Anne Elliot (Amanda Root), aged 27, at Kellynch, about to be rented; she is looking back, reading over old letters and books in a trunk she is packing as she prepares the family things for their life in Bath (1995 BBC Persuasion by Nick Dear)
Dear friends and readers,
This time I’ll begin with a comment on Jane Austen’s life as it is slowly emerging from a close reading of these letters. I think as she grew older — and that’s by this time (1809) she had gone outside the family’s point of view for her feelings and understandings. She had intuitively done so before they left Steventon (we see this in her reaction to the family’s intense sycophancy over the father’s letters to patrons for the two sailor sons — she is against what they do), but she had not thought it out, she had not developed an alternative view of her own. This happened during the time at Bath, which I conjecture included a period of breakdown: signs of this break-away for real include the thwarted desire to set up housekeeping with Martha and her sister, the ceasing of most raw filips against childbirths, marriage, flirting which show genuine resentment of those who are living conventionally. She got a lot, a lot out of her reading; we don’t begin to see the extent of her reading or what she knew about (like politics — the peninsular war is part of her terrain we have seen in the last couple of letters).
The sense I have that she was at this very time working on Lady Susan and had written The Watsons in all their mututal but differing frank and unsanctimonious register makes this group of letters (unusually uncensored with none omitted) of more interest than they would be. Lady Susan and The Watsons, with their bold frankness as going beyond her home and family. They would not permit her to go on with the first (Watsons) or publish the second (Lady Susan). The Watsons is as startling frank, exposes false values and reality, as relentelessly as Lady Susan.
I’m wondering if the missing four months between January and April where we find this startling letter of an attempt to get back a ms of a gothic style book (she had pinned hoped on too as part of a popular subgenre of book), contained a struggle by Austen and to keep on with The Watsons or Lady Susan and when she saw it would not do, she turned back to the three books she had on hand and decided they would ahve to provide her with what she could use at long last to attempt publication. When she got to Chawton she began to save and to revise, first her favorite novel, Elinor and Marianne, and then the one she knew in her gut would please (First impressions) if only she could get it to the public somehow or others.
Emma (Kate Beckinsale) trying to escape Jane’s letters, but apparently not managing it; Harriet (Samantha Morton)’s astonishment (1995 BBC Emma by Davies)
So, to general remarks first:
She does talk of weighing her style here and it can refer to novel writing: “I begin already to weigh my words & sentences more than I did, & am looking about for a sentiment, an illustration or a metaphor in every corner of the room. Could my ideas flow as fast as the rain in the Storecloset …
Again no gap and we begin to get a real feeling of continuity going on.
The weather continues very bad: “not but that you may have worse, for we have now nothing but ceaseless snow or rain & insufferable dirt to complain of … ” There’s a second later reference to all the snow and one finally to how she does like to keep someone “waiting in the Cold” — on top of the detailed trouble between the new flooded (yearly?) storecloset (which would contain their things, precious things as we’ve seen), not to omit that the closet “defeated them” gives us what she needed to escape from (Lady Susan) and what to record felt life from (The Watsons).
I take it in this letter she admits the stanzas in the previous letter are by her: “I am sorry my verses did not bring any return from Edward” (I realize “my” could just mean she sent them but do not feel that’s that meaning in context, in context is by me). She did have some ambition — of the best kind — to be as purely classical as Homer Virgil Ovid and Propria que Maribus. She knew the phony pompous stuff parading as classical verse was not its best spirit.
As to the matter it is heavily family (again Henry is the “excruciating” one), illness, real discomfort over Martha’s behavior on Jane’s part (she is not sympathetic to Martha’s newly franic male catching). We can glimpse too distress, discomfort, mortification in Martha (which Jane records enough to allow us to see); some attempt at joking to lift Cassandra’s spirits over the coming death of Mrs E Leigh (Cassandra’s godmother). Literary talk which reveals the backwater Austen is in: sermons, Cassandra is trying to force More’s dreadfully reactionary didactivc Calebs in Search of a Wife on Jane and Jane trying to escape this book — this puts me in mind of Emma escaping one of Jane’s letters:
She regained the street — happy in this, that though much had been forced on her against her will, though she had in fact heard the whole substance of Jane Fairfax’s letter, she had been able to escape the letter itself.
Well Jane will not escape Hannah More and although she is downright against evangelicals, the milieu impinging on her will tell in her later books (MP, Persuasion). There is a catch in Austen’s throat as she uses the word “future home” for Chawton. I’ve not heard that word “home” since Steventon and again the very early days of Castle Square when Jane planted the syringa and hoped for the best.
And then most unexpected a genuinely grand ball! who’d have thought it.
Jane Austen is aware of what is happening in the Peninsular war. Fascinating. I must read Escaille’s Peninsular War.
But as important is the poor mad woman escaped from an asylum; not told as fun or amusing but with real interest and a kind of intense curiosity. Austen has unexpected identifications, no? She signed herself MAD four months (April) later.
An order for prize money, Portland, Maine 1813
Opening passage reveals the real rhythms of these letters to Cassandra; let us suppose three packets of letters to Frank showed the same rhythms. Like many another novelist, Austen was also herself a letter-writer and (in effect) diarist. Cassandra has hurt a finger on her writing hand in some way. Since she had written on Tues, she would have waited until Fri (3 day interval — as LeFaye suggests in the introduction to this 4th edition)
My dear Cassandra
I will give you the indulgence of a letter on Thursday this week, instead of Friday; but I do not require you to write again before Sunday, provided I may beleive you & your finger going on quite well.
A reference to Burney which shows Austen alive to the unreality of the idealization of the characeter, Cecilia:
Take care of your precious self, do not work too hard, remember that Aunt Cassandras are quite as scarce as Miss Beverleys.
Charles is now beginning to appear regularly in the letters again; he had not been here since before they left Steventon and he was so obstreperous and demanding for his own place when it came to the patronage plum giving out (and the letters written at the time) and also a dancer, someone who liked to dance and flirt (as we would say). Note again a characteristic given Henry which is not the one the family wants us to think of as dominating. Excruciating. Henry was a demanding urgent sort; I hear that incisive held-in-check aggressive tone in his notification of her death. She is jealous that Henry will get there first; tell what he knows and all Charles said. We have seen her credit Henry with real insight and information about Stoneleigh Abbey and the history of the incomes of all family members now and in the past.
Charles’s Fanny only in expectation of not being well. Poor woman was another made incessantly pregnant while she lived once she married. We’ve not got that September letter — hardly any from her to Charles. He makes money by violence. As to this encounter, see Southam on the hardships of the life on board ship (pp. 131-32). He gives us a description of the general (corrupt in the extreme, lousy) system of patronage and prizes (interest he calls it). Very few got any prize money it should be noted. LeFaye cites Sheila Kindred’s essay on Charles’s capture of La Jeune Estelle (JA Society, Collected Reports for 2006, pp 50-53): this is an excellent article, showing the exact particulars of what Charles did, how the sum from sale of perishable goods came to 539.14s.11d 3/4s (two and one third times his regular annual salary; he also sold the vessel; years later Charles specifically names this vessel in his entry in a naval dictionary. Later in the letter we find she is keeping up with the peninsular war.
I had the happiness yesterday of a letter from Charles, but I shall say as little about it as possible, ·because I know that excruciating Henry will have had a Letter likewise, to make all my intelligence valueless.-It was written at Bermuda on ‘I 7 & 10. of Decr; –all well, and Fanny still only in expectation of being otherwise. He had taken a small prize2 in his late cruize; a French schooner laden with Sugar, but Bad weather parted them, & she had not yet been heard of; — his cruize ended Dec 1 st My September Letter was the latest he had received. —
Cassandra is going to London in three weeks, I assume to join Eliza and Henry: how often Jane and Cassandra were apart. This is worth thinking about, not ignoring: the why, the effect, how they seemed not to have minded
This day three weeks you are to be in London, & I wish you better weather — not but that you may have worse, for we have now nothing but ceaseless snow or rain & insufferable dirt to complain of — no tempestuous winds, nor severity of cold. Since I wrote last, we have had something of each, but it is not genteel to rip up old greivances. –
Then a joke — I presume these sermons by her cousin were pretty bad; this is the same sort of joke as when she speaks of all her political correspondents. Cassandra has no unknown mysteries; Jane only the papers she can get hold of and read with intelligence and honesty:
You used me scandalously by not mentioning Ed. Cooper’s Sermons; — I tell you everything, & it is unknown the Mysteries you conceal from me. –
Back to sick aging single women, the Austen women’s world. I note all the references to letters Jane receives. She had not the Internet or a phone but did what she could
And to add to the rest you persevere in giving a final e to Invalid — thereby putting it out of one’s power to suppose Mrs E. Leigh even for a moment, a veteran Soldier. — She, good Woman, is I hope destined for some further placid enjoyment of her own Excellence in this World, for her recovery advances exceedingly well.-I had this pleasant news in a letter from Bookham last Thursday; but as the letter was from Mart instead of her Mother, you will guess her account was not equally good from home. — Mrs Cooke had been confined to her bed some days by Illness, but was then better, & Mary wrote in confidence of her continuing to mend.
A curious passage about Fanny Knight: She was 16 the day before (Jan 23rd). The way Austen talks reflects the back-handed disciplinary way these people might talk of their children. Then we get Austen citing a platitude: while you give happiness to others, you will get your share. (That is not the view endorsed by the novels.) She is not eager for Fanny’s overlooking what she is writing – I don’t think this is that much a joke — remember how she excused herself (she did) to her young nephew, and here I do think we have a rare reference to Austen’s novel writing. She does not flow; she has to work at her first drafts too. Indeed this is the most interesting passage we’ve had in a while. She does not forget the real life context she writes in: lodgings, she’s upstairs and not so warm, but not literally wet as she would be and was when she contended with water seeping in, eroding the house downstairs, ruining objects and clothes.
You rejoice me by what you say of Fanny — I hope she will not turn’ good-for-nothing this ever so long; — We thought of & talked of her yesterday with sincere affection, & wished her a long enjoyment of all the happiness to which she seems born. — While she gives happiness to those about her, she is pretty sure of her own share. — I am gratified by her having pleasure in what I write — but I wish the knowledge of my being exposed to her discerning Criticism, may not hurt my stile, by inducing too great a solicitude. I begin already to weigh my words & sentences more than I did, & am looking about for a sentiment, an illustration or a metaphor in every corner of the room. Could my Ideas flow as fast as the rain in the Storecloset, it would be charming. –
How often she uses the dash in her letters and in her manuscripts for her fragments of novels.
What a misery they lived in. I can’t get any contractor to come in and fix small jobs either. They (the Austen women) have been defeated — but she is defeated with good grace. That’s the task and her real tone: here she puts me in mind of Robert Louis Stevenson:
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.
Everything had to be moved out. Imagine the wet and the blackness and sour smell.
We have been in two or three dreadful states within the last week, from the melting of the Snow &c. — & the contest between us & the Closet has now ended in our defeat; I have been obliged to move almost everything out of it, & leave it to splash itself as it likes. —
Hannah More’s didactic books enjoyed a long printing history; Coelebs now available in facsimiles. ON the church tracts for children, see Dixon
Early on in the general discussion on Austen-l (which has now ceased) of Jane Austen’s letters we had quite a controversy over this next passage (if I can find it I’ll put it in the comments here). It is true that the novel may be read as romance. Nonetheless, Austen is obviously pressured to read Hannah More’s Coelebs in Search of a Wife and does not want to read it. She does not like intransigent didacticism, especially when aimed at women; she has shown over these letter no strong religiosity of spirit. She is unwilling to quarrel with Cassandra over this but she hopes to be left alone (she was not). The reference to her “delight” when she reads it is a reference to the hypocrisy of people who will say anything others do, or an admission that perhaps (like people watching Downton Abbey who know they are like black people watching Amos ‘n Andy) she will be drawn in. But until then she resists.
The passage is of interest showing that people read politically — More’s book was liked as reinforcing conservativism — and we may infer from this and that Cassandra left this passage go, that Cassandra would have destroyed letters showing Jane reading liberal and radical works or commenting positively on them:
You have by no means raised my curiosity after Caleb — My disinclination for it before was affected, but now it is real; I do not like the Evangelicals. — Of course I shall be delighted when I read it, like other people — but till I do, I dislike it. —
To me the next passage suggest again Jane wrote the stanza she sent in the last letter (“‘Alas! poor Brag, thou boastful Game! …”) I am puzzled as to why they seemed classical to Austen as they are not in couplets, but it may be that the game aspect, the sense of urbanity is what she refers to here. I don’t know that she is making fun either; we need to know more about how classical authors were taught, which poems chosen, what the teacher might say — for this is from the schooling she acquired as a bye-blow of her father teaching boys and her brothers: — or possibly she read the kind of essays published at the time on Virgil; again most of the titles that come down to us taht she or her characters read are not criticism but novels, travel books, poetry, occasionally a straight history.
I am sorry my verses did not bring any return from Edward, I was in hopes they might-but I suppose he does not rate them high enough.-It might be partiality, but they seemed to me purely classical-just like Homer & Virgil, Ovid & Propria que Maribus.
Remember how twice a day she was intensely looking for a letter from Frank. One finally came. She is very anxious about him. She reads how so many are slaughtered at Corunna and she thinks about it. Maiming was common; he was seeking prizes and that means violence. It was a kind affecionate letter; she lingered over it, and I suggest she answered, showing her anxiety for him:
– I had a nice, brotherly letter from Frank the other day; which after an interval of nearly three weeks, was very welcome.-No orders were come on friday, & none were come yesterday, or we should have heard today. –
Their inadequate present home. They hoped that Miss Curling would not seek to stay with them. Their house would be damp and cold — damp from the floods from snow, cold from how they don’t over heat the place (as we’ve seen). This is a connection shoring up Frank’s connections in the navy so they must make do. Imagine Jane trying to make a room more comfortable and knowing she must really fail beyond showing that she made the effort: (This is The Watsons stuff).
I had supposed Miss Curling would share her Cousin’s room here, but a message in this Letter proves the Contrary; — I will make the Garret as comfortable as I can, but the possibilities of that apartment are not great. –
Eliza is a servant and they would like to take her with them to Chawton. Remember how she and Eliza sat and ate black butter together by the fire in “unpretending privacy” (Letter 63). Straight off plates held on their laps together; on another day Eliza kept to her bed ill. LeFaye seems to think “sweetheart’ refers to Eliza’s mother. That’s not likely. It’s a boyfriend-lover. Eliza is making no difficulties about how she will have t live apart from this boyfriend. For Downton and other country house and supposed norms that say servants shall have no boyfriends, at least at this level of life the mistress does not appear at all to stop romance. When they were going to Bath Austen wrote of another romance and how she would provide romance interest for servants then. Sally playing John Binns is playing hard to get to get a higher salary. Jane not as kind or forbearing as Mr Austen had been, but also she and her mother have less money:
My Mother has been talking to Eliza about our future home-and she, making no difficulty at all of the Sweetheart, is perfectly disposed to continue with us, but till she has written home for Mother’s approbation, cannot quite decide. — Mother does not like to have her so far off; — at Chawton she will be nine or ten miles nearer, which I hope will have its due influence — As for Sally, she means to play John Binns with us, in her anxiety to belong to our Household again. Hitherto, she appears a very good Servant. –
I get a great kick out of the following epigram like utterance: its spirit went staright into Austen’s Sense and Sensibility when Eleanor Dashwood comes to Cleveland and has to watch Mrs Palmer go into stitches of happy laughter upon being told her plants are all dead:
You depend upon finding all your plants dead, I hope. — They look very ill I understand. –
Jane never tired of balls — in The Watsons Emma just revels in the one she goes to, with all its pains, mortification for the boy, attempted and thwarted romances (Miss Edwards for Captain Hunter) grating snobberies and stupid jockeying for position by those she’s surrounded by)
I imagine she might have said, echoing Johnson, the woman who is tired of balls, is tired of life. What could list shoes be? They were “shoes made of list, a strong, coarse material used for the selvage of carpets or other woven fabrics.” They sound rather porous, but presumably were not. Let us hope Jane reached home with with her ball shoes not ruined and her feet dry. But it’s odd that she can’t put the shoes aside for when she wants to go. Someone (a servant?) brings her a pair, there they are and so she must go home now. Would a family have only one pair? (I ask that rhetorically.)
Part of the enjoyment here is she is with gay younger women, still eligible for marriage. It’s a refreshing change from older single women forced to become companions, to be eager to come to someone’s house so they can get some tea. Captain Smith is a connection of her brothers and thus looking out for Jane for a partner. We have had Captain d’Auvergne before (see Letter 62) — he’s one of those who shows up for these dances – and his friend likes to be fancy too. Subsets of people do different sorts of things.
Your silence on the subject of our Ball, makes me suppose your Curiosity too great for words. We were very well entertained, & could have staid longer but for the arrival of my List shoes to convey me home, & I did not like to keep them waiting in the Cold. The room was tolerably full, & the Ball opened by Miss Glyn; — the Miss Lances had partners, Capt. D’auvergne’s friend appeared in regimentals, Caroline Maitland had an Officer to flirt with, & Mr John Harrison was deputed by Capt. Smith, being himself absent, to ask me to dance.– Everything went well you see, especially after we had tucked Mrs Lance’s neckhandkerchief. in behind, & fastened it with a pin. —
Anna too has gone to a ball and here Austen refers discreetly, indirectly to a sudden angry rebellion which was partly self-harm, self-destructive: Anna cut off her long hair. Jane Austen was one of those who said Anna should not be given a hard time as the cut hair would make her miserable enough, and also this would pass the incident most kindly. It could be that ignoring it was one way to repress the rebellion itself. As told in the following paragraph, the stepmother was for once decent and did not try to stop the girl’s enjoyment at the ball.
We had a very full & agreable account of Mr Hammond’s Ball, from Anna last night; the same fluent pen has sent similar information I know into Kent. — She seems to have been as happy as one could wish her; — & the complacency of her Mama in doing the Honours of the Eveng must have made her pleasure almost as great.- The Grandeur of the Meeting was beyond my hopes. –I should like to have seen Anna’s looks & performance — but that sad cropt head must have injured the former.-
And then a series of not-so-funny jokes if you were Martha and reading this. Her relationship with Dr Mant is immoral but a decorous air because he is a clergyman. Ho ho. Maybe the joke is against Jane Austen herself. She felt her love was betrayed and so treated this heterosexuality as immoral. By this time Jane ans Martha are clearly growing apart. Dr Mant has not responded in some way that Martha longed for. Jane is not undeceiving Martha: Not telling Martha some painful truth. Martha is longing for a husband. That’s how Jane sees this: Martha cannot see happiness without this. Again we have Martha’s sending her regards; I see this as intense anxiety. She fears losing any one ‘s approbation. Martha is overdoing her solicitude about Cassandra’s finger.
Martha pleases herself with beleiving that if I had kept her counsel, you would never have heard of Dr Mant’se behaviour, as if the very slight manner in which I mentioned it could have been all on which you found your Judgement. –I do not endeavour to undeceive her, because I wish her happy at all events, & know how highly she prizes happiness of any kind. She is moreover so full of kindness for us both, & sends you in particular so many good wishes about [your] finger, that I am willing to overlook a venial fault; & as Dr M. is a Clergyman their attachment, however immoral, has a decorous air. –
Peninsula war was very grievous, much misery. Moore’s son dead. Here is evidence she reads about politics. (I must read about this war when I return to my work on Winston Graham’s later Poldark books, one of which is set in Portugal and another has repercussions from the Portuguese entanglement.)
Too lovely handwriting shows low status is the joke here perhaps
Anna’s hand gets better & better, it begins to be too good for any consequence. –
And a final curious identification When I hear of the homeless I hear a bell ring for me; so Austen takes this gothic like story. Too bad she never lived to write up a novel from it, but then she was not allowed to publish Lady Susan and set aside The Watsons.
We send best Love to dear little Lizzy & Marianne in particular. The Portsmouth paperl4 gave a melancholy history of a poor Mad Woman, escaped from Confinement, who said her Husband & Daughter of the Name of Payne lived at Ashford in Kent. Do You own them
For full series, see Jane Austen’s letters