misssylviadrake (misssylviadrake) wrote,

Jane Austen's Letters: Letter 32: Wed-Thurs, 21-22 Jan 1801: an unlived life held inside her

Dear friends and readers,

I find this an odd letter because there is suddenly hardly any detail or reference to the coming move to Bath (see Letter 31). Not until the end of the letter do we get a whiff of what's about to come, and then just three sentences (the passage beginning "I join with you in wishing for the Environs of Laura-place ....").  It's as if Jane had been told to shut up about this, in the spirit of "enough already!".   LeFaye remarks on the lack of salutation. No affectionately yours, and I suspect it's a reaction to some refusal to allow Jane to present her real self to be recognized. At a basic level in these letters she demands others who read it recognize her and the situation she, parents and sister are going through.

Thus as she says when she begins, now "having nothing at all to say," we get a stream of gossip.  We have two longer more coherent sections, on Frank and his promotion (threaded through with irony), much on one of these time-wasting games which ended in one of the party behaving badly (because he couldn't bear to lose), with Thursday dissolving into a bed of quick remarks. It's then on Thursday the bitter rebarbative remarks resume, including the usual anti-pregnancy childbirth ironies (this one inferring that Cassandra had insinuated Mrs Knight was about to lie in). She ends on going to Manydowne, the place where she had her first known proposal of marriage -- the only one we know about from a record.

This letter gives us further evidence Jane Austen does not want marriage to be married.  She dislikes intensely any forcing, but she is given no place in her society beyond marriage. And I would agree with the traditional view that she also didn't want to go to Bath because it would end up with her being seen as there to find a husband.  I liked very much what Diane Reynolds said of this week's joking about Edward's cheerfulness and pretense nothing is happening untoward in his father's household:  "But she makes a joke of it--she doesn't say how annoyed she is, but, as usual, offers an absurd image, "happy-facing" her anger. Edward's family has been left an amount of money that must seem enviable to JA, with her constant worries--does she resent him being all cheer and not offering her father some money?"

Diane wrote "But both stories--and Jane's sharp response to Cassandra about other give-aways--shows how important it is for people, especially in powerless situations, to hold on to their things, how important they are as a measure of identity".

I replied:  An unlived life that's what she is holding inside of her.  

Miss Austen Regrets:  Olivia Williams as Jane Austen escaping pressure

We again  have this insistence on the dangers, sordid nature, unpleasantness of pregnancy.  I've been reading a few articles on how in the literature of the 18th through mid-20th century and still in popular culture today stories are told to erase the single woman as well as any lesbianism.  Homosexuality (male) begins to be talked about in the 1890s and starts to have an open following in literature, male gays come out. We have records of male homosexuality going back to classical times partly becuase men are powerful; as Eve Sedgwick says even gay men are more powerful than most women.  Beginning with the Renaissance, you get poetry and private letters telling of homosexual relationshipos (Michelangelo has a series of poems, Shakespeare) and beginning wit Wilde open homosexual classics, and James-Forster coded ones. 

I don't think we can say Jane Austen was a lesbian (even if she loved Martha -- we just can't get back there beyond the lack of documentation), but the patterns of not marrying, of rejecting any ideas of marital bliss at all in the letters, the mockery and harping on the horrors of childbirth and punishments women receive belong to the pattern of spinster women and lesbian writing one can discern in the 18th century. The first frankness is in the later 17th century in the playwrights and transgressive women's poetry (Aphra Behn), then in the later 18th century with diaries and the first women living openly together (beyond the ladies of Langollen, there are actresses -- see Donoghue's Life Mask), and in novels like Oliphant's centering on women who don't marry. Only in the last quarter century do you get lesbian novels where the tone and plot-design is not deeply depressed as in Well of Loneliness.  So lesbians as well as the single woman's point of view - the one who does not want to marry -- have been much less written down and also simply not taken seriously as they can't impregnate anyone. They've been coerced into marriage, silenced or ignored until the last quarter of the 20th century when you begin to get open publications. For our era Terry Castle's apparitional lesbian, Suzanne Juhasz's essays are important. Sedgwick's Between Men is the classic but Emma Donoghue's Between women is as important. If anyone would like to read Juhasz's essay on Emma or on romance novels from the single woman (spinster and lesbian point of view) I would be happy to share it.  Castle's thesis is in a large book and it's jargon-ridden; I've sent away for Donoghue's book.

What we've seen so far also  a generalized reading of these letters yields nothing since they have been so subjected to the pre-screening  and themselves pre-censorship of what could be written down by Cassandra. Cassandra's repressive scolding and values and general narrow moral outlook has led Austen writing her these indirect swarms of unpleasantness. Cassandra lacked taste or interest for any subject of general interest.  Perhaps she was also, as conservatives often are, against any talk about larger political issues, but Cassandra also didn't want talk about books, art, anything wider -- so Jane could not and the letters as we now have them make us feel Jane had no such interests either ,even she does show some in her novels  Cassandra was too obtuse to see how ugly what gossip that was left is. If a letter seems to give away so little about the family she didn't want known Cassandra didn't destroy them so these 150 or so were retained. Or they present family triumphs.  These were her ludicrous criteria. 

1972 Emma:  Emma has been cool and prying, Miss Bates tactless, Jane under terrific strain

Yesterday I read Janet Todd's take on Cassandra and Jane in the context of Austen's presentation of friendship in the novels (in Todd's Women's Friendship in Literature).  Todd shows that just when the one friendship that could have been genuine for Emma can begin, Jane Fairfax is taken away: Harriet is used by Emma and no real companion of her mind, Mrs Weston (Todd argues) was a submitter and utters what Emma wants to hear (Knightley tells us Mrs Weston's years as a governess were good training to be come a submissive wife and now she's not got a tyrant husband, so what a waste). Similarly Fanny (who Todd obviously dislikes calling her a neurotic with overreactions) avoids women's friendships and we are told very little of Susan. Todd connects this to what she discerns is the unacknowledged reality between Cassandra and Jane in the letters. Todd has to retell all the positive statements issued by the family (how intimate they were, and Cassandra's statement at Jane's death) but nonetheless finds the avoidance patterns of the novels (except for Jane and Elizabeth Bennet) suggest hidden undercurrents of resentment, jealousy, hurt. She does not herself subject the letters to a close reading.  My reading of the letters makes me say these adversarial and hurt currents are not so hidden. An issue of Persuasions by intelligent academics at the opening had a number of essays about sibling rivalries and conflicts in the biographical documents (such as we have them) and the remnant of letters.


Painting of 18th century battle at sea

So Cassandra is to "expect ... a most agreeable letter" as Jane is "not ... overburdened with subject" (Bath perhaps prohibited), she has no check to her genius. But this is not quite so as she immediately turns to a letter Cassandra has had from Frank and events in both Frank and Charles's naval lives and we get a series of claws (as Tomalin puts it).  In fact this is a bitter mocking letter.

The description of what has been happening in the naval lives is puzzling not so much what this is about as why the events are screwed up and retold in this indirect mocking way.  Basically Austen is parodying the cant-ridden talk of all around her about Frank and his too; her sceptical irritation is caught up in "so everybody says, & therefore it must be right for me to say it too."  It's the way people are carrying on about the brothers that she can't stand. I take it she's remembering how she has been told (about the Bath trip and James's taking over everything in Steventon) that everybody approves and therefore she must too.  She's had enough of the way they talk as a means of manipulating reality, hers and insisting on a given interpretation of events.  So prize-giving, how Frank not there to get this promotion (what a pity he should be out of England not to join in on all this), and all the fuss her family has been making about (what Eliza read in the newspaper -- just imagine the newspaper) what happened are riddled with mockery.e.g, she is noticing how Frank really couldn't care less about quitting the ship and men even if piety demands he pretend to:  "He kindly passes over the poignancy of his feelings ..." Eliza (Austen?) talks it all up too.

Southam goes over this passage and says the joking Austen is indulging in is one she dared not do in front of Frank -- "wry amusment and playful mockery" he calls it (p. 106-7) I'll bet.  Probably not in front of Charles either. According to Southam, there was a round of promotions, Frank did get post-captain but he was pushed out of the Peterel, and was making his way back to England from the Eastern Mediterranean. Southam must put in "playful" in order (he's from the same school of erasure as LeFaye) to make all this innocuous ("the vision of a humorist") and then he goes on to contextualize this with a finished novel written in final draft more than 10 years later: Austen's presentation of how William Price might have had to wait (and but for Henry Crawford would have) very long before being promoted. I see a more immediate context:  the coming dislocated life in Bath to which she's supposed to acquiesce. "Poor fellow" you see. And the rebarbative back-and-forth is not a coherent vision but as in Letter 31 indirect release of sore feelings. If it's William Price, it's not funny in the novel either, but sore. 

A summary of the background from Nokes who takes a straight-forward account by Henry Austen. Henry would have no reason to resent or feel left out: he was creating his own successful life as a banker in London:

There were toasts to the exploits of their naval brothers. Accord­ing to the public prints, Captain Frank Austen of the Peterel had been involved in all kinds of heroic activities. Lucrative ones, too, said Henry. Patrolling the coastline between Marseilles and Genoa, the Peterel had captured some forty vessels on their way back to French ports. One fishing boat carried enemy officers and $9,000 in specie; from which, said Henry, Captain Austen must have pocketed $750 in prize money. Another time, intercepting three French ships within point-blank range of the shore batteries at Marseilles, Captain Austen drove two of them on to the rocks, and captured the third, the brig La Ligurienne, without the loss of a single man of his crew. And, in the blockade of Alexandria, Captain Austen captured and burned an eighty-gun Turkish war­ship, to prevent it falling into French hands. Cassandra had heard that the Turkish captain was so grateful, he had presented Frank with a sabre and pelisse. The Admiralty were even more grateful, said Henry, and promoted him to post-captain.8 As his brother's rank and prize money both continued to rise, Henry even won­dered whether the military life might not have been more lucrative than the life of a banker. Second Lieutenant Charles Austen, back on board the Endymion, was also capturing enemy ships, including one, La Furie, off Algeciras, from which his share of the prize money was £40. And when the Scipio, with a crew of over one hundred, was captured in a storm, Charles, with no more than four of his crew to assist him, took control of this prize. After all this excitement, said Cassandra, Jane thought it almost a blessing that Endymion had not been plagued with any more prizes (P. 234).

Henry is wondering why he didn't go in for the sea when there is all this money, quite apart from a pelisse.  I do see how this entered into Mansfield Park: the dinner where William tells of his fearful exploits and Lady Bertram says she doesn't know why anyone ever goes near the sea, it's so dreadful all the while Henry Crawford is admiring the hero. Our narrator tells us that nonetheless the next day it was ever so nice to be a rich landowner, nice and comfortable who was the one to offer a horse to the sailor.

The indirect mockery of the way Frank's promotion is being over-talked about (Austen probably also dislikes the boasting full-stop -- she shows a dislike of this in her novels, vide her Mrs Elton) is aimed at Cassandra. "Frank makes C happy by saying nothing of any interest." It's safe.  We should remember on Cassandra's behalf that part of the impulse to be utterly conventional in all behavior and utterance is to achieve safety, and a aging single woman (as Austen says) is at most risk.

1995 P&P:  Mr Collins plays cards with Mrs Philips at an evening party

The tone doesn't change much when she turns to topic 2: the games and social life she's having to endure:  "Much good may it do us all."  She dined at Deane and there met the two Mr Holders. It's been a member of this family who rented Ashe Park who has been giving Mr Austen such trouble over settling John Bold safely as a steward. Keep this in mind and Jane's jaundice makes sense.  Fulwar was a bad loser at vingt-et-un and Eliza (Fulwar) not in good looks, thin (they were not into semi-anorexia in Austen's era), cuts her hair too short, does not wear her cap far enough over her head. Still (Jane then concedes) she can still admire her beauty. They are to be part of the party to dine at Steventon.  These are all members of the Fulwar family described in the notes. Caroline:  "improved in her person; I think her now really a pretty child. She is still shy and does not talk much." Like Mr Bennet whom Austen says does not act so eccentrically and even talks nicely when Mr Bingley is his visitor rather than the hypocrites, fools, dull and so one he has normally to flee from, so Austen turns simple and plain when confronted with a quiet natural child.

Then who was not there (Lord Craven), we return to ironies about the hypocrisies:  Craven is not there but nonetheless Eliza "so pleased with him, & they seem likely to be on the most friendly terms."  The best way to be on friendly terms is not to see one another it seems.

Interruption for Martha who is to return next Tuesday, the first of 2 visits to Deane, she'll see Miss Bigg at Manydowne. We should not discount Miss Bigg even if there's not enough here to say anything about: Austen's relationship with these sisters figured into her first yes to the brother.

And one last rapier utterance; "The Neighborhood are quite recovered the death of Mrs Rider - so much so, that I think they are rather rejoiced at it now; her Things were so very dear (she was a haberdashers and wise lady charged for her stuff] -- & Mrs Rogers is to be all that is desirable [the woman who is replacing her]. Not even Death itself can fix the friendship of the World."

Friendship. I remember how Austen had Catherine Morland memorize Gay's bitter poem about "The hare and his many friends" at the opening of Northanger Abbey, which begins:

"Friendship, like love, is but a name,
Unless to one you stint the flame.
The child, whom many fathers share,
Hath seldom known a father's care;
'Tis thus in friendship; who depend
On many, rarely find a friend ...

John Gay's poem, an 18th century printing

She turned to write on another page.

After Austen ended on how death itself cannot fix friendship -- a reference I think to how relationships within family are just as bad (she is thinking of being forced out of Steventon). we get a paragraph of family gossip.

Cassandra has been invited to stay with the Henry Austens and Jane tells her she need not visit the Penlingtons because Mr Austen will take care of the matter when he goes to London (so he goes to London). Cassandra need only pay the bills Mr Austen has sent her. She, Jane, is relieved not to have to deal with the rest of the business.

What the rest of this business comprises we cannot know. The Penlingtons were tallow-chandlers. That is, they provided candles. Perhaps the Austens have let their debts go very high. We know Jane and Mr Austen were genuine readers and we have it on Jane's authority her siblings read novels.  The sailor brothers had to have studied documents when home too. It reminds me of uncomfortable conversations one might have with a debt collector only the Penlingtons were lower class to gentry and not thugs.

Thursday.  Jane dines at Dean at lot and meets these Fulwars.  "What an eventful Week" is probably ironic. She may have sent a separate message from Eliza to Cassandra which she sasy "gives her great pleasure in delivering." Then we get Mary Austen who wants patterns used by Elizabeth Austen to make clothes for son, James-Edward when he is first put in breeches. So that fun ceremony is coming up.  An old suit might do as well (of one of Elizabeth's boys) but patterns are much easier to copy and make new clothes from.

Then the joke about Mrs Knight who had been sick.  Jane insinuates that Cassandra had insinuated Mrs Knight was about to lie in and so that's why she was sick. But she, Jane, herself apparently doubts this pregnancy, she does not think Mrs Knight would allow herself to be betrayed (that she had sexual intercourse with someone) beyond having to report an accident. This may refer to some brought-on miscarriage or abortion. Since in reality such things when tried would kill a woman, this is not rooted in realities.  Rather than just say it's in bad taste, I wonder if the characterization of Mrs Knight is also part of the point.

Super-discreet women Mrs Knight -- she never says anything that gives away her opinion say of Elizabeth and Edward Austen's marriage, their children, how they are bringing them up, their finances. Nothing. A clam.  Would not be betrayed by the slightest give-away.

Marianne Knight, one of the children of Edward and Elizabeth: she never married, lived to 95

Austen probably found this as irritating as the fulsome hypocritical rejoicing over supposed happy events in other peoples' lives.

One joke brings on another. The Wylmots being robbed is a source of such amusement to their neighbors, she hopes the amusement of others (as well as the robbery) gives them pleasure too. It seems their advocation is to be a "subject of General Entertainment."

This does recall Mr Bennet's what do we live for but provide jokes for our neighbors and laugh at them in turn. Only then Mr Bennet is talking about himself, it's another thing to find amusement int the miseries of others or watch people do it. This reminds me of people watching this horrible trials on TV on Fox, CNN and other entertainment (oops! news) networks.

Apparently Cassandra has written Jane again and it was penned exquisitely well. I am glad it had some merit.  Austen now makes much of this. See how inferior hers is in this respect. She writes just scrawls. Still, she will not hang herself.

She thinks of hanging herself on and off I notice in these letters. It's always couched in reverse, not I wish I could hang myself, but rather because X happened I will not hang myself (X being this brother promoted and such a fuss made she is nothing to this, or a reference to the brutality of punishments of the ordinary person in the era).

Drop down to Caroline Cooper gave birth on the 7th and Jane agrees her recovery is rapid. Cassandra can be guaranteed to find something positive to say. See a rapid recovery from a childbirth.  (Not necessarily a good thing altogether as then work ensues.)

She writes on a new page.


River Stour flowing through Godmersham Park (photo from 1990s)

It seems Edward confines himself to "chearful and amusing" letters. They are "exactly what they ought to be." Obeying repressive conventions Cassandra approves of.  Then "He does not dare write otherwise to me".  She is referring to the coming move to Bath. He knows how miserable the Austens are and does not go into what has happened lest he get involved or be asked to help.  He pretends all is well. The specific reference to Jane probably refers to some favor she did him which even he will not overlook. Or equally that she is the one most hurt about the moving and so he dare not say anything to her.

All that he wrote was nonsense is the next sentence's meaning.  By writing cheer and amusement he ignores what counts right now, reality (the removal from Steventon and all the troubles that they are having as a result and what is to come). The only punishment is the folk one of putting peas in his shoes to make him uncomfortable for a week.

The privileged man cannot be reached by anything worse.  And he's been left money by Caroline's grandmother. (The rich are left more and the poor given nothing; that's why the rich are rich in the first place, luckily placed and supported by others luckily placed.) And 500 to Elizabeth and their oldest son too.

Well I'll add who would not write cheerfully.  This is not quite implied in the passage but Jane does revert to a now intense desire and Bath.

Edward's endless money associates to Laura Place. Of course Jane would wish to live around there too, but she dare not hope it. Mrs Austen hankers after another prestigious pretty place: Queen Square and her brother, the uncle, supports this wish.

Great. Does he offer any money?  He is all cheerfulness instead.

One last comment is allowed: it would be pleasant to be near Sydney Gardens and they could go into the labyrinth each day. A green maze. Like the film adaptations of her novels she wants to lose herself in dreams and labyrinths in garden.

Miss Austen Regrets: Olivia Williams as Jane wandering in dream-like sequence in park

Going on with this sudden interruption of thoughts about Bath and the troubles of moving, the costs &c:

Cassandra does not have to match her mother's wearing mourning in calico. I suddenly realize why these mourning customs. People would wear mourning for some 3rd cousin once removed. They were currying favor, greasing the patronage-family system, showing publicly who they were part of and by doing so implicitly asking to be remembered for niches, whatever plums were going.

James Digweed still causing troubles. Now he has made new proposals over this Cheesedown farm. Again (I assume) jockeying for some advantage or to escape some obligation. It seems that he visited Cassandra and his excuse was that he had gone to nearby cathedral: "I suppose he went to see the Cathedral, that he might know how he shuold like to be married in it."  Jane sees through this.

Only when you read letters are (by instinct even if censored and scolded way) truthful as Austen's finally are do you see how much of life's continual sordid vexations and social lyiing are omitted. So when Mr Knightely at the Xmas table talks of his troubles, it's only of a minor pathway which is at issue and which he wants to keep up to the commonalty across his property, not the more person money-grabbing and holding onto Mr Austen had really to cope with.

Title page of Sarah Fielding's Governess

Now we get an unusual citation of a book. Cassandra will let pious books come through.  Jane will willing to send her niece "The boarding school" as soon as Edward coughs up the money for the postage.  I have read Sarah Fielding's The Governess and it is highly didactic -- though by reading against the grain and seeing the perception of life in the stories of the girls and what is done to them (it includes whipping, social coercion is continual) you can gain a lot. This might be another book Austen has been pressured to give away or the occasion remind her of how she has been coerced into "generosity" over giving up her home and going to Bath and giving valued objects away: "& I do not know whether I may not by that time have worked myself u into so generous a fit as to give it to her for ever."

I hope she held out for the postage at any rate.

Then a PS under the address. A ball on Thursday and then she goes to Manydown. Cassandra is not to  expect that if she writes that means Frank has come -- remember Cassandra has to pay the postage. It could be that sometimes Cassandra was tempted to refuse if it was not news she valued. Jane's next will say only a repetition of what she has just said literally: going to Manydown, plus answering a question on Cassandra's gown (the one for mourning.

How they cling to each penny.  Cassandra's apparent desire to have far fewer letters might also be the result of her having to pay the postage. When you pay the postage, it might foster negative attitudes towards your letters. They are no longer a free gift. And that might encourage someone to complain about the content as Cassandra has again and again. No wonder Austen's books are continually about money.


2008 S&S:  Intense distress on faces of Dashwood women as Fanny Dashwood intrudes on their packing
Diane Reynolds wrote:

"Austen is trying so hard to hang to what little she left--she can't give it all away. Yet she is surrounded by people who are insensitive to her need to have "things" around her that are hers, to have some small measure of control.

I forgot to mention that at the end of Let 32, when JA is wondering whether she will be generous enough in time to make a gift of the book she is lending Fanny, I am reminded of the scene in On the Banks of Plum Creek, in which Laura is arm-twisted into giving her beloved rag doll, Charlotte, to a smaller girl, as she, Laura, is deemed "too old" for it. She later finds Charlotte face down in the mud, and her mother, who forced her to give it away, feel some remorse and repairs it for her.

My little story: at age 8 I was forced to give a cousin one of two dolls I had gotten for Xmas. I was told she had not got any doll (true) only other toys, and she so longed for a doll. On top of the taking away, my mother and aunt chose the doll I was to give up. That was partly because at first I refused to choose which one. So it was chosen for me.  I still remember how terrible I felt at this treatment. It was also the singling out, the making me the focus, the person who had to give something up that struck me at the time. I had other cousins, and boys with trains, but no nothing but one of my dolls would do.  Sometime later I came to the conclusion this showed I was disliked for my loner reading girl ways, and recently I've come back to this view.  I know I have many Aspergers traits and they are not tolerated but resented. I have said I think Bottomer is onto something with Jane Austen, that she has Aspergers traits and gives some to her characters and her view of social life is shaped by this but that Bottomer's book is wholly inadequate in treating this, partly because Bottomer herself is not sympathetic to Aspergers for real and embarrassed to link it to Austen herself.

Diane's comment:  Ellen's story of the forced doll give away--again, it's so very important to let people suffering have their things ... it's the little cruelties that can be the worst and Austen well understood that.

To sum up:  Suddenly hardly a reference to the coming life in Bath until near the end, Cassandra's repression of her brings on much irritated mockery.  Skeins of sibling rivalry, the same jaundiced reaction to pregnancy signaling why (or that) she didn't want to marry; her continual awareness of her lack of money.  She asks for recognition and doesn't get it.

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, 30 and  31

Tags: children's-girls' books, female archetypes, jane austen criticism, jane austen novels, jane austens letters, literary biography, women's art, women's memoirs

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