misssylviadrake (misssylviadrake) wrote,

Jane Austen's Letters: Letter 19, Friday 17 May 1799: from Bath: the case of the delayed trunk

Dear friends and readers,

This week we have our first of what letters Jane Austen wrote from Bath that survive.  Five months have passed since the last letter (18). According to Cassandra's note (*North-hanger Abbey* was written/about the years 98 & 99./C. E. A) Austen could have been writing NA around this time with her heroine still named Susan.  Summary:  2nd known trip: gloomy arrival, later pavements white with sun. Family divvies up rabbit warren of rooms within rooms & she's given the room with a view (!). Her trunk not yet arrived -- and causes her anxiety (covered up by ironies). Cheerfulness at the bustle and "a little black kitten runs about the Staircase.'

This letter is the second to refer to a visit Jane and Cassandra made to Bath in November 1798 where they stayed with Perrots. The previous one referred to the aunt's overt stinginess (the great favor Austen could do for the aunt was not to cause her to spend anything): "'Tis very kind in my Aunt to ask us to Bath again; a kindness that deserves a better return than to profit by it" (p. 18). this one tells us it was "gloomy" that November when they came for what appears to have been a brief visit and was "gloomy" the day of their new arrival. Then they stayed at Paragon Buildings with the aunt and uncle; now she is relieved they are not doing that but staying at Queens Square.

Queens Square, with Beechen Cliff just glimpsed in sky outline (drawing of recent looks)

I looked back and there is a specific letter said to be missing. It's a little confusing because Austen in this letter says last November and that would be 1798 and there is a letter missing said to have been dated 28-29 November 1798. So that could have been the one detailing that visit (destroyed), only Austen's reference is in October the month before so I find that LeFaye and Maggie Lane are agreed the visit was the year before November 1797. Both Nokes and Tomalin are more careful and don't date the first time specifically as to year.

Whatever year the previous visit was, there is no extant letter and so this is the first one dated from Bath. So it's important because much ink has been spent over Austen's attitude towards Bath, with most people until recently saying she disliked it once she got a little older and very much when she was told she was to move and live there, an attitude easy to reinforce or find evidence for not just in Persuasion: Anne "persisted in a very determined, though very silent, disinclination ... " I'm interested by that "very silent;" it confirms my sense that Jane Austen understood and practiced giving in while silently intensely disliking whatever she was being forced to do or acquiesce in. One can find dislike in Northanger Abbey: in Henry Tilney's ironies and how he appreciates because so innocent Catherine's apparently naive love of the place -- how she feels about it at the close of the book when she's discovered what a false friend Isabella was we are not told.

But there is a party of writers who insist she liked it -- mostly I think because they do: Maggie Lane is one, Nokes another. Nokes goes so far as to work hard to deny the story Austen fainted and he does show it's hearsay and at least from her behavior most of the time seems an exaggeration. If so, if she didn't faint, that might be a way of expressing how she was taken aback strongly. Nokes and Lane forget a young woman with no money, not beautiful or young taken to live in lodgings where the assumption is she's there to get a man to marry her will feel very differently than a modern 21st century independent tourist. Plus she was able to write at Steventon it seems, had her own space in the house where this happened. Given how she was not given free time and space as a matter of course, she would dread the total loss of it, plus the humiliation of being poorish and seen to be seeking a husband when it's the last thing she is actively seeking as such or for its own sake. Her jokes bear out that she seems to be willing to love but not willing to marry to marry.

So how does she feel?  neither for or against. The use of "we" is partly ironic. When she says "we are exceedingly pleased .." she is referring to how everyone around her is voicing their attitudes freely and assuming she agrees. But she does not complain herself - she is given a decent amount of space and privacy, treated as well as anyone of the others. she seems to enjoy 'the bustle' - the activity. On the other hand, there are signs of anxiety whether they will have friends and associates to be with, a mild version of what Austen writes up happened to Catherine Morland where she and Mrs Allen were so intensely alone amid a crowd until befriended first by Tilney and then by the Thorpes. This is brought out most directly in the penultimate paragraph: "There was a very long list of Arrivals here ... so that we need not immediately dread absolute Solitude" (p. 41). Such a long list of people will probably bring people who know the Austens and will be
willing to countenance them as then they will be countenanced.

It's the letter with the bright memorable clause: "a little black kitten runs about the Staircase.' A picture conjured up which registers pity a the frail stumbling unattached (and therefore possibly uncared for) little creature who is by nature lively and alert, so it feels sweet.

Our own favorite cat: Clary when she was a kitten


The first section is an account of the trip to Bath.  It "went off exceedingly well; nothing occurred to alarm or delay us -- "  Devizes was a county town and they arrived at 4.  There were coaching inns there. John, the servant, knows who sat where, comfortable rooms, good dinner. I assume Cassandra liked asparagus and lobster, cheesecakes for Edward's children -- it will make them remember Devizes happily "for a long time"  ('delightful" .... "endear" the town to them).  We see here her gift for words.

Devizes Inn, recently

Then how they settled in. They slept over night and arrived at 1, and she is writing "just long enough" afterward which allowed them "to go over the house, fix on our rooms, & be very well pleased with the whole of it." Here she begins to use this comical distancing "we."  A first unexpected (given the first few sentences) uncheerful note: Elizabeth is commiserated over as she "had a dismal ride of it from Devizes, for it has rained almost all the way, & our first view of Bath has been as gloomy ... "  Why Elizabeth is singled out?  Did she complain?

Jane has so many "unimportant things" to say she doesn't know where to begin so will "go & eat with the children."  She often says her doings are unimportant or what she's writing about; it's as if she would prefer not to be writing about the diurnal, so why does she?  because this is what Cassandra wants? she has nothing else? But she could conceivably (say write about what she read, what someone of the group was thinking, what she was feeling about something -- she has no trouble in her novels taking some life where nothing much happens and making it interesting -- that's the aim of Emma in part) only refrains from getting into anything but this immanent concrete trivia.

Paragon Buildings, Bath

Then a group of details about who and what they saw and what was said when they stopped off at the Paragon -- to be polite, to tell aunt and uncle Perrot they are there.  It must have rained for them all "too wet & dirty for us to get out .." Frank told them Master was "very indifferent.'  Bath a place for invalids or the sick, the uncle an older man. Two cousins married to clergyman, one with a yellow shawl "airing out" (in the wet), then one of her jokes: they met Dr Hall who was in "such very deep mourning that either his Mother or his Wife, or himself must be dead."

She likes to make jokes about death, dead people.

These the only people whom they know that they have met with.

As country people in a way they are not used to seeing a lot of people in a short time, and Bath would seem that way to them. Austen aware of how many people she sees that she does not know.

Then she seems to make a joke of wanting something bad to happen.  This reminds me of Northanger Abbey the second chapter where Austen writes in over-inflated mocking style of the high expectations of gothic heroine but all that nearly happened was Mrs Allen thought she left her clogs behind, but her "fears proved to be groundless."  Austen writes as if she wished to have "been plagued about my Trunk"  why? to be special, paid attention to? This turns out though not to be simply a self-deprecatory joke because in fact her trunk "was too heavy to go by the coach" which brought the two servants, Thomas and Rebecca."  Her trunk was not brought with her and her relatives.

The servants traveled in a different coach, maybe heavier (more public?) one. Well the trunk would not go on it.  This puts me in mind of Barbie in Jewel in the Crown, an elderly unmarried woman, a paid companion and seen as inferior to all; she cannot find a place to have her trunk conveyed, and really does fret about it.  The reason she can't is she has this low status and no one cares. And in the end Barbie topples over and is physically hurt and her trunk damaged. I don't think there is a plangent note here (as there is in Paul Scott's novel), but it seems this matter did worry Jane.

An 18th century trunk

Again she is making light of what did worry and make her feel awkward. "For a long time we could hear of no Waggon to convey it."  Was a wagon cheaper?  Why did Jane bring so much?  What was in her trunk? books maybe? extra nice clothes for the time away? The final line of the letter refers to the trouble Cassandra took in making "my best gown" as well as "marking" her "silk stockings" could there also be her writing desk and writing to make it heavy?  Then instead of saying luckily they "discovered one [a wagon] was just o the point of setting out for this place" she said it was "unluckily" they discovered a (cheap? enabling) conveyance

Was it that the others didn't want to take the trunk and it was they who saw this wagon as unlucky for they would rather have persuaded Jane to leave this heavy trunk home or whatever was in it?

Now it cannot arrive until the next day (Saturday). and then she writes as if she wants to be anxious about it at the same time as she is breathing a sigh of relief she's not, "so far we are safe." but "who knows what may not happen to procure a further delay."  I can't tell whether her words parody the attitude of the others towards her trunk (as telling Austen, see, I told you so) or her own. But she is bothered about it. If it's pretty clothes she has been at some pains to get up for herself, she would want it. It it's so heavy because books, she wouldn't want to lose her books.  Or if it's her writing desk in the trunk she certainly wouldn't want to lose it.

Well if she's helpless again (for again that is the underlying feel that she's joking about) or singled out as not important enough (to have her trunk come with them?), she moves to asserts some power: what she can do was "put Mary's letter into the Post office at Andover" (a stop over point on the coaching road to Bath). So she hurried to write Mary -- Mary Lloyd?  (not Mary Austen probably)

Then back to the comical we:  "we are exceedingly pleased with the House" and "the rooms quite as large as we expected."  That expectation is not something Austen would have had in mind but probably the brother-in-law and sister-in-law who might have been paying much of the bill. Then another of these comical references to death: the one woman she bothers to write down is "Mrs Bromley"  "a fat woman in mourning."

Then the sweet detail of the "little black kitten runs about the Staircase." Again the emphasis is its vulnerability.

Elton House, Bath, today: this was a building knocked up into flats in the 18th century

A number of sentences detailing who is sleeping where and who has what space.  These lodgings houses were rabbit warrens, with rooms put inside rooms -- doubtless to fit in more people as well as charge more rent.  They would look ever so elegant and unfussy outside, but inside be knocked up into many kinds of living space the way people do when they set up curricles inside a larger office.

There is apparently a room inside the drawing room; and that goes to Elizabeth but as it had no bed (so she sleeps on a couch affair?  or settee?) Mrs Austen (Elizabeth wanted to give this space to Mrs Austen) will sleep on the next level. Some ironies here (parodying speeches) "the stairs are so much easier of ascent or my Mother so much stronger than in the Paragon .."

Austen refers to previous trip (November 1797/8) and we learn that Mrs Austen (pretended?) not to be strong when she stayed with the Perrots.  So this means she and Jane have a "double flight", the first phrase is neutral, "two very nice sized rooms" and then a half joke or maybe the bedding was not spotless:  "with dirty Quilts & everything comfortable."  In an earlier letter Austen complained about the servants not making something clean enough; she is fastidious in her assessments it seems.

The way she describes the space given to her suggests she herself did not take it but it was given her, she has no agency here, but she has not suffered from her lack of agency: an "outward & larger apartment."

So she has a room with a view.  That's what she means by outward. This is what it's said 'she ought to have." She ought to be able to see outside. Why?

Anyway her space is as large as the one she shares with Cassandra at Steventon and the mother "is not materially less."  Beds as large as those in Steventon, she has "a very nice chest of Drawers & a Closet full of shelves."

So now we get a jokes about how many shelves have been placed into the closet place. So many there's hardly any room for things to be put. So maybe they should call it a cupboard.

The lines about Lady Catherine de Bourgh telling Charlotte to put in shelves come to mind here.

The letters are written rapidly by association so her mind returns to the Carpenters at the Inn at Devizes. She's punning: the carpenters who made the shelves are workmen; these Carpenters are people, and Mary is to be told that since Jane could not be sure they were related to the Fowles, "I did not make myself known to them."  Did Mary ask especially that Jane make herself known to some of the Fowles so as to report something or make a connection for Mary (Lloyd?)

Bath shop

At any rate she hopes it stops raining so they can have "a tolerable Afternoon." In the morning (as we would call it) when they arrived everyone outside under umbrellas, but now the "pavements white.' That's Austen's word for strong glaring sun.

Mother really none the worse though Edward "not very brisk" and she trusts that the bustle of "sending for Tea, Coffee & Sugar" will make up for this.  He likes to be important and make what he does important so "going out for a cheese" will "do him good."  I recall now that this trip was undertaken partly because Edward thought himself ill -- maybe he was, but Austen doesn't believe it.

What they have to look forward to is the matter of the next paragraph.  The "long list of arrivals" is some security they will have companionship, will know someone;  " we need not immediately dread absolute Solitude' (as I wrote yesterday this is shades of Catherine Morland and Mrs Allen's case in NA). And joking: "a public breakfast in Sydney Gardens every morning" "so that we shall not be wholly starved."

Sydney Gardens

Three of Elizabeth's children (the boys) are well at Godmersham.

This makes her think about Cassandra with genuine solicitude: she hopes Cassandra "very busy and very comfortable."  May be she, Jane, is not -- after all this follows the semi-joke detail about dreading solitude and not getting breakfast.  Maybe they didn't pay for breakfast as part of their stay so have to find their breakfast themselves. They don't have their own kitchenette.

Still she "has no difficulty doing my Eyes."  So she is doing some treatment to them. I hope it didn't make them worse.

The barrier of jokes is dropped and Austen admits in a non-ironic style that she does like being there.  She is alive to the picturesque view from "the Drawing room window at which I now write." She likes its "perspective view of the left side of Brock Street, broken by three Lombardy Ppoplars in the Garden of the final house on the street."

That this is conscious description prettied up is suggested by the note which tells us "garden" was inserted as an afterthought. This is the young woman who liked to read Gilpin and look at the illustrations.

Back to her real worry about that trunk: "I am rather impatient to know the fate of my best gown" in fact it will be "some days" before "Frances" can "get through the Trunk."  Frances is the person bringing this trunk and he has to get it through to the town.  The road jammed? or does he have other duties and Jane's trunk has to come well after these?

Then the thanks to Cassandra for making her a special gown and fixing her silk stockings. It was not Cassandra who made her trunk travel separately.

She signs more plainly: "Jane."  Then "a great deal of love from everybody" which somehow makes me think of Mr Knightley's comment to Emma when she goes to London: does she want him to convey the love which no one carries. Austen does not like cant nor repeating it even if it's half-way true.

Then some letters missing so those who want to argue Austen didn't like Bath can invent evidence here.  You see the next whole half-month is gone missing.  And it's not clear she does like it; she seems ambivalent -- a not uncommon response by her in these letters thus far.

See 1&2, 3&4, 5, 6, 7, 8 & 9 , 10, 1112, 13, 14 , 15, 16 & 17 and 18

Tags: jane austen criticism, jane austens letters, literary biography, women's art, women's memoirs

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