Dear friends and readers,
There needs no subtle interpretation as to why 4 months later (see letter 39, Sept 1804) this and the next two letters were saved and printed: Austen’s father died, and Austen was deputed the writer. If we were not before, we are now in a position to feel how centrally this common act (dying of old age and/or disease) presented disaster to the Austen women. Not just financially, but socially (since they had not married, both girls were continually at risk of losing whatever status they had as genteel spinsters — allow me this word) and by extension emotionally.
Jane Austen had kept some of her negative liberty: she had escaped being answerable with her body (had been brave enough to go back on her promise to marry Harris Bigg-Wither), had turned to writing and books first, bonded with women friends, but as her heroine, Emma pointed out single women have a “dreadful propensity to be poor,” and Emma’s sidekick, Harriet, felt despised too. But in this letter the immediacy and exigency of coping with the death trumps a little what is to come so we find simply a straight emotional account, tinged with a sense of vulnerability and foreboding. The women had to hope (as did Austen’s Dashwoods) the brothers, the uncle and his wife, would be generous.
So, the first two letters are descriptions of how he died, the first apparently was thought not to reach Frank, but that she wrote twice gives us twice as much matter to understand her reaction, and probably was a release. It’s in the second contains we find one of those resonant lines which recur with more frequency in the later letters: “It has been very sudden” puts me in mind of one in 1816 about the wind or rain beating on the window: she’s fatally ill, knows she is, and the bankruptcy has occurred, she’s back in Chawton and aware that Emma was found boring and MP not the over popular hit she longed for another time.
The third letter disposes of a few practically useful things George Austen left: the paucity, personal quality and care with which this effect is taken care of reminds me of women’s wills of this era and that of the 19th century. They too had little to leave; all the more do they solemnly give these few symbols of their identities away.
The dying Mr Austen (Tom Wilkinson) attempts to extract firm reassurance from his son, John, that he will provide for his step-mother and step-sisters as they have only a tiny income and nothing for dowries (1995 Miramax S&S)
The letters may be usefully read together. All are to Frank. These escaped the vigilance of the grand-daughter who burned the three packets from Austen to Frank which he is said to have kept with him all his life; maybe they were in Cassandra’s position. All to Frank — I adhere to the idea Jane was very close to Frank partly on the basis of the three packets of letters she wrote him and partly from the novels (the importance of that letter “F”, the use of a sailor brother or lover and Frank as Jane’s lover in Emma). There are a number of places in Letter 41 where we see Austen reformulating or repeating as far as she can remember what she said in Letter 40, only the utterance comes out slightly differently. In neither is there any irony, nor the kind of elaborately re-directed guarded half-fantasy witticisms that are a cover-up for an emotion or feeling she apparently did not dare to Cassandra or get herself to express openly.
She is operating under a sudden shock and and the writing of the letter is helping her to contain herself. It’s really important to see how quickly she sat down to write the first. It is in fact nearly the first thing she must have done upon the man dying — and if we do not have letters to Henry and Charles and James that does not mean they were not written, perhaps by her too.
The sequence is this: the father is taken very ill as he has been before: “with a return of the feverish complaint, which he had been subject to for the three last years” (letter 41). Since they left Steventon 4 years ago, that means these bradycardia or mild heart-attacks (if that is what is involved and my guess is yes) started a year after they came to Bath. But he had survived these.
That was Saturday. The seizure was very violent and they resorted to violent counteractions: cupping (awful, painful; if it helped it was because it was so bad this procedure it wiped out the body natural pain from your mind). It seemed he was better, and the the next morning, Sunday, he was amended so that the family fooled themselves (as did the physician) when Mr Austen was walking with his stick (at Lyme her recording her father walking back was a sign that this was a kind of difficulty for him) Bowen (an apothecary) “felt sure of his [Mr Austen’s] doing perfectly well.” But as day advanced, he got worse to the point that by 10 it was alarming to look at him.
Then Monday at 9 in the morning Bowen comes and requests a physician, Dr Gibbs, by which time “it was then absolulely a lost case”. Dr Gibs said “nothing but a Miracle could save him” and at 10:20 he died. The first letter is written almost immediately after the death, in ordinary language, a little while after that. No delay and then letters to Godmersham (Edward) and Brompton (Henry & Eliza). James is sent “an express” to come, and does — he may be closer in distance, closer in feeling, is the eldest son.
When the next day a letter from Frank to Cassandra arrives, she seems immediately to have sat down again with the same system: she regrets to not to be able to prepare him for the shock, tells of the father’s death frankly, simply.
The differences between the letters are there, but they are minor. The first seems more distanced in tone; there is less detail. Yet in the first she gives a blow-by-blow account of Mr Austen’s last 3 days upon being taken ill In the second she precedes this with an account of the past three years’ complaints, but then she is more graphic and up close with the death and her feelings about it than the first: like Henry Tilney on his mother: “everything I trust & beleive [sic] was done for him that was possible! — It has been very sudden — within twenty four hours of his death he was walking with only the help of a stick, was even reading!” In both letters Jane moves to comfort her audience, trying to find something to say which offsets the devastating feelings they are now enduring.
The Austens are also comforting themselves by thinking of the father’s worth; the father was “spared of all the pain of separation” because “quite insensible of his own state … he went off almost in his Sleep. The second says the family did have some hours of preparation and then prayed he would die quickly so as to prevent dreadful agons. The insistence he was “spared from knowing he was about to quit” such cherished objects as wife and children. In all this is the intense consciousness in Jane and by implication her father how they desperately need him for money, if not just now, eventually. In the first the mother is bearing the shock, was quite prepared for it, feels blessing of his avoiding long illness. In the second the mother is “tolerably well,” bearing up with “great fortitude, but her health must suffer from this great shock. We have to remember here that she is writing for effect, to comfort and is not necessarily expressing her own deepest feelings which seem to be on the side of life for her father most of all. Both letters express Mr Austen’s “tenderness as a father” (letter 41), “who can do justice to?” “The loss of such a parent must be felt, or we should be brutes (Letter 40).
By the time of the second letter funeral arrangements are made for Saturday. The parents married in Walcot church; now the father will be buried there.
I agree with Diane R about the relative lack of religion in these letters: the concern is here and now with the living left, the house something has to be cone ith, with the corpse. Indeed it might be considered astonishing. On the other hand, I find the assertion of the “serenity” of the corpse creepy but know Austen’s era is a half-way or transitional moment from real belief in afterlife (and thus ghosts not far off, the body is dwelt upon) to secular concern with how someone died, his being spared knowledge that they didn’t get before. They don’t care about religion enough even to need an explanation. The trouble there is in this era the people are nowhere near knowing the causes and therefore the salient symptoms of an illness.
Money is still to the fore. It is intertwined as a possible shattering experience and on Austen’s mind as that of the mother and aunt and Uncle (“shewn every imaginable kindness”) is the now unfunded state of these people. We see it most obviously in these immediate arrangements: where will they stay? Steventon? Is that an invitation from James. Since Austen does not mention Mary I assume she was not there even if the pronoun is a “they.” It could be James and aunt and uncle. But Austen women “must have this house for three months longer.” The verb is “must.” They have expended the money for a lease that long and will lose the money if they leave earlier. So they will “probably stay till the end of that time.” But what then? The “uniting in love” comes from those there being there and reassuring the Austen women that way.
The third letter brings us back to a world of subsidence where objects are hard come by and treasured. You did not throw out things. So the sending Frank Mr Austen’s personal property (the kind of thing one finds in women’s wills as the whole of what they leave) is not so or just sentimental but practical too: for the sailor “a small astronomical Instrument: (compass and sun-dial) in black chagreen case. Expensive. Which “direction” shall they send it? This question shows Frank now knows, wrote back. Also “a pair of Scissors”. They will be useful and “valuable” to him. It was Frank who walked about with Mr Austen’s Polonius-like letter in Frank’s pocket for years and years.
All three letters are from Green Park buildings; these are quite a step down from Sydney place if not as “low” as Trim Street. Frank was in the HMS Leopard at Portsmouth.