misssylviadrake (misssylviadrake) wrote,

Jane Austen's Letters: Letter 31, 14-16, Wed-Fri, January 1801

Dear friends and readers,

Another pre-Bath letter (see letter 30). In this one we find Mrs Austen losing her poultry to a group of over-dressed women who come to buy them cheap, Mr Austen losing his library because his son will not take the books and Mr Austen cannot afford not to sell them. The three (Mr, Mrs and Jane) Austen endure renovations for those who will replace them.  There is Cassandra's anxiety lest they go to live in the despised Westgate Buildings, Jane's anxiety lest she be left behind (a la Anne Elliot when her sister and Sir Walter go to Bath). Mr Austen is described as trying to wrest from Mr Holder some compromise and provide a decent place for John Bold and we hear about the jockeying for the low paid curacy. 

By letter's end, Jane is likening Mary Austen, her sister-in-law to a Lady Catherine de Bourgh type.  it's apparent that the famous second chapter of S&S where Fanny easily persuades John Dashwood to give his sisters nothing is partly based on James and Mary Austen. LIke many people have, I've argued that Chapter 2 was written later than much of S&S; it's very mature. My paper on S&S I argue chapters 1-5 are a later addition put there when Austen revised an epistolary novel into an omniscient one.  I thought the time of the revision was after Mr Austen died for the letters by the brothers which Austen's chapter 2 uncannily echoes (she can't have seen their letters, only as we see guessed what they were saying) have to be after 1805/6.  But now it could have been written just after 1801.

John (James Fleet) and Fanny Dashwood (Harriet Walters) (1995 S&S): "What do you mean, help them?"

In short. this is another letter which registers how uncomfortable and forced the move really was. This is not as bitter a letter as the previous. Or not quite  Like Fanny Price in the second chapter of Mansfield Park, Jane is getting used to this treatment, used to having to give up much she cherished and live in straits. In short, quietly painful.  Again it seems to me obvious that Mr Austen did not choose to move to Bath in order to enjoy any golden years of retirement but was pushed.

An allusion by Austen likens one of her brothers to Doricourt in Hannah Cowley's The Belle's Stratagem. a comedy which shows women trying to beat back the injustices and unfairnesses inflicted on them by custom and family life.  The flamboyance and garish masquerade nature of a recent production seems a propos to this letter (see the women cheapening birds below) and for Jane Austen just then.

From a recent production of Cowley's Belle's Stratagem

This one opens "Poor Miss Austen" and I thought to myself here's an unconscious association.  Jane feels ironically (or just comically?) sorry for her sister as someone so inundated by letters. I do think it must be that Cassandra complained because she may have felt guilty she did not write back as long or frequently or felt these letters to be a burden. I've had that experience: people find letters written to them too quickly, or too honestly, or too long a burden. We see complaints about this on Austen-l.  But underneath her apology is herself: she is Poor Miss Austen, having to move from her home, give up all her things, and see them dispersed.  And also her one solace, to write is seen as too much for anyone to endure.

Jane promises not to write 'quite so often in the future" but she's right back to writing before 6 days have gone by (see Letter 32).

Then a group of sentences about Mary, Cassandra and Martha. Mary received Cassandra's letter and went with Martha to Dean.  Jane rejoices in Cassandra's ball (here she is ironic); what great pleasure to know Cassandra danced four times with Mr Kemble. 

An attractive scene of elegant dancing from the 1996 BBC Poldark film: it's imagined occurring in an grand country mansion

Chortles. Unidentified LeFaye says. Austen proceeds to scold -- so now she can do it. why dance with such a stupid man (this means boring probably -- the meaning of stupid has changed). why not some elegant brother officer struck with her appearance upon coming into the room.

Maybe none was?

Martha's best love, will write, asks for two bottle of Steele's Lavender Water provided Cassandra going shopping for herself.

She turns to James.  He dined with the Austens, wrote to Edward in the evening. I do see something hinted at but don't know what Austen is implying.  James's lines "inclining too much to the North-east" is a reference to something Cassandra will get.  Perhaps too that he crossed out "the very first line of all".  She concludes with a sarcasm: then he "joins his lady" in the "fields of Elysium & Ibthorpe."

And now they have to endure renovations. Mr Bayle was a cabinet maker and is called in.  It sounds like he is doing finishing work on wood or furniture already there.  He made out his bill of appraisement; Mr Austen enquired only about two pieces of the furniture Austen says. Probably wanted to know the price (as he often does in these letters).  Mr Bayle said the whole would not be more than 200 pounds but of course there will be the brewhouse. The man is making sure he can add on money if he wants or needs to.

So what the elder Austens and their daughters lived in is not good enough for James and his wife.

This reminds me of watching people buy extravagantly overpriced houses got up extaordinarily and then the new people proceed to renovate.  It does sicken me to see this when I think of how many people live so abysmally.

Back to the Lyfords who have tried to reassure the Austens about the places the Austens are considering. Miss Lyford was the one Digweed might marry. Mrs Lyford had lived in Westgate buildings and they were not bad, she thinks of situation "with great pleasure." Jane now rushes to reassure Cassandra still if Cassandra can't stand the thought of Westgate, they won't take it.

In the 1940s Westgate Buildings harbored shops too!

Her father who was inclined towards the row (Westgate) has "now ceased to think of it entirely."

Some of the adverse talk about Westgate surely lies behind Sir Walter's sneers at Mrs Smith in Westgate. As I said Radcliffe's biographer shows it to be a place where people traded. So, very low you see.

Jane goes on: at present her father thinks of Laura-place. Grows quite ambitious "& actually requires now a comfortable & creditable looking house."

I've walked on Laura-place: it's in the upper part of the center, is high (a flat avernue though) and then and now is expensive and well kept. The bridge is near by and it's not far from a park.

Sydney Buildings where the Austens eventually did move to (circa 1940s): it's not far from Laura Place

Then Miss Lyford takes her long way home and a bunch of women come to price Mrs Austen's poultry. She names them. Hardly a day passes when they don't have some visitor now. This is sardonic. People come to prey -- like at an auction. What can they take away and for how little?  And of course those who come to lament how sorry they are to lose the Austens:  Mrs Bramstone. Austen is not persuaded she is all that "very sorry."

Let's go over this one in more detail to bring out the poetry in Austen's prose: she thus phrases her irritation with the women who came to buy as cheaply as they could the families' poultry. 

From final scene of 2008 S&S:  Edward Ferrars (Dan Steevens) chasing down the poultry while Elinor (Hattie Morahan) throws out feed

...soon afterwards a party of fine ladies issuing from a well-known commodious green vehicle, their heads full of Bantam cocks and Galinies, entered the house -- Mrs. Heathcote, Mrs. Harwood, Mrs. James Austen, Miss Bigg, Miss Jane Blachford."

The phrase Austen provides after she names the women, "Hardly a day goes by when we do not have some visitor or other," and then Mrs Bramstone's (to Jane) "very sorry" are cant lamentations.

The scene is a little Vanity Fair where the Sedley's things are auctioned off to finely dressed hypocritically canting people:  in the Austen house a few overdressed and thus ridiculous women(who are there, humiliatingly) take Mrs Austen's poultry (Mrs Austen valued her poulty as does Charlotte Collins and a number of Austen females) for less than their value to Mrs Austen and another came in a little ater to express how "very sorry" they are.   My emphasis is the social satire and I think that's the one meant here.

The line has phallic connotations but Austen did not have in mind genital sex in "the heads" of all the characters Arnie Perlstein cites: this is to make the novels into several Finnegans' Wakes where puns on genital sex abound. I wrote earlier this is to masculinize the books.  I did see Diane's comments but can't agree that this is the emphasis genital sex punning. That's to miss the central picture.

"Heads" means what's in their minds here and is the equivalent in usage of "party" meaning group. I'd offer the poetry of the Pope-like line (it is imagistic and uses symmetry and antithesis) balances "party of fine ladies" and "well-known commodious vehicle" on the one sides with "heads of Bantam cocks and Galinies" on the other.  A barouche-landau? Probably not, but at least a large coach and it's green.  This is a ludicrous color when not qualified as dark or some other green.  The image is a cartoon caricature with the women themselves shown to be ludiciously overdressed, riding around in over-priced carriages to cheapen some poultery.: "party full of fine ladies". They are vain, pompous, giving themselves airs.  We might think of people today who go round to flea markets dressed in evening clothes; or people who go to yard sales turning up in jaguars with the latest fashion from Saks Fifth Avenue.

We might find some Gilray cartoon as an equivalent image.

A typical James Gillray cartoon

In close reading you do not pick out one word or image from a sentence, ignore the rest and go about to equate the one image with what you want it to mean and then find the same word elsewhere, repeat the lines and again ignore the literal as well as figurative uses of the whole sentence. This is what Arnie repeatedly does.

You keep in mind the meaning of the image inside the whole sentence or passage/paragraph. I am glad I was made to go back and really look at the line for now we see Austen's satiric image full and vivid.  We see her anger clearly and the immediate basis of it in this scene.  It reminds me of P&P where when Jane tells Elizabeth Mrs Lucas has come to commiserate, let Mrs Lucas stay away and gloat from afar.

The reason I think the women were there to buy the poultry cheap is I've come across this elsewhere.  In letters from the later 17th century where I've read a lot.  You can't take poultry with you. The Austens are leaving very soon.  They screw every penny they can out of everything.  Women value their poultry as they do their cows.  This is what subsidence economy is like.  The comparison is the modern yard sale.  I think the line the women have their "heads" filled with rooster and hens is they are coming to buy the poultry. As to the idea this refers to hats, it's not idiomatic English. When we say your head is filled with something, we mean the mind and thought.  They would be different language for hens and roosters their hats on top of their heads. Further, animals were not decorations.  Fur from them yes, and many other things (see the movie, The Duchess where some of this extravagance is seen), but not that animal. That far people did not go. Ther was also the beginning of real feelings for animals at this point. And we see a tinge of that in Austen towards shooting; I think were the woment to have had stuffed roosters or hens on their hats, she'd make that cystal clear. It's improbable, Diane.

In the same letter not far down Mr Austen is going to sell his books. He'd rather sell them to his son to keep them together but James may not be willing. I speculate Mary didn't value books at all: we see that painful truth in James's poetry.

One can disagree on Austen's attitude towards Mrs Bramstone. I see much irony and the tone very like that of Elizabeth to Jane on Mrs Lucas's coming to console them.


Hampshire: where Steventon vicarage once stood, now pulled down (contemporary photo)

Then back to the vexed and complicated business of the cheese farm.  We see how bits of money and land meant so much. Mr Holder the tenant was shut up with Mr Austen and James:  Jane calls the atmosphere "a most aweful manner."  At the end Holder agreed to keep John Bold on for the same amount of money as Mr Austen paid. John is pleased "the comfort of not changing his home is a very material one to him."

Also to Jane the comfort of her home was material.  It's the thought of her self and how she has been scolded down that makes her say ironically or sarcastically "since such are his unnatural feelings his belonging to Mr Hoder is everything needful."

If it didn't mean so much to Bold to stay in his home at Cheesedown, he could go work for Digweed, who would have engaged Bold as superintendent at Steventon, kept a horse for him, supplied him with a permanent home and Austen thinks have been a much more "desirable" master.

But no the unnatural man wants to keep his comfortable home. There's just no accounting for people.

Did the Austens tell Jane she was unnatural not to want to go to Bath, not to obey them, to kick up a fuss?  feel bad?

And John is spared having to deal with the farm bailiff Corbett too; there will be two farms and two bailiffs.

I don't know who "we" is in this final sentence: "We are of opinion that it would be better in only one." Austen herself being ironic or her father & brother in an offhand remark, perhaps tired of struggling on John's behalf.

Austen now turns to her aunt, a letter and Bath, change of topic.


Bath, 1786

This section of the letters brings out once again the humiliation and pain Austen was going through in all this. To understand it we need t return to Letters 29 and 30. After the section telling of Mr Austen's efforts on behalf of John Bold we move onto Jane Leigh-Perrot.  In Letter 29 Jane Leigh-Perrot had suggested only one of the Austen sisters come to the Paragon; they should leave the other one behind (see LeFaye, p 67).  It seems the stinginess of the aunt has asserted itself again. She does not want to pay for both to eat in her place at Paragon.  But Jane her niece (our novelist and letter-writerr) does not want to be left behind; "there is no place here or hereabouts that I shall want to be staying at -- & thou to be sure the keep of two will e more than of one, I will endeavour to make the difference less by disordering my Stomach with Bath bunns."

Austen offers to get sick so she'll eat less and then it will be acceptable to the aunt to take her. Or pretend to be sick. Of course this is irony.

The next line shows the aunt was complaining also that she might be put to some work or effort "trouble in accommodating us."  Austen says surely the trouble will be the same for two as one.

This anticipates the case of Anne Elliot whom her sister, Elizabeth left behind. No one will want her in Bath.  Note that Austen qualifies "Your going I consider indispensably necessary."  She is saying she knows the sister the Aunt wants to come is Cassandra. Cassandra conforms, fits in, does what is asked as a maiden aunt/niece.

How insulting and hurtful this is. I've no doubt whatsoever that Mrs Norris contains lots of details from Jane Leigh-Perrot: the stinginess and the sponging of the cheese at Mansfield Park (a hint at the aunt's shoplifting propensities) are there.

Then we get a dash and Jane recurs to the "first plan:"  "my mother & our two selves are to travel down together; & my father follow us afterwards -- in about a fortnight or three weeks."

Note that Jane is now reduced to wanting to go to Bath. The alternative is humiliating stays with people who will let her know her place now.  They were to pass by and stay at Ibthorpe. This would be pleasure for Jane. She goes on to say "we shall all meet at Bath you know before we set out for the Sea, & everything considered I think the first plan is as good as any.

I feel her anxiety lest she be left behind. She did not want to be an Anne Elliot and in Persuasion re-enacted her fears she would be -- and perhaps was treated that way during the 5 years we have almost no letters from her.

Then in Letter 30 there was no answer from the aunt.  We must suppose one fo the Austens wrote back; the evidence next shows it was Mrs Austen. 

Now letter 31: at last the aunt has replied and finally decided she would do herself more harm than good by trying to exclude Jane and make the Austens feel they are a burden to her.  In other words, she had thought the better of it.  So in this new letter Jane Leigh-Perrot is "most thoroughly affectionate" in "[her] tenor."  "She thinks with the greatest pleasure of our being settled in Bath; it is an event which will attach erh to the place more than anything else could do, &c &c --

Clearly Austen thinks this hypocrisy. I am inclined to think for once Mrs Austen really did let her sister-in-law know how she had made Jane and the Austens too feel.  Remember it was Mrs Austen who offered to send her daughters to stay with this woman in prison. Mrs Austen was then the staunch supporter of hypocritical obeisance before Mrs Perrot's money and Mrs Perrot knows it.. 

So now Aunt Jane Leigh-Perrot wrote also how much she cared about Mrs Austen's unwellness. We know this is matching nonsense for hypocrisy  Mrs Austen is not sick (Jane doesn't think so). But now this demand of Mrs Austen to be considered so can be used to present herself as ever so concerned:  "She is moreover very urgent with my mother not to delay her visit in Paragon if she should continue unwell & even recommends her spending the whole winter with them."

From not wanting Jane and complaining about the trouble all this will be to her she longs to have Mrs Austen and her complaints all winter. She is working to get Mrs Austen on her side once again.

What Austen thinks of this illness is seen in the next line:  "At present,& for many days my mother has been quite stout, & she wishes not to be obliged by any relapse to alter her arrangements."

This sounds like Mrs Austen herself. She is still miffed. She doesn't trust her sister-in-law to treat them with courtesy. No they will all four come to Bath and they will not stay at the Paragon at all -- beyond say the first night if that.  Remember that in Letter 29 Austen said all the Austens were united in wanting to stay away from Axle buildings as too close to the Paragon (p. 67)

The only surviving image of Mrs Austen

We can see how painful this letter 31 really is here -- both from the women coming to prey on the Austen's poultry and now their defending themselves as a united group from being broken apart and separately humiliated and or coached into rejecting one or the other of them.


2008 S&S: Elinor (Hattie Morahan) seen against the backdrop of her father's books: I've been aware that the 2008 S&S is meant partly autobiographically; it's packaged in the UK and UK with Miss Austen Regrets and a read aloud of JEAL's memoir.  Anne Pivcevic was the producer for both films and is cited on the feature for this.  So since reading this when I came across a still of Hattie Morahan standing up against a row of books looking as if she's enduring a lot just before she walks over to meditate on some of her (now dead) father's things I realize that's an autobiographical moment in this film.

Now some more gossip from Bath and the loss of Mr Austen's library. 

As Austen thinks about going and not going to the Aunts, she remembers another part of Bath:  Mr and Mrs Chamberlayne arfe in Bath, lodging at the Charitable Repository.  I see in that Austen thinking maybe the Austens can go to this charitable (=cheap) place too. It's apparently a place where the poor are very nearby since Austen then says "I wish the scene may suggest to Mrs C the notion of selling her black beaver bonnet for the relief of the poor."  Mrs Chamberlayne had apparently said she would give away (in effect) some old bonnet of hers. Now when she is lodged near these "poor" she may remember her plan.

Much later in time (in the letters as dated) Mrs Chamberlayne is the woman who walked so rapidly that Austen felt herself in competition to keep up with her.

A crack at one Mrs Welby who has been singing duets with the prince of Wales. The association comes from contrast. Here is Austen and the Chamberlaynes staying near the impoverished and this great king being sucked up to.  Austen (we recall) disliked the regent, saw him as immoral and cruel to his wife, another hypocrite.

Then the poignant lines about the loss of the library. It hurts worse to see this than to lose them herself. 

"My father has got above 500 Volumes to dispose of. [A large library for people of their type in this era -- they are fringe people, Mr Austen's income has little extra give; he was like Erasmus, buying books first and then food and clothes -- ironic joke alert here.] - I want James to take them at a venture at half a guinea a volume."

Mr Austen feels he cannot afford not to sell them. He must have money [Again a proof or indication that this was a forced move on his part, not at all something he wanted to do.] So Jane hopes James will spend some of his income (he had married a relatively well-connected heeled girl and got a dowry with her, now has his niches in the church) and buy them and keep them at Steventon.

I doubt he did.  So the portrait of John Dashwood owes much not only to Edward but also James Austen' s conduct.

This gets us to the renovations the family is having to endure for James and Mary's grand entrance.  They will not go over 100 pounds. Jane had said in the previous letter they might go well above 200. To get some comparison in Barchester Towers (1860s) when Mr Arabin moves in 400 pounds is considered enough to alter a room (push out a wall, change a window) and 40 pounds is considered a lot to spend on putting in a floor to keep out the damp. So 200 is a lot of money in 1801.

Always there's this relief to remember and mock at death.  Death is oblivion. So her mind reverts to Major Byng and his nephew: said Nephew is dead, probably Edmund. LeFaye never tells what matters. It was a Major Byng who earlier in the century was court-martialed for cowardice, as Voltaire says, "pour encourager les autres."  The same family Jane's mind runs on satire still.

She put her pen down until Friday


Another illustration of The Belle's Strategem: the heroine
Friday. Apparently a letter from Cassandra arrived before she took up her pen again. So we may assume she did not write this note early the next morning. Alas though she had to pay 2 pence more than usual. Note how much such a tiny sum means.  Franking was really a way of privileged powerful people enabling those so much more on the edge to communicate with other people. Sir Thomas can frank Fanny's letter in MP (we recall). Perhaps he was a magistrate of some sort.  MPs had franking power.

Mr Lambould was the postmaster.  Again we have a modern analogy. Imagine yourself having to complain to some one who has full authority to do what he did. The "torment" is having to get someone to do something who has more power than you.  Think of yourself phoning and being give options of numbers and then put on hold, and then manipulated or ignored.

Austen then turns to what was apparently a suggestion that had been made before that the Austens visit London. On their way to Bath take a detour?

Doricourt is a character in Cowley's Belle's Strategem LeFaye tells us. Well, duh.  She doesn't bother to read the play or give any hint why Austen alludes to this character. It's clear that Austen is likening one of the males coming with the Austens to Bath (via London? perhaps) to Doricourt. Could this be Mr Austen? I doubt it because Austen is very sympathetic towards her father and her tone here is sarcastic. I'll guess James or one of Austen's brothers who is to accompany them.

I once saw The Belle's Stratagem. The connection is Doricourt is a traveler returned from Europe and very proud and conceited from his tour.  I append a plot-summary of the play (as a comment). Not very good because it loses out the theme which (as I wrote above) shows women trying to beat back the injustices and unfairnesses inflicted on them by custom and family life. 

Back to the curacy business: Digweed has refused the curacy. He didn't need the money which was very small.  It would be a burden if one didn't need the money. Austen now refers casually to some home truths about another family involved. No matter what piety claims, Mrs Milles flatters herself, Mrs Rice didn't want her spendthrift son (see notes) near her. It would cost Mrs Rice money. I don't know how Mrs Milles comes into it as the Miles in the notes are not married to any Rices.

Not everyone is above the small sum of money. Austen turns to say Mrs Lefroy was here and she tries not to be sanguine (get her hopes up too high) though her son does. About what? The next paragraph tells. This curacy. If Digweed doesn't want it, Anthony Lefroy (the second son, Tom Lefroy's younger brother) does.

Such jockeying for this tiny plum. It makes me remember the desperate job situation today and how people scramble and bump one another.

Now Austen (ironically) hopes that the Lefroys will get this curacy for then Mary can have a great time ordering their household about and abusing them for expenses. Mary is a kind fo Lady Catherine de Bourgh or Lady Denham or Mrs Norris (again) character here. She herself has much more money; all the more reason to scold those under her for overspending their small income. Especially as Mrs Lefroy is advising sending the washing out. That costs more than doing it yourself. The day wash was a long arduous burden. Mary can sneer at them for paying to have it done as above their income. Thus Mary Austen gets to exult in several ways all at once: the vicar's wife, all virtuous, bossing others around, gloating over her pious warnings of overspending because she has so much more than they..

1979 P&P:  Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Judy Parfitt) demanding Elizabeth give up Darcy: disdainful, haughty

And so the letter comes to an end.

To those who have been reading these letters wit me or reading this blog since January: we've taken  6 months to cover 5 years.  We've had scraps and remnants and censored longer letters to get to what life was for Jane during this time, what really affected her and how she changed (she says we change utterly physically as well every 7 years). Still, we have gotten to some of the core feeling of Austen's inner life which actuates her novels.

Elizabeth walking in the meadow, contemplative (Jennifer Ehle), a little melancholy

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 29 and 30.

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

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