Archive for March 16th, 2012

Chawton Cottage, Hampshire

Dear friends and readers,

Jane Austen’s first letter from Chawton. To Frank Austen. Who else? Gleeful verses reassuring him “how much we find/Already in it, to our mind.” “It will all other houses beat/That ever have been made or mended,/With rooms concise, or rooms distended …” Portrait of Frank as a boy, shared childhood. Martha now gone, a 2 year intense writing-revision. She girds her loins and makes two texts publishable (I suggest she works on Elinor and Marianne [? or S&S] and begins thinking about what to do with First Impressions), and shall pay for it herself (!). A vanity press author! this suggests how unfair such characterizations have ever been. 2 year silence in extant correspondence on her part ensues.


This letter occupies a couple of firsts: the first extant to Frank, the first extant from Chawton; it’s the second one in verse, the other also about Frank (Frank made Austen’s heart sing) and commemorating a move (to Southampton, the first dream of a stable home since Steventon, Letter 48). We do not have a surviving letter since April (4 months) and the desolation of Crosby’s bullying intimidation and assertion of ownership of Austen’s creation (for 10 pounds); only this resurgence of “Joy.”

My dearest Frank, I wish you Joy
Of Mary’s safety with a Boy,
Whose birth has given little pain
Compared with that of Mary Jane.-
May he a growing Blessing prove,
And well deserve his Parents’ Love! –
Endow’d with Art’s & Nature’s Good,
Thy name possessing with thy Blood,
In him, in all his ways, may we
Another Francis William see!-
Thy infant days may he inherit,
Thy warmth, nay insolence of spirit;­
We would not with one fault dispense
To weaken the resemblance.
May he revive thy Nursery sin,
Peeping as daringly within,
His curley Locks but just descried,
With “Bet, my be not come to bide.” —

Fearless of danger, braving pain,
And threaten’d very oft in vain,
Still may one Terror daunt his Soul,
One needful engine of Controul
Be found in this sublime array,
A neighbouring Donkey’s aweful Bray.
So may his equal faults as Child,
Produce Maturity as mild!
His saucy words & fiery ways
In early Childhood’s pettish days,
In Manhood, shew his Father’s mind
Like him, considerate & kind;
All Gentleness to those around,
And eager only not to wound.
Then like his Father too, he must,
To his own former struggles just,
Feels [sic] his Deserts with honest Glow;
And all his self-improvement know.­
A native fault may thus give birth
To the best blessing, conscious Worth.-

As for ourselves we’re very well;
As unaffected prose will tell.
Cassandra’s pen will paint our state,
The many comforts that await
Our Chawton home, how much we find
Already in it, to our mind;
And how convinced, that when complete
It will all other Houses beat
That ever have been made or mended,
With rooms concise, or rooms distended.
You’ll find us very snug next year,
Perhaps with Charles & Fanny near,
For now it often does delight us
To fancy them just over-right us.-

Cape Austen RN. 26th July

Having gone through the letters we are now in a position to see ihis is a letter of reassurance. We have seen that perhaps he was against the move to Chawton (Letter 61). Now this letter is intended to tell him that Chawton is all Jane dreamed of and Frank was wrong to worry. We do not know what his objections were, but we saw they were strong enough for him to hurry out suddenly with a surprise visit to Cassandra, to catch her unawares (Letter 61). In vain, for Jane told and Cassandra would want the move: the economics of the thing decided it. We are not permitted to know what were Frank’s objections

We do know that Frank and Jane were the close ones: she waits twice a day, goes to the post office perhaps to get a letter. To him alone were left three packets of letters which he kept near him until he died. I do not mean to omit Martha (Honan called his section on the Southampton home: Frank and Martha).

Everything about the poem projects its central mood and tenet: they are there, now that it’s

Our Chawton home, how much we find
Already in it, to our mind;
And how convinced, that when complete
It will all other Houses beat
That ever have been made or mended,
With rooms concise, or rooms distended.
You’ll find us very snug next year

It’s fine 8 beat couplet verse. I see running through the last paragraph imagery from writing — and for Cassandra drawing. Cassandra’s pen will paint their “many comforts.” Already “in it to our mind” they find all that they want and need. “Rooms concise or rooms extended” is language allusive of manuscripts. Before her are manuscripts with their rooms concise and extended too.


From 2007 Granada Northanger Abbey (Andrew Davies): Catherine talks to her brothers and sisters at bedtime

This week’s letter has been written about numerous times, usually
focusing on Frank’s life: his personality, his son, his childhood. Austen even remembers a snatch of her brother’s baby talk and Hampshire accent: “Bet, my be not come to bide.” Austen hopes Frank’s son will be such another as he was and has become; she is recalling an occasion when Frank stood at the nursery door and explained himself to the nurse.

She remembers his stubbornness, determination. He was called “Fly.” At age 7 he bought his own horse (with father’s help), a pony for £1.11s.6d and after two years sold it for £2.12s.6d. A bright chestnut, he called it “Squirrel” and his brother “Scrug.”

A good deal of what we know about Frank as a boy and until the time he went into the navy, is contained in this poem. Turn to the biographers and you see they are relying on these verses. It’s also here and some hints in the earlier letters that we know Frank’s wife had an appalling time giving birth to the daughter.

It’s a lively realistic memories of a real noisy, stubborn, difficult child (“his saucy words & fiery ways”).

It’s apparently self-effacing until the last paragraph. It is by Jane, her throughout, her love for Frank, her voice, her stance, her place in his life and hope for one of her own now that she can control.


This is said to be the desk Austen wrote upon in the Chawton parlour

We are at a turning point: there will be no more letters for 21 months, at which time we will hear of proofs of Sense and Sensibilityy (her own “suckling child”). The letter to Crosby is our evidence that as she thought about Chawton and moving there became close she saw an opportunity at long last to sit quietly, revise and make a hard effort to publish. It was in his biographical notice to her two posthumous novels, Northanger and Persuasion, Henry told that story, and I’ll save it for next time as the next letter is closer to the outward negotiating events of what she did; this time we are to think of the plunge into writing.

Now in July 1809 Martha has vanished, gone. She left now and again in the years from the time she moved in until Chawton, but not for good. When they went on holiday (Worthing) she was there. Visiting she was there. It may go against the grain in our sentimental times but I wonder how much Martha’s leaving had to do with Jane’s ability and determination to do as little as possible in the social world to enable herself to write intensely – which she had to do for these coming years. She was perhaps also more efficient as it was a matter of revision not creation of narratives and fair copies in the first place.

Lots of people like — whether it be a heterosexual relationship or a homoerotic/lesbian one — to insist that the human relationship counts more and trumps the person’s relationship with their art. So we get how Miss Austen Regrets is shaped to flatter the view Austen was so ambivalent and torn and nagged by her family not to give her life up to writing. But in fact maybe it was a good thing Martha deserted. It freed Jane — the way when a marriage breaks up a person can be freed. Austen’s letter to the Bullers (for one example, Letter 25) says she prefers the sea to friends or relatives; she didn’t prefer her fictional world to Martha. A good deal of the vexed tones of the last Southampton letters come from Martha’s behavior and plans to go; but as Martha was off, and Frank gone too, she had herself and her fictional world to invest emotionally in. Cassandra stands by as the person who lives with one so closely (or often afar as she is ever visiting and getting away) that we can ignore them.

See Jane Austen’s Letters archive



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