misssylviadrake (misssylviadrake) wrote,

Jane Austen's Letters: Letter 30, 3-5, Sat-Mon January 1801: a desperate acid wit

Dear friends and readers,

In a nutshell: this is the second after Austen was told by Mr and Mrs Austen that she must leave Steventon and everything they owned and made them comfortable behind them.  Give it all to the eldest brother, and his wife, Mary.  She is still reeling from the command and details all the difficulties and obstacles the family face.  She strikes out indirectly because her bitterness and frustration has nowhere to turn to, venting but cannot aim in any way to change her fate. I suspect more than ever from details in this letter that moving to Bath was no great escape from responsibility or the duties of life for the Austen parents, no retreat to an idyll. They are headed for far more trouble than they know in their home, in far less space. What was the pressure James and Mary brought to bear beyond his being the eldest son we can't know.

The parallels are of interest here because new ones: now we can see mirrors of Mr Knightley and William Larkin in Mr Austen and John Bond.

Jonny Lee Miiler as Mr Knightley advising Jefffeson Hall as Mr Martin, the room in Sudley Castle comically more luxurious than Steventon vicarage (2009 Emma)

First a general summary; then I move through the letter section by section:

The first time I read the letter through (more than 15 years ago), which was part of a non-studious read through of the letters, I wrote in the margins the following summary. These jokes and ironies about people about whom Austen cares nothing add up a kind deflected gibberish; she strikes out indirectly because her bitterness and frustration has nowhere to turn to. It reminded me of myself in my thirties when I wrote a few letters where I was venting frustration but of course could not aim it at my interlocutor.

As I wrote last time (Letter 29),  we have no idea why Mr Austen consented to this for real.  He saw all his children make one last visit. It was clear that James and Mary would not regard this house as the family house at all.

There is much that is caustic. She is allowed by Cassandra to strike out at other people outside the Austens.  Jane has also had it with watching all their things and respect and what passes for friendship in the world (paying attention to someone, walking over to them, spending time) are switching allegiances to James, even the brown Mare. No she will not be going to that great wedding day of James and Mary..  She is finally speaking out directly, acting in a way consonant with others.  Jane is beginning to speak out when too much advantage is being taken of her.  Diane mentions Fanny Price; when Austen speaks of the great kindness of Cassandra in dictating what presents she, Austen, will give to the James Austen family, it is like the worm turning.  If you let people take a hand, they take an arm, and she has been letting them. 

I'd characterize the general tone as desperately acid wit. On the other hand, I'd like also to stress that Cassandra appears to have saved a set of consecutive letters here for the first time. Maybe she too was upset and wanted to record or save this traumatic change-over time. Letters begin to go missing after Letter 33 again, and then complete silence after May 1801 until 1804. Since we've no reason to believe that Cassandra stopped visiting and helping out as the maiden aunt in Godmersham or going to the Fowles', there would have been the same rhythm of letters from Bath, probably more than from Steventon if her first visit to Bath (where she astonished the uncle by her penchant for retiring from everyone to write in a private imagined space to Cassandra).

I assume once they got there and Austen began to see what their lives would be, how others would react to them, she no longer even pretended to make do, she no longer wrote indirectly, so this set of letters we have is nothing in tone to what was probably written between 1801 and 1804.


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

Jane opens by referring as she often does to their correspondence itself.  She feels she has to apologize or defend herself for writing so quickly. She can't help herself, the experience of writing letters is irresistible. So she said she would not write before Sunday; she didn't do that, and suggests her letter will reach Godmersham before Tuesday. She then launches into the usual over-the-top compliments. She wants Cassandra to know she values especially what is written by her so that Cassandra will write again; if she didn't massage this way, Cassandra might or would stop.

After congratulating Cassandra upon her letter we are given the first of these news-reports where Austen lets fly her real unsentimental attitude towards realities and people as well as her own irritations with their phony exploitations of dress, taboos, patronage &c.

So a male cousin Payne has died; why or how they do not know (this makes me wonder if Austen is intuitively commenting on the intense reluctance to say what a person died from) but it's been long enough that Henry need not wear black.  (Had someone complained about Henry's lack of pious respect?) They also don't know how he got rid of his daughters -- to which nobleman he left them. So (perhaps) this Payne was one to curry favor and continually on the lookout for marrying his daughters up no matter who or what or why or how.

Arnie has made a connection between the reference to Hastings's wife and her companion, one of George Payne's daughters, Maria in Letter 28, to Austen's ironic justification of Henry being out of mourning for Mr Payne who would have been glad to sell his daughters to any nobleman at the opening of Letter 30.  The passage in Letter 28 is enigmatic.  We cannot tell what the happy event was, only that the line is ironic. Irony means you say one thing and mean another but as the letter presently exists in the context there is nothing to tell us what the other thing insinuated is. If it's that Maria was waiting around for her father's death, it's not only hard of Maria (if true) but of Austen to make a joke of it -- unless he was an awful person and then it is breaking this taboo of speaking well of the dead, at least not debunking and being openly glad they are dead. We can't know what George Payne was in private life, only that like the Austens, he used Philadelphia's affair with Warren for all it was worth, milked it and kept up currying favor. So his daughter, Maria, becomes Hasting's wife's long time companion - she lives off Hastings that way. Nokes tells us that Eliza Austen went shopping with Maria before she married Henry (p. 176): it makes sense that these women could become friends.

On the other hand, throughout letter 30 Austen takes the hard line view of everyone, giving no quarter to sentimental interpretations of their conduct or motives or feelings. And it may well be that such an interpretation is meant at the opening of Letter 28

Maria as Mrs Hastings's companion is different from Harriet; Harriet is not a live-in toady in the way of Betty Rizzo's study of companions in the 18th century; she is a flatterer but she is not quite subject to Emma.  She does have some small allowance sent Mrs Goddard and has somewhere to go; she is not a dependent on Emma is what I'm getting at.  Austen does keep her books pleasant by not having portraits of women who are dependents. It may be that this is also the result of the level of her female characters and their situations.  She has no wealthy older unmarried woman and her married women seem surrounded by relatives enough so there is no call to hire someone; they are also not that wealthy to pay extra people to cater to them as paid friends and servants. Lady Bertram has a governess, but Miss Lee is let go as soon as the girls grow older.


1983 Mansfield Park: the ball held in honor of Fanny's birthday and William's promotion

A ball at Godmersham. How wonderful. Cassandra can benefit her and Jane by smooching sufficiently to win from them a franked letter.  Indeed do not wear your Cambric muslin just for this.

The vignette on Peter Debary and James Digweed.  This is all about Mr Austen trying to put someone in his place to do part of the duties at a cheap rate.  (Was it beneath his son?)  Cheap enough to leave him, Mr Austen, enough to live on in Bath. 

As to blackness, Chapman thinks the explanation is the knave of spades; while he is not an eraser in the way of LeFaye, he too looks for relatively soft, innocent (childlike) explanations (Austen was a maiden aunt).  Perhaps something Biblical is intended.  Did not Peter betray Christ by denying that he knew him three times? That's probably black in the tone meant. It seems that Mr Austen wanted to leave a curate in his place and asked Peter Debary who was not keen.  Peter in the Bible who denied Christ.  It's a real problem that Debary refused, and the Austens are having trouble enough. Austen was not religious in the sense people mean today; not "spiritual", not mystic, a strongly secular realistic outlook, but in her era a Biblical story such as this would be simply assumed as known and referred to here.

Obviously he was telling a social lie when he says it's too far from London. People do sicken of these social lies when frustrated by realities; so Austen did too -- you can see that in Northanger Abbey when she has Catherine surrounded by them and asking how is anyone to know anything real that happens in the world. Indeed. So it's a lie that he wants someplace nearer London.  Often any lie will do (see Fay Weldon in her letters to Alice). Maybe he ought to compare Hampshire to one of the lakes in Scotland? She is of course indignant that Peter doesn't want it.

Does not he want to suit the convenience of Mr Austen.  How dare he not?  This is the vein, she is ironic.

Well they shall have to look elsewhere for an heir. Mr Austen goes to Digweed all the while knowing it is neither eligible or desirable for someone in Digweed's situation. So Digweed is above Debary. (Remember all those  female Debaries?). Jane's view is he should not take it unless he's in love with Miss Lyford. I take it she's after him -- maybe some sex went on between the two and he had better make himself scarce. (This kind of suspicious thinking is ugly).  Now it may be, Austen concedes, Digweed does love Miss Lyford, but is it enough to give up 25 pounds.  It seems there is a another place worth 25 more than Mr Austen is willing to pay.

Now were Cassandra to be thrown into the bargain, one of the fixtures of the house. Well that might make up for the 25 pounds of loss.  Or she may mean that Cassandra could do the curacy.  (I doubt this second reading but offer it up as possible from the language).  But it cannot be as Cassandra was "never erected" into either position by Mr Egerton Brydges or Mrs Lloyd.

She is referring acidly to gossip.  Even LeFaye concedes Mrs Lloyd was a horror and Austen does not care for Brydges as we have seen.  The joke is taking a second twist:  Cassandra cannot be thrown into the deal (or given the curacy) because even Brydges and Mrs Lloyd failed to spread the word so solidly she was.

Then the dinner party with the woman with the very low cut dress. Mrs Powlett -- expensive and naked.  Jane and Martha's satisfaction came from estimating how much her lace and muslin cost. Nothing else amusing -- though the men may have found something to stare at.  Austen has mentioned Mr Chute before: in letter 29 they met and played cards, a man about the neighborhood as Austen says in another letter (23) "forever" there.

The notes in the back tell us the Powletts were illegitimate descendents of the Duke of Bolton by Lavinia Fenwick. It might be that they are desperate to be accepted and thus come down to visit people in a lower sphere than they'd be in were they fully legitimate. And thus overdress as well as try too hard for attention. It may be Mrs Powlett was a show-offy ass.

Another death:  Mrs Lyford so pleased with widowhood she's become one again and has put herself out for sale. Snatched up by a widower much older than herself with 3 children. Clearly not a great catch (is the implication).

But Miss Lyford has not come. Digweed then may breathe easy -- unless of course he's in love with her.


1996 Emma:  Alistair Petrie as Mr Martin at his farm watching Emma ride by

Then the problem of what to do with the farm.

The Cheesedown farm was tenanted by Mr William Holder; that means he did the work on it -- probably in the spirit of Mr Martin as a gentleman farmer.  Mr Holder is described in three places I've read thus far (LeFaye's notes, Irene Collins on JA and the Clergy, and Nokes's JA) as having made a small fortune in the West Indies and coming home to rent Ashe Park. It was "small" since later in life he feel into poverty and lived miserably -- not uncommon in an era without any safety net --- which ours is fast becoming.  So we can identify here, not with the small fortune but the insecurity of the man's middling status.  John Bond is Mr Austen's steward who we remember he was friendly with (Jane could recognize Bold's steps): there we have an original for Mr Knightley and William Larkin probably. .  (Emma's snobbery comes out here when you think about how the Austens interacted with Holder and Harwood and Bond too).

As to William Portal, he owned Ashe Park; the Portals were originally Huguenots who made money in paper mills, and especially printing the bank notes for the Bank of England. Mr Austen shows a conscience: he does not want this property to be lost to Holder or John Bold to lose out. They are little people; Mr Harwood is again that squirearchy family (with the son whose marriage Austen cannot leave alone). What the Austens had against Farmer Twitchen (he had a wife, Sarah) I've no idea nor apparently does anyone else.

The only way to see how Mr Austen is behaving as a person and Jane's attitude towards him is to study these hierarchies of money, power, property, rank.  There are real parallels to Mr Bennet in Mr Austen as he appears in these letters; so too Mr George [note the first name repetition] Knightley.

(Once again I don't believe Mr Austen really wanted to do this, he was pushed; what was the threat or the pressure point one can't tell. Mrs Austen? from Austen's point of view here and elsewhere it does seem it came from James, who wanted the place as eldest son and they should get out, but he could not have forced it just like this.  Mary's power to make herself unpleasant could not have been that big, could it? People have said they wanted to find husbands for the Austen girls. Clearly they are not going to be big on the marketplace of Bath, but among tough competition.)

Back to irritated ironies. The Cookes were Austen's friends (suggesting that she and Fanny Burney knew about one another personally) and Mrs Cooke's friend Mrs Lawrel is to marry a rich Mr Hinchman.  Apparently Mary had been making hypocritical noises about how worried she was about some cousin who lived in India whom she had not heard of, and perhaps in the spirit of Mrs Norris dreaming up disasters for him so she could feel better. Jane says (ironically) well now Mary can cease to (pretend to) torment herself over this cousin's fate.  It takes conflating the names to get to this but this makes psychological sense. Again she strikes out indirectly because her bitterness and frustration has nowhere to turn to, and sometimes she has to fantasize to get at the person hurting her.

And by association her mind moves to James and Mary's wedding day. 

A sentence intervenes where Austen says they all (Mr and Mrs  Austen and herself) sincerely regret that Martha will soon leave them, and we are giving another set of details which connect Mary to Mrs Norris.

Mary is all bossy officious activity: she it is who will drive Martha home to Ibthorpe and once there she will have great fun ("all the festivity she can") by "contriving for everyone's comfort, & being thwarted or teized by everyone's temper."  Jane is parroting Mary's words in the last phrase: Mary looks upon herself as thwarted and teized.  Mrs Norris knows how under-appreciated she is. And the pretense of contriving for others' comfort reminds us of Mrs Norris too.

1999 Mansfield Park:  Sheila Gish as the self-satisfied aggressive Mrs Norris

Of course we cannot know Mary's side of the story, nor how Mary saw the Austen sisters.

No need to add that Austen will not come to this party.  She cites a few names:  Fulwar (full name Fulwar-Craven Fowle -- who is reported to have read only the 1st and last chapters of Emma as he heard it was not interesting), Eliza (Fulwar-Craven's wife), Tom Chute (he shows up everywhere "forever" Jane has said); Jane's point is:  see how few show up:  "I know of nobody else."  Since Fulwar-Craven was a dolt and said to be irascible, not a fun set.

Jane means to say she missed nothing but not going either.  Why the Fowles "sucked up" so to speak to James and Mary? probably the idea is they fit together -- as Austen said Lady Middleton and Mrs Fanny Dashwood did.

I can't help but remember the man who wrote those poems and wonder what he thought in his better self -- and also Jane's comment in a letter referring to James, once they meant so much and now nothing -- a theme in her novels is how marriage to a petty mean someone can ruin the spouse's nature as also marriage to a better person with strength can improve it.

Before we hear of how these Fowles returned to Deane with James and Mary and also hear of how the Rices (Le Faye characterizes Henry as a cheerful spendthrift and gets a kick out of citing his loss of money, property, fleeing creditors) are not to have Weyhill, we take time out for weaving in sarcasm towards Eliza Fowle. She's seen Lord Craven and is most pleased; the "little flaw of a mistress living" with him "seems to be the only unpleasing circumstance about him."
This does not necessarily mean that Austen herself despised this mistress; rather she could just be parroting Eliza. I admit that the tendency here though is narrow-mindedness in Austen; she's nasty over the mistress, showing up Eliza's sycophancy and hypocrisy.

The sentences are very involved. (Mine are too as I follow hers.) "he" in the sentence where it's said "for the present he has Lodgings in Andover" refers to Craven. You see, from these lodgings he (and his mistress too?) have this lovely view. Jane is sarcastic here, or ironic.  What she is conveying is Craven (let us hope not the mistress too) postures and pretends: Appleshaw is a place "of wonderful Elasticity" and can in language be stretched out to provide a view for "everyone who does not wish for a house on Speen Hill." I assume Speen Hill was pretty and for some reason or other aroused envy and so people (Craven among them) said they didn't want to live there.

Jump away to Godmersham where Cassandra is and little George .The special relationship carries on between Jane and her nephew. But she is sarcastic:  she is glad to hear he can skip so well and wants him to send her word of his continued improvement "in the art."

Acid acid

Reynolds's Dora Jordan as Rosalind (As You Like It)

Indeed, Cassandra is wise to put off her visit to London. Jane adds pointedly it will be "put off for quite some time." Is this a hit at Henry and Eliza Austen?  The following lines suggest it is. It seems that Jane admires Cassandras's "noble resignation."  (I'll bet.) The sense is Cassandra wanted to go to London and longed to see Dora Jordan and go to the opera.  But she has spoken (written) with "such noble resignation" that would be a work of supererogation on Jane's part to commiserate.  Cassandra is above all this. So, no need for consolation then, my dear sister, you are just fine.

Me [Jane] too. No need for Steventon or home, and even less for Mrs Jordan.

Still it just might be that Cassandra is thinking with "regret" of "this rupture of your engagement" -- so then we see Cassandra had been promised the visit and then the offer was suddenly broken off.  If perchance she is after all thinking of the loss with regret, then Cassandra must rest assured that Henry told Jane the actor Mr Smithson is a great miser.

And who would want to see a great miser? (Not I, meaning me myself Ellen.)

I wonder if this is a hit at Edward. Did he not charge some kind of rent in an earlier letter.  At any rate, if someone else is referred to (over Steventon) or it's just in general, Cassandra has enough of misers, no need to go to London to watch another.

And she puts her pen down until the next day which begins well -- by which I mean in the same acid vein if you like this vein -- "No answer from my aunt."  A fine topic for releasing rage.


1983 Mansfield Park:  Sylvestre le Touzel as Fanny Prince bringing home books for Susan and herself to read and to study together

Friday's journal entry (in effect) has four topics.  First Aunt Jane Perrot  She has not written as she would say she has no time for writing (the grammatical construction of Austen's sentence suggests she takes this as a usual social lie) but she is apparently returning for the winter to the fancy estate she and her husband owned, Scarletts. (This was eventually left to James-Edward Austen Leigh. A grand mansion, today divided into 3 substantial properties.)  They have to sell furniture as they cannot leave it in the flat they rented and (I suppose) it's not worth paying to move it. They do take their clothes.

Then the sarcasm which is well known; even Brabourne reprints it:

You are very kind in planning presents for me to make, & my mother has shown me exactly the same attention -- but as I do not choose to have Generosity dictated to me, I shall not resolve on giving my Cabinet to Anna till the first thought of it has been my own.

Third topic is where they will go for summer. Prices went up in summer in Bath. That's why the Austens became vagabond. If you had a place and wanted or needed to make money this way you could sublet it for more than your rent and keep the difference. Cassandra should get all the information she can from Mrs C Cage.  This sounds so grasping and without any sense of friendliness or warmth. Pump the woman is the idea/

The fourth topic is the painful one of everyone now going over to curry favor with James. Not just curates and friends, but even the old horses have settled themselves at Dean. This is a critique of whoever moved them. Horses do not pick themselves up and go to another house; they are ridden or taken there.  Like LeFaye I assume Hugh Capet is a horse; so too Mr Skipsey; both owned by James so he wanted these horses still with his father's family for himself and (sharp hard statement)

"everything else will be seized in the same manner."

I find the theory that Hugh Capet is a hidden reference by Jane Austen to the first king of France far-fetched, absurd. People then and still today give their horses names which tell us of the owner's identity politics and fancies about him or herself or the horse.  So Mr Austen or a previous owner had named this horse. Even more than the phrase "happy event," we cannot know why the horse was so named.

The letter ends quietly after the bitter remarks about everything being seized and people preferring James to her father and them; "Martha and I work at the books every day."  I assume this means they studied together (foreign language? say Italian) or made books together (the sort Emma and Harriet made) common place books. The point is for some time each day she and Martha are in peace and occupied usefully as they see it side-by-side.  There are some things left to her.

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, 28 and 29.

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

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