misssylviadrake (misssylviadrake) wrote,

Jane Austen's Letters: Letter 23, 25-27, Sat-Mon, Oct 1799: three very dull things indeed

Dear friends and readers,

Another thoroughly Emma letter: it mirrors the underlying mood of Emma.  In an earlier letter strongly anticipatory of Emma (letter 17) we saw Jane snubbed at a dance and, with the help of friends, fail to manipulate another man to dance with her: 

Louise Dylan as Harriet just as she overhears and watches Mr Elton refuse to dance with her (2009 BBC Emma)

This letter also reflects the ennui the Mansfield Parkers are determined to do away with by play-acting. But it epitomizes all that is so frustrating about what's left of Austen's letters and makes an attempt to get close to her this way (behind not just the modern biographies, but the family smothering framing) problematic at every turn.

Romola Garai as Emma feeling bleak after Mrs Weston's marriage, Jonny Lee Miller as Mr Knightley looking on (09Emma)

It's about the dullest letter thus far, a sea of trivia scarcely redeemed by the continual tone of muted sarcasm through out as Austen mimicks and tones of pleasure and happiness she imagines Cassandra would as a matter of piety couch her lucubrations from Godmersham in; and of "rejoicing" her own family and neighbors apply to their activities. By about half-way through Austen does break down and sudden unexplained resentments prod through ("but we knew a trick worth two of that") She imagines some disasters after erupting with local instances of drunkenness, horridness and the neighborhood's (enjoyment of) grieving over someone's bankruptcy.  Thus tedium is relieved and thus is she inspirited sufficiently so that tail-end leads to some  acid over how Edward might respond to tales of someone else's fancy house features -- though again she is at a loss, is driven to present something as what she promises to drop ever after (the weather, Steventon improvements) and goes into her liking of a gown, her mother's dislike, pink shoes with a return to her muted sarcasm as she manages to come up to entering into the fiction of charming journeys and gladness.

I called it "three very dull things indeed" because the one way it can have interest beyond the obvious question of why save this? is that by connecting it to Emma's insult of Miss Bates we can give new twist to the knives in that novel. It’s said that Austen deliberately gave herself the task to produce a novel which reflected the ordinary daily round -- though through the eyes of an heiress. show how aware Austen is (though she says as much in these letters) of the impoverished nature of what passes for stimulation in her daily round.  When Miss Bates comes up with three very dull things indeed I suggest that Austen is also seeing herself in Miss Bates, and Emma’s irritated cruelty in ridiculing the woman connects not only to Emma’s frustration at the inanity of what she daily has to put up with (as she tries to say to Mr Knightley) but to Austen’s pouring herself and her own life into Miss Bates too. Austen sees herself in both chief participants of this painful scene. The brilliance of Tamsin Grieg’s performance in the 2009 Emma is the actress does manage to convey self-awareness that she is absurd, dull, without resources. The actress playing Mrs Bates in this production is not just the first Mrs Bates to speak, but is filmed to show her pitying her daughter.

Tamsin Grieg as Miss Bates, a woman sensitive to every slight havin to force herself not to observe them (09 Emma)

Austen has her inner world -- the novels she’s produced and what she reads. We are scarcely allowed to see evidence of this in the letters thus far, but it probably was intensely disheartening to have these novels and not see them go anywhere either.

The gap between letter 22 and letter 23 is eighteen months. We are now at the close or autumn months of 1800.  If we take the calendars or almanacs underlying Austen's novels seriously -- and I do -- Austen has now begun The Watsons -- it opens on a bad Tuesday, 13 October 1801. I assume such a date is predicated on a novel started sometime before that.  My calendar for MP suggests Litz's idea that drafts or fragments for MP were written 1796-97; and Kirkham has the first draft of Emma in 1802 or so, but a paradigm idea (young woman taking care of aging ill father, and two brothers) lodged in Austen's mind during the trip to Bath -- having seen Kotzebue's play. The letters have taught me how little Austen controlled her own time and also how easy she was to bully (she retreats so quickly before Cassandra and much of her outbursts in these letters is an attempt to find some release) so that just these bits of text may lie in her drawers makes sense.

Godmersham Park today, tourists included

The first line may suggest the local post office is pretty bad:  she has not been able to acknowledge receipt of a parcel sent her by Cassandra from London.  As the statement is articulated with an odd circumlocution, it may also be that she has not had time to write or been able to since Cassandra's last or some people in London failed her. Of course what would they care? her individual insignificance to anyone is being felt here.  But it's not clear as she talks of how she now hopes to be disappointed tomorrow (Sunday, when only one coach passes Steventon). 

More than a letter written on 23 June 1799 is missing here:

Then 5 lines parodying the supposed "very pleasant Journey" Cassandra would have been sure to attribute to herself, and how everyone is so well, Edward rejoicing, though the verb is not parody but seriously intended.  Jane thinks Edward is making up the idea he has been long absent from home. It seems that Edward and Elizabeth came with one of their brood to Steventon, then went to London with Cassandra (taking her as nursemaid-companion) and then to Godmersham. Some chestnuts were left behind; the chestnuts will be planted, the drawing destroyed.

Then the "exceeding busyess".  They have two or three times a day rejoiced at their very delightful weather, and they have themselves taken advantage of this great boon and visited neighbors.  Here we have Austen's irritation at the banality of perception: I wonder if the family really did piously talk like this. I doubt it so it's the family attitude of mind that annoys her, their pretenses, and that they use whatever comes to hand to drag her out socializing. Dean at Oakley Hall, ate sandwiches with mustard, admired someone's porter, someone else's transparencies.

Oh joy.

A present of two roots of hearts-ease to plant for Cassandra? The descriptions of it on the Net make me wonder if it was used as an herb in say tea to soothe the nerves.  So maybe Cassandra needed soothing after all.

Still more lines on this kind of thing only gradually Austen drops the pretense her relatives kept up too much for her taste. One decent thing here about Austen; the pleasantest tone is reserved for Betty Dawkins who I assume is some of the wretchedly poor who lived about these upper middle faux-gentry Austens.  Bet is "the most grateful of all whom Edward's charity has reached;" if she's not grateful (Austen refuses to believe in what she has no probable proof for and goes against her perception of human nature), she does express herself more warmly than the rest.  Then Harwoods and the same tiresome people always there ("forever"), then the wives one of whom fainted away from a long ride into "Lord Carnavon's Park" (let us hope it was pretty at any rate), and the other walked. It's this pair that gets the abrupt resentment; they were coming to Steventon but didn't make it. 

So "we know a trick worth two of that" refers to a real attitude of the Austens. They did what they could and successfully to prevent these women from coming.  Were they ashamed of a lack of richness about their dwelling?  JEAL tells us the vicarage left a lot to desire to those wanting prestige.  We've seen in other letters how alive the Austens are to snubs, how they will attribute snubs to behavior. The next sentence suggests that Jane herself wanted to get back at what she thinks was the hyprocrisy of these two women in pretending to want to visit the Austens:

"If I had thought of it in time, I would have said something civil to her (Mrs Augusta Bramsto) about Edward's never having a serious idea of calling on Mr Chute .... unluckily it did not occur to me."  In other words, she would have snarled had she thought of it.  Probably she would not have had the nerve to say it but manages to find relief in saying this to Cassandra.

A human contradiction is here: on the one hand, she really finds these visits so tiresome, yet when the very people who bored and irritate her so don't come to Steventon, she is resentful.

Yet more of this thwarted twaddle. Mrs Heathcote went home, Catherine (Biggs?) paid her an early visit at Dean promptly (Mrs Heathcote expected this?), good account of someone ill (Harris), James Ausetn to Winchester fair and back with a "new horse" with Mary getting a "new maid."

For a moment a piece of Popian wit almost comes out: a zeugman. Here are examples:

Or stain her honor, or her new brocade,
Forget her prayers, or miss a masquerade,

James returned with a new horse and new maid ...

A swipe at Mary here and then she elaborates the irony:  "two great acquisitions, one comes from Folly Farm, is about five years old, used to draw, & thought very pretty; &the other is neice to Dinah at Kintbury.

The joke is that "draw" and pretty" may be applied to both the maid and the horse.

James also called on Mr Bayle to inquire on behalf of Mr Austen why he is such a horrid man; Mr Bayle did not deny this but made apologies. I doubt this is what was literally said, but is a mockery of some conversation in which either James never mentioned the man's unpleasantness or one where James attempted to extract some acknowledgement of nastiness and the man pleaded not his own drunkenness but blamed a servant for being drunk. Perhaps Bayle is a carpenter for he gave James hopes of a table in a couple of weeks.

Sudden switch: no letter since Cassandra left, except one of a Bishop inquiring after the character of someone.  This is meant to show an implicit ugliness: the only letter they get is someone trying to find out something about someone else -- to their detraction probably, possibly over Mr Elton trying to get some employment or niche.

The onto the hypocrisy of the neighborhood pretending to grieve but enjoying the bankruptcy of someone (Mrs Martin failed, and an execution in her house -- poor woman, and Austen is aware of this). Note that it's the woman's brother & an associate who did this. So much for family loyalty but of course they did this to prevent others.

This is the sort of excuse people make when they say if I didn't fleece so-and-so someone else would have.  Another similar event at Wilson's and this makes for a fanciful nightmare by way of joking:

All this cruel behavior has made Austen "apprehensive that You, your fellow travellers 7 all your effects might be seized by Bailiffs when you stopt at the Crown & sold altogether for the benefit of creditors."

This brings Austen back by association to Mrs Bramston -- remember her, the lady showing off her transparencies. This is used as a weapon at Edward who is again presented as envying other people or doing something which someone with a conscience wouldn't.  It seems that in Mr Deeds's new house one of the sitting rooms is an "oval room with a Bow" [bow window] at one end: the case is there is a fireplace at the end of this oval room with a window on top of it (this would be the bow.

They (she and Cassandra) must forget this before they accuse Edward of envy. The reverse (or ironic) idea here is that Edward is justified in his envy because forsooth this new house has this feature that would arouse anyone's envy.

Elaborate bow-window: it would be difficult to have one of these over the mantelpiece of a fireplace 

This connects to Northanger Abbey where General Tilney has no bow window and excuses himself by saying there is nothing he detests (disdains, despises) so much as a patched-on bow. Now I see we are to assume the General is pea-green at people with bow-windows and in fact wishes the window had a bow.

I'm glad she has put her pen down until Sunday.

The real explanation for all this is frustration, a do-nothing life. No career for her and since she has not gotten herself a husband or doesn't want one, she is dragged about as a daughter. Her writing and reading her pleasures are (I assume) not valued for real because she never brings them up. Or if she did (remember the problematic nature of these letters), then Cassandra destroyed them -- by which one can again say what is Austen's lifeblood is not valued, something to be ashamed of in public.


On Sunday and Monday Austen wrote postscripts or did more journalizing,  The category you see these letters in depends on your perspective: I suggest we might see the letters to Cassandra as an intermittent journal done in similarly to Fanny Burney's to her sister, with the important difference that Fanny does not seem to worry about or fear her sister's reaction, but genuinely writes to her as a sheerly imagined self. 


After the opening gambit of apparently irresistible parody ("This morning's unpromising aspect ... absolutely necessary ... how peculiarly fortunate you are ...)" -- Austen just loathes the insistence she pretend all his fortunate, happy, good -- Austen at last has a second simple utterance she can say with calmness and appreciation:

"Our improvements have advanced very well; -- the Bank along the Elm Walk is sloped down for the reception of Thorns & Lilacs; & it is setled that the other side of the path is to continue turf'd & be planted with Beech, Ash, & Larch.

Two thoughts: it puts me in mind of Shakespeare's As You LIke It where the poet several times says no matter how unkind or absurd people, we can turn to nature for comfort.  I hasten to say I don't mean that Austen alludes to Shakespeare, but the implied opposition (not conscious on Austen's part) is the same.

Second, given the lack of any satisfaction until now (except maybe that Betty Dawkins has some sincerity in her thanks) this adherence to the grounds of the house would support the long held idea that Austen was very hurt, shocked, bitter when she was forced to give up this place to her older brother.


Here she is grateful for what she had hoped for at the opening of the letter has arrived. A Gown she likes (and of course Mrs Austen thinks it ugly). The stockings bring home her attitude to cheap stuff she is forced to put up with in other letters: she much prefers two pair of good qualty to three of inferior. (I'm with her there.)  The money angle is never forgotten. The combs are so pretty but she regrets Cassandra bought her so many.  (An act of kindness.)  In my queries on shoes I discovered that it was not uncommon in the era for people to wear what we'd call ill-fitting shoes: well, here's Austen remarking that the pink shoes fit well -- the others are faultless in doubtless other ways. (Shoes cost.)  This is a note of gratitude as I said:  now she says she is glad she has the cloak to expect, is grateful for a long letter while Cassandra was so hurried (I wonder why) and that "you have had so charming a day for your journey home."  Here she eschews irritation and professes to believe Cassandra; maybe Cassandra really did have a good day.

Emma's picture of Harriet: too tall (1972 BBC Emma)

More utterances of thanks.. Now though she goes back to making fun;  "the weather does not know know to be otherwise than fine;" she's surprised a woman should not be taller -- it's ever been thought a positive thing to be tall, but perhaps Cassandra has made a mistake and Mrs Marriot is taller.  We have an anticipation/echo of the dialogue over Emma making Harriet too tall -- in reverse.

Mr Roland - LeFaye guesses a hairdresser at Godmersham. So there was some occasion Cassandra was at from which she had that good day coming home.

Last PS: father likes his stockings and about the charges only objects to Mr Hancock's charge of 3 and 6 for the box.

The arrival of the package has mollified her. She rests easier, her heart is easier as she contemplates these things.

See 1&2, 3&4, 5, 6, 7, 8 & 9 , 10, 1112, 13, 14 , 15, 16 & 17 , 18, 19 , 20, 21 and 22.

Tags: children's-girls' books, costume drama, female archetypes

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