June 9th, 2011

Harriet Vane

Jane Austen's Letters: Letter 28, Sun, 30 Nov, Mon 1 Dec, 1800, from Ibthorpe

Dear friends and readers,

This is another of the long letters. For someone interested in Austen as a novelist -- and if we were not, this collection of letters would probably be of interest only to specialists in the era -- the most interesting, and thus far unique, feature of this letter is the vignette or anecdote that is developed in the second long paragraph about Miss Wapshire, first name possibly, Emma (Austen wishes the name were Emma because perhaps she is beginning her The Watsons around this time), which very like the nuggets for fictions in Henry James's notebooks reads like an sketch-outline for a typical Austen novel. 

What is of further interest here is the coy way Austen refers to "Emma" as a name she wishes she could be certain of. It's arguable that in fact Cassandra did not destroy the earlier references to Austen's books in Austen's letters but that she and Jane had agreed not to mention them.  This does suggest that Harman's idea that Austen's novels were not respected by her family, were something she needed to keep marginalized is so.

Emma (Romola Garai) and Harriet (Louise Dylan)  in the first phase of their relationship, walking together, charitable deeds (2009 Emma)

A unique feature is it appears to be the only one from Jane at or from Ibthorpe.  In Lefaye, there is No 39 which is to Ibthorpe, but no other from. There are a number of others to Martha Lloyd scattered throughout the collection.  After this letter and before the next, occurred the momentous day Austen came home and was told the Austen family would move to Bath, Steventon would become her brother's and she would have to get out.  There is no record of that by her -- only hearsay and memory which records that she was stunned and profoundly dismayed.  We don't get any of that directly in the letters Cassandra kept. There's a series from 1801 the first part of their long time in Bath and then silence.  Given her love of letter writing and her love of getting them, I imagine she wrote to Cassandra whenever Cassandra went to Godmersham and also to Martha and (as I recall) Anne Sharpe. All gone.

So given what lay just ahead, I'm glad to say this is a very happy letter.  We've had two letters written in high spirits in expectation -- while Jane waited and looked forward to seeing her friend:  Letter 26 and 27.  This happiness is captured in phrases, e.g., "I have the pleasure of thnking myself a very welcome Guest, & the pleasure of spending my time very pleasantly."  Like most people Austen writes out of a context and memory and this sentence comes out of the vistis where she was not a welcome guest and did not spend her time pleasantly. The time was a relief.  It probably made Austen feel good to think she could have a good time, could fit in somewhere, could be with someone who genuinely wanted her.  If a resolute ignoring of all that Jane valued (the life at Steventon, the house, its environs) was to come upon her return home (sprung on her it seems) and a forced living where she didn't want to (Bath) was to come, at least she has this just now.

Emma and Mrs Weston (Anna Taylor that was, Jodhi May) as confiding friends to another (2009 BBC Emma)

The burden of her song is that she does not have time to write or read as she and Martha are so busy together, doing things and being together.  They don't tire of one another:  "it is too dirty even for such desperate Walkers as Martha & I to get out of doors, & we are therefore confined to each other's society from morning til night, with very little of Books or Gowns. " Realistically probably had they had eons of time and visited often, they might eventually have tired of one another, but before one says that, one has to remember that Martha did come to live with the Austen sisters and their mother so this companionship is something more than temporary over-valuation. It did later stand the tests of time and living together. So it's then revealing of her relationship with Cassandra and Cassandra's need of her, Jane, that nonetheless Jane sits down to write. She is taking time from this rare treat -- I remember how she didn't mind in the least spending hours writing Cassandra when she was in Bath and how her penchant to sit apart and write letters then surprised the uncle (Perrot).


From 1995 P&P: Jane (Samantha Harker) and Elizabeth (Jennifer Ehle) laughing together after the first assembly
To the details: 

The first long paragraph (from "Shall you expect" ... to "so short a space of time") tells of Jane and Martha's first few days together and the preoccupation Jane returns to is it was impracticable to walk. Jane says this is not uncommon in this parish: when she says the roads are dirty she is referring to more than heavy dust; she means ruts, rocks, and a lot of mud. It's December, rain, snow. She says they didn't mind at all, were so glad to be together, but it's clear they would have liked to wander and roam about too, not just sit.

Austen also tells of her journey to Ibthorpe.  Apparently Cassandra was not there when she left and Jane feels she must tell of Mrs Austen's health and we get the usual scepticism towards any idea that Mrs Austen is weak or ill: she left her "very well" ... "with strict orders to continue so" and expectation that she will (no matter what she says). She describes one of the stopovers (Andover); how she stopped at shops (Messrs Painter and Redding, haberfdasher, linen and woollen draper) and a visit to Mrs Poore and her mother.  She's glad to find the mother in good spirits (so often the woman was not) and I take it Mrs Poore is another of these pregnant women. The quesion is how big is she; Jane couldn't care less is really the message here.  LeFaye's notes say the man was a doctor (surgeon, apothecary and mid-wife) so not high on the social scale, but learned and genteel enough; two boys at home.  Apparently they or someone else had boasted about the staircase of this house and its "elegant drawing room".  To be sure, it's one of these big houses the privileged at the time (above the vast majority of abysmal poor) and is now a museum.  A line suggests that Austen is sceptical of some compliment either Cassandra or the Poores had made about Austen herself:  she did everything "that Extraordinary Abilities can be supposed to Compass in so short a time." 

What's pleasant about the first part of the paragraph is the infectious enthusiasm she genuinely feels. All the remarks about her and Martha.  Mrs Stent was one of these very poor hanger-on women. Reduced "to very narrow means."  As Cassandra might have asked if she can expect a letter by Wednesday, in a missing letter she also asked about Mrs Stent and whether she made herself scarce.  She didn't this time: she gives "quite as much of her company as we wish for, & rather more than she used to." I don't feel in these lines any irritation with Mrs Stent. Austen does not mind her there.

At one time I might have made some remark about how nowadays we don't have such women around to the same extent, that it is not usual -- women with no job, no income, no place -- I can say that no longer.  Massive unemployment and underemployment has brought this back -- also men too without jobs or sufficient ones. Now that welfare is destroyed too and there are no records kept of all the women thrown off and their children, they too are hidden in families, shelters, streets, wherever, our society doesn't care about them as long as no one has to help them out of general funds.  Out of individual sight and records so out of mind. The general poverty rate of children in the US is high; records of the poverty level of women are calculated quite differently (as part of wage levels) but it's all back.  There's also the rise of people living together and breaking up without marrying and the divorce rate very high.

Apparently there were quite a number of female Debarries. Lefaye's note lists 4 daughters and one wife.  Three called right away to but she has not yet "returned their civility."

There is then a break, a new or second long paragraph. Perhaps Austen got up, went away and came back to write again.


Elinor (Hattie Morahan) and Marianne (Charity wakefield) getting into bed together

From the second sentence in this letter on "the endless Debarries" down to the Jane's wish she could be certain that Miss Wapshire's first name is Emma is detailed news about the people who the Austen would considerable visitable who live in the close neighborhood of the Lloyds. These are by no means all the people roundabout, just those of the Austen and Lloyd class. What kinds of details does Austen tell?

The story the Debaries told her about Emma (?) Wapshire. We learn of her mother, a widow with a "good fortune" and "several sons & daughters", "a house in Salisbury". She was a "beauty for many years," and Austen says this older young woman promises better than the bloom of 17, "though still handsome less handsome than she had been." She was told of "the remarkable propriety of Miss Wapshire's behavior;" it seems much more decorous than "the general class of Town Misses" which thus rendered her "very unpopular among them." There is a little irony in her hope she has now conveyed the real truth. I suspect there was a letter now missing where she told of this woman and Cassandra found a contradiction and really wanted to know.  Austen is not sure that Miss Wapshire is the eldest so now she's being careful.  At Salisbury everyone really thinks this match is for real. Did Cassandra doubt it? Austen is not finished with the woman.  She liked Austen's gown and "particularly bids me to say that if you could see me in it for five minutes, she is sure you would be eager to make up your own."

It often startles me how people can care about other people's lives this way and get all involved in the minutiae of local gossip, but ask them any question of general import (larger politics) or expect them to notice what actually is significant and they go blank. The sentence attributed to Miss Wapshire shows a desire to flatter and is couched in cant-like language and I take Austen really to "blush" to have to repeat this kind of verbiage.

We can though say this: this anecdote is a little novel in the making. I can imagine Austen developing a story from it. It's the sort of thing Henry James records in his notebooks whch he later develops in interesting ways.  I note Austen wishes she were an Emma.  She will soon be writing or has begun The Watsons with its Emma. An Emma Woodhouse novel is to come.

Having accomplished satisfying Cassandra, Austen's matter derives from having gone shopping. She manages two generalizations: she's pleased to "make so munificent a present", and she learned the price of this manufacture of pretty material. It's figured cambric muslin for Edward -- doubtless a shirt a woman would have to sew for him.

A new plan to go out walking. They plan to have a "nice black frost" and the image of her and Martha in the postchaise reminds me of Lydia Bennet's idea of fun: "there throw ourselves into a postchaise, one upon another, our heads hanging out at one door and feet the opposite."

Here also is a slapstick scene like we find in the juvenilia. She makes herself and Martha into gay clowns.  The grotesquerie is very much like what is in Orlando; a gay kind of humor, something one finds in Sondheim too.  The grotesquerie is very much like what is in Woolf's Orlando; a gay kind of humor, something one finds in Sondheim too.  Also Angela Carter in Nights at the Circus

Then a swift associated joke:  If Cassandra doesn't know Miss Dawes has been married for 2 months now Austen will mention it in the next letter.  And

"Pray do not forget to go to the next Canterbury Ball. I shall despise you all most insufferably if you do.

We expected her to say "if you don't."  She enjoying the two contradictions, paradoxical talk.

This brings on a memory that the Lloyds neighborhood will have no ball for the owner/manager lost too much money last winter. So she is sending her spies (Mymirdons -- from Iliad -- a joke about her power) to tell her about the ball at Basingstoke, and she's placed spies at different places to collect the more, sent Miss Bigg to the townhall.  The fun is all imagination; Myrmidons, spies, Miss Bigg sent on ahead. The point:  see how powerful Austen is when of course she isn't.   A dream of absolute power to move people about.

All this together will give her a picture to send Mrs Austen.

Did Mrs Austen ask for this kind of news? I suppose so.

So the second part of Austen's letter is a direct result of answering requests, cavils, interests of her mother and sister.  The last part all imagination; Myrmidons, spies, Miss Bigg sent on ahead. See how powerful Austen is.

A day goes by and Cassandra's letter has arrived. Monday.  Austen now hopes there will be nothing "requiring immediate attention" as they are to dine and 'she has neither time to read nor I to write." 

Charlotte Lucas's (Lucy Scott) hurt need for Elizabeth: Charlotte presses Elizabeth to come to her at Hunsford, she knows she will not be leaving the place as she says "for some time" (95 P&P): poignant moment

Austen is for once ambivalent about letters.  She would have preferred Cassandra not to make these demands; she wants to devote herself to her and Martha.  I also see a bit of straining.  Because Austen normally does not have this friend and enjoy her social life she is over-emphasizing the amount she is doing here, insisting on it -- the way people do when they get to do something they long to do; they overemphasize it to compensate for before and after it goes on.

There is something that Austen enjoys with Martha that makes her see her usual reading and writing (which she usually loves) as second (or maybe third) best.


Earnest talk: in 1995 P&P Davies adds three dialogues where someone warns Elizabeth that she has not known Wickham long enough (the other utterances are by Mr Bennet, making fun, and Charlotte Lucas, seriously self-interested on Elizabeth's behalf)

General assessment:: Austen's letters do follow the natural rhythms of the life of an unmarried gentlewoman on constrained means. They also reveal the conscious mind-set of the author and aspects of her art. We see her intensely constained and limited circumstances. We can also speculate here that we see she was also pressured into hiding her gift and if someone did compliment her on her "extraordinary abilities" was inclined to mock. After all, in comparison to the rest of the world who could boast (men with careers, women marrying -- which however Austen is not keen to do, much less get pregnant), what has she? one friend, Martha and no where to walk in. Still a spirited letter.  Austen making the best of things, indeed making more of them than they are.

See 1&2, 3&4, 5, 6, 7, 8 & 9 , 10, 1112, 13, 14 , 15, 16 & 17 , 18, 19 , 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25 , 26 and 27.