misssylviadrake (misssylviadrake) wrote,

Jane Austen's Letters: Letter 21, Tues, 11 June, 1799, Queens Square still

Dear friends and readers,

This is another letter where one misses intensely all the context that once existed.  Like Diane (for whom I thank for starting us off this week), I like the lovely simplicity of Austen's opening:  "Your letter yesterday made me very happy," but I wish we had that letter. Not only that but those inbetween June 2nd and this of the 11th. I wonder what made Cassandra choose to save this third one out of the many. Cassandra is enjoying remembering whatever was going on at that time that Austen knows, insinuates and doesn't mention explicitly (had she maybe we'd not have the letter). Ah that's it.

Heads of topics:  still at Queens Square! tone of forced gaiety, thrift-shop type shopping, again Edward's nervous ailments, Piozzi's style, Egerton Brydges's novel (& poems), Martha getting First Impressions by heart, Benjamin Portal, Weston walk, hoping for home next week; if not, lives in this writing space apart with Cass ...

Pump Room, Bath

A theme that unites this letter and the two before is how little people care for one another if they can't get something from them -- either in terms of getting a place, feeling they are prestigious for spending time with you. The Austens are fringe people with the barest of connections they have to work very hard at for themselves.  Austen sees this so clearly. Not that she is eager to be with such people.  The problem is there is no other choice about -- and so the occasional walk cheers, getting away from others at a concert, and oh yes, writing to Cassandra -- an imagined alter ego in a private space apart.

Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen writing to Cassandra (Becoming Jane)

I agree the tone of gaiety is forced. You can this this at several points:   "I am very glad You liked my Lace, & so are you & so is Martha -- & we are all glad together ..." She makes it explicit how such utterances are exaggerations, unral versions far away from real feeling:  "I have got your cloak home, which is quite delightful! -- as delightful at least as half the circumstances which are so called"   Part of her genius in her books when she is at her best is her refusal to put down a feeling or thought that is not precisely the actual one she or her characters or the situation is imagined as justly having.

There is an intense longing to go home and weariness with enforced gaiety. . She is again stuck.  Why?  the mystery we find here not explained (by any note):  that Cassandra has "escaped any share in the impurities at Deane": this might be nasty doings, gossips, maneuvers of the icky kind which are so dispiriting, but the language also recalls Elizabeth's sarcastic imagining of how the Bingley sisters regard Cheapside where the Bennet's Aunt and Uncle Gardener and their children live. Why did Cassandra want to keep the Austens from Steventon -- Jane asks this at the end:  "What have you going on in Hampshire beside the Itch from which you want to keep us ..."  Her idea of a good summer seems to be Martha coming to stay with them be made the equivalent -- substitute -- for all the (tedious) visits they would have to make.  She is surrounded by people who have nothing else to do but sit with one another and do nothing worth while; this is called socializing by many, and we have a candid assessment of what this means in Emma thinking about a coming party.  The shopping sequences are actually dismal bargaining over petty ephemeral accessories -- that's part of this feeling of being forced. I thought of going to local Thrift shops in my area.  A way to kill time to no use.

Which gets me to a theme which produced the quivering mood I see surfacing -- writing. I find these letters frustrating on many counts.  One they are a sliver of what was and so enigmatic.  Second the editing is just so skewed. What one wants to know is not told while one gets long histories of families (to coin an Austen phrase) no one cares about (but those into meaningless rankings).  There is no cross-reference to Letter 62 where Austen does imitate Mrs Piozzi -- not so much in her travel book, Observations and Reflections Made During the Course of a Journey through France, Italy and Germany, where she never mentions her first husband, but as Austen imagined her as a married woman with Dr Johnson at Streatham:

"But all this, as my dear Mrs Piozzi says, is flight and nonsense -- for my Master has his great Casks in mind, & I have my little Children -- & I that have the great cask --, for we are brewing Spruce Beer again  &c&c (p. 156).  Mrs Piozzi by Jane's account here is such another as Miss Bates. In fact Jane Austen seems to love Piozzi's travel book (parody is a high compliment), as did a number of the fine women writers of the day. Mrs Piozzi was a kind of role model.

About Egerton Brydges's Fitz-Albini we are told nothing: it's such a dumb book it doesn't rate in the most diligent of the handbooks; it's mentioned as an Anti-Jacobean novel (in a book of that name by M. O Grenby).

We hear of Matha getting First Impressions by heart. She cannot write away quietly.  Her heart is agitated, she feels some intensity; of course Cassandra would want her to write away quietly. But she can't. If I use the word "nervous" here I don't men in the modern sense of debilitated, but that of Pope: strong passions moving among her nerves.  And no where to let it out ...

Olivia Williams as the older Jane writing Persuasion at Chawton (close-up from Miss Austen Regrets)

Another young man: Benjamin Portal.  We were told he had handsome eyes around the time of her disappointment over Tom Lefroy (Letter 1, p 2).  Lefaye's note does tell us he was born 1768 so he's 8 years older than Jane, and thus the right age, and also that he is thought to have perhaps contributed to the Loiterer: a brother's friend and with a little pretension to intelligence.  Another clergyman -- meaning he has a living.  So, A possible suitor?  The marriage market is at Bath too.


Milsom Street, Bath

Onto this letter: the first section has the remark that Cassandra's letter made Jane happy and about it the remark that Cassandra "escaped ... the Impurities of Dean" and she is not sorry "our stay has been lengthened." So Cassandra's letter which made Jane happy had information about the Lefroys at Dean and why the Austens & Knights were now to stay at Bath longer.

Jane still hopes "tolerably secure" of their leaving next week, though it's possible it will drag out for another week. I remember how Fanny Price longed for her home so intensely. 

The association here then leads to the hope that the projected visits she and Cassandra are expected to do may be turned into Martha their friend visiting them.  Jane would much rather have this. (We may surmise here she would get writing time too -- and liberty and space for herself for real.)

Then it devolves into talk about Edward's complaint. His complaint was a prime excuse for going. It begins with the usual ironies but I note that she does end more complacently and sympathetically than usual:  I see no irony in this statement;  "He is more comfortable here than I thought he would be, & so is Eliz:" 

Portrait of Edward Austen Knight as a gentleman on the grand tour

We might take out a minute and contemplate this young man. He is no intellectual prodigy -- no writer of Loiterers either.  He was plucked out of his family as a young boy and he must've known it was important for him to please.  Given attitudes towards adoption, his position was precarious even if Mrs Knight seems to have been so kindly.  People can change their minds and swiftly (Trollope's Ayala's Angel is about this).  Maybe it did make him nervous. Certainly plucking someone out of their environment is not made altogether wonderful even in Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax's case.  Then the family he knew would be dependent on him to have connections -- yet if we look who is it who's making the deals. Not Edward but rather James through the first wife (much older than he, said to have been plain, but a linch pin for several of these patronage plums they grabbed).  He marries up - and I can imagine Elizabeth let him know it.  She was answerable endlessly with her body (and died of it) and would expect him to appreciate her. And he did -- no Chawton cottage on offer until she died.

What I'm saying is his nervousness and desires to get away probably had real psychological origins Austen does not acknowledge in her letters at all though when she writes fiction her less than conscious not-moralizing mind picks up on his experience.

Pip Torrens as Edward Austen Knight worried sick over the lawsuit trying to take back his property (Miss Austen Regrets)

But after sympathizing Jane is back to ironies about Elizabeth particularly:  " thou' they will both I believe be very glad to get away, the latter especially.  -- Which one can't wonder at somehow.  Somehow italicized. Some insinauation. I guess it's that Elizabeth grew tired of Mrs Austen -- as in Persuasion the older woman wanting to take precedence when the younger one has the wealth and therefore could insist on her precedence.

Could not have been fun as we see in Persuasion.

She thinks of the above as written in Mrs Piozzi's style -- as it's insinuating about family members and life.  An essay could be written trying to compare Piozzi's life writing with Austen. People often cite this comment and say Austen liked reading Piozzi and kept her in mind but no one works at seeing the parallels.

Then the many sentences on the thrift shop shopping. An Orleans plum is a variety of plum:  As Diane has remarked the word "cheap" and "very cheap" are emphatic, and the gist of the passage is how many sprigs Jane can get "for the same money as would procure only one Orleans plumb."   In short she'd get more for 3 or 4 shillings than she has "the means of bringing home."

Photo of actual sewing piece by Austen

So we also have a comment on the limitations of space given her for her traveling things again. That trunk that went separately never altogether out of her mind finally.

John's Bargain store stuff.  The final comment about how flowers grow out of the head more natural than fruit is an offset but when she goes on about how she'll wait for Cassandra's opinion I do think to myself this woman was just not given enough to do in life or allowed to think about on paper.

The something one might have expected to be given more importance than it is:  in Brabourne's corrected form:

I would not let Martha read "First Impressions" again upon any account, and am very glad that I did not leave it in your power. She is very cunning, but I saw through her design; she means to publish it from memory, and one more perusal must enable her to do it.

She will let Martha have Egerton Brydges Fitzalbini when she gets home (see comments for two poems by Brydges. So Jane has been reading this inferior book -- she did she said love novels and maybe it was expected she read a relation's.  Then we get a comment on its characters.  Austen wants Martha to own Mr Elliot handsomer than Mr Lance (the name is repeated in Persuasion) and that "fair men are preferable to Black."  She does in her MP make Henry Crawford "black" (darker in looks).

Then the Benjamin Portal reference: again one might have thought it would be made more of.  The family was very aware of him as a possibility I think, watching from afar.  We are told Mrs Austen saw him "the other day but without making herself known to him."  This kind of intentness speaks of their not being sure of their status too.   

We have now had four young men, one serious, one quietly wanted, one turns out to have been a painful jackass [perhaps giving rise to Collins] and now this possibility gazed at from afar: LeFroy, Bridges, Blackall and Portal.

That it's not emphasized properly in terms of what it could lead to (as opposed to saving a few shillings -- not that this apparently was a small thing to Jane) shows how rapidly these letters were written -- in a hurry and haste too.

Then the making fun of how glad they are together, as Diane said, the strained gaiety and the refusal to attribute more delight or any feeling to something where you don't feel it.

I've commented on the nervous passion quivering through this line: I do not know what is the matter with me to-day, but I cannot write quietly; I am always wandering away into some exclamation or other. Fortunately I have nothing very particular to say.

Now I'll add it's pathetic how she is glad she had nothing "very particular to say."  I feel here she is glad because if she had she would offend Cassandra perhaps.  (She was easily cowed as younger sister it seems).

Then as the letter switches to outward matters of their doings in Bath and people they meet.

In the second half of the letter we have Austen reporting outward doings -- with places and people outside the family group.

Sydney Gardens

She frets over her phrasing of the walk to Weston that she apparently enjoyed.  Then we get a return to ironies.  They had not gone to a public place lately but were apparently planning (and congratulating themselves about this) to dine out, but then it turned out to be no such thing.  The next paragraph again aligns them with John and Fanny Dashwood: it seems that Elizabeth was at first not keen to that Edward accepted Mr Evelyn's invitation (I see from the notes this family included high officers of a county, sheriffs and the like), but when Evelyn called, she liked his manners.

IS this not Fanny Dashwood approving of Lady Middleton?

So "The Biggs would call her a nice woman" is code for dull and boring and snobbish?

But alas, "Mr Evelyn .. indisposed yesterday, is worse today & we are put off."

Again we are in the world of Walter and Elizabeth Elliot. The Austens are the eager ones chasing after others.

Now Austen turns her attention to going home:   she suggests while it's impertinent for her to make suggestions to the housekeeper, nonetheless said housekeeper better have her coffee mill ready.

Edward wants this for breakfast. (The big man.)

Now all these people sending love to others -- remember Mr Knightley on the phoniness of this, the love no one carries to anyone else. The tone is trotting along. The best thing about this list of names with the verb "love" is the line about the uncle: "he hopes all your Turkies & Ducks & Chicken & Guinea Fowls are very well." Something sweet about this apparently very stupid man (his alliance to the mean kleptomaniac parsimonious wife, and then leaving all to her is what I refer to) comes across.  Austen could not know he would leave everything to the aunt.  It seems fitting that the child was allowed to put his initials in here. It's so much mugga wugga wugga.

Back to Jane's puzzle over why Cassandra wants them to stay in Bath. What could be going on in Hampshire beyond the "Itch" from which Cassandra wants to keep them.

And again her mind reverts to gossip about people around them and another thrift-shop type trip. In the corrected version of Brabourne:

Now I will give you the history of Mary's veil, in the purchase of which I have so considerably involved you that it is my duty to economise for you in the flowers. I had no difficulty in getting a muslin veil for half a guinea, and not much more in discovering afterwards that the muslin was thick, dirty, and ragged, and therefore would by no means do for a united gift. I changed it consequently as soon as I could, and, considering what a state my imprudence had reduced me to, I thought myself lucky in getting a black lace one for sixteen shillings. I hope the half of that sum will not greatly exceed what you had intended to offer upon the altar of sister-in-law affection."

What a way to waste one's hours. It reminds me of people in supermarkets who bring these pathetic coupons they so carefully spent time clipping out so they can get this can of peas for 3 cents less and that ketchup for a quarter less.  (Nowadays this is more endurable since the computer in the cash register can scan them in -- it used to take further hours on line while one waited).  (I have to admit many might say I waste my hours over this stuff but I am as desperate as Austen in my way -- from different reasons. I do get to write later on in the day for what I have given up and she got to write too, when (analogously) it was in no one's interest to stop her

So Jane had overspent.  She is trying to help Cassandra present a gift "upont alter of sister-in-law affection."  This connects to Mary Musgrove: it's Mary Musgrove who is so resentful of not going where others go so one has continually to make it up to her. Mary Austen didn't get to go to bath so to placate her both Jane and Cassandra struggle to produce a present on insufficient funds.

And it seems the Biggs are Manydown are snubbing Cassandra. There does not come much to trouble Cassandra from them.  Jane agrees they are capricious for they sometimes do like to enjoy their elder sister's company -- perhaps they referred to Cassandra as an elder sister.  I note this statement is not ironical in the sense that Austen really commiserates with, sympathizes with her sister.

Manydown Park, home of Bigg-Wither - what it must've taken for Austen to say no to this young man the next day after he proposed


Anne Hathaway as Jane comforting Anne Maxwell Martin as Cassandra after death of Tom Fowles (Becoming Jane)

Someone remarked that she found something odd in this precise clipping and saving of Austen's letters: just this snippet out, just that letter saved. In a sense one has to ask why save them this way if you so rampantly damage them. She thought the usual cited motivation (protection of family wrongs, hurts, issues) doesn't explain this behavior.  She asked how do we (me say) save letters; what do we do when saving them.  This is a good remark and provides another perspective.  I save letters myself, tons of them in my computer files, all of the texts, not just some and don't fuss about what's there or not. I've been told by my husband (computer guru) that once something is put on the Net no matter how private expert people can retrieve it unless it's coded against that.

So, one response I've thought of this morning is how much intense investment Cassandra had in Jane, when you invest so much in one person your behavior can become overwrought and over-done (so to speak). Both were defying mores when they not only did not marry but made a point of dressing as single women intending not to marry while young. The movie Miss Austen Regrets interprets Cassandra's behaviors as deliberately acting to keep Jane to herself -- which would be a very human kind of maneuver.

Olivia Williams as Jane dying and comforting Greta Scacchi as Cassandra late in life after Cassandra tells Jane that she didn't want Jane to marry in order to keep Jane to herself (Miss Austen Regrets)

See 1&2, 3&4, 5, 6, 7, 8 & 9 , 10, 1112, 13, 14 , 15, 16 & 17 , 18, 19 and 20.

Tags: children's-girls' books, historical novels, jane austen films, jane austens letters, women's art, women's memoirs

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