misssylviadrake (misssylviadrake) wrote,

Jane Austen's Letters: Letter 12, Sun, 25 Nov 1798, from Steventon, to Godmersham

Dear friends and readers,

This week's letter caused a lot of controversy; I'll discuss it after the letter. In the comments are close readings and interpretations of Letter 12 by other people.

From Miss Austen Regrets  Greta Scacchi as Cassandra persuading Olivia Williams as Jane not to accept Bigg-Wither's proposal,  How much did they bleed into one another's wounds?  support one another?

When I first read this letter I find I put in the margins it exhibits enormous self-control; I felt for her.  Now that I've read the previous letters so carefully I see the context for the first time. So I see the pathos.  Cassandra wrote James because she was supposed to (see below) and then did not write Jane to to show Jane how much, she Cassandra disapproved of Jane's wit (it's apparent that in the inbetween now destroyed letters Cassandra called Jane's previous letter "malevolence"), Cassandra's withdrawal of herself has worked.  It's very like the way parents can control their children by becoming cold to them. Snubbing this used to be called when I was young -- and I've heard it called in the UK.

And it works:  we get this flat muted letter.  The only thing one can say not so much on Cassandra's behalf but to suggest she did not corrode her sister's spirits where it most counted is this: if Austen reacts so abjectly to Cassandra in her letters, had Cassandra or other of the relatives disapproved of the fictions, we would not have them at all.  It was apparently okay for Jane to find release under the disguises of fiction; it was not okay to express any protest, however indirect and through saturnine humor, on not being able to live a genuinely independent fulfilled life and watching the miseries and pretentious compensatory (to themselves doubtless) posing, the hypocrisies and triumphs of others.

Cassandra's later portrait of Jane: the original version shows an intense strain i her

 I take "My dear sister" to be an appeal.  If convention is to win the day, then as Cassandra is Jane's sister, she now owes Jane a letter.

Cassandra wrote James because she was supposed to, but as we have seen how she obeys whatever convention is expected of her -- she thinks and feels cant (as Austen says of Mrs Norris and Lady Bertram) -- we need not think she was not glad to do it. (I hope she also congratulated Mary whose life was at risk.)  Not writing Jane was to show Jane how she could withdraw her love. If Jane wants her correspondence, she had better not write such letters as the previous again.

And so Jane does not.

And now we get this drivel of conventionality where the surface is believed in and adhered to. Oh yes Mary continues well and her mother 'tolerably so."  Perhaps Jane is quoting Mrs Austen. Jane knows how to produce what's wanted;  "I was really amazed at  the improvement."

We are so glad too and amazed.

Mary is now compared to Elizabeth (that paragon of endless pregnancies and babies who can look good in bed afterward).  The child's eyes "are large, dark, and handsome."  Jane can't quite pull this piety off for when she finishes her flat praise of Mrs Debary she sums up:  "A short and compendious history of Miss Debary!"  In fact to say that Mrs Debary nets away and has a pot hat is to exhaust her as a subject.

But Jane is now in control.  Henry getting his place through the usual patronage system is reported without irony; he beat out Mr Mowell. How we are not told, only the phrase "Amusing enough" hints at the usual chicanery/bribery.

Again a slip: it seems the "family affairs are deranged just at present." I take this to be an associative leap but we cannot know the connection only that the servant is in her bed with fever and pain (and now we should remember how there is no medicine to help bring down fever or pain) and the Austens hire two charwomen.

Nanny had a hard lousy job, much exploited if it takes two charwomen to replace her. Austen says this is not very comfortable.  She would prefer not to have two unknown day (perhaps less susceptible to control and bullying than the live-in servant with something to protect) laborers.  (In this era gentry women would not do any of this hard physical labor.  Their sense of their status depended on it, their self-esteem.)

And things are worse than this.  Instead of some manner lady's maid, it's Nancy Littlewart" who does Jane's hair.  What are things coming to.  The flatness of Jane's prose her -- her submission and repression may be seen in how she writes simply that "Cassandra and Edward" will be amused to imagine this lower class women doing Jane's hair.

No hint in tone of what the word's content imply: they can have their triumph now.

Olivia Williams as Jane worried and hurt:  Edward tells her he could lose Chawton, and she says this is where I write (Miss Austen Regrets)

Yes (in reply to something apparently) the ball on Thursday was very small. Hardly anyone. LeFaye doesn't know what an Oxford smack is and neither do I.  Again the irony and bitterness of her position is repressed but the word's content is there:  it's cost Jane Austen to buy some necessaries from a  pedlar (Overton Scotchman).  Of course she has no reason to complain -- Cassandra has sufficiently warned and now gotten back at her for complaining now. No, Jane has learnt her lesson. It is finer than what they bought last from him, not so harsh (hard, thin) a cloth. The price is stated and perhaps that at least shows by simple truth Jane was forced to spend more than she could easily afford: 3 s 6p.

Then our first long paragraph about a book, literature. Another book by a relative has been published: Egerton's Fitz-Albini. LeFaye tells us in his case the autobiographical underpinnings were so transparent no one could ignore them (as the Austen family could and did Jane's in P&P, S&S and MP).  In many cases of Jane Austen's criticism I find competition, a rejection of what in the author she is writing of is so different from her own (so Mary Brunton's novels are rejected as not sufficiently attentive to verisimilitude). But as in some of them there is a revelation of Austen's own aesthetic values too:

She does not respect the book because it too obviously and narrowly reflects the author ("every sentiment is completely Egerton's).  Egerton did not keep the story unfolding through events that do other things too.  Too many characters and not to be used as part of the story (just "delineated" for the sake of it).  The story is not connected in a normal or usual way. Individuals can be recognized easily under the characters.

All of the above Austen avoids assiduously.  She does keep sentiments in her novel sufficiently impersonal for us not to be sure where Austen stands. Story should be kept up and continually unraveling. This is Anthony Trollope's view too. All characters should be woven in, non superfluous to the story.

She returns to her sad dullness.  The sentence about her father's expenditure and wish to receive one of Edward's pigs is humorless.

And now more on favorite books, merely cited: Boswell's Tour of the Hebrides, Life of Johnson, Cowper all eagerly to be read.

Again there is a reaching out to humor but not quite making it: she's written to "Mrs Birch, among my other writings .."  We can't know if Cassandra used Jane's desire to write against her and belittled them. I'd like to think not but the tone here is so deflated: "among my other writings."  Mabye she will get an account of people "in that part of the world before long."

Again in the next sentence material she would have used for high hilarity just depresses her spirits further. She's written to Mrs E Leigh (an unmarried woman, p 548 LeFaye) and the tiresomeness of Mrs Heathcote ("Ill-natured to send me a letter of enquiry") do indeed make her "tired of letter-writing."

I suggest Cassandra had inveighed against Jane's letter writing since the last "malevolent" one and now abject she agrees.

She is tired of it.

So hurt, she's been so hurt.

She promises that unless she has nothing new to tell she will not write for many days.

Olivia Wililams as Jane Austen turning away (Miss Austen Regrets)

I imagine she needed "repose" to restore her pen (as a letter writer).

She ends on another literal detail: ask the little nephew-heir whether a man servant wears a great coat in this cold weather.


From Persuasion 2007:  Sally Hawkins as the half-mad Anne Elliot whose wishes are consulted last and who has faced the impossibility of communicating anything at all to those around her

Poor woman someone has hit at her hard. We all know Austen's sensitive heroines, how many of them ignored, the last to have their convenience or desire consulted (from Jane Bennet to Fanny to Anne Elliot), enduring much hurt silently (Elinor Dashwood, Jane Fairfax). From the letter at least it does seem to have been Cassandra. Jane feels the hopelessness of trying to reach through letters a congenial understanding spirit.

She dealt with pain through humor -- we see this in the novels. She also opens before us with close up intensity presences who despair and put a cheerful face up. She can't even make the cheerful face this time.

We can categorize this letter then -- both in its text and why it was saved -- as an example of how cruel love (Cassandra's in this case) can be:  Kathleen McCormack wrote:  "Cassandra saved this letter, especially because it showed Jane's love and need of her. So much so that JA exposed her need for comfort ....  Kathleen"  I didn't have the nerve to say it myself.

General comments:  first as to content:  Jane Austen's problem was that given her background, circumstances (by which I mean lack of resources, money, property, connections she could herself call on, her utter dependence on her family members), and what is common in her period, set-up incapacity to get beyond these, she had no wherewithal to invent an alternative vision for herself for her life's choices.  If you read some of the writers she did like, Genlis and (later in life she mentions) Stael (Corinne is mentioned but Austen also read Delphine because Lady Susan has the same name as a major character there), these women imagined another kind of alternative for satisfaction and fulfillment beyond marriage, endless babies, idealized (unreal as Austen's letters have already shown us) domesticity.  That's central to the personal tragedy of Austen's own life as well as the problems of her novels' endings.  Cassandra repressing her so ruthlessly was a factor in her not being able to see for herself a different role than those around her for women (marriage, endless babies) which she didn't want.

The 1995 S&S:  Emma Thompson as Elinor Dashwood writing home to her mother

As to art, these are fascinating the more I get into them.  Austen was a letter-writer: from the outset she wrote her fiction in letters, the earliest versions of the novels are said to be in letters: I've argued for S&S, others for P&P and still others for MP.  She has Henry Tilney articulate a commonplace of the period that women are more prone to and better at writing epistolary and diary art. I feel that she is writing her letters with art in mind:  from mid-century on letters were published and she loved reading memoirs.  The Hebrides diairies she mentions are journals.  There's a good book on this I'm going to return to: Elizabeth Goldsmith's Writing the Female Pen, one of whose essays by Patricia Meyer Spaces is on Austen and Lady Susan  Austen's letters are not turned to (as in the case of the rest of the collection non-fiction letters are discussed) because Austen's letters are not sufficiently respected:  half-destroyed remnants. it's understandable. Spacks does place Austen in the world of female letters as art and she is wonderfully bitterly amoral in this novellas.  So happily this loss of nerve at the end of this letter and Austen's momentary despair did not last.


From Lost in Austen (2009): Mr Bennet trying to ignore Mrs Bennet

On just a few of the many subjects that people began to discuss:  the complicit father leads to the complicit Mr Bennet.   The portrait of Mr Austen being willing to speak and ask a question on his daughter's behalf but not really act to help her effectively do something (he doesn't even provide a carriage) is of a piece with Mr Bennet having the ability to see and do better than his wife but not doing it.

Austen is passionate. Reread the Fanny chapters at Portsmouth and feel the  vibrations. In the letters she is guarded and puts a carapace on -- as much  for Cassandra as herself. I can't see anyone imagining her running off: she is shy and not inclined to go out on her own at all. 18th century women did.

I did not know there was a memoir about Lefroy nor that the memoir suggested he liked someone else and was involved with her. Thank you for citing the Joan Klingel Ray essay. It would be instructive to read the memoir.  We live and learn. Now that I know about this I'll try to get  and read it.

Yes I do suspect that Lefroy himself might not have been (was not) someone who Austen would have enjoyed spending the rest of her life with.  We have no evidence his character was such that she would have really been comfortable with him. She was in her twenties when this flirtation and romance occurred, the kind of age when girls tell themselves they are in love (and thus are as far as any definition can go) but if they marry, live to rue it very much indeed.  And it's not repenting at leisure for a woman once she has many children and a household to be bothered with.

As to why people persist in finding or looking for romance, it's the letters themselves. It does seem that at this age (1790s is where we are, JA's mid- to later 20s) JA did buy into the necessity to love and be married.  It's in all the jokes about her being courted by this one and that and is presented in a reactive way in the sickening feeling she has when regarding pregnant women and the ordeal of childbirth to say nothing of coping afterward with the mess and time of a baby. Mary had Miss Debary but Miss Debary was only a help.  As I was inclined to disbelieve in some of the parallels made between Austen's life and P&P before reading these letters this way, so I was inclined to disbelieve in these early romances. Now I think they were there because Austen partly thought she should feel these ways.

1995 S&S:  Hugh Grant as Edward Ferrars and Emma Thompson as Elinor, kissing at last

Austen was no immediate victim. Having just read a fine book by Mary Trouille, Wife Abuse in 18th century France, I can tell the difference. Jane Austen was lucky she never married really - and perhaps as she grew older and saw the dead sisters-in-law buried she knew it as she went off with a brother to a play.  But she was deprived of a meaningful life by the system -- whether because she lacked dowry or the kind of personality men marry.  It is then painful to be rejected and given nothing to do worthwhile when you know you are so gifted.  I agree with Harman that Jane's writing was not respected by anyone until she began to publish it.  It's an eternal story though: Trollope talks of this in his case. He suffered bad depression in his later teens and 20s. All around him mediocre and inferior people "getting ahead," doing well -- why because the world is mediocre and liked these inferior talents as money-making. He got his job by his mother knowing and shamelessly nagging, pressuring someone to give him a niche in the post office.  His first three novels were utter flops financially and were it not for his mother and who she knew he would not have been able to continue until he finally hit what the public wanted or would buy and praise in big numbers: The Warden.

From Miss Austen Regrets:  Cassandra burning Jane's letters: how much had the sister wanted to possess Jane? gievn up her life to Jane to get her to turn her life over in turn? towards the end Jane had begun to slip out of her grasp, and then Jane sickened

As to Austen and her sister, Austen couldn't get beyond her. She was given no chance for other women friendships -- did not go to a school, no outside job, no travel. Who was she to turn to? later in life given a little chance to meet with people of her caliber, she punted.  I can understand why. It might not have been too late had she lived and carried on writing. Eventually she might have brought herself to go to one of these parties in London where she would have met people whose minds she met in books, but she died too soon.  Really it takes a long life to grow up and adjust to other worlds, and her adjustment was to a country kind of life inside a family; to make the transition is hard and she never was able to do it.  Unlucky to have died in the midst of her success, height of her powers. NA and Persuasion do show this even in their apparently unfinished/dissatisfying states).

I see Diane Reynolds read the letter the way I did, only she felt the anger much stronger. I was impressed by self-control, hurt, dismay, and some anger underlying this (as depression is anger turned against itself), but did not feel the letter as a whole to be angry, but rather that Austen was controlling herself against her reaction to whatever hard criticism Cassandra had sent to the previous and took in that Cassandra did not write back in order to withhold love and approval.

To Diane's question: the evidence that Cassandra repressed Austen is in the letters. The first two show her repressing and scolding over Lefroy Or she doesn't respond or she responds in antithetical ways.  The same is found in the other correspondents. Much later we find Austen anxious lest Frank get angry that she used the names of his ships. If he had, she would have removed the names. 

A page from the cancelled draft of Persuasion

Our problem is so much was destroyed. We lack manuscripts of the novels, but where we do have some commentary we see repression.  In Persuasion: apparently Mrs Austen complained about the ending. To many readers today Austen has gone too far in exonerating Lady Russell. To Austen's mother Austen had not gone far enough. We see Austen had this critic in mind because she writes in the fragment we have;  "there I thought I was safe" -- she worried other things would be censored.

Miss Austen Regrets: the way Jane vents is to undermine and tease others, sometimes very meanly

Remember she was utterly dependent on these people for everything. Roof, allowance. And she seems sensitive -- I cannot agree with Aneilka.  These letters are filled with feeling; the way the feeling is expressed is indirect and rebarbative, but feeling is there.

Christy has understood what I wrote yesterday: yes "her writing might have taken off into greater directions, maturity, and mastery, if she had only lived longer; and where her fame would have been more within her own private dominion." It takes such time to feel confidence after (remember) some 24 plus years of writing novels with none published and those sent out rejected or just held onto. 

I never meant the Austen family or Mrs Lefroy thought Jane Austen unworthy or not good enough for Tom. She had not the money the Lefroy family wanted him to have, and Austen's family did not bring connections (patronage) the Lefroys wanted for him and themselves.

As to the comments by the relatives, we have to take them with many grains of salt especially in the later generation (later 19th century).  They seem to me to be competing with one another more than anything (Brabourne boasts he had letters never published before), they are defending their branch of the family against another branch.  The volumes The Austen papers have the closest to contemporary documents (including the judge on the stealing aunt, JEAL on Hunting at the Vine). I have yet to read Constance Hill I admit. I have to get to it.

See 1&2, 3&4, 5, 6, 7, 8 & 9 , 10 and 11


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

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