Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Jane Austen's letters: Comprehension Undervalued

On our various listserves, we have recently finished a four-year group read of Jane Austen's approximately 150 extant letters. 

A back view of Jane Austen by her sister Cassandra.
It might have been a common form of portraiture,
but it functions as a metaphor for how much
Cassandra hid from view.  
We learned that the young Jane Austen laughed much, danced often and enjoyed her early years at Steventon, including personifying the beloved new furniture. She suffered too, as did Cassandra. The sisters drew closer than close, an impregnable duo. The family moved to Bath in 1801. There, Jane fell into depression, her father died in 1805, and she, her mother and sister became poor dependents, sometimes humiliated, though Jane could still enjoy a good slide on the ice. Vital life returned as they settled into Chawton cottage in 1809. All along Jane had been writing and finally, in 2011, Sense and Sensibility appeared, followed by four to five glory years as book after book emerged, four in all, and the novels caught the eye of the Prince Regent's librarian. Austen visited London gloriously to stay with her brother Henry, then experienced mysterious illness, decline and too early death.

Reading the letters has been enormously important, inadequate as they are, for my understanding of Austen's life and personality. I will add a few further thoughts, based on what stands out in my mind and a quick review of the letters in the Deirdre Le Faye edition.

While we have many letters by Jane to Cassandra, we have not one that Cassandra wrote to Jane. The only three letters by Cassandra come in the stunned aftermath of Jane’s death, two to niece Fanny Knight and one to friend Anne Sharp. If Cassandra had possessed them, even these would likely have been burnt. Thus it becomes difficult to get a sense of who Cassandra was.

Cassandra may seem oppressive—Jane writes to her in 1796, “you scold me so much in the nice long letter … ” but Jane, giddy and blazing with high spirits,  knows she's not really being scolded. In her second letter, Jane turns the tables and mock-scolds Cassandra: “How impertinent you are to write me about Tom [Fowle, Cassandra’s fiancé] …”  These are the words of a sister close, comfortable and able freely to have fun with a sibling she treats as an equal. What their later collaboration on Jane’s writing was—whether Cassandra merely kept visitors out while Jane was writing or more actively participated—will be the subject of another blog.

We can trace Cassandra’s choices in the gaps in the letter—none, for example, from 1797, the year Tom Fowle died of yellow fever in the Caribbean. I would argue that Cassandra was especially sure to destroy letters that revealed any intimate details of her own life--which must have been many letters indeed. Cassandra, ever standoffish, drew back into privacy about what mattered most to her—and with that, so much was lost.

The letters do show, however, Jane’s shock at the move to Bath. It’s sprung on her, arranged while she’s away, and she has no voice in a matter of such importance. We then have no letters from June of 1801 to Sept of 1804, a mysterious gap of more than three years. We can surmise that Jane was depressed: forced physical displacement can cause trauma, as, for example, when people are driven from their homes by wars, and very likely the shock went deep in Jane, who loved the countryside and her childhood home.

From early on Jane was subjected to self denials. In a letter from Bath she longs for that year’s stylish fruits to decorate her hair but they are expensive: "A plumb or greengage would cost three shillings." Her aunt Leigh-Perrot instead takes her to a "cheap Shop"  to buy last year's flowers. Because "I could get 4 or 5 sprigs for the same money ... which would procure one Orleans plumb ... I can not decide," writes Jane. Clearly, she yearns for the fruit, but tries to talk herself out of that desire:"it is more natural to have flowers growing out of the head than fruit," she jokes.

Sometimes flowers won't do when fashion calls for a Plumb.

The Austen women fall in social status as well as income after Mr. Austen dies, joining a constricted circle consisting largely of other widows and spinsters, and move to meaner rooms in Bath. I  think of Mrs. Bertram’s offhand comment in Mansfield Park that it cannot matter to dependent Fanny where she lives—as if she has no individuality worth acknowledging. Was this statement  a stinging, perhaps embarrassing, rebuke to those who said the same of Jane and Cassandra? Whatever the case, the giddiness of the early letters is replaced by a sharper, more bitter humor.

The mother and sisters end up in Southampton, a better situation than Bath, but what I remember most from the letters are the privations, apparently common at the time—lack of fires on cold, drafty days, the gratitude for a gift of apples that fills an attic floor (We think of Emma's Miss Bates). Transportation is another ceaseless concern, as the women depend for it on the largesse of others. In one letter, Jane mentions being "anxious" and "pressing being sent home on Thursday, to prevent the possibility of being in the wrong place"--but the decision is out of her hands. We feel her dependence, the ease with which her needs can be disregarded, the restraints her own lack of money place on her, her being reduced to begging for transportation. We remember her noting throughout the letters what small things costs, and her concern not to lose some change on a mantelpiece. We experience her delight at Godmersham to have good wine, fires in every room, privacy: "At present time I have five Tables, eight and twenty chairs and two fires to myself," she writes delightedly to Cassandra.


Imaginative humor ever shines forth: we remember that "Mr. Floor is quite low," and  Le Faye's  inadvertent contribution to the joke when she quite seriously notes nobody has been able to identify a Mr. Floor. In another a letter, a strange row of  ps confront us ... p p p p p p ... a code of sorts? Is there more of this in the letters Cassandra burnt? 

Life brightens when Edward offers the women a permanent home at Chawton after his wife's death. A measure of dignity returns and in two years, Jane finally holds in her hand a published novel. The tone of the letters change—if Jane can no longer feel the unbridled optimism of her early years in Steventon, she exhibits a sense of mature self--wiser if sadder-- as she begins to be acknowledged, if only in small ways, as a writer. We feel her pleasure as her novels are published.
Chawton Cottage.
I wish I could show the early photo from Claire Tomalin's
biography. It shows Chawton as on a narrow street with a great
puddle of water nearby--Chawton was a refuge but no paradise.

Austen writes one of her most interesting letters to James Stanier Clarke, the Prince Regent's librarian, in response to his urging that she produce an earnest and salable novel about the life of a German country parson. Here, she must explain herself to an outsider, someone who doesn’t understand her from years of conversation and intimacy. In this letter, we see her self possession—she knows utterly who she is and what she can and cannot write. Here, she does not mock or joke but does her best to give a clear articulation of herself as an artist. What’s striking is how deeply she knows who she is.

Like Ellen Moody, I see the published novels as products of almost endless revision. Evidence for this exists in the drafts we have of a very short letter to her publisher--while it's unlikely she spent so much time on letters to people like Cassandra, the letters show that when something mattered to her, Jane engaged in endless revision, considering each word. 

The letters, documenting the lives of marginalized gentry women, align with the novels. They lend support to the argument that the novels arise out of a desire to satirize and expose the way women like Cassandra and Jane were treated, revealing the cruelties and erasures Jane neither forgot nor misunderstood. The happy endings are tacked on--Austen's interest is the cruelty and indifference with which people treat the single woman, especially one with little money, the harrowing and humiliation, usually completely unnoticed, a woman must endure. This becomes especially clear in the late novels, especially Emma and Persuasion, when Austen's scope expands to include poor widows and spinsters as well as young women thwarted in love. 

Given the juvenilia and The Watsons, I imagine Austen beginning her writing process by being openly scathingly, then endlessly polishing and smoothing, creating an ever more beautiful façade, the satire becoming more subtle and devastating, the anger carefully masked under a coolly ironic demeanor. She exposed everything, but with utter deniability that she had done so. 

The letters give us frustratingly little to go on about Austen’s final illness and end.

Several consistent traits emerge about her: Jane, as the memoirs insist, was fun-loving, active, and high spirited. Her take on life was humorous. She liked, admired and sought friendships with older peers: Martha Lloyd, 10 years older, sister-in-law Eliza de Feullide, 14 years older, and of course, Cassandra and her older brothers. While she was wonderful with children, she held the younger generation in some contempt as they became adults; she was always the youngest daughter looking admiringly at those just ahead of her. We could say she was ageist towards the adult younger generation. 

 Jane gravitated toward well-socialized people like Martha Lloyd and Thomas Haden. She did not suffer fools gladly. She openly avoided her apparently gauche niece Anna and mocked niece Fanny's gushing effusions. Her brothers' wives seem to have innately distrusted her. 
This backward letter to a niece shows Jane's love of children and love of fun. 

Largely the same cast of characters persists in the letters from start to finish. Nieces Anna and Fanny enter in from beginning, although each at the start is only three years old. From what we know, Jane seldom strayed far from a circle of friends and relations and enjoyed—or tolerated or fumed at—familiar people and places. 

While the Austen family has strained to paint a picture of a glowing, loving family circle, Jane happy and at peace in the center of it, her relatives caring, generous and filled with loving kindness towards her as they gather about her in front of a hearth, the letters' value lie in revealing a different reality. What's left out the sweet portrait is Jane's intense anger. Jane was marginalized, slighted, disliked, she and her mother and Cassandra deliberately kept dependent, expected to be at the disposal of other family members, left out of wills, forced to worry almost incessantly about money and their futures, sometimes forced to live in shabby lodgings, sometimes cold, perhaps even sometimes hungry, always threatened with the possibility of having to grovel. As I think about the letters, if Elizabeth Bennett was the young Jane idealized  (biographical readings always being perilous) Fanny Price emerges as the closest cognate to the adult Jane Austen: 

“Her motives had often been misunderstood, her feelings disregarded, and her comprehension undervalued… she had known the pains of tyranny, of ridicule, and neglect.”

Fanny Price, forced to cut roses in the hot sun. 

Austen died in media res, angry and distraught, as evidenced by the poem she wrote two days before her death. I, for one, am happy that she has reached a wider audience than she ever could have imagined and wish she could witness her success. 


  1. Thank you for this. I like your picturing and emphasizing the hardships and discomforts of life of a single woman not rich. What popped into my head was Eliza Doolittle: "All I want is a room somewhere, Far away from the cold night air. With one enormous chair - oh, wouldn't it be loverly!" I know so many little vignettes in her books are her own recreated experiences (such as Fanny's clothes being laughed at by the servants), but if only we knew which were real and about her, and which imagined...

    1. Diana, When I think of Eliza DooLittle and Jane, I think of Jane's leaving Steventon as similar to Henry Higgins cold decision in the Shaw play simply to cast Eiza out again. There's something particularly hard about ending up on the outside looking in.

  2. I also see your general portrait of the circumstances and constraints of Austen's life as important and central to understanding her. Cassandra did not tell of herself in those few letters we have -- all very conventional piety (we have some outside the last 3 of the LeFaye collection). And three are points here others may not consider: Jane's brothers' wives distrusted her innately. Maybe they did not see she would displace them (they would not see death coming until perhaps near the end) but she was providing a relationship free of cares (and pregnancies) they couldn't match. They were not smart enough and had not the shared childhood. Maybe not Eliza (who did partly share the family life before her marriage to Henry? But then if Jane did portray aspects of Eliza in Mary Crawford Jane did not reward Eliza for trust and help. I see the idea that Lady Susan is reminiscent of Mary Crawford as calumny; Eliza was a loving mother who kept her disabled child with her and alive as long as she could.

    But I cannot agree on the whole portrait of Jane. Cassandra's scolding is not something that happens once, the wounded sore feelings recur over a number of letters, Jane more than once is begging Cassandra to write to her, placing her with extravagant praise. By contrast, late in life Jane ignores Cassandra's narrowness, or colludes with it (as with the treatment of Cassy, the niece) or excuses her (her "starched notions"). Too much became at stake, she needed Cassandra too much during and after Bath. Also the general portrait: Cassandra's drawing does not show a fun-loving basically happy woman, nor do Austen's poems, and certainly not the letters. Austen does not enjoy the social life; she is burnt bad by the snobbery. I'd put it not that she liked the "well-socialized" relatives best, but the conventional ones who did not see into her and who helped her by their behavior to seem to be like others. Anna's patterns represented danger. Austen did not want others to know what life was for her; her books are expressions of herself in the way D.W. Harding outlined, but I'd also agree they are attempts at self-comfort, at wish fulfillments that the world would accept (the romance ending), at asserting herself at long last and knowing she had some respect from her readers. I too regret that when she died she did not know the great success of the books to come -- she is not the only artist who gained so little monetarily from art that in later times made others small fortunes.

    1. Ellen,
      I maintain a distinction between fun loving and happy. The more I think about it, the more I find happy a somewhat useless term. I do maintain she gravitated toward well socialized, we might say personable, people who were easy to get along with. She had around her plenty of conventional people she eschewed.

  3. Thanks for this summary, Diane. I especially appreciate your mentioning how angry Jane was. This is something I had not heard before although I can well understand her feeling that way. I also like comparing her to Fanny Price, for whom I felt much empathy.

    1. Hi Elaine. It's an interesting project to restrict oneself to the letters. Obviously she was able to channel her anger into satire. :)

  4. What popped into my head was Roald Dahl's book "Matilda." Matilda, like Jane, is someone who is smarter than everyone around her, and able to see through the BS of the social structures within which she is forced to live (for Jane, society, for Matilda, the school). In the Dahl story, it is Matilda's compassionate and indigent teacher Miss Honey that most closely resembles the Jane you describe at the end of your post ("marginalized, slighted, disliked"), and Matilda is the precocious student who saves her by writing a ghostly message that unnerves the oppressive headmistress of the school, Mrs. Trunchbull. In a fairy tale ending, not unlike the end of P and P, or Mansfield, Miss Honey becomes Matilda's legal guardian. I teach Austen in high school, and the complaint I always get is "Who cares who marries who?" But it does matter, I tell them. One of the reasons these books resonate, and Jane continues to matter, is that they are not so much about marriage as they are about using your imagination to figure out where it is (and with whom) you belong.