Archive for March 4th, 2012

James Barry (1741-1806), The Progress of Human Culture and Knowledge, from the series The Distribution of Premiums in the Society of Arts (ca. 1777-84)

Dear friends and readers,

Jane Austen’s last letter from Castle Square. A vexed one. Besides the content: blow-y month, 3 of Edward’s children off to school, yet more marginalized women friends’ troubles, especially Martha’s, servants, flooding closet, comments on brothers, Sir John Moore, gossip, she’s being nagged to read More’s Coelebs, I bring in an essay by Betty Rizzo outlining a group of women in Bath who gathered around Sarah Scott & Lady Barbara Montagu whose circumstances & attitudes (Bath bluestocking feminists?) presents parallels to those of Austen and her women friends.


Juvenilia, Volume I: in Jane’s handwriting, dedicated to Martha Lloyd

While away (I was at a conference of the South Central group of ASECS, the American Eighteenth Century Studies society where I gave a paper), I thought about the currents of the past few letters. All cold, illness, marginalized women, the problem of flooding closets, the unexpected and problematic visitor Miss Curling, maiming from getting caught outside in the weather, and continual and on and off bulletins about the Peninsular war and her brothers’ acts of high violence at sea to secure for themselves influxes of needed money — much is repeated over and over.

I know it’s impossible to know why for sure Jane Austen’s unpleasant tone persists, but looking back the one item that turns up of personal import (and I think what influenced us most is what hits us personally — as Jane herself acknowledges when she is glad she knows no one who died so she need not really care) is Martha: Martha discomfort, her running after this or that man, her seeking a place and continual defensive assertions about her gratitude and apologies to the Austen lest they take offence. I looked back at that letter just before she was told the family must leave Steventon and was visting Martha, so fulfilled in comparionship — that I put down the bile to her disappointment over Martha’s loss. She is losing Martha — people notice how Austen says someone had got First Impressions by heart, she had read it so often, but do not notice it was Martha this was said of. From that high point to this embarrassing desperation, Nancy Steele like.

My view is the biopics which connect Austen to Lefroy as deeply tragic loss to Austen and Edward Bridges (ditto) have engaged with the wrong relationship: a movie ought to be made called Jane and Martha. to be about this failed relationships is to be central to Austen’s life and therefore books. Elizabeth and Charlotte are our distorted mirrors of this, Emma having lost Miss Taylor.

I came across a good essay by Betty Rizzo in Nicole Pohl and Betty Schellenberg’s Reconsidering the Bluestockings, “Two Versions of Community,” where Rizzo argues one of two versions of women’s communities is found in Sarah Scott and Lady Barbara Montagu’s circles in Bath: these are women who

thought well-born and well-educated, had become irrelevant to soicety from the perspective of those to whom the major purposes of women were the procreation of children and the transmissions of possession. There were many such women relegated to the sidelines in places such as Bath or Tunbridge, women whose slender provisions were often grudgingly seen as detracting from the family fortunes. Their fathers and brothers were usually content, though, to countenance and even enable their separate lives with funds just sufficient to prevent their disgracing their connections. They clustered here and there,

living where it was cheap. In London one needed £1000 to keep a carriage, footman, but in Bath one could live on £200 as did Lady Barbara who disdained both dependence and grandeur (with her brother it was what she’d have had). They were not overtly lesbian but they preferred the companionship of another woman. Scott and Montagu even had a woman in their group like Mary Lloyd Austen who was narrow-minded, vulgar, mean; a Miss Arnold, illegitimate, the niece of one of the brothers of one of these (Elizabeth Cutts), another was divorced or separated from her husband; a key here was the woman is deracinated, women who lack any conventional open claim on other family members. All became close and found modus vivendi in a choice of an unmarried state.


A modern photo of a flooded gutter: by the end of the letter the Austens have discovered their flooded basement and ruined things are the result of choked gutters

A general summary:

This is the last from Castle Square (see Letter 66). By having a series of apparently uncensored letters with no gaps we can see better what the rhythms of these letters were and how closely interwoven the content with their interlocutor. I am wondering if this is the way of other of Austen’s letters.

For example, Cassandra has written earlier than usual — to say her finger is better again. And then the litany of the bad weather (milder today), again she is nagged to read Caleb and this time her defense is its pretentiousness, phony affectation, illness. A way of summarizing young Edward’s progress that is fundamentally distancing, satiric (“from raw school boy … [to] … pompous sermon writer & domineering Brother. The real boy is probably not before her mind.

Then the litany of the miseries of these poor women — what a miracle change just one job with a decent salary might do them. But of course this will not be allowed until later in the 19th century and then only through office work and then in the 20th retail. Caroline nearly burnt to death, Miss Murden after all chucked out, Martha (Austen says she will be discreet and then is not) to be off soon after her paid companion position The only one to get a word of real empathy is Miss Sharpe: “born, poor thing! to struggle with Evil .. she is continuing with another woman she did not have to kowtow to so very badly.

Men too: Cholles endlessly drunk. Servants: Jenny’s marriage — a narrow attitude visible: Austen hopes she will not become un-respectable. Why? not controlled in service ?

we get a sharp comment about the hypocrisy of hospitalities: Miss Curling’s visit was apparntly not enjoyed; Mary Lloyd Austen is “of just the kind to enjoy such a visitor.” Did Miss Curling want phoniness and pretense?

News of Charles and Frank’s shipping worlds: Sir Thomas Williams return (Charles’s patron); and of the peninsular war. John Moore now dead in battle, and the words in bad taste — these deaths were in great pain and his was as horrible as any. Austen says even if he’s such a hero, maybe his mother won’t miss him and he did not die in Christian enough ways. One ordinary Morrell is more to another than John to his mother. What this sudden animosity stems from is not in the passage. Then on Maitland surviving, but the same cool reaction: she’s not going to enter in to the cares of that family.

Who wants her to? Maybe thinking on the miseries of women is part of the context for this kind of iron obtuseness

Then her attention returns to her concerns overtly: her mother can’t get out, her mother wants Cassandra to “beg” (begging is the verb used Mrs Seward to crop the garden at Chawton. Is it a case of sponging here? Austen is sure Cassandra will forget nothing, and then again the nasty narrow mindedness crops up about Lady Sondes. I’d number Austen in a letter like this as among the neighbor gossips that make other people so anxious lest anyone talk about them.

Back to the flooding floor, how it was the fault of choked gutters, glad that Frank and Mary’s child not sleeping there just now. She’s been consoled with similar disasters — others in just as wretched substandard (we’d call it) housing.

Ends on how patient they are in waiting for news from Frank – is it another pregnancy and childbirth? and then a recording of how Mrs Charles Fowles wanted to be remembered and the way of saying it is again distanced.

A vexed, irritated letter.

And now to details:

A school slate and pen from the 18th century — Edward was sending two of his adolescent daughters and his heir, Edward, away to school

Austen begins:

I was not much surprised yesterday by the agreable surprise of your letter, & extremely glad to receive the assurance of your finger being well again

I suggest that Austen is not much surprised at the Cassandra having much to write about: it’s all the various activities Cassandra has in hand: Cassandra is now a mother to 11 children; Fanny is said to be in charge but that is partly a polite fiction; three are being sent away to school; the arrangements for Chawton to be made.

Here is such a wet Day as never was seen! — I wish the poor little girls had better weather for their Journey;they must amuse themselves with watching the raindrops down the Windows. Sackree I suppose feels quite broken-hearted I cannot have done with the weather without observing how delightfully mild it is; I am sure Fanny must enjoy it with us. —

A little picture of quiet ordinary life. Sackree the aging nursemaid who took care of these children before they grew older. Since 1793. I note the two girls are sent the way Jane and Cassandra were: before they are in any danger of sexual interaction they will be brought home.

Yesterday was a very blowing day; we got to Church however, which we had not been able to do for two Sundays

This is an unusual reference to going to church and it’s brought up as
a way of expressing how difficult the weather has been. One of the new
French revolution terms for the months of the year was Blow-y month. (This was for spring, March to be specific). It’s interesting how rarely she does mention church. It’s now thought that the two prayers attributed to her are not hers, and perhaps Charles’s. (By contrast, Radcliffe likes to tell of when her heroine Emily goes to church.)

And again Cassandra has been pressuring her to borrow and read Hannah More’s Coelebs in Search of a Wife (see letter 66).

I am not at all ashamed about the name of the Novel, having been guilty of no insult towards your handwriting; the Dipthong I always saw, but knowing how fond you were of adding a vowel wherever you could, I attributed it to that alone — & the knowledge of the truth does the book no service; — the only merit it could have, was in the name of Caleb, which has an honest, unpretending sound, but in Coelebs, there is pedantry & affectation. — Is it written only to Classical Scholars? — I shall now try to say only what is necessary, I am weary of meandering — so expect a vast deal of small matter concisely told, in the next two pages. —

The talk about the dipthong is defensive. Cassandra has been needling
Jane to read More’s novel by suggesting she is embarrassed by the title (“in search of a wife”?). I like how stubborn Jane is at this point; when she was younger she was unwilling to struggle for her point of view, and now she will not give it up. I don’t see this as about Austen’s interest in language and the sentence: “I shall now try to say only what is necessary” is an expression of weariness. In fact Cassandra did succeed in forcing this book on Jane. I’ve read some of Hannah More, and suggest the difference here is this: Cassandra is insistent because Cassandra likes the religious message and is attuned to the reactionary point of view.

Another reason for Cassandra’s pressure about More’s book is it’s a form of pressure on Jane to think of marrying, to admit many women want to and go in search of it – that’s the “truth” Jane acknowledges is in the book, dislike it though she personally may (and is obliged to watch this in Martha).

But my guess is fundamentally Jane does not like the woman’s tone, her stance, and I’ve read some of Hannah More myself. I started Coelebs. As a woman she is shamelessly sycophantic (Johnson was openly embarrassed by her); her tone in her religious tracts is overbearingly didactic, priggish and solemn, pontificating. I’ve just been reading a quarrel she had with Hannah Cowley where she (Hannah) was really insufferable (to use the old-fashioned word). More was accused of plagiarism and her ploy was to counter-accuse and insist on her own great learning. We know classical learning and phony boasts about accomplishments irritated Austen — as she dislikes lies, phony ceremonies and wants to tell the truth about herself. But it’s no fun to be showed off to. (I really dislike when someone tries to force a TV program on me or a movie. No book has been forced on me for years. I don’t remember any being forbidden but then I was not terribly adventurous and loved 19th century novels as a girl.)


Hamstall-Ridward, Staffordshire today — a photo

After Austen has tried to fend off More’s book again and confesses
(as in “leave off” and “leave me alone about this one”) to weariness of the topic, she goes on to a series of short remarks on friends, family — Sir Thomas Williams comes to mind as a patron of the Austen’s (Charles to be specific — see Southam, JA and Navy p 106, Honan, JA, Life and Times, p 331). I had not thought about these detail laden paragraphs as ways of fending off pressure; here it seems to think about anything from family life can be used as a barrier. Probably to Cassandra who cares about this sort of diurnal reality more than anything else (as do many people).

So, the first are in response to a letter from the Cooke family. Jane seems to have the letter in front of her and going through it phrase by phrase (just as I am doing her letter):

Mrs Cooke has been very dangerously ill, but is now I hope safe. –I had a letter last week from George, Mary being too busy to write, & at that time the Disorder was called of the typhus kind, & their alarm considerable — but yesterday brought a much better account from Mary; the origin of the complaint now ascertained to be Billious, & the strong medicines requisite, promising to be effectual. — Mrs E.L. is so much recovered as to get into the Dressing-room every day.

Thomas Williams’s return as information from Hamstall given half undigested (by the correspondent — this is the Cooper family writing from Hamstall. We have a vignette of Mrs Cooke who her relatives thought had a illness of the typhus kind — damp is associated with typhus and it was often fatal — bilious illness means too much bile; something wrong with her stomach and digestive system. Perhaps when her fever went off that’s what could be seen. Cassandra’s godmother getting into the dressing room anticipates Sanditon.

(There’s a good deal of information about the brothers in Honan – he is really as interested in them as Jane Austen, and personally often more sympathetic. So it’s a third book for mining for information as well as Kaplan’s articles on Charles and his wife’s troubles.)

A letter from Hamstall gives us the history of Sir Tho. Williams’ return; — the Admiral, whoever he might be, took a fancy to the Neptune, & having only a worn-out 74 [man of war carrying 74 guns, too worn-out to be sea-worthy] to offer in lieu of it, Sir Tho. declined such a command, & is come home Passenger. Lucky Man! to have so fair an opportunity of escape. — I hope his Wife allows herself to be happy on the occasion, & does not give all her thoughts to being nervous. –

Jane provides an amusing sarcastic vignette. How resentful Austen sometimes is of other women; she stabs them for no reason. (I admit this kind of remark about nervousness rather makes my theory Jane Austen had a breakdown look less probable; but I’ve heard people inveigh against say “[gov’t program] cheaters” who then themselves do all they can to get any money or help they can even if not according to the rules. Then cheating becomes “understandable” given draconian rules set up to not give people help.) Perhaps this frequent disdain is partly a coverup in her own mind. Certainly she does not make fun of Jane Bennet, Jane Fairfax, Fanny Price. In Persuasion when Wentworth talks of being sent to sea in a boat about to sink, the Admiral mocks him, but his sister does not. Nor Anne Elliot.

But in this non-fiction, real world, Jane is again confronted with someone’s wife, marriage (and in her mind might be a carryover of Cassandra’s comment that Jane does not like the title of More’s novel, Jane not wanting to hear about how others are in search of husbands.) Why shouldn’t the woman be nervous (she’d be broke and dependent), rejoice and the man be relieved. Austen has herself at least alluded to the savage horrors of battle at sea and on the peninsular in the last four letters.

A great event happens this week at Hamstall, in young Edward’s removal to school; he is going to Rugby & is very happy in the idea of it. — I wish his happiness may last, but it will be a great change, to become a raw school boy from being a pompous Sermon-Writer, & a domineering Brother. —

The Hamstall relatives and friends also write about the young Edward’s returing to school (the heir you see). Again acrimonious view erupts. This is the Edward she liked as a child who liked her. Has he disappointed by at long last succumbing to the ideals and norms of macho male forced on him (which early on he struggled against when as a child he instinctively didn’t like the rituals he was forced to take part of & Jane sympathized). It may be that she is just not thinking of this particular boy or that he is turning out awful, but rather she knows what Rugby is about (as well as the hypocritical muscular Christianity of such places) and loathes that He has been spoiled as heir and now will be turned into something worse. I remember her hero Edward Ferrars does not go to a public school.

Caroline has had a great escape from being burnt to death lately; — as her Husband gives the account, we must beleive [sic] it true …

A joke in poor taste. Mrs Longfellow literally burnt herself to death
with her iron.


Mid-20th century imagined sketch of Yarmouth street, circa 18th century

Back at home, looking around her and in her memory:

— Miss Murden is gone — called away by the critical state of Mrs Pottinger, who has had another severe stroke, & is without Sense or Speech. Miss Murden wishes to return to Southampton if circumstances suit, but it must be very doubtful. —

The saga of Miss Murden’s life continues. It’s a wonder the woman
doesn’t take arsenic. One needs to read Betty Rizzo’s Companions without Vows — “toadies” was the term openly used for such women, even to their faces. At least here there is no mockery. The state of life Miss Murden found barely endurable in Southampton now seems desirable to her now, but it looks like this is now beyond her. She didn’t suit that pharmacist’s widow.

We have been obliged to turn away Cholles, he grew so very drunken & negligent, & we have a Man in his place called Thomas. —

They did keep on a drunken servant for as long as they could. Perhaps
he came cheap (I’d like to think Jane may have felt for him). I see no
particular sympathy caught up in the name Thomas. It’s not “a Thomas.”
The man’s name is simply Thomas (very common in this era as in ours).

Martha desires me to communicate something concerning herself which she knows will give you pleasure, as affording her very particular satisfaction; it is, that she is to be in Town this spring with Mrs Dundas. — I need not dilate on the subject-you understand enough of the whys & wherefores to enter into her feelings, & to be conscious that of all possible arrangements, it is the one most acceptable to her. — She goes to Barton on leaving us — & the Family remove to Town in April. —

The saga of Martha which really does bother Austen and is part of what lies at the core of her bile this January 1809 – the dream-relationship is over. I noticed yesterday that the first volume of Austen’s Juvenilia, copied out so carefully in her good hand is dedicated to Martha in Jane’s handwriting. First Martha who had memorized First Impressions almost so often had she read it once upon a time. Dundas is the mistress she will be toady to. The reference to the subtleties of what has happened is so tantalizing. Austen cannot ignore them to never allude to them but is too guarded to say whatever it is in print. Martha’s going there to try to find a permanent place somewhere not dependent on emotional attachments and paradoxically (think of Charlotte Lucas) that includes marriage.

What you tell me of Miss Sharpe is quite new; & surprises me a little; — I feel however as you do. She is born, poor thing! to struggle with Evil — & her continuing with Miss B[ailey] is I hope a proof that Matters are not always so very bad between them, as her Letters sometimes represent. —

Her mind associates Martha with Anne Sharpe and since Miss Sharpe is
less to blame for her reactions in Jane’s mind, she sympathizes with no irony. She is not as involved. Unfortunately, LeFaye is not really trustworthy on this one for while she has the surface journey through life this woman took and what was written down, that’s just the surface and LeFaye will not look for obvious subtexts with Austen. For LeFaye Austen never looked at anyone with any real regard but her family members and all LeFaye’s sympathies go to the employer types
Sharpe had to deal with, the establishment itself. There was an attempt in Bath to get Sharpe a job to keep her nearby; mentions now and again suggest many letters (like this one). “as her letters sometimes represent.” That means some letters do not represent this relationship as that bad. (How pernicious is Downton Abbey – the place to read some of this too is Pamela Horn’s Rise and Fall of the Victorian Servant). LeFaye knows nothing of Miss Bailey but where she (and thus Miss Sharpe) lived together.

Jenny’s marriage I had heard of, & supposed you would do so tod from Steventon, as I knew you were corresponding with Mary at the time. I hope she will not sully the respectable name she now bears. —

Another servant and this time she is less patient than she was towards Cholles: What she suggests reminds me of the nature of Lydia Wickham’s later life, how she survived in later years (quiet promiscuity which can occur for lots of reason). I remember how in Persuasion Mary Musgrove resented her maid walking out at night (with a man). So maybe this maid was in the back of Austen’s mind in Persuasion as the news comes from Mary Lloyd Austen.

Your plan for Miss Curling is uncommonly considerate & friendly, & such as she must surely jump at. Edward’s going round by Steventon, as I understand he promises to do, can be no reasonable objection, Mrs J. Austen’s hospitality is just kind to enjoy such a visitor. —

Miss Curling again: she was the one who insisted on living at Castle
Square, made the flooding closet such a problem for Jane and then came
and gave herself airs. This is the sort of person Mary appreciates. It
might rankle that Edward is willing to take her by the carriage while
he is going somewhere else. He does not even do that sometimes for
Jane, but then like the other brothers he is involved with Jane and
his sister and wants to control them instinctively (as a male

We were very glad to know Aunt Fatty [Fanny, Austen is using a needling nickname for her] was in the Country when we read of the Fire. — Pray give my best Compliments to the Miss Finches, if they are at Godmersham —

Another fire but this one is not turned into a joke, possibly because
the people writing about it didn’t ask for sympathy. I can see Austen
joined in mocking this woman for being overweight. Austen was
friendly with teh Finches and they kind to her during that period of
turmoil after leaving Steventon and before Castle Square. Austen
visited and was welcomed kindly enough (likewise by the Bridges partly
because of Edward’s liking for Jane).


Sir John Moore
(1761-1809) by Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830)

And then the letter’s nadir:

I am sorry to find that Sir John Moore has a Mother living, but tho’ a very Heroick son, he might not be very necessary one to her happiness. – – Deacon Morrell may be more to Mrs Morrell. — I wish Sir John had united something of the Christian with the Hero in his death. — Thank Heaven! we have no one particularly among the Troops – no one in fact nearer to us than Sir John himself. Col Maitland is safe and well, and his Mother & sisters were of course anxious about him, but there is no entering much into the solicitudes of that family. —

Jane does loathe these battles too – the way she does much macho doings. She does not write of her detestation of war — how could she when this is the way her brothers are enriching themselves and Frank has supported her and her mother and sister at Southampton. She also dislikes false titles and pomposities and pretense at respect based sheerly on rank so she brings in the lower ranked Col Maitland who she did know at Bath but then she cannot stand to sympathize with the family who could have lost him. It is irritation all — why – – because the family or group she wanted to form has been rendered unthinkable (those why and wherefores Austen does not enter into).

On not entering into solicitudes: it may be a rebutal to Cassandra’s piety. Yet why should we enter into Anne Lady Wentworth’s in her later fiction who defied convention in marrying a sailor captain who the upper hierarchies (in the person of Sir Walter) despised but then would have not that much to fall back on were she left vulnerable. But these are stories while Martha and she, Miss Sharpe, even Miss Murden were real.

The letter’s closing phase, the coming move to Chawton:

Chawton house, a recent photo

My Mother is well, & gets out when she can with the same enjoyment, & apparently me same strength as hitherto.-She hopes you will not omit begging Mrs Seward to get the Garden cropped for us — supposing she leaves the House too early, to make the Garden any object to herself. — We’re very desirous of receiving your account of the House — for your observations will have a motive which can leave nothing to conjecture — suffer nothing from want of Memory. — For one’s own dear Self, one ascertains & remembers everything. —

On the use of the word “begging” in context it does not sound like the
use of cliched expression to me. The woman who has been living in the
house has no reason or interest to fix the garden and probably not
much money. She does need to be begged — urged from the standpoint of
powerlessness, for the Austens have nothing they can give or withhold.

It’s touching to see Jane Austen wanting to make another garden and
shows us she valued this. The last sentence her unsentimentality.

Lady Sondes is an impudent Woman to come back into her old
Neighbourhood again; — I suppose she pretends never to have married
before — & wonders how her Father & Mother came to have her christen’d Lady Sondes. —

This is the woman about whom Austen has written before. She felt grated upon by her. But (in letter 63) Jane allows her to marry a second time for love; and allows he has strong sense and elegant manners; all that we are told is Jane does not care for the stances Lady Sondes “affects” in public, such as she was unhappy. The real excuse is probably that Jane Austen was as often (and maybe she felt more) unhappy and repressed herself. This feels like dog in the manger stuff until we realize that it could connect in an immediate sense to Martha’s leaving. Lady Sondes can have her new husband; Jane cannot have Martha.

The storecloset I hope will never do so again again — for much of the Evil is proved to have proceeded from the Gutter being being choked up, & we have had it cleared. — We had reason to rejoice in the Child’s absence at the time of the Thaw. for the Nursery was not habitable. —

Then that flooding store closet; it turns out that a minor fixing could end the floods (no big money involved): Frank’s daughter, Mary Jane, certainly would have felt it. I like to think they would not have put the child down there then. The gutter being at fault reminds me of how we had floods down one of our walls until we bought the house, and then were so scared how much it would cost us to end them; called in someone or other and it too was “just the gutters” and they did not cost that much.

We of similar disasters from almost everybody. — No news from Portsmouth. We are very patient. — Mrs Charles Fowle desires to be kindly remembered to you. She is warmly interested in my Brother;s
family. — yours very affectionately [abbreviated in letter] J. Austen.

But all have disasters. How intensely she is aware of Frank. They are
patient is ironic-dry in tone. She quietly mouths the pretenses of
Mrs Charles Fowle and so this vexed letter ends.

See Jane Austen’s Letters



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