Posts Tagged ‘james edward austen leigh’

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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Flirting amid piles of plays (Maria and Henry with Tom and Yates in the background, the 1983 MP by Ken Taylor)

Dear friends and readers,

Herewith my second blog report on the gist of the individual papers delivered on Saturday, October 10th, at the JASNA AGM in Montreal. Looking over the 7 to 8 break-out sessions on against the one I chose, I again regret that so many papers were on against one another.


I went to hear Br. Paul Byrd’s paper comparing Mansfield Park with Margaret Oliphant’s Perpetual Curate because I’m a reader of Oliphant’s fiction, and know she was influenced by and wrote a perceptive essay on Austen’s fiction and Austen’s nephew’s memoir of his aunt. He brought the two novels together as by two Anglican women who saw the need for reform in the church with clerical heroes who suffer repeated attacks. Mansfield Park: Edmund is distracted by his personal involvement from his vocation; his religion though more often discussed than portrayed; pluralism and absenteeism condemned. He is contrasted to Dr Grant. Mary argues priests have little influence on people, represents a segment of society that no longer believes thoroughly in the Christian religion; mercenary considerations strongly influence her judgement; Henry Crawford is sensual, self-indulgent. Edmund’s relationship to Fanny shows him thoughtful, meaning to be reflective though he fails to be an accurate observer. The Perpetual Curate: Frank Wentworth presents a Victorian ideal and knows what a clergyman ought to be; but is his own worst enemy, not politic, handles a scandal foolishly, yet remains true to himself; Br Byrd brought in each author’s male relatives who were clergymen, and seemed to believe that Austen assumed her readers believed that Anglicanism could be an effective force in the world while Oliphant delivers a blistering critique of Anglican church of her day: Br Bryd thought Oliphant was showing a cultural shift from a gentleman who is a clergyman to clergyman who have a calling; he also read Mansfield Park as seriously about religion and religious failings in Austen’s characters and the cultural world they belonged to.


I went to hear Kathryn Davis’s “Charles Pasley’s Essay and the ‘Governing Winds of Mansfield Park,” because during the long course of reading and analyzing Austen’s letters (see my blog analysis of Letter 78) I became aware of how she admired the ruthless imperialism of Pasley through what she said in a letter and Southam’s analysis of Pasley’s career and writing (in his book on Austen’s brothers) and how narrowly partisan Austen could be when it came to what she thought were her brothers’ interests. Ms Davis talked of Austen’s admiration for this man, and of his life as retold in the ODNB, and then presented Pasley’s writing in terms of his patriotic ideals and worry about the navy weakening; how he reminds his audience of the commercial good (profit, well ordered places) the military could lay the grounds for in conquest and expansion; she quoted eloquent passages (duty is service); he recognizes there is a loss of social and economic liberty but such bonds as are formed are a deterrent to war. I had not realized Pasley wrote specifically about the West Indies (e.g., Antigua must be held onto). I was much relieved when Robert Clark who had given a paper in the previous break-out session on the British empire at the time of and as reflected in MP (I heard a version of his excellent papers at the ASECS in Williamsburg last spring), when Mr Clark brought out the murder and destruction of societies found in these colonial places, the suffering inflicted on these native peoples; that Pasley’s is a ruthless militarist deeply anti-liberal argument, where the East India Company’s doings are an exemplary norm. Southam shows how he disobeyed orders to aggrandize himself. Mr Clark remarked that it’s telling that Pasley was republished around the time of WW1.

Fanny Price and Henry Crawford dancing foreground, Mary and Edmund just behind them, at the Mansfield ball (1999 MP by Rozema)

I went to hear Nora Stovel Forster’s paper because it was about film, specifically “dancing as a blueprint for marriage in Rozema’s MP.” Ms Forster argued that Rozema modernized MP by politicizing its themes to push her own agenda. Austen’s MP is relentlessly about money as intertwined with love (Mary sees everything in terms of money; Maria marries to gain the use of a great deal of money). Ms Stovel spent a lot of time on the Portsmouth episode in the movie where (Ms Stovel felt) the poverty of the Prices is exaggerated, and drives Fanny to accept Henry Crawford’s proposal momentarily. Slavery is brought in as Fanny journeys around England; through the horrors illustrated in Tom’s sketches of his father’s plantation in Antigua; the sexuality made explicit for us to see the corruption of the hollow characters. Fanny’s character is much changed and she is (in effect) made the author of the movie. I liked how Ms Stovel showed us some of her stills in slow motion. It was hard to tell but I thought the audience this time was more pleased by Ms Stovel’s talk about Rozema’s movie than they had by Sorbo’s presentation because it could be taken as implicitly criticizing the movie for not being faithful (but that is not why they dislike it so as other movies as unfaithful, say Ang Lee and Emma Thompson’s S&S is very popular among such people).

The Harp arrives (1999 MP)

I did not know that the session where Jeanice Brooks and Gillian Dow were listed was actually an attempt to present two papers in the 60 minutes. Ms Brooks’s paper was on French culture and music in Paris and as sold and mirrored in London and the provinces of England around the time of MP. I hope hers is one of those papers published in Persuasions for she presented much valuable information in a perceptive way applicable to Austen’s novel and life too (Austen played the pianoforte; Eliza, her cousin, the harp). She told of the invention and history of the harp in the 18th century, the music books in Austen’s household, and went over two volumes of selections from 18th century periodicals which only Eliza de Feuillide could have supplied. She gave a brief resume of Eliza’s movements in France and England from 1780 to 1813 when she died (1780 in Paris with harp; 1781 married, lived in Paris; 178-86 lives on husband’s estates; 1786-87 visits Steventon; Sept 1788 returns to Paris, back in 1789; death of Feuillide, of her mother, her marriage to Henry, the musical party Austen records in April 1811; Fanny Knight’s note on Eliza’s cancer); she then played a lovely piece of music to which one of the songs in the book was set at the time. I regret not having a copy of the text to share with others. I was unable to take it down in sten quickly enough.

Edmund reading to Fanny as children (he made her books meaningful to her, 1983 MP)

I was not able to stay for much of Gillian Dow’s paper which had to be fitted in to the tail end of the session. Ms. Dow attempted a speculative answer to the question, from what books did Fanny Price learn French? She talked of what we know of Austen’s interactions with Grandison (reading, alluding, the playlet) and how she uses Lovers’ Vows in MP, to show Austen’s interest in plays, and she suggested Austen may have meant us to think the Fanny learned French by reading the plays Madame de Genlis wrote for children. While I agree that Adele et Theodore is an important source in two of Austen’s novels (Emma and NA) and Austen seems to have been an avid reader of Genlis’s fiction (which we can see from her reading with her sister in her letters), but at the time I left the session I had heard no evidence Austen read these plays or meant us to feel Miss Lee would be a person who would teach from them. Sir Thomas seems to have instructed his sons through having them declaim plays but there is no sign his daughters or niece were encouraged in such self-displays (even if the texts were impeccably moral).

My daughter, Izzy, may have chosen more wisely than me.

Everyone reading and rehearsing playscript (2007 MP by Maggie Wadey)

On Saturday she listened to Nancy Yee outline how Shakespeare’s Henry VIII relates to MP (she had a sheet of passages from Henry VIII); she was amused by Arnie Perlstein’s paper on subtexts in the allusions to plays in Mansfield Park; she said she understood Susan Allen Ford’s paper on Hester Chapone’s Letters and their relationship to Mansfield Park (was persuaded there really was one), and she positively enjoyed Sara Bowen’s “Fanny’s future, Mary’s Nightmare, on Jane Austen’s understanding of a clergyman’s wife’s life in the context of all the clergyman’s wives that she knew, from her mother, to her sisters-in-law, her niece, Anna Austen Lefroy and many other kin, friends and acquaintances.

From 1982 Barchester Chronicles, scripted Alan Plater (the clerical families dining, Mr Harding and his daughter, Archdeacon and Mrs Grantley and Mr Arabin, adapted from Trollope’s Barchester Towers)

Izzy talked of (I imagine from this paper) Trollope’s presentation of the life of Archdeacon Grantly’s wife in Barchester Towers, Mrs Proudie across the Barsetshire series, and what we see of clergymen’s wives in his mid- to later 19th century books, and said Ms Bowen argued that the demands on a woman’s life as a clergyman’s wife were changing and are reflected in Austen’s books: we see little expectation of religious doings or doctrine in Elinor Dashwood; we seem never to see Henry Tilney do or think about religion or doctrine (even if he does not neglect his parish and preaches there of a Sunday); in Mansfield Park things are changing, expectations growing. Izzy was amused to try to count up all the female characters in Austen’s fiction who either might have or do become clergyman’s wives.

Mrs Norris humiliating Fanny over her refusal to play (1983 MP)

The most fun she and I had together while at the JASNA conference was when she downloaded all of MP onto my ipad (there is a library APP which permits this, offering free books out of copyright and books you must buy) and we read together parts of MP found suggestive hints in the first three chapters of the book tending to prove McMaster’s thesis that Mrs Norris loathed Fanny because she had wanted to have her as a vicarious child through Sir Thomas and found her personality one a vindictive, selfish, aggressive, competitive and greedy personality would bitterly resent.

I know I reported that my proposal to present a paper on the relationship of the four Mansfield Park films with the novel was rejected, though happily I wrote a brief elaboration of what I would have said and it was published on-line by BSECS, but I believe I never wrote about how I had had an idea to compare Smith’s Ethelinde, or the Recluse of the Lake with Mansfield Park. A well-meaning friend suggested to me my idea was too dry or scholarly or narrow (who reads Ethelinde?) and the MP proposal was more likely to find acceptance. I’ll end on this proposal I never sent: “Empire, Marriage, and Epistolarity in Charlotte Smith’s Ethelinde and Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park.”

I propose to give a talk on revealing parallels between Charlotte Smith’s Ethelinde; or the Recluse of the Lake, and Austen’s Mansfield Park. First, the novels both use visual space, be it a country, rural, town or city, a prison or a great house, to project the inner psychic and moral state of a character in the context of a larger exploration of empire. Characters in both value male work which is part of a professional career to gain money and rank; whether they travel widely or spend their days in a local parish, the two novelists justify and/or critique the means by which the characters succeed or fail. Second, the novels contain slowly evolving love stories which end in an unexpectedly welcome misalliance for one couple and adultery for another, destroying the destined hopes of some of the characters, all seen in the context of arranged, mercenary, and far-flung marriage, further career moves. Last, the development of the novels’ plot-design relies on epistolary situations, characters who reach others only through letters, and reading with all the tension, misunderstanding and critique from afar distance creates and facilitates.
In other words, I’ll be discussing these novels from a post-colonial standpoint. Smith’s central characters are openly driven by economic need, caught up in wars, bad marriages and illegitimate yet loving liaisons, exile and painful and distant correspondences; while most of Austen’s characters’ circumstances are economically comfortable, and adultery is only adumbrated; nonetheless, her characters go through the same paradigms of need, war, mismatch and have to force themselves to write and read their letters Whether it’s a question of intertextuality or influence, a comparison of the way Smith’s and Austen’s characters discuss, dramatize and solve their career, marital and social or moral needs, will shed light on these novels and contemporary attitudes towards the demands of the local mercenary and rank-based and global commercial worlds as these intersect with the people’s private needs and desires.

After Harvest Storm, Richard Westnall by R.M. Meadows (early 19th century)


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NPG x90255; Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh by Elliott & Fry
Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh (1872-1961)

Dear friends and readers,

On Austen-l and Janeites, with copies to my yahoo listservs:  Eighteenth Century Worlds and Women Writers through the Ages (for those who for whatever reason prefer not to join in on the two major Jane Austen listservs on-line), a group of us have embarked on another long-term reading and discussion of Jane Austen texts. We are for now reading and discussing the letters and documents RAAL (the abbreviation I will use) gathered together and published in 1942 (Spottiswood Press) in the first two privately-printed volumes of what he called Pedigree of Austen: Austen Papers, 1704-1856. We have been enabled to do this because some of us took the books out of the library (there is a 1990 reprint by the Bath Thoemmes Press), others have xeroxes of RAAL’s volumes, and Christy Somers sent those who asked for them, the pages of the first volume as we read them as attachments from copies she scanned in, and Ronald Dunning is putting on his website, also from the 1942 edition, the chapters of the first two volumes as we go through them.

RAAL was the 2nd son of Cholmeley Austen-Leigh (1829-1899) and his wife, Melesina Mary (also with a pedigree, one linking her to a Dean and Archbishop); and thus a grandson of the James-Edward Austen-Leigh and Emma Smith. JEAL wrote the first memoir of Jane Austen that began the cult of Austen’s life and books, from which we can date the widening knowledge and reading of her books and then watching of film adaptations, with accompanying ever increasing scholarship to the point the subject becomes a life’s work; JEAL’s book included the texts of Lady Susan and The Watsons. We saw in going through Austen’s letters how fond she was of him and how much he loved her.  His sisters, Caroline Austen and Anna Austen Lefroy (both beloved by Jane, if at times with Anna genuinely estranged) contributed letters; Anna prepared an edition of Sanditon with her own attempts at a continuation from what she knew of her aunt’s aims, and Caroline her Reminiscences, separately printed. All three were the children of Jane’s oldest brother, James, the poet of the family.

In the preface to the 1990 Bath Thoemmes press reprint of RAAL’s effort in four volumes (which includes JEAL’s Memories of the Vine Hunt, books on Jane Austen and Bath, Constance Hill’s nostalgic work on where Austen lived, and a judge’s notes on the case of Jane Perrot-Leigh’s shoplifting), David Gilson provides a brief review of the successful business and socially elite life of RAAL as well as RAAL’s publications apart from those on Jane Austen (Eton college, architectural, a history of his printing firm): Gilson’s few words are valuable. He gives a brief but full enough account to give us a sense of what kind of man RAAL was through reviewing R.A. Austen-Leigh’s business life, his professional memberships. RAAL spent his life as a publisher, Spottiswood was the family firm; he was successful (reminding me of Samuel Richardson) and was the head of a number of printers’ councils, boards, chairman of this and that. He was also a literary man and member of the Society of Antiquaries, Royal Society; he married twice in the way the family approved, upper middle class daughter of military and university people, once within the same family his father had. He never had any children by either wife. His writes on architecture, Eton, the story of his firm, JA and Lyme Regis, JA and Southampton. Gilson has a joke at the conclusion of his preface where he says someone in Notes and Queries found one error in R.A. Austen-Leigh’s various articles and books — it was Elinor not Marianne who drank the constantia wine.



After Gilson’s introduction (in the 1990 reprint) ,there is a long detailed pedigree (got up by RAAL) — it is worth having because you can see the family were clothiers in Kent in the 15th, 16th, 17th century; they also become surgeons (a few sons) and stationers (so get involved in printing and state papers). By the later 17th century Austen men are going to university, holding fellowships, getting positions. One can identify Elizabeth Austen as the wife of John Austen IV. The calamity of her life is her husband (John IV) predeceased his father (John III), and their eldest son John was given everything contrary to what she said were her husband’s John IV’s express wishes. Why was John III so very mean to all the other children (refusing to give them any help) and his daughter-in-law? It’s said he didn’t like her. It’s sometimes implied there is something extraordinary here, but I’d like to suggest this was how primogeniture could work. The law was set up to allow the behavior of John III if he felt like it.

Then starting with Elizabeth’s 4th son, William, we see George Austen’s parentage (and how he was orphaned more than once as were of course his full sisters, Philadelphia and Leonora). We also see the other sons who were the uncles Henry sometimes mentions — especially Francis Motley who Henry was wont to say (it’s apparent more than once) sat down on a chair as a lawyer and just grew rich — very rich. It was not quite so easy or simple or innocent.  Francis became a moneylender — banking was ever a place to grow rich through money changing hands and investments. Henry followed in this uncle’s footsteps.. But with no safety net, no regulations, most people did crash if there was a depression or recession (and there was a bad once when Napoleon was defeated and the armies sent home) — unless very well wadded by family connections.

The genealogy is very long and one might say Deirdre LeFaye imitates it in her biographical index to her edition of Jane Austen’s letters. She gives us little genealogies when she should give us accounts of individuals. But she cares not for them in the way she does genealogies. A younger daughter (or “sister” as Austen is said to have first titled her Watsons) would not have been particularly valued, was not because it would not have been seemly (conforming to respectability) until well after her death, until after 1870 when JEAL broke ranks and began to publish what he felt he could about her private life, what he believed to be truth about her.


Cass reading Jane's letter

Anna Maxwell Martin as Cassandra when younger reading one of Jane Austen’s letters (Becoming Jane, 2008)

RAAL’s preface comes next. He strikes a modest tone. He asks, why should such family papers be of interest — he is aware somehow that the Jane Austen connection is not quite enough, though the primary function of the book is to shed light and information on her. Chapter 2 ends with Austen’s birth. He says the letters of this and other chapters are representative – – and they are of a family, some of whose members made good — with great difficulty some of them, luck (the adoption of Edward Austen) and marrying well (JEAL and several others). He hopes their ordinary upper middle classness will be instructive.  He also thinks of his material as a kind of story and sets his book up as one — rather like Charlotte Barrett did for her great-aunt, Fanny Burney.

He has a great deal of material from Eliza Hancock de Feuillide Austen, and it’s clear will handle it discreetly. Hancock, her legal father, is described early on as a “sour and disappointed” man. Warren Hastings is only mentioned once in the chronology, but it is interesting to see that Daylesford (which Hastings purchased with his “ill-gotten gains) was not far from Adelstrop Rectory where some of the Austen cousins lived (and Jane visited) and the manuscripts of Eliza’s letters were found in the hands of a Hastings descendent. RAAL shows an awareness of how Mrs Leigh-Perrot will emerge as a deeply unpleasant figure, and has included what material he could by JEAL to tell about her candidly.


Chapter one contains the slightly astonishing and important narrative by Elizabeth Weller Austen and a long letter from Henry Austen to James-Edward Austen-Leigh dwelling on how Francis Austen (one of Henry’s uncles, one of Elizabeth’s sons) became so rich, and how particular people in the family came to inherit this or that


Imitator of David Teniers the Younger, An Old Woman Reading (17th century)

Elizabeth Weller Austen’s narrative is a story of the workings out of primogeniture when held to super-strictly, except for a defiant daughter-in-law. Usually it’s said something would be allowed for schooling and prospects of younger sons and perhaps a small dowry for a daughter. But this mean (in all senses of the term) man (John III) would not give a penny unless someone else forked out an equal amount and even then not always. Elizabeth acknowledges her husband (John IV) left her badly in debt but says not unreasonably that though he had debts before he married and as he accumulated debts over the marriage, they were the members of a very rich family and lived in a way commensurate with that. Probably John Austen IV was a bad businessman, did not attend to his rents, farming and the clothier business — if you look you find people like Thomas Jefferson worked as businessmen, taking on debt to run a place being the great problem they ever had to cope with. The meanness in the father-in-law is also seen in his first refusal to pay even for a funeral (10 pounds was fought over fiercely): I assume John III detested something his son had done, or was a person, and was determined to get back or not give over any money to John IV’s whole family. He would himself educated John III separately from them. Elizabeth says the way she was treated in her father-in-law’s will (for he died not long after his son) made her into an enemy, someone not part of the family. It was not that she had nothing for her father is applied to for half to make up a sum and he is willing, but he dies too. She says her husband would have written out something for her, but was told that there was no need, his father (JA III) promising to actually care equally for all his grandsons. He reneged on promises several times in the course of this narrative, and I expect everyone feared that he would.

Were this sort of truth and candor practiced by people regularly how much more would we know of the realities and workings of our world and human nature. I stopped reading at page 8 for at that place the narrative drops into the present tense for a page or so. Elizabeth is left nearly destitute with 5 of her sons (all but the eldest) and a daughter after the death of her husband, then the death of her father, and then of this very tormenting father-in-law who more than once she said “all feared to displease.” She does not know and is writing out of immediate distress and perplexity:  what she shall do? She projects intense anxiety, bewilderment yet determination not to sit down and live penuriously while her children grow up to be laborers.  It’s clear no one will help them and this will be their fate unless she can get a job that pays well enough and houses them decently herself. She does not put it this way, but that is what she goes out and does.

The use of the present tense at this transition point in the narrative (p. 8) suggests the manuscript was not written all at once at the end of her life but rather in pieces, some of it later after an event, and other of it at the time of happening, as an outlet or vent, a kind of diary. Then at the end of her life or when she put this together some parts show the diary nature of some of the material. This helps explain the exactitude of the amounts she cites in the early part of the story and again the later: how much at each juncture was paid or not paid after her husband and then father-in-law died, and the bargaining over each item. The narrative also shows how central is money to these people. Auden professed to be shocked at Jane’s concern with money; Elizabeth Weller Austen would not have been.

Elizabeth is casting about what to do and writes in the present tense for a couple of paragraphs. She laments that she is treated as an enemy in the will and talks of how her husband feared his father would disinherit the younger children as severely as he did and insists all her children are dear to her as they were to her husband. The next page is pathetic dealings with her in-laws (as we’d call them) her husband’s siblings who she is hoping will (in effect) set aside the will and obey her husband’s desires – share some of the money and property for the younger ones. This part seems to be written as an argument she is going to present to them. She says she does not have enough to give her children an education they will not be ashamed of, to apprentice her children, has no prospect of saving money (as she has none).

Elizabeth writes to expose what happened, to tell, and to justify what she did — becoming a housekeeper is a come-down and some of the apprenticeships she took were also come downs from gentlemanly positions like in the military or clergy or law (law was not as respected) for which Jane Austen’s father fitted his sons. She can write – -so the talent of the family comes out here. A typical phrase: I were loathe to appear ridiculous” about her lack of proper mourning clothes for her husband’s funeral. We learn that her husband kept the debts he brought into the marriage and the larger debts accumulated “private” from her. She says that John III did not perform a promise made at the marriage to pay the debts upon the marriage — so they did not begin with a clean slate (rather like US students today who begin life with large college debts hanging over them). After John IV’s death, John’s real unkindness over the furniture and household goods (reminding me of how Jane Austen had to give up her few things,but then she had only herself, was not going to be dumped and had not been given promises at all — galling itself). All the deaths raise curiosity and she gives some details — for example her own father’s fatal illness (Weller his name) “seized his brains” so he was not able just before his death to perform promises to the father-in-law. I wonder if the man had brain cancer or some sort of dementia (how old was he at time of death?)

What happens then is her biological father dies and then John III himself. Now it is the siblings of John III who refuse to ignore the will, to help her, to make good on promises she says she had. She mentions a biological brother of her own, Stringer. The case is that is by word of mouth her father promised 200 pounds for her household goods, to pay her husband’s debts, and leave enough money for her younger sons, but as it was not in the will the promise was not honored. Her “brothers” (she may mean brothers-in-law) insisted as it was not in law, as “it could not be answered in law, and they must be just to the heir.” In other words, they’d be sued by this heir or later on when he grew up or his close relatives who thought to gain.

Elizabeth’s narrative is more than courageous and poignant; it’s defiant. To bring in that trivializing word “feisty” at this point is to show how it’s usually used for behavior which does not threaten or expose the system. Elizabeth Austen’s narrative exposes the system which would have destroyed her — Anna Austen Lefroy allowed the system to destroy her, did not fight back after her husband died, but lived off other relatives penuriously. Granted it’s hard to fight, hard to see past the views of everyone around you that can hold you in an invisible prison. All around Elizabeth probably disapproved publicly and some privately when she became a housekeeper. Housekeepers ended up the mistresses of the men in the houses they worked in if the men didn’t have wives (or if they did) been able to read the latter pages. She was smart too: she took a job at Sevenoaks, a boarding school so her sons could be educated as part of her payment.

She was a woman and the system ignores her and expected her to do nothing, to live in a hovel or beg and plead to no avail.

She first takes over two years to cope with her debts; her purpose was to give up as little as she could, take what she could away with her, and she managed to borrow some of what she needed. Taking a job as a housekeeper in a boarding school shows cleverness: her boys would naturally be educated among the others — crumbs from the table on what was going. This was part of the deal I imagine. Then we get a picture of a subsidence life — before the middle 19th century almost every one lived that way in Europe (and now again in the US a huge population does again). Tiny sums accounted for — I’m sure Jane Austen saw this kind of thing. Elizabeth does provide for her daughter differently — trying to get her clothes to be decorated out. Francis has small pox at one point and the doctors’ bill is a whopping 29 pounds plus. She tells nothing of her relationship to her employer.

Now and again she writes placatings of God, especially when she is doing something unconventional as when she takes the job at Stevenoaks. I gather the way you could pressure on someone to stop them doing something unconventional (and against say your interest or pride) was to identify the hegemonic opinion with God’s and frighten them that God would not approve.

This is material which requires annotation and these two editions (1941 and 1990) provide none. In her narrative, Elizabeth Austen’s narrative she does not differentiate clearly her father-in-law (John III) from her father (Weller) and sometimes one has to work to make sure she is talking about her husband (John IV). She does not refer to John III as her father-in-law but either father Austen or father, or my husband’s father. To call hiim father is to use the same word as for her biological father. (I note a reluctance today to use the term stepfather so that someone’s father becomes their biodad and the stepfather they live with their father. Biodad is a back formation as father means biological father.)

In his brief introduction RAAL talks of all this in the mildest terms and emphasizes how by the time her boys needed it, Elizabeth had the money to apprentice each, where he was apprenticed and in the case of Francis (who was a lawyer who went into lending, a banker in effect) what great success he had. This provides that optimistic non-questioning stance so necessary (I speak ironically), but RAAL does bring out how as the whirligig of time proceeded the eldest branch died off, and after all it was Francis’s grandson who became heir to the large estates. And he prints it. He knows that the relatives at the time or even a hundred or so years later would have been mortified to see the real family behavior and resorts so exposed.


The 1995 film adaptation of P&P: Mrs Bennet (Alison Steadman) telling Mr Austen (Benjamin Whitrow) a man of good fortune has come into the neighborhood: they need this as the Bennet property will go to a distant male cousin, Mr Collins

Elizabeth’s narrative relates directly to central themes of P&P and S&S. P&P: The workings of primogeniture is made into a joke over Mrs Bennet’s lamentations: and she says how ridiculous further of relatives should by chance inherit — but it’s the whole system. Francis’s grandson finally got the property from the line of JA IV’s eldest son when there was no son. Towards the end of Henry’s letter, Henry talks of someone who deserved a property by feeling and abilities and yet it was given to the heir and points to primogeniture. He’s not amused and his complaint is really something in the spirit of Austen’s Mrs Bennet. He is at pains to explain each turn in the family too because (he says) it’s not always clear which is the line to inherit, and then people end up litigating (what nearly happened over Stoneleigh Abbey).


In 1995 film adaptation of S&S, Fanny Dashwood (Harriet Walter) discourages John Dashwood’s (James Fleet) idea he should give his step-mother an annuity in lieu of a big lump sum to furnish interest: Just think she could live more than 15 years!

S&S: second powerful famous chapter about how a promise is not worth the air it took to utter it. Henry Dashwood has no power in law to offer anything to his second wife and daughters. Austen might have said what he asked was not permanent property but a one time gift; however we see in Elizabeth Austen’s letter how her brother Stringer would not budge for gifts either: maybe he’d be sued. Well maybe he would have been. We do not fell Mrs Austen and the girls had any case; Elizabeth Austen actually talks of going to a lawyer but says she “had no pocket to know ye opinion of my Lord Chanceller.” (p. 11)



Francis Austen (1698-1791)

I found Henry’s narrative letter clearly written as information to JEAL — perhaps when working on his aunt’s biography. It is insightful, calmer than most of Jane’s letters to Cassandra. He give a positive portrait of the uncle Francis: smart in lots of ways, including getting along with people. The tone of the whole is pleasant — he likes his nephew and liked his uncle. Henry feels comfortable telling of all these properties too. Francis rose through an initial 800 pounds (we are not told how he put that together) and then marrying a widow whose property he was defending from further rapacious heirs. Henry says this widow was a decently natured as Francis. Henry says it was a privilege to have known this generation.  Henry is at some pains to explain who inherited various properties after Francis Austen died and why to his nephew, JEAL.

We see why the Austens had a certain pride: they do have properties, they do have “ownership” of fellowships, with all the connections all this brings. The letter to be understood needs a family table nearby to see all the relationship. Henry refers to George Austen as JEAL’s grandfather and says Francis left George Austen 500 pounds though he had three married sons and at least a dozen grandchildren. The implication is such moneys are not usually given to people at that time of life as they are not so (desperately) needed as at other times.

Now although it might seem George Austen did not need it, this 500 would have come very handy (as Francis may have known) when George Austen was in Bath. He has a wife and two daughters and they are struggling to afford a decent place to live. With this 500 they escaped living with Mr and Aunt Leigh-Perrot and lived near Queens Square; later they went “down” to Green Park Buildings. I imagine they just spent what they had until it ran out with a small amount put in the funds (and small interest there).

Throughout it’s only sons that are paid attention to by Henry unless a widow is left money or property. The idea that later in life money is not needed is the idea that the moment of the career, the education for it is what counts. Girls were not included in all that, only for a dowry, and again that’s the same point in a life.

Later life matters when the people grow old and fight over these wills. Leonard Wolf has a savagely ironic novel about the litigation he saw in Sri Lanka as families fought over bits of property and I daresay people on this listserv have seen similar fights over large and small properties. I have been lucky never to have participated personally in anything like this.

I am convinced Jane Austen saw Elizabeth Weller Austen’s letter — from Henry’s letter he seems very familiar with the details of Elizabeth Weller Austen’s later doings for her sons. What Jane Austen thought of al this is indirectly seen in her novels and what’s left of her letters by her ways of talking about primogeniture (mostly ironically), her powerlessness, her desire for money from her novels. It must have hurt as she grew near death to have gained so little on MP and Emma. Years later Henry and Cassandra got what little they could when they sold the copyright for the sets of novels printed across the century.



Sevenoaks, Kent — now a boarding independent school

A few thoughts on the significance of Elizabeth Weller Austen’s narrative beyond its relevance to Austen’s novels. RAAL thought his material could have larger relevance.

What happened to Elizabeth’s children and then their children (where we find George and Philadelphia Austen) beyond its poignance. First and foremost it is a protest large and clear against primogeniture. It’s often said that people accepted the system as a whole to keep property together for a family: not so if you look at the first reform movements of the 1780s through early 1800s (when these were crushed). As the immediate thing all French cahiers sought was to end lettres de cachet and the English in the 1790s to make real reform of their parliament and its laws. We find people in the corresponding, liberty and other reform societies want an end to primogeniture (I know it will be said the parliament didn’t have the power, but people often ask institutions to create or find the power), then equal representative (no rotten boroughs) and universal suffrage for men.

Primogeniture was in fact disliked intensely by those who lost out — even if they dared not say so in front of the powerful single individual they now needed. Some families did soften the blow, did help the younger ones — but the important truth to keep your eye on is they didn’t have to. When terrible things are permitted men to do to women in a society, that does not mean that all men do it: what it does mean is those who want to can, and people use power. It’s often said to subdivide the property would have destroyed but that is to leave out of account the effect of time. It takes time for each generation to grow up and as that is happening (as in stocks and bonds), the property if well managed can grow and provide for all. Inheritance of large properties is not a zero-sum game; they bring patronage at the time (not later), rents, natural resources on the property.

We do see Jane’s despair and some of the bitterness of her cousin, Edward Cooper over the betrayal that the other Austens all felt that James Perrot-Leigh inflicted on them show the Austens angry at the workings of inheritance customs — in this case Perrot-Leigh had no sons and his property was not entailed so he gave the impression (and more than that to his relatives) he was going to leave the immediate legacies and this made them treat him better — that we see here is felt so egregiously and is part of the results of this primogeniture system.

So although the originating story of the family as told by Elizabeth Austen was well-known to them all, what is so remarkable here our first document is a real protest that tells us the real feelings of people in the era. Also that it was unthinkable not to try to hold onto your status, that people would do almost anything to — the ancien regime was a tough place. Many a Trollope novel hinges on a person doing some illegal or wrong thing in some way in order to provde a son or daughter (or self) with gentlemanly or the status of a lady. In the 17th through 19th century and today still the way to hold onto your status is education for a middle to upper class niche. So John III’s behavior was egregiously unjust.


The way Brenda Blethyn as Mrs Austen is dressed in Joe Wright’s 2005 P&P is probably close to that of Elizabeth Weller Austen

To return to Austen’s novels, among other things to be extrapolated from this document is that Mrs Bennet’s complaints are not to be dismissed. So many people defend her for the way she openly goes about trying to get husbands for her daughters — which in the novel are shown to be mostly counter-productive. Many readers unfortunately dismiss the way Mrs Bennet discusses the entail on Mr Collins because Austen herself sets up a context which ridicules her. Ridiculous woman to keep repeating what cannot be helped. And of course the heir will take all. I take it that’s part of the conservative stance her family would have been comfortable with and the ridicule allowed her novel to get past their censuring eyes. I’m inclined to defend Mrs Austen’s indignation even if expressed in ways that allow for ridicule — and think readers at the time would have felt the sting strongly of the girls being turned out when the father dies.

In Austen’s S&S the uncle did have the power to leave much more to his nephew — if you read carefully you find the entail had ended for a time. But the way of thinking was to leave the huge amount to one, the oldest male; Austen’s irony is that in fact the old man left it tied up (set a new set of restrictions) so as to make sure it would end up in he hands of a child (boy) when he grows up. 

As to the workings of primogeniture with males counting in Jane Austen’s immediate family, George Austen leaves his vicar’s position and salary to his eldest son, James, discarding a lifetime’s posssesions which included those valued by his daughter, Jane who became a wanderer, spent hated time in Bath and only was able to resume equanimity when her brother, Francis, provided a temporarily stable place to live in Southampton. It was a lucky adoption (of Edward by the Knights) that provided Chawton after the death of his wife, Elizabeth.

if you look at Elizabeth Austen and then study what happened to her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren — Henry a fourth son (see my portrait of him) — the reality is not to be surprised he ended up nearly broke except for a curacy patronage got him but how far he got. In his wife, Eliza Hancock de Feuillide Austen’s immediate family: we see her mother, Philadelphia, driven to go to India and marry where she could. No education for her the way one was provided for her brother George. She took crumbs from the table of Warren Hastings after he impregnated her with Eliza (see my portrait of her) – not a happy position — or one Henry could work to his advantage later in life when he married Eliza. 


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Cassandra Austen — our only image of her

Dear friends and readers,

As I end this four year long close-reading of the letters of Jane Austen as they appear in Deirdre LeFaye’s edition, based on Chapman’s originating scholarship, it is time to make some attempt at an assessment of Cassandra and Jane’s relationship. These last letters occasioned controversy on Janeites as to how far was Cassandra a confidante who understood her sister and appreciated her full gifts?

I read these letters closely to try to break away from conventionalized stereotypical views and believe I did manage that with respect to Henry and Eliza Austen, Jane’s relationship with Martha Lloyd and her brother, Francis. I did not know that the letters to Charles and Henry were so few (and Jane so disdainful of Charles’s first wife’s family), and am convinced now there was a cache of letters between Jane and Eliza (as there was between Francis and Jane) destroyed.

I was reconfirmed in my idea that Jane favored her father, remained in a tense relationship with her mother for many years, that her Aunt Jane Leigh-Perrot stole that lace (or “smooched” it as Maria Bertram says of Mrs Norris’s propensities), that unhappily due to her older brother, James’s bullying wife, Mary Lloyd, Jane and her older brother lost a closeness they originally had. I did realize that equally unhappily after Anna Lefroy grew older, Jane was unsympathetic, unfair to a niece who had looked upon her as one of her surrogate mothers, but not that Anna’s novel-writing was an offering to draw her aunt in again. Nor that Jane was at once aware of Fanny Austen Knight’s limitations and kept an emotional intellectual distance while at the same time drawing close to the conventional niece because she, Jane, was perhaps more comfortable with someone who could not understand her. I knew about her early love for Thomas Lefroy, Mrs Lefroy’s compensating attempt to match Jane with Rev. Samuel Blackall, an apparently real regard for Edward Bridges which was cut off, and the sudden late congeniality with Charles Thomas Haden (too young for her by this time and beneath her socially). I did not know how much she favored Frank until these letters. I did not know that she loved Martha Lloyd potentially the way she perhaps could have at least adhered as a wife to man she could be congenial with. The letters do not include the affair with Harris Bigg-Wither which culminated in an acceptance and then clumsily broken off engagement. I did not realize how complicated and interesting a person Henry’s thwarted career (that he went as far as he did is remarkable), his marriage to Eliza and his helping his sister publish her books shows him to have been, nor how little Jane did him justice.

I am persuaded I see the over-all arc or trajectory of the two sisters’ relationship over the years but the details of what quite was understood between them by Cassandra as opposed to Jane either were never written down or destroyed by Cassandra. In their earliest letters to the time of leaving Steventon, the letters between them register much tension and disagreement: Cassandra repeatedly not only does not approve, she scolds, she does not respond to Jane’s letters, she writes others more often (she is not comfortable); Jane is guarded, indirect, placating (Cassandra writes the best letters anyone ever did and Jane longs for these). Jane has turned to Martha Lloyd just before the Steventon breakup; Mrs Lefroy steps in – very badly – to try to find a man for Jane after having herself colluded in removing Tom Lefroy. There is no sense at this time in the wild hurt Jane Austen registers at how everything is being done for her brothers, how she is expected to give everything up to James (even books and piano) that Cassandra at all shared Jane’s feelings. She seems to have accepted the roles imposed on her.

Then we have the time in Bath and the silence of 4 years. My reading of the letters just before and especially after, the one new novel from this time (The Watsons) compelled me to conclude Jane Austen had a breakdown of some sort, from which she came back with difficulty and through resuming writing (Lady Susan, preparing Catherine or Northanger Abbey for publication) — when we pick her up again we find her exchanging visits with single women of desperate gentry level like themselves, especially after her father’s death when they move from Green Park buildings to Trim Street. A new note is seen in the open intense relief of leaving Bath and the letters of their times away at the seashore in summer.

I suggest at some point in these 5 years Jane made her compromise; she acceded to appear and act the way Cassandra wanted in reciprocation for the real help Cassandra afforded — she was given space and time to write. This space and time was essential to her recovery. The plan concocted by Frank was part of this. So by the time of Southampton, like a married couple, Jane and Cassandra and Martha too have made an understood bargain. Frank is in on it. Unfortunately the household did not work because Mary Gibson was deeply uncomfortable with these triangular relationships. She wanted and got out as soon as she could. She also (like Mary Lloyd Austen) was no reader and wanted out of the nights of reading and days of writing (for Jane) too.

We need to recall how almost immediately from the time of Thomas Fowles’s death, Cassandra excludes marriage and by the time of Southampton, with Jane as moral support in effect, is dressing like an older spinster. Being thrown at men (implicitly) in Bath must not have been much fun for them. Like others before them, Emma Donoghue sees in their behavior a pattern of understood lesbian spinsterhood — they had with them other friends, a female community Jane was repeatedly trying to stabilize. Then we see tension with Martha who during the time at Southampton wants marriage and can’t find anyone (no money, she had had small pox, and from the one painting she was very homely in the first place; and she had no connections). Cassandra does now agree to the idea of a female group of friends to live together — she, Jane, Martha and here and there Jane yearns for others — apart from the mother. But one dialogue with the brothers, and that’s made hopeless.

Many people who read this blog have even close friends and more to the point relatives they may see and depend upon and like very much who are different from them fundamentally. And spouses too — who live a life together where nonetheless there are big gaps. There was enough shared — more than enough — of spinsterhood, poverty, family; Martha came on the trips (we have her at Worthing one of the trips for which we have evidence of who was there), ever there on and off until May 1817, a ghostly second or first love for Jane. All the talk about the deep confidence and how Jane and Cassandra told one another more than any one else is at one point contradicted by Fanny — so Jane in a spontaneous moment denied this. And it was three-way anyway. The way in which it’s phrased has a double symmetry that reminds me of such statements in romances (like of Pamela and Philomena in Sidney’s Arcadia).

There was an important part of Jane Cassandra did not understand and just tolerated. Jane’s books are talked about as simply laugh, what fun she had writing them. The talk about the novels as reflected in the family letters was, isn’t Aunt Jane a card? What good fun these novels are. We are told of Jane Austen getting up, walking about in gales of laughter and then returning to her desk. My sense that Austen was not in fully conscious contact with what are the depth of her fiction is part of that. The work of revision is probably not what is being described when Jane is getting up and down doing what the relatives described as fun. Cassandra was sounding board for these readings which ended in gales of laughter (as heard on the other side of a door) and for the literal verisimiltude Jane Austen was consciously working; this latter one aesthetic rule rigidly adhered to by both Cassandra and Jane is reconfirmed in what Jane says Cassandra had to say about Anna Lefroy’s fiction.

I have become convinced through this close reading of Austen’s letters and a study I did of the manuscripts for a review for an Eighteenth Century bibliographical periodical that Austen’s deepest imaginative gifts were only part of her conscious life through her tenacious practice of absolute unqualified verisimilitude through literal probability and her attention to style. What she did was endlessly revise and we have evidence that all the novels up to Emma and Persuasion were the product of many years of revision. You can study the process a bit in the few left and you discover she characteristically begins with burlesque with a kind of rigid moral message or anger at some perverse social custom, and then as she proceeds, not just softens but will change the tone until we are near the grave, plangent, and have an utterance that does not fit this morality and is at a distance from the anger. Her criticism in the letters shows no awareness of the deeper strains of the books she reads.

I’m not sure that makes her into two Jane Austens but I think another part of her writing career does. I agree with Harman that the family’s toleration and pride in her books was limited — to all Harman’s instances I add the striking comment on Emma a couple of months after publication, no one will want this copy around here. Only after her death do we know her name and only more than 50 years later a memoir with a repressed book (so she fits into the 1790s — and I’d like to add her “Plan of a Novel” resembles Blake’s “Jerusalem” in its idiosyncratic mix of names of real people she knows, archetype, and allusions to a book by Cottin itself a semi-political one) and one where only volume 1 was complete.

The savings of the comments Jane got rarely show any appreciation of what these texts are. Note what Cassandra says she likes to remember of Jane in these letters: in all the circumstances of their lives together probably includes reading and writing but what is specified is the “chearful family,” and then during the illness and death – when she was so dependent, filled with anxious semi-penitence.

They shared a room. It was understood they would. Another way of putting this is Jane Austen never had a room of her own. In London she often slept with Fanny. At Chawton when she was gone her bed was given to young Cassy to sleep in. (I could repeat how until the end Jane Austen hadn’t the power to go and come in a carriage as she pleased. Had she married she would have had that, but also a master over her head who could control her movements, take even her jointure if he pleased, impregnate her endlessly, which from her letters she did not want. Her novels would be her children.) Casssandra and Jane are as a pair ignored when their financial means are discussed. The family wanted them as a pair. Yet they were often apart. Jane was not much at Godmersham; she was more with Henry and Eliza at London where Cassandra seems not to have gone much. We are missing all the letters between Eliza and Jane and what happened when Jane arrived for the last two months of Eliza’s agon into death.

There’s the problem that Jane Austen’s letters have not exactly been inspiring works of great imaginative thought or feeling; passages here and there have been remarkable for concision of wit, and one can’t get entirely out of this by arguing for Jane’s double life, or that the letters we have are not only a remnant but wholly unrepresentative. Had Austen written to someone who was (as we see at the opening of the collection) not disposed to disapprove scold, grow cold and not write back when Jane does not obey conventions, someone who Jane would have to exercise her gifts, maybe thecollection would have been different. From Frank’s letters we know he could be decent, humane (though a cruel flogger, so mean that he was in effect reprimanded for it and in this period that suggests ferocity). He occasionally shows original thought (he is horrified at the early use of versions of bombs as barbaric and refuses to go along with their use), but on the whole Jane’s attraction was to a pragmatic brother. The few we have to Frank show she was wary of him, slightly in awe of his power. Yet there is the oddity of how his daughter hated these letters so that she rushed to burn them the moment she had opportunity (was alone with them). Those comments we have by Jane on Henry are superficial, dismissive of his grief for his wife, his depths; Jane was not invited to Godmersham as he was, not a favorite there as he and Cassandra were. Later in life Jane has been co-opted into the family conventional erasure of anything uncomfortable or with the slightest whiff of unrespectability. If the portraits of Lady Susan or Mary Crawford are meant to evoke Eliza Austen, this is as painful as Austen’s snide comments about Anna just after her marriage (including a piano that she as a young woman had been deprived of). Later in life Austen apparently turned into mild version of what happens to people when they become hostages of others — the family way of erasing Eliza’s illegitimacy and Henry’s endlessly maneuvrings to escape the fate of a fourth brother in a family with little money and weak connections.

Nontheless, enough is here from these three letters to show an enormous gap in understanding between Cassandra and Jane. Just read Cassandra’s words (see comment from Middlemarch below). When Jane is on the same page as Cassandra it’s in some of Jane’s worst moments and in some of Jane’s literary criticism of Anna’s novels and various texts by others. In the case of novels, all fail for both Jane and Cassandra on the criteria of strict verisimilitude.

I see Cassandra as dealing with her own grief in these three letters; she deflects Fanny and she deflects Anne Sharpe, and what she’s on about is what she feels for herself and wants to believe for her sister. She is constantly alluding to heaven: Jane’s up there in heaven. Yes she wants hope for Jane and herself. She is scared of of that God and placates to the nth degree of self-censorship so as to hope all this was not and is really not as bad as it is. Well, Cassy it is and was that bad — meaningless deeply painful ordeal of death at a young age. Cut off. Jane recognized it — in the poem she was angry and in her last words saw all that was left was oblivion from pain.

That’s as far as one can go for an outline of an adult relationship finally forming, once of compromise and understanding and support enough in the exigencies of a difficult fringe powerless life.

CEA 3. From Cassandra Austen to Fanny Knight. Tuesday, 29, July 1817. Chawton Tuesday.

Diane Reynolds led again:

Here stands the final letter. Jane has laughed much and danced often and enjoyed her years at Steventon, including naming the new furniture. She has suffered much, as has Cassandra. They draw closer than close, an impregnable duo, a fact C does not let go of in the last letters. They move to Bath, Jane falls into depression, her father dies, the mother and sisters become poor dependents, sometimes humiliated, though Jane can still enjoy a good slide on the ice, and then vital life returns as they settle into Chawton. All along Jane has been writing and finally, in 2011, Sense and Sensibility is published, followed by four to five glory years as book after book emerges, four in all, catches the eye of the Prince Regent’s librarian, visits London gloriously, then experiences mysterious illness, decline and death.

Reading the letters has been enormously important, inadequate as they are, for my understanding of Austen’s life and personality.

In this final letter, written to Fanny, Cassandra opens with flattery, working as hard as she can to erase any idea in FK’s mind that Jane didn’t like her, though C doesn’t go as far as to say that FK was actually a favorite. Instead, C leans into the intimacy FK and Jane shared: “her who was I believe [here C is qualifying with the “I believe”] better known to you than to any human being besides myself.”

FK apparently sent C a letter of grievance and condolence. C reads it three times, thanks her for it, says “nothing could have been more gratifying to me than the manner in which you write of her.” As for Jane, now “a dear Angel,” the praise she imagines Jane bestowing on FK’s letter is more qualified: in heaven Jane “may perhaps receive pleasure in being so mourned.” (Or not.) C then dwells NOT on JA’s love for FK, but on the similarities between the two: “there are certainly many points of strong resemblance in your characters.” But what C comes up with is weak indeed. “in your intimate acquaintance with each other and your strong mutual affection you were counterparts.” In others words, they knew each other well and liked each other. This is meant as warm reassurance to Fanny–and yet this is far as C will take it. Fanny must be satisfied that her praises pleased C, might possibly have given JA “pleasure” (of what sort we don’t know) and that C acknowledges that Fanny was an intimate.

The next paragraph is more satisfying in giving us some historical particulars: the funeral day was tranquil and quiet, C watched the “little mournful procession” down the length of the street, until Jane’s coffin was out of sight around the corner. Her emotions are more stirred in recollection than they were at the time. We get the necessary conventional statements about how deeply JA was mourned (which may well have been true, but the language is conventionalized) and of Jane being “hailed in Heaven: with “joy.” C mentions–and I find this interesting–experiencing not only “considerable fatigue of body” but “anguish of mind for months back.” We can assume C knew for months her sister was not going to recover, but we must add to that the blow of the L-P will. However, C quickly assures FK, she really is well and grateful for God’s support: more conventionalities, more ways of deflecting pity or effusions.

C naturally writes of herself, not forgetting to mention Edward’s kindness during the funeral time, and in phrasing that sounds very much like Miss Bates to me (could C have been Miss Bates–this would shed new light on Miss Bates as possibly catering to superiors and snobbish to inferiors) C writes “indeed I can never say enough of the kindness I have received from him and from every other friend.”

C also does not want to forget JA–indeed wants to remember her all the time and looks forward to the day they will be reunited in heaven. We get a glimpse of the variety of her relationships with Jane: “confidential intercourse” (they had secrets, a special relationship known only to them), of Jane as part of the “chearful family party” (another face of Jane) and then in Jane’s aspects of invalid and dying self. Interestingly C. adds the words “I hope” JA is in heaven–she can’t quite simply mouth the commonplace without acknowledging that we really don’t know. C is unusually heartfelt, however, as she writes, with exclamation pints, “Oh! If I may be one day reunited to her there!”

And then, as the letter and thus all the letters end, C gets down to business. There’s a lock of hair for Fanny and the question of whether Fanny prefers a brooch of Jane’s or a ring. C also mentions the gold chain for Jane’s goddaughter Louisa. These are finer gifts than anything given to Miss Sharp, and come with the assurance that every one of Jane’s bequests is “sacred” to C.(Perhaps this a sharp allusion to promises made to fulfill the wishes of other dying people that were quickly broken.)

C ends with a much warmer salutation than that offered Anne: “God bless you my dearest Fanny! Believe me most affectionately yours.” And that is it.

An unremarkable gentry life and death for the times, except for six extraordinary novels. If Jane could only know how beloved she has become.

This letter contrasts sharply with the one to Ann Sharp; in the first paragraph Cassandra comes near to gushing. Diane characterizes it as full of flattery, seeking to assert (again) how close Jane was to Fanny: she thinks her sister “better known to” Fanny “than any human being besides myself.” Cassandra seems here not to have read – or understood – Jane’s letters to Fanny which show Aunt Jane openly peering intently into the consciousness of Fanny for material because she expects Fanny will not understand what she is doing, and then seeing that she had made Fanny very uncomfortable, trying to backtrack but still convinced that Fanny knows herself little (and this writer even less). When she fancies her sister speaking of Fanny in heaven in the same terms as Jane’s letters thought about her when in life we see the difference between a mediocre mind and that of genius. Again we have how Jane up there in heaven may be receiving pleasure in seeing Fanny so mourn her. Fanny has apparently written again (to Cassandra) and Cassandra read it three times and just rejoiced in Fanny’s kind expressions to Cassandra and yet more strongly for Aunt Jane. Fanny Knight is certainly more valuable object (personage) than Ann Sharp in Cassandra’s mind. It would probably be wrong to suggest that Cassandra did not understand Fanny nor Fanny her: they lived on the same plane with the same values, norms. Not that Fanny sees through this; it’s what she expects.

Then a paragraph on the funeral, to which Cassandra not only did not go but seems to have tried to behave as if she was not even paying attention when she was alert every split minute. All calm and tranquil. This woman spent her life denying emotions she felt which she had been taught she was not supposed to have – so “when I had lost sight of her forever – even then I was not overpowered, nor so much agitated as I am now in the writing of it.” In the writing of this event and her emotions, she cannot ignore the latter as they fuel her pen. Then how much Jane is mourned sincerely – by her family. Scattered throughout the letters are the assertions about how Jane is now in heaven – of course it’s put that Cassandra hopes this as Cassandra would not presume and is ever so grateful to God for supporting her in all this. (Good of him – I find myself remembering Eliot’s analysis of this kind of thinking which I posted yesterday.) In the midst of this she admits to the ‘fatigue and anguish of mind for months back.” She then turns to Fanny’s father – Fanny has said he looked unwell when he got back – Fanny is not into this denying business. Cassandra replies she did not think Edward “appeared unwell” (careful qualification there) but she “understands that he seemed much more comfortable after his return from Winchester …” Perhaps relief now the remains are gone. An ordeal finished, the burden a little lifted because the presence of the person and then the corpse showing what had happened vanished. She need not tell Fanny what a great comfort he was to her.

Then how she is getting through these first days. Always a problem. She goes out a lot – into the yard? To visit – employs herself, but of course she chooses those employments which give her leisure to remember.

Note how this woman is continually monitored by her super-ego. It’s interesting how she likes to remember her sister: not writing, not reading but “in confidential discourse, in the cheerful family party, which she so ornamented, in her sick room, on her death bed.” (She and I part company there, I’m not keen on remembering the sick time, nor death bed, though it is ineradicable and keeps coming back.) But there is that “the cheerful. She then hopes to be united in Heaven but lets slip how grieved she will feel when “the time must come when my mind will be less engrossed by her idea [image is the meaning of this word, from Locke]. She then hastes to placate her God again – never cease to reflect on Jane as inhabiting Heaven and never cease all those humble endeavours (please God) to join her there. I seem to temember it was around the changeover from BC to AD when this notion of a personal God really somehow paying attention to what’s in someone mind, personal prayer as actuating anything was first articulated.

And so now to give Fanny out of “the precious papers” “now my property” – Austen had written out a few more bequests it seems – so a gold chain to Louisa, and lock of hair to Fanny. Every one of Jane’s requests will be sacred. (Did Jane say nothing about the letters?). Does Fanny prefer a broche or a ring.’

And so these letters end. Diane set them in the context of this 42 year life emphasizing its successes and concluding on how Austen is now so beloved. I know this is a strong impulse: while the person is dying you want to reassure them they have lived a good life, been so loved. Jane’s last poem does not suggest she was thinking over her life;she was asserting a kind of immortality some of us might like to think she felt from her books but what the poem shows is her identifying with Venta. When she is buried, the foolish people with their races will think she is gone, but no such thing, she has been able to get back at these ‘sinners” by raining on them. In the last stanza she enacts what Johnson said the mad astronomer did in Rasselas: asserts her control over the weather. Mad jokes? Those are her last words that we have beyond the few where she begs for the oblivion, the surcease of death.

For Diana Birchall’s reading see comments.


Thus Miss Austen Regrets registers Jane Austen’s death: as absence, the film takes us two years past Austen’s death after the scene of her grieving with Cassandra and opens on a church graveyard (2008)

As in her other letters Cassandra’s last is filled with religious egoism which she presents as consolation. George Eliot’s Middlemarch‘s analysis of the ultimate sources of this kind of religious utterance in her Mr Bulstrode, a “humble” evangelical Christian, offers an explanation. Eliot was brought up among such people and shows us a man who looks out at the world from the standpoint of self: Bulstrode says of an enemy who comes to Middlemarch, God made this man come to Middlemarch because God had me in mind; when another individaul wants to sell a property and Bulstrode can afford it, this is God manipulating the world to reward me; in CEA’s letters, God must be gratified to look down and see you, Miss Sharpe get this bodkin I send; the smallest thing in the universe is intended for and about her or Jane Austen, and this includes cruel horrifying events: hideous death for Jane Austen very young is God wanting to punish Cassandra. The person does not conceive how insignificant he or she is against the huge universe, how many more real motives and circumstances and history actuate whatever happens because he or she is putting an unthinking utterly self-centered view as controlling the universe. In his Varieties of Religious Experience William James describes these circuits of what passes for thought more abstractly.

Cassandra was uttering what she could out of her denied pain; she had the cant of religion available to her and unlike her sister didn’t pay attention to the full meaning of words she wrote down. Diane Reynolds offers the modern kinds of consolation: look at the valuable life, see the person valued by all around her as she vanishes forever. Psychologists urge the people around the dying person to assure the person they will be okay financially, and to tell them they had a good life and were valued (whatever the words). This is for the sake of the people around the dying. The social world urges the grieving person to begin to recover quite quickly, or hide it. And that is what we also see Cassandra obediently doing. Diana points out what she calls the oddities of the final poem. Having watched a beloved person die in an ordeal of horrifying pain and drugged last days, someone quite intelligent, I know from him that he saw my repetition too of these sorts of useless statements — you were a good father, good husband, lived a good life, for the irrelevance they were. There is no use in anything we say to the person destroyed in the prime of life. Words are then powerless.

Austen was not a solitary genius and her family encouraged her, and some did understand her books to some extent. But a number did not. My sense is Austen never did come into contact in a close way with anyone with her calibre of mind; some of her relatives recognized its value. I see Henry as one of them. Consciously she did not give him credit enough. She kept people away from her insofar as she could, especially I feel the more sensitive insightful ones. (This might not be true of Eliza Austen or Anne Sharpe). I feel for Cassandra; the words she uses are not important it’s the emotion she feels and ahead of her lies long years of absence, and after her mother predeceased her.

I put the picture of Jane’s four books up as preface to Cassandra’s first letter. But were they consolation for Jane? Let us not insult her instinct. What we have from Jane shortly before death is remnants of a letter where she is presenting some case to Henry’s business partner’s wife. We know how devastated she was to see no money would be coming from her mother’s brother. I infer she knew that bad mistakes had been made in the few business dealings Henry did for her over her books. She had made little by Emma, lost the copyright of Pride and Prejudice. Then the twisted angry half-mad poem and records of her begging for oblivion, surcease from pain and life during the last ordeal.

I mean this when I conclude this collection by saying I see in these framings “hope spring eternally in the human breast.” Can’t give up hope, can we?

I have written this from the standpoint of what I take to be an accurate biographer of a life as it is lived. Yes in 1870 James-Edward Austen-Leigh wrote a loving memoir of his aunt, and began the wider popularity of his aunt’s books by providing a sentimental framing and reading of her life and works. He printed two valuable works by her. Yes other relatives, Lord Brabourne in particular, began further to publish her letters. Yes today she is known across the world, her books exist in beautiful varied editions, films have made her name a household word, and they themselves provide some knowledge of the books. But none of this is what she died knowing. What her life was. And a good deal of this wider dissemination makes a travesty of the meaning and reading of life her books offer us. That’s why it’s important to see the letter collection for what it shows us.

Cassandra’s burning of the majority of Jane’s letters (also included in Miss Austen Regrets)


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Look down and see what death is doing — Paulina of the dead Hermione, Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, Act III

Jane Austen’s tomb and ledger at Winchester Cathedrale

Dear friends and readers,

Cassandra’s moving eloquent letter, what today would be called “grief-work.” Jane wrote her last work, a poem July 15th, Wednesday, and she died in the small hours between night and morning, July 18th, 1817.

The four novels she managed to publish; she left behind ms’s of sufficiently finished novels for Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, as well as several unfinished or first drafts of novels, her juvenilia, poems, stray satire (“Plan of a Novel”) and two-thirds as many letters as we have now.


Cassandra (Greta Scacchi) facing Fanny Knight Austen (Imogen Poots) shortly after Jane’s death (2008 Miss Austen Regrets)

CEAl1. From Cassandra Austen to Fanny Knight. Sunday 20 July 1817 Winchester Sunday

From the opening we gather that Fanny has been doubting whether Aunt Jane really loved her — Fanny has picked up the distanced stance Austen shows in some of her letters to Fanny and probably has also discussed some of what happened when the Fanny and Jane were together at Godmersham and Henry’s lodgings/houses in London. Cassandra is concerned to persuade Fanny otherwise; Cassandra also asserts that Fanny’s “benevolent” purpose was useful: Aunt Jane enjoyed Fanny’s letters. I am drawn by the attempt not to say untruths: Jane Austen is described as reacting “not unchearfully.” That does not mean cheerfully.

She was fatally ill and those dying often begin to cut themselves off from life and the living, whether to preserve their strength or what nature does as the active body and mind begin to lose their energy to react and to perceive. So she did not show the interest in the final letters Cassandra claims she was roused by earlier.

Jane died Friday, the 18th and it was on Tuesday “her complaint” returned — whatever was the central core pain; she slept much of the last days. Again that is said to be common. The dying sleep more and more.

Then the famous passage — how much Jane meant to Cassandra, precisely what she meant to her. It is less often pointed out that the sentence ends with one of these comments I find outrageous if it is literally meant and I fear it is.

I have lost a treasure, such a Sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed, — She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow, I had not a thought concealed from her, & it is as if I had lost a part of myself. I loved her only too well, not better than she deserved but I am conscious that my affection for her made me sometimes unjust to & negligent of others, & I can acknowledge, more than as a general principle, the justice of the hand which has struck this blow.

Cassandra conceives there is a supernatural being who has inflicted on Jane Austen, another person from herself, an early death in hideous pain, the humiliation of her twisted and weakened body to teach Cassandra a moral lesson. Were that so, were there such a malevolent irrational unjust creature; if people could, they ought to hunt it from the universe (much as we are encouraged to envision heroes and heroines in Dracula stories hunt out the vampire). There are some ideas it is our duty not to defer to — I refer to the way such ideas function socially, they distract from action to do something about whatever it is that has killed the person if this is possible. Psychoanalytically one might understand such trains of thought as strongly narcissistic or therapeutically masochistic, the person finds comfort in imagining there is some meaning here focused on her, feels guilty she is still alive, does not want to believe the death is natural and meaningless and determines she is punished this way. That Cassandra could write such a sentence, shows the difference between her mind and her sister’s. No where in Austen’s writings does she avail herself of this kind of literal nonsense.

I find it interesting as a revelation that Cassandra says she will not suffer materially from her feelings. Is that so? She is presented as stoic by Austen much earlier too — when Tom Fowles died. Perhaps a stance of self-control, or maybe she was inclined not to give way to feelings psychosomatically. It is also said that sometimes the person deeply involved with the beloved is so stunned as to experience a kind of “novacaine” effect: they are in a state of near hysteria, PTSD, so as to be at a distance from the death, not realize it cognitively fully until weeks or months later when this first state wears off.

We then have a depiction of the dying itself — which I would be inclined to believe unqualifiedly in except that we do have that poem on Winchester races — so it was not all piety, gratitude and acceptance. The poem was apparently composed or dictated on the 15th so perhaps the writing and mood occurred before the “complaint” came back so forcefuly and Austen went into her last phase. I’m told (and have seen) that sometimes before the onset of death moves into the very worst of the ordeal, there is a suddenly very good day (insofar as strength, consciousness, being there and alive are concerned).

Over the course of this year and a half we have enough evidence to visualize a radical deterioration of Austen’s body and looks, especially towards the end. Around the time of the famous phrase about her mother having the couch and she three chairs propped with pillows (not in Cassandra’s selection but from either the Austen papers or RA Austen-Leigh’s book) we can see she is so weak she cannot sit up. Imagine what that looks like. The last half year and more there is a nephew around to carry her. She tells us she is every wrong color. Beyond the ordeal of severe intolerable pain (opium doesn’t get rid of that, and makes you drugged; it’s cocaine that does the trick and that does not come in until the later 19th century — and is today forbidden medicine, a great cruelty I’ll mention here as part of the endlessly stupid and counterproductive so-called war on drugs) – beyond that ordeal it’s humiliating to have your body look the way it does. That’s why Austen does not refer to it.

Imagine too how exhausted she would have been. Go back to the picture that Cassandra drew of her when she was in health. The dark eyes, the intensity, the lack of sleep — she suffered bad headaches and troubles with her eyes when in health.

Cassandra says she has nothing to reproach herself with insofar as these last hours are concerned, she did not willfully shirk any thing she could do for her sister. That means sometimes she too was too exhausted and had to rely on Mary Lloyd Austen and Martha Lloyd. There is no mention of Martha in this letter (ever discreet Cassandra), but in Jane’s last letters there are ambiguous references to Martha, one of which suggests she was with Jane and Cassandra in May. Whether Martha was still there the last week we cannot know. Edward visited, James, Henry was in and out and there on Friday.

Jane was begging for death just before, saying she could hardly have patience, was near beyond endurance. Had they had anesthesia she would have been begging for it — but that mercy was not available to her either. Only oblivion and in those last hours she is recorded as saying that”s what she craved — death.

On the Thursday Austen had been anxious about some errand that Cassandra did — one wonders what it was that bothered her as she lays dying. Fanny is under the impression that Cassandra wrote Charles that day, no it was Mrs Austen, the mother. After that Austen lost it altogether from pain and Lyford came with opium, enough to make her insensible. The concluding ordeal. Cassandra sat with Jane’s body and head in her lap — Jane she could not hold up her head.

Didn’t they have pillows? Could not they have made a sort of bolster? If so, if they had, apparently her head could not be stable enough to satisfy them. It rolled and so Cassandra did 6 hours, Mary Lloyd Austen 2 and Cassandra until Jane died. Cassandra was gratified to be the one who closed her eyes. There is no mention of when Austen’s heart stopped beating — that’s death.

And then we get this image of “a beautiful statue” — which is how Cassandra wants to see it and maybe did. A sweet serene air quite pleasant to contemplate. But the dead do not look like Madame Tussaud’s wax figurines. They look like corpses and it’s creepy. Remains of real people who lived and whatever happened to them. A lot of people can’t bear to see the corpse when rigor mortis sets in and it does so pretty quickly. Some people go ston-y, some look like mummies (the elderly) and some if it’s a gradual decrease of blood pressure and the body dies bit by bit (as apparently Alexandre d’Arblay did) some of the extremities can look like puffy wax. Cassandra does not want to articulate what she saw as she looked down to see what death was doing; she preferred to see in the oblivion, the absence at long last of the terrible pain — Jane knew no more — a serene look, which is often claimed as a sign the person went to heaven.

For a second time she addresses Fanny on the assumption that Fanny is feeling all she is, the first time to say she hopes she is not upsetting her, the second time with the usual Christian metaphors — she has forgotten what she said earlier when she uses the word “merciful.” The truth is she is not thinking about her words literally. Cassandra does not talk about sleeping or resting — she could not fool herself as she had been through it with her sister. She does earlier use the phrase “the poor suffering soul.” It has the ring of a priest’s rhetoric.

I offer Shakespeare’s tough line, who if you read him is ever accurate: In Winter’s Tale Paulina looking down at the dead Hermione: Look down and see what death is doing — in this case “and what the ravages of disease have done.”

The following Thursday would be the funeral — Maggie Lane describes it in her Jane Austen’s Family through Five Generations; she quotes part of letter by Edward, Jane’s brother, to his son, several days before where Edward reports that Jane knew her situation, that Mrs Austen was intensely grieved but nothing compares to Cassandra’s affliction; he says Jane is much altered since James-Edward has seen her last — Caroline’s Reminiscences suggests that this was so by the spring: she was allowed to come upstairs briefly and registers a shock. (The scene is the one where Jane offers a chair to the married woman as opposed to herself, unmarried.) Edward too denies there was “very severe pain.” It does seem as if Jane Austen was one who lost blood pressure gradually: “Lyford said he saw no signs of immediate dissolution but added that with such a pulse — 120 — it was impossible for any person to last long.”

The casket seems to have been carried by Edward, Henry and Frank and James-Edward. Charles not there. He is often not there, the one further away in all Jane’s letters. James was too ill to come again, but wrote a poem entitled “Venta! within thy sacred fane” (which suggests he had read his sister’s last poem); he does convey awareness and envy that his sister’s gifts were fulfilled (a woman’s) and not his (as others have said), but also love and appreciation of her, a deep sense that to have had her around was a kind of gift. Like Henry, he is also concerned that everyone should know her satiric bent (which people must have known about) never “hurt the feelings of a friend:”

In her (rare union) were combined
A fair form and a fairer mind
Hers, Fancy quick, and clear good sense
And wit which never gave offence:
A Heart as warm as ever beat,
A Temper even calm and sweet:
Though quick and keen her mental eye
Poor natures foibles to descry
And seemed for ever on the watch
Some traits of ridicule to catch.
Yet not a word she ever pen’d
Which hurt the feelings of a friend
And not a line she ever wrote
“Which dying she would wish to blot,”
But to her family alone
Her real & genuine worth was known:
Yes! They whose lot it was to prove
Her Sisterly, her Filial love,
They saw her ready still to share
The labours of domestic care
As if their prejudice to shame;
Who jealous of fair female fame
Maintain, that literary taste
In womans mind is much displaced;
Inflames their vanity and pride,
And draws from useful work aside.

Such wert Thou, Sister! whilst below
In this mixt scene of joy and woe,
To have thee with us it was given
A special kind behest of Heaven …

The usual custom was followed and only the men were at the burial. Perhaps Mary Lloyd and Cassandra washed the corpse and dressed it, covered it with sheets.

To us it may seem somehow unusual that someone should be buried in the cathedral (we think how crowded it could get) but apparently in this era not so. Austen was related to clergy, her mother had relatives in academia and the aristocracy, Henry was now a curate. He was back and forth, had been there by the Friday. Henry is still there, will go to Chawton Monday and be back with Cassandra on Tuesday.

She says she didn’t mean to write at length but the subject compelled her. I am mot sure which Mrs Bridges (Fanny’s mother’s family) is to be “remembered kindly to Cassandra,” who is with Fanny. As usual LeFaye does not tell us. One has to wade through a family history in the appendix and guess the woman as Jane Hales from the J.


Again Diane Reynolds was the only person on the list to write about the letter as a whole: I thank her for keeping up the reading and discussion with me until the end.

JA has died two days before, on a Friday. Cassandra is still in the first shock after the death, what we might call a liminal state, and means only to write a short note amid all the business at hand. However, she ends up writing a longer epistle, one that she says gives her comfort or “draws her on” — the words will pour out.

Ellen has covered this quite well. I can’t, however, help but repeat a few points and perhaps add a bit, for this is a long letter. I canthink of few more sincere — or better — expressions of a lifetime of a loving relationship than this: “I have lost a treasure, a Sister, a friend such as never can be surpassed,–She was the sun of my life, the gilder of any pleasure, the soother of every sorrow, I had not a thought concealed from her, and it is as if I had lost a part ofmyself.” If Jane Austen had never written a word, such an ability to enter into a long-lasting loving relationship with another gave her life dignity and worth. Any one who has lost a dearly loved other — or who dearly loves another — can only respond with a yes to Cassandra’s words. We see too that the sisters found in each other the kind of relationship one usually finds in a spouse — and we see in this the kind of emotional support, the buttress against loneliness, that allowed each to stay single, especially Jane when faced with Bigg Wither.

Yet we see too CA’s sang froid – -or at least stoicism — or attempt at it: “You know me too well to be at all afraid I should suffer materially from my feelings …I am not at all overpowered and very little indisposed, nothing but what a short time with rest and change of air will remove.” I cannot but think of Elinor Dashwood and to think that the genesis of her character (and Marianne’s) came from the discussions CA and JA must have had about histrionic people. Of course, CA will suffer deeply — how could she not — but it is true often in the first relief of a loved one in pain dying and amid all the immediate concerns, we think we will get over it easily. It is impossible to feel a loss until the person has been really gone for a time. Or perhaps CA knows all this and simply wants to comfort Fanny.I also read in this C’s desire not to be pitied, certainly not by this niece.

As is so often the case in death, it is the living who must be attended to and comforted, including Fanny, who must be reassured that Jane did love her. That reassurance is first and foremost on Cassandra’s mind and she addresses it in detail, going over the pleasure FK’s letters brought JA, and I note, along with Ellen, the
moments of faint praise–JA responded “not unchearfully” to Fanny’s last letter and was in a “languor” that dampened her enthusiasm. Fanny was not stupid, and she noted JA’s irritation with her. I can’t help but wonder if a worried letter from FK had recently arrived that C here addresses and later burnt.

As she goes on to write, Cassandra says she hopes her recounting of JA’s last moments don’t “break your heart my dearest Fanny.” In some ways, Fanny is an intimate Cassandra can confide in — but in some ways a person who perhaps can be dumped on–perhaps Cassandra feels a bit of guilt that might indeed be saying what could break Fanny’s heart — or perhaps the hearts of people FK might share the letter with. Perhaps, however, she wants others beyond FK to read all this.

I am surprised that the funeral/burial will not be held until six days after the death — the body will be decomposing and smelling unpleasant unless some sort of embalming has been done. Were people embalmed at that time? We get the image of JA in her coffin with ” a sweet serene air over her countenance” — I can only imagine the open coffin in the rooms where they were/are staying. I know for a long time it was considered important that people die with a serene expression rather than in struggle — as people did and do — as it gave reassurance that the person had gone to heaven and was not fighting demons dragging them to hell. Cassandra repeats those conventionalized hopes, and with a note of sincerity, hopes to meet with Jane in the afterlife. She really can’t bear the thought of never seeing her again. I agree with Ellen that Cassandra must not be thinking entirely straight when she opines that JA’s death is a punishment or correction to CA for loving her too much and at the expense of others. She is distracted, trying to cope with her grief. Today, she might write in Buddhist terms of letting go of attachment — in either case, we can hardly in our better moments regret having loved deeply or feel that a loving God would punish that.

I thought that beyond Austen’s head moving back and forth, that the caretakers, especially Cassandra, took some comfort in being able to lay Jane’s head on their laps, though I also think it means Jane was tossing about a bit more than C lets on. To me, it bespeaks some struggle — I imagine it was more than “a slight motion,” but that she possibly was struggling through the opium to say something or struggling against death–that it was not an entirely serene passage. Anyway, it is impossible to know. Even if it gave them some comfort, I don’t think they would have rested her head on their laps for so long without some feeling of need. But again, this is speculation.

I too wonder what errand Jane was so anxious about on her deathbed that C had to run out and do it. I would love to know.

CA comes across to me as intelligent and canny, her chief conventionalities written to forestall any trouble from Fanny, as in, don’t worry if I have given you too many details, for “you will apply to the fountainhead for consolation … our merciful God is never deaf to such prayers as you will offer.” (Is this a bit of acid flattery, worthy of her sister–or is it sincere? There’s certainly a bit of flattery in assuring Fanny she is the first to be written to after Mrs. Austen.) I do read a bit of defiance in the assertion that Jane’s soul lies “in a far superior mansion” to Winchester Cathedral, and find it telling that her burial there “satisfies” because JA admired the building so much rather than out of religious sentiment about being closer to God in a sanctuary. I also read a bit of acid in her hopes that none of her brothers “suffer lastingly from their pious exertions” in attending the funeral. It would, at the very least, be human to wonder why Jane and not them?

The funeral will be early, so as not to interfere with church services, and CA will head back to Chawton right afterwards, having no reason to stay in Winchester. Henry will soon be at Chawton — CA thinks that will help. I am imagining the mother at Chawton. It seems as if she is not to attend the funeral? That seems hard to believe but perhaps it was too much for her.

I am glad we have this letter.


Extract from the diary of Mary Austen, nee Lloyd, (1771-1843)


17 July 1817 “Jane Austen was taken for death about ½ past 5 in the Evening”
18 July 1817 Jane breathed her last ½ after four in the morn; only Cass[andra] and I were with her. Henry came, Austen & Ed came, the latter returned home”
Hampshire Record Office ref 23M93/62/1/8


I too am glad we have this letter. Sex is apparently no longer a forbidden subject — I say apparently because much about sex is still not truly discussed at all or distorted. But we still have a number of verboten ones: money, especially among friends and at work (that helps the employer enormously); particulars about religions and death — these two are everywhere in Cassandra’s letter and the whole text becomes a source of anxiety as well as controversy if we deconstruct its layers.


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Jane Austen drawn by Cassandra, meditating a landscape scene?

Dear friends and readers,

So we come to the last two letters. These are not her last writing; that is the poem she wrote, probably dictated (the handwriting is said probably not hers) on July 15, 1817:

Written at Winchester on Tuesday, the 15th July 1817

When Winchester races first took their beginning
It is said the good people forgot their old Saint
Not applying at all for the leave of Saint Swithin
And that William of Wykeham’s approval was faint.

The races however were fixed and determined
The company came and the Weather was charming
The Lords and the Ladies were satine’d and ermined
And nobody saw any future alarming.–

But when the old Saint was informed of these doings
He made but one Spring from his Shrine to the Roof
Of the Palace which now lies so sadly in ruins
And then he addressed them all standing aloof.

‘Oh! subjects rebellious! Oh Venta depraved
When once we are buried you think we are gone
But behold me immortal! By vice you’re enslaved
You have sinned and must suffer, ten farther he said

These races and revels and dissolute measures
With which you’re debasing a neighboring Plain
Let them stand–You shall meet with your curse in your pleasures
Set off for your course, I’ll pursue with my rain.

Ye cannot but know my command o’er July
Henceforward I’ll triumph in shewing my powers
Shift your race as you will it shall never be dry
The curse upon Venta is July in showers–‘.

Winchester, Queen Eleanor’s garden

Venta Bulgarum was the Roman name of Winchester and each July on St. Swithin’s day a steeplechase race was held (see a Day in Winchester).

James-Edward Austen-Leigh in middle age

Letter 160. to James Edward Austen, Tuesday 27 May 1817, Mrs Davids, College Street, Winchester, to Exeter College, Oxford

I find the opening sentence of this letter to be filled, redolent with a generous reaching out. Austen’s illness made her grateful to those who cared for her. The next three lines suggest hope has sprung again (“eternal in the human breast”): her handwriting may not be anything to boast of, but she is gaining strength, up from 9 am to 10 at night, though on a sofa, she eats with Cassandra “rationally.” In fact, her handwriting betrays her. She registers a deep desire not to have that so, but she cannot write any better. She had not been having rational meals nor had been able to cope with them. She claims to employ herself, walk from one room to another. The new Dr Lyford claims he will cure her (the job of the doctor in this era was to provide hope), if not she will write a formal complaint.

With that joke, the brave face breaks down a bit, and I feel by the end of the letter it’s clear she knows she is dying and this is a near deathbed letter. Nothing specific just a feeling as she writes.

An account of her trip, with the loaned carriage very little fatigue but apparently not room for Henry and nephew even in the rain — it rained all the way and to see them getting soaked distressed her. We can see he family rallying round her aware this is the last as they keep trying to visit as they can: nephews one of which is sick himself. Mr Heathcote (whose wife we remember from the previous letter procured the cottage for them) will call on JEAL soon (to tell him of the aunt’s condition).

Then this return to a new trembling emotionalism; she hopes if ever Edward is ill, he will be “as tenderly nursed.” Blessed alleviations and she has been assured she is worthy of their love — so she was herself feeling overwhelmed, guilty. She concludes remembering Martha (who occurs in letter to Anne Sharpe just before) who sends her best love — again she may be there.

Diane Reynolds’s reading:

As Ellen points out, we are very near the end: one more letter written by JA after this one, then 3 letters that Cassandra wrote that I am inclined to want to do as well: two to Fanny and one to Anne Sharp.

JA is fewer than two months from death as she writes to her nephew. It is more pleasant for her to write to JEAL than his parents, and she uses the letter as an opportunity to send thanks to them through JEAL for the loan of the carriage. Martha must have visited, for she uses the fact of JA writing to JEAL to send her love and hence not have to write a letter herself: people work through others so as to reduce their own letter writing burden.

Austen mentions that because of the carriage she was able to travel with “very little fatigue”–but she still had some. As Ellen points out, it distressed her that Henry, who rode on horseback beside them, was caught in the rain. I would imagine that, given her own weakened state, she felt perhaps more acutely than otherwise his sufferings. I agree too that the siblings are saying their goodbyes: it must be clear that she is dying.

Yet she does insist to JEAL that she is getting better and the letter provides a window into her life at Winchester–convalescing on a sofa during the day, eating “rationally” with Cassandra, whatever that means–I take it to mean taking meals in the normal way, and feeding herself–she is able to “employ” herself–does this mean she can read, write a little, possibly sew?–it implies she is not reduced to simply lying on the sofa. She is in place with a bow window in the drawing room overlooking a garden, no doubt pleasant at the end of May.

As Ellen mentions, JA is able to joke at the possibility of her death. People are visiting.

The end of the letter expresses again her gratitude at the kindness of friends and relations, wishing the same for JEAL should he be ill, and saying he would deserve such care. She jokes that she is not worthy of it–but it is not entirely a joke. She is not used to being so regarded–but it may also allude to being a difficult patient, in more pain that she admits.

The notes say the handwriting in this letter–as JA herself says–is shaky. One wonders if some of her “employ” is fiction writing, but at this point that must be doubtful.

The symptoms of her illness are distressingly vague. If it is cancer, we must imagine her in a good deal of pain–but she does not, for obvious reasons, mention that to her nephew. Euphemism is the rule of the day.


Henrietta Street Fireplace — one of the objects in the places where Jane probably saw Francis Tilson now and again

Letter 161 (C): To ?Frances Tilson, Wed 28/Thurs 29 May 1817, Mrs David’s, College Street, Winchester

Diane began it:

We have come, after a long journey, to the last extant JA letter. According to La Faye, the original was probably lost. What we have, says La Faye, are the scraps of it used by Henry in his Biographical Notice. The date is probably the end of May, and it is probably written to Frances Tilson. Le Faye’s biographical index identifies the recipient as the wife, nee Sanford, of one of the partners in Henry’s failed bank: the name of the bank was Austen, Maude and Tilson. Frances was about 2 years younger than Jane and would die six years later. (If we are entertaining conspiracy theories, is Frances’ death mysterious?)

I don’t think of Tilson as a JA intimate and have to wonder why JA is writing to her from her deathbed–almost–and about family matters that were considered unfit for publication. It’s not hard to surmise that she was writing frankly of the combination of the bank failure and the lost inheritance to someone she felt comfortable approaching. I can imagine Henry was perhaps suspected of deceit by his former partners in claiming he had an inheritance coming–perhaps he held out hopes that this could right things–and Jane may well have written, even at his behest, to defend her brother, insisting that they all did indeed expect the inheritance. Or I can also imagine her pouring her heart out to a sympathetic person on the “inside-” someone who would already know details hidden from others– in frustration at the bank failure, the inheritance going elsewhere and the shock it caused.

In what little we have, Austen seems at pains to paint a tender portrait of herself as an invalid, selflessly attended by Cassandra and her “beloved family,” perhaps to soften a bad family impression and raise sympathy. As she said to JEAL, she is mostly on the sofa, able to walk from room to room and tended without complaint by Cassandra. She adds that she has been out in a sedan chair once and hopes to be graduated to a wheel chair. She cries over the care of her family and prays “to God to bless them more and more.” Perhaps this a plea to friends to treat them gently.

Then we get an editorial comment, presumably by Henry. According to him, Jane “touches” with “gentle[ness]” on “domestic disappointment.” One has to imagine the uncle’s will is the subject–though, in reality, who knows? The particulars “do not concern the public.” (They do.) But he cannot allow himself to “suppress”–an interesting word choice–the expressions of “sweetness and resignation” of “our authoress.” We then get this scrap from Jane mid-sentence: “But I am getting too near complaint. It has been the will of God, no matter how secondary causes may have operated…” The key phrase to me is the “secondary causes.” Even while asserting the will of God, “sweet” and “resigned” Austen has hardly forgotten the malevolence she perceives at play.

More cuts and then another editorial comment on how quickly JA “could correct [another telling word choice] every impatient thought. [She is not allowed impatience] and turn from complaint to cheerfulness.”

The final bit of the letter that follows shows a flash of Austen’s characteristic humor: she advises Frances that a person La Faye identifies as Captain Benjamin Clement is a “respectable, well-meaning man” and his wife and daughter, she hopes, won’t this time wear too short skirts: “I hope (since the fashion allows it) with rather longer petticoats than last year. She has not lost her touch. Clement was also, at least some Clement, a partner in the bank, so this upcoming meeting might also be about bank fallout. Allowing herself this joke says to me JA was comfortable with Frances.

One can imagine Frances handing Henry a too-hot-to-handle letter and he quickly framing it in terms of Austen’s sweetness lest any rumors leak out. Or one can imagine, if Austen wrote the letter at his behest, that he would know to ask for it back, and thus get hold of a potentially damaging epistle. But this is all imagining.

We end in midstream, Austen still holding on to a slim hope of recovery or partial recovery, still acutely concerned about the family misfortunes and still poking fun at people. It will take Cassandra to tie up the loose ends in the letters that follow her sister’s death.

I added:

Diane has written very perceptively about this one, working out why one of Austen’s last letters would be to the wife of Henry’s business partner, and how Henry came to have a copy of said letter. i am just adding a few thoughts.

I agree there is enough here to suggest Jane knew Francis well — women whose husbands/brothers/fathers (men) are in business together might well. There are many references to Tilson and his wife visiting. I note that last group includes Catherine Anne-Prowting. (She was the sister-in-law of Captain Benjamin Clement who with his wife is also referred to.) It was to Miss Prowting Jane sent a copy of Emma when Miss Benn died before Jane could give Miss Benn hers, and (to me), a offer with pathos as Austen is excusing herself for sending this book, saying she did so because Miss Prowting read with Miss Benn novels by Jane, making light of this one (Emma) as easy reading, to be kept or read or not as Miss Prowting feels, as certainly the volumes “are not wanted at home” (Letter 136, early 1816).


It need not have been a letter “too hot to handle.” If Henry made himself appear someone who had expectations, it was common to do so if you did. We’ve seen these letters were handed about; maybe there was nothing in it which Henry could not see and it became the focus of a discussion about moneys — the domestic disappointment could be the legacy that didn’t come through or something else.

I find it an ironically fitting letter to end the collection with. We have staring in front of us all the evidence we might want of how the relatives censored the letters, only let through what at any given point in Austen’s life could be seen as socially acceptable or better than that, exemplary, and when not, something one could explain away as non-serious joking, so much trivia that didn’t matter to her. Here Henry has drawn on precisely those passages which show the family and Cassandra as selflessly devoted (and maybe she was in this last illness when it became apparent her sister was dying) and Jane all gratitude. He wanted also to show her submitting herself to God and not complaining, but since he could not find a sentence which was not purely that and only sentences where that came in as a qualification of what she had said, he has to fill in some explanation. They liked to present her as a “joker:” ho ho ho, that Jane, joking even in death. (That’s how the last ironically exalted verses were seen).

Anti-climactic too.



JEAL has real literary gifts, real talent — as did his older sister, and, as seen in her Reminiscences, Caroline too. His evaluation of his aunt is sentimental and unreal, an angel in the house, but the portrait is filled with useful information, and later especially scenes of her writing her books, commenting on them. Seen as a fragment of his own autobiography (which many biographies are), it makes good sense: Chawton was a haven from Steventon at the time and Jane Austen the playful spirit in it. She colluded in presenting a non-sexed version of herself to others.

From somewhere in his memories of The Vinea second slender book and his letters in Austen papers (plus his daughter’s biography of him) you discover he loved the novels of Walter Scott. Scott was bought but often to show off and look like you like what others are said to be liking — but he was no favorite of non-readers or non-serious readers. JEAL himself says he had to leave the room when people began to make fun of Scott. He loved Thackeray in ways that show a strong literary taste — it was the style he liked.

I remember vividly (because it’s unusual) that JEAL wrote some very bitter words about his uncle’s leaving all his money to the wife after having given the family an explicit impression (not quite a promise) there would be immediate relief for each nuclear family (as we would call them). I don’t think religion has anything to do with this level of reality. Some are in the Austen papers; some in his daughter’s biography of him. He called his uncle a “sneak” — this word “sneak” is used of this man by other people at the time of the original theft of the lace. Something in his behavior struck people that way. JEAL was angry remembering how his aunt in later years would threaten to disinherit him in order to pressure him to do this or that. Luckily she approved his choice of wife — Emma, an heiress. And he used angry words of her — words which bring to mind Mrs Norris. He does not at all allude to any characters in the novels over this.

While he does not say this, I suggest that part of his anger was on his father and then his mother’s behalf. As I’ve suggested, a fair reading of that household (through James’s poems) suggests much tension and bullying on the part of the wife who disliked all this reading and intellectuality of which she had none. She cannot have been keen on Anna the stepdaughter’s writing either (she was openly antagonistic to this girl and would not speak to Eliza). We see how she would withhold permission from Caroline to visit her cousins. She wanted her husband to take two sinecures and there were open quarrels over that. He was too much the idealist. He did die young — she didn’t kill but this relationship didn’t help him to live long; Jane took it that he sided with his wife and estranged himself willingly in some ways but she may have been wrong. And as I’ve suggested the picture of Chawton by JEAL is in comparison to Steventon.

Now the withholding of this money cannot have made them happier even if James was made executor: it was not his.Then when he dies, the wife is left with a tiny amount of money — doled out by the aunt — JEAL does mention this.

He saw his aunt’s books through Victorian lenses: that means she is looked upon as leaving out much that matters: the great books of the Victorian period give us a wide picture of the world, society, over social and political criticism. JEAL does not see that his aunt’s books belong to a genre of women’s novels but then no one talked that way. And many women did and some still do what they can to separate themselves from their female sources: Burney certainly did.

JEAL had an agenda for the memoir. He wanted to and did believe in the happy home. It was important to him to believe that. More: against the wishes of a part of the family, he wanted to write up the life of this difficult woman – she had not married, she had not done what others did and they didn’t want prying. Not only did he write up the life but he published Lady Susan (a daring text) and The Watsons (which placed characters in a milieu he knew very well was that of Austen’s father). The point not to lose sight of is twofold: some members of the family copied out these letters; they were not quite private, but what has been called confidential papers (to be circulated among family and friends and kept); second that JEAL published it at all.

A similar case as to publishing about Jane Austen’s life may be made for Brabourne only for Brabourne it was easier as mores had changed some more and due to JEAL’s memoir and the Steventon edition, Jane Austen became a more widely read author and it openly redounded to Brabourne’s credit to publish her letters. The doctored nature of them is par for the course: Anna Barbauld did it to all the correspondence she edited, including Samuel Richardson’s.

Cambridge facsimile reprint


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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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