misssylviadrake (misssylviadrake) wrote,

Jane Austen's letters: 6, 15-16, Thus-Fri Sept 1796, Post-colonial, naval & stage coach angles

Dear friends and readers,

A fourth installment of commentary on Austen's letters.  We've had 1&2, 3&4 and 5.  This letter encompasses primogeniture, the Black Hole of Calcutta, naval patronage, a barbed portrait of socializing (visiting, being visited), stage coaches, not to omit another reference to Burney's Camilla.  With what intense desire she wants her home!

Yes she's still at Rowling!  Cannot get home even now.

This is Anna Hathaway playing Jane Austen writing home from Cork (Letter 3) where she is imagined as living in the same house as Lefroy (Becoming Jane Austen)

I was mistaken: there is a reference to her sister-in-law, the lady-in-chief at the house, Elizabeth Austen: it seems that both she and "Eliz" were without hat or Bonnet. It "would" therefore not have been convenient for them to go in a chair".  She leaves it to Cassandra to surmise who got the decent seat ("how we divided").  Elizabeth of course.  Remember in Mansfield Park all the fuss about who sits where; there it was for love or attraction; in real life such things are often about prestige and comfort. So much for Eliz.

10 days have gone by since her last.  In this interval Jane Austen also wrote a message (brief letter or note) to Mr Digweed from Edward inside or with a letter to Mary Lloyd. So we are missing a letter to Mary Lloyd.  It would be salutary and instructive to see that note as well as her letter to Mary Lloyd: to compare tones of both, and in the case of Mary Lloyd to compare content.

This is another letter (like the opening of the first and part of the immediate previous, Letter 5) where she is in the thick of a social life and spills out the details of this continual socializing which by the end of the letter it's clear she's long tired of even if in the daily way she falls into it. They visit other grand and not-so-grand houses, eat dinners with people, have to look at their pictures, they have guests over.  What interests me most is the picture of how so many people might really spent their existences, wasting time in social trivia -- a point of view Austen makes clear.  She is enduring this endless socializing -- she gives us a picture of it that accords with common ideas about it:  the letter is a picture of how many people do spend their lives.  A meaninglessness comes across which comes out in some of the passing jokes.

For example:  the "Two traits in her [Miss Fletcher's] Character which are pleasing; namely she admires Camilla & drinks no cream." About as meaningful put together as the rest of what's happening about her and she must fall in with (she 'dared' not say how much she wanted Henry's scheme)

There are some casual acid-like digs about Miss Fletcher -- she is negligent about letters on Lucy's behalf (as if she cared -- she was "not able to bring her to a proper sense of Shame" is ironic solemnness). Miss Fletcher says she has nothing to write about since 'everybody" left Canterbury, by which she means "officers."  This take us to the world of P&P and Miss Fletcher is no made into a Lydia Bennet type.  But she has further digs herself in Lydia's vein:  Miss Fletcher's purple Muslim does not become her; Jane is thinner.

There are jokes about her non-existent (I begin to take it) romance life again;  "We went by Bifrons, & I contemplated with a melancholy pleasure the abode of Him on whom I once fondly doted"  The home of rhe Taylor family, demolished in 1941.  Which Taylor could it be? Edward born 1774 (p. 576).


She is pleasant about some of it, though the letter lacks the gaiety of her references to dancing and with Edward Bridges leading out the group, and there are the other barbs -- it does seem as if she sometimes can't resist this. 

For example, she's making fun of her brother, James when she says "by this time he must have collected his Ideas enough":  he makes an inordinate fuss and takes time over his writing that is not called for -- perhaps some jealousy over his poetry? or the family valuing him as a poet? or he valuing himself that way -- and no one values hers or not enough?

Contemporary silhouette of little Edward adopted by the Knights

The most striking is against an exposure of Edward's greed: 

   I told you in a former Letter that Edward had some idea of taking the name of Clarinbould; but that scheme is over. tho' it would be a very eligible as well as pleasant plan, would anyone advance him the money to begin on

It's clearly a joke as if you change your name that does not at all mean anyone will leave you their property; "it would be a very eligible as well as a very pleasant plan, would anyone advance him Money enough to begin on."  It is true that Edward will have to change his to get Godmersham and is obviously very willing.

Beyond Edward's possible shamelessness over this in his private hours at Rowling, she is understandably irritated:  after all having been adopted by the Knights, he is now a rich man and is gonig to be a much richer one -- and she is not.  It reminds me of a comment she makes when she, mother, sister, and father clear out of Steventon after her father gives his vicarage to her eldest brother, James. They leave everything and more to James. One part of the family impoverished for the other she writes.

Edward as the traveling gentleman on grand tour

This certainly resonates with the opening of S&S where the Dashwood girls are thrown out and all given to the heir and his son.  She does not say specifically she's a woman but it's implicit. In both cases she is steaming over primogeniture and how unfair it is to the younger brothers and sisters. After all they then have to be dependent on the social conscience and kindness of the eldest, and people use their power. 

In the era (as perhaps today too among some) a real emphasis on names.  When people left property to someone outside their family , they would ask the new heir to change his name, and people did it.  Thomas Brodnax May was the first non-biological heir to get Godmersham in this way:  he was not heir and changed his name to Knight. Austen is speaking as if this is important -- we see it emphasized so in Cecilia.  Maybe it was to her, but I suspect it's a hammer to hit Edward with, to show him up.

She does carry on with jokes about names: Richard Harvey will not marry after all, perhaps not "till he has got a Better Christian name, which he has great Hopes of."   The Austens had some family joke about the name Richard. This also by extension refers to money: you get more money if someone leaves you property and you agree to change your name.

Now she, Jane, cannot change her name to get property -- unless by marriage and then it's the man who owns the property and she has it as his wife.  Elizabeth Austen (let's recall) was herself from a wealthy group (the Bridges) so she would not see herself as so very dependent on Edward, but him as the person who ought to be grateful more than she.

Edward Austen Knight in Miss Austen Regrets presented much more sympathetically: here it's 1814 and he is being sued, his hold on his property threatened by the biological heirs

These currents in the letter are there for the next statement is about marriage:  Mr children's two sons .. to be married. Now we move to them having "one wife between them" a "Miss Holwell, who belongs to the Black Hole of Calcutta."  In LeFaye's notes we learn that Miss Holwell's grandfather survived that terrifying experience for whites and published a work describing it (p. 537). 

So Jane Austen was alive to colonialism. The Black Hole of Calcutta functioned the way 9/11 has ever since:  it's a dread for those who live in the US because the colonized and subject (not white) who were hitherto erased, vanished, suppressed now have gotten back and the story remains to be referred to. The "Reign of Terror" as a topic functioned similarly in the Napoleonic era.

Just on the reference to the Black Hole of Calcutta:

John Holwell

                    If others are interested, there's an article by the Royal Society of Medicine about Holwell as well as an article in wikipeda, but it should be stated Austen would have heard of Holwell from more than the one pamphlet. I just went over to ECCO and found no less than 15 different titles by Holwell on questions about India; a 16th is by a William Holwell (possibly a relative, probably). There are duplicate copies of his pamphlet; defenses by him of his pamphlet (many people will endlessly attack you if they feel you have hurt their interest somehow or other) and interestingly pamphlets on the religion, customs and native life of Bengali people by Holwell. One is on the manner of innoculating against smallpox in India.

                     I've downloaded three: the narrative, Holwell's travel book, and his defense & explanation -- to us (well me) very dull, filled with details of what happened in UK meetings, all about money and I can see how this frank open discussion of the chicaneries and greed and ruthless behavior of the British would incense others and cause Holwell to be attacked.

A contemporary print

                      It should be said that the description of the widow eager to be burnt to death in the article by the Royal Society is a common description of women at the time and since -- ultimately from the families who stood to gain her property by her death.  There is much literature which argues these are falsifying (of course texts which say they are perfectly accurate).  When the British went about to stamp out widow-burning, there arose a whole literature on this.  I did a project on Paul Scott's Raj Quartet and through my reading in post-colonialist texts nowadays and 19th century travel literature (among this is Anthony Trollope) I've only time just to vouch for it, and can if anyone likes on another day offer names of books/articles

                      I've also read an article about 19th century norms for widows comparing widowhood in the west with widow-burning: of course the latter is horrendous and the former merely repressive but there are a few thematic parallels.  There was remarriage within families; women were very much regarded as secondary creatures (as today in some countries in Africa women suffer very badly by a lack of valuing them).

                       Austen is on-record in Catherine, or The Bower (through irony) deploring the selling of oneself to British husbands in India -- that was the case with her aunt, her father's sister, Philadelphia, who went to India and married Tysoe Saul Hancock and left him when Hastings and his wife sailed to the UK -- never to return.  My guess is Austen had sympathy for her aunt and (though never broached on paper) she might have had understanding for Philadelphia having had Eliza by Hastings.

Miniature of Eliza, very poor

                       The outside "colonial" world was not outside to Austen: her brothers were to make money by becoming police and agents of the British state, companies; her aunt, her cousin (whom Henry married), the Hastings' first son who died while in George and Cassandra's care (Jane's parents were desolated and probably worried lest they be blamed)

The men have power in this society of patronage too. Sir Thomas Williams is referred to as "high royal highness." I assume Jane's brothers and her parents and deferred so flatteringly to this man it irritated Jane sometimes.  This makes me remember Sir Walter and Elizabeth Elliot -- who are caricatures.  This is rather an instance of how this system of currying favor (dependence) as the only way you can get ahead feels to an outsider.  Austen's statement is of interest because she's not identifying; she's like an outsider in this sentence.  Not that she pretends to the "innate integrity" in another instance Henry Tilney praises Catherine for having.  This reference again brings in the wider world outside the small world of Hampshire and Kent to which she is literally/physically confined.

A cartoon after Gilray: a press gang

Back to her letter:  She does long to go home:  with what intense desire she wants her home is a line she gives Fanny Price, out of Cowper's poem): a letter from Cassandra and Henry seems to be about Henry;'s "scheme" "more than I had dared expect.'  Notice that "dared."   It seems to be bold for her to say aloud she wants to go home. What is the particular in Henry's Scheme she wishes were otherwise?  The next sentence tells us: 

                  "You must not expect us quite so early however as wednesday the 20th -- ...  &c"  She then says Frank "never had any idea of going way before Monday the 26th." 

This is a response to Cassandra's letter (now missing) probably where Cassandra may have lamented that Frank was supposed to go earlier and now is not. Apparently Frank wants to stay for Miss Pearson.  Henry got a dig in there during conversation too:  "which Henry thinks very likely & particularly eligible."

This kind of subrisive ridicule probably made Frank very uncomfortable -- he seems to have been a densely determined kind of person though so it's hard to say. For all we know Henry and Jane are both "quizzing" Frank without sufficient cause -- just getting a kick out of making him uncomfortable the way say Mrs Jennings and Sir John do over the "letter F" towards Elinor Dashwood.  These letters show Austen herself being unkind in ways she stigmatizes others for doing in her novels.

The letter ends on the longing for home and we see her father's kindness to her in a suddenly decently pleasant sentence (not a barb here):  we can't reply to to take up the father's kind offer (of a better coach, of way to return quicker and surer) until they whether she (Miss Pearson?) will accompany them home. It seems the father will not (it's assumed) pay for Miss Pearson as well as his daughter and son for whatever he's offering (quicker or better accommodation)

Anyone who wants anything must send to Frank.   Yes she has no mobility it's clear.

Why would Austen want to go home by Stage coach? Is it quicker? more comfortable? more interesting? why is Frank forbidding her? Snobbery, that's what.  And who the hell is he to forbid her I want to say but I know she's subject to these brothers and her older sister too.

From the 2007 Northanger Abbey (the stage coach Catherine Morland takes home in the dead of night -- in the book she goes in the early morning

To Cassandra go ahead and buy Mary Harrison's gown; she can have Jane's for 'ever so much money" too.  Jane will charge high is the implication: how she longs for some money herself.  Though if (mysteriously) she should arrive home "rich" she'll keep her gown for herself as she likes it.

I again feel for her. I should probably watch Becoming Jane Austen to see if there are images which show understanding and empathy.  She was willing to take a stage coach -- even if in today's movies it's still presented as something she's above


Tags: jane austen criticism, jane austen novels, jane austens letters, women's memoirs

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