Archive for June 16th, 2014

Gretta Scacchi as Cassandra Austen looking down at Jane towards the end of Miss Austen Regrets — Cassandra is the silent continually-there and caring presence throughout these last letters

Dear friends and readers,

This week we are chronologically up to one of the few openly vulnerable and near despairing letters of Jane Austen, this the first and only one we have to her younger brother, Charles, telling him how very ill she has been, of the shock and dismay of the family when upon the death of the wealthy uncle, James Leigh-Perrot, they learned he had deliberately misled them to believe he would relieved their exigent needs by immediate legacies, sorrow over what was thought to be the hopeless case of Charles’s young daughter, Harriet with her “water on the brain,” and Jane’s inability to travel without a hired coach, due to her weak and pained state. The second has a claim to uniqueness too: this is the only letter we have to Jane Austen by a member of her family (the others are business letters, letters from the Rev Clarke): written a day after hers to Charles, Edward Cooper proves himself not to be the fatuous cant-filled evangelical implied by Austen in an earlier letter, but someone perceptive and brave enough to put down in print his sense of a double-dealing betrayal. And twenty days later Jane Austen’s will as dictated to Cassandra.

Cooper’s letter first appeared in Richard A. Austen-Leigh’s invaluable edition of the Austen Papers, published in 1940. He was a grandson of Austen’s nephew, James-Edward Austen-Leigh, who was responsible for the memoir, publication of Lady Susan and The Watsons; and like his grandfather dedicated to publishing and sharing with the public papers about the life and work of Jane Austen; with his uncle William Austen-Leigh (one of James-Edward’s sons), he produced the family biography, Jane Austen: her Life and Letters, and by himself other articles and notes. The papers contain letters by nearly all the near family members of Jane Austen, and by her cousins, people related by marriage, including Mr and Mrs Austen, Henry and Frank Austen, Thomas Leigh, letters by and to Warren Hastings, a series by Eliza de Feuillide to her cousin Philadelphia Walter, letters of Jane Leigh-Perrot to a cousin, James-Edward Austen-Leigh’s letters. They begin with the important biographical explanation by Jane’s father’s grandmother as to how she and all her children but the eldest were deprived of an inheritance and how she worked all her life to try to provide enough for her sons to become gentlemen. They end with Francis’s letters late in life to interested Americans conceding that Harville (and by extention Wentworth) contain aspects of his character. He recognizes himself in them. The letters and documents are set up as correspondences so you can read with understanding of what was said and what is replied. Essential context for Jane’s letters and what is known of her intimate life. They were reprinted by Thoemmes Press in 1990 with an introduction by David Gilson.

Charles Austen

157. To Charles Austen. Sunday, April 1817. Chawton

This is the letter before her will — as in the case of many women from the medieval period to the later 19th century (until 1870, the Married Women’s Property Act), it’s an informal letter signed by her — and co-signed. Most of such letters show a pathetic few belongings, cherished by the dying person, a tiny bequest. So here we have the bequest; after Jane died, Cassandra distributed Jane’s belongings and in lieu of the usual sheerly physical items, shared out writing by Jane.

Her letter to Charles tells of how sick she has been — unable to write “anything not absolutely necessary.” So that means she has not lost sufficient control of her consciousness to put together sentences. (I’ve seen that in cancer; the person cannot write at all, cannot understand what he or she reads.) Bilious attack is bile — she’s sick to her stomach, nausea, and it feels acidic. She’s had high fever.

But it is also a relapse — so she was this bad before. The news the uncle misled them and left everything to the stingy (kleptomaniac) corrosive-tongued aunt then hit her hard. Foolish she says, but she could not get over this important disappointment, understandably. She asked that Cassandra return from the funeral (so women did attend even if not at graveside). Mrs Austen, as ever phlegmatic on the outside, and, as people do often do, making excuses for that which hurt them (it’s an assertion the world is fair): oh he never expected his wife would outlive him.

No? he did make the will knowing the money was his.

Mrs Austen wishes her younger children had got something immediately — James got the vicarage, Edward adopted a rich man, and Frank doing very well with his prizes and working for private companies. But Charles in need and Jane with the small sums she’s made from her books.

Austen concedes the aunt is just now so miserable they are feeling more regard for her than they ever did before. To paraphrase Mr Bennet, not to worry, none of this would last, neither her affliction nor liking her more — and with good reason, especially James-Edward Austen-Leigh whose life she made a misery eventually by tyrannizing over him with threats of disinheritance. Now her immediate prostration makes them feel for her. Mrs L-P had lost her one companion and thorough friend.

Austen is not surprised at Harriet Palmer’s illness — well her older sister, dead in childbed, the infant dead, 4 children now to care for, one with a mysterious brain problem (perhaps autism of some sort now emerging), who would not be ill. Charles’s mother-in-law feeling better. Charles’s diaries show his real involvement. Apparently their cousin Cooke showed real kindness and affection — since this is not common, Austen rightly emphasizes this and wants to convey it. The Cookes are the same favored kindly Cookes of Bookham that we meet in Frances Burney d’Ablay’s life, and one of the few direct connections between FBA and Jane Austen. One might have expected some explicit talk by the Cookes about the Austens (including Jane and her novels) to enter FBA’s voluminous life-writing, but there is apparently no reference to Jane Austen at all. On the Cookes of Great Bookham, Jane’s two visits (1799, 1814), see Lucinda Brant, In Jane’s Visting Footsteps.

The rectory, demolished 1961

In the PS she remembers that Harriet, the sister-in-law has been asking to see her. Perhaps to be nice, as Harriet must know how sick her sister’s husband’s sister was, Austen says she can only come if a hackney coach is sent (that costs, this is not a group which keeps carriages). A moment of levity that connects to some private teasing — she hope Cassy takes care the coach is green. Was green a favorite color of Cassy?.

She realizes she didn’t use black-edged paper to signal their mourning for the uncle.

She ends the letter itself with a “God bless you all” — more emotional than usual — and that Charles should “conclude me to be going well if you hear nothing the contrary.” Meaning no news is good news — shall I paraphrase Mr Bennet again? no, just say often for the powerless the best news is not to hear anything from anyone for why would they be contacting you? most letters are after all about business. There’s a telling dialogue about letters and how when you pay people they will work for real and continually (otherwise not is implied) in Emma between John Knightley and Jane, but I digress …

Diane Reynolds responded:

Ellen has covered this letter well, and despite Austen’s attempts at humor–that Cassy must send a green hackney chariot for Jane should Jane be needed to visit, it is arguably more relentlessly dark than anything we have yet read. She is badly ill and her illness magnified by the “shock” of the uncle’s will, leaving the bulk of the money to the (nasty) aunt. The will has “brought on a relapse.” But my sense from the Le Faye notes is that the “younger Austen children” — that would include Jane, no (?), would inherit a 1000 pounds each should the aunt pre-decease them. Maybe some of the shock is the misery ofJane knowing she won’t live long enough to inherit–or am I entirely misreading this?

Jane tries to rouse herself to better cheer in the middle of the letter, speaking of being “better this morning” and “coddled,” mentioning her mother never had great expectations from the inheritance, but wished more for her younger children–and sooner. JA even expresses sympathy for the misery of the aunt.

As I think of the great importance in Regency England of inheritance, I think too of the new book, Capital by Piketty, that posits we are turning a corner in the US where inheritance will assume such importance–a time when people will inherit more than the average person can earn in a lifetime. The importance of this loss to the
Austens was great.

In the last part of the letter, JA is back to illnesses — Miss Palmer and Harriet. But she tries to end on a more cheerful note, with the joke about the green chariot–which also communicates how ill she is.

See also Diana Birchall’s reading.


Rev Edward Cooper, Rector of the Church of St Michael and All Angels, Hamstall Ridware, Jane Austen’s first cousin ( their mothers were sisters and granddaughters of Theophilus Leigh of Adlestrop)

Letter from Rev. Edward Cooper to Jane Austen -Hamstall, April 7, 1817

Edward Cooper’s letter is important because of the rarity of any letter to Jane Austen. That there is none other by any family member seems such an unexpected thorough-going absence it feels the result of an agreement, a plan. They all agreed to destroy whatever they had written to her — for surely some members of her family kept copies of what they had written. To us today it seems a lot of effort, but people did it; before computers when I was young people used carbon paper and thin tissue sheets to make typed and written copies. I also knew that ironically (and unfortunately) that Edward Cooper was someone who Jane Austen is down as to some extent despising, feeling he was somehow dull or ludicrous in his evangelical enthusiasm, or maybe it was that she wasn’t having any of it. He grated on her.

Now reading it in the light of all the letters we have, especially the most recent again we have an instance of Jane Austen maybe being wrong about people. Cooper seems not only intelligent but he appeals by his frankness; he is disappointed, he was led to believe he would be getting something. His letter confirms that the uncle was himself knowingly giving the wrong impression in order to make sure the family remained nice to him, grateful until he died. It’s interesting Cooper suggests he had reason to believe nonetheless he was “no great favorite” with the uncle; as far as we have documents (from James-Edward later and his daughter Mary), this might have been the aunt’s doing; it is just the sort of thing a Mrs Norris might do: sow discord to keep the uncle estranged from others and tied to her. Since we are not to speak ill of the dead Cooper turns round to say after he wants to think charitably of the uncle so if in thought or act the uncle did think unjustly of he, Cooper, he forgives the uncle. A bit absurd but no more than some of the contradictions on behalf of morality we find in other of the relatives’ letters (including Cassandra): when they get to heaven, they will understand one another.

Note though he does not want to write James, who as eldest son was one of the executors – thus could push things his own way and was to inherit after the aunt. (In the event James Austen predeceased Jane Leigh-Perrot.) He’s unwilling to write because he does feel uncomfortable in talking to someone who will be taking all the advantage of this title — so he foresees that James will somehow show off, not be tactful and asks that Jane ask her brother to lay aside this status. Also what is the requisite period of mourning? One black suit for his boys should be enough — he is thinking of the cost of mourning clothes, of dying the boys’ regular clothes.

The letter also shows that this man had no idea Jane was dying. Cassandra had told him both were unwell to explain why she Cassandra had no time to write. There is this strong tendency in this family to secrecy — as a girl Austen in her Juvenilia mocked this whispering secresy (especially one of her playlets), but by the time she was writing the novels it had been inculcated into her as thoroughly as any of George Austen’s children. In effect Edward Cooper has been lied to enough to fool him. There are no phones, no internet, no trains, no cars: it’s easy to fool people who are outside walking distance. To be fair, there is still a strong inhibition today against telling that someone is actually dying and when they have died, including cause of death in the obituary.

His tone would be quite different were he to know how ill his cousin, Jane, is. If you you look carefully you see the main evidence for Cooper’s dullness are quotations from Jane Austen — irritated by his overt perhaps proselytizing evangelicalism. The man was not a genius, but this is the letter of a frank person who is alive to the nuances of things around him and willing to articulate them (thus refreshing and giving us truths hard to find written down in the case of the Leigh-Perrots and now James).

St Michael’s Church, Hamstall Ridware, Staffordshire (recent photo)

Again Diane:

It reinforces how the blow of the inheritance going to Aunt LP reverberated through the family. People needed and expected that money. Rev. Edward sounds utterly stunned — and is reaching out in shock to a sympathetic party, which meant JA’s attitude, as well the expectations of she and her sister and mother, must have been known to him. I find it interesting that he wrote to her, even though he knew she was sick, rather than her mother or Cassandra. He evidently felt more assured that she would feel as he did. Obviously, this is also a way to avoid writing a letter to James he simply can’t bear to write — he seemingly can rely on Jane to be a tactful–or at least reliable — intermediate.

Given that this was a family that gives no sign of pie in the sky fantasies or wishful thinking, people truly were led to believe they would inherit, leading one to suspect a level of cruelty in this whole affair. We feel how far up the class ladder the lack of social safety net went–these gentry people really needed this money. This appears to have the shock the unexpected loss of a good job would have on a modern person–or perhaps the shock of the sudden closing down of a business that had employed more than one family member.

For a gathering together of what is known about Edward Cooper and what Jane wrote see Jane Austen in Vermont, a 2013 Midlands tour to the UK.


Sylvie Herbert as Madame Bigeon — showing real identification and interest — in the film she dines with the family, sits by Jane in front of their London fire (Miss Austen Regrets, 2008)

It does not seem out of place to reprint Jane Austen’s will here too — numbered as one of the letters in Deirdre LeFaye’s edition:

158. To Cassandra Austen
Sunday 27 April 1817

I Jane Austen of the Parish of Chawton do by this my last Will & Testament give and bequeath to my dearest Sister Cassandra Elizabeth every thing of which I may die possessed, or which may be hereafter due to me, subject to the payment of my Funeral Expences, & to a Legacy of £50. to my Brother Henry, & £50. to Mde Bigeon – -which I request may be paid as soon as convenient. And I appoint my said dear Sister the Executrix of this my last Will & Testament.

Jane Austen
April 27, 1817.
My Will.-
To Miss Austen

Jane Austen had a very bad day or night indeed, so harrowing they thought she was near death. Most comments are on the 50 pounds to Madame Bigeon, but we could equally wonder why Austen felt she owed Henry 50. She might have wanted to send this sum to Madame Bigeon to signal to Madame how grateful she felt towards Madame for her years of faithful friendly work for Henry and herself. We should remember that throughout Austen’s letters once she is in Bath we find she is friendly with servants, sometimes eats with them, takes books out of the library for them, treats them with respect, and then and in later years (at Godmersham for example), identifies herself with governesses in the great houses where she is a visitor.

Diana Birchall:

Solemn and moving. It is time. All to Cassandra, who will be Executrix (interesting that women, denied so much, could do that), except for legacies of fifty pounds to Henry (who needs it) and the same to Mme. Bigeon, his housekeeper.


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