I've decided it would be better for me to pursue my project of close reading Austen's letters one or two a week on this blog rather than the Austen listservs (Janeites, Austen-l) and my own Yahoo listserv (WomenWritersthroughtheAges): the attitude of those willing actively to post about the letters is too different from mine, particularly towards Cassandra (who shaped the collection as its chief interlocutor, shaper, censurer) for me to be able to persist. So I'll be placing a third kind of Austen content here: in addition to blogs on any aspect of studying Austen's novels, on the writings of contemporary women, on Austen criticism and sequels, and on Austen movies, I'll write about her letters.
William Gilpin, from his travel-picturesque book on Hampshire, Sussex, and Kent
She, we are told by Henry in his biographical memoir, loved to read and love at Gilpin's pages when younger especially. Thus I added two illustrations from Gilpin, the first from his book on Hampshire, Sussex and Kent; the second from his book which included a journey into South Wales. The second reminds me of the mise-en-scene around the Austen house in Wright's 2005 P&P. After the commentary on the second letter, I put one of the cartoon paratexts from the 1979 BBC P& (scripted by Fay Weldon): in each of the five sets one is labelled First Impressions. This to emphasize though not mentioned anywhere in these two remnants that Austen was writing P&P the first version and her father sent it out for publication in the next year.
I begin with the first two letters.
Letter 1, Saturday 9 to Sunday 10 January 1796
My edition is not Chapman but LeFaye's (1996, third). It is of course heavily based on Chapman's -- except for the new letters Leyfaye has since Chapman.
What struck me is not so much the melange of quick-changing tones -- I do hear emotionalism as well as gaiety -- and how out of nowhere (so to speak) a world is conjured up. How many people and events are crowded into this tiny space. I am not sure how to take her comments on Lefroy
I feel this is a continuation and I regret intensely the letters that came before -- Austen is not starting a correspondence or she would say so. This is one of a series of typical letters she has been writing for quite a while.
It's one long paragraph without breaks just chock-a-block with people, and intimate references.
I find an arch tone in the lines up to the reference to Cassandra's scolding. This does bother me. I wonder how much strong self-esteem Austen had, and think we see here how much she was influenced by her sister. We have only two by Cassandra, the two written after Jane's death, and there we see a strongly conventional mind: Austen died because God was punishing Cassandra for over-valuing her. A perverse idea that might be sheltering some guilt of Cassandra's that she had maneuvered her sister to stay single? One might have assured Cassandra this had not been hard as suitors were not going to insist marrying a penniless brilliant satiric type; nonetheless there had been a few chances and these two letters record the first we know about.
I find the lines especially as a conclusion to the letter flippant in tasteless way "I am sorry for the Beaches' loss of their little girl, especially as it is the one so much like me." -- Cassandra saved these lines so she did not see how What really is the problem with these letters is we don't have Cassandra's. This is the first of our letters but having read them through I know such jokes by Jane are often aimed at children, at women having children, at young children. E.M.Forster saw in this the frustrated old maid; here she is so young that can't be; she can't know she will not marry or have children, but she does find the insistence that we value children irritating.
Some of the influence of her family on her (a kind of unkindness, a hostility I'd call it) comes out in her writing "I heartily hope that he [Henry] will, as usual, be disappointed in his scheme." Jane hopes Henry will be disappointed because the Cape of Good Hope is a famous ship wreck spot. Could be, but in context she is satiric (needling a bit) on Henry as someone constantly changing his mind. This is a family attitude towards Henry -- like the way of talking of Eliza in a "down" or slightly hostile and distrustful sort of way
She also does not let Cassandra off, observing her manipulations: you are not showing up here until after the Coopers have left. The implication; don't fool me. I still don't like the scolding business and wonder what Cassandra scolded about -- in context it seems Jane's flirting ("I flatter myself, however, that they will profit by the three successive lessons ... You scold me ... ") I don't find the tone endearing. While I can't agree with Aneilka (as she's seen) these are letter hollowed out of emotion or without it, I do feel a lot of posturing.
Again sometimes she may not thinking about Cassandra's reaction to whatever she wrote before -
On the Lefroy passages:
Then I find the lines about Lefroy plangent from "I can expose myself ... [to] he is ashamed of coming to Steventon." And I find the concluding lines referring to Lefroy plangent again: it's a cover-up the lines about her onw "fault" wearing "a morning coat too light." Remember she has been scolded by Cassandra -- as Lefroy was needled so is she scolded.
He was needled -- if anything this brings home why in the novels we have a strongly jaundiced satiric response to social life. It makes me think of young girls today needled for being "plump" -- mortified continually as a form of repression and control.
On the next page who does Austen mean when she refers to "my friend:" "I wish Charles had been at Manydown, because he would have given you some description of my friend" She is attracted to "Warren" and Charles Watkins" and "Mr Benjamin Portal" but seeks to escape importunities by John Lyford. We are not told why.
Austen has a reference to Thomas Fowle, but there is but one: "What a funny name Tom has got for his vessel. But he has no taste in names, as we well know, and I dare say he christened it himself." I see nothing in this comment that can be read as emotionally supportive of a pining sister. Austen does not show any sense of Cassandra as pining and although we know that Fowle died soon after, this was not known then. For my part I would respect Cassandra if I thought of her as showing that she missed this man and worried a little for him -- they knew at the time such places were diseased and also knew that sea travel was not safe (no longitude as yet for example).
Like much of the letter it's lightly rebarbative. The sentences which seem to have -- or could be read as having emotion contained -- are those referring to Lefroy. And in some of the letter the rebarbative feel is heavily -- as in the reference to the dead little girl. That sentence could be slightly overread to suggest Austen in leaping to think of her own death has an undercurrent of alienation which might account for the rebarbative tones, but this is pressing too heavily
We would not be reading these letters were they not by Jane Austen. They might be known by scholars as shedding interesting light on the intimate life of the gentry at the turn of the century -- with suitable reservations made for the censored fragmentary nature of them, the chaotic structure (or seeming lack of it), and the self-censored nature (and repression) of the correspondent herself confronted with her sister and the possibility of other readers.
We do over-analyze these too. In a way they are another suggestive piece of evidence of the often unconscious nature of Austen's art in the deeper sense; she cannot herself articulate in secular psychological or literary cultural language what she's written. The fuss made over a 12 to 15 year old's jotted down thoughts reveals the desperation of the critic to turn her into something she's not. Her greatness is found in the six famous novels, and in the fragments written towards novels (The Watsons, Lady Susan, Sanditon -- this last very fragmentary and in a state something like her letters). Catherine, or the Bower begins to show the power of the writer and adumbrates the six plus three. There's something to be said for a few of the juvenilia (Love & Freindship especially, maybe Leslie Castle) but the rest are talked up absurdly. It's the hagiography that gives the license.
I did try to make a beginning on Lord Brabourne's edition which I bought in a facsimile edition on the last ASECS meeting. He opens with the Rice portrait! Did he believe it to be Austen? It reminds me of how varied the descriptions of Austen are even by relatives who knew her; he would not have. He's awkward and a little absurd himself but I like his plan of filling in context and people. Like LeFaye, he's not interested in the bookish Jane. I do know about Godmersham and this area of England from my studies of Anne Finch and can vouch for his gonig to the right original sources there (Halsted for example)
It's startling to see Austen's letter in his edition. He has done what Karhryn Sutherland accused Chapman of: over-edited. He paragraphs, he puts in grammar and he re-punctuates. He does not move the sentences around but it's fascinating how the tone changes utterly. The sentences become much duller and the hard wit of her last comment on the dead little girl is somehow muted.
Austen's letter reads much worse, duller in Brabourne's edition. Chapman's editions of Austen are miracles of tact: he puts in only what is most needed and leaves the texts alone.
Gilpin, Lake Illaware, New South Wales
We haved an intelligent young woman who is a member of an exclusive caste in the southern part of England, living the life available to her, one sheltered from the worst kinds of things (say rape, physical abuse, starvation, homelessness) as well as other social terrors for the moment, precariously privileged (overt humiliations may come later if she does not succeed in marrying -- that is, she'll end a teacher at a school, which she apparently dreaded or woman dependent on a relative, which she did, or a governess, even possible even more dreaded). She is not being trained to cope with the wider politics or male world, indeed clearly kept out of it and put where she can find marriageable men -- as her family deemed this. We don't hear of what she reads because it's not of interest to Cassandra I suppose. The one charge of intense feeling has to do with Lefroy and the smaller ones her own acid comment at the end. The context is of scolding which goes unexplained because we lack the letters before and Cassandra's. And now before I go on to Letter 2: a letter is missing between Letter 1 and 2 in LeFaye's volume, one dated Tuesday 12 or Wednesday 13 January 1796)
I see no irony in Austen's references to the scolding. My reading of course: I see Austen as having been and feeling repressed by whatever was Cassandra's response and am not surprised to see a lack of any feeling beyond an odd sort of joke (unexplained because its source is uncomfortable and mabye even a little needling of Cassandra). If Cassandra had been unsympathetic in her response, why should Jane give when what she has received has not been any kind of true listening or sympathy.
Letter 2: Thursday 14- Friday 15 January 1796
This is a letter not quite as long and has another and deeper feeling references to Tom Lefroy
When she does go to Ashe
I -- I look forward with great impatience to it [the party at Ashe], as I rather expect to receive an offer from my friend in the course of the evening. I shall refuse him, however, unless he promises to give away his White coat.
The "white coat" reference makes this a reference to Tom Lefroy. What kind of offer? I doubt it's to dance. The writing is a big stag-y: she has made the "I -- I". She is clearly letting Cassandra and anyone else who might read this (letters could be read by others and such a stag-y way of putting a sentence makes me think like many letter writers Austen had an instinct to want to see her letters read much more widely than one).
That's Thursday. Then the next day -- the day of the night when they will have their party and she will refuse his offer -- if he makes it -- maybe he did not because he had been so ridiculed and humliated and pressured --
"At length the Day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy, & when you receive this it will be over -- My tears flow as I write, at the melancholy idea."
I see no hints of irony here, a bit stag-y, seeking comfort and understanding. So I would say this relationship did have real meaning for her at the time, however she managed to repress it -- not altogether as a later letter where her father kindly asked a question for her to Mrs Lefroy suggests. I read Arnie's suppositions on Eliza's miscarriage but see there is no evidence for a pregnancy in 1796. I don't "betcha" the woman had miscarriages in those years. We don't know. I agree the husband seems to be regularly inflicting her this way but it's a leapt to say there were miscarriages inbetween with no evidence. Other letters from this era (including Austen's) are not shy to cite miscarriages. If she did have a miscarriage it's another leap to say that this particular day in this year was a miscarriage day.
I see the reference to "unpleasantness" (as I said) as separate from Eliza's illness. The latter comes in what would be another paragraph were Austen making separate paragraphs. "Matters have fallen out so unpleasantly" These are matters where Cassandra is; not where Jane is and we don't know that the Fowles cared anything at all about who Lefroy did or did not marry. I would like to believe that Cassandra used that unpleasantness (whatever it was) as an excuse not to go to the ball. I'd like to think she felt for her sister and maybe didn't want to see that final scene.
The other day (as I wrote) I read Lord Brabourne's introduction to his selection of letters and then his introduction to the opening letter. This utterly complacent man rushes to insist that the Lefroy incident was really trivial and soon forgotten by Austen. why? Because we could blame her family or his, or say, see how these hierarchical demands blight lives, and that's not allowed. They would themselves probably truly believe that they blighted nothing because they really believe in keeping money and prestige and connections prime motive, really think that is more necessary than deep love. When we come to Austen's letters to her niece Fanny on this issue we can come back to this.
Questions: we don't know what Austen is referring to when she writes: "I do not at all expect to see you on Tuesday since matters have fallen out so unpleasantly . .."
This seems to me more than a reference to Eliza's illness which comes up separately. She also says (and this has a ring of plain truth, nothing rebarbative here) she cares so little about the (coming) ball it's no sacrifice if it means she can see Cassandra two days earlier.
Is this the ball that she is looking forward to tomorrow night? It must be. She is not looking forward to it.
They have relatives over; the Coopers. Remember this is but two days after twelfth night so this might still be part of the Xmas season.
Cassandra commends her last letter -- as it's the one that is missing we are at sea here. But now she moves into joking. We can see maybe she is regarding herself as professional writer in her heart (nothing published but her sense of herself -- she is in the midst of writing _P&P as First Impressions remember): "I write only for Fame, and without any view to pecuniary Emolument." Then flat stuff about the family and the wry ironies come back:
She responds to Cassandra's possible saying that Tom Fowle's family likes her: "I hope you will continue to give satisfaction." and who is Cassandra to write her about Tom (Fowle)? Now she imagines where Tom is and this will be on Cassandra's mind too -- this is the first kindly symnpathetic reference to Tom Fowle in these two letters but it does show that Cassandra's mind is on it and Jane knows this.
More on visitors. If others want to talk about this, pray do, I'm not looking this up this morning.
But then in the midst of this another reversion to Tom Lefroy and as in the last letter I felt I heard the tones of Lydia Bennet so here it's more like Elizabeth Bennet:
She gives over all her other admirers to "mary" (and Mr Heartley's estate -- was it big?) to Mary, and she can have "all my other Admirers into the bargan" ... een the kiss which C. Powlett wanted to give me, as I mean to confine myself in future to tom Lefroy, for whom I do not care sixpence"
That "I mean to confine" is the tone of Elizabeth Bennet writing to Mrs Gardener to compare herself to Jane.:" The last line is a self-protective undercutting.
And then that plangent line as she looks forward to said ball. More gossip.
I'm also interested in the relationship of the novels to the letters and my thought after this two thus far: how much novels are wish-fulfilments. When we see a young couple successfully carrying on a romance despite the relatives, we might remember how easy to squash and repress. Also for the first time I've begun to think perhaps the Lefroy affair is reflected in P&P. I've resisted this for years. I still think it has nothing directly to do with the Darcy-Elizabeth pair as what happens is he's all powerful and the great release is to *reject* him. But now I've heard some tones of Lydia Bennet and remember the talk about how Austen was a flirt when young -- if so, here we see a strained uncomfortable one. And admit I'm thinking that perhaps the Bingley story reflects the Lefroy one. A young man sent away. It's a reverse kind of thought so not very demonstrable: one reason Austen pussyfoots around the Bingley retreat is it would be too painful for her to "go there" as my students like to put it. Much would have been tempered by the years that passed from 1796 to 1812 -- during which time she lopped and chopped and rewrote, perhaps even an epistolary book into an omniscient one. Still some origin might be this disappointment.
Cartoon paratexts from Fay Weldon's 1979 P&P
Let's remember while she writes these two letters she is writing the first version of First Impressions.