misssylviadrake (misssylviadrake) wrote,

Jane Austen's Letters: Letter 29, Sat-Mon, 3-5 Jan 1801: Steventon to Godmersham, the upheaval

Dear friends and readers,

This is a letter which requires that we pay attention to what is not in the collection, what has been destroyed and endlessly skewed by different interpretations. As far as we can tell when Jane Austen and Martha Lloyd (with her) returned from Ibthorpe early in December (see letter 28) they were told by Mr and Mrs Austen that it was "all settled", the Steventon residence was to be given over to James and Mary Austen; the father, mother and two unmarried sisters were to vacate and go Bath to live on the father's pension and whatever savings or income they had from investments (Mrs Austen had something).  Jane had no recourse, no choice.

Steventon in 1814, a sketch thought to be by Anna Austen

We should also remember that in going to Bath they were clearly re-inforcing their connection with the Perrots and this was problematic.  In this letter Austen does say she wants to stay as far away Axford Buildings (they all "unite" in this); they want to keep some distance from the Perrots, not just from the unpleasantness and parsimony of the aunt, but the recent shaming trial of her for theft where in letters outside this collection we learn Mrs Austen was willing to curry favor to the point of offering to send her daughters to stay in prison with the aunt to show the family's support.  Luckily some sense of decency towards the daughters prevailed and this was not done:

Jane Cholmeley Perrot, aka Aunt Perrot

I've written an article summing up the evidence which points to petty thievery on Mrs Perrot's part.  Jane's Aunt Jane probably stole that lace.  (I do regret the article's title; it's lurid and not the one I originally chose.  I had something more in the vein that the woman did do this act but not characterizing her whole life by it or the later incident where she was caught again.)

Much ink has been spilt on what exactly happened the night Jane Austen came home and what was her attitude. You do have to take some position or other because you can't read the letters without a previous perspective, as again so many are missing (Nokes says that in 1801 Jane Austen herself went missing as the letters were all destroyed from the middle years of her being in Bath) and what we have enigmatic partly because of this, partly from censorship.

I incline to somewhere in-between the traditional view and a new one recently emerging.  The traditional view clearly used and central to Tomalin's book -- so to her depiction of Austen's life as well as career -- is a straight taking of Caroline Austen's account 70 years later from her mother:   in brief, Austen was devastated, the last thing she wanted to do was go live in Bath; it was unfair to give all their things to James, sell cherished books, and (according to Tomalin and others) we can account for Austen not writing a finished book after she leaves Steventon and until she arrives at Chawton by the havoc all this played in her mind

To be sure, there's much evidence of upset (in his and other letters), the silence, common sense about how it might have felt to be a spinster daughter of no dowry brought to Bath to get a husband. Not much fun.  This letter goes over lots of places that I know were unacceptable -- and still show their stigmatized history. Trim Street is still an enclosed square, not pretty . South park building are at the edge of Bath -- though to her credit Austen can live with that because they are not far from Kingsmead -- nowadays a park to walk in alongside a flowing river.

Green park buildings, 1940s photo

The other view powerfully set forth by Nokes (also Jan Fergus as I recall but milder) is Jane not only didn't mind, she rather liked the prospect.  He does quote to great effect her comment that they must fool the neighborhood in thinking they regret going and many details in the coming letters of activity, liveliness, her impatience at moments to be gone.  He is careful: if you read him with care he does not dismiss her irritation at giving everything to James and Mary, he notes how each of the family members returned once more before James and Mary moved in (as if they were not going to be generous owners and sharers -- they were not),  Jane not going to some occasion invited by James and Mary, and the hurts -- the loss of pictures, books, memory sites.

I am one of many who reject the idea that Austen stopped writing from 1799 to 1809 or 11. I see much evidence that she continued. The carrying the writing desk. The ms for The Watsons (perhaps originally titled The Younger Sister) dated 1801 in its calendar.  Lady Susan on 1805 paper.  The sending NA as Susan to be published.  (Kaplan's book JA Among Woman takes this view too).  So devastation won't do. Also I see in this letter bouncing back, making do. 

1734 drawing of Beechen cliff: in NA Austen shows she loved that park

I had before this reading come between the two views, but now a close reading of this letter in the context of all those that have gone before and my memories of biographies and literary criticism and the books for the first time persuades me that although Austen did not cease to write when she moved to Bath, she was much closer in attitude towards it as traditionally described (say Jenkins, Tomalin) than the new view by Nokes and his peers.  She is deeply reluctant to move to Bath; she is being forced from her home. I don't feel it's that she wants to be retired, or rural, because in a sense she was very active in her small narrow world.  But she did want her home -- "with what intense desire she wants her home," is a line she takes from Cowper and gives to Fanny Price.  She craved stability, space and time to write and to read, secured privacy when she wanted it, and loved the familiar and all their things.  She is losing status as well as those material things that do make up our identity, and past. . I suggest that she could have carried on writing all the more fiercely to keep her mind absorbed from all that would go on around her both now at Steventon and when they arrive at Bath and when they travel in summer.

See my unpublished opening chapter to a book I once had a commission for Jane Austen and Bath: In search of 18th century Bath.


An expensive 18th century style white dress (Metropolitan Opera costume)

Austen opens with a reference to an immediately previous letter that Cassandra will have by now.  So perhaps 2-3 days ago.  She now has "the hope" (uppermost in her mind) that Cassandra wore white in the morning when the "gay party" was with her.  This is ironic, Austen is partly making fun of the fashion, demand for white (which costs to launder) but the tone is sympathetic, light.  The reference to the cheerful person makes it further kindly.  Morning lasted until dinner so that Cassandra wore white all day while some cheerful person visited Godmersham. In comparison, her, Jane's visit to Ash Park was "so-so," as one would expect where the men included Mr Lefroy and Tom Chute.

Chute was 3 years older than Austen, ordained in 1804 and owned a copy of each of Jane's novels published before she died. A potential suitor who respected her is my guess.

They had James and Mary the next day, that night Henry set off for London. As gay as ever, as estimable said Martha.

Then just the four of them (Mr and Mrs Austen, Jane & Martha) varied by Mary Austen taking Martha to Basingstoke and then Dean: a market town and then where Mr Austen was rector and the Harwoods lived.

Map of bath, 1786

There is a switch as Austen suddenly turns to the coming life in Bath. She does not say so; we understand this only from several lines down. This is more strongly ironic or half-mocking.  Her mother looks forward as much as Cassandra to having two maids, only the father is not in on the secret. There will be no such two maids. Who shall be their servants then?  They plan "a steady Cooks, & a young giddy Housemaid, with a sedate middle aged Man" who will be husband to the cook and sweetheart to the housemaid. A menage a trois right under the Austens' noses. No one to have children, neither the wife nor the mistress.

John Bond is the servant Mr Austen liked and Austen has said she cannot enter into.  Austen thinks Cassandra feels more for this servant let go than he deserves. He has a good chance of getting a good place, was offered one many years ago by a farmer. Bond was a farm bailiff who Austen has now referred to a couple of times, each with the proviso of her keeping her distance. Her father overvalues him, and so on, which she takes to show her father's good nature and egalitarianism.  I wonder was this man a Mr Martin type (well enough, seeming gentility) to whom Austen played an Emma role - and Mr Austen a Mr Knightley.

Then the places in Bath they are considering: Westgate buildings were without prestige even if the shops were nearby (even if "not badly situated in themselves," the "street broad" with a "good appearance"). We remember how Sir Walter despised Mrs Smith for living there.

Westgate buildings, 1940s photo

As I recall Ann Radcliffe's father was attached or involved as part of making money to a show room there. When I was there in 2002 there was a car dealership on the block. Charles street is further up and near the large park, buildings new so Austen prefers that. Laura Place was very expensive, near Queens Square and the bridge. Gay street is still just off Queens square -- many years later Mrs Piozzi lived there; now it's a pretty block with law offices on it. Austen talks about ascending; I remember Gay Street as steep and hilly. They have a specific house in mind as Austen says the place is cheapest of any on the block.

Money is clearly a big consideration.  Chapel row is a side area off an expensive street further up -- further up is near the big squares and assembly rooms. A corner house just off Princes.  Perhaps that makes it cheaper, yet still within in the respected area. One must remember that when we talk of Bath we talk of a small area of it that "visitors" went to, leaving the rest out -- of ordinary folk who lived there all year long, beneath these gentry's notice. Also that the outer facades were uniform but behind them were higgledy-piggledy arrangements and individual leases and these could be of any quality or not. That's why Mrs Austen is uncertain; she has not seen beyond the (fake in effect) facade.  They both assume that Cassandra fears Trim street though she says nothing and the mother assures her they will not stoop to that. Trim is an inner square and went down very far in the 19th century.  You could see this still in 2002.  Then their desire to stay away from Mrs Perrot and her suggestion of Axford.   They do hope to escape that at least.

These buildings were a sort of apartment house in effect. The desire to escape that at least, the tone of not finding anything she anyone really wants, of settling supports the contention Austen did not want to go to Bath. The whole tenor of the letter which seems to include Mr and Mrs Austen's sympathies too does make strange the theory that Mr and Mrs Austen did this in order to "rest" from their lifetime labors as clergyman and wife. I wonder if Mr and Mrs Austen did give up Steventon willingly or happily but did it because James needed and wanted them to. Why move where you cannot afford it, where you cannot stay in summer when the prices go up, give up your furniture, books, comfort. They would be fringe people.  I think the scholars and critics have overlooked something that needs more explanation than we have.

Austen says Edward and Cassandra can confer on all the choices, none of which she is eager for at all (so Nokes cannot be right here). It's suggested they may take the opinions of Cass or Edward since they themselves feel no eagerness for any of it. When we've moved, my husband has usually said to me, Do you love this? want it for real? If I say no, we move on. The Austens are in the position of reluctance towards their choices.

Then the parting with their things in favor of James. It must be admitted there is no great overvaluing here as she refers to some of this as "old heterogeneous" but note that Cassandra was in danger of having to give up her drawings or so Austen pretends to think. Two paintings on tin (yuk, but done at the time, a cheap way of mounting pictures) are also to remain Cassandra's. Two French pictures of agricultural life have been long gone to Edward's sisters-in-law. The sense is they are missing, and does Cassandra know what these sisters did with them?

A feel of tenacious holding one, a wanting to hold on to this stuff comes out.

A sudden switch when she says she cannot give up the idea that and she and Cass together will go to Paragon buildings.

Within the horseshoe of the Paragon, the view from Walcot, 1940s photo

The Paragon buildings then and now are/were pretty and in one of these horseshoe formations. Austen cannot bear the idea of being left behind then as there is no place she will want to stay at.  She concedes to pay for the two of them is more than to pay for one, but she will endeavour to be cheaper to keep by disordering her stomach so she cannot eat. How? by eating one of the famous buns.  There's a shop still sells these claiming to have been doing so for centuries.

We see here that Austen does not feel the way others said they did. Most people do say the buns are yummy; they are big and I found them buttery and heavy.  Indeed I agree with her one could make oneself sick on them.

She also says "the trouble of accommodating two is no worse than one."

I take all this to be a reference to the parsimonious aunt. When the parents flit away in May say to the coast, Austen cannot bear to think she will have to live with the aunt alone.  Shades of Fanny Price stuck with Mrs Norris here.

A switch in perspective.  She returns to the point she was writing from at the opening of the section beginning at "There are three parts of Bath" they thought likely to have houses." She means houses to rent. They have two plans on how to do this difficult thing. (Many of us will have moved in life and know how hard this can be on a limited income.) She forgets to tell the second plan. The first is she and her mother and Martha go down first together and then 2-3 weeks later the father follows.  They (she, mother) have promised to not only stop but stay at Ibthorpe on the way. In any case they must all meet at Bath before going off to the seacoast.

Since they go to the seacoast in May when the prices go up, this shows that she is talking of a couple of months from now. The move is not actually immediately upon her. So if the Austen parents sprung this move on her, they did do it in such a way as to give her time to adjust.

Among other things they have time to consider is furniture. They cannot replace a lot of what they leave behind, including the big marital bed. So the Austen parents are going to take it with them. People will remember the famous article where Terry (Castle was It?) opined perhaps Jane and Cassandra were lesbian and used the idea they slept together all their lives for this.  Later someone remember an article where a bill showed that the Austen sisters had separate beds. He need not have done this.  The evidence that Cassandra and Jane did not sleep together even at this point is here:  "all the best" that they shall want are "to be removed" (taken from James and Mary) and this includes "our own two."  Clear as day.  Jane had one bed and Cassandra the other. Apparently they can or will not take anything else from their room Their chest of Drawers is not worth it. Deal was cheap and she says they can buy one of deal and paint it "to look neat". We see Austen here making the best of things as she says:  "I flatter myself that for little comforts of all kinds, our apartment [the word is used for a separate room in a house] "will be one of the most complete of the sort all over Bath -- Bristol included." It might be that she is also saying most places lived in in Bath are pretty bad.  She might be taking into account not just the visitors but the ordinary people of Bath who would be been as poor as anyone else working class in England. Servant classes, people working in shops, eeking out a living.

They also fretted about other of their furniture. The "they" here includes Mr and Mrs Austen. Shall they take their side-board?  For dishes. Or "a pembroke table." or "some other peiced of [valued] furniture. 

A later 18th century Satinwood Pembroke table

Finally they decided the risk (it would get ruined in moving) and cost not worth it; no 'advantage in a place" where "everything may be purchased."  (Except a really comfortable bed.)

What is Cassandra's opinion about this?  note that she really cares. She's not kidding. The parents care.

Now we hear that after all Martha's spirits were not so good or high as the letters in November had made us assume.  She has promised to come to stay with them in March.  It's not clear if they will still be at Steventon and then this would be she would travel away with them when they left for good. This feels so ominous -- part of the problem and reluctance for everyone is this sense one gets that once they leave the house they will not be welcome back as partly still owning or having a right to it. They will be shut out. I cannot rid myself of the idea increasingly that Mr and Mrs Austen did not want to go; they felt they must for some reason. Did Mary threaten something?  James? I feel they must have been very unpleasant. He demanded his rights as the eldest son perhaps in order to satisfy her.

I have read the following passage many times usually as just about letter writing and her style and attitudes towards it -- spontaneous, not performative. But in context she also refers to the sheer sincerity of what she is saying how she is directly pouring our her mind to Cassandra, how intense she feels, and how much she is relieving herself.

"I have now attained the true art of letter-writing, which we are always told, is to express on paper exactly what one would say to the same person by word of mouth; I have been talking to you almost as fast as I could the whole of this letter."

I feel the rapid patter and breathless excitement of a mind under the pressure of forcing herself to consider what she would strongly prefer not to but cannot resist as all this presses upon her.


Another evocative sketch of Steventon, 1814, also thought to be by Anna Austen

Having again canvassed some the problems in moving to Bath, Austen now turns to consider some of the doings and people at Godmersham and Mrs Knight's that Cassandra described.  Godmersham and Cassandra's "Christmas gaieties" are her subject (the phrase puts me in mind of the acid feel of Miss Bingley talking of Christmas with a sense that all that is attributed to the holiday as automatically a pleasure is sheer hypocrisy), .

Philadelphia Walter has begun to function in these letters as a joking standard, a ironic benchmark:  Cassandra's Xmas "gaieties" would "even satisfy her."  Gossip focusing on the tensions in the Brydges family: the younger Miss Foote wins 10 shillings and this may smooth things between her and another dependent relative, Frederick. Yet another pregnancy: Lady Bridges.  Will these never cease? This may be Jemima who had 8. 

I read the next 4 sentences as without irony, simply genuinely felt and stated. I assume Austen liked the Pearsons: she is glad of their good fortune, a promotion they have looked forward to (worked for presumably) for years, since a friend-relation, Captain Lockyer's illness. The Pearsons will have more income, a better house.  These phrases remind us how skewed in presentation of the Austens and peers as superrich have been many of the Austen movies.

Then -- irresistible this -- Austen returns to the topic of the coming move. First how to think about it.  Austen shows her mother as coming up with the (extravagant) idea, clearly disproved by this very letter, that they will 'have not trouble at all in furnishing" their "house in Bath."  Jane's response was to promise for Cassandra that she certainly would obviate all troubles that could be: Cassandra will undertake to make sure there are no troubles.


Then a sentence which harks back to her initial revulsion at this plan of giving up home, comfort, tythes enough. "I get more and more reconciled to the idea of their removal." She is getting used to, accommodating herself to it, and is just now able to produce ironic resignations and disclaimers, as they've lived long enough in this Neighborhood,  balls are on the decline, she envies the life of sailor and soldier's wives.  One is tempted to ask rhetorically (ironically) really?  But Austen did in Persuasion seem to respect and envy Mrs Crofts; she has Emma longing to see the sea; the sailor's or soldier's wife does get to see the world, travel, meet people.  People must not known Jane sacrifices very little; if they tell then no one will feel sorry for them.  "I can expect to inspire no tenderness, ro interest in the Country."  These phrases are ironies within ironies.  Austen sees the hypocrisy of such professions.  On the other hand the whole passage does make for Nokes's interpretation that Austen did not want to spend her life buried in the country, in a restricted stifling round (we have seen her frustrated by the demands of social experience -- I thought she'd rather be writing), and the Bath letters do show some real enjoyment.

That the Austens' and her peers' interests were in direct conflict with those of the poor is seen in the next statement. She says "the threatened Act of Parliament does not seem to give any alarm."  This threat is to feed the average person living near the edge (subsidence) bread by forcing prices down. But that would of course interfere with the gentry making as much money as they can by charging as more than the poor can really bear.

Thematically all this is about is how (through ironies) to think about traumatic devastating experiences, hard need, hard choices, and dealing with hypocritical and/or shallow reactions by those watching them (the neighbors).  Psychological studies of people moving home from one place to another suggest there is a period of mourning for many people.  Then how to present themselves to their worlds, and finally, the pragmatics of what to do, e.g., her father doing all in his power to increase his income.

In the first PS beyond the father's attempt to increase their income. She does not despair of ratcheting it up to 600 a year.  Austen asks again where Cassandra means to live (and protect her bees -- so she kept bees (!)  Now we hear they are afraid of South Parade being too hot. I've walked it; there is no shade.

South Parade, an angle away from the bridge and water

The second PS is about Martha's "best love" sent to Cassandra, and her "many kind statements" about her coming to Godmersham to Cassandra in March (another dream-plan) and hoping for a "large return" (long visit) from the sisters in autumn.  They had no such power. Austen then says she may not write again until Sunday as that's the next day. At any rate she didn't write again for 5 more days. I feel in this last statement her spirit suddenly giving out, her losing her ability to pretend to strong stoicism and retreating.

For a review of a good book on Bath and commentary on the city then and now, together a bibliography of other books, see my Peter Borsay's The Image of Georgian Bath.


See 1&2, 3&4, 5, 6, 7, 8 & 9 , 10, 1112, 13, 14 , 15, 16 & 17 , 18, 19 , 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25 , 26 , 27 and 28..

Tags: jane austen criticism, jane austens letters

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