Why Jane Austen's eleventh letter was a milestone in her life
Ashton Dennis from the 'voices of men' and contributor to The Loiter, is an adent Austen supporter exploring her novels from a male perspective. His article, "I was too proud to make any inquiries", discusses the poignancy of Jane's eleventh letter dated 17th of November, 1798, to her sister, Cassandra. Ashton asserts that the eleventh letter was a milestone in life of Jane Austen.
I wish to discuss a letter written by Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra on November 17 of 1798. This is the eleventh letter in the most recent edition of Jane Austen's letters published by Deirdre Le Faye (1997) and the tenth in the first collection of her letters published by her grand-nephew (Lord Brabourne, 1884). The latter reference is available on line at the Brabourne Collection. Let me begin with an observation: If Goethe himself or even if one of the Russians had written this letter for a fictional character, he would have been very proud of himself—and for good reason. I find the letter to be very interesting and very affecting and I suspect that you will as well. Several biographers point to the most important passages in the letter, the ones dealing with her meeting with Madame Lefroy, but I want to do something more. I will discuss those in the context of other passages in the letter because only in that way can the full impact be felt.
First I must provide some background. Jane Austen was twenty-two years old, and a month shy of her twenty-third birthday. The family home was still at Steventon at this date and Jane was writing from there. Cassandra was visiting their brother's estate ("Godmersham") in Kent. To an Englishwoman of this time, it must have seemed that her world was coming undone. 1798 was the year of the Irish Rebellion and only a year after the Naval mutinies at Nore and at Spithead. Jane's "sailor" brothers were at war with the French and the names of Napoleon and Nelson were much in the news (however, their greatest moments were yet to come). This was the end of a five-year period of bad harvests, financial crises, and there was a good deal of social unrest—there was talk of revolution. The King was demented and that was becoming public knowledge. Public matters were all a mess.
In contrast, Jane herself was nearing the end of her first great creative period. She had completed the first draft of Pride and Prejudice (nee First Impressions) in the previous year and her dad had offered it for publication at that time. It is important for what I have to say to note that this offer was turned away by the publisher. In that same previous year, she had begun the conversion of Elinor and Marianne from its epistolary form into the manuscript we know as Sense and Sensibility. In the same year as the letter, 1798, she had written the first draft of Susan which later became Northanger Abbey. Good Lord!—remember, she was only twenty-two years old. Again, it is important to notice that the eleventh letter marks the end of this productive period and she would not have another burst of creativity for nearly a decade. That observation alone should arouse your interest in the eleventh letter even if nothing else does.
The more significant portion of background information is of a personal nature and so let us turn to that. Everything relevant to our discussion evolves from Jane Austen's friendship with a neighbor, Mrs. Lefroy. Anne Lefroy was the wife of the Rector of Ashe, an Oxford man of good family and pleasing manners. The wife was known in the neighborhood as "Madame" Lefroy out of respect for her considerable charm and as an acknowledgement of the impressive connections in both her family and in that of her husband. Madame was generous, vivacious, energetic, kind, and liberal minded [Honan, Chapter 3]. This was a woman much admired by her neighbors. And, admired by you and I as well because she chose to make Jane Austen her particular friend even though "Madame" came from the same generation as Jane's mother. Everyone in Jane's family recognized and applauded Jane's talents, but here was a literate outsider who saw what might be in store for our culture, and that was confirmation indeed.
Fateful events took place in late 1795 and early 1796, nearly three years before Jane would write the eleventh letter. Madame's husband had a brother who commanded the 9th Light Dragoons, and this brother had a handsome son, Tom Lefroy. Tom had a single, important benefactor, his Grand-Uncle Benjamin Langlois who was, in fact, Madame's uncle. The young man had completed his studies at Trinity College, Dublin and was much in need of rest before going to live with Uncle Benjamin and completing his preparation for the law. As a result, he was invited to the Rectory at Ashe for a bit of R & R. While there, he and Jane Austen fell in love. Here are some excerpts from her letters to Cassandra during this romance.
(Saturday, January 10, 1796)
"In the first place, I hope you will live twenty-three years longer. Mr. Tom Lefroy's birthday was yesterday, so that you are very near of an age. After this preamble I shall proceed to tell you that we had an exceedingly good ball last night, ... Mr H. began with Elizabeth, and afterwards danced with her again; but they do not know how to be particular. I flatter myself, however, that they will profit by the three successive lessons I have given them. You scold me so much in the nice long letter which I have this moment received from you, that I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together. I can expose myself, however, only once more, because he leaves the country soon after next Friday, on which day we are to have a dance at Ashe after all. He is a very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man, I assure you. But as to our having ever met, except at these last three balls, I cannot say much; for he is so excessively laughed at about me at Ashe, that he is ashamed of coming to Steventon, and ran away when we called on Mrs. Lefroy a few days ago. ... After I had written the above, we received a visit from Mr. Tom Lefroy and his cousin George. The latter is well behaved now; and as for the other, he has but one fault, which time will, I trust, entirely remove—it is that his morning coat is a great deal too light. He is a great admirer of Tom Jones, and therefore wears the same colored clothes, I imagine, which he did when he was wounded. ..."
So vivacious, and all a flutter—Incidentally, Jane was less than one month past her twentieth birthday and, to a person of such an age, a grant of a mere twenty-three additional years to a sister might seem generous or even excessive. There is so much more, but where do I begin? The scolding being passed on by Cassandra was an echo of the sort of thing that Tom was sensing at Ashe; Madame was upset with him; there was simply no money for such a match. In the case of another relative, Grand-Uncle Langlois had given clear demonstration that he would not tolerate a match of this nature; Tom would be cut off from fortune and connections. Madame was quite aware that a large number of the Lefroys would be Tom's dependents (Park Honan sets the number of dependents at seventeen!), and to meet that responsibility, he must study hard and, above all, he must marry well. Tom was being sent away from Ashe and he would never be invited back.
Observe that Jane wrote "...(he) ran away when we called on Mrs. Lefroy a few days ago". There were, perhaps, two reasons for that; partly this must be due to the pressure that Tom was receiving and, partly, it may have been due to his nature. Honan says this about him: "... He was a dutiful boy with such a 'kind disposition and affectionate heart'... He was also shy and reticent. ... probably alert enough to know that his 'foreign' Dublin inflections would do him little good in Hampshire; he might best keep his mouth shut. ... he was tidy and immaculate ... with a tendency to display a hauteur caused by 'great shyness'. Jane responded to his stupid silences; she admired his conservative air. She had much in common with him in outlook. A political novelist might have put them together. She decided to fall in love, ...". [Honan, Chapter 8] There was one situation in which Tom could put aside his shyness, he was excellent at debate. And, actually, a novelist would put them together--in Pride and Prejudice.
We could pause here and discuss so much more; for example, it is amusing to note that this minister's daughter is quite familiar with Fielding's ribald classic and teases her "Irish friend" in an easy way about it. (And, yes, those first few meetings when in love are like a wounding are they not?) But none of that is to the point. Instead, I must continue with the excerpts. This is from that same week.
(Thursday, January 14 - Friday, January 15, 1796)
"...Our party to Ashe to-morrow night will consist of Edward Cooper, James (for a ball is nothing without him), Buller, who is now staying with us, & I—I look forward with great impatience to it, as I rather expect to receive an offer from my friend in the course of the evening. I shall refuse him, however, unless he promises to give away his white Coat. Friday.—At length the day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy, & when you receive this, it will be over—My tears flow as I write this, at this melancholy idea. ..."
Yes, laugh and joke Jane, that is your way. And so Tom Lefroy was sent away as Jane Austen was left to invent her cover of jocular indifference. All the while, she was collecting and copying out Irish songs, perhaps for that time when he might return by invitation or otherwise. Her time would have been better spent doing other things. And she did better things; she wrote the first draft of the novel that you and I know as Pride and Prejudice. It is a story about a young man who, as his housekeeper would relate, was always kind and affectionate as a boy and as a man. Not many would guess that, because he was the kind of man that displayed an hauteur caused by great shyness. An hauteur that got him into great trouble because it led him to make such a terrible and misleading first impression. This was the Jane Austen character who was too silent in unfamiliar company and would only show his wit when challenged to deadly debate by the woman he loved. This was Fitzwilliam Darcy. I have offered this opinion of Darcy's nature in another place. Darcy was not the perfect copy of Jane's Irish friend because she decided to liberate this copy by bestowing upon him a great personal fortune. In this way, Darcy was given independence and freedom-of-action that Tom Lefroy was never to possess.
I want to point to something else in Pride and Prejudice; I want to point to a conversation between Elizabeth and her Aunt Gardiner. (Incidentally, "Gardiner" was the maiden name of Tom's mother (Honan spells it "Gardner"); however, it should be noted that the name also appears in other contexts in JA's biography.) Elizabeth was displaying a growing affection for the penniless Wickham and the good aunt wished to head her off:
" 'You are too sensible a girl, Lizzy, to fall in love merely because you are warned against it; and, therefore, I am not afraid of speaking openly. Seriously, I would have you on your guard. Do not involve yourself, or endeavor to involve him in an affection which the want of fortune would make so imprudent. ... But as it is - you have sense, and we all expect you to use it. ...'
'My dear aunt, this is being serious indeed.'
'Yes, and I hope to engage you to be serious likewise.'
'Well, then, you need not be under any alarm. I will take care of myself, and of Mr. Wickham too. He shall not be in love with me, if I can prevent it.'
'Elizabeth, you are not serious now.'
'I beg your pardon. I will try again. ... In short my dear aunt, I should be very sorry to be the means of making any of you unhappy; but since we see every day that where there is affection young people are seldom withheld by immediate want of fortune, from entering into engagements with each other, how can I promise to be wiser than so many of my fellow creatures, if I am tempted, or how am I even to know that it will be wisdom to resist? All I can promise you, therefore, is not to be in a hurry. ... In short I will do my best. ... But really, and upon my honor, I will try to do what I think to be wisest; and now, I hope you are satisfied.'
Her aunt assured her that she was, and Elizabeth having thanked her for the kindness of her hints, they parted; a wonderful instance of advice being given on such a point, without being resented." [Chapter 26]
This may have been written at a time when Jane Austen herself might have liked to make such a pert, cleverly evasive reply to a few people. In any case, both Mr. Wickham and Mr. Tom Lefroy proved themselves to be more practical than Elizabeth Bennet.
We can only imagine the feelings of Mrs. Lefroy. Many would condemn her, much as they condemn Darcy's interference in Bingley's love affair, or Emma Woodhouse's meddling, or the guidance of Lady Russell given to Anne Elliot. Many of our generation would condemn these actions, but I do not. Who can observe the divorce rates, domestic cruelty, and the alienated sexes of our generation and then imagine that the current culture has anything useful to offer on these matters? The truth is that the choice of a marriage partner is one of the most important and more difficult tasks that any of us attempt. And, we are called to this task at a very early age. We can only hope to do this well if we at least listen to the observations of our friends and, surely, we should heed the advice of the wiser, more experienced members of our family and community.
Still, while we have our divorce rates, those in Jane Austen's circle would have their heartbreaks. Madame Lefroy would have been conscious of that and the realization must have brought her the greatest pain. Perhaps she could make some compensation? It appears that she tried to provide Jane some compensation by making a good match for her young, dearest friend. Madame Lefroy had a young male friend, a certain Samuel Blackall who was a fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. Honan describes him this way: "No Cambridge College has wined and dined a man more pleased with himself. ... and on near inspection proved to be as grand as Mr Collins of Pride and Prejudice, who resembles him in the pontifical mode of address and the unbearable heaviness of his discussion of the lightest matters of everyday life. ..." [Honan, Chapter 9]. OK, but perhaps he would prove to be suitable compensation for Madame's young friend. It appears that he took the hint and pursued Miss Jane with all the correct intentions.
From that point in 1796, Jane Austen's letters would never be quite as happy; certainly, there were other balls and dancing but the taste for it all had disappeared. That brings us to November of 1798 when Jane sat down to write the eleventh letter to Cassandra. She wrote to tell her sister of a visit. This was written three years after Tom had left the neighborhood; England was being delivered to hell in a hand basket; a publisher had refused to even read her manuscript of First Impressions (Pride and Prejudice); and, Madame Lefroy had just called, perhaps to support Blackall's suit.
Jane couldn't bear to start the letter with the most important matters, she begins with some information about their mother's health. Then, she turns to main point: "So much for my patient—now for myself. Mrs. Lefroy did come last Wednesday, and the Harwoods came likewise, but very considerately paid their visit before Mrs. Lefroy's arrival, with whom, in spite of interruptions both from my father and James, I was enough alone to hear all that was interesting, which you will easily credit when I tell you that of her nephew she said nothing at all, and of her friend very little. She did not once mention the name of the former to me, and I was too proud to make any inquiries; but on my father's afterwards asking where he was, I learnt that he was gone back to London in his way to Ireland, where he is called to the Bar and means to practise." Good for you, Papa! At this point, it seems that the interview turned to a discussion of Samuel Blackall: "She showed me a letter which she had received from her friend a few weeks ago (in answer to one written by her to recommend a nephew of Mrs. Russell to his notice at Cambridge), towards the end of which was a sentence to this effect: 'I am very sorry to hear of Mrs. Austen's illness. It would give me particular pleasure to have an opportunity of improving my acquaintance with that family—with a hope of creating to myself a nearer interest. But at present I cannot indulge any expectation of it.' This is rational enough; there is less love and more sense in it than sometimes appeared before, and I am very well satisfied. It will all go on exceedingly well, and decline away in a very reasonable manner. There seems no likelihood of his coming into Hampshire this Christmas, and it is therefore most probable that our indifference will soon be mutual, unless his regard, which appeared to spring from knowing nothing of me at first, is best supported by never seeing me. Mrs. Lefroy made no remarks in the letter, nor did she indeed say anything about him as relative to me. Perhaps she thinks she has said too much already." Yes, perhaps she had.
And what of Jane Austen's mood on November 17, 1798?—That is what I would like to know. Buried in the letter is this comment: "My mother desires me to tell you that I am a very good housekeeper, which I have no reluctance in doing, because I really think it my peculiar excellence, ..." It is a joke of course, but one that can be read on several levels. I can't help but recall that she had been rejected at the publishers and, if you think about it, she had been rejected at the Ashe Rectory as well. She very well might have had a gloomy view of her place in the world. At another place she wrote "I am very fond of experimental housekeeping, such as having an ox-cheek now and then, I shall have one next week, and I mean to have some little dumplings put into it, that I may fancy myself at Godmersham". She had been at Kent, earlier in the year, with Cassandra and her parents; but it was Cassandra that stayed on when the rest of the party left to return home. It would always be like that, Cassandra would be favored by the sister-in-law, Cassandra was the one who fit in better with the high-toned society at Godmersham.
For me the very worst is this passage; "There is to be a ball at Basingstoke next Thursday. Our assemblies have very kindly declined ever since we laid down the carriage, so that dis-convenience and dis-inclination to go have kept pace together". That must be painful to anyone who has read Persuasion and can remember Anne Elliot's growing "dis-inclination" to dance and the reason for it. And what can be said about the recipient of the letter? What do we know of Cassandra's mood? Well - nothing obviously, but we would guess that she was very unhappy. Cassandra was an Austen and that means that she was amiable and good spirited in public. In private, she was still grieving; in November of 1798, it had only been a bit more than a year since she had learned that her fiancé had died suddenly of yellow fever while on a tour of the Caribbean. The sisters had much in common, did they not? Well, there it is--there is my view of things. I know that others will have alternative interpretations and I will be interested to see them. For my part, I will only argue for plausibility. There is one point that I will hold firmly to, however; the eleventh letter is a milestone in the life of Jane Austen and someone in the community ought get it right. Finally, here is the complete text of the letter - read it and weep.
Saturday, November 17, 1798.
My Dear Cassandra,
If you paid any attention to the conclusion of my last letter, you will be satisfied, before you receive this, that my mother has had no relapse, and that Miss Debary comes. The former continues to recover, and though she does not gain strength very rapidly, my expectations are humble enough not to outstride her improvements. She was able to sit up nearly eight hours yesterday, and today I hope we shall do as much. . .
So much for my patient—now for myself.
Mrs. Lefroy did come last Wednesday, and the Harwoods came likewise, but very considerately paid their visit before Mrs. Lefroy's arrival, with whom, in spite of interruptions both from my father and James, I was enough alone to hear all that was interesting, which you will easily credit when I tell you that of her nephew she said nothing at all, and of her friend very little. She did not once mention the name of the former to me, and I was too proud to make any inquiries; but on my father's afterwards asking where he was, I learnt that he was gone back to London in his way to Ireland, where he is called to the Bar and means to practise.
She showed me a letter which she had received from her friend a few weeks ago (in answer to one written by her to recommend a nephew of Mrs. Russell to his notice at Cambridge), towards the end of which was a sentence to this effect: "I am very sorry to hear of Mrs. Austen's illness. It would give me particular pleasure to have an opportunity of improving my acquaintance with that family—with a hope of creating to myself a nearer interest. But at present I cannot indulge any expectation of it." This is rational enough; there is less love and more sense in it than sometimes appeared before, and I am very well satisfied. It will all go on exceedingly well, and decline away in a very reasonable manner. There seems no likelihood of his coming into Hampshire this Christmas, and it is therefore most probable that our indifference will soon be mutual, unless his regard, which appeared to spring from knowing nothing of me at first, is best supported by never seeing me.
Mrs. Lefroy made no remarks in the letter, nor did she indeed say anything about him as relative to me. Perhaps she thinks she has said too much already. She saw a great deal of the Mapletons while she was in Bath. Christian is still in a very bad state of health, consumptive, and not likely to recover.
Mrs. Portman is not much admired in Dorsetshire; the good-natured world, as usual, extolled her beauty so highly, that all the neighbourhood have had the pleasure of being disappointed.
My mother desires me to tell you that I am a very good housekeeper, which I have no reluctance in doing, because I really think it my peculiar excellence, and for this reason—I always take care to provide such things as please my own appetite, which I consider as the chief merit in housekeeping. I have had some ragout veal, and I mean to have some haricot mutton tomorrow. We are to kill a pig soon.
There is to be a ball at Basingstoke next Thursday. Our assemblies have very kindly declined ever since we laid down the carriage, so that dis-convenience and dis-inclination to go have kept pace together.
My father's affection for Miss Cuthbert is as lively as ever, and he begs that you will not neglect to send him intelligence of her or her brother, whenever you have any to send. I am likewise to tell you that one of his Leicestershire sheep, sold to the butcher last week, weighed 27 lb. and 1/4 per quarter.
I went to Deane with my father two days ago to see Mary, who is still plagued with the rheumatism, which she would be very glad to get rid of, and still more glad to get rid of her child, of whom she is heartily tired. Her nurse is come and has no particular charm either of person or manner; but as all the Hurstbourne world pronounce her to be the best nurse that ever was, Mary expects her attachment to increase.
What fine weather this is! Not very becoming perhaps early in the morning, but very pleasant out of doors at noon, and very wholesome—at least everybody fancies so, and imagination is everything. To Edward, however, I really think dry weather of importance. I have not taken to fires yet.
I believe I never told you that Mrs. Coulthard and Anne, late of Manydown, are both dead, and both died in childbed. We have not regaled Mary with this news. Harry St. John is in Orders, has done duty at Ashe, and performs very well.
I am very fond of experimental housekeeping, such as having an ox-cheek now and then, I shall have one next week, and I mean to have some little dumplings put into it, that I may fancy myself at Godmersham.
I hope George was pleased with my designs. Perhaps they would have suited him as well had they been less elaborately finished; but an artist cannot do anything slovenly. I suppose baby grows and improves.
Sunday.—I have just received a note from James to say that Mary was brought to bed last night, at eleven o'clock, of a fine little boy, and that everything is going on very well. My mother had desired to know nothing of it before it should be all over, and we were clever enough to prevent her having any suspicion of it, though Jenny, who had been left here by her mistress, was sent for home. ...
I called yesterday on Betty Londe, who inquired particularly after you, and said she seemed to miss you very much, because you used to call in upon her very often. This was an oblique reproach at me, which I am sorry to have merited, and from which I will profit. I shall send George another picture when I write next, which I suppose will be soon, on Mary's account. My mother continues well.
To: Miss Austen, Godmersham.
That little boy, born on Saturday evening, would grow up to become Jane Austen's first biographer. A year after this letter, Tom married an heiress and Jane Austen would never mention him again. This Irish friend would eventually rise to the post of Lord Chief Justice of Ireland. Jane Austen would be raised much higher, but only after rousing herself from the long dormant period that followed her eleventh letter.
For further information: http://www.theloiterer.org/ashton/letter11.html
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