misssylviadrake (misssylviadrake) wrote,

Jane Austen's letters: Letter 13, Sat-Sun, 1-2 Dec 1798, from Steventon to Godmersham

Dear friends and readers,

This week we read another letter by Austen and I read two perceptive essays on the letters:  We left off (letter 12) with Austen's loss of spirit to write ("I shall not write again for many days"). Seven days have gone by, and although Austen's spirits are better and there is a return to spirited jokes, this too is a letter with patches of flatness and quiet -- two sections are simply flatly informative.

She is again indirectly seeking some other vision of life, some alternative to endless marriage and endless babies. She doesn't express it directly. But many of her contemporaries did. It's more explicit among the French women than the English -- though there is Mary Wollstonecraft who also though has a way of criticizing but not producing a positive alternative. Where do we see this: in Louise d'Epinay's letters to her granddaughter concerning education, in Stael's Corinne (which Austen went around saying read read read). It was particularly irritating to be forced out of her work into watching a woman pose -- that is Mrs Austen.  And so she releases the irritation to Cassandra. I do think she also felt for these dying women, for her niece so worn so young.


To begin:

I see in the opening sentence that Austen is still smarting from her sister's unkindness. She is not responding in kind, but rather being "good:"  "I am so good as to write you again thus speedily."  She is being bigger than her sister because she's just heard from Frank.  Presumably Frank then did not write Cassandra only Jane:  more economical and perhaps Jane chosen because he preferred her and her letters?

Miniature of Frank when young

Here is what I've worked out about Frank (from various sources):

1798 Nelson sails from England and joins St Vincent at Cadiz; goes on into Mediterranean.  French seize Malta and British blockade it.

1798 1 August:  Battle of Nile, Aboukir Bay, British victory cuts off Bonaparte in Eygpt; Turkey declares war on France; Nelson
establishes himself off coast of Palermo, Sicily.  Rear-Admiral Perrée had served in immense fleet which Bonaparte took to Egypt; most seniors killed or captured; he takes charge of remaining frigates, anchored at Alexandria, blockaded by Captain Tourbridge (Sailor Brothers 78)

1798 Frank leaves Seahorse, appointed to London off Cadiz; Frank in London takes part in blockade of Spanish fleet at Cadiz, Admiral Jervis had become Lord St Vincent. Fearful mutinies still occurring:  a time of inaction for men

1798 Log (Francis served aboard?) from London

1798 towards end:  Peterel had been captured by Spaniards; Captain, Charles Long and crew treated badly; next day rescued by Argo under Captain Bowen; it was after that Francis given command of Peterel

1798 December: Letters from Jane to Cassandra, 1 December, Frank writes from Cadiz, alive and well, on October 19th; had lately received letter from Cassandra written as long ago when London at St Helen's; letter dated November 12th also mentioned

Scene of action in which Charles involved:  aboard frigate Unicorn, firing on French La Tribune, 8 June 1796


Frank writes she says "in good spirits."  From what I gather about him he enjoyed war -- we can see that Wentworth did (in his talk he refers to boats what he "made money in" with glee with no sense this money was dependent on killing and taking people prisoner and all the misery around him that comprised. (Frank was a "great flogger" of his men too. We are not told how Wentworth behaved to his men). The only thing bothering Frank is he will not be able to carry "our" correspondence" cannot "be carried on in future as it has been."  He is here trying to get someone else to pay his way for whom he is willing to do what they want -- I believe (can't remember quite) that he was engaged in East India business to the extent of smuggling" (a common practice at the time)

I might as well say I have even less admiration for Frank in all this than Austen does for her brother Edward's avarice (as she sees it).  I remark that Austen does not criticize Frank for his aggression and enjoyment of repressing men, participation in killing. So even if she doesn't like the killing of birds, she doesn't mind this kind of killing. She might justify it as the French would attack the English, the Spanish were out there preying on them.  Still she buys into all this without so much as a wince. (I think of her later dismissive remark about how lucky they know no one killed. I feel she prefers Frank.  (Perhaps there was jealousy amid the siblings for this fourth brother who was adopted and got to lead this rich life of a squire, go on grand tour and so on). At any rate Frank is recreated both in Harville and Wentworth in Persuasion.

1995 Persuasion:  Ciarhan Hinds as Wentworth

We do learn here that there were many letters between Jane and Frank.  All gone. I read Diane's comment on how many letters there must have been. I agree -- I am now wondering for the first time really what was the content of all the letters in Bath. I suppose that Austen hated it -- could it be that she never or hardly ever got to write? so that all she could produce were fragments?  A speculation.

What Cassandra is imagined (ironically) as tender-hearted about is not the fierce battles -- did Austen simply blank these out of her mind. No that there will be long intervals between letters, probably because they would worry about Frank's continued existence or what may have happened to him.

2007 Persuasion: Harville becomes close confident of Wentworth's

Then we get another of these scenes of her mother imposing herself on others:  ""My mother made her entree into the dressing-room through crowds of admiring spectators yesterday afternoon and we all drank tea together for the first time these five weeks ... [she] bids fair for a continuance of the same brilliant course of action to-day ... Mr Lyford [the doctor] wants my mother to look yellow or throw out a rash, but she will do neither.

This sort of thing is the origin for the scenes in P&P:

""This is a parade," cried he, "which does one good; it gives such an _elegance_ to misfortune! Another day I will do the same; I will sit in my library, in my night cap and powdering gown, and give as much trouble as I can, -- or, perhaps, I may defer it till Kitty runs away."

Andrew Davies in the 1995 film and Fay Weldone in the 1979 (to a lesser extent) dramatized these in their full grating experience:

1995 P&P:  Alison Ateadman as Mrs Bennet making herself the center of attention

Nancy Mayor used the phrase "domestic duties"  asking if Jane ought to have been "freed" from these pious, sacred duties  The phrase has less resonance and effectiveness when you realize here we have this woman with nothing better to do with herself than waste everyone's time by asking they sit around her, on top of which the doctor comes in to grab a fee, even though there is no rash or yellow skin. Life is short and funds are limited.

Austen seems to pick up with a sense of release and moves on to other female "duties" -- having babies. At first the sentences are neutral: Austen is aware that Mary Austen has been through a life-threatening trauma: she "does not gain bodily strength very fast". But this does (by association) remind her of Anna, the stepchild who has now been sent to stay with her maternal grandmother.  James, the father went there. If you read carefully you see James tries to get away from Mary -- during the day at any rate.

Then we are told that Mary cannot manage the pretty appearance of Elizabeth Austen. I don't feel Austen making fun here, rather stating a truth.  Mary has less money, less servants -- one of whom appears very happy over the baby.  It gives her more time at a job? Alas, in this period as ours people are taught to rejoice over babies and they do.

But then a claw (to refer to Tomalin's metaphor) is put out, a sudden sarcasm:  "We live entirely in the dressing room now, which I like very much; I always feel so much more elegant in it than in the parlour".

I can't prove this but I think it's aimed at Elizabeth (Edward's rich wife). After all Jane is parodying Elizabeth's satisfaction in her prettiness by pretending to be equally satisfied with her own life stuck in a dressing room.

More jokes  distance Austen from all this baby-having and expectations that women marry:   Sit and watch someone wretched and frail (Mary) after her ordeal of childbirth and soon she'll be pregnant again. "Eliza sports with our impatience." Not Austen's.  who is Miss Maria Montrecessor going to marry? who cares? Why should she marry?  What is to become of Miss Mulcaster? great fear she won't marry you see.

Austen's mother (Mrs) was aware of her younger daughter's real reluctance to turn to marriage as a way of supporting herself in the fragment statement often quoted: Mrs Austen to Mary Lloyd in 1796:  "I look forward to you as a real comfort to me in my old age, when Cassandra has gone to Shropshire, and Jane---the Lord knows where ..."

Austen herself find "great comfort in her stuff gown, but I hope you do not wear yours too often." In other words, she finds great comfort in dressing plain, dressing down, not gussying herself up to catch a man and making herself anxious to have something she doesn't much want anyway. She hopes Cassandra behaves (and feels) the same way.

From Becoming Jane: Anna Maxwell Martin as Cassandra saying goodbye to Jane who is off to London; in films nowadays most of the women are not put into caps, and they have braids only when seen going to sleep at night

She puts caps on rather than fuss over her hair: "they save me a world of torment as to hair-dressing." There is no talk of ladies' maids in the Austen rectory; they were expensive because they were like live-in hairdressers.

At the same time I like the picture of Austen with long braids - she had long hair at this time then. She keeps them braided and out of sight inside her cap. She also doesn't have to wear those curl papers. (Emma Thompson used them in the 1995 S&S; now and again these are used in Austen films and other costume dramas set in this period.

Mr Butler cuts her hair. Unisex salons even then?

This though brings another sudden wild and whirring hilarity: "There is no reason to suppose Miss Morgan is dead after all." I wonder what the connection is. Does MIss Morgan have long hair? Does she dress it up or have a lady's maid present it fancily? So we have notification of her existence by her great hair?  Another speculation.

And more ironies about social hypocrisies: now Mr Lyford is praising her father's mutton. So Mr Austen does some of the cooking.  That's interesting. We have Mr Austen friendly with Mr Bold the servant in another letter and here Mr Austen has hired someone to take Mr Bold's place. Austen seems to make fun of this - she really doesn't sympathize with her father's friendship with this man -- in the previous letter she admitted to not liking his Bold's heavy steps. She may then turn to admit it's not costing more. Servants cost (more than women and/or girls). So the same amount of people are engaged.

Cassandra knows her "stupidity in such matters" is a kind of affectation and is in a tone that reminds me of one of Austen's characters: Elizabeth Bennet: "Mrs Gardiner abused her stupidity" The syntax also anticipates "But I know your starched notions ..."

1995 P&P:  Jane and Elizabeth Bennet, probably mirror Jane and Cassandra Austen

2008 S&S:  Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, aspects of Austen?  also mirror Cassandra and Jane

And now we get the second patch of flatness:  the servants being found jobs and places. Austen doesn't care about this.  There are no lower servants used centrally in Austen's novels. Patty is a felt presence in Emma to emphasize Miss Bates's poverty in just having one girl.

We may note here that Austen's mother is involved: it's the mother's idea that the father apply to Mr May (a family relation of the Godmersham group) and also Mr Deane (a squire in Steventon area). We see the patronage system at work here. It's more than who you know, it's who will ask for you. Dean civil but no house vacant. but Mr May will have one and the then Nanny can have a place to live (Bishop's -- we can't know if it's comfortable beause she'd be in an attic and maybe not have a fire).

Back to her writing Frank -- to tell him of all this.

Then we return to joking observation on the social hypocrisies of people in the neighborhood and Austen house. Powlett is descended from a union of a Lord with an actress (Bolton by Lavinia Fenwick) so the neighborhood watches him and hopes he'll grow broke. They "live in expectation he'll be ruined." This is like Mrs Norris eager to hear bad news. There is something in the misery of others that does not displease us said La Rochefoucauld.  Also spite at work )we are seeing it in our political world today (the wealthy and powerful wanting to deny education, houses, pensions; the teabaggers with their "dog in the manger" resentments).  In her note LeFaye seems densely unaware that Austen is joking; it's a case of LeFaye probably sympathizing with the man and turning all into normative dullness, see sketch on p 565)

Similarly in the house is a posturing over liking a new maid: "very much disposed to like our new maid." What does it matter if she knows nothing of a dairy. She will be taught it all. The inconvenience of having no servant has made them less fussy.

But then Austen relents and says the girl cooks well, is stout (strong, healthy) and can sew (work at her needle)

Finally back to jokes about pigs. In this one Mr Austen is joining in with Austen in playful laughter at Edward who I suppose wrote very solemnly about his pigs(exuding self-importance or the importance of pigs. I get the feeling Austen sees Edward as a dullard. Lord Bolton takes us back to Powlett: Lord Bolton just has the most elegant of pig constructions "and visits them every morning as soon as he rises."  Of course he would.

1995 P&P: Benjamin Whitlow as a Mr Bennet who sides with Elizabeth in an ironic way

I had not noticed the jokes about pigs until we started this reading. Now I realize the movies using pigs have textual justification:)

"Affectionately yours" is a conventional salutation; I feel Austen wrote it to be safe; it can't offend Cassandra, indeed she likes this sort of thing.

Some parallels in the novels:

A little more: imagine if we had Jane's letters to Frank as well as to Cassandra.  If Cassandra wrote James and not Jane, Jane was writing away to Frank and he to her.  We don't know that there would be overt political views, but these would be implicit. We would not then probably have all this talk about how Jane's letters are wholly about a domestic world.

Contemporary print of Portsmouth Point

In response to Diane, most (possibly all) novelists, especially the realistic ones, reflect the world around them.  Let's not make mystic and mystery the imagination.  It's common in modern biographies to see that close friends and relatives make up part of an author's book:  not the whole character of personage in the novel, and certainly not the whole of the real complicated person, but aspects of the person turn up in the character. It's common for novelists to deny this (to protect themselves), and for those portrayed never to speak of it publicly -- or rarely and only when it's favorable. Self-protection. They may not see it if it's too painful, or may decide to say nothing.  So that none of Austen's close relatives in print acknowledged much -- only Harville for Frank because it's so kindly -- is no argument the reflections aren't there.

This letter is another where we see aspects of Mrs Austen were put into Mrs Bennet and of Mr Austen into Mr.  Again Austen gives her father slack she doesn't give her mother.  Probably partl because Mr Austen did not impinge himself on her time and they shared a sense of humor. Also Mr Austen stuck up for Jane in the Lefroy incident; on the other hand she saw he was complicit what happened around him and she blamed him and put that into Mr Bennet too.

We now see aspects of Frank in Wentworth and again favoring:  Austen will sharply hit at Edward (who is reflected in John Dashwood) but not the hero Wentworth -- who by the way I read against the grain when I read: he's an aggressive type, Wentworth that's why he made big money; the Corsair all right -- I do see awareness of Byron's heroes in Persuasion.

Amanda Root as Anne Wentworth writing aboard ship, idyllic close of 1995 Persuasion: she has married the man with the name which begins with "F."

There's an enormous amount of our lives that matter to us that never get written down. Byatt has a brilliant paragraph at the close of Possession to this effect. So there are very early on obsessive repeating patterns in Austen's work:  Elizabeth Jenkins's extraordinary perception of the early work makes her say that the repeating story of the bullying arrogant cruel woman who makes a heroine stand outside and endure the wind and insults and berates her comes from something that happened if not to Austen, that she saw and stung her. The type is common in the fiction of the period:  in Celestina there's an analogy for Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Lady Castlenorth, and the type is found in Cottin's Amelia Mansfield (a very cruel mother-in-law who knows no control over her tongue). But Austen reification of it is her own.  Lady Catherine, the women in the juvenilia letters, Mrs Norris, the type in Sanditon all are related to Austen's aunt but also this other incident or incidents we can't know of.

Another sister pair:  1995 Persuasion:  Anne Elliot and Mary Musgrove

I bring this up to remind us of how limited what we can learn from life-writing for many authors is.  There are some authors who really do enormous amounts of life-writing. If Austen's letters amounted to that originally, they don't any more.  Also to say to Christy that she persists in insisting on deep congenialities and trusts and other things between Jane and Cassandra when she's got little evidence for this beyond the cliched self-protective promoting comments of the immediate later relatives.  These letters don't quite support that -- nor do the later ones. I'm now thinking they do support some deep effective practical help for Jane from Henry -- which when we get there might then make me agree at long last with those who said Henry was her favorite brother.  Right now it seems to me Frank was as much (see the later poem on Frank's marriage). Henry Tilney is named after Henry.

Essays on Letters: 

Jane Austen as Emetteur/Receptor by Joseph Kestner

Kestner's essay argues for the art of the letters. He acknowledges the lack of broad or general scope, the narrow subjects (but then so too is Dante's Comedia filled with narrow specifics of people he knew), that our task is one of archaeology so drastic has been the lost and censorship, but he then goes on to find Austen's genius and outlook in the novels in these. After this that letters were central to her art: her letters fulfill criteria that when met show the writer is particularly drawn to letter writing (she is so aware of herself as writing letters, loves writing them, longs for answers -- here is one reason for her overpraise of her correspondents -- it's to get them to write back); her earliest writing is in epistolary narrative, S&S was originally a novel, we see how central are letters in P&P and MP (Portsmouth). She writes to the minute and tells us what has just happened and is happening (very Richardsonian this I'd say); she's a Narcissa. I particularly like the last part of his essay: he enjoys her wit and quotes many passages to show their suggestive richness about art, letter writing, novel-writing.

Portsmouth Ramparts, 1820s print

Carol Houlihan Flynn on The Letters

This essay is found in The Cambridge Guide to JA, ed Copeland and McMaster. I like it better than the content of Juhasz which is not usable as something to think about to extend to the novels or other letters; Kestner (let's face it) is too abstract and just about the letters as art, not the content. She also (as it happens) speaks directly to the issues we've been debating and confronting which the other three we've had do not.

Flynn argues that what makes the letters fascinating is that we find in them (as we do in the Juvenilia) Austen violating canons of taste and decorum which she mostly observes in her novels, and in the letters brings out indirectly through the wit or jarringly directly her continual objections to the cultural words she finds herself constrained by. We travel through "the vicissitudes of her mind" with "ironic pronouncements which undercut desire while they pretend detachment." Nothing gracefully inevitable (as in the novels) here; the jolting and frustrating style makes for intense energy as she skewers the "intense tedium" of much of the life around her -- I should say (Flynn doesn't) she did escape this tedium continually through her writing and reading. (She read hundreds of novels, lots of travel books apparently, memoirs, poetry, kept up, she kept up as far as she could in the country through the circulating library and club).

Topics covered include some of those we've seen -- the repeated ones. Her mother's "hypochrondria." "Austen is always uneasy when she writes about childbirth ... Breeding, which turns women into 'animals' often leads to death." Better her own children - her books - which makes me remember the scene from Miss Austen Regrets where Gwyneth has Mrs Austen sneer cruelly at Olivia Williams as Jane who can't lift Anna's most recent baby -- Jane very ill by this point -- and Jane holding her book,  Emma, Jane's (presentation of her) "child"

Miss Austen Regrets: Jane tries to hold Anna's baby

But she pays attention to much we have been ignoring. The interest in epistolary skill. The comically painful awareness that any discourse serves to fill up time and space when it comes to women's world. Her awareness of the artificial nature of discourse (what's said. The reserve and indirection needed to protect herself against continual demands made on her time and (by extension possibly) body if she does marry. She wants not to be taken over. Of course letters are a vehicle for recording faults with impunity, for release, allow powerless (Austen can't move, can't travel) to criticize powerless and sneer back (at Blackall say) A space for her to be herself and offer herself up to another.

She breaks out of the policed system of polite cant and pretense. The paraphernalia are the toys she plays with.

Flynn then moves to two characters. She could have chosen others, but she finds these most illuminated through the letters. No surprise here for me: Miss Bates. The inconsequence of Miss Bates's style and her disregarded life. Flynn points out that Jane Fairfax depends on letters whose secret nature is her own way of maintaining some space for herself and integrity.   One reservation: there is a pathos here that Flynn picks up but does not elaborate. All four essays thus far miss the pathos of this spectacle of Austen herself in these letters. Not so much that we see the parallels of Fanny Price, Anne Elliot (whose wishes come last &c&) but in the uses of the language itself, the daily experience of wearing life. She does quote the line about how later in life Austen sat so still when in company.

2009 Emma: Tamsin Grieg as Miss Bates turning to hide her distress, strain as she prepares to read one of Jane's letters

To recur to Nokes's biography of Austen: Nokes's book depends not on making parallels and reflections from Austen's mature novels but rather he concentrates on the juvenalia and letters. He is drawn to the woman in the letters and girl in the juvenilia. I know Deborah Kaplan's book is dependent heavily on the Letters, and Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sanditon for similar reasons -- the somber satiric edgy fragments of the later Austen (written I agreed with Kaplan during the Bath years) rather than the high spirits and wildness of the amoral young girl - who a the opening of one fragment killed her sister, mother and father this morning

See 1&2, 3&4, 5, 6, 7, 8 & 9 , 10 and 11 and 12

Tags: female archetypes, jane austen criticism, jane austens letters, women's art, women's memoirs

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