks of Isaac who seems to have been out of service for a while. He does not object to a change of country (area in England); the place will have “good soil” (countryish), e “a good mistress” and some joke about her giving him medicines (“I suppose will not mind taking physic now and again), some quirk of a woman he will have to live with. In this letter We hear of a number of servants Austen can’t keep up with: Mrs Salkeid, Mrs Sace, also the hairdresser whose services note she cannot really afford. He charges her only 2 shillings 6 pence for the cutting only when he has dressed her hair too. Imagine the embarrassment. The poor relative in the big house.


Eastwell Manor, Kent (today)

I’m not sure which Harriot who is living at Goodnestone where Cassandra is staying, and who has a cold is meant in the first sentence. It is probably not the Harriet who Edward Brydges married in 1809 for Harriet Foote would not be living at Goodnestone before marriage. My guess is this is Harriot-Mary who married George Moore in 1806 (as his second wife). Austen laughs at herself by saying she hopes that Cassandra is “sitting down to answer these questions.”

The whole of the first page of this letter in manuscript is then taken up by the visit to Eastwell. (The names Anne and George were repeated endlessly in the Finch-Hattons; after that Daniel was common. In many families Elizabeth and Mary, Charles were very popular.) The people mentioned are the family and household at Eastwell and those of the Brydges who came. Lady Gordon is Harriet Finch and Lefaye in her notes says Lady Gordon was an admirer of Austen’s novels in later years. It seems they were congenial. Lady Gordon’s husband is Sir Janison and Austen objects only to his sneering at Mrs (Miss) Anne Finch, one of the unmarried sisters of the present owner, a George. Austen is an unmarried sister. He had apparently said nothing, only begun to talk to Elizabeth Austen (Edward’s wife) as she was getting into the carriage to leave. Sounds like last minute civilities.

I don’t know where Cassandra went with Harriot — perhaps to a doctor and thus missed some enjoyment. Thus the self-sacrifice was applauded. When the female Finches (sound like birds I know) professed to be afraid Cassandra would find Goodnestone dull, they were in effect pointing out how boring (as they many would see it) to stay with an elderly widow. Austen did not speak up only wished she had the nerve to tell them Edward Brydges was intensely solicitous about Cassandra’s happiness at Goodnestone. My guess is this mockes Brydges for pretended concern too.

They were civil to Jane as they always are. She’s intelligent and poverty-sticken.

Lefaye guesses Mr E Hatton to be the younger brother of the owner who has many first names. I take it she liked him too — like her he was something of a hanger-on, at least of limited status in the house. She discovered Lady Elizabeth and Miss Hatton have little to say for themselves. I don’t think the next line implies Miss Hatton was deaf, rather that she gestured a lot — nervous?

Two Finch boys, George “fine… well-behaved” and she was chiefly delighted by Daniel — a good humored countenance delighted Austen.

Cribbage boards

They played cards — cribbage. She got a kick out of winning two rubbers with Daniel as her partner. For her sake I hope some money was involved. Mary is another maiden sister of the owner, George. Mr Brett was from a family in Wye — this town is named after a river, very close to Eastwell.

She’d had enough by eleven and didn’t enjoy anyone going to Lady Yates’s ball. This is probably Lady Elizabeth; I don’t know what was the name of their estate. I think it important to keep alive Austen’s continual sense of how she has no estate. After she hopes for her wishes for a good ball were efficacious.

Godmersham Hall today

Then a long passage given over to a description of a typical day and evening at Godmersham. On Friday she had written Frank and played games with Edward’s boys, Battledore and Shuttlecock.

Battledore raquets

She counts how many times they get the object across. Edward and his oldest son, Edward, visited Mrs Knight and Cassandra and Austen refers to Cassandra’s full knowledge there. As I wrote I found it interesting that Austen mentions Miss Sharp again, with Miss Miles (from yet another rector family).. Fanny Knight amuses herself mightily with her own witticisms from the publication of a book of letters from a mother to two daughters and sends her funny comments to her mother. Palmerstone is not the prime minister, but the name of a woman who published a book of letters to her daughters. Then evening a quiet walk around the farm (its lands). Two boys race and are merry; little Edward’s condition not looking good. Edward and Elizabeth take him for walks; unless he can get stronger he will not return with brothers to school. They will take him to Worthing for sea-bathing. Jane included here.

A letter from Frank had gone astray; finished the 16th (August), it traveled round about and thus was not in Jane’s hands when Eliza [Henry’s wife] and Henry had theirs. So everyone wants letters at the same time? I suggest under the joking tone is real disappointment. When something is cancelled many people can’t find a substitute. Now she moves onto Frank, in a great hurry to marry which she encourages (never fear); she thinks Frank thinks it strange since in her last she did not mention his letter — also did not fold her paper the cheapest way, to add to her (Jane’s) injuries she did not number her own letters. (Letters are written and then passed around and slightly outside our family.) Remembering her own goofs reminds her to report she found Cassandra’s white mittens inside her own clean nightcap. They must’ve been put there perhaps when in a hurry.


Goodnestone Park
Goodnestone Gardens

The last part of the letter contains the proposed swap of the sisters in which Austen seems to acquiesce happily so maybe she was not as happy as one might think in the luxurious place and in the county where everyone is rich. This is born out by the last part of this final section where we can see how strained (actually positively without, distressed) for money before others Austen was. I’ve read again and again the hardest social pressure to take beyond falling in rank in front of others is to have to live with those higher in rank than you. Money equals rank here, trumps it in fact.

Elizabeth Austen proposed the scheme of swapping: this coheres with the assumption I’ve seen made (though always discreetly) that Jane was not appreciated by Elizabeth — as too smart (perhaps too satirical in the way Lady Middleton resented and feared). Elizabeth could get more service from Cassandra to care for her brood (especially we see by the end young Lizzie).

The way the phrase about Harriot is written it seems backwards – but it seems to say that Harriot will not accept Jane’s inviting herself unless it what perfectly suits her and at the same time comically assume it will suit: Jane defies her. There may be an obscure hurt floating around here.
At any rate there is no time to write and ask. So anxious was Elizabeth to switch the sisters? Yes, for at the close of the letter Elizabeth asked Jane to add she hopes Cassandra will come no later than Monday 5 o’clock. Some service for Lizzie required. Austen does implore Harriot’s pardon at the close of the letter for Elizabeth’s not writing to her. I have a hunch Elizabeth was no eager correspondent, unlike her part counterpart, Lady Bertram.

The Knatchbulls are another county family, the senior male an MP for parliament. These are big people — like the Cumnors in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters.

Then she has had but one letter from Frank since Thursday. Frank is her especial brother we see repeatedly. If it was not he who worked to publish the first novel, that was that he was not a literary knowing person; Henry and James we know were from the days of the Loiterer.

The PS tells Cassandra neither did she hear from Henry

A series of caricatures of the later hairstyles in the 1890s to 1810

Then the embarrassment of the hair-dressing and kindness (and I assume tact) of the hairdresser who however we notice was not inclined to stay any more than he had to. He did not leave Jane out. He could have. He charged her a tiny sum for the cutting so she would not look as if she couldn’t pay anything at all. Mrs Salkeid the housekeeper, Mrs Sace the lady’s maid, had their hair dressed. I wonder if they literally had more than Austen whose allowance for the year is said to have been 25 pounds. Mortifyingly though she can give the nursemaid only 10 shillings.

Hair and hairdoes of the 18th century

Were servants voracious? No more than waiters/resss today who are paid $2.13 an hour on which together with tips imagined and then average the waiter/ress is actually taxed. So they make a negative income unless they rush about and kowtow for their tips. Servants were paid miniscule sums, given little time off.

Still it must be admitted the need to pay tips kept some people from visiting houses with big staffs 🙂 like Godmersham.

Austen does look forward to meeting in Canterbury but wants to forewarn her: “it is as well however to prepare you for the sight of a Sister sunk in poverty, that it may not overcome your Spirit.”

And so she closes this letter. No ability to choose her life, no recognized right.

Of the films thus far made, Gwyneth Hughes’s and Anne Pivcevic’s Miss Austen Regrets, based on Austen’s letters and other primary documents have come closest to depicting the desperate moneyless state of the Austen women.

After the announcement of Henry’s bankruptcy, Mrs Austen (Phyllida Law) berates Jane for not marrying Harris Bigg-Wither

But this film too avoids the Bath lodging and wandering homeless years, and emphasizes one of the men in the letters as earnestly devoted, congenial, waiting to marry or succor Jane, willing to leave her alone to write, if she only would allow him to be her support

Jane (Olivia Williams) and Edward Brydges (Hugh Bonneville)

The real counterpart for Jane Austen was Henry Fielding’s sister, Sarah — desperately poor, preferring to live with her women friends, visiting them at Bath, moving from friend’s house to friend’s house, living alone when older, trying to live by her pen and not managing, and serving her brother.

See Letters 29, 30, 31, 32, 33 and 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40-42, 43, 44


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The Sydney Gardens, by the canal

Dear friends and readers,

Ten days have passed since the previous letter. We sometimes talk of whether we like Austen in this or that letter: I certainly like her in this one: what is so solid about it is she does not pretend to be happier, richer, more successful, luckier, or any of the usual ploys of false self- and social presentation. She really presents her life quietly as it is. The bravery and truth of this one struck me. The picture is of the same straitened life as letter 43, with this addition, she seems to be working at gathering acquaintances, keeping herself on an even keel, and self-deprecatory laughter to steel herself where necessary. It reminded me of Johnson’s aphorisms from the Rambler: one about resting ourselves on the stability of truth.

We can see a modus vivendi, a way of life has been envisaged but quite how to carry it off not yet seen: Cassandra, Jane and Martha were to set up a partnership among them that will bring the best conversation in the world we can imagine. I suggest from this and the last letter where Miss Sharpe is quietly seeking new employment in Bath, maybe Anne Sharpe was to be a fourth in the partnership if only she could get enough money regularly for supporting herself.
It was familiarly known that a group of bluestocking women under the aegis of Elizabeth Montagu (she and her friends) lived more or less together in Bath, even if they did not sleep under the same roofs all the time; unmarried, including most notably Sarah Scott, Elizabeth Carter, Sarah Fielding. There was respectable precedent. Everyone but has her dreams.

I am quite of your opinion as to the folly of concealing any longer our intended Partnership with Martha, & whenever there has been of late an enquiry on the subject I have always been sincere & I have sent word of it to the Mediterranean in a letter to Frank. (It’s Frank she ever tells first, Frank she confides in confidently.)

Amelia [Bickerton] is to take lessons of Miss Sharpe …

The only place she breaks down is when she is driven by her sense she must help Charles where her small effort might help and goes to visit some grand personages who first of all have directed their servants to stigmatize people by some understood code of dress, which led said servants to play them in some outermost room; then they had to endure apologies which (partly understandable) necessarily showed the snubbing but also continued the condescending lies.

Many many parallels with characters in the last three novels emerge here. P&P, S&S and NA‘s central content from the 1790s; well MP, Emma and Persuasion start unfold here. It was a Betty Bickerton who deserted Harriet Smith when the gypsies attacked them. Carol Houlihan Flynn’s essay on Austen’s letters in the Cambridge Companion argues (persuasively) that Austen’s voice and rhythms, the disposition of her sentences may be found somewhat parodied in Miss Bates’s talk.

I don’t say such a letter is enough to tell us central truths about Austen’s full feelings about Bath or behavior while there. We see that 12 days are omitted and letters missing and then again 4 months; nothing allowed through about Jane’s writing. Maybe she did that to one in the afternoon? She is aware she speaks only of her feet. Nothing of her reading (probably from the many circulating libraries) — or knowing it’s of no real interest for real to Cassandra we get nothing of this. Nothing of her intense frustration. I imagine her spirit did break down again periodically or she grew angry. All these destroyed. I would have loved to read them and see her working at reaching the plateau of this letter.


Walking in Bath, Anne (Anne Elliot) and Admiral Croft (John Woodvine) (1995 BBC Persuasion)

The first phase of the letter is dominated by Martha’s mother’s death and Cassandra’s visit to her: everything relates back to that, even the (black) cap which Aunt Jane offered to pay for (knowing she ought to) but cannot get herself to do it.

Notable details: Austen grateful for Cassandra’s letter which was “an unexpected pleasure.” Not only is Cassandra nowhere as keen on letter writing and reading as Austen, she is with this woman friend whose mother has died and who like the Austen is not basically without a visible means of support. Martha has got to get out of Ibthorpe.

Who was Mrs Stent besides providing one basis for Miss Bates (I agree she is also partly Austen herself):

“Poor Mrs Stent! it has been her lot to be always in the way; but we must be merciful, for perhaps in time we may come to be Mrs Stents ourselves, unequal to anything and unwelcome to everybody.”

Well she is someone worse off financially and socially than Martha or the Austens. She was an aging paid companion to Mrs Lloyd, an “early friend, of rather inferior position in life, and reduced from family misfortunes, to very narrow means.” Caroline wrote this and said she reminded a very old lady lodging in a small cottage next to Mrs Criswick.

Pretty bad, desperate. Reminds me of Priscilla Stanbury in Trollope’s HKHWR: she’s a quiet lesbian spinster of Trollope’s who ends up in a hovel cultivating and desert kind of bare garden.

So Austen identifies here and compassionate. There but for the grace … will go we … (Cassandra too perhaps)

But not Emma:

Miss Bates (Tamsin Grieg) realizing she has been mocked (2009 BBC Emma)

Cassandra has said she will be back soon — maybe eager too — but Austen says they know better and will not expect her for another 17 or 18 days (May 10 or 11).

Cassandra as we (and Jane) expected send a “comfortable account” of Martha. I imagine if the women howled Cassandra would not say even to the beloved intimate sister Jane. Jane though also acknowledges that Cassandra’s account was true enough, close enough to the bone of grief: “we shall be in no fear of receiving a worse.” She agrees going to church was a trial of her feelings. I’ll bet. And now a reference to James Austen having left his early allegiance to literature: he is after all no great shakes as a man of business (neither come to think of it was Henry); it’s not a sermon or poem, but rather he has access to the post (perhaps he has a horse that can get to a post office?) and can send a letter.

This is a quietly biting sarcasm. James took Steventon from them.

And then that Cassandra is right to suppose Austen wore mourning to the concert. That costs and thus the price of the cap and the Aunt’s niggardliness and how her hypocrisy makes Austen have to decline a small pleasure rather than end up paying for herself what she cannot afford (a concert besides the black cap).

Mrs Norris: My Aunt is in a great hurry to pay me for my Cap, but cannot find in her heart to give me good money.”

Aunt Jane recognizes how much every sum matters and yet she can’t get herself to cough up the money. Meanwhile her hypocritical charities force Jane to decline to go to what she would actually enjoy:

“all the service she will render me therefore, is to put it out of my power to go at all …”

Sunday’s text now takes a turn to another subject, by now by no means new. A very long monologue — not a break for a paragraph — about their present social life, that day and in general.

This account of their social doings carries until the mention of Mr Hampson being there brings Martha back to mind. It appears that Martha did yearn to marry, for a partner, for this is the second time in the letters Austen refers to Martha’s “interest” in a given man; where Austen met him gives rise to memories of Green Park buildings, escapes for summer jaunts and before you know it the plan to live together with Martha and their relatives’ response to this (perhaps uncomfortable, but not adamently opposed). The letters move associatively.

And the last section until Monday tells of the grating snubbing Austen and her mother endured at Lady Leven’s (on Charles’s behalf they told themselves).

Their present social life: What a tissue of dense detail with many nuances. As I wrote the long morning’s not accounted for so perhaps Jane wrote from early morning to 1 (with time out for breakfast and trip to the post). her facing the inexorableness of time through the boy who is not 14: “what are we to do?”.

She is aware that somehow she is valued — “my notice should be of such consequence” but admits her social inability to cope with this: “my Manners are so bad.”

On Saturday she just walked and walked.

“Yesterday was a busy day with me, at least with my feet, & my stockings; I was walking all day long; I went to Sydney Gardens soon after one, & I did not return until four, & after dinner I walked to Weston.”

Sunday morning she did have an engagement: the Cooks again, Miss Bendish, the young Miss Whitby. Not Julia; they’d done with her. I worried a fleet second about that one but no Julia not actually dead or snubbed but “very ill” so a sister, Mary, now grown up took Julia’s place with “fine complexion & wear[ing] great square muslin shawls”

Sounds lovely that — great square muslin shawl. It was April and stil very chilly in the UK.

Austen says though she has not mentioned herself she was there and (interesting) George Whitby “was very kind and talked sense to me every now & then in the intervals of his animated fooleries with Miss Bendish.” No entry for Miss Bendish but one for clergymen family of Whitbys. I’m sorry there’s not for Austen likens her to Lucy Lefroy her supposed great friend.

As opposed to Lucy Lefroys and Miss Bendish most of the talk around Austen is “monstrous deal of stupid quizzing, & commmon place nonsense . . . Scarcely any Wit”

I like the sense of Austen as a more serious person and am drawn to Austen because of the implication she was in need of intelligent companionship and serious conversation, and he saw this and took pity on her as they say.

I feel the oft-cited quotations about Austen being such a stiff poker when she grew older are suspect because it’s uttered by rather stupid, narrow people. Of course they would not like someone sitting there not frivlously fatuous, chattering away.

Vacuous empty minds around her: Mr Bendish, summed up fully as tall, Mr F Bonham can do nothing but an well duh commonplace: “So Miss Austen your cousin is come.”

In the last letter we saw that a few friends/acquaintances in this milieu actually seemed to Austen actually to value her and her relatives for company. Well so too Miss Armstrong. What Austen needs to forgive Miss Armstrong for? perhaps ironically valuing Austen’s presence (how could she be so foolish, so desperate): “well disposed” “reasonable” “really an agreeable girl and it’s she who gives rise to a line that anticipates Jane Fairfax:

“her great want of companion at home which may well make any tolerable acquaintance important to her, gives her another claim on my attention”

Who does this anticipate but Jane Fairfax?

Mrs Weston (Samanthan Bond) telling Emma (Kate Beckinsale) that Jane Fairfax stays with Mrs Elton because she has no one else

Then Mr Knightley (Mark Strong): does not Jane have some claim on your attention?

IN the next line Austen assures Cassandra she will not go overboard — what snobbery and social insecurities are here in this. It also shows Austen compartmentalizing people:

I shall endeavour as much as possible to keep my Intimacies in their proper place, & prevent their clashing”

Austen’s afraid people from different classes will be affronted at one another.

Then another lady friend she’s taken up mentioned (by associated) Miss Irvine. Austen visits her in the morning; she hasn’t the power to visit her at night. She must pay her visit when she can. Shades of Anne Elliot visiting Mrs Smith in Bath.

Anne Elliot (Amanda Root) visiting Mrs Smith (Helen Scheslinger) and Nurse Rooke (Jane Wood) in Bath (1995 BBC Persuasion)

Then the plan for a party for the mother which to do Austen credit she means to invite Miss Irvine — though Miss Irvine apparently a sensitive type declined, preferring quiet. I am tempted to paraphrase Emma here on being accused of a hectic social life: this does not seem a party of hard abrasiveness or noise. But too much for Miss Irvine; her mother though was up to it.

Apparently Mrs Austen would not go out in the evening so Austen says she’ll invite people to come to them. (They can’t afford a carriage and perhaps nighttime in Bath made her nervous — gamblers, street women …) So Austen invites the faithful Chamberlaynes too, people she can count on to come.

Austen doesn’t herself want to be snubbed.

Why this evening Tuesday party (showing by the way Tuesday outside the novels was not to be feared — Austen not superstitious) brings the young boy Bickerton to mind I don’t know. Maybe because he was lively, and came (?). He was a relation of an admiral. She finds him sweet “both in manner and conversation” — likens him to Fulwar-William who we remember she played cards with at Steventon years ago. Then how time flies and how old she’s getting: “who by the bey is actually fourteen – -what are we to do?” He never sees Jane without (kindly) enquiring after Cassandra; his family really like Bath (not phonies) and the two youngsters go on with their teachers (masters and mistresses). And now the reference to Anne Sharpe.

For me this almost (not quite) clinches the case for Anne Sharpe to be the mentioned Anne in the last letter. “Amelia is to take lessons of Miss Sharpe”

How many Anne Sharpes can we have? three?

Well says Austen among so many friends (Irvine, Armstrong, Miss Sharpe, the Bickerton childen) she must get into a scrape. By which I guess she means offend someone by doing something satiric or tactless. Austen was awkward in company – perhaps that’s why the overreaction of egregious flirting when young and the quiet when old.

Miss Blachford back and Austen says she’d have gone mad at another day of the Bullers. He so sick (bilious) and she with no one to appreciate her or give her any meaning in life but her countless children who are not there anyway.

I’d go distracted too.

Now general news, not her social life is taking us to Mr Hampson and Martha. Cooks leave Bath next week, the cousin going earlier and the marriage of Mr Edward Barber of some place in Shropshire to a Miss Emma Halifax.

Why is Mr Barber a wretch who does not deserve an Emma Halifax’s maid you ask? And no answer comes back. LeFaye knows nothing or if she does, says nothing (likely knows nothing). I note the name Emma who might be part of a brief draft novel towards Emma done in 1802? Does the man’s name bother Austen?

The last parts of Sunday’s text is a lead-in to Austen’s looking forward with Cassandra to partnership with Martha Lloyd: all three will live together: it’s about people flitting from their rental places in order (one assumes) to avoid higher rents in summer, gain money from others who rent for the summer, and travel, just a little. Then the stout insistence they will not hide themselves or their lives and none of their relatives could be unprepared for this. And lastly the stigmatizing treatment meted out to the Austens when they (were fools enough to) curry favor for Charles Austen with people who seemed to be his friends and admirers.

Mr Hampson is someone to whom Martha had been attracted. Clearly Austen is not keen on him: She “trusted to his forgetting our number in Gay St ….” and since he has not called, she assumes he never intended to visit.

The usual social lies are pointed out here and Austen’s distaste for them comes out — especially it must be admitted since she is on the receiving end. Lefaye thinks the “famous Saunders” who left letters unpublished is a figmen tof Austen’s satiric take.

Then the core: I am quite of your opinion as to the folly of concealing any longer our intended Partnership with Martha, & whenever there has been of late an enquiry on the subject I have always been sincere & I have sent word of it to the Mediterranean in a letter to Frank. (It’s Frank she ever tells first, Frank she confides in confidently.) — None of our nearest Connections I think will be unprepared for it; I do not suppose that Martha’s have not foreseen it.”

This is written to offset pretended surprise and objections. Today I was again reading Emma Donoghue who writes in the era overt spinsterhood especially when the woman lives with someone else was understood to be a possibly lesbian arrangement.

The Elliots meet Lady Dalrymple (1995 BBC Persuasion)

As to the staged snubbings — it must be admitted Jane buys into the values behind this or seems to: Jane surmises Cassandra will think they went to Lady Roden (a Hampshire connection), but it was Lady Leven, mother of Lord Balgonie. Lord Balgonie was apparently a patron of Charles’s, and in a note LeFaye quotes someone who produces an appealing portrait of Balgonie. The Austens had heard these august personages were to visit them, of course they “thought it right to go to them” The Austen’s poverty-small lodgings were not such as these people should condescend to. Then we get how they were sat in the drawing room, how Lord Leven came in and apologized for the “mistake,” and his lie, the requisite ten minutes with him, and then Lady Leven coming out in despite of all this. It is true that Austen delivers a pleasant sentence on the Levens: “they seem very reasonable, good sort of people, very civil and full in his [Charles’s] praise (p. 105). Austen appears to be compounding for hearing praise of Charles and being herself included. Lady L encounters them on their way out I don’t know, perhaps a mistake, but then they have to return to another semi-grating number of minutes — somewhat leavened by praise of Charles and a little girl (Marianne) asking after (the now dead) Mr Austen

Monday’s entry is much shorter. It’s interesting that Austen views the Cooks from the outlook of a servant come to be hired: Isaac. Isacc does not mind changing country, will have good soil (to grow a garden?), and good mistress and will be willing to take physic to please her. She may not write of them in her novels but life servants were not invisble to her.

Mr Mant has not yet paid Mrs Austen what he owed her, only sent a letter of apology.

Then she is mocking solemnity. Tom Chute (Austen was told) fell from his horse; Austen will not feel sorry for him until she is told more; then she will pity him – a joke on priesthood and ordination: Austen says he fell because he was planning on taking orders. Very dangerous. Here we see her in Mary Crawford’s role, making fun of the church in effect. Lightly, but there.

Tuesday nothing much to add but that against her own better judgment and irritated instinct, she invites the (fatuous) uncle and (sponging miserly) aunt. Despite her resolution she invites them and says: “I thought it was of first consequence to avoid anything that might seem a slight to them.”

This reminded again of what Mrs Smith told Anne Elliot about maintaining a relationship with relatives: “Even the smooth surface of family union seems worth preserving, though there may be nothing durable beneath”. Austen will be “glad” when this social occasion is over and vows using irony: “[I] hope to have no necessity for having so many dear friends at once again.”

Anne Elliot (Sally Hawkins) holding serious conversation with Mrs Smith (Maisie Dimbleby) with Nurse Rooke (Sarah Buckland) listening (2007 ITV Persuasion)

She shall write Charles in the next packet (presumably specifics gleaned from the Levens) unless Cassandra means to. Austen would just as soon Cassandra do this task.

And so this ends, no where as cheerfully as it began.

Many other details which put me in mind of a couple of favorite aphorism:

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” Samuel Beckett.

“There is indeed one element in human destiny that not blindness itself can controvert. Whatever else we are intended to do, we are not intended to succeed; failure is the fate allotted. Our business is to continue to fail in good spirits.
–Robert Louis Stevenson”

Austen could not foresee that she would ever publish her marvelous books; indeed she had by then grown used to the reality she was framed for others by her social position, and most people would not recognize their quality unless persisted in by others. She could not foresee how she and Martha and Cassandra would set up life beyond the one they had — I suppose they thought Martha would join them in their lodgings with whatever tiny sum she might have. We see her in mid-life here forced to waste time she could have been spending writing her novels. We indeed should be glad that finally Frank found them a place in Southampton and then Edward offered his Chawton cottage.

When I say, Jane Austen is about as far from Madame de Genlis (the ultimate producer of happiness and bright surface epistles) as one could get, I mean to allude to Mrs Dashwood remarking of Elinor’s comment that Edward was most unlike his sister, Fanny: “It is enough .. to say that he is unlike Fanny [Genlis in my paraphrase] is enough. It implied everything that is amiable …”

I also note: I had not thought why Miss Austen Regrets jumps from 1802 the marriage proposal to 1813 and then 1816. The film-makers did not want to show us the straitened maiden lady in furnished lodgings. What would that do to the heritage industry? They did not want to show us how the brothers reacted. They did not want to have to cope with what she wrote in this time and what she was. Becoming Jane also jumps from 1790s to later in Jane’s life, skipping this formative time of uncertainty and doing without in Bath.

See Letters 29, 30, 31, 32, 33 and 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40-42, 43.


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Gay Street may be seen just off The Circus (see brief history of Austen moves)

Dear friends and readers,

This letter to Cassandra at Ibthorpe with Martha and Mary Lloyd while Mrs Lloyd, their mother is dying, gives us a picture of Austen’s life as a single woman living in straitened circumstances in lodgings in Bath. She has fallen in status and now finds herself in social circles of women like herself — evoking the world of Emma from partly from a point of view like that of Miss Bates or Jane Fairfax..

Miss Bates (Constance Chapman) having to keep up a brave front before the grand lady, Emma (Doran Godwin) because her niece, Jane Fairfax has taken a position as a governess (1972 BBC Emma — at Miss Bates’s lodgings)

Jane Austen is throughout this letter acutely aware of this. The letter shows many other parallels between Austen’s life in Bath and experiences and scenes in Sense and Sensibility, Emma, and Persuasion. I suggest that perhaps Jane Austen took the name of her friend, Anne Sharp and gave it to her last heroine, Anne Elliot.

Perhaps it would be well at this point to detail the income she, her mother and sister were living on: 450 £ (pounds) a year. Shortly after Mr Austen died, the brothers added to the tiny income coming to Mrs Austen from her investments (which were hers at the time of her marriage): 210 £ a year. That’s too small to live genteelly on. It may include Cassandra’s small annuity income from the investment made with the 1000 £ Tom Fowles left her. So James and Henry made that up with 240 more pounds to come to 450 a year. At or around the time of the funeral James pledged 50, Henry did the same, Edward (they decided) was to be relied on for 100. At first Frank wanted to give 100, but it was beyond him, so the mother said no, and it was a pledge of 50. Of course these are pledges not the same as getting money from what you own yourself. Henry’s shallow (unthinking) optimism in a letter to Frank:

I really think that my mother & sisters will be to the full as rich as ever. They will not only suffer no personal deprivation, but will be able to pay occasional visits of health and pleasure to their friends

As Honan (one of Austen’s biographers) remarks: this overlooks the psychological as well as dependent status the three women must now endure: they have to rely on other people who have committments of their own, must live in lodgings not their own home, which they would never be able to afford. One servant kept in the furnished lodgings, no carriage, no means of washing easily, have to buy all food, where they went to the bathroom becomes an issue they had to be aware of. Austen turned this into the words of Fanny to John Dashwood in the bitter Chapter 2 of S&S:

Do but consider, my dear Mr. Dashwood, how excessively comfortable your mother-in-law and her daughters may live on the interest of seven thousand pounds, besides the thousand pounds belonging to each of the girls, which brings them in fifty pounds a year apiece, and, of course, they will pay their mother for their board out of it. Altogether, they will have five hundred a year amongst them, and what on earth can four women want for more than that? They will live so cheap! Their house-keeping will be nothing at all. They will have no carriage, no horses, and hardly any servants; they will keep no company, and can have no expenses of any kind! Only conceive how comfortable they will be! Five hundred a year!

Fanny (Harriet Walter) to John (James Fleetword) Dashwood (1995 Miramax S&S)

The letter itself is a sudden burst — reminding me of the one from Lyme (39, 14 September 1804, Lyme). They both have this burst-forth feel. In the case of Letter 39 there is the distinct feel of someone who has been ill and is recovering. In this Letter 43 it’s Cassandra who has been ill, and of course, being Cassandra, presenting herself as far better than she is. Jane ignores this and speaks to what she assumes is the reality: Cassandra is “already the better for the change of place.” So much for Bath; there’s no getting away from Jane Austen’s distaste for the place and now she has had years to confirm this.

It’s now my belief that Jane Austen had some kind of breakdown during the four years we have no letters for. Tomalin thinks she went into a many year depression and that’s why there was no writing; I conceive from the calendars and texts we have that Austen did write during these years, but she had a hiatus which the absence of letters hides. And she comes back to learn to live with her vulnerability, their mortifications and accept these. Her way of life is determined walking, quietly writing and a social round with others like herself.

This is my sense of the full meaning of the utterance in this letter: “What a different circle are we now moving in! But seven years I suppose are enough to change every pore of one’s skin, & every feeling of one’s mind.” A cataclysm of emotion occurred for which we have no document – but of course the novels — and we have a woman on the other side of intense longings for what her world would never give her (real respect, any money, any power). And she really has turned to her novels to experience some of this in her imagination and to feel real respect for her work even if no one else who counts (meaning the public world) does.

Note it’s the mother the brothers are supporting first and foremost. I suppose that might be because it’s probable she will not remarry (toothless, lost her looks long ago with all those pregnancies and probably not well from it all, and certainly no money to come to tempt most males sufficiently), but it does have this curious feel of excluding the sisters even if they too will live on it. On Frank and Jane’s special relationship (remember the 3 packets of destroyed letters), it was he who first made a home for her and his mother and Cassandra in Southampton, well before Edward who easily could have from the time of the father’s death on.

She’s not strained in the way of the 1801 letters and even the one from 1804. It’s much more accepting or cheerful: “Here is a day for you! Did Bath or Ibthorpe ever see a finer 8th of April? — It is March & April together, the glare of one & the warmth of the other.” No false idealizing as usual and throughout there is a continual alert feeling of their status, with the implication that it’s low continually, that they are not exactly sought after by anyone who counts. If you read what’s in front of you, you see that Martha has lost her mother and thus her security and place and Cassandra has gone there to comfort – to reassure, for they did invite Martha to come live with them. You see that another friend, Anne Sharpe (ex-governess at Godmersham — I’ve always wondered what happened there) is again seeking employment and (from Austen’s point of view) not from people she admires or anyone would (I realize LeFaye has argued this paragraph is about a lower servant of Austen’s named Anne — but who would this be? Jenny is the servant, and the passage then doesn’t make sense, as we will see below.)

In the later letters when they are in Southampton and especially once they get to Chawton Austen’s cheer increases. She was then at least in her private house in controlled space, had some status and belongings around her, time for solitude, herself and could write uninterruptedly with more space, and then of course was re-juvenated and brought back to herself through the publications. Her plan to publish S&S on her own savings (with Henry’s help) spurred the re-writing of the first three novels and then expansion and writing of the last three novels to where we have them. But here we do have a glimpse of that later mood. And I find a sentence which I think refers to her writing her novels: “I was not able to go on yesterday, all my Wit & leisure were bestowed to Charles & Henry.” Go on? Go on with her novel writing.

This is a piece of journalizing, a diary sent her sister (the way Fanny Burney wrote her journals which survived because Burney outlived not only her own generation but the next one and left the papers to a great-great niece).


Gay Street, a recent photo: the Jane Austen museum has located itself where the Austens lodged

The letter opens and we find Austen on Gay Street. I’ve walked there, a middling sort of row, a steep hill, not a bad part of town then or now. In-between the assembly rooms, near shopping, a bit of a walk from the river and lower parks. In the center of town though.

It begins with cheer: “Here is a day for you!” Cassandra likes this sort of day. She would enjoy it. “Did Bath or Ibthorpe ever see a finer eighth of April?” The two of them have been living between Bath and Ibthorpe (the beloved Martha’s home) these five years. “It is March & April and the glare of one & the warmth of the other.” Anne Elliot hated the white glare of Bath, Fanny Price basked in the warmth of Portsmouth when spring came.

We do nothing but walk about; as far as your means will admit I hope you profit by such weather too.

She does walk about; from the 1801 to this letter that is what we most see her doing. Walking is cheap. It’s an escape from social entanglements. Myself I like a train for this reason too, like what I call “wandering about.”

But it seems that Cassandra’s means may get in the way. Her feet? a carriage? she has not been in good health or spirits. This is recurred to several times in this letter.

Jane was not the only one who suffered from living in Bath — Cassandra might also have suffered from Godmersham for it seems as if she was the aunt called upon most often to serve Elizabeth and Edward Austen. Without pay.

Austen thinks “I dare say you are already better for change of place.” As I wrote quickly endless are the comments which show us Austen didn’t like Bath.

And the one of these endured nights out. They got through the time. Miss Irvine had invited them for tea, and Jane declined it “having no idea that my Mother would be disposed for another Evening visit there so soon: but when I gave her the message I found her well inclined to go.”

No help for it then. They left the chapel (that might be the one where this philanthropic domineering religious woman ran whose name escapes me right now) — it’s high up — and “walked to Lansdowne.” Even higher. One has to have good feet, stout shoes, a good back.

We’ve met the Chamberlaynes before; this time a Mr Ripley, yet another clergyman type. Then in the morning (doubtless form a promise) they go see Miss Chamberlayne ride. This is a typical reality in Austen’s life habits: she watches others ride, others skate, others play tennis. Not her.

Note the exactitute of this: 7 years and 4 months ago they went to hear Miss Chamberlayne play there. That’s 1798 — the visit to Bath we saw recorded in the earlier letters. I’m struck by the precise time. Here I see it as her caring about the Lefroys: Mrs Lefroy, and maybe the memory of Tom stuck too somewhere buried by now.

This is what the gentry who don’t work for a living but don’t have a helluva a lot of money nor an occupation that they can present to the world do: go to tennis courts, watch people ride, performs on piano. We don’t usually feel this passing of time in the costume dramas.

Then the striking remark about time:

What a different circle are we now moving in! But seven years I suppose are enough to change every pore of one’s skin, & every feeling of one’s mind.

And now she moves on to Sunday. They didn’t walk long in the Crescent yesterday (very pretty place by the way — half country half town) it was too hot & not crouded enough.

Did she want it crouded? Does that make it more interesting? LIke walking in Central Park, NYC to watch the people doing their various things .Maybe

Austen does not have anything against Miss Seymour so much as resenting (once again) false praise. Perhaps there is jealousy here too. She has not yet seen her face! Nothing of dash or stylishness, quite the contrary, her dress not even smart, very quiet. Miss Irvine says “she is noever speaking a word.” Why Austen calls Miss Seymour ‘Poor Wretch” and offers the idea she is “in penitence” bothers me. A sexual pecadillo? if so, it’s disdainful and narrow, ungenerous.

There is an implicit contrast with the “good-hearted friendly” Mrs Coulthard. If in her novels Austen could imagine and find sympathy for the world’s victims who were reserved, she could not in life so much. Here she is a kind of Emma. She called while Mrs Austen was out & I was believed to be so.

Interesting: Mrs Coulthard was shy of these two women. She calls to leave her card hoping they will not be there. The dysfunctionalities of social life were rampant in the 18th century, maybe more so than today. Austen recognizes this in her next coment. The affadavits on the table left by the Brownes (who successfully called when no one was there) is a joke about this.

The Ambuscade is not one of Charles or Francis’s ships: Austen keeps an eye on them all. Teh significance is it sent back news that all well on Gibraltar — so about Austen’s brother. As of 9th of March.

NO letter from anybody and then turning to family news: why they are happy at Godmersham I can’t say, as Edward will write tomorrow and she is waiting for a letter from Cassandra about Ibthorpe to see how they are doing there too.

The people she cares about; they are in her mind and she is with them that way. She wants to know how Cassandra is going on especially – as she was not well.

Then a moment of generosity for James’s wife: nice weather for her visit to Speen, and Austen expects a prodigious account (boasting, Mary boasts) of a Christmas diner. And finally a reference to Miss Dundas who Cassandra had apparently liked to have as a friend and would have liked to see again.

A world of women for Cassandra too. The world of Emma outside the heroine.

Miss Bates’s lodgings: Jane Fairfax, Mrs Bates, Harriet, Emma (1996 Meridian Emma)

And so her account of Monday ends.


Opening establishment shot of Part 4 of the BBC Sense and Sensibility (filmed in Bath)

Mrs Jennings (Annie Leon) welcomes Elinor (Irene Richards) and Marianne (Tracey Childs) to a far nicer, be-servanted room than the Austens had

There are several topics under the date of Tuesday: the death of Mrs Lloyd, Mary and Martha’s (harridan of a it’s said) mother. Of interest here is the sombreness with which Austen treats this — she often does not treat death this way, but these are friends and the friends’ mother. While the whole thrust is secular: “consciousness of Existence was gone” (no talk of souls, spirits) and while at first I thought the next line referred to an afterlife it’s rather that Mrs Lloyd is not dead yet:: “May her End be peaceful & easy, as the Exit we have just witnessed.” She died 5 days later.

Cassandra’s state of health which Jane insists was very bad, and cannot have improved so rapidly (unless post-chaises are miraculous healing vehicles which patently they are not) and will not be fobbed off with reports that others tell Cassandra she is better (“People think you in a very bad way I suppose, & pay you Compliments to keep up your Spirits”).

Then there is the combined interactive topic of how much Cassandra’s company probably means to Martha: “As a companion You will be all that Martha can be supposed to want; & in that light, under those circumstances you visit will indeed be well-timed, & Your presence & support have the utmost value.” The circumstances referred to are economic: very nice house but not owned or controlled by Martha at all and in letter 44 Jane refers to a scheme Cassandra had apparently brought with her: that all 3 women would set up life as partners, live together – Jane said she agrees it is bad policy to try to hide it; best to say it out and brave all comment for hiding it would give ammunition to anyone who wanted to oppose (what you see you are ashamed?). All of which helps support Donoghue’s thesis that Austen was living the life of a lesbian spinster.

On this the utterance about 7 years and 4 months gone by is about the way she is seeing and feeling and reacting to the world. She presents the endless babies women have more as an instance of pathos (Mrs Buller). There is no apparent interest in males or dancing (no jokes) and this may just be an instance of the letter to hand and later we have evidence of interest in the apothecary but I feel less tension about this. No one nagging her to marry; no one expects it; no one drives her into circles where she might just pull this off. She is freer. Arnie wrote that he thought “outrage[d] response only arose when that hardship was avoidable and was caused by the unconcern of others>” Well she certainly dislikes “perfect unconcern” (her phrase for Lydia Bennet) but I feel the outrage is gone (and thus the bitter witticisms) because she is no longer bothered personally.

A thread throughout this and the other letters is walking. Austen walks to live, for very life; it’s what she does, how she passes time. It’s not nothing for shoe leather does wear out I suppose; but as entertainments go it’s the cheapest and I suggest keeps individuals away from too much intimacy, social entanglement. It fits my view of Austen. Interestingly they get other women wanting to come. Accompany them. For the same reasons: given nothing to do for real, and no income beyond the barest to keep up the genteel lifestyle in a boarding house. There is a sense of the Austen women as self-reliant, as somehow stalwart people around whom others may (pretend to?) hold up their heads (against far worse snobberies and exclusions).

They do have 450 £ which these acquaintances and friends may not, are more self-possessed perhaps and people are glad to have Austens as their clique or company. Miss Irvine who we have heard of before. “A very pleasant walk to Twerton.”

The Bullers. I went over Mrs Buller in an earlier posting so here just talk of Mr who is very sick: “bilious” signifies real illness. This paragraph reminds us people came to Bath because they were ill, and illness is everywhere — or hypochondria. Sanditon had some roots here.

And now Austen has a visitor, a headmistress, Miss Colburne of Lansdowne Cresdent, which I’ll treat separately


Lansdowne Crescent, 1820 (it has been suggested b Rictor Norton that Anne Radcliffe attended this or another school, perhaps run by the Lee sisters in Bath)

We had a bit of controversy over this on Austen-l. I now suggest that perhaps Anne Elliot’s first name honors Anne Sharp, the governess. There is to be explained when LeFaye inventing another servant, also named Anne (!): there is only the one servant, Jenny, and we know of no other but Nanny and those left behind at Steventon, not upper servant types for an elite girls’ school. LeFaye invented this second mythical presence to distance Austen from having been interviewed as a near equivalent of Jane Austen.

I first wrote:

You see that another friend, Anne Sharpe (ex-governess at Godmersham — I’ve always wondered what happened there) is again seeking employment and (from Austen’s point of view) not from people she admires or anyone would: she refers to “the ignorant class of school mistresses” when she refers to the woman who showed up (presumably to interview Miss Sharpe?) Much snobbery here on Austen’s part I’m afraid and I can find no excuse for this as she is one of these people and she knows it, for her letter is filled with the same kind of fringe women we saw in 1801. Indeed the same families mentioned: Chamberlaynes, Miss Irvine — and not because she loves them for they are still not on a first name basis at all. Nonetheless, the feel is “never mind” and “no matter,” she’s glad to “be of any use” to say “poor Mrs Buller.” “What honour I am come to!” (wry ironies).

Diana B countered with LeFaye’s theory that this Anne is not Ann Sharpe but a servant, Anne and provided LeFaye’s note:

Anne Sharp was governess at Godmersham from 1804-1806 but had to resign owing to continued ill-health; in March 1806 she was with a Mrs Raikes as governess to one little girl aged 6; but even this was too much for her strength, and in May 1806 she moved to become companion to Mrs. Raikes’s sister, the crippled Miss Bailey, in Hinckley, Leics. In the summer of 1811 Miss Sharp left Miss Bailey and [became] governess to the four young daughters of the recently widowed Lady Pilkington…By 1823 she was running her own boarding-school. Here’s where it gets confusing. LeFaye writes, “It is not certain from JA’s surviving letters whether Miss Sharp did eventually manage to visit Hampshire in the late summer of 1811, but she certainly was at Chawton in June 1815, and again for a longer visit in August-September 1820, when JEAL met her at the Cottage and told his sister Anna that she was ‘horridly affected but rather amusing.’ The Miss Sharp whom JA mentions as being in Bath in 1805 is clearly not the same as this Miss Anne Sharp.” Two of them? So the “Anne” who is being interviewed by the Crescent lady in Letter #43, and the “Miss Sharpe” in Letter #44 (“They go on with their Masters & Mistresses, & are now to have a Miss; Amelia is to take lessons of Miss Sharpe”) is not the Anne Sharp, governess, who was Jane Austen’s friend?

My reply is though it’s possible the woman referred to as Anne is another woman, it seems unlikely from the whole tenor of the interview. Who goes to such trouble for a servant. LeFaye has invented a second Anne because she cannot bear to think of Austen interviewed in effect as an equivalent of a friend, or sister of Elizabeth Austen who employed Sharp as a governess. It could be a servant — yes — but servant doesn’t quite fit what’s happening. A headmistress interviewing Austen for a servant this way plus the reference to what school mistresses want? The way servants were regarded was very condescending (to say the least).

Let us look at the passage.

“What honour I am come to! — I was interrupted by the arrival of a Lady to enquire the character of Anne, who is returned from Wales & ready for service. — and I hope I have acquitted myself pretty well, but having a very reasonable Lady to deal with, one who only requited a tolerable temper, my office was not difficult. — Were I going to send a girl to school I would send her to this person; to be rational in anything is great praise, especially in the ignorant class of school mistresses — and she keeps the School in the upper Crescent.”

This is a good passage to show how important it is to read carefully and how much we can pick up this way even from these remnants.

What an honour I am come to! is the end of an ironic discourse on how Austen is fallen. She is reduced to being glad to be of use to “poor Mrs Buller” for whom “all that can constitute enjoyment” is having her children around her. She has no status or regard anywhere else.

Austen goes away and comes back and moves on associatively. Now she is the person whom a school mistress has come to examine for the character of a prospective employee. Austen does hope she acquitted herself very well: now she Austen is of use again — as she is glad to be “of use” to Mrs Buller (though she admits Mrs Buller sits with that “quiet composedness of mind” that _seems_ sufficient to itself” — italics mine).

I agree Austen does praise the school mistress: calls her a “Lady”, grants her a rare “rational mind”. I am drawn to that phrase as a general comment that makes Austen the writer she is, the mind she is. Rationality is rare and she sees it in this woman; she is “very reasonable.” But then the other vein in the passage is even anti-school, implicitly disvaluing the academic learning of such a place for girls. And we see this in Austen’s comments on Mrs Goddard’s school: it’s one thing to be against false learning which is what is implied in Emma but not quite here. Austen is praising this woman for wanting so little of Anne Sharpe. Only a “tolerable temper” (that’s Austen’s italics). It is then okay apparently for a teacher to be meaner, a hard disciplinarian, sharp. This does go with what Sarah Fielding presents in her The Governess where one finds harsh punishments accepted (including physical ones with little limit) accepted. And there is downright snobbery in that last phrase. This is especially good in “that ignorant class of school mistresses.”

By happenstance I am listening to The Last chronicle of Barset where we meet the school mistresses of a place Grace Crawley is educated in. Genteel, well read , well educated. I need not instance Jane Fairfax I hope. What impresses Austen is the school is “in the upper Crescent” — where she, Austen, cannot afford to live. This does remind me of Mrs Weston who was herself a governess but hesitate and regrets that Frank should so lower himself to marry Jane Fairfax who could have been a governess. (Is she ignorant? no. It’s Mrs Smallridge who is the horror). Now Austen does (I like to think) satirize implicitly Mrs Weston for Austen remembers and expects us to remember Mrs Weston was a governess.

Perhaps she is skewering herself in Emma both in the central character in part and Mrs Weston but how serious this is we have to ask.

The passage is fascinating as revealing all sorts of things. Austen is one of those who could be a governess. I assume by the way the lady who came to visit and question her might evince the same snobberies towards Austen and her lodgings as Austen towards her.

What a scene. I like Austen for her friendship of course for Anne Sharp and think the passage also shows us where to place Austen in her novels. What her angle is. The threatened woman, near declasse, at risk of being brought down, but idealised to the extent that she will not sell herself egregiously in the way of a Lucy Steele. There she stretches out a hand to Charlotte Bronte finally:

I can live alone, if self-respect and circumstances require me so to do. I need not sell my soul to buy bliss. I have an inward treasure, born with me, which can keep me alive if all extraneous delights should be withheld; or offered only at a price I cannot afford to pay

The Watsons has the closest portrait to herself and her circumstances and that of her father originally than any of the books. I think she was writing that relatively finished opening we have at this time.

Austen then went out for a walk with her mother, a very long walk: “that is a very long Walk” said Mary Cook.

St. James’s Square (where they walked, some of this is very hilly)

Tuesday carried on with a long walk by Mrs Austen and Austen to ST James Square and the Paragon to see the uncle and aunt but I’m not sure who was at St James Square. Neither was home. I hope they were not snubbed.

She then went to the Cooks (a mutual acquaintance with Burney).

A cerrtain comedy of jockeying for position goes on even among the “lower” echelons and for diurnal doings: Apparently Austen hoped to get Mary to walk with them, but no Mary “was on the point of taking a long walk with some other Lady …” There’s something human in this little snubbing. Austen wanted to know then how far were they going and Mary then did (relent) and invite her but she “excused herself” as having come from St James Square (already walk) and Mary replied: “that is a _long_ walk indeed.” I don’t get whether she was implying something derogatory; it does seem so but quite on what terms hard to say. (Social experience is often ambiguous this way). That there was strain in all this mild cross-fire kind of talk can be seen in Austen’s next sentence: “they want us to drink tea with them tonight, I do not know whether my Mother will have nerves for it.”

So maybe Mary was the sort of person that today if she phoned, the people receiving the call would use the answering machine to winnow out?

At any rate “We are engaged tomorrow Evening.” Then the irony again; “What request we are in!” This parallels “What honour I am come to?” Throughout the letter Austen is acutely aware of her fall in status: maiden lady on severely limited income in lodgings.

Still they are wanted by the Chamberlaynes still, Mrs C says her niece will appreciate their “quietness” Austen is ironic about this (she doesn’t quite believe the Cs value this), and says along with themselves and “our quietness”: “Our tea and sugar will last a great while.” So maybe the idea here is the C’s are partly getting a free cup of tea and sugar too?

We don’t know what the Chamberlaynes were living on, do we? I wonder suddenly how cold these people were in their lodgings. April is not exactly warm in the UK.

Austen says she and her mother are just the sort of people the Chamberlaynes would turn to as “we cannot be supposed to be very rich.” They need not feel ashamed in front of the Austens even if the Austen have more tea, sugar and this supposedly desirable quietness.

I too would like to know why Mrs Austen snubbed the Duncans (said they weren’t in) and why Austen was hurt. Why tell Cassandra?

Then it was Wednesday evening and Mr John and alas he has a very bad cold but then they all had bad colds — “& he has but just caught his.”

Something quietly funny here. Austen appreciates the absurdity of what they are reduced to noticing.

Jenny and Robert are the servants we heard about at Lyme, Robert with his hoped-for taste for Robinson Crusoe and Jenny walking with him. both professed themselves to be glad to hear Cassandra better. The uncle too was earnest for her recovery

But of course Cassandra is not better.

I assure you, you were looking very ill indeed, & I do not beleive [sic] much of your being looking well already. People think you in a very bad way I suppose, & pay you Compliments to keep up your Spirits.

[And then to bed or read or whatever]

Jane Austen (Anna Hathaway) writing at night in Bath (2007 Becoming Jane)

Appparently on Thursday Austen had hoped to write her novel (“go on”) but expended all her with in letters to Henry and Charles. Austen explains why she wrote to these brothers. Mrs Austen saw information she wanted cleared up: “the Urania was waiting at Portsmouth for the Convoy to Halifax.” Where would her son have to go now? Three weeks ago Cassandra had written “by the Camilla.” Austen registers satisfaction that they have this new information inside three weeks from previous information.

As to Henry she had had a letter from him, he wanted to hear from her “very soon” and he was “most affectionate & kind” as well as entertaining” in his. She says (complimenting him too) that there is “no merit there” as he cannot help being “amusing.” This is a double edged compliment: does she mean unconsciously amusing? I think so.

Then Henry and Eliza have been been all over themselves with politeness. He just loves the screen above all things; idea and execution. So too Eliza and she is keen on the broach too: “he expresses himself as very pleased with the Screen … Eliza of course goes halves in all this” — these were then gifts Cassandra sent Henry and Eliza. Henry had sent one of Mary Gibson’s letters to Frank using General Tilson and couldn’t the Austen sisters do the same using Mr Turner. There would be no post direct to ships.

There is real pleasure in the tone of the paragraph when she comes to say that Henry

offers to meet on the Sea-coast … if the plan Edward “gave him some hint of, took place. Will not this be making the Execution of such a plan, more desirable and delightful than Ever. — He talks of the rambles we took together last Summer with pleasing affection.

The tone mirrors that of Persuasion where the group goes to Lyme.

Group plans to go to Lyme (1995 BBC Persuasion)

Anne (Amanda Root) listening (she has no say in all this but someone does remark: “what a fine thing for Anne!”)

The group at Lyme (1995 BBC Persuasion)

Then some corrections added upside down and on the panel: after all Mary Cooke did walk with them on Tuesday and they drank tea in Alfred Street. So the colloquy ended cordially. But they did not share sugar, tea and quietness with Mrs Chamberlayne as the mother had a heavy cold. (Maybe brought on by unacknowledged nerves and tiredness?) And then the ill Mr Buller drinks the pump water, Mrs Buller goes to their chapel with them. And just as I (and Austen) thought Mrs Austen did not have such a bad cold after all nor fever to affect her appetite.

This last sentence and idea reminds me of Persuasion) again: Mary Musgrove saying I am so ill and complaining to Anne of of her not coming sooner and neglect but soon getting up and beginning to put away plenty of food.

Mary Musgrove (Sophie Thompson) getting up from her sick bed (1995 Persuasion)

Eating heartily

One of the Fowles (almost related directly to Cassandra) just there, he has rented No 20 from Michaelmas (Sept to Sept was how places could be rented).

And so the letter comes to an end. And we have a picture of straitened life which does remind me of all Emma’s women associates (if not the heroine herself) in Emma: think of the other people Miss Bates and Jane Fairfax would know.

For further general summation, see comments.

See Letters 29, 30, 31, 32, 33 and 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40-42.


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Jane (Olivia Williams) and Cassandra (Greta Scacchi) walk together to church

Dear friends,

All day today and some of tonight, I not only wrote a proposal for the Brooklyn AGM for JASNA, and sent it to the appropriate committee person; I also put it up on my website: “’I am not romantic you know. I never was’: how Jane Austen’s letters enable us to recognize that women’s bodies are her fictions’ arena”

I hope it will be accepted.


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All the various covers of Slammerkin feature a satin red ribbon

Dear friends and readers,

In this novel I re-visited matter that first riveted me at age 12 to 13. The ultimate rebel heroine. I read the book about 3 years ago and recognized this but had the same response (almost, really) as age 12-13. Not this time. At long last not. It has taken 51 years to see the full pathos of Mary, what it means for real, not just for the character, by my own identification and bonding. I cannot speak it in this blog as it must be spoken personally, so I will talk of this another day on Sylvia. Below I do the conventional performance, but before that let me say, poor poor Mary. So impossibly without hope of adequate choice, understanding of what to do and how to do it, such an obscene liberty as she is confronted by.


Sack dress, side and back, mid 18th century

I finished Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin for the second time yesterday and was even more impressed by it than I had been the first. Donoghue takes the bare outlines of the life of a young servant girl hanged and then burnt for killing her mistress and creates a vividly moving tale which brings home to the reader how vulnerable to destruction poor young women were before the mid-20th century just about everywhere and in many places on the earth still are if they succumb to male sexual aggression — and become (as is probable they will) pregnant.

I did not chose this novel as the one by a woman, a heroine’s text set in the 18th century by a later 20th century novel to fit into my interest in the theme of liberty, but it turned out a central ironic chapter is entitled “liberty” and one of its central themes is indeed how women are answerable with their bodies to survive. Many allusions to other 18th century novels (Richardson’s Grandison, Lennox’s Henrietta), to plays (Marivaux’s The Game of Love and Chance), contemporary historically real women (the Metyards, Queen Charlotte, Kitty Fisher). The scenes are emphatically not imitations of scenes in 18th century novels; they differ radically – that’s part of the point I suppose, but there are numerous novels alluded to. Mary read “the story Pamela Andrews” (for example) and does not see why she should not achieve the same. We are taught why she could not.


The initiating story: The book opens (Prologue) with the execution of Mary’s father, Cob Saunders, whom we are told rebelled against the loss of 11 days when the calendar shifted in the 18th century. In Chapter One, called Ribbon Red, Mary is then inescapably despised as the daughter of an utterly failed man; her mother, Susan, remarries, has children by the second husband, a Mr Digot, a boy much more valued than she. She is beaten, half-starved, given wretched rags to wear and told the best she can expect is what “respectability” she will seem to receive if she is utterly obedient to all repressive norms; she is taught (barely) to write and read and sew. At age 13 returning from her school to the hovel she lives with these parents in (a coal cellar in London), she is dazed and unsure what a man is after when he holds out the reward of a red ribbon to her; she is in effect raped before she realizes what has happened, and when her hard harsh mother discovers Mary is pregnant, Susan Digot throws her out with a tiny bundle of clothe ostensibly because Mary will not tell a tale of remorse and shame.

This incident is deeply poignant. Mary cries out in her heart, aloud, and later unconsciously “mother why did you desert me?”. This betrayal of daughter by mother is as key an event as the rape for a ribbon.

An early cover

There follows a brief stretch of narrative (about a third of the first half of the book) where Mary soars with wild delight as she plays the role of a fantastically desperate Magdalen (Chapter Two) with a kindly young woman in her 20s, Doll Higgins, who takes Mary under her “wings” and gives her a happy time — despite the freezing cold, living in a filthy vile room (furniture-less, vermin-filled). She is like a girl with her first best friend who she loves and who seems to love her. Doll is the first person to be kind to Mary, and the only person in the novel (except for Daffy, the young man who offers to marry her and is potentially we can see a benevolent man) who treats her as an equal as well as supporting her emotionally and socially. They support themselves in the only way women could in 18th century England: by selling their bodies, only outside acceptable custom, as prostitutes for so many pence or shilling a time. They are exhilarated with youth and their deep congeniality, seemingly perversely thrilled to be outside any respect, safety net as they drop in (so to speak) to masquerades, plays, dances, large social crowd events.

Alas, Mary becomes ill from the cold, poor food, bad living conditions, and, not discouraged by her friend who appears not to want to get sick herself, inveigles her way into the Magdalen Foundling Hospital where she has to live like a prisoner (though supposed voluntarily), in a strongly regimented day and night in return for which she gets regularly good food, warm clothes, a clean warm bed and room, and the hope of a “good” future as a placed servant as long as she carries on obedient.

As in many novels, we have already learned that our heroine has many gifts (intelligence, capability with her hands as a seamstress, beauty enough) and is quietly appreciated by the head mistress, but (anticipating what is to come at the end of the book) after a while as her health improves, she begins to long to enjoy herself, to be herself, for freedom, and insists on being allowed to leave — and as with her mother, will not pretend to the morality which upholds the order that condemns her to servitude to men and more powerful women on their terms. She tells a lie that she has a place waiting for her with a friend of her mother’s in Monmouth: her mother had told her of this friend. The matron calls this an egregious lie and (in effect) harshly ejects with Mary after Mary refuses to listen to her advice, with Mary’s bundle once again (this time it has the flimsy sexy things she had gathered as a prostitute) to (the ironically titled) third chapter, Liberty.

We know she longs to be with Doll again and seeks Doll out, only to discover Doll somehow froze to death in an alley behind the hovel they shared. We have been told enough of the gay Doll to know Doll was herself depressed, self-despising, bitter, and proud. Mary realizes she should not have deserted Doll, that she did desert Doll and Doll had grown to need her as much as she needed Doll. She has lost her ability she thinks to live so squalidly — actually she had it only because she had Doll. She can only survive by selling herself.

Making a strong contrast to Cleland’s Fanny Hill, Mary Saunders never appears to enjoy sex with the men she sells herself to, only to feel a sort of triumph over them. Donoghue is a superb enough novelist to project sexual pleasure or thrills in the narrative, but they are only registered through the indirect third person discourse, never what Mary feels. Mary does register that Doll was in love with one man and did enjoy sex with him (but only him), but Mary never feels even this. It’s a straight cold transaction — this makes a lot more sense than the erotica Cleland dreams up. Without Doll’s social manipulative abilities and cool, Mary quickly gets herself in trouble with a brothel madam and is in danger of a knife attack (punishment) from a wild black man the brothel madam uses to keep the girls in place. Rather than carry on this horrible life under terror, she boards a wagon to Monmouth.

Mary travels in a wagon something like this 1767 Harvest Wagon by Gainsborough

We are now into Part Two, much the longer part of the narrative, really 2/3s of it. Unfortunately, Mary has to sell herself once more to earn the 14 shillings she needs to pay the wagoner to get to Monmouth whose smallness, bareness, nothingness astonishes her. We are to believe she finds her mother’s friend and the friend (due to the letter Mary has written) takes Mary in as the orphaned daughter of her once best friend. We now read a long story of Mary’s gradual adjustment to the household and those in it to her: the master, Mr Thomas Jones (surely an ironic allusion to Fielding’s hero) a one-legged man; the child, Hetta (named after a “Mrs Lennox’s Henrietta), the black servant ex-slave Mary sleeps with, Abi (given the name Abigail); the ex-wet-nurse now semi-governess, deserted by her husband after the child she had by him was crushed by him in his sleep, Mrs Nance Ash, an embittered frustrated older woman, the apprentice, Daffy, and most importantly the mistress, her mother’s ex-friend, Mrs Jane Jones, who runs the shop as chief seamstress and businesswoman. The life is at first hard and monotonous (Chapter Four, The Whole Duty of Woman) and it is always strongly disciplined but as time goes on (Chapter Five, Thaw), her mistress becomes her friend, she is accepted and even receives a secret proposal of marriage from Daffy which she at first accepts.

I say unfortunately for the customer is Joseph Cadwaladyr who turns out to be the local curate and tavern-owner who at first failed to threaten Mary to work for him as a whore, but who she then (not altogether understandably at all) turns to when she suddenly sickens of her life and decides (wholly unrealistically) her ambition is to be rich, return to London, become admired and the center of admiration, so she must gather money to travel back. The only way to do this is sell her body. And she has Cadwaladry to turn to (Chapter Six, Bloom Fall). This sickening with her lot is brought on in an immediate way after she allows Daffy to have sex with her and hates it — or both him for being a virgin and herself for having been a whore.

The center of this sudden utter alienation from her life with these people is that Mary can only escape the complete loss of status (like a slave has) if she agrees to live a life of total self-repression and hide from those she works for afterwards what she “was.” If she fits in as wife to Daffy, possible mother to his children, lives a life like that of Jane Jones. This she can not get herself to do either; she seems to take into her self-image the scorn for herself others demonstrate and self-destructs by returning to this trade in an attempt to accumulate money. Of course gradually what she is doing becomes known (Chapter Seven, Punishment). She pretends to be getting cider or ale for her mistress nightly when she is selling herself fifteen minutes at a time by a wall. The first great risk comes when her master catches her and himself succumbs to sex with her — and hates himself afterwards.

She becomes a quietly half-mad presence in the house disturbing everyone, for she does not want to flee. She does like the comfort, the respect, the peace. Daffy grows to hate her as she rejects him harshly and without explanation. She insinuates rebellion into Abi’s mind: Abi tires of her endless work schedule with no friend and no pleasure beyond existing safely and in peace. Mary is a rival to Mrs Ash. Most of all she is somehow enabling Mrs Jones to rebel too: Mrs Jones begins to become Mary’s best friend (Jane and Mary), a confidante she chooses over her husband, a fellow maker of stays and gorgeous clothes (include beautifully embroidered and furred slammerkins for the wealthier women of the town). Mrs Jones says she is a new mother, and ironically turns out to be one just like Susan Digot. At first Mrs Jones herself psychologically refuses to read all the signs that accumulate and will not guess at the probable source of Mary’s money when it’s found. She does intuitively know it was meant for an escape and, telling Mary she would otherwise have to turn Mary in as a criminal (to be hung or transported as a thief), herself gives it away to Cadwaladyr’s charity box.

The crazed self inside Mary leaps forth in the scene that ensues. Mary steals Mrs Jones’s secret smaller hoard, packs the clothes she and Mrs Jones had created, and puts one on (a totally inappropriate act).

A sack dress or slammerkin from 1729 (the novel is set 1763-65)

When Mrs Jones demands an explanation, tells of her whoredom; Mrs Jones explains she has given Mary’s money away and this act so incenses Mary (it was hers, painfully earned as the values of her society taught her, over many months of wretched sex acts) that she murders the woman with an axe.

The book is not over quickly. The last chapter, As the Crow Flies, gives us a full account of her wild attempt to flee, her imprisonment, the court trial (a mockery). We see Mr Jones’s adjustment and proposal to a rival seamstress in Monmouth, and Mrs Ashe’s humiliation (she hoped he’d chose her). Abi’s flight to London: the white people gave Mary the chance to blame Abi, and even if they didn’t, she knows instinctively with Mrs Jones gone she is again at risk for slavery (the cruelties of concubinage). And Daffy we see him once again take up with a girl, Gwynn, whose parents had seemed to reject him after they were engaged. Daffy is the one living person who seems to feel for Mary, (by contrast Gwynn scorns her) seems to suspect that she had potential to live within the norms of the community with him, and projects forgiveness in his mind. We have Mary’s weeks waiting to die, and then the terrifically powerful death scene. She has seen people hung, and remembers back to the Metyards (a historically real mother and daughter) and imitates the daughter by leaping to her death when the rope is placed about her neck just before she is to be turned off.

The saving grace is the greatest horror of all. She is sentenced to be burnt afterwards as a treacherous rebel to someone above her. But we are told without this her body would have been snatched by the doctors (Donoghue has read Albion’s Fatal Tree), so better to turn into ashes than be answerable with her body in this final degraded way.

The ending with its final moment of defiance and death by leaping reminded me of Lewis’s The Monk; the murder story of a half-mad seamstress servant accused of killing her mistress of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace


So what is this about as it’s most fundamental? That a woman is answerable with her body and has no liberty, can find none because of this. She could not escape it in the 18th century and the mirror held up here insinuates she will not escape it now, only this demand comes in softened qualified forms if she obeys the new norms and rules. It exemplifies what I have been thinking about when it comes to women and liberty: Mary to live must sell her body either indirectly or directly; to be free of bodily punishment at brothels (low class are the only kind that will take her in), not a chattel she must do it on the streets. The poignancy of the moment when her mother turns her out is extraordinary as well as the underlying exposure of how a mother can do this to a daughter, cut her off utterly and be supported in this by the community. IN this novel women succour and they betray women. How can they not? Like men, when so powerless, so exposed to punishment at the slightest rebellion, they prey on those closest to them. Her behavior threatens her mother’s marriage with the second husband and status. I admit I was put off by Mary’s ambition (see comment for this perspective).

Doll’s many sayings voice Mary’s rebellion under the conditions of the time and now: Never give up your liberty (don’t go into an old people’s home when old; don’t give someone else power of attorney). Clothes make the woman. Clothes are the greatest lie ever told (see pp. 62-63).

Mid-18th century sack dresses

It’s superior to the two novels by Donoghue I’ve read thus far: The Room uses a child narrator whose perspective distances us from the horrific events of the book; Life Mask, also set in the 18th century, is too thoroughly constructed with research from well-known documented lives to come alive. It’s another on the same subject or perspective as her superb non-fiction literary critical Passions Between Women, and several other of her fictions, either set in an earlier era, The Sealed Letter (set in the 19th century), Kissing the Witch (a retelling of fairy tales which brings out their typical misogyny by recasting them from the woman’s point of view with sympathy).

When we read this novel on Eighteenth Century Worlds, I remember Judy asking if I knew of any 18th century novel where a girl began as virtuous and slid into prostitution. I now can answer that one: yes, Cleland’s Fanny Hill. Fanny ends in triumph, as the real and this fictional Mary Saunders does not, but last summer’s reading in Therese Philosophe and other erotica novels revealed other heroines who begin as “poor but honest” and survive as prostitutes for a time, but only a time.


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George Austen (1731-1805)

Dear friends and readers,

There needs no subtle interpretation as to why 4 months later (see letter 39, Sept 1804) this and the next two letters were saved and printed: Austen’s father died, and Austen was deputed the writer. If we were not before, we are now in a position to feel how centrally this common act (dying of old age and/or disease) presented disaster to the Austen women. Not just financially, but socially (since they had not married, both girls were continually at risk of losing whatever status they had as genteel spinsters — allow me this word) and by extension emotionally.

Jane Austen had kept some of her negative liberty: she had escaped being answerable with her body (had been brave enough to go back on her promise to marry Harris Bigg-Wither), had turned to writing and books first, bonded with women friends, but as her heroine, Emma pointed out single women have a “dreadful propensity to be poor,” and Emma’s sidekick, Harriet, felt despised too. But in this letter the immediacy and exigency of coping with the death trumps a little what is to come so we find simply a straight emotional account, tinged with a sense of vulnerability and foreboding. The women had to hope (as did Austen’s Dashwoods) the brothers, the uncle and his wife, would be generous.

So, the first two letters are descriptions of how he died, the first apparently was thought not to reach Frank, but that she wrote twice gives us twice as much matter to understand her reaction, and probably was a release. It’s in the second contains we find one of those resonant lines which recur with more frequency in the later letters: “It has been very sudden” puts me in mind of one in 1816 about the wind or rain beating on the window: she’s fatally ill, knows she is, and the bankruptcy has occurred, she’s back in Chawton and aware that Emma was found boring and MP not the over popular hit she longed for another time.

The third letter disposes of a few practically useful things George Austen left: the paucity, personal quality and care with which this effect is taken care of reminds me of women’s wills of this era and that of the 19th century. They too had little to leave; all the more do they solemnly give these few symbols of their identities away.


The dying Mr Austen (Tom Wilkinson) attempts to extract firm reassurance from his son, John, that he will provide for his step-mother and step-sisters as they have only a tiny income and nothing for dowries (1995 Miramax S&S)

The letters may be usefully read together. All are to Frank. These escaped the vigilance of the grand-daughter who burned the three packets from Austen to Frank which he is said to have kept with him all his life; maybe they were in Cassandra’s position. All to Frank — I adhere to the idea Jane was very close to Frank partly on the basis of the three packets of letters she wrote him and partly from the novels (the importance of that letter “F”, the use of a sailor brother or lover and Frank as Jane’s lover in Emma). There are a number of places in Letter 41 where we see Austen reformulating or repeating as far as she can remember what she said in Letter 40, only the utterance comes out slightly differently. In neither is there any irony, nor the kind of elaborately re-directed guarded half-fantasy witticisms that are a cover-up for an emotion or feeling she apparently did not dare to Cassandra or get herself to express openly.

She is operating under a sudden shock and and the writing of the letter is helping her to contain herself. It’s really important to see how quickly she sat down to write the first. It is in fact nearly the first thing she must have done upon the man dying — and if we do not have letters to Henry and Charles and James that does not mean they were not written, perhaps by her too.

The sequence is this: the father is taken very ill as he has been before: “with a return of the feverish complaint, which he had been subject to for the three last years” (letter 41). Since they left Steventon 4 years ago, that means these bradycardia or mild heart-attacks (if that is what is involved and my guess is yes) started a year after they came to Bath. But he had survived these.

That was Saturday. The seizure was very violent and they resorted to violent counteractions: cupping (awful, painful; if it helped it was because it was so bad this procedure it wiped out the body natural pain from your mind). It seemed he was better, and the the next morning, Sunday, he was amended so that the family fooled themselves (as did the physician) when Mr Austen was walking with his stick (at Lyme her recording her father walking back was a sign that this was a kind of difficulty for him) Bowen (an apothecary) “felt sure of his [Mr Austen’s] doing perfectly well.” But as day advanced, he got worse to the point that by 10 it was alarming to look at him.

Then Monday at 9 in the morning Bowen comes and requests a physician, Dr Gibbs, by which time “it was then absolulely a lost case”. Dr Gibs said “nothing but a Miracle could save him” and at 10:20 he died. The first letter is written almost immediately after the death, in ordinary language, a little while after that. No delay and then letters to Godmersham (Edward) and Brompton (Henry & Eliza). James is sent “an express” to come, and does — he may be closer in distance, closer in feeling, is the eldest son.

When the next day a letter from Frank to Cassandra arrives, she seems immediately to have sat down again with the same system: she regrets to not to be able to prepare him for the shock, tells of the father’s death frankly, simply.

The differences between the letters are there, but they are minor. The first seems more distanced in tone; there is less detail. Yet in the first she gives a blow-by-blow account of Mr Austen’s last 3 days upon being taken ill In the second she precedes this with an account of the past three years’ complaints, but then she is more graphic and up close with the death and her feelings about it than the first: like Henry Tilney on his mother: “everything I trust & beleive [sic] was done for him that was possible! — It has been very sudden — within twenty four hours of his death he was walking with only the help of a stick, was even reading!” In both letters Jane moves to comfort her audience, trying to find something to say which offsets the devastating feelings they are now enduring.

Janet McTeer as the desolate Mrs Dashwood (2008 BBC S&S).

The Austens are also comforting themselves by thinking of the father’s worth; the father was “spared of all the pain of separation” because “quite insensible of his own state … he went off almost in his Sleep. The second says the family did have some hours of preparation and then prayed he would die quickly so as to prevent dreadful agons. The insistence he was “spared from knowing he was about to quit” such cherished objects as wife and children. In all this is the intense consciousness in Jane and by implication her father how they desperately need him for money, if not just now, eventually. In the first the mother is bearing the shock, was quite prepared for it, feels blessing of his avoiding long illness. In the second the mother is “tolerably well,” bearing up with “great fortitude, but her health must suffer from this great shock. We have to remember here that she is writing for effect, to comfort and is not necessarily expressing her own deepest feelings which seem to be on the side of life for her father most of all. Both letters express Mr Austen’s “tenderness as a father” (letter 41), “who can do justice to?” “The loss of such a parent must be felt, or we should be brutes (Letter 40).

The grieving trio, Elinor (Joanna David), Marianne (Ciaran Madden) and Mrs Dashwood (Isabel Dean) (1971 BBC S&S)

By the time of the second letter funeral arrangements are made for Saturday. The parents married in Walcot church; now the father will be buried there.

Walcot Church, Bath, contemporary print

I agree with Diane R about the relative lack of religion in these letters: the concern is here and now with the living left, the house something has to be cone ith, with the corpse. Indeed it might be considered astonishing. On the other hand, I find the assertion of the “serenity” of the corpse creepy but know Austen’s era is a half-way or transitional moment from real belief in afterlife (and thus ghosts not far off, the body is dwelt upon) to secular concern with how someone died, his being spared knowledge that they didn’t get before. They don’t care about religion enough even to need an explanation. The trouble there is in this era the people are nowhere near knowing the causes and therefore the salient symptoms of an illness.

Money is still to the fore. It is intertwined as a possible shattering experience and on Austen’s mind as that of the mother and aunt and Uncle (“shewn every imaginable kindness”) is the now unfunded state of these people. We see it most obviously in these immediate arrangements: where will they stay? Steventon? Is that an invitation from James. Since Austen does not mention Mary I assume she was not there even if the pronoun is a “they.” It could be James and aunt and uncle. But Austen women “must have this house for three months longer.” The verb is “must.” They have expended the money for a lease that long and will lose the money if they leave earlier. So they will “probably stay till the end of that time.” But what then? The “uniting in love” comes from those there being there and reassuring the Austen women that way.

The third letter brings us back to a world of subsidence where objects are hard come by and treasured. You did not throw out things. So the sending Frank Mr Austen’s personal property (the kind of thing one finds in women’s wills as the whole of what they leave) is not so or just sentimental but practical too: for the sailor “a small astronomical Instrument: (compass and sun-dial) in black chagreen case. Expensive. Which “direction” shall they send it? This question shows Frank now knows, wrote back. Also “a pair of Scissors”. They will be useful and “valuable” to him. It was Frank who walked about with Mr Austen’s Polonius-like letter in Frank’s pocket for years and years.

I Have Found It: the Indian analogous adaptation of S&S: the women cut out of the grandfather’s will, take their things and go to Madras

All three letters are from Green Park buildings; these are quite a step down from Sydney place if not as “low” as Trim Street. Frank was in the HMS Leopard at Portsmouth.

See Letters 29, 30, 31, 32, 33 and 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39.


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