misssylviadrake (misssylviadrake) wrote,

Jane Austen's Letters: Letter 33, Sun, 25 Jan 1801:unwanted encounter;Nanny reluctantly left behind

Dear friends and readers,

We've read slightly more than a fifth of Jane Austen's letters.  They are still not gone to Bath (see letter 32).

There are two unusual passages in this letter.  She records probable sexual harassment or unwanted encounter of some sort. I wrote the other week that unlike Burney's Evelina, there is little record of any infliction of physical sexual aggression of any sort in Austen's novels but I remembered there was a passage in the letters. It's this one I was remembering. She was shut up in the drawing room with Mr Holder; she thought of sending for the housekeeper or Mary Corbett (farmer's daughter) to fend off this man, but she didn't and just stayed right by the door with her hand on the lock. Mr Holder does seem to be a nasty piece of work:  he has to be argued into decent responsibility towards John Bold, and here he is a nervy abrasive male.

One of several moments in the 2007 NA where males have come over to Catherine, to bump into her, insinuate a desire for a sexual encounter; here Catherine looks slightly disgusted

She also tells of a a servant reluctantly left behind, giving a more suggestive portrait of someone outside her class than she does in all the novels and most of the letters: Nanny who works as a maid to help the women when they go to an assembly (presumably dressing and hair), does the wash, caters to Mrs Austen. She has a husband who her money helps support and who is against her quitting so it seems Nanny is torn because she, like Jane Austen, does not want to go to Bath.

18th century servant in a large kitchen (like Northanger Abbey)

There is a weary tone here, and there's a passage which makes explicit the kinds of frustration leading to tired emptiness:  "There is nothing which energy will not bring one to."  She is talking of Cassandra's plan not to go to Bath (as Jane wants, and with their mother, all three probably to shore one another up) but return with Edward and Elizabeth to Kent. She gives up. All she has said means nothing, her wishes go for nothing.  The weariness comes from her having failed to make any dent in the plan to leave Steventon to go to Bath full-stop, and this is one part of it. 

I also find much wryness and dry humor.  There is more than one passage showing Austen registering the poverty of conversation and hence repetition of inanities she had to endure - this reminds me of Emma's restlessness at the Cole's party. But the utterances are written in a dry and wry tone.


Henry showing a just appreciation of the beauty and delicacy of Mrs Allen's muslin dress (2007 NA)

She begins by saying she has nothing to tell about Manydowne (by letter) but writes because Cassandra expects a letter and if she waits Cassandra's visit to Goodnestone would make her letter arrive after Cassandra left. She's not sure Cassandra will direct to her at home (Steventon still).

Then several sentences about the clothes she will need this coming summer and what she plans to buy in Bath:plain brown cambric muslin, a requirement for specific colors (two brown, one a "very pretty yellow and white cloud") and length (for a tall woman). Brown might have been easier to keep clean. Cambric muslin is a lightweight plain weave cotton. It would not cost too much and be comfortable. the tone is that of a dog-trot:  orders for cambric muslin and the requirement for specific colors (two brown, one a "very pretty yellow and white cloud") and length (for a tall woman).

It's apparently very cold just now; there was an idea (bogus) that people did not get sick as easily in deep freeze weather as they did in mild winter ("dreadfully mild and unhealthy season"). The theory of sickness was all wrong; one idea was you became ill from "miasma" in the air -- hence the talk of going to places where the air was healthier. But Austen imagines if they complained before about the unhealthiness of mild air, now they will wish it back "with all your hearts" now they are "half starved quite frozen."  They probably did have a reasonable fire, but these are not centrally heated insulated houses, none of them, and it's cold in winter in the UK.

Then the incident of Mr Holder's aggressive abrasive behavior, some form of sexual harassment where she thinks to call the housekeeper or a nearby farmer's daughter but decides holding onto the door knob so she can get away if he gets really violent -- this "hitting" on her, to use the contemporary phrase, is literal. This is a kind of (alas) commonplace incident she does not put in her novels.  Despite her closer adherence to decorousness, Riccoboni is the only other novelist beyond Burney and Smith to record this sort of thing in novels that I can remember from the 18th century.

An unwanted declaration of love by Nicholas Lancret (ca 1720)

 If it were Austen were just worried about a lack of chaperon, she would not stand by the door holding onto the lock or think of calling for a housekeeper or farmer's daughter.  If she reacted this way just to being alone with a man in a room,she'd be ludicrous. There is no sense in the novels or these letters (or any record that has come down to us) that she feared physical sexual life as such. she dislikes what it does to women (endless babies, growing old before your time, death), yes.

Four days of "dissipation" (wasted insofar as anything serious -- writing - could be done or maybe reading). Just the people in the house with the sore loser (so LeFaye thinks) Fulwar. But it says "we" were very cross so I take it this table of card playing was not fun for more than one of them. Digweed is another person they are having hassles with over the fallout from Mr Austen giving up his control or direction of his parish.

The first time I read this sentence I thought it lay behind the snow scene at Xmas in Emma. I still do:

"While I was there a sudden fall of snow rendered the roads impassable, and made my journey home in the little carriage much more easy and agreeable than my journey down."

The 1996 Emma: it snow on the way there: Mr John Knightley offering his arm to Emma

As Diane remarks, this does not seem to make much sense. How could snow make the journey easier. Perhaps Austen miswrote something here, was not thinking? It could simply be ironic only I don't feel ironies here -- only the weariness and dryness we spoke of yesterday and Sunday.

Maybe the carriage then went across the frozen countryside; remember roads were bad, not macadamized.  Perhaps Jane Austen liked snow.  It covers the world with quiet and her favorite poets loves to write of snow, imagine it, sit in a warm house in front of a fire with snow outside (Cowper) and Austen gives Mr Knightely one of the lines Cowper writes during one such incident.

Then the usual sarcasms about the family.  After Eliza and Fulwar leave, Jane thinks how glad Cassandra will be to hear Mary will have another maid.  (Maybe it's Cassandra who needs a maid in the first place to help her help Elizabeth.)  The ostensible reason is Sally is "too much a servant to find time for everything" (a nasty crack, condescending, I'd like to see how Austen would fare doing hard work in this era before modern washing stuff) and Mary wants Edward to go out more.

Why does she not take him out herself? Beneath her dignity?  I don't mean to say Austen questions this, but rather that I do.

Then the hopelessness of Mr Rice's chance for a living in Deane because of the narrow-minded perverseness of Mrs Harwood. Here Austen does lash out against meanness.  :  apparently Mrs Harwood is the "perverse and narrow-minded woman" who (the implication is) will not oblige those she loves so why should she oblige those she doesn't and that's Mr Rice who wants the living at Deane in the Harwoods' gift. But by and large she is controlled. She is accepting the going to the Bath to the point of acquiescing in Nanny not coming with them to Bath even though this means she and Mrs Austen may have to somehow deal with the wash themselves. I don't say they will necessarily wash, but who knows? such horrible tasks have devolved upon gentlewomen now and again -- Mme de la Tour du Pin descended to this and plucking chickens when she landed in New York state during the early 1790s.

This also gives Austen a chance to remark on how poorly Rice writes. He would have to write a great deal better to convince even a decent woman to help those she loved and there is no love here. 

Cassandra is worried about what Edward has been saying about her.  (Curious that Cassandra didn't destroy this bit, perhaps a slight rebellion here because the feared calumny was about her and she felt she didn't deserve it.) This is where she makes her exhaustion after such intense effort and trauma and frustration explicit.  "There is nothing which energy will not bring one to."  She is talking of Cassandra's plan not to go to Bath (as Jane wants, and with their mother, all three probably to shore one another up) but return with Edward and Elizabeth to Kent. She gives up. All she has said means nothing, her wishes go for nothing.  The weariness comes from her having failed to make any dent in the plan to leave Steventon to go to Bath full-stop, and this is one part of it.  And the reason Cassandra's wanted is language used for a servant:  "in his letter to James, [Edward] seems quite sorry to part with you." The sarcasm has multiple targets then:  "It is a great comfort to me to think that my cares have not been thrown away, and that you are respected in the world?"

Who would not be tired to see such disvaluing of her sister and yet that sister chase after these people and not come with Jane and Mrs Austen to Bath.

This talk about the reality of relatives leads to this aphorism:  "for the present we greatly prefer the sea to all our relations." So, no, they don't want to accept Edward Cooper's invitation to come to Hamstall (a village north of Lichfield), they prefer to go to the sea. The language here plays satirically on the way people talk about offers as "kind:  "Edward Cooper is "so kind ...but we are not so kind as to mean to do it."  She detests cant talk. People are not kind and not doing things out of sheer kindness.

She does get irritated at social lying.  I remember how she writes in S&S that all the "burden of lying" fell on Elinor.


Ackermann's Repository of art, 1809

In the last part of this letter Austen turns her attention to Cassandra's doings in town. Nokes used some of this in his narrative describing Cassandra's visit to Henry and Eliza Austen.  Austen hopes Cassandra will go out a good deal (opera house for examle), see Henry's office (Cleveland Court, a posh part of town) and take away enough to write about for 12 months.

What a wasteland of at least this kind of doings she suggests they have here. The rich inner life of writing is not one Cassandra was interested in -- nor reading books apparently  Burney does have critiques of books in her journals from her earliest to latest years.

The father, mother and Austen have sent a turkey to help out at the dinner table. A gift of the kind people will bring today (say a bottle of wine). And a mention of the exquisite French cook Henry and Eliza apparently pay.

Cassandra may have been bothering her to write smaller so Cassandra will have to pay less for her letters but "I cannot write any closer."  This gives the feeling she's trying hard.

Anna Maxwell Martin makes an appealing Cassandra Austen (Becoming Jane Austen 2008)

The association leads to other frustrations:  she cannot keep up her end if Cassandra goes on another of her (apparently) minimally lettered visits.  After three months of no letters Austen gives out. My heart goes out to her. I know what she feels. So many listservs I see people (say 5% write) and for the others a free ride, or they just have nothing to say or don't want to write.  Can't be bothered. Don't value it.  She can be "loving ... a very excellent correspondent" for three months on minimal reciprocation.  She herself needs to reach out; she herself has a heart and real warmth within all the barbed talk: 

"Neither my affection for you nor for letter-writing can stand out against a Kentish visit. For three months' absence I can be a very loving relation and a very excellent correspondent, but beyond that I degenerate into negligence and indifference."

She then wishes Cassandra a pleasant time at her ball and herself. The Newberry Assembly coming up and what do you know a scheme about the servants. This connects to Bath.  We are not told the ins and outs, but enough to see the Austen women used Nanny as a maid when they went to the assembly (she came cheap?) and that leads to Austen remembering that Nanny's husband is against her quitting work.  (Men do like income too)  So he's not against her coming to bath with them.  It's not clear she will.  Perhaps the fee is too high; the keeping of a fifth person. Austen wishes she could come, dreads doing the wash or coping with it without a live in servant. I'll bet.  We do see that she is accepting the going to the Bath to the point of acquiescing in Nanny not coming with them to Bath even though this means she and Mrs Austen may have to somehow deal with the wash themselves.

She does think of Nanny too. I notice that she can do this -- as her father regularly does.  Mrs H. Rice's place would do for her - so no need to move to Bath to keep a job when the Austens leave. And then this: "It is not many, as she herself is aware that she is qualified for."

So the Austens take a less qualified (less upper class looking, less mannered person) than others; perhaps because she is then cheaper perhaps out of sense of what is humanly useful; they are not such snobs as others?  A woman's life below the gentry comes out here more than in any of her novels.

Nanny's job was to cater to Mrs Austen too according to this last concession:  My mother has not been so well for many months as she is now."  So no need for Nanny there as (from Austen's view) this pretense Mrs Austen is willing to give up  or the need to be better because she will be called upon to be more active in Bath makes her better.

Another with no salutation.


Wedgwood and Byerly showroom:  all must be bought, and an elegant lifestyle maintained

After all all these letters looking forward to Bath have not begun to be mined properly to really describe the life and feel of these fringe types:  This letter has several elements we rarely find in Austen's writing but were part of daily living, from abrasive men to a real servant woman It also as have all the others since the removal to Bath began to be a subject shown Austen aware of and anxious about money in a stronger way than even the earlier letters.  The family would have a much smaller income, all the extra resources gone, the stipend given to James, and now they have to pay rent, buy all food, the drudgery of life has to be done in smaller tight quarters.  (I don't mean to say they knew the poverty of the vast majority of British people at the time, but rather they were continually straitened to keep up a lifestyle as gentry and yet within their means.) They had to give up old practices and ways they would not resume until 1809 in Southampton and not fully until they landed in Chawton Cottage (allowed that after the death of Elizabeth). 

The wish-fulfillment aspect of the novels is highlighted by the comparison.  Only the Watsons and Miss Bates know the level of frustrated cares Austen alludes to in these letters. Servants not a felt presence as real people, and as to the unkind insensitivity of stupid arrogant males we don't really get sufficient details to know what happened in this letter, but we don't hear of this banal kind of distress at all in the novels.

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, 3031 and 32.

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

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