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George Austen (1731-1805)

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.
out

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.

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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.


Janet McTeer as the desolate Mrs Dashwood (2008 BBC S&S).

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).


The grieving trio, Elinor (Joanna David), Marianne (Ciaran Madden) and Mrs Dashwood (Isabel Dean) (1971 BBC S&S)

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.


Walcot Church, Bath, contemporary print

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.


I Have Found It: the Indian analogous adaptation of S&S: the women cut out of the grandfather’s will, take their things and go to Madras

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.

See Letters 29, 30, 31, 32, 33 and 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39.

Ellen

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3 am, entering my workroom

The oddity that the sky at night in winter can be lighter than in summer. I now go into my workroom without the lights on & see more than I would’ve. If there were a moon tonight or snow, I’d understand it. There has been much rain and mist & streetlights reflect the glow which suffuses the darkened air. Against the sky tree branches etched. Ellen

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Said to be Yardley Oak, the tree about which William Cowper wrote his poem:

.

Change is the diet on which all subsists
Created changeable, and change at last
Destroys them …
 

Dear Friends,

My header is a verse from a poem by Cower as recited by heart in Mansfield Park.  Fanny is in Portsmouth and oh the weeks lengthen out as she can barely endure the days.  How is one to get through so many hours until tomorrow and then tomorrow will have as many.  And then there’s another day yet.  Our narrator tells us

       "Her eagerness, her impatience, her longings to be with them, were such as to bring a line or two of Cowper’s Tirocinium for ever before her. “With what intense desire she wants her home,” was continually on her tongue, as the truest description of a yearning which she could not suppose any schoolboy’s bosom to feel more keenly."

Fanny’s uncle had promised Easter, but (we are told) it came late that year.  And then nothing happened.

When I sent Miss Schuster-Slatt a poem I wrote not that long ago, she said I must have been remembering the above line.  Not consciously, but of course I had it somewhere echoing in my brain. Since reading Mansfield Park at age 15 (and then rereading countless times) bits of it are never that far from consciousness, half-called up:

                      A simple poem

She longs for home
with all her heart
A quiet place
where she and they
are not unhappy.
It is so quiet.
Peaceful.

At supper we
enjoy our talk
congenial.
We have kindness
in our hearts towards
one another.
The best time of day.

We try to lengthen it out,
sitting there.

We have two cats
who break the peace
vocalizing
discontent, they
stare and run about
causing us to shout,
they then subside
to sleep.

We long for more:
we have computers
books, writing, chores
cyberspace friends
She wants a place
outside the home
where she can go
regularly.

My dreams are painful.
he won’t confide
nor she.
why should they?
So I turn to books,
For comfort, as a means of
sustaining myself, for cheer,
I return to them.

Yet it comes to me
I need this setting
not to feel I’m
in a state of suspended
animation,
waiting.

Why is this?
I do not know,
It should not be.
It makes no sense.

Back to Mansfield Park: much later, remembering what life was really like at Mansfield Park, and now looking at what it’s like at Portsmouth, Fanny Price recites a famous sentence by Samuel Johnson in one of his many Ramblers on marriage. At the end of a meditation on the limitations and miseries of marriage, Johnson says something like something like while marriage has so many pains, celibacy has few pleasures. So while life at the park had many pains, life in Portsmouth has few pleasures: for Fanny they are Susan and reading and the occasional walk along the ramparts, and letter writing (but reading hers from others is, she learns, an ambivalent experience).

Fanny (Sylvester Le Tousel) a renter and chuser of books at last; reading with Susan (
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–Eyrl Maynard Eyrl Maynard) (from the 1983 BBC masterpiece Mansfield Park, all stills in this blog are from this mini-series)

in life we have to make do with circumstances that somehow evolve over time often without our quite noticing what will be the consequences, and some are usually unpredictable or unforeseen, and then find they are difficult to live with. Much more than who we are married to or if we are not married, affects us this way. For my case, it’s where I have ended up living, where my house is, a safe and comfortable place economically but not one I can easily replicate elsewhere and if I try, I might lose the (relative) safety.  Alexandria, Va, a suburb where I have little in common with anyone near by.  Not that I would necessarily at all in NYC, the dream of congenial companionship is just that, a dream.

As to where we end up living and how much money we have, Jane Austen certainly knew that; in the last two years of her life one of her brothers went bankrupt; another was in danger of losing all from litigation. She found herself having to leave London and be back in Chawton and also very ill. There were hardly any people of their low income and high education around them, so their regular contacts were limited. One of her letters contains this plangent phrase, she is standing by a window looking out, and she feel instinctively the fatal illness. She had not made that much money on her books after all and was not quite satisfied with Emma (she knew her content was limited) or the two on hand.

She is also in Mansfield Park as Mary Crawford:  Mary says marriage is a take-in; we might say having children is even more so, because you don’t even get to choose, and usually much less the circumstances around them (who they end up with peers, in the US the schools you find in the neighborhood you land in).  The moral of Oedipus is you have only a wee bit choice from what’s on offer.

Looking round at her sister’s fate, the Vicar’s cottage, Mary (Jackie Smith-Wood) says it’s a take-in.

All must somehow be lived with.  Best not to have illusions, they increase the pain of existence, put us at risk of degrading exploitation and intense hurt as we reach out.   We end up with cats 🙂

Returning home: Edmund (Nicholas Farrell) dismayed, Fanny intense, Susan eager to have left hers.  Still,

Scenes must be beautiful which daily views please daily
Whose novelty survives long knowledge and the scrutiny of years.
                                 From Cowper’s The Task as recited by Edmund to Fanny in the 83 film

Fanny and Edmund as children walking in the meadow as he recites Cowper

Each time I have heard Nicholas Farrell read those lines in the film, I have remembered what I feel when I go for a walk in the park (locally and also Central Park) or look out at from my room and felt comforted.

But also the deep pleasure of walking on the rampats with Susan and Henry at Portsmouth

Miss Drake from her nest of comforts returning to her world of Austen and movie work for today …

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