February 19th, 2011

Harriet Vane

Jane Austen's Letters: Letter 11, Sat-Sun, 17-18 November 1798, from Steventon

Dear Friends and Readers,

A vein of inimitable merry bitterness covering a raw hurt seeps through this letter, Jane's gorge rises at something, she does not try to keep it down. The scab over the wound is by no means yet formed. She deals with it by assuming a humor which is a stance of looking at the world with an eye of saturnine amusement, especially when it comes to the daily dangers, miseries and outrages of life:  as in "We have not regaled Mary ..." (in this one she is both sarcastic about and feeling for Mary).

Miss Austen Regrets:   Phyllida Law in a brilliant portrayal of a dismayed Mrs Austen many years later (1816) taking out her wrath on Jane for not having married anyone who asked her, but especially Harris Bigg-Wither

Where does this come from?  We can't know specifically, and we can see why in our text.  This is our first where we can see where Cassandra's scissors have been very busy, doing their damage in two places where LeFaye provides ellipses. It could be that from what was scissored away we could know what is fuelling Austen here; then again maybe not.

There's a gap near the opener and a gap near the close.  The first follows an account of her mother's illness again which seems neutral but then there are the three dots and we get "So much for my patient -- and now for myself." The second also connects to Austen's mother. Finally, Mary has endured her ordeal ("I have just received a note from James to say that Mary was brought to bed last night ...") but it seems suddenly they have been playing games. Now Mrs Austen doesn't want to know while it is happening (says she is too nervous about it? but perhaps just doesn't want to be involved), and so they have been "clever enough" "to prevent her having any suspicion of it," except of course the servant had "been sent for home" and then the gap. I surmise mockery at this whole pretense.

The only image left of Mrs Cassandra Leigh Austen -- she is said to have been proud of her long nose as a sign of an aristocrat 

Austen doesn't like pretenses.  That Cassandra was alive to this tone may be seen in Jane's next (Letter 12) where Austen refers to herself as "having now relieved my heart of a great deal of malevolence" when she has not, but rather in earnest tones complained of Cassandra's not writing to her but rather James.  This reference to a non-existent malevolence in the opening of letter 12 to be a response to Cassandra's missing letter to further one of Austen's.  Cassandra felt the bitterness and accused Austen of malevolence. I imagine Cassandra might have preferred the utter conventionality of Mrs Lefroy's letters.

Anne Lefroy, the only image left of her face

What does this opening say literally before the first gap:  Miss Debary is someone hired to help Mary. Mrs Austen is recovering.  And then comes the gap, after which Mrs Lefroy joins them.

But I don't think the bitterness necessarily come out of being nurse to this patient (mother) or not just the frustration of this role.  One does not have to look for something specific: here she is 23 and what is she given to do? nurse a posturing old woman who will suddenly pretend not to know her daughter-in-law is in labor (to avoid involvement?). Her brothers given professions; they can move about.  What's on offer for her?  The Rev Dr Samuel Blackall?  Lefroy who might have offered a life worth while, a decent partner, just removed out of range even by a supposed friend (he too given something worth while to do, himself thus valued). She's left to a world of dangerous vile (bloody, awful) childbirths and bringing up of children who grow to be ungracious, ungovernable (George) or themselves vain creatures to be married off and talked hypocritical nonsense about or despised (Mrs Portman).

 This letter is not written from but to Godmersham.  Cassandra is playing aunt-nurse to Elizabeth's children and aide-servant-sister in chief.  This is what was done to women who didn't marry. They were used as extra hands around the house for the woman made endlessly pregnant, a kind of high status housekeeper. Austen has to play the same role at Steventon and would rather be doing something else.

The letter does show some of the specific other things that make Jane writhe where she lives.

We see this immediately next, in an important piece of text. Mrs Lefroy and she had some private conversation. (One begins to see how a family could control a senstive woman dependent on them in this era; you just didn't let people have private conversation, gave them no place to have it.)  For the first part of Mrs Lefroy's actions I'd say with tact in this case friends like this become enemies.  But for the second Mrs Lefroy has been trying to be a friend in the 18th and modern sense of helping one to a job (or husband as the case may be), someone "on your side."

First to the betrayal:

... So much for my patient--now for myself. Mrs Lefroy did. come last Wednesday, and the Harwoods came likewise, but very considerately paid their visit before Mrs. Lefroy's arrival, with whom, in spite of interruptions both from my father and James, I was enough! alone to hear all that was interesting, which you will easily credit when I tell you that of her nephew she said nothing at all, and of her friend very little. She did not once mention the name of the former to me, and I was too proud to make any enquiries; but on my father's afterward asking where he was, I learnt that he was gone back to London in his way to Ireland, where he is called to the Bar and means to practise."

Austen did not have the nerve to break through this kind of social manipulation.  Part of the psychology of this kind of thing is pride: if she openly admitted to Mrs Lefroy she urgently wants to know about Tom Lefroy that's tantamount to showing how hurt she is so Mrs Lefroy gets away with pretending there is no such subject.

From Becoming Jane (Anna Hathaway as Jane, James McAvoy as Tom Lefroy, the separated lovers)

I'm very glad I now have Mrs Lefroy's letters even if they start at 1801 so I have no letter from her around this time. As I've written, there is nothing in the early sections of the letters to suggest she thought of Jane Austen particularly.  She is a very conventional woman in what she's willing to write in a letter: they are coherent and even carefully studied.  (She's a better poet.) 

A manuscript copy of one of Anne Lefroy's poems

This scene, that Austen took Mrs Lefroy aside, does show the implied friendship, but we see Mrs Lefroy has betrayed it by refusing to recognize any such intimacy in the case of her nephew and who else?   In the case of Tom and the Lefroys it's been decided this man is not for Jane; they mean his gifts to be used quite otherwise.

But her father did feel for Jane and when in the public group he asks for her (as Mrs Dashwood asks for Elinor in the final scene where Edward Ferrars shows up) by "asking where he was" and so Jane "learnt that he was gone back to London on his way to Ireland ..." where he is to practise.  Later in the letter we again see father and daughter brought close in feeling: they enjoy joking about courtships in a similar vein, at least he enters into it: "Mr father's affection for Miss Cuthbert ..." Please do, Cassandra, send us intelligence of this woman or her brother.

(The last letter had her admiring her father for his egalitarian abilities to appreciate a working man.  It seems to me in these letters we see a core of the distaste for Mrs Bennet in P&P and the real liking and identification with Mr Bennet Elizabeth Bennet (one of Jane Austen's surrogates).  She is gracious towards her father and anything but towards her mother.

The 1979 P&P: Moray Watson as Mr Bennet, surrogate for Mr Austen, he and Eliza (Elizabeth Garvey) deeply congenial, play backgammon

Lost in Austen:  Alex Kingston as a hypocritical fierce Mrs Austen

But in the case of the "friend" Mrs Lefroy is trying for Jane.  The friend is another suitor for Jane Mrs Lefroy is trying to set up.  Jane Austen is now 23 -- very marriageable age.  The Rev Samuel Blacknall. Now I remember Anthony Norman  has written a book to suggest Blackall was a second serious suitor.  (We have had mention of a third one already:  Bridges who she led the dance out with in letter 5 (5 Sept 1796). 

As in the case of Mr Clarke, the librarian, there has been a snobbish sneering of the facile kind (who does not despise librarians? -- I have unhappily learned to understand -- lest I be misunderstood I do not).  Jane Austen indulged in mockery of the Rev Samuel Blackkall, according to Nokes, "tall and erudite" -- but then Nokes uses the word "fellow" which shows he too buy into the disdain. If you look at the quotations from Austen's letters you see what is brought together is a statement she made many years later after he was married (July 1813, Lefaye, Letter 86 -- to Francis! -- p. 216) and half is left off.  Jane does call him "a piece of Perfection himself, noisy Perfection" but she also say (often left off) "which I always recollect with regard."  People like him to the caricature Collins. I see no reason to do this. Austen is in this later letter jealous, wanting to get back still (16 years later) with her hope his wife  would be "of silent turn & rather ignorant ... but naturally intelligent & willing to learn."  Well Blacknall has written a letter which Mrs Lefroy showed Austen and from which Austen quotes to Cassandra:

"I am very sorry to hear of Mrs Austen's illness. It would give me particular pleasure to have an opportunity of improving my acquaintance with that family -- with a hope of creating myself a nearer interest. But at present I cannot indulge any expectation of it."

This sounds like George Owen Cambridge's attitude to Fanny Burney; she longed for this guy to propose (he turns up as Edgar in Camilla) but he was very cautious:  Fanny had no dowry and he played all sorts of games like Mrs Lefroy's, very embittering to Fanny Burney in the 1580s, a series of incidents which preceded and helped precipitate her acquiescence in the pressure put on her (intense) to take a position at court.

Jane Austen is hurt. This is a Willoughby stuff at the assembly.  He hopes to improve his acquaintance with the family. Gee thanks kid.  The high falutin formal language is further indication of the hypocrisy: he is squirting out false words like a cuttle fish.

Why would she like him: she did like learning even if as a woman she was not given any classical background that was serious at all.  Mrs Lefroy has been trying to set up a relationship for her and he has punted.  I take the next lines to be guarded ironies behind which Austen is angry

"This is rational enough and there is less love ­and more sense in it than sometimes appeared before, and Iam very well satisfied. It will all go on exceedingly well, and decline ­away in a very reasonable manner. There seems little likelihood of his coming into Hampshire this Christmas, and it is therefore most probable that our indifference will soon be mutual, unless his regard, which appeared to spring from knowing nothing of me at first, is best supported by never seeing me."

Nokes (perverse often) misunderstands this because he can't bear to think Austen seriously considered Blackall as a possibility.  He has Austen above Mrs Lefroy's help, and decided Blackall is matter for sisterly jokes (p. 180). If so, Cassandra didn't appreciate it. No I rather think Ausetn is striking back at someone who has snubbed her. She recognizes they know nothing of one another and how absurd and desperate she has appeared to fall in with Mrs Lefroy's schemes. She is humiliated in front of her own eyes.

Now Mrs Lefroy's silence can be seen as sheerly tactful: "Mrs Lefory made no remarks on the letter, nor did she indeed say anything abuot him as relative to me.  Mum's the word.

Tomalin is much closer to what happened here:  "You can only sympathize with Jane, wincing away from such clumsy matchmaking efforts and so leaden a pursuit" (p. 130)  Tomalin doesn't think for herself -- worse than Nokes who at least does that, and brings in the old story that Mr Collins is based on Blackall.  There is no connection here to the absurdities of the Collins caricature necessarily.

Then Austen registers that at least in Austen's opinion Mrs Lefroy feels for Jane and senses she has done too much, said too much and only caused hurt in Jane:  "Perhaps she thinks she has said too much already."   Austen's sarcastic paragraph covers over how Mrs Lefroy's efforts gave a chance to Blackall (or his "friends") to manipulate what was apparently a professed possible regard or interest on his part into stuffy disdain:  "his regard which appeared to spring from knowing nothing of me at first". I surmise maybe he was attracted and liked what he heard of her intelligence but (looking at the remarks she made about the wife in 1813), but when he saw her was put off by her real intelligence; he wanted someone to flatter and suck up to him, to hang on his every word. She would not do that so he was frightened off by a real independence of character as well as brain (so rare, alas so rare are both).

To move on:  It seems Mrs Lefroy has been to Bath and brings news of one "Christian" dying of TB ("very bad state of health, consumptive") -- Bath was a place sick people went to is often forgotten.  Alexandre d'Arblay went there to die.  It was filled with exploitative quacks.  "Christian" is someone who owns a shop on p. 211: I looked in the index to these and Mrs Lefroy's letters and could find no Christian Lefroy.  Did anyone else find one?

Lefray's biographical index tells the Portmans were a pair of people married in Bath in August 1798.  Another sarcasm;  this time against the hypocrisies of the world over beauty, but the sentence also takes a swipe at Mrs Portman:  "not so much admired in Dorsetshire [as she was in Bath?], the good-natured world [meaning anything but] as usual, extolled her beauty [because they naturally lie] so highly, that all the neighborhood have had the pleasure of being disappointed.

Weymouth where Frank Churchill met Jane Fairfax was in Dorsetshire

There's nothing people like better than to look down on someone and triumph.  The Dorsetshire world sneering at Mrs Portman's ugliness puts me in mind of Mrs Cole triumphing over Jane's lack of a piano by pretending all this concern for her super-expensive piano a total luxury since no one plays, just there for show and saying how she would offer it to Jane -- all the while getting a kick out of bringing out the mysterious piano.  We may assume in that scene Jane Fairfax just writhed (Emma we recall as insensitive and in effect dangerously malicious with her theories of adulterous love for Jane with Mr Dixon and Frank actually enjoying the scene.

The feeling here is so intense and it is the feeling one can attribute to the silent Jane Fairfax in the scene at Mrs Cole's assembly but Jane Fairfax just suffered intensely, with it moving inward. Jane Austen tries to deflect and turn her bile at its source: how the world behaves, and how she is treated too, the limited roles she's given (nurse): "we are to kill a pig soon." How little she is valued.  Tom Lefroy in her estimation a partner she would have wanted taken out from her, and this guy Blackall looking down.  The key in all of these is she is bonding with Mary, with Mrs Portman, though maybe not with the pig.

Dawlish, Dorsetshire:   Robert Ferrars liked to go here

We turn to Austen as housekeeper. Mrs Austen is not up to it appparently.  Let us recall Mrs Austen lived a long life -- perhaps yes because she nursed these ailments and asked others to, and also used them as a barrier against trouble.  People today do this too. The detail that stays with me about this opposition is late in life when dying and in pain Austen sits in three chairs put together while her mother gets the couch.  James Edward Austen-Leigh in his memoir wants us to see this as an instance of Jane's self-erasure, sacrifice, and sweet nature.  Whatever her behavior, we see her writhing in her letters.

Another aspect of the era is how much respect was given older people and people in authority. Nowadays probably not just that someone Austen's age would be in college, making a career for herself, working outside in a money-making job, but the older woman would not be able to as a matter of course give the housekeeping jobs to the unmarried daughters.

And that it was not her mother alone that prevented Jane from living a life she would have preferred. It's the whole situation she finds herself in that she's kicking against -- not very hard because she does not do anything more than (as D. W. Harding put it) find an intense release in her writing.

At any rate Jane tells Cassandra that she "always takes care to provide such things as please my own appetite" when she's housekeeper.   We now know that Jane Austen liked "ragout veal" and "haricot mutton" -- unless this is yet more irony and she detests them.  Cassandra might now.

I said the letter has a vein of (delicious) bitterness throughout -- a curious hard laughter at her despair.  So now she tells Cassandra they are indeed fortunate. The good times at assembly balls they are missing out because they no longer have a carriage on are being cut out:

"Our assemblies have very kindly declined ever since we laid down our carriage, so that dis-convenience and dis-inclination to go together go apace." How kind of them to cease doing stuff when we can no longer go.  (I can't joke in the same inimitable vein am just paraphrasing here).

Manydown House, Basingstoke, used as an assembly room

Then her father's great affection for Miss Cuthbert (mentioned above): like Mr Bennet, Mr Austen joins in on Jane's humor and perhaps has tried to do her one better.  She is likewise to tell Cassandra the details about some sheep Mr Austen sold to the butcher last week.  What do we live for ...

Then she does justice to Mary who would be very glad to be rid of her rheumatism and child (pregnancy). It seems the new nurse "is come, and has no particular charm either of person or of manner;" but as all Hurstbourne would pronounce her to be the best nurse that ever was, Mary expects her attachment to increase."

I feel for Mary: of course Mary "wants to get rid of the child." I've been pregnant four times, two times carrying to term.  At the end I was torn between feelings that I could hardly wait to get rid of this burden but trepidationand rightly so at what the ordeal would be, even if I was not afraid to die.  All the phony soothing talk at these meetings where we were 'taught" methods of coping with the "discomfort' (ludicrous word for the waves of hard pain and labor), and naive glorification did nothing for me.

I see here that Mary and Jane did sometimes get into a vein together -- if it be that Mary ironically said "her attachment must increase." If on the other hand, Mary was repeating the usual cant -- in the way in _Emma_ we see people repeat of Mrs Elton and others -- then Austen is laughing at Mary's stupidity and hypocrisy.

"What fine weather this is!"

The phrase denotes Austen's enjoyment and hilarity at her jokes. I'm enjoying them too.

We are coming to the high point of this letter.  More on the weather in the same vein. Everyone says how "pleasant" and "wholesome" is it outdoors -- "at least everybody fancies so, and imagination is everything."

But of course it's not.  Like Austen I find false cheer meretricious and makes things worse since I see through it too.

Of course "to Edward ... "dry weather" ... is "of importance." I don't know the full meaning of that. It could be neutral but I doubt it. Maybe he can only get to court to litigate in dry weather.

She has not take to fires yet herself.

And here it comes:  four deaths, two women and two neonates but "But we have not yet regaled Mary with this news."

It's inimitable.  Her comment is on how they have not regaled Mary with the death in childbirth of two women as both sarcastic and feeling for Mary; to me the idea is how desperate is the condition of women when we have to look to these sorts of death (terrible pain, blood, dead infants) for comedy. I recommend Angela Carter's essay on childbirth until the early 20th century in her Shake a Leg; its only flaw is that it was only in the 1930s the death rate of mothers plummeted.

After this all is a falling off.  And indeed the hilarity starts to cease.  The next lines read more flatly We hear of a neighbor going into orders, and doing duty at Ashe (the Lefroy house). 

Ashe House

She herself "is very fond of experimental housekeeping .." and Austen again tries for humor over "such as having an ox-cheek now and again," dumplings. She might fancy herself at Godmersham.

This falling away might come from her thinking of Godmersham's luxuries. Not that she wishes herself there. She isn't being given any thing she wishes -- just like Anne Elliot, Fanny Price.

Miss Austen Regrets: inside Godmersham, Jane (Olivia Williams) taking breakfast with Fanny Austen (Imogen Poots) and Mr Papillon

We then get a line about her artwork which is often quoted straight: that "an artist cannot do anything slovenly." In context it does not read so much like a self-compliment, but it does show us that in the forefront of Austen's mind is her writing. And we now know that Austen has a special relationship of sorts with George since she sided with him on the way he reacted to "breeching and whipping."

Naturally baby grows and improves.  What else are babies for?

She left off and came back on Sunday and records that Mary had her baby, and (as I wrote yesterday) Austen contextualizes this with her mother's sudden refusal to admit she knows anything about what was happening. 

Betty Londe says she misses Cassandra very much but Jane sees that this is a back-handed "reproach" to her. She apparently had not gone visiting the poor.  Maybe she wanted some time to herself and her writing? But Jane feels a little guilty -- perhaps the woman was in need and so Jane says she will "profit" from the hint. 

I take it that Betty Londe was not posing. When people didn't pose, were really in need, Austen did try to help, even if (like Emma) she probably recognized how limited a thing her visits or charity were.

She's sending George another picture.  Now this could be anything; say a reproduction of a favorite illustration.

My mother continues well. A dry irony concludes it all.  The implication is her mother has been well all along but now is saying she is well.



Becoming Jane:  Anna Maxwell Martin as the young solemn (disapproving) Cassandra

General comment:  The point of close-reading the letters is to get back to primary sources.  It's the confrontation of close reading of subtle details, tones. documented realities in the letters themselves written (to echo Richardson) to the moment, as the life itself is lived day-by-day. The point is each of us reading the letters direct in the time frame they were written.

I feel I've learned a lot even after just 11 letters (censored and quite a number gone forever). I've changed my mind on several things:  I now take the Lefroy romance seriously -- though not to the extreme we find in Spence; I've encountered another attempt for Austen in Blackall and read Austen's words about this.   The Bridges reference is yet to be elucidated as that comes later but you can't forget the other documents:  life-writing is not self-contained.   I've woven in what Austen's letters don't contain, important events like marriages and deaths affecting her siblings.  I've changed my mind on P&P: yes there are parallels in these early letters; yes Lydia is a parallel, Austen's tones are those of Lydia at moments.  S&S I did think had parallels and these are confirmed and also MP confirmed.

I'm beginning to think the friendship with Mrs Lefroy while real has been exaggerated at least as regards her point of view.

I've seen Austen's strained relationships: with her mother; her dependence on and deference to Cassandra at the same time as Cassandra took very different views of how to behave and what to say. This is painful stuff because of Jane's dependence and deference.   Cassandra squashed her, repressed her.  Jane's lack of identification with Edward's attitudes (no transference there) and her distance from her other brothers in the sense of her life experience.  They come and go as they want, have careers, forbid her to take a post chaise. Men and women are kept apart, forced into rigid sexualized roles, with the women made to sew endlessly for the men (shirts) and not permitted to do even some small things: like ice-skating later one.  Tiny ones matter too.

And the slack she gives her father.  How the two share jokes, how she feels her father feels for her and is broad-minded

The 1995 P&P:  Benjamin Whitlow as Mr Bennet who will miss Elizabeth (Jennifer Ehle) while she is at Hunsford

I tended to prefer Nokes for his original scholarship (he went back to the documents and thought for himself) but now I'm seeing again and again Tomalin's summary of a letter is much closer to the letter's sense.

See 1&2, 3&4, 5, 6, 7, 8 & 9 and 10