Posts Tagged ‘Caroline Austen’

Sylvestre Le Tousel as Fanny Price, writing to her brother, amid her “nest of comforts” (which includes many books) in 1983 BBC Mansfield Park

“Our books, dear Book Browser, are a comfort, a presence, a diary of our lives. What more can we say?” (Carol Shields, Mary Swann).

La bibliothèque devient une aventure” (Umberto Eco quoted by Chantal Thomas, Souffrir)

Dear friends, readers — lovers of Austen and of books,

Over on my Ellen and Jim have a Blog, Two, I provided the four photos it takes to capture most of my books on and by Anthony Trollope, and explained why. You may also find a remarkably informative article on book ownership in England from medieval times on and what makes up a library. I thought I’d match that blog with a photo of my collection of books by and on Jane Austen, and in her case, books about her family, close friends, specific aspects of her era having to do with her. Seven shelves of books.

I have a second photo of 3 wide shelves filled with my DVD collection (I have 33 of the movies and/or serial TV films), my notebooks of screenplays and studies of these films, as well as books on Austen films of all sorts. These three shelves also contain my books of translations of Austen into French and/or Italian, as well as a numerous sequels, many of which I’ve not had the patience or taste to read but have been given me.

My book collection for Austen is smaller than my own for Trollope because even though I have many more books on her, she wrote only seven novels, left three fragments, some three notebooks of juvenilia, and a remnant of her letters is all that survives. For each of her novels or books I have several editions, but that’s still only seven plus. By contrast, Trollope wrote 47 novels and I won’t go on to detail all his other writing. OTOH, there are fewer books on him, and the movie adaptations of his books are in comparison very few.

There’s no equivalent movie for The Jane Austen Book Club where members vow to read all Jane Austen all the time

So although I won’t go to the absurdity of photographing my many volumes of the periodical Persuasions, and what I have of the Jane Austen Society of Britain bulletin like publications, I can show the little row of books I’m reading just now about her and towards a paper for the Victorian Web.

The project includes reading some Victorian novels written with similar themes, and Henry James’s Spoils of Poynton; for me it is true that Austen is at the center of a group of women (and men too) writers and themes that mean a lot to me, so I have real libraries of other women writers I have read a great deal of and on and have anywhere from two to three shelves of books for and by, sometimes in the forms of folders:

these are Anne Radcliffe (one long and half of a very long bookshelf), Charlotte Smith (two long bookshelfs), Fanny Burney (three, mostly because of different sets of her journals), George Eliot (one long and half of another long bookshelf), Gaskell (two shorter bookshelves), Oliphant (scattered about but probably at least one very long bookshelf). Virginia Woolf is another woman writer for whom I have a considerable library, and of course Anne Finch (where the folders and notebooks take up far more room than any published books).

As with Trollope starting in around the year 2004 I stopped xeroxing articles, and now have countless in digital form in my computer; I also have a few books on Austen digitally. The reason I have so many folders for Smith, Oliphant, Anne Finch (and other women writers before the 18th century) is at one time their books were not available except if I xeroxed a book I was lucky enough to find in a good university or research library. You found your books where you could, went searching in second hand book stores with them in mind too.

One of my favorite poems on re-reading Jane Austen — whom I began reading at age 12, and have never stopped:

“Re-reading Jane”

To women in contemporary voice and dislocation
she is closely invisible, almost an annoyance.
Why do we turn to her sampler squares for solace?
Nothing she saw was free of snobbery or class.
Yet the needlework of those needle eyes . . .
We are pricked to tears by the justice of her violence:
Emma on Box Hill, rude to poor Miss Bates,
by Mr Knightley’s were she your equal in situation —
but consider how far this is from being the case

shamed into compassion, and in shame, a grace.

Or wicked Wickham and selfish pretty Willoughby,
their vice, pure avarice which, displacing love,
defiled the honour marriages should be made of.
She punished them with very silly wives.
Novels of manners! Hymeneal theology!
Six little circles of hell, with attendant humours.
For what do we live but to make sport for our neighbours
And laugh at them in our turn?
The philosophy
paused at the door of Mr Bennet’s century;
The Garden of Eden’s still there in the grounds of Pemberley.

The amazing epitaph’s ‘benevolence of heart’
precedes ‘the extraordinary endowments of her mind’
and would have pleased her, who was not unkind.
Dear votary of order, sense, clear art
and irresistible fun, please pitch our lives
outside self-pity we have wrapped them in,
and show us how absurd we’d look to you.
You knew the mischief poetry could do.
Yet when Anne Elliot spoke of its misfortune
to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who
enjoyed it completely
, she spoke for you.

—– Anne Stevenson

The Jane Austen Book Club meets in a hospital when a member has a bad accident

Gentle readers, I can hardly wait to see the second season of the new Sanditon on PBS; my daughter, Laura (Anibundel) much involved with WETA (PBS) nowadays, writing reviews and such, who has read the fragment and books about Austen tells me it is another good one.

Chapman’s classic set (appears as Christmas present in Stillman’s Metropolitan): for our first anniversary Jim bought me a copy of Sense and Sensibility in the Chapman set (1924, without the later pastoral cover)


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A photograph of Tom Carpenter, the trustee of Chawton Cottage; he is carrying a portrait of Jane Austen’s brother, Edward


Last night I came across in the latest issue of Times Literary Supplement (for January 25, 2019), an informative piquant review by Devoney Looser of a autobiographical book, Jane & Me. Its author, Caroline Jane Knight, a fifth great-niece (with now a little help from Devoney & the TLS), is launching this book maybe to provide herself with a raison d’être (a not “very promising heroine-in-training” says Devoney), a basis for her living independently someday. I think the information here and acid insights make it required reading for the Janeite, and discovered it’s behind the kind of magazine paywall where you must buy a whole subscription for a year, before you can read it. It is almost impossible to share a TLS article online as if you subscribe to the online version, you can only do it through an app on an ipad or some such device. So I here provide a summary, contextualized further by what I have drawn from Deborah Yaffe’s Among the Janeites.

Why is the review valuable in its own right too: we learn a good deal about the history of Chawton House Library this century from the point of view of the family who owned it — Jane Austen’s collateral descendants. Caroline is a poor transmitter: Looser points to where Caroline has not even begun to do the research necessary on her own life, but there is enough here to make do, and if you know something from your work, or can add further research like Devoney, you can have some insight into Austen’s family and what she was up against as she tried to write honest entertainments.

In brief, Devoney tells the story of a downwardly mobile family who let the house fall into desuetude and the present Richard Knight leased it to Sandy Lerner whose great luck on the Net had brought her huge amounts of money, some of which she expended by renovating, it’s not too much to call it rescuing Chawton House into a building one could spend time in comfortably enough so that it could function as a library. While she set about building, she started a board of informed people who would know how to turn it into a study center for 18th century women’s writing. Austen’s peers & contemporaries.

Richard Knight and Sandy Lerner walking on the grounds together during some occasion

Let me first bring in Yaffe’s account who also sheds light on Richard Knight who was at the conference as a key note speaker and we can here gather a few truths about him. He had “inherited a crushing estate-tax bill and a `16th century house in need of a million British pounds’ worth of emergency repairs.” A developer’s plan to turn the place into a golf course and expensive hotel had collapsed by 1992. Enter Sandy Lerner. She had made oodles of money off an Internet business, is another fan of Austen, one common today who does not like the idea of Austen as “an unhappy repressed spinster,” something of a recluse, not able to see the money and fame she wanted. When Dale Spender’s book, Mothers of the Novel, presented a whole female population writing away (as Austen did), a female literary tradition, she found a vocation, collecting their books. After she heard a speech by Nigel Nicolson, where he offended her (talking of a woman who thought Jane Austen didn’t like Bath as “a silly, superstitious cow,” described himself as heading a group who intended to open a Jane Austen center in Bath even though Edward Austen Knight’s Chawton House was on the market (too expensive? out of the way for tourists?), she decided to “get even.” When she had the money two years later, she bought Chawton House. She wanted to make it “a residential study center where scholars consulting er rare-book collection could live under 19th century conditions.” This super-rich woman loved the sense these people would gain “a visceral sense of the historical moment,” wake up to “frost on the windows, grates without fires, nothing but cold water to wash in.”

She paid six million for 125 year lease on the house and its 275 acre grounds; another $225,000 for the stable block. She discovered it to be badly damaged, inhabited by tenants she found distasteful, “ugly,” rotting. Crazy rumors abounded in the village she was going to turn the place into a lesbian commune, a Euro-Disney style theme park, her husband testing missile systems in the grounds. She thought of herself as this great philanthropist. Culture clashes: the Chawton estate sold its hunting rights for money; she was an animal rights activist. Disputes over her desire to remove a swimming pool said to be a badger habitat protected under UK law. I saw the Ayrshire Farm here in Northern Virginia that she bought during the protracted lawsuits and negotiations over Chawton: an 800-acre spread in northern Virginia, where “she planned to raise heritage breeds under humane, organic conditions, to prove socially responsible farming was economically viable.” She started a cosmetics company whose aesthetic was that of the Addams Family (TV show). Chawton House was finally built using a sensible plan for restoration; a cemetery was discovered, a secret cupboard with 17th century telescope. Eventually Lerner’s 7000 rare books came to reside in a house you could hold conferences, one-day festivals and host scholars in. It had cost $10 million and yearly operating costs were $1 million a year.

Lerner’s Ayrshire Farmhouse today — it’s rented out for events, and hosts lunches and evening parties and lectures, has a shop ….

Lerner is unusual for a fan because she dislikes sequels and does not seek out Austen movies; it’s Austen’s texts she loves — yet she too wants to write a P&P sequel. I sat through one of her incoherent lectures so know first-hand half-nutty theory that every concrete detail in an Austen novel is crucial information leading to interpretation of that novel. I’ll leave the reader to read the details of her way of research, her travels in imitation of 18th century people: it took her 26 years to complete. How she has marketed the book by a website, and how Chawton was at the time of the book thriving (though her Farm lost money). Yaffe pictures Lerner at a signing of her book, and attracted many people, as much for her Internet fame as any Austen connection. Yaffe has Lerner against distancing herself from “our distastefully Twittering, be-Friending world, for the e-mail boxes overflowing with pornographic spam.” But she will buy relics at grossly over-inflated prices (“a turquoise ring” Austen wore) and give them to friends. She launched Chawton House by a fabulously expensive ball, to which Elizabeth Garvie and David Rintoul (dressed as aging Mr and Mrs Darcy) came. A “prominent chef” made 18th century foods (“nettle and potato soup, pickle ox tongue, sweetmeats”). She was in costume: “a low-cut, pale-blue ball gown. She even went horseback riding with Rintoul. A real thrill for a fan.

Chawton House Reading Room — there are two rooms, one open to the public, the other locked and filled with rare 18th century books

Devoney doesn’t say this nor Yaffe but I will: Chawton House never quite made it as sheerly a study center for women’s writing as originally envisioned; instead it became a sort of Jane Austen tourist site where festivals and conferences dwelling on Austen for fans were necessary, sometimes becoming a semi-popular community center like the Bronte Haworth house seems to be turning into. That’s not so bad, far worse was the people working for and at the place never acquired enough funding to do without Lerner; and over a fit of pique and probably long-standing resentments, some two years ago now Lerner pulled all her money out. It turns out 80% of funds came from her, and no way has been found to locate a substitute so the place can carry on its serious functions in the same way. Some new compromise will have to be found. Nearby is Chawton Cottage, now a small research center (for those select people who get to see its library), but more a tourist site; also nearby is the Austen family church where (among others) Austen’s sister, Cassandra and their mother, are buried. The house now (Looser says) “stands to revert back to Richard Knight’s family,” of whom Caroline is a member. All of us who know something of the house, who have experienced its scholarly meetings, its library, walked on its grounds, heard a concert at the church, mourn the fact that its fine director, Dr Gillian Dow has gone, to return full time as a scholar and lecturer to the University of Southampton.

This is the larger context for the story of Caroline and her older relatives from the turn of the century to now. Like other of these aristocrats who cannot afford to life the extravagant life of leisure they once did, Caroline (says Devoney) presents herself a slightly downtrodden: she and her parents lived in the basement of Chawton house while the rich tenants occupy the plum apartments above. One of the houses I was shown in the Lake District/Nothern Borders of England is owned by an aristocrat’s wife’s family; and the husband himself works to hold onto it by throwing it open to the public for various functions. He is clearly a well-educated man who lived a privileged elite life; nonetheless, he gave one of the talks. He told us he and his family living in the basement quarters below; their paying tenants above stairs.

The various Knights during Caroline’s life didn’t have many servants (oh dear poor things) and spent their time in less than admirable ways (watching TV say, horse racing — which costs). None of them were readers, and (as opposed to Devoney) I would say none of them ever produced anything near a masterpiece or important book, except maybe JEAL — if you are willing to consider how central his Memoir of his Aunt has been and how it has cast its spell over ways of reading Austen and understanding her ever after. A few have been minor literary people, and Joan Austen-Leigh and others been influential valued members of the British Jane Austen Society and they “grace” the JASNA every once in a while with their presence. Several have written sequels. Looser goes over a few of these, giving the impression that a couple which JASNA has promoted are better than they are.

Various financial troubles and also legal ones (including one male relative running over a local person with his car and “found not guilty of manslaughter” although he fled the scene) are covered by Devoney. When it comes to explaining the financial problems, Caroline says they are all a mystery. She omits any clarifying description of what the estate was like and which Knights lived here in WW2. Devoney supplies this: she tells of one recent Edward Knight’s time in India — his father had had been a royal favorite and a public-spirited magistrate, who loved to shoot birds. In 1951 thirty cottages in which tenants lived were auctioned off, and some went to occupants. They were in such bad shape apparently (again that is my deduction from what Looser gently implies) that one lucky man who could afford to buy the cottage said he got it for the price of a TV. Devoney implies this was dirt cheap. Not so: for many British people in 1951 the price of TV was out of their range; in the 1950s most Brits rented their TV

Chawton House recently from the outside

Death duties, genuinely high taxes each time the house changed hands is what did them in. (We no longer have even that in the US and the Republicans are salivating to change the death tax laws once again — these are important tools to prevent the growth of inequality.) I thought interesting that Chawton House was sold to one Richard Sharples, a conservative politician (1916-73) who served as governor of Bermuda and was assassinated (in Devoney’s words) “by black power militants.” Of course this bad-mouths these people, and when they were hung for the murder, there were days of rioting. I remember how horribly the white treated black and native people on Bermuda — so cruel that there are famous rebellions (Governor Eyre) wth terrifying reprisals by the British and colonial gov’ts. In the 20th century Sharples’ widow’s only recourse was to sell the property, furniture, books, portraits in 1977. There have over the century been a number of such sales to pay off death duties and some of the objects prized in museums, libraries came out of just such Sotheby auctions. Looser tells us in an aside there is a ditigal project trying to reconstruct the Knight Library as it was in 1935 (“Reading with Austen,” readingwithausten.com)

As to Caroline, she has apparently read very little of Austen’s fiction — that must very little indeed since Austen left only 6 novels which can easily be reprinted in one volume. She has appeared on TV, and is now she’s trying what a book can do. It’s not a memoir worthy of Jane Austen, says Devoney: the lack of elemental research even about her own life; Caroline’s account of herself features James Covey’s self-help book, The Habits of Highly Effective People, as the one that has gotten her through life. Wouldn’t you know it was seeing the 1995 P&P film by Andrew Davies that “kindled” Caroline’s interest in Jane Austen. I watched a documentary with Andrew Davies aired on BBC recently about just how much he changed the book to be about men; how much “correction” of it he made. Caroline still dreams of moving back to Chawton with the present male Richard Knight as ambassador (of what it’s not clear). I’ve been to JASNAs where Richard Knight gave a talk about his family in the mid-morning Sunday breakfast slot of the JASNAs. Here is Arnie Perlstein’s reaction to one.

Devoney ends her review with suggesting how much this history might remind us of Persuasion and the Elliot family and quotes Darcy in P&P: “I cannot comprehend the neglect of a family library in such days as these.” Devoney does justice at her opening to a few of the immediate Austens who showed some literary ability and genuine interest and integrity towards their aunt: James, her brother was a minor but good poet; his three children include JEAL; Anne Austen Lefroy who tried to finish Sanditon and wrote a brief touching novel, Mary Hamilton; Caroline Austen wrote her Reminiscences; Catherine Hubback several novels, a travel book of letters, and a continuation of Austen’s The Watsons as The Younger Sister. Her son, grand-nephew, and granddaughter all wrote books to add to our knowledge of the family; Edward Knight’s grandson produced the first substantial edition of Austen’s letters. There the inspiration coming through and about the aunt seems to have ended.

From Anthony Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her?, Jeffrey Palliser tells Alice, a visitor to this aristocratic family at their country mansion who wonders what there is to do all day, about what he as an example of his relatives’ lives does with his time:

“Do you shoot?”
“Shoot! What; with a gun?”
“Yes. I was staying in a house last week with a lady who shot a good deal.”
“No; I don’t shoot.”
“Do you ride?”
“No; I wish I did. I have never ridden because I’ve no one to ride with me.”
“Do you drive?”
“No; I don’t drive either.”
“Then what do you do?”
“I sit at home, and—”
“Mend your stockings?”
“No; I don’t do that, because it’s disagreeable; but I do work a good deal. Sometimes I have amused myself by reading.”
“Ah; they never do that here. I have heard that there is a library, but the clue to it has been lost, and nobody now knows the way …

None of this loss and mismanagement or lack of literary interest or ability as part of a family history is unexpected. In her discreet last chapter of her fine biography of Jane Austen, Claire Tomalin records the earliest phases of this decline, together with or amid the real attempts of Catherine Hubback’s part of the family and other descendants of Frank to publish respectable books about Jane Austen. I imagine the valuable library gathered since Chawton House Library became a functioning study center (a large room in the present Chawton house) will remain intact but nowadays (as some of us know) libraries filled with books are not valued by booksellers or even libraries or universities in the way they once were. I know people who found they could not even give away a particularly superb personal library, and others driven to sell theirs for very little in comparison say for what they would have gotten in 1980 or so and that would not have covered how much it cost them over a lifetime.


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A contemporary illustration (John Edmund Buckley) for Marmion (Scott used to be seen as Austen’s rival)

Dear friends and readers,

A third short blog, just to announce I’ve put onto my site at Academia.edu, a copy of the comparative review of the two Cambridge Companions to Jane Austen (1997 and again 2011) I wrote for ECCB, which will appear in due time (I hope), either this fall or next spring.

Another of the Cambridge Publications

I’ve already blogged on the individual essays in the two volumes, summarizing and evaluating them individually, but have been asked for a quick overview several times now so thought this pre-publication appropriate.

The Place setting for Mary Wollstonecraft from Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party (Austen did not make the cut) — How we contextualize her today


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8 Collier Street, Winchester, where Austen was soon to be taken and died

Dear friends and readers,

Three letters written around the time Austen found she could no longer write. The first before she put down Sanditon; the second referring to Persuasion and perhaps Northanger Abbey. They write to support and divert her (insofar as they can); she puts a brave face on her agon before her youngest niece and is also supporting her own spirits through hope too. We see her more of a realist than usual about the illnesses and weaknesses of those around her. The first intimations that Uncle James Leigh-Perrot is not going to leave a legacy to the Austens are recorded (see How Aunt Jane Stole that Lace … ).

This is again a composite portrait of several people reading Austen’s letters together; I again have guest contributors to whom I am grateful.


From Miss Austen Regrets (2008): Olivia Williams as Jane Austen waking in the morning realizing just how ill she is

154. To Caroline Austen, Fri 14 March 1817, Chawton to Steventon

Diane Reynolds began it:

JA writes a cheerful letter to Caroline, with no sign of illness, remarkable given she has only four months to live, but she surely doesn’t want to burden young Caroline with worries. This letter is reminiscent to me of some of her younger letters in the tendency to personify inanimate objects: she opens with the Message (presumably the one she is sending) feeling like a fool for arriving after a parcel and ends with the pianoforte being glad to see Caroline
whenever she comes. I sense JA glad to be surrounded by her familiar objects in Chawton, as she once was in the security of Steventon.
    As seems usual, JA is spending her time reading and commenting on her nieces’ and nephews’ juvenilia, no doubt the continuing unexpected consequence of being a published author, and one she bears with remarkable good grace, especially given how little energy she must have. I feel a little less gracious: I’d like to be seeing more of finished Sanditon and less commentary on lost scribblings by other people. (Though I understand she might have been more capable of reading easy pieces and writing quick letters than a sustained literary effort.)
    Austen, in her role as editor, gives some quick praise to Caroline’s MS, Gentleman Quack, no doubt knowing how much a child needs encouragement: “There was a great deal of Spirit in the first part.” Austen commends Caroline for taking “our objection to it”–not articulated as Caroline already knows it — withequanimity. Jane says very cheerfully and grandly, as if bowing down to her niece humorously: “I give yourAuthorship credit for bearing Criticism so well.” JA then moves on to JEAL, noting he tried for a scholarship (presumably to one of the colleges) in Oxford. The scholarship was called the Craven Exhibition–JA makes light of that (perhaps to alleviate any disappointment should he not succeed) and says he must go on writing, joking that in his novel “he will find his true fame and his true wealth.” This must be a joke, as Austen mentions she has recently received almost 20 pounds in royalties from the second edition of S&S, a tidy sum to her, given that she has, Ellen has informed us, an allowance of 25 pounds a year, but what she must know is not income sufficient for a young gentleman thinking of supporting a family and a place in society. However, she is playing with pov again — she herself ispleased to see the money coming in, and perhaps, if she is still hoping to recover, imagines a time when she has a string of novels in reprint, all bringing 20 pounds a year. JA is delighted enough to joke that the money gives her “this fine flow of Literary Ardor.”
    She then moves on to thanking Caroline’s mother, through Caroline, for a ham and the Seacale. Seascale, according to the internet, is a medicinal herb that grows in spring and has spinachlike (?) leaves with a nutty flavor. Perhaps the family was thinking of Jane’s health, but the website I visited didn’t list any known ailment it treated. What I wonder, though, is if Jane sent her thanks only through Caroline or if she wrote a direct note to Mary as well? We do get the information, no doubt important, that the bounty will be shared with the wider family, meaning Henry and Frank, when they come to dine.
    Following the thank you, we get a quick and charming picture of 10 year old cousin Mary Jane spending a day in London with 9 year-old cousin Cassy–and apparently both fathers, Frank and Charles. Cassy is said to have walked 8 or 9 miles one morning with her father, which seems a good deal to us for a young child, but we routinely read of people in those days walking distances we would find daunting–I think of Charles and Mary Lamb walking 12 miles to the theatre.
    As mentioned above, Austen mentions to end her letter that the pianoforte would always be glad for a visit from Caroline. From this letter, we would have no idea Austen is ill.

Diana Birchall:

The day after writing to Fanny, she writes to young Caroline. As usual she “lowers” her style to the level of a wordplay joke an 11 or 12 year old would like: “…today you will receive the parcel itself; therefore I should not like to be in that Message’s shoes, it will look so much like a fool.” She jollies Caroline about her writing, in auntly tenderness: “I am glad to hear of your proceedings and improvements in the Gentleman Quack. There was a great deal of Spirit in the first part [Spirit is what she accords to JEAL’s writing too]. Our objection to it you have heard, & I give your Authorship credit for bearing Criticism so well.” Despite a bit of mock solemnity (“your Authorship”) she is serious about the professional importance of being able to take criticism properly.
    She flatters Caroline’s brother JEAL too (would he see the letter?), praising his writing as more important than his Oxford scholarship (“No matter what becomes of the Craven Exhibition, provided he goes on with his Novel. In that he will find his true fame & his true wealth.”) Not serious – JEAL is to be a clergyman and needs his scholarship – but at the same time she is palpably cheered by her having received “nearly twenty pounds myself on the 2nd Edit: of S & S- which gives me this fine flow of Literary Ardour.” Her spirits have nearly reached Mrs. Elton level at this: “I am in a fine flow of spirits, an’t I?” as Mrs. Elton said. This is all the more remarkable in Jane Austen, with her death only four months off, but she may not yet feel so ill as to be completely devoid of hope.
    She is grateful to Caroline’s stepmother Mary, “Tell your Mama, I am very much obliged to her for the Ham she intends sending me, & that the Seacale will be extremely acceptable – is I should say as we have got it already; – the future, relates only to our time of dressing it, which will not be till Uncles Henry & Frank can dine here together.”
    People are sending Jane Austen tempting foods in her illness, ham is sustaining, but what is seacale? It is a medicinal herb, crambe maritima, a perennial kale compared to broccoli and spinach. JA’s entire family may be feeling her decline, to be sending her medicinal herbs, and yet perhaps not – I can’t find any medicinal use for it mentioned, but it is a springtime delicacy, like rhubarb. Well, rhubarb was considered medicinal too. In any case it is something of a treat, and will be saved for the family dinner, probably along with the ham. “I am glad you have any thing so good in the house,” the brothers may say, as Dr. Grant did about the turkey.
    The letter now devolves into childish talk, about Caroline’s young cousins, how Mary Jane (Frank’s daughter) went to town with her Papa, and spent a day with Charles’s daughter Cassy in Keppel St. “Her Papa is sure she must have walked 8 or 9 miles in a morning with him.” A bit of child-friendly absurdity: “Your Aunt F. spent a week with us, & one Child with her – changed every day.”
    I am afraid, now seeing Diane’s post, that I have added nothing to it; but at least this is short, and I do agree with her that from this letter, you would not know JA was ill – and that she would not want to distress the child.

I have little to add. Like Fanny Austen Knight and James-Edward Austen-Leigh,. Caroline continues to write to cheer the aunt, sending more regularly than the others, all sending what they thought would most please, flatter (they might not use that word), interest her. On the slightly different reading of the walk, if it was not 8 or 9 miles (remember Mary Crawford’s sense of length and time when she jokes and complains to Edmund), it must’ve felt like it. There were no buses and once you got out of whatever carriage you paid for (if you were lucky enough to have used one), the walk was usually long. Among the well-known of the countless long walkers of the 19th century, Trollope took some mighty long walks to go to dances, each day to his school, and Darwin’s great achievements are partly dependent on his long walks in Chile (and I mean long and high too — up high mountains with his poor servant probably carrying stuff — there’s a novel recording the servant’s name).

It is sweet to consider this loving effort — but then it’s easier to be cheerful and kind when you are writing a letter to a beloved niece as Austen is than when time wears on and Jane is in bad pain and trouble as she is still writing the first draft of Sanditon, revising Northanger Abbey, and putting away Persuasion for now – -and all around her, especially Cassandra, are sharing trouble pain and grief with you.


Godmersham today (modern photo)

155. To Fanny Knight. Sun-Tues 23-25 March 1817, Chawton to Godmersham

Austen’s last letter to Fanny Knight. Johnson’s final Rambler is called “the horror of the last and we are now upon temporal grounds where what Austen is looking forward to she will not live to see.

Seven days ago she laid down her pen on a work she mentioned nowhere and never named: Sanditon (perhaps called by her The brothers). In this letter there are at least three passages which show how ill she is become — more than these 2 if you add to them the several others about illness and dying, funerals.

Many thanks for your kind care for my health; I certainly have not been well for many weeks, &: about a week ago I was very poorly, I have had a good deal of fever at times &: indifferent nights, but am considerably better now, slowly recovering my Looks a little, which have been bad enough, black &: white &: every wrong colour. I must not depend upon being ever very blooming again. Sickness is a dangerous Indulgence at my time of Life. — Thank you for everything you tell me; — I do not feel worthy of it by anything I can say in return, but I assure You my pleasure in your Letters is quite as great as ever, & I am interested & amused just as you could wish me. If there is a Miss Marsden I perceive whom she will marry. Evening.-I was languid& dull & very bad company when I wrote the above; I am better now — to my own feelings at least — & wish I may be more agreable. –We are going to have Rain, & after that, very pleasant genial weather, which will exactly do for me, as my Saddle will then be completed — and air & exercise is what I want.

This physical description has been studied again and again to try to ascertain what was her illness (Addison’s was the first diagnosis). I want to call attention to the latter part of the paragraph: Fanny has been praising her aunt’s writing strongly, which JA deprecates and replies that her pleasure in Fanny’s letters is as great as ever. Fanny does discern a lack of sincerity (maybe in the extravagant praise) and puts it down to her aunt’s illness, but Austen says no she is as “interested and amused just as you could wish me” and asks “if there is a Miss Marsden”. How we all distrust one another is curiously brought in various ways — maybe Fanny’s stories are fictions. She was languid and dull sorry and will do better, hopes to be more agreeable. An odd way to put it — she reads Fanny’s words as showing boredom, irritation. she will do better. I feel for Jane Austen here if this is how she took FK and if this is how she responds. She also wants to believe she’ll get better – we see that in the last lines.

She does not venture to church she tells us at the close:

I took my 1st ride yesterday & liked it very much. I went up Mounters Lane, & round by where the new Cottages are to be, & found the exercise & everything very pleasant, & I had the advantage of agreable companions, as Aunt Cass & Edward walked by my side. — Aunt Cass is such an excellent Nurse, so assiduous & unwearied!-But you know all that already. —

I am impressed in these last letters how much and how often JEAL is there — in beginnings are our ends. It was in him to write the first biography; we may try to imagine how he felt about JA — and his stepsister, he is also very kind to Anna.

The other passages on illness are as characteristic. Mrs Jane Leigh-Perrot was ill (unexpectedly soon to die):

— Indeed I shall be very glad when the Event at Scarlets is over, the expectation of it keeps us in a worry, your Grandmama especially; She sits brooding over Evils which cannot be remedied & Conduct impossible to be understood. –Now, the reports from Keppel Street are rather better; Little Harriet’s headaches are abated, & Sir Evd is satisfied with the effect of the Mercury, & does not despair of a Cure. The Complaint I find is not considered Incurable nowadays, provided the Patient be young enough not to have the Head hardened. The Water in that case may be drawn off by Mercury. — But though this is a new idea to us, perhaps it may have been long familiar to you, through your friend Mr Scudamore I hope his high renown is maintained by driving away William’s cough.

The family may have had hints that the uncle is going to leave all his estate to the misery corrosive-tongued aunt. It’s sometimes presented as a total shock to the family; here we see they did have some warnings before the old man died. He did betray them because there are indications in these letters he explicitly gave the impression to many of the more needy Austen relatives that he would leave them money directly; that made the Austen behave much better to him while alive; for many years afterward Mrs Leigh-Perrot made JEAL’s life miserable once his father died, always threatening to disinherit him. After all Harriet will not be an idiot but the remedy they are attributing to this shows how little they understood what they were seeing. Austen does show some scepticism in the last line about William’s cough so maybe she is sceptical about the high renown.

Anna has not a chance of escape; her husband called here the other day, &: said she was well but not equal to so longa walk; she must come in her Donkey Carriage. — Poor Animal, she will be worn out before she is thirty. — I am very sorry for her. Mrs Clement too is in that way again. I am quite tired of so many Children. — Mrs Benn has a 13th —

A servant’s funeral:

Old Philmore was buried yesterday, & I, by way of saying something to Triggs, observed that it had been a very handsome Funeral, but his manner of reply made me suppose that it was not generally esteemed spo I can only be sure of one part being very handsome, Triggs himself, walking behind in his Green Coat. Mrs Philmore attended as cheif Mourner, in Bombasin, made very short, and flounced with Crape.

She does not make overt fun of them but she has a way of saying the funeral was not generally estteemed by those who came which looks askance on the servants’s views as not sensible and then (as usual) she goes on about what they wore. She does make fun of the servants by continually telling of their finery — a matter of pride in this hierarchical world (not that ours is all that much different today when it comes to clothes of late). Triggs is the gamekeeper at Godmersham and there is a good feeling passage showing Austen’s being friendly with him and yet she is taking them down gently too (who is he to condescend — probably again he was trying to act out pride as he saw his employers do this

Tell William that Triggs is as beautiful &: condescending as ever, & was so good as to dine with us today, & tell him that I often play at Nines & think of him.

This is a passage about her illness to. William went home but Triggs has been put in his place. The austen women need a strong man about to help carry Jane. Jane used to play at Nines (card game?) with William.

For once she takes what Henry says about his feelings seriously: I expect because she is now (having forgotten her good time) back to doubting London as a place moral people want to live in

Tuesday. I have had various plans as to this Letter, but at last I have determined that Uncle Henry shall forward it from London. I want to see how Canterbury looks in the direction. When once Uncle Henry has left us I shall wish him with you. London is become a hateful place to him, & he is always depressed by the idea of it. — I hope he will be in time for your sick. I am sure he must do that part of his Duty as excellently as all the rest.

Austen’s dithering over her letter, her desire to add, to send it herself another sign of debilitation. I don’t doubt London began to hold very bad memories for him — when he tried to cope with his bankruptcy he probably had some very hard experiences with people supposed his friends or associates. Eliza died there. perhaps the parties look like ashes to him now too.

Threaded in are remarks about her writing and gossip. As the letter begins Austen is referring to what Fanny’s Mr Wildman said about one of her novels. From the reference to the goodness of the heroine, it has been assumed it’s Persuasion and Anne Elliot she is referring to. This is interesting for several reasons: did Austen send her one precious copy of Persuasion to Godmersham? or were there two copies? If so, I lament it was all destroyed.

I am very much obliged to you my dearest Fanny for sending me Mr Wildman’s conversation,’ I had great amusement in reading it, & I hope I am not affronted & do not think the worse of him for having a Brain so very different from mine, but my strongest sensation of all is astonishmentat your being able to press him on the subject so perseveringly-and I agree with your Papa, that it was not fair. When he knows the truth he will be uncomfortable. — You are the oddest Creature! — Nervous enough in some respects, but in others perfectly without nerves! — Quite unrepulsible, hardened & impudent. Do not oblige him to read any more.-Have mercy on him, tell him the truth & make him an apology. — He & I should not in the least agree of course, in our ideas of Novels & Heroines; — pictures of perfection as you know make me sick & wicked — but there is some very good sense in what he says, & I particularly respect him for wishing to think well of all young Ladies; it shews an amiable & a delicate Mind. — And he deserves better treatment than to be obliged to read any more of my Works.

Well Mr wildman is the kind of person who doesn’t like novels, doesn’t read them is what has happened. Maybe he didn’t like to read, and Fanny has been forcing him. So I take it when she writes “that pictures of perfection make me sick & wicked” she is actually referring to something he said (“I just can’t stand these heroines) and maybe ought not to be taken so seriously, or are we to think that when she socializing, concedes Wildman has good points, she means it. What she can say truly is she hopes he does want to respect women — all the rest is a kind of cant that goes for compliment: “it shows an amiable and delicate mind.” I hpoe would have recognized her aunt”s discomfort. Hard to say. At any rate Austen begs her to leave the guy alone and don’t make him read what he dislikes.

In her illness this cannot have made her feel any better.

Characteristically again she has hidden this novel from Henry. Maybe she feared censure too — the way her mother had censured the text — Frank monitored her comments on his ships.

Do not be surprised at finding Uncle Henry acquainted with my having another ready for publication. I could not say No when he asked me, but he knows nothing’ more of it. — You will not like it, so you need not be impatient. You may perhaps like the Heroine, as she is almost too good for me. –

I assume Austen assumed Fanny liked comedy and laughter better and Persuasion is not a light or shallow comedy — it begins very much in deep melancholy and hard satire.

Then a reference to the continual rain and yet some indication of how she writes to look on the better side — what she thinks in her heart maybe different — what she thinks of Persuasion is different from what she has said to tell Mr Wildman and to Fanny herself:

We are going to have Rain, & after that, very pleasant genial weather, which will exactly do for me, as my Saddle will then be completed — and air & exercise is what I want.-

A family get together near the close of the letter. Austen is back to asserting how cheerful everyone will be. Fanny’s brother will soon get over whatever he is feeling about France (not enjoying himself). Frank and his wife came again and she is as ever very pregnant

He returned yesterday from Steventon, & was with us by breakfast, bringing Edward with him, only that Edward staid to breakfast at Wyards. — We had a pleasant family-day, for the Altons dined with us; the last visit of the kind probably, which she will be able to pay us for many a month; Very well, to be able to do it so long, for she expects much about this day three weeks, & is generally very exact. — I hope your own Henry is in France & that you have heard from him. The Passage once over, he will feel all Happiness. —

Life is certainly more to be endured than enjoyed.

See Diana Birchall on letter 155.

Bedroom at Chawton Cottage today: said to have been Jane Austen’s (modern photo)

156. To Caroline Austen, Wednesday 25 March, 1817, Chawton to Steventon

Diane Reynolds started us off again:

This is a cheerful but sad letter to Caroline. JA is always glad to hear from her, and, as always, is kind to her: her writing has improved and her handwriting is also more polished: “a very pretty hand.” Thinking of Caroline’s hand leads JA to her niece’s piano playing, which JA encourages: “I wish you could practise your fingering oftener.” She praises Caroline’s playing, saying that were she to go live with Mr. Digweed, and presumably have access to a superior instrument, he would be amply repaid by “the pleasure of hearing you practise.” (Out of the blue, I think of Beth and Mr. Lawrence in Little Women.) Music continues to be important. JA continues to show affection to this niece.
    I’m not sure who Fredrick and Caroline are–character’s in Caroline’s fiction?–whoever they are, JA prefers them to Edgar & Julia–also characters? JA likes Julia for being “warm hearted, ingenuous, natural,” then cryptically writes “I know the word Natural is no recommendation to you.” Have they been discussing literature? Does Caroline prefer idealized characters?
    We have more on little Harriet’s water on the brain, apparently much on Austen’s mind. Austen speaks of family, and then comes the sad moment at the end, as JA mentions her one ride on the donkey–is it the one with her going at a glacial pace with a sibling on either side of her? She hopes for good weather so she can get out more often. Even wind bothers her, because of her “tendency to Rheumatism.” She sums up her state: “in short, I am a poor Honey at present.” I imagine her weak, thin, in pain, unable to go out for walk–but with still some glimmers of hope, still thinking this is a “present” that will pass. She then rouses herself to be cheerful in the last line, stating, as I understand it, that it will make her feel better when Caroline comes to visit. ( Austen could be alluding to the afterlife as the time when she will no longer be a “poor Honey,” but I think for Caroline’s sake, she is not doing that.)
    In the notes, LaFaye, borrowing from Chamber’s again, says Austen’s use of will and shall, presumably proper use of the two words, “is strict.” We don’t worry much these days about the distinction between the two, and in the US almost never use shall to begin with, anymore than we do “fortnight,” but in saying she “will” feel better when Caroline comes, Austen is expressing a wish rather than a duty or imperative, which “shall” would imply. LeFaye calls this use of “will” a “promise.” I would say a hope or wish, strongly asserted.

Jane writes but four more. I agree with all Diane’s assessments and am simply adding a few thoughts.

The opening line suggests Caroline feels awkward at writing so much when there is not the same amount of kind of replies she had before. Austen puts it down to the absence of the family courrier, Henry, but in the next letter to Charles (her brother) she openly attributes her not writing to her sick state. Of course Caroline will recognize her aunt is not writing because so sick; that is why Caroline is over-writing — to cheer the aunt up. A self-conscious nature in the girl is also felt here — James and Mary had three very intelligent children (Anna, JEAL and Caroline — the trio responsible for the memoir though it was the male with his self-respect that wrote it).

She is very kind to this niece. The half-joke that she should go live at the Digweeds in order to play is a broad compliment — preceding the idea her playing would be remuneration enough. This leads me to think there was a payment. Beth did not pay Mr Lawrence to go play the piano. So this is not simple neighborly good-nature or (as in P&P and Emma) showing off by lending the good piano. Little bits of money in this era mattered.

Frederick and Caroline and Edgar and Julia are the names of Caroline’s characters. Austen’s comment that ‘natural” is no recommendation to Caroline I suggest comes out of her strict adherence to verisimilutude and probabilty which is part of what makes her texts so able to stand up to scrutiny. So much of what criticism we see her make in these letters is about the unnaturalness of the characters in this or that book,what they do, the improbability of some aspect of an incident. It really is easy to write fiction that is not quite realistic; most fiction probably is, and often the most favored and popular kind are the wish-fulfillment types (science fiction, fantasy, action adventure movies). This is not to say Austen doesn’t soften her world a lot — by leaving out say the typical abrasive encounters many of us encounter as a matter of course, and part of male-female heterosexuality in Burney. And provide fairy tale happy endings where suddenly the heroine gets all she desires and is left as safe as one could hope in this probably-framed world.

She does go on about the child Harriet. Perhaps she felt mental disability was the worst thing one could have — what real joy she got out of existence seems to have been from her writing and reading (which does engage her so intensely — maybe she objects to fundamental unrealities because she wanted to live through these books. She read a lot of history, of travel books (air chair traveller there), memoirs. and letters. Not just novels where she is defensive even if fiercely

I presume Mr Portal was handsome. JEAL looks handsome from the pictures we have of him.

Then the sad truthful close. I take “at present’ not to refer to an afterlife but a sign that she is writing as if she still hopes to get better and live. The next sentence says: “I will be better when you come and see us.” It could mean she’s promising to be better; hard to say: I don’t think the distinction LeFaye makes is so firm in the century or Austen. But one ride on a donkey knocks her out — I imagine with Cassandra on one side and Henry on the other as she described in a previous letter. They don’t have a carriage, only a donkey cart. They must hire a hackney carriage in the next letter. No wind, utterly still calm, warmth. She calls herself “a poor Honey.” Sad as that is a phrase she liked to dismiss others illnesses with — there is no sign she now thinks or feels her dismissals were wrong and unkind or supercilious — we could say she also didn’t want to recognize illness and indeed some people do fake — she felt her mother did. But maybe she did see back to others and think to herself they were realer than I thought ,,,

The next letter — next week, to Charles has the news of the uncle’s unexpected death and his leaving everything to the aunt which biographers have often commented brought another blow in when Jane didn’t need another blow. Remember the bankruptcies, litigation, now Charles’s troubles and the fact that she knows she made a lot less on Emma and MP than she would have had she taken up Murray’s offer. NA and Persuasion would make far more for the brother and sister than all 4 novels made Austen (520 pounds); at long last Henry had learned his lesson and took Murray’s offer.

See Diana Birchall on letter 156.


Again Olivia Williams as the older Jane Austen

The ending of most lives is sad, but we do feel it strongest when the person is relatively young and has so much to contribute that she longs to do, so much life ahead as she has just achieved recognition, success, her books (so to speak) just getting underway. I feel she would have developed the first third of The Watsons and the fragment Sanditon she left unfinished. She had so much she could have learned about and experienced. Would she not have traveled? north, perhaps to Europe? if she had had the time.


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Single Women have a dreadful propensity for being poor — which is one very strong argument in favour of Matrimony —

Miss Catherine is put upon the Shelve for the present, and I do not know that she will ever come out; but I have a something ready for Publication, which may perhaps appear about a twelvemonth hence. It is short, about the length of Catherine. — Austen

Olivia Williams as the fatally ill Austen in Miss Austen Regrets (2008): she tries to but cannot walk

Dear friends and readers,

Over these last letters of Austen’s life a repeated controversy or difference of opinion has emerged in the discussions on Janeites, Austen-l and other list-servs. One school (I’ll call it) of view sees Austen as writing these two (as well as earlier letters to Anna and James-Edward Austen-Leigh) in a strongly ironic or hiddenly sarcastic spirit, where when Austen seems to praise something she is dispraising it. I cannot agree: to do that in a letter-writing situation, where the document is directly addressed to someone and circulated among others would be to risk the receiver understanding the document as ridicule. I do grant that reading the letters to Fanny Austen this way helps make sense of the over-the-top extravagant praise Austen ladles out to Fanny (as she had in much earlier years to Cassandra and occasionally over Francis’s letters) and makes a consistent whole of the letter. But it is a radically different way than I have been reading the letters, which realistically I find improbable in a letter sent to someone (letters are not novels), so I’ll carry on as I’ve done, while referring the reader to the alternative view. A third view finds the letters to be sentimental and filled with affection for Fanny, her brother, even Miss Milles; that too I will refer the reader to in the comments.

The context is calamitous. Austen is dying, probably of lymphoma cancer; her nephew William has been sent either to stay and help his aunts and grandmother (possibly to carry Aunt Jane) either by staying at the cottage or up at the great house. He is carrying these letters to Steventon, Wyards and Godmersham and carrying the answers and prompting letters back.

The second letter is written 5 days before Sanditon’s second date of 18 March 1817; on that day Austen put down her pen and (presumably) wrote no more fiction. Remarkably, according to her letter to Fanny, she had just put Persuasion away and at the same time was revising but not yet satisfied with Miss Catherine (the name she called Northanger Abbey at this point). James-Edward Austen-Leigh in his 1870 Memoir of his aunt fills out the writing context only alluded to in Austen’s letter to Fanny. He tells us that she had been working on the text in July and felt she had finished it in middle August. But

her performance did not satisfy her. She thought it tame and flat, and was desirous of producing something better. This weighed upon her mind, the more so probably on account of the weak state of her health; so that one night she retired to rest in very low spirits. But such depression was little in accordance with her nature, and was soon shaken off. The next morning she awoke to more cheerful views and brighter inspirations: the sense of power revived; and imagination resumed its course. She cancelled the condemned chapter, and wrote two others, entirely different, in its stead. ° The result is that we possess the visit of the Musgrove party to Bath; the crowded and animated scenes at the White Hart Hotel; and the charming conversation between Capt. Harville and Anne Elliot, overheard by Capt. Wentworth, by which the two faithful lovers were at last led to understand each other’s feelings. The tenth and eleventh chapters of Persuasion then, rather than the actual winding-up of the story, contain the latest of her printed compositions, her last contribution to the entertainment of the public. Perhaps it may be thought that she has seldom written anything more brilliant; and that, independent of the original manner in which the denouement is brought about, the pictures of Charles Musgrove’s good-natured boyishness and of his wife’s jealous selfishness would have been incomplete without these finishing strokes. The cancelled chapter exists in manuscript. It is certainly inferior to the two which were substituted for it: but it was such as some writers and some readers might have been contented with; and it contained touches which scarcely any other hand could have given; the suppression of which may be almost a matter of


Again from Miss Austen Regrets (2008): Olivia Williams as Austen doing her last writing

To Caroline Austen, Wednesday 26 February 1817, Chawton to Steventon

You send me great News indeed my dear Caroline, about Mr Digweed and Mr Trimmer, & a Grand Piano Forte. I wish it had been a small one, as then you might have pretended! that Mr Digweed’s rooms were too damp to be fit for it, & offered to take charge of it at the Parsonage. — I am sorry to hear of Caroline Wiggetts being so ill. Mrs Chute I suppose would almost feel like a Mother in losing her. — We have but a poor account of your Uncle Charles 2d Girl; there is an idea now of her having Water in her head. The others are well. — William was mistaken when he told your Mama we did not mean to mourn for Mrs Motley Austen. Living here we thought it necessary to array ourselves in our old Black Gowns, because there is a line of Connection with the family through the Prowtings & Harrisons of Southampton. — I look forward to the 4 new Chapters with pleasure. – -But how can you like Frederick better than Edgar? — You have some eccentric Tastes however I know, as to Heroes & Heroines. – -Good bye.

It’s irresistible to use this as an occasion to compare the editing of this volume to that of the Troide team of Frances Burney D’Arblay’s many diairies and journals and letters. Had this been Troide or any of his associates, at the bottom of the page the specific Mrs Chute would be named; we would not have to read about the family in another part of the book, and try to guess which one. A single name at the bottom of the page for Charles’s 2d girl would suffice and there is none here anywhere: Harriet I found out by reading Maggie Lane’s family tree in her JA’s Family.

It seems the Digweeds now have a grand pianoforte — and that Caroline, like her aunt, plays regularly so Austen wishes it had been smaller so Caroline could have had it. Sick and dying people — as in Sanditon as we have aging people in Persuasion. It was Mrs Mary Chutts who was childless and had mothered Caroline Wiggetts. It does seem as if disabilities were not uncommon among the Austens: uncle Thomas, brother George, Eliza’s young boy Hastings and now Harriet. We lack statistics to know how common this kind of thing was among these intermarrying people. We see how much of a formal ritual so-called mourning was: you wore it for distant connections. Caroline is still writing her novel and her aunt says she looks forward to more chapters — encouraging the girl kindly. She, Jane, cannot understand how Caroline prefers (presumably Caroline’s character) Frederick to Edgar. But she has “eccentric Tastes … as to Heroes and Heroines.” Austen tries to tease her niece in a kindly sense as two equal readers but it seems her strength suddenly gives out and we have a flat quick (as of sudden exhaustion) “Good bye.”

An alternative reading.


The later scenes between Fanny Austen Knight (Imogen Poots) and Jane bring out the tension and conflict between aunt and niece — how their outlooks differed considerably (Miss Austen Regrets, 2008)

To Fanny Austen Knight, 13 March 1817, Chawton to Godmersham

Austen opens with elaborate superlatives once again for Fanny’s writing, using tones that recall the way she would write to Cassandra early on in the collection. She returns to this at the letter’s. I don’t detect the tone of using Fanny as a specimen this time

As to making any adequate return for such a Letter as yours my dearest Fanny, it is absolutely impossible; if I were to labour at it all the rest of my Life & live to the age of Methusalah, I could never accomplish anything so long & so perfect; but I cannot let William go without a few Lines of acknowledgement & reply … Adeiu my dearest Fanny –Nothing could be more delicious than your Letter; & the assurance of your feeling releived by writing it, made the pleasure perfect.-But how could it possibly be any new idea to you, that you have a great deal of imagination — You are all over imagination — the most astonishing part of your character is, that with so much imagination, so much flight of mind such unbounded fancies, you should have such excellent judgement in what you do? — religious
principle I fancy must explain it.

In her last letters in the collection Cassandra assures Fanny that her aunt did like her very much and that these letters from Fanny were seen as very kind and cheered Aunt Jane in a way that suggests they were deliberate performances. Perhaps there is sharp irony here: can she really be writing straight when she suggests the writer of Emma could not accomplish anything so perfect — and long too. As her early marveling over Cassandra was so ths is beyond me, except as flattery, placating, encouraging more letters. When she attributes Fanny’s powerful imagination (!) to “religious Princple” I can only infer Austen is writing down what she thinks most acceptable and assert before all her family (as the letter might be passed around), her respect for Fanny and how Fanny is growing up into respectable womanhood.

Fanny’s set-piece seems to have been a social vignette of dancing, partying. Mr Wildman was at the center and Jane now concludes he is not sufficinetly in love with Fanny to want a match. Unfortunately this comment makes her like Miss Bingley (whom we recall Darcy told that when women walk with a man they jump to the idea a marriage will soon take place). The flirtation here has apparently been going on for a while, and Fanny is again jealous of someone else finding favor with the male she herself doesn’t want: Jemima Branfill.

Then the long piece about the single dead woman in Austen’s earlier flippant style. She who so loved social life would have been sorry to stop the proceedings. While reading Mansfield Park these past weeks, I was reminded of how jaundiced Austen herself often is towards social life in the letters, how dysfunctional she often finds whatever the meeting so her sarcasms are in character. Miss Milles left nothing and now we get Austen’s famous statement about how single women have such a propensity to be poor, but then Fanny need not worry, (unlike her aunt) she does not lack inclination. The word “Molly” probably does not refer to 18th century GLBT people, but is like the other jokes in the family about names, as in “though he was a Richard (found in NA).

Poor Miss C. Mil1es, that she should die on a wrong day at last, after being about it so long! — It was unlucky that the Goodnestone Party could not meet you, & I hope her friendly, obliging, social Spirit, which delighted in drawing People together, was not conscious of the division & disappointment she was occasioning. I am sorry & surprised that you speak of her as having little to leave, & must feel for Miss Milles, though she is Molly; if a material loss of Income is to attend her other loss. — Single Women have a dreadful propensity for being poor — which is one very strong argument in favour of Matrimony, but I need not dwell on such arguments with you, pretty Dear, you do not want inclination.

Meanwhile Fanny should not be in a hurry. If she is she will end up old and endlessly pregnant before her time (like Anna). She will meet someone, she should stop worrying (it’s Fanny who is worrying lest she not get a man), and Austen assures Fanny that he will love Fanny as “warmly” as ever he did. The second “he” refers to Plumptre again as her proceeds to ask about the Plumptres (the Gibbs and Fanny and her husband are all Plumpres or related to them).

Well, I shall say; as I have often said before, Do not be in a hurry; depend upon it, the right Man will come at last; you will in the course of the next two or three years, meet with somebody more generally unexceptionable than anyone you have yet known, who will love you as warmly as ever He did, & who will so completely attach you, that you will feel you never really loved before. — And then, by not beginning the business of Mothering quite so early inlife, you will be young in Constitution, spirits, figure & countenance, while Mr Wm Hammond is growing old by confinements & nursing. Do none of the Plumptres ever come to Balls now? — You have never mentioned them as being at any? –And what do you hear of the Gipps?-or of Fanny & her Husband.

Then the thought of endless pregnancies brings her sister-in-law and Anna to mind. Cassandra and Mrs Digweed walked over: she again remarks as she has many times before on the size of Frank’s wife when she gets pregnant. this time not so very big for her. Austen voices how off-putting all this is. They fear another pregnancy and another miscarriage.

Mrs F.A. is to be confined the middle of April, & is by no means remarkably Large for her. — Aunt Cassandra walked to Wyards yesterday with Mrs Digweed. Anna has had a bad cold, looks pale, & we fear something else. She has just weaned Julia. — How soon, the difference of temper in Children appears! — Jemima has a very irritable bad Temper (her Mother says so) –and Julia a very sweet one, always pleased & happy.-I hope as Anna is so early sensible of its defects, that she will give Jemima’s disposition the early & steady attention it must require.

Austen is suggesting hard discipline early on for a young girl child. Doubtless this was done to children at the time. It requires Anna herself spend time endlessly monitoring and correcting. That it’s a form of unpleasant bullying brings to mind another governess they know who has been let go. Austen is surprised to hear Harriot (Mrs George Moore) is getting rid of their governess. Of course the governess does this kind of mean thankless work. Could Harriot want to do it herself? Austen puts down the firing to the governess not having flattered the lead male in the house. What’s not made explicit is the Moores would save money –though the salaries paid such women were very small.

I cannot understand their plans in parting with Miss S- whom she seems very much to value, now that Harriot & Eleanor are both of an age for a governess to be so useful to; especially as when Caroline was sent to School some years. Miss Bell was still retained, though the others were mere Nursery Children. — They have some good reason I dare say; though I cannot penetrate it, & till I know what it is I shall invent a bad one and amuse myself with accounting for the difference of measures by supposing Miss S. to be a superior sort of Woman, who has never stooped to recommend herself to the Master of the family by Flattery, as Miss Bell did.

And then she answers Fanny’s kind inquiry about her writing, which brings to mind her state of health (soon to stop the writing altogether

I am got tolerably well again, quite equal to walking about & enjoying the Air; & by sitting down & resting a good while between my Walks, I get exercise enough. — I have a scheme however for accomplishing more, as the weather grows springlike. I mean to take to riding the Donkey It will be more independant & less troublesome than the use of the Carriage, & I shall be able to go about with Aunt Cassandra in her walks to Alton & Wyards. –

Walking about and enjoying the air in the house I presume — with William’s help? Or are we to imagine she walked out in the garden behind the house — the front, as we know, was bricked up. She dreams of herself being independent of physical help by the use of a donkey. She now presents herself as wanting to go to Alton (where Henry had had his business) and Wyards (where Anna lived). Then a paragraph in praise of William — Fanny’s brother. He’s been nauseous or ill-tempered (irritable) – she is sure Fanny would approve of giving him doses. That’s a sarcasm shared between her and Fanny; she is teasing Fanny and expects Fanny to get that. Does Fanny like to give those she has to cope with as a mother substitute ill-tasting doses to make them behave?

Maximillan Hammond married Anna Maria Shaw and Austen says while she cannot care for them as people she can enter into their situation and be happy for them: she is not referring to the marriage itself. It’s good they are being married because of their situation. A brief excursis into a scandal about which LeFaye gives a full note — Austen pays attention to the fates and experiences of the women though cannot (she says) care about Caroline. Did Fanny in her letter identify? Austen’s dismissive tone suggests boredom as much as condemnation.

I admit her comment on Charles’s daughter Harriet as bit too Mrs Norris like — we must hope she’ll die if she is disabled (water on the brain) I remember how Eliza was faithful to her child, Hastings, and find in the sentence that Charles is not taking this attitude but cares very much. Suddenly the other niece is not there: the father has taken her back — someone to deflect the reality of Harriet. Charles’s sufferings are skimmed over in these letters — Remember the death of his wife from the endless pregnancies, what he saw her suffer at sea, his court martial and the psychosomatic reactions in his face. And then back to the over-the-top praise which might be explained as irony, half-mockery, but I take at least the the last three phrases as meant literally, closing with a “God bless you.”

An alternative view, with Diana Birchall writing a week later.


Cassandra (Gretta Scacchi) and Jane sitting by the fire — Jane ill (Miss Austen Regrets 2008)

The next two letters are again to Caroline who continues to write a novel or stories and send them in “parcels” to her aunt (she’s also acting in rivalry to her older half-sister, Anna, who used to do this) and in response to one of Fanny’s seeking to entertain her very ill aunt, e.g., “I am very much obliged to you my dearest Fanny for sending me Mr Wildman’s conversation.”

The interest of the controversy is several fold: how do we regard the woman Jane Austen and how do we think she saw herself as a writer. I suggest there has been much anachronism and wishful thinking in the determination to see Austen as a writing professional altogether assured, confident and making sound decisions on her own behalf. Clearly her letter to Crosby was a mistake and it backfired; while she did write to Murray when Henry was sick, she followed Henry’s advice and didn’t take the good offer of 450£ — with the result she ended up making 38£ and some shillings after herself and Henry bearing the costs of publication. Sometimes you do sell your copyrights (Trollope did and that way made his money right away; he felt he could not control what would happen in the printings of his books after the first edition anyway.) But she goofed on Pride and Prejudice, understandable intensely eager to see it published. She was like the women described in Lee Virginia Chambers-Schiller’s book, Liberty, A Better Husband: Single Women in America: the Generations of 1780-1840, a woman living within her family group, dependent on and controlled by them (she needed her 25£ allowance); in her case she had a serious vocation, she wrote all the live-long day whenever she was allowed to. She might have become sure of herself could she have carried on writing and publishing (as she clearly was trying to do to the very end), but she is not as yet. She is still living a sheltered life.

How do we look at life-writing, at letters, how do they relate to the novel-writing of the same person. Clearly they will be closely connected, and the ironies of the novels will turn up in the letters, but the whole context and function of the document is altered between fiction sent out to the public and a letter to a relative: it’s more than genre, its use and how they will be taken by those who were their audience. Austen is in need of these people, gratitude is the emotion that emerges, including to William. Underlying her trying to be better by saying she is so is the plangent reality. It may not soften her outlook into the gush she writes — as we can see from her comments on people outside the family, but gush she does write, kindly to the younger niece and flattering the older one. Maybe she wished Fanny was all imagination, super-talented the way she had praised her siblings when younger, to defuse any conflicts, to keep her affectionate. She may be doing through letters what she had tried to do earlier through letters and living arrangements and visits: make an imagined charmed circle around her for now through writing letters.

In my book on Trollope I wrote a chapter distinguishing the characteristics of non-fiction from fiction, among these are the reality that in a letter all that we see moves outwards to real people, and is ever only a fragment of reality outside the letter. We can say we know all we need to know of a character and situation inside the novel by the novel’s world itself; we cannot of life-writing at all.


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Manydown — old print of the house the Bigg girls grew up in, Austen went to balls in, and she could have been mistress of had she been willing to marry Bigg-Wither

Aloft on yonder bench, with arms dispread,
My boy stood, shouting there his father’s name,
Waving his hat around his happy head — Southey, Proem to Poet’s Pilgrimage to Waterloo

Dear friends and readers,

We have 12 letters left — by Jane Austen. Three to Fanny Knight — one of them contains the striking description of Anna as “poor animal” brought down and aging from miscarriages and pregnancies. Two to friends, Alethea Bigg and Anna Sharp. 3 to Caroline, 1 to James-Edward Austen Leigh (JEAL). Two rare ones to Charles. Her last to Francis Tilson, the wife of Henry’s partner, someone Jane had described twice as perpetually pregnant, this one in scraps showing that Austen herself was censoring out any real description of what she had been experiencing.

Then 3 — by Cassandra, 2 to Fanny Knight and 1 to Anne Sharp.

Alethea was an old and close friend, one of the sisters of Harris Bigg-Wither; the other close friend was sister Catherine who found a hard berth by marrying an old wealthy man who then perpetually impregnated her (Austen comments on this at least three times). Alethea, Le Faye reports, spoke candidly to Austen of the novels with words that suggest intelligent reading MP superior to S&S and P&P in many points but lacked the spirit of P&P; Althea thought Emma not equal to P&P or MP — many readers of the era were (alas) bored by Emma as too much like real life. Austen seems to have taken this seriously too — Persuasion marks a departure to include the war frame, the sea, Bath, allusions to colonial world and Sanditon further yet in a new direction of commercial seaside spas.

The letter to Alethea is not short but it is not hard to decipher as there is a directness and plainness about it that show a real confiding friendship and some congenial (ironic?) joking: the “real purpose of the letter” held off until the postsript is a recipe for orange wine. Here is another woman friend I assume others wish we had more of Austen’s letters to.

She is putting the best face on a series of calamities that she can — from her illness (she’s got it under control now), to Henry’s drop in status to a curate, from Anna’s weakness (but must spare donkeys) to her spinster friend’s misplaced gown. What is really needed is some orange wine from Manydown.

Streatham Common

Austen opens with the assertion that it’s “time there should be a little writing between us.” They have been parted enough, they have not been in contact in too long a time; Austen says the “epistolary debt” is on Alethea’s side. In other words, Austen was the far more regular correspondent — as often happens between friends (when you have not the Internet to find people who like to write). Alethea is is involved with Catherine’s family at Streatham nearby and Austen hopes all are well.

An older drawing of Chawton with the street in front flooded

Then there’s been a break in the frost and Austen describes the near by roads “great many ponds” near by the meadow with “fine running streams.” She does not look upon this as something to be drained, but beautiful and providing subject for talk. anyone looking at the early 20th century photos of the huge body of water in front of the block with Chawton cottage recognizes damp raw damp, fetid horse manure would get into the place. Disease ridden as well as smelly and making for weather discomfort. The Austens blocked up their front window from the street with good reason. So when Austen writes “it is nothing but what beautifies us & does to talk of,” she is again putting a good face on something not desirable, is perhaps ironic?

All on her side in “good health” — a few precious words are cut out — these are about her sickness – but we can see from the previous letter and this it is still in remission and Austen is believing she may be able to beat it. She says “bile” is at the bottom of her ailment. She’s putting a good face on her illness and like others in such a grave frightening state trying to convince herself she can cope with her condition by herself (as her doctors are no help).

That is a reference to a psychological state too – part of the humors theory. Paula Byrne in her Real Jane Austen adheres to the older theory that Austen had Addison’s disease where adrenal glands don’t make enough cortisol which helps the person against stress — and it’s thought is a disease brought on by stress too — so Byrne connects this to Leigh-Perrot leaving the family nothing (all to the miserly mean aunt — and Austen mentions this in one of the remaining letters connecting it to her collapsed state), Henry’s bankruptcy, Edward’s law suit, and after all writing and publishing books is stressful. Remember Job who wished on other people they should publish books — she has probably heard far more remarks than she wanted to. She may have realized that after all she should have taken Murray’s good offer of 450 — all she would get now is 38 pounds and some shillings as profit for Emma. But she did not write for money — she wrote to write and then would have liked to make money.

Wyards Farm
Wyards Farm (where Anna Austen Lefroy was living)

Then several sentences on JEAL — all testifying to her liking for him – I see his kindness in his continual visits to his sister at Wyards Farm; she is not well or strong enough to come to Chawton; she says of JEAL the “sweet temper and warm affections of the Boy confirmed in the man.”

A modern donkey cart

She turns to thoughts of Anna by implication. They don’t have a horse and carriage but donkeys and cart — and these they take care of. They use but one at a time. Donkeys are not easy to force to carry you places and they haven’t been using them in a while. Still it does seem like an avoidance again. Imagine how these spinster women looked to others. She does wish for Anna that Ben would be ordained already and with a parsonage house. It did happen but alas he died young, she was widowed and after that lived a penurious life off other relatives. JEAL was one of those who helped her a lot.

Their own new clergyman is Henry of course and they want to see him acquit himself very well as they have now heard he is doing. She does not register what a come down this is (banker to rich people to country curate) but it is understood.

Then a recognition that Alethea is a spinster living off others — if there should be “any change” in the circumstances at Streatham and Winchester, ” let the Austens and Mary Lloyd know and come to them. That underlying more somber reality prompts a joke: her comic alarm that Alethea left her gown at Steventon (visiting Mary?) She will want to look right for another friend, Mrs Frere.


I find the long passage on Southey’s Poet’s Pilgrimage to Waterloo takes us to a prose elegy on the death of Southey’s young son — he pays a moving tribute to his boy, spared such a battlefield. (Austen had been reading Scott’s Antiquary, now she moves to meditations on a battlefield.) We see how she identifies with Southey as a person part of their circle — the genteel circles of the UK were intertwined. Southey was Catherine Bigg’s husband’s nephew and his elder son has died — part of the mournful thoughts of the poem. She finds the proem “very beautiful” but the “poor man” rings flatly — too cliched? — even if the words that follow show she does empathize to this extent: that fondness of Southey for this boy has come across to her and so his grief. It is propaganda and against the French revolution as having “caused all this” — without regard for the reasons for the revolution, why it failed to produce the reformed society people said they wanted (did they?) and thus a Tory poem. Austen is liking it — more than his earlier critique of English life in his Letters from England: she disliked that: ever the partisan.

More single lady friends: Miss Williams and Charlotte from abroad but being determinedly anti-anything but English Austen declares she would not like their letters unless they breathed regret at not being in England — as usual LeFaye (p. 585) tells us about the family and nothing about the two women which might light up the passage with understanding — such as where they were, it’s they as individuals. It’s a circle of spinsterhood — Donoghue sees lesbian patterning in these too — and they are amorphous, mentioning now this woman and that and over the years we’ve seen Austen tried to add women to it, who were pulled away by relatives.

The last is kind love to Catherine’s children with positive comments and an attempt to show interest — a social gesture. “I suppose his holidays are not yet over” — these people sent their sons away. It may be she has in mind persuading Alethea she did the right thing in refusing Harris Bigg-Wither but we must remember how many years have gone by since then. I do doubt Austen would think that Alethea would have such a thing in mind: H B-W had long since married, had many children, Austen had written books. It is old and dead history by now.

The P.S.

Home-made orange wine

A joke about the purpose of the letter really being to get a recipe for Orange wine from Manydown — though perhaps it is no joke and Austen is hoping for a medicinal effect from the wine. If Austen was worried she was drinking wine that was too strong, associated with black bile, her request for the wine recipe may have been more urgent and poignant than we realize.

And let us recall that she has begun and is writing Sanditon at a frantic pace: I’d call it filled with a form of nervous hilarity when (for example), she has her Diana write of how it deranges the nerves don’t you know to have 3 teeth pulled at once, and other such funny jokes about fatal illness ….

See comments for text and other readings.


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Caroline Austen

You are now collecting your People delightfully, getting them exactly into such a spot as is the delight of my life; — 3 or 4 families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on — & I hope you will write a great deal more — to Anna Austen (later Lefroy), 9-18 Sept 1814

What should I do with your strong, manly, spirited Sketches, full of variety & Glow? — How could I possbily join them on to the little bit (two inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labor? — to JEAL, 16-17 Jan 1817

I feel myself getting stronger than I was half a year ago, & can so perfectly well walk to Alton, or back again, without the slightest fatigue that I hope to be able to do both when Summer comes — The Piano Forte often talks of you; — in various keys, tunes & expressions I allow — but be it Lesson or Country dance, Sonata or Waltz, You are really its constant Theme — to Caroline, 23 Jan 1817.

Dear friends and readers,

I again group four letters by Austen to her nephew and nieces (see 140-43). These are not solely to James’s children, one is to Cassandra-Esten Austen (Cassy), Charles’s daughter, companion and of an age to be a peer to Caroline. While Austen has by this time known much pain, debilitation, loss of mobility and bodily strength (probably girth too), she experiences a remission lengthy enough to renew hope (see above quotation), rewrite the ending of Persuasion and write an astonishing rapid draft of Sanditon over the next 4 months when she was again driven to put her pen down. In JEAL’s memoir which covers precisely this time, he confirms that she was working on Persuasion and (as dated on the manuscript) it was on 17 January 1817 that she began writing Sanditon.

When summer came she was literally dying in Winchester and dead by July. Cancer (aka the lymphoma) can come on rapidly & devour you. For those interested in cancer treatments here’s an early case described of a person who (in effect) does not have chemotherapy (drastic strong measure so one is seen to be doing something even if badly understood) nor the terrifying operation removing central organs (the latest expensive measure). We see the disease take a natural course which includes a surcease for a precious few months. Nowadays she’d go on a trip (last journeys anyone?) At any rate here is evidence she did not herself always act on a premonition she was dying; it was intermittent. She was not always on the other side of a fence looking at people from the aspect of someone mortally ill.

These letters show JEAL and Caroline were seeking Austen’s approval and supporting her morally (what shows more admiration than imitation) by writing novels or scraps of them on their own, sending them to her, and she reciprocates with generosity. A few of her comments to JEAL (and Anna earlier in 1814) have been ceaselessly cited and discussed. In all three cases, Anna’s novel which she paid the compliment of really detailed responses), Caroline’s short pieces and now Edward’s Scott-like attempt, Austen is pretending to regard them as working in the same light or level of seriousness as she does. She knows they do not, and one assumes that she feels assured of the profound difference between her fiction and theirs. But that she can pretend otherwise and it pass muster suggests Clare Harman is right when she writes the family did not see her novels as above other novels of her era and perhaps equally valued James’s poetry, if not as much because it couldn’t sell (bring fame, money, respect) but as that which the period took seriously.

We should note that the way she often treats her own fiction as amusement, how when even praising the novels of others (which she is not inclined to do) she does not discuss any serious ideas in them, is just the way she is treats JEAL’s probably Scott-like stories and her young niece’s efforts. Anna’s novel written in 1814 was given the literal verisimilitude treatment along with how consistent are the characters and how much they make us laugh.


Letter 146, to JEAL, Mon 16-17 Dec 1816, Chawton to Steventon

19th century illustration of a wild scene conjured up by story-telling from the past in Scott’s Antiquary (alluded to by Austen in this letter)

There is a deliberate effort to be far more cheerful than the writer really is; the letter has the effect of putting on a show. Everyone so well (Anna too, though again we catch Austen declining one of Anna’s dinner invitations), Uncle Henry in excellent looks, all health and good humor, pickled cucumbers extremely good. She feels herself working something up as she refers to her use of the word “uncle;” he must not tire of it “for I have not done with it.” She makes fun too of the way JEAL will now tell her of his miseries and crimes, on the point of hanging himself once, now that his school days are over. She will soon turn to writing a lightning quick draft of Sanditon and deal with what she feels in her body happening — making fun of just the pain she has known and probably began to know again towards the end of the draft. I believe her the walk to Anna is beyond her strength and she would need Uncle Charles plus donkey carriage.

The second paragraph is her insisting on Henry’s health, his good looks — which again is part of this vein of denying: she has denied endlessly that Henry has been upset for real about what happened to him — when she herself has given much evidence to the contrary during their tours around southern England just afte Eliza died, but in a continual denying vein — this a characteristic response, how she got through life we might say, at least on the surface. We must concede her response to her mother’s continual hypochrondia (given how long Mrs Austen lived) — that she’s not really ill at all — seems to have been born out by Mrs Austen’s long life.

She’s avoiding Anna again: whether perfectly recovered or sick, she does not want to go to Anna’s house; the rest on the uncles and then the usual joking about who she is glad to marry. It’s painful when she does not empathize with other women in their conditions as women — in life and in her books or those of others — but she doesn’t.

This is such a famous letter and the central portion where Austen characterizes her fiction deprecatingly discussed so many times it’s natural to feel we can have little more to say and I won’t go on to discuss at whether her fiction is trivial (it’s not), on a very narrow range of topics, or if this comment refers to her artistic techniques (I think it does). Rather let’s look at the remark in its social context.

Her allusion to Scott’s Antiquary suggests she and her nephew had been reading the novel together — in Scott’s novel his character launch into tales from the past, wild and whirling whose point is rediscovery of the past not just recovery and a reinstatement of Sir Arthur’s daughter (disinherited and therefore one would think someone Austen from her fiction might sympathize with); the scene Austen specifically alludes to is a famous powerful landscape storm sequence. Just the sort of thing Austen made fun of in Brunton’s Self-Control only (admittedly) much much better done. The Antiquary is a work of genius. Probably (given the love and preference for Scott JEAL evidences in his Memoir of his aunt) JEAL has been trying to imitate Scott with his “glowing” and “manly spirited sketches.” — Austen is a jealous reader of other people’s novels, of her rivals of which Scott she knew was one but whom she could not dismiss as unrealistic in the way she could Mary Brunton when Brunton did traumatic weather scenes. She did see Scott’s greatness.

Patrick Allen Fraser, A Scene from the Antiquary (1842)

She also alludes to Hannah Cowley’s Which is the Man? A comedy (1786). She tells JEAL to tell his father what he will — but then switches and says, no, James must not be left off the hook, kept out of the loop as he must make a tenant pay his rent. This sounds like a family joke referring to Mary Lloyd Austen in a hidden way.

Another by Cowley: “The charms that helped to catch the husband are generally laid by, one after another, till the lady grows a downright wife, and then runs crying to her mother, because she has transformed her lover into a downright, husband.” Cowley’s lines evoke the grim realities of marriage which Austen lightly refers to here.

Her comical acceptance of Mr Papillon as a suitor seems to have been a family trope — I wonder if they tired of it. In Miss Austen Regrets he does — am is irritated and hurt. By the end of the letter it’s obvious the family is back from legacy hunting.

2008 Miss Austen Regrets (based partly on the letters, partly on Nokes’s biography): Jane (Olivia Williams) teasing Mr Papillon who does not enjoy being mocked

On Janeites and Austen-l there was a reading of the letter which asserted Austen was mocking, ridiculing her nephew in effect throughout. Mockery as a tone includes ridicule; there is no ridicule at all here. The tone is one of friendship. I agree Austen maintains a distance in her letters to Anna and there is in the opening to Edward here something similar (but the tone is kinder), lightly making fun of his supposed stories of anguish revealed at last — perhaps to forestall him? The opening paragraph does not really have him in mind: she is — as she does in her juvenilia and perhaps first drafts of her novels — opting for repression of all deep emotional states by making fun of them. We will glimpse for a moment a startling distance between Austen and Fanny Knight in the opening of a later letter where she appears to be openly regarding Fanny as a specimen under glass of young girl’s absurdities in love – and makes Fanny uncomfortable.

The thesis she is mocking and resentful would make her really feel threatened by these family writings. Everything we have suggests it was this family writing that allowed her to write. Other families would have inhibited her (as Mary Lloyd Austen jealously tried to stop her husband and step-daughter from fulfilling their gifts). She is half-joking that she and her nephew must steal one of Henry’s sermons and put them in our novels but as companions, as two people gayly pretending to make mischief.

She doesn’t want Henry to be the complicated man he was as that makes him less manageable to her mind. She avoids them when they present depths — that’s the avoidance of Anna who is now a mature woman (with a full sexual life too). Cassandra was her shelter against the world and she builds conventional walls and understandings. JEAL is as yet a boy and that’s why she can condescend in the friendly way she does: no threat; nor Caroline.

I admit to a certain discomfort in how Austen can so easily write to people so much younger than she and act as if they were her peers. Caroline is 9. It’s unsettling when she giggles with Fanny Knight in London over Mr Haden — as if she too were a 16 year old innocent girl titillating herself. These are not acts put on: for whose benefit would be the mockery? Even assuming Cassandra reading over the shoulders could understand her letters this way, would she enjoy such laughter at her nephew or any of her nieces? Hard to say. Cassandra did laugh at Cassy with Austen when Cassy first came to stay and feared bugs in the beds. Are we to imagine Austen enjoying her mockery alone? Rather she partly identifies with this younger generation.

My feeling is the occasionally ummediated identification comes from Austen having not been given enough experience outside her family on her own utterly — to cope with money and sex too. She longed to travel on her own, but there were many areas she was kept from experiencing. Money matters and sexual experience directly especially.


Letter 147 (C). To Anna Lefroy. Thurs? Dec 1816

A loosened flexible corset: meant for pregnant women

To Anna she sends thanks for a turkey in the form of comical-benign or sweet information that Mrs Austen, the grandmamma, is grieving Anna did not keep it for her family. Austen again promises to come over. Had we not read the many previous letters we would dismiss this last as, well, after all it’s January and Austen is ill, but having gone through quite a number where she is avoiding going over to Anna, I suspect Mrs Austen is alone in wishing to get to Anna soon. They are in the position of Miss and Mrs Bates in Emma who are sent fowls and other eatables.

It is sad to think how Anna and Austen were once loving half-mother-aunt and girl and then close as aunt-and-young woman, but then became estranged when Jane took the attitude of the family towards Anna’s courtship years and marriage to Ben. As a later letter suggests some of her discomfort now is to see her niece continually pregnant and not well. After all it’s not a joking matter as she says then.


148. To Casandra-Esten Austen. Wed, 8 Jan 1817

Designs for toy alphabets (a set is used in Emma)

Cassy, still very young so she gets a mirror letter congratulating her on her 9th birthday. My dear Cassy it begins … and ends Your affectionate Aunt. A transcription I thank the members of Janeites for providing. One must have patience for this sort of thing: a love of word games, good nature too — it would also be seen by her brothers and their wives.

I wish you a happy new year. Your six cousins came here yesterday, and had each a piece of cake. This is little Cassy’s birthday and she is three year’s old. Frank has begun learning Latin. We feed the robin every morning. Sally often enquires after you. Sally Benham has got a new green gown. Harriet Knight comes every day to read to Aunt Cassandra. Goodbye my dear Cassy.


Letter 149. To Caroline Austen. Thurs, 23 Jan 1817, Chawton to Steventon

Muzio Clementi piano belonging to Jane Austen

She sits there looking at a comfortable long blank sheet of paper and really delights in the sense of presence she will have as she talks to her niece. In making “a handsome return” to Caroline’s 2 o3 3 notes, we see how happy she was to have Edward’s visits and seems to take his fiction seriously. She teases how “vile” she & Mrs Austen were to keep him from Anna – who also needed his intelligent kind company, but they were ruthless. A play on words from butter to better (vowels). No one seems to know where the evening party was held, but Clearly JEAL was a center. How he must’ve remembered such a time happily – the mood of his book comes from such experiences. Here is one of its sources: he wanted to relive these happy times, to thank her, do her justice, make sure she was remembered. At the party he read his chapters aloud and all took an interest. Mr Reeves is a name from Sir Charles Grandison. And we see Austen take the superficial attitude towards fiction she consciously does when describing it in her letters – either she condemns or talks in terms of literal verisimilitude or approaches the fiction as how “amusing”.

An association makes her remember Caroline’s similar efforts – to please the aunt no doubt too, and join in with brother and sister. Austen sensed something snobbish in using French for a malapropism for the character. I take “Lunar” to be a reference to the group that met calling themselves the Lunar Society and that’s interesting because it shows her awareness of philosophical cults in her time. She did know Maria Edgeworth enough to send her a copy of Emma so she might have been able to hear of Edgeworth, Day and that group’s activities. They were located in Birmingham:

Then she does not forget the servants: Cassy has sent them some small remembrance and Austen characterizes Sally quickly, and a bit condescendingly but she likes Sally and recognizes her good nature: “Sally has got a new red Cloak, which adds much to her happiness, in other respects she is unaltered, as civil & well-meaning & talkative as ever.

Upstairs and downstairs are intermingled in a cottage like Chawton.

Caroline’s cat brought a dormouse to her (?), and Austen laughs: only think, and well, I never …

Caroline would want Cassy to return as a playmate and companion, but March is her time to come. Austen seems to imply that Cassy is not much of a letter writer to Caroline – so there is an awareness between them of different people’s natures and capacities (Cassy not as articulate as Caroline). Everyone of course sends their love (remember Mr Knightley’s comment on that sort of thing), then Charles’s desperate sickness, and her usual refusal to admit to this: “He has a said turn for being unwell.” After all the man has just been court-martialed, his first wife dead, an array of children to care for, a sister-in-law to keep, his career is in total disarray. Who would not be ill. He has a great eruption in his face and symptoms which look like rheumatism.

Then she gets to herself and it’s worth quoting again: “I feel myself getting stronger than I was half a year ago, & can so perfectly well walk to Alton, or back again, without the slightest fatigue that I hope to be able to do both when Summer comes. Because of her better health and strength she has been able to go over to Frank and Mary and enjoy herself with them and their children. She teases that she may be be excused for “loving them” on the supposition that perhaps Caroline will be jealous of her cousins.

The postscript about her playing the piano is revealing and touching: she is saying when she plays she thinks of Caroline. Caroline comes across in her late short memoirs as sensitive, intelligent, really like Anna and Austen does lend herself to the girl and have a real relationship. The girl is yet though not into puberty, still young, not someone to arouse any feelings of disquiet over what’s to come, or what she will be. In the event she never married and lived a very quiet life. Austen says she wishes Caroline could come over as easily as her older brother, but the girl is much more easily domineered and controlled by her mother than the boy. Perhaps she felt such affection for Anna too when Anna was young.

From the online digital edition of Austen’s manuscripts: the cancelled penultimate chapter of Persuasion

Some general comments: there is enough in the letters (remnants though they are) to outline a sense of Austen’s politics and morality, central to what we find in her novels, an element shaping them. I don’t think she’s the arch-conservative Marilyn Butler makes her out to be, but we do see Austen become more conservative in her later years. Early on she was rebelling and resentful that as a woman her needs for career fulfillment were utterly ignored: she was to marry and all effort was for her brothers and used metaphors about why should she not go and hang herself. Then she wanted to set up housekeeping with Martha Lloyd and her sister. Not allowed.

But as she aged, she accepted the imposition of a conventional life-style — as many people do, because they become tired of banging their heads against a wall that is not coming down and want to identify with the culture they find will give them the only respect they can socially find,in her case as a woman writer on the meagre terms her milieu would give her. She had time and space and peace to write publishable versions of her books and was given help (by Henry) to get them into print. So she is gaining some respect, money, more self-esteem — through her books.

You can trace the changes by reading what she reads – that means more than the novels, but also books like Buchanan’s and Paisley’s (for violent imperialism both). Sometimes too — used very carefully — you can sense things about her texts by the people drawn to them to write a sequel type (feminists, PD James a conservative mystery writer) when the sequel is reasonably intelligent (it need not be a work of art) – and of course good critics.

She was also a strong partisan for most of her family members for most of her life — putting aside her own vulnerability when young, thwarted desires (to set up housekeeping with Cassandra and Martha Lloyd) — but there she could see straight too and in a couple of remarks referring to the aunt, the portrait of Mrs Norris as a smoocher, and remarks in the letters she drew a line at pretending her aunt was decent person — partly that’s the result of the way the aunt treated the Austen family.

She carried on put off by the evangelicals (we see that in her reaction to Cooper’s sermons — the cousin) as well as direct didacticism of the type we see in Hannah More but she is influenced by the mood of the times, part of her times. Her books are most of the time resolutely secular. Rare instances of allusions to religion outside Mansfield Park include Marianne confessing to Elinor that had she self-destructed she would not have had time to confront God in the afterlife.

When she writes her novels, another writing self comes forth, the one Proust speaks of in his novels, and an eye which can see further into experience archetypally and overcomes her conscious inhibitions. The draft concluding chapters for Persuasion that we have show her to be writing comically, slightly farcically, the working on those bits of ivory over and over, released something deeper and emotional and the scene become a deep meditation on loss, compensation and solace, the different way men and women experience life.

Rather than moving in the direction of cool mockery, I suggest (agreeing with Marvin Mudrick here) that Jane Austen feared what she most loved – what she feared were precisely the kind of passions she herself is intensely drawn to and in her deepest emotional life in the novels acted out. What we see in the letters is a continual distancing, much guardedness, but as she draws close to the end of life sudden bursts of open plangency and reaching out. One feels so alone, so helpless and vulnerable when one lays dying in such pain, with only opium to moderate the intensity.


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Cheltenham High Street, later 18th/early 19th century print

Dear friends and readers,

It’s no surprise the first letter we have after Austen’s trip to Cheltenham is some fragments put together after pages 1 and 2 were destroyed, the top of page 3 and top of page 4. I do not think I speculate too wildly to suggest in these Austen described her symptoms and they were dire enough for someone to erase altogether. That Austen was willing to write them down shows an unconventional attitude, prosaically so. Or that she had some sharp things to say about Mary Lloyd Austen with whom Cassandra stayed on — along with sweet Caroline. The long letter written 4 and 5 days later (145) is mostly sheer reportage, invigorated by a return of Austen’s comic, satiric, frankly honest and qualifying tones from earlier letters and some references to her writing (of Persuasion). What we have left of this one is but the remnants of such a one, minus much of the spirit.

Wednesday 4 September 1816

[First leaf, pages 1 and 2, missing, and also top of p. 3J … Letter today, His not writing on friday gave me some [?worry] but now its] coming makes me more than amends. — I know you heard from Edward yesterday, Henry wrote to me by the same post, & so did Fanny — I had therefore 3 Letters at once which I thought well worth paying for! Yours was a treasure, so full of everything. — But how very much Cheltenham is to be preferred in May — Henry does not write diffusely, but chearfully; at present he wishes to come to us as soon as we can receive him — is decided for Orders &c. — I have written him to say that after this week, he cannot come too soon. — I do not really expect him however immediately; they will hardly part with him at Godmersham yet. — Fanny does not seem any better, or very little; she ventures to dine one day at Sandling & has suffered for it ever since. — I collect from her, that Mr Seymour is either married or on the point of being married to Mrs Scrane. — She is not explicit, because imagining us be informed. — I am glad I did not know that you had no possibility of having a fire on Saturday — & so glad that you have your Pelisse! — Your Bed room describes more comfortably than I could have supposed. — We go on very well here, Edward is a great pleasure to me; — he drove me to Alton yesterday; I went principally to carry news of you & Henry, & made a regular handsome visit, staying there while Edward went on to Wyards with an invitation to dinner; — it was declined, & will be so again today probably, for I really beleive Anna is not equal to the fatigue. — The Alton 4 drank tea with us last night, & we were very pleasant: -Jeu de violon &c. — all new to Mr Sweney — & he entered into it very well. — It was a renewal of former agreable evenings. — We all (except my Mother) dine at Alton tomorrow — & perhaps may have some of the same sports again-but I do not think Mr & Mrs Digweed will add much to our wit. – -Edward is writing a Novel — we have all heard what he has written — it is extremely clever; written with great ease & spirit; if he can carry it on in the same way, it will be a first rate work, & in a style, I think, to be popular. — Pray tell Mary how much I admire it. — And tell Caroline that I think it is hardly fair upon her & myself, to have him take up the Novel Line …

[top of p. 4 missing] … but the coldness of the weather is enough to account for their want of power. — The Duchess of Orleans, the paper says, drinks at my Pump. — Your Library will be a great resource. — Three Guineas a week for such Lodgings! — I am quite angry. — Martha desires her Love — & is sorry to tell you that she has got some Chilblains on her fingers — she never had them before. — This is to go for a Letter. — Yours affectionately
J. Austen
[Postscript below address panel] I shall be perfectly satisfied if I hear from you again on Tuesday.
Miss Austen
[No address]

It might be surprising that Jane has come home. Wouldn’t the water do her any good? So I wonder if she didn’t like the life there as she hadn’t liked Bath. As we have lost so much from this one even the phrases left lose context, still she does say early on “how very much Cheltenham is to be preferred in May.” So she is writing to concur with something Cassandra said critical of Cheltenham just then. Perhaps too there was tension between Cassandra and Mary Lloyd Austen — ever irritable, perhaps snobbish — as in the character of Mary Musgrove who also insisted she must come along and stayed on. Some of Mary Musgrove’s characteristics are adapted from this sister-in-law. Not that the waters would have done Austen any good, and in her novels and letters too she voices much skepticism over doctor’s medical abilities.

The paragraph we have that comes first is a thicket of news about the family. We don’t know whose not writing troubled Austen; Austen returns to showing her gratitude for letters (I enjoy them too though mine come by email): she is glad to have 3 before her. There is a lot about Henry in his part and strong undercurrents hard to decipher: he writes concisely, but cheerfully (to me – and I was glad to see Paula Byrne in The Real Jane Austen concurred) this suggests that cheerful was not his mood before – he is relieved to be deciding for orders, and wants to come as soon as possible. She has written welcoming: after this week he cannot come too soon, but she knows he is wanted at Godmersham where he’s liked (and has been always, before Elizabeth died too). Fanny comes to mind, and Austen is alert to ill health: Fanny no better – a dinner did her in for a bit. And Fanny brings to mind suitors so we hear Mr Seymour now on the point of or marrying Miss Scrane.

A half joke: she is glad to hear there was no possibility of a fire Saturday and Cassandra had her pelisse. The bedroom is more comfortably described than Austen could suppose possible; i.e., it may be described as comfortable but Austen doubts it really is. Now we may think of Charlotte Lucas putting best face on things. A trait of Cassandra’s we’ve seen before, one Jane sees through which we’ve seen before.

Then Edward’s children and Austen’s true delight in JEAL – who is writing a novel – we will hear her delight in this in the context of an often quoted description of her own (the “little bit [two Inches wide] of Ivory”) about this. LeFaye thinks it was during this time that Jane showed JEAL some of her Juvenilia and JEAL added to it. We don’t know that. All these novels are tributes to Jane but it must be said that the idea theirs are somehow in the same league as hers and her taking this seriously (she seems to) should give us pause about what confidence she has that she is recognized –- not much at all. She enjoyed her visit to JEAL and has softened to poor Anna: really too tired to make a dinner (we will get to the “poor animal” passage by Jane pitying what Anna’s endless pregnancies and miscarriages will and are doing to her).

Jane’s description and hurried comment to Mary is to flatter Mary about her son but shows aesthetic values Austen consciously adhered to: “extremely clever … written with great ease & & spirit .. first rate work, in a style I think, to be popular.” She herself is not writing in this way any more; Persuasion reads easily but is written with great depths of feeling, and not in style necessarily to be popular -– it has a lot of harder wit in its opening, more references to the world of navy and servants and money, and is quite different from Emma (consciously so I think), situated between bouts of Napoleonic wars. The remark to Caroline is intended to make her feel included. She is kind to this niece: “and tell Caroline that I think it hardly fair upon her & myself, to have him take up the Novel line … “ (as I suppose she was to Anna when Anna was still a child).

She did enjoy an evening with Frank and his wife, Miss S. Gibson (who in the next letter Mary has urged JEAL to flirt with) naval friend, Lt Mark Halpen Sweney – like “old times:.” “a renewal of former agreeable evenings.” This sort of thing went into Persuasion too. As LeFaye says, “jeu de violon” (Jeu de volant”) is a game. The name evolved the same way the French card game vingt-et-un became the English pontoon

She is looking forward to Alton tomorrow. The remark about the Digweeds (not “add much to our wit”) is about how someone part of a party who does not fit in quite can hurt the fun – as they feel excluded – we learn in the next letter that actually the Digweeds indeed did enter into the fun of the day.

The naval friends (scene from 1995 BBC film of Persuasion, scripted Nick Dear)

Amanda Root as Anne Elliot very much enjoying herself among people of genuine feeling and intelligent thought — lack of rank, of property wealth matters not

I suggest the second fragment paragraph is about Cassandra’s life at Cheltenham: “the coldness of the weather is enough to account for their want of power. She plays at gossip about the rich: Duchess of Orleans drinks at “Austen’s” pump. The library there a great resource for Cassandra while said lightly is seriously meant. Then the truth about the lodgings but said jokily: “Three guineas a week for such lodgings. – I am quite angry.” Three guineas shows the Austen were part of the elite wealthy of the era, if on the fringes.

Martha as ever by Jane’s side, she sends love and Jane says she’s “sorry” she has chilbrains on her fingers -– I’ll get, that’s painful. So not very warm in their Chawton cottage.

She will be satisfied if Cassandra can manage another letter in a week. Mary is a demanding person …

How much I long at least to have the left out pages – they could have been about her novel writing a little in the context of this illness.

And like Pepys who ends, “so to bed,” so Austen ends, “This is to go for a Letter.”

Christy Somers noted a short article by Carolyn S. Greet, in Jane Austen Reports for 2003, “Jane and Cassandra in Cheltenham. Diana Birchall summarized:

It sets our scene: In the spring of 1816 Jane and Cassandra paid a visit to Cheltenham, primarily for the sake of Jane’s health. Other members of the family had previously visited the little town, including James and his wife Mary, as Jane had mentioned in a letter of 1813. Cheltenham was then in its fashionable heyday, with its attractions being both therapeutic and social. It was still small and rustic compared with Bath, and all the buildings were still grouped along the single mile-long High Street. It was not litwith gas until 1818, and had a single set of Assembly Rooms, theatre,libraries, shops, and lodging houses. There is a description of the saline wells, which people drank from in the morning, for a laxative effect. It’s impossible to say which well Jane patronized, though in September when Cassandra paid a second visit Jane wrote, “The Duchess of Orleans, the paper says, drinks at my pump.”

The season was from May to October, and Jane preferred it in May when it was quieter. The early balls of 1816 were held during a period of extensive rebuilding. When Jane and Cassandra were there, the main drama, with performances three times a week, was The Merchant of Venice, followed by The Romp. In some plays roles were taken by “An Amateur.” The versatile Mr. Hall gave “imitations,” with the “whistling orator, or a Dissertation on the Letter S.” Other attractions included puppet shows and masquerades, featuring dresses and masks from London, in honour of Princess Charlotte’s nuptials. An artist, Mr. Dinsdale, exhibited paintings in his house, and there were rather Victorian sounding lectures such as a discussion of vaccination, and an exhibition in which “the principals and practice of AErostation were rendered familiar by “pleasing philosophical experiments.”

Cheltenham had at least six libraries, one with a reading room eighty feet long, in which a hundred London, Irish and provincial papers were taken weekly. The handsome shops were described, including the innovation of a seller of “ready-made dresses.” An estimated 12,000 visitors in 1816 meant lodging could be less than desirable, and Jane was indignant on Cassandra’s behalf in September: “Three guineas a week for such lodgings! I am quite angry.” She hopes she will find another “in some odd corner, that would suit you better,” and adds, “Mrs. Potter charges for the name of the High Street.” Cassandra’s main complaint was a piano player, about which Jane wrote, “Success to the Pianoforte! I trust it will drive you away.”

On the whole, not much of an article, just a few tidbits from contemporary guidebooks.

In the letter of 24-26 December 1798 in a visit to Bath which for Austen was a gay time, she wished gowns “were to be bought ready made” (LeFaye, 31). Greet is quoting from the next long letter which we will go over in a close reading next week. Now they are available, but it seems Jane is much happier with her beloved friend (Martha) and congenial family at home (Frank and JEAL among them) than she was at Cheltenham.

In a letter written many years later Frank Austen said Harville’s character was partly modeled on his own (again the 1995 film)


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Close-up of Cassandra’s famous sketch

‘Oh! it rains again; it beats against the window’–

We were obliged to turn back before we go there, but not soon enough to avoid a Pelter all the way home. We met Mr. Woolls — I talked of its being bad weather for the Hay — & he returned me the comfort of its being much worse for the Wheat — Jane Austen to her nephew, 9 July 1816

Dear Friends and readers,

These four letters form a group: They are all to James’s children and written in the season after Austen was forced home to Chawton because of Henry’s bankruptcy, unable to oversee the publication of Emma. She is feeling this. She is also feeling her fatal illness, and her letters show a lack of energy, a plangency.

No 140, Sunday 21 April to Caroline (age 11); No 141, two months later a short one, Sunday 23 June to Anna Lefroy; No 142, a couple of weeks later, on Tuesday 9 July to James-Edward Austen-Leigh; and finally No 143 six days later, Mon 15 July, to Caroline again. After that summer, with the next letter written in September, with Jane having spent the summer at Cheltenham and staying on.

That LeFaye does not note this summer-long stay seems to me nearly criminal of her in an edition of this woman’s letters. In the first to Caroline Fanny Austen Knight and her father, Edward were coming for a visit and Tomalin tells us from Fanny’s notes it was the time of this visit Jane Austen showed outward signs of sickness: Fanny walked with “At Cass” and not “At Jane.” LeFaye does include this in her Family Record:

From DLF’s ‘Family Record’:

…Certainly by the spring of 1816 Jane already knew there was something wrong with her and had arranged to visit Cheltenham to drink the spa water, which was advertised as being ‘singularly efficacious in all bilious complaints, obstructions of the liver and spleen’, for on 22 May, the day after Fanny and Edward had left Chawton, Cassandra and Jane arrived at Steventon on the first stage of their journey into Gloucestershire. They stayed at Cheltenham for a fortnight and on the return trip called on the Fowles at Kintbury. Fulwar Fowle’s eldest Daughter, Mary Jane, told Caroline Austen afterwords ‘that Aunt Jane went over all the old places, and recalled old recollections associated with them, in a very particular manner — looked at them, my cousin thought, as if she never expected to see them again — The Kintbury family, during that visit, received an impression that her health was failing — altho’ they did not [underlined] know of any particular malady.’

It was once thought that Austen died of Addison’s disease (Zachary Cope, “Jane Austen’s Final Illness,” British Journal of Medicine (July 18, 1964), with an alternative view suggesting tuberculosis (Katherine White); a more recent considered view (accepted by Tomalin), which takes into consideration all her immediate symptoms, is she developed Hodgkin’s lymphoma. See Annette Upfal, Jane Austen’s lifelong health problems and final illness: New evidence points to a fatal Hodgkin’s disease and excludes the widely accepted Addison’s, Medical Humanities, 31: (2005):3-11. A third hypothesis is that of Linda Robinson Walker, “Jane Austen’s Death: The Long Reach of Typhus,” Persuasions On-line, 31:1, Winter 2010. Recent sequels (The Mysterious Death of Jane Austen by Lindsay Ashford) and blogs suggest the preposterous theory she was murdered — somehow people cannot accept that death is natural (see also Jane’s Death: a Medical Mystery).

No. 140, To Caroline Austen, Sun 21 April 1816, Chawton to Steventon


Austen seems talking down more than usual; she is not keeping up the fiction she did before of Caroline as her equal; she is clearly talking to an 11 year old, and we are hampered by a lack of notes about ages. Caroline was bron 1805; Mary Jane, Frank’s daughter, 1807 and Cassy, Charles’s, 1808 – as cousins peers and there is an exchange of gifts going on, Mary Jane’s birthday is next Saturday and there will be a family party, and Jane clearly wants to invite Caroline as she thinks Caroline will enjoy it and the other two cousins like to have her there, but if you read not so carefully you still pick up that Caroline’s difficult mother who would not let Anna Lefroy go to London or Godmersham or parties at times is now being difficult over this party. Austen is trying to persuade her though reverse logic — of course Mary Lloyd Austen will be reading this letter over Caroline’s shoulder. So Austen says of course there may be circumstances to make the visit inconvenient, and goes on how they are ashamed to invite Mary as such a time for she will come during Wash Day (a really rigorous day because washing was a huge day long chore) and Monday will be the last day she might avoid this, but if she would come “so much the better.” Why? because (as she does not say) Caroline will then be able to come.

She opens with the death of the unmarried sister of Thomas Austen of Adlestrop — Austen and her mother visited them in 1805 (was it?) and they liked one another. The woman was in her eighties and Austen points out to the 11 year old who it is implied was sad about the death (so maybe she liked this aunt who maybe was kind to her?). “The death of a person at her advanced age, so fit to die, & by her own feelings so ready to die, is not to be regretted.”

I don’t know about that — again not to overdo Jane’s illness but she might be thinking of herself so much younger and not well.

She left 10 pounds to Mrs Austen who is not exactly rich.

Then a letter from the Leigh-Perrots whose health is not in great shape either.

A list of who is coming: not just Fanny and her father, but son Edward. Henry has been at Godmersham for 2 weeks. WE remember that Henry loved to stay there, enjoyed it very much (silly book has him in love with Elizabeth — Mysterious Death of it’s called), has been there 2 weeks. A place which maybe enabled him to forget his worse than poverty. So it did him much good.

Austen sends the first bit of flattery to Mary: Henry says how much he enjoyed hhimself at STeventon. I suggest that’s thrown in lest Mary resent Henry enjoying Godmersham and thus (by implication to a mind like hers) somehow deprecating Steventon.

An 18th century wax fashion doll

Mrs Austen her usual hypochrondiac self but writing to Caroline Jane takes Grandmamma’s unwellness seriously in tone. But read the content and it’s says she always has a pain in the head – perhaps it is lessening and working outside hard will help her recover. I think were Austen in strong linguistic spirits there would be irony here but I don’t feel it. Then Cassy’s present to Caroline, for her wax doll, and the series of hopes the Steventon family can come. If her papa, (James) came Wednesday, he could (should) bring Caroline with him and that would suit everyone — but gain there is a kind of chary tone here, for maybe Mary will not like it.. And then the passages about Mary Jane’s birthday and attempt to soften and get Mary to agree to come and allow Caroline to.

Apparently the letter is cut here – I suggest perhaps some frank speaking to Mary? at any rate someone described what was here: a mention of JEAL, the sad weather (it’s raining in the first 3 letters) for Easter and all one can say for the ride on Saturday then was it brought JEAL home.

Jane Austen likes JEAL a lot as we will begin to see. He was smart, as literary a person as she could come across — they shared a feeling together I think, got along.

Diana Birchall’s rejoinder:

Another letter to Caroline, and a rather flat, dull one, for Jane does not confide in or open her heart to the eleven-year-old. Enclosed is a note to James, to announce the death of Mrs. Elizabeth Leigh, Cassandra’s godmother, sister of Rev. Thomas Leigh of Stoneleigh Abbey, at age eighty. Jane utters a few conventionalities – lost a valued old friend, death of someone of such an advanced age, ready to die, not to be regretted. She has left a token twenty pounds (“a little remembrance”) to Mrs. Austen, who is “not quite well” and “seldom gets through the 24 hours without some pain in her head.”

Comings and goings: Edward and Fanny are coming from Godmersham, spending two days in Town, then arriving at Chawton. Edward’s daughter Cassy (age ten) has worked a “whatever it may be” for Caroline’s wax doll. James is to come to Chawton on Wednesday, and Jane hopes that “if it suited everyone” Caroline might come too. Next Saturday will be a Fair at Alton, and Mary Jane’s birthday (Frank’s daughter, just turning nine). Jane says they are “almost ashamed” to ask Caroline’s Mama “to be at the trouble of a long ride” because they “must wash.” Presumably the house was turned upside down during a grand wash…

Now I read Ellen’s notes on this letter, and see that she, too, feels Jane’s lack of spirits, maybe owing to the beginnings of her illness; and she does seem to be “talking down” and taking less pains to write an amusing letter to the girl. It’s a good point that Ellen makes that Jane is flattering Caroline’s mother Mary here with solicitousness hoping to get her to bring Caroline to the children’s party.

For Nancy’s comments on laundry day, the weather and responses and Diane Reynolds’s summary see comments.


No 141(C), To Anna Lefroy, Sunday 23 April 1816

Pianoforte, 18th century

Two wry letters, meant to be funny in part but I do not think this “fun” comes across. I’d call the second oddly flat and at moments tedious. The first very short so I have placed it inside the blog instead of linked in through the comments.

My dear Anna

Cassy desires her best thanks for the book. She was quite delighted to see it: I do not know when I have seen her so much struck by anybody’s kindness as on this occasion. Her sensibility seems to be opening to the perception of great actions. These gloves having appeared on the Piano Forte ever since you were here on Friday; we imagine they must be yours. Mrs. Digweed returned yesterday through all the afternoon’s rain and was of course wet through, but in speaking of it she never once said “It was beyond everything,” which I am sure it must have been. Your Mama means to ride to Speen Hill tomorrow to see the Mrs. Hulberts who are both very indifferent. By all accounts they really are breaking now. Not so stout as the old Jackass.

Yours affectionatelyy J.A.
Chawton, Sunday; June 23rd Uncle Charles’s birthday

The first to Anna who has sent Cassy a book – alas we don’t know which one. We do know that Cassy has shown shrewdness, an ability to write a letter herself, and humanity (to servants and the poor seeing them as people). That Cassy was struck is made fun of – maybe she was alive to the gentleness and kindness of Anna; Aunt Cassandra seems to Cassy have been perceived as stern. Austen makes fun of Anna’s gift as a great action.

The gloves left on the pianoforte must be Anna’s. We do know from this Anna had visited Friday. Then mockery of Mrs Digweed’s inability to use language expressively – in the next letter Austen herself complains and sounds plangently desperate over the rain (and it would have been hottish too) so when she says “it must have been,” she is not mocking the idea that Mrs Dignwood got soaked.

Does “breaking” means the Miss Huberts are now very sick – their health indifferent. Their old jackass is doing better – unless she is referring to a servant (then nastily). It was her youngest brother’s birthday and she records this on the letter.

Diane Reynolds’s rejoinder:

I found this a cryptic letter, one that cries out for explanatory notes, though none are provided. I agree with Ellen that JA is going for humor–first, a sort of over-the-top hyperbole I would say–that falls a bit flat: “Cassy desires her best thanks for the book … I don’t know when I have seen her so much struck by anybody’s kindness … Her sensibility seems to be opening to the perception of great actions.” Is this mockery of Cassy’s words or actions–probably not, as she is a young child. More likely it’s JA’s continued irritation at Anna–perhaps the book was lent with an air of bestowing great favor that annoyed Jane. Perhaps Jane is simply out of sorts.

She apparently has sent Anna’s gloves back with the letter, and in her typical roundabout fashion, rather than say, “we found your gloves,” she writes “these gloves, having appeared on the Piano Forte ever since you were here on Friday [only two days past], we imagine they must be yours.” Is this supposed to be dry wit? Jane comes across as a bit haughty, as she often does to Anna.

From hyperbole to dry wit, neither quite hitting the mark–I am sensing impatience, irritation. Perhaps she doesn’t feel well.

Then, more acerbic writing, with her typical mocking of people who say whatever is the current cant, in this case, the rain as “beyond everything.” As Nancy has informed us how bad the weather was that summer, JA probably heard “it was beyond everything” so often she was ready to scream. In this case, she appreciates Mrs. Digwood, though “wet through,” for NOT saying “it was beyond everything.” Austen is ever sensitive to language; rote repeated lines grate on her nerves. I remember similar feelings after 9/11–that feeling I would scream if anyone said “nothing will ever be the same again” one more time. One wonders too if this was a dig at Anna for repeating the phrase. The mentality is, of course, seamless with the novels, where Austen is quick to mock the tiresome repetitions of stock phrases. What’s not seamless with the novels is Austen’s hinting her thankfulness at being spared–in the novels, of course, we would simply have spoken or narrated cant repeated.

Now for the cryptic lines: “Your Mama means to ride to Speen Hill tomorrow to see the Mrs. Hulberts who are both very indifferent. By all accounts they are breaking now. Not so stout as the old Jackass.” The Hulberts are listed in Le Faye’s index, so JA is referring to real people: One sister died at Bath in 1819; the other died in 1840 at age 96. They are the kind of single women who would interest JA. But what on earth do her lines mean? I am assuming they both are or have been ill, which is the reason for the visit. What does “they are breaking now” mean? That a fever or cold is breaking? Or that they are getting sicker? Presumably getting sicker as they are “not so stout as the old Jackass.” But who is the old Jackass? Le Faye offers no explanation, though the letter cries out for one. And so we are left to wonder.

My sense is that the letter–note really–was written hastily to go with the gloves and left unrevised. Austen does not feel the need to be careful with Anna as with Stanier Clark or Lady Morley.

Nancy Mayer on the weather that summer and Jane Austen’s mood.


No. 142, To James-Edward Austen, Tuesday, 9 July 1816, Chawton to Steventon

An older drawing of Chawton cottage, the cross-way, the pond from rain.

This one to James-Edward Austen-Leigh shows how much she favors him — I suspect because he’s a boy. She says she is grateful for every single line he sends. Then unusually for her she takes someone’s sickness seriously: Mary Lloyd Austen. LeFaye refers to Caroline’s Reminiscences and offers a page. It’s not a long line and she should have simply reprinted it. Caroline tells that her mother was very unwell and (like Jane and Cass) earlier in the year went to Cheltenham; they took Caroline and Mary Jane (another of these girl cousins). I would wonder if she made it up (so she could go too – the way Mary Musgrove resents others going anywhere and insists on going) but it’s clear that she did have some illness. The next line reminds us these are family letters and Austen is giving the news of Chawton to those at Steventon because she tells JEAL to thank his father for his share in the letter telling of his wife’s illness.

And then she goes on about the rain, bad, really bad, too bad, she begins to think it will never be fine again – except usually when you finish the sentence the weather has changed when you get to its end.

Then we get a paragraph crowded with detail of in the family is going where and how. What interests me is Jane is not included in any of these trips. She is to sit home in the dank rain. Was this the result of her not feeling well? She’s really left out. WE may suppose she’s happy to be home and writing Persuasion or rewriting NA – or fixing the juvenilia or Lady Susan or one of her fragments.

After the flat listing of who’s going where, a feeble attempt at making fun. JEAL had apparently dated his letter from home so no need to tell his aunt he’s home. She milks this as far as she can, and then tells of the boys she’s seen pass by and how she wrote (her letter went with the Cheese) and she cannot bear not to be thanked. She understands he cannot come visit until his mother is well — he must’ve been making an excuse for not coming .

Remember she is not going places like other. (I feel for her.) Maybe a change of scene would be good for him – he must go to Oxford. A note worrying lest he not get the better education his brains deserve butt his brigs on an associated joke, maybe physicians will order him to sea (those of her men not clergyman are sailors, and then by association the pond – we know from photographs right near the Chawton house before it was renovated in the mid-20th century there was a huge ugly puddle in the street. Austen sees it. She lives in a house by a very considerable pond and then the plangent lament.

The last part seems poignant to me from what’s not there. She doesn’t get to go, conversations she doesn’t get to haved. As ever she mentions the servants as real presences in their lives. One has gone and is replaced by William who sounds like he’d do for Downton Abbey. She is self-conscious about others seeing how much she writes – given the thin paper especially (cheap). Doesn’t she have anything else to do? Well nothing she’s rather. I understand this myself … He’s no reader so he will count the lines. The unacknowledged desperation of this realization …

The PS has been taken to be about Charles’s trial and that we must read about in the articles cited in the notes. Basically he was court-martialed because his ship wrecked; not his fault, but nonetheless it was a career blow it took a long time to recover from. I feel for him too this morning. His family would suffer – and we know that Henry has gone bankrupt so these are not good times financially for the Austens – nor for the health of Jane or her sister-in-law it appears. But it could also be about Henry’s bankruptcy proceedings.

Christy Somer:

This letter feels so poignantly touching -and its areas of gentle humor just enhance what is very obviously to me -JA’s real knowing & loving regard towards Edward (JEAL). And with Jane Austen being only a year away from her own earthly ending — these lines seem just presciently sad to me: “…& has been too bad for a long time, much worse than anyone can [underlined] bear, & I begin to think it will never be fine again.” Of course, she then quickly softens it all by adding:
“This is a finesse of mine, for I have often observed that if one writes about the Weather, it is generally completely changed before the Letter is read. I wish it may prove so now, & that when Mr. W. Digweed reaches Steventon tomorrow, he may find you have had a long series of hot, dry weather….”

Diane R:

I think this letter has been well covered. JA’s tone strikes me as almost frenetic, over-the-top, as if she doesn’t really have much of substance she wants to say to JEAL. She goes on about the miserable weather and then seems embarrassed to be doing so — it would be the repetition of the dull and commonplace that irritated her — so she begins weaving a story about the weather becoming dry and warm just because she is going on about how wet and unbearable it is, and probably mocking too the people who say they can’t “bear” it anymore.

She mocks JEAL for telling her he’s home when it would be obvious from the post-mark, perhaps going on too much about it, then giddily chides him for not thanking her for the letter that accompanied a cheese: “I cannot bear not to be thanked.” This is self-mockery, of course, but also true — she notices and points out the oversight. Are the first lines to him: “Many thanks. A thanks for every line” a reproach? Or mockery?

I think of Emma when JA hopes that JEAL’s physician will prescribe for his cure “the Sea”–or Chawton, “by the side of a very considerable pond.” (According to Le Faye, there once was a pond there.) I like JA calling a downpour of rain a “pelter” and enjoy the line, more true than she could know, that the post-chaises carry boys “full of future Heroes, Legislators, Fools, and Vilians.”

Weather … illness … visits … all motifs of Emma, the surface of country gentry life. What lurks beneath is Jane’s declining health, and the mention of Charles’s court martial–Le Faye tells us he was acquitted for the sinking of his ship.

I took the paper being so thin to mean it was almost see-through so that someone could almost read it from the other side if JEAL held it up. Is this true? All we are told of it is “two leaves quarto, wove.”

See Robin Vick, “Some Unexplained References in Jane Austen’s Letters,” N&Q, NS 41 (1994):318-21; Southam’s book, Jane Austen and the Navy (for the full story of Charles’s court martial and later career); Clive Caplan, “We suppose the trial to take place this week,” Report for 2008 (2009):152-59: he argues the paragraph refrs to HTA’s bankruptcy.

No. 143, Mon 15 July 1816, to Caroline at Steventon


Cartoon paratexts of Lost in Austen try for a wacky atmosphere

The first paragraph is in response to a short fiction Caroline has written! Remember how Caroline had begun to write when she saw her sister, Anna, writing. Austen is looking for a compliment when she admires the girl’s handwriting; the story was supposed to be comedy apparently but let’s recall just about all the comments in these letters treat Austen’s books as comedy — rendering them innocuous. She likes that Caroline is exposing absurdity (so Caroline is imitating the aunt) and wishes the burlesque information abouit the father having become a father one year after marriage be included. Why it’s funny to be a father at 22 after you married at 21 I don’t know. Anna Austen Lefroy got pregnant almost immediate

Then we get one of these odd wacky descriptions of wild burlesque very like what is found in the juvenilia. Austen never outgrew this — we can see aspects of it in her Plan of a Novel. She “had an early opportunity” to send Mary Jane Caroline’s letter (so they are exchanged around) by throwing it out the window. Mary Jame (Frank and Mary’s daughter) thanks Caroline, passed her time at Chawton happily, did not miss Cassy much (had she gone to visit her father at last).

Not to be outdone in the art areas, MaryJane has apparently made a drawing or story or needlework: the temple of Diana would be about marriage. She is glad that Caroline is writing again: the heroine of Caroline’s story is Fanny — or maybe Fanny is a small doll stuck or it was a manuscript in Caroline’s stays? doesn’t make much sense that except maybe she was hiding her story from her mother.

Austen concludes on Edward’s visit. She likes everythinga about the young man — he was intelligent, sensitive, a reading man – and I believe she is glad he is getting closer to her age; she ends on a joke that she of course does not get older so the two are coming nearer all the time. In fact as children grow into young adults they come nearer and nearer to us.

It’s a cheerful note and would not occasion any observation about a lack of energy only that it follows the other three and thus feels to be in the same quieter vein. Maybe she is writing Persuasion just now.

Diana Birchall summed up the group:

#141C to Anna (Sunday 23 June 1816) is short, but with a couple of Austenian silkenly neat turns of phrase, the kind she does almost by rote reflex – that Cassy is so delighted at receiving a book, it shows that “her sensibility seems to be opening to the perception of great actions” (i.e., sending a book, ludicrous exaggeration). The felicitous appearance of the gloves. The critique of cant (“it was beyond everything”). And the Mystery of Speen Hill – what was the situation with the elderly Mrs. Herberts? I agree with Diane that “breaking” must be in sense of their health breaking up. Note the sardonic tone, the rude joke about Anna’s stepmother Mary Austen who is riding to Speen Hill: “Not so stout as the old Jackass” (which is to bear her weight).

#142. (Tuesday 9 July 1816) There is something uncomfortable, I agree with Ellen and Diane, about this letter to her nephew, young JEAL. It is as if she is making a studied attempt to produce the jocularity and lightness agreeable to a young man, but she isn’t feeling it. She does try…the “finesse” about the weather, calling it bad in hopes that in the general way of things it will change before the letter is read. “…when Mr. W. Digweed reaches Steventon
tomorrow, he may find You have had a long series of hot, dry weather” is in the nonsense vein of “Oh, Susannah!” (“It rained all night the day I left, the weather it was dry…”) A patch of circular logistics, Yalden’s Coach clearing off some, others going to Town, a party going to Broadstairs, the Kent beach town later associated with Charles Dickens.

She writes a rather long witticism about JEAL not mentioning coming home, so she imagines him confined by illness, “dating from Steventon in order, with a mistaken sort of Tenderness, to deceive me.” This falls unusually flat; she doesn’t usually belabor a nonworking witticism this heavily or this long. It shows she’s not quite on her game – or her feelings aren’t in this forced letter – or she’s concealing that she’s feeling badly about something else. Even so, she can’t help but paint a wonderfully imaginative and hilarious word picture about schoolboys: “We saw a countless number of Postchaises full of Boys pass by yesterday morning – full of future Heroes, Legislators, Fools, and Vilains.”

It sounds a little like Sanditon, her telling JEAL, “…a little change of Scene may be good for you, & Your Physicians I hope will order you to the Sea, or to a house by the side of a very considerable pond.” Burlesque, of course, as why would a physician specify a pond; but it’s uncanny when you think of what is going on in Chawton today with the terrible flooding. You can see pictures here, as well as the appeal for funds from Chawton House Library

A couple of years ago the Chawton AGM was a rainy one, and I remember standing on the spot in the picture, which was ankle deep in water – no wonder it should be so much more badly flooded now! And yes, to echo Ellen, how very strongly and poignantly Austen’s words resound at this moment: “Oh! it rains again; it beats against the window.” That sentence is real, if her joking is not; it feels straight from the heart, what she is really feeling and thinking. Almost, “I cannot get out, said the starling.”

The description of the soggy journey in the Donkey-carriage, with its expressive word Pelter, is more vivid than anything else in the letter, and more successfully jocular: “We met Mr. Woolls – I talked of its being bad weather for the Hay – & he returned me the comfort of its being much worse for the Wheat.” I have nothing more to add to the reference to Henry’s bankruptcy, except the obvious one of this being why she does not seem quite comfortable within herself in this letter.

#143, to Caroline Austen. Monday 15 July 1816.

Another shortish letter to a young niece, with the requisite couple of jokes (if Caroline’s handwriting improves soon she may not have to shut her eyes at it), and the venerable old man in a story being only 22. The description of throwing the letter to Mary Jane and having the girl communicate through her, is an attractive, playful word picture. Diana’s Temple may have been another youthful manuscript, but I don’ t know what the lost Fanny might be – a small pet? A joke about age and it’s done.


I call attention once again to the plangency of Austen’s remark about the beating rain. She was desolate when she had to leave London suddenly and couldn’t be there to superintend the publication of Emma further. Now she is sensing deeply that she won’t see London again. We are lacking the savage wit we’ve had, a certain kind of joke that hardly finds social acceptance because she has not the strength or energy,but she jokes on too.


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