Jane Austen, Her Life and Letters

A Family Record

Chapter V

Growth and Change

1792-1796

Though it may hardly be likely that the Austens could rival Mrs. Bennet of Pride and Prejudice by professing to dine with four-and-twenty families, there was, nevertheless (for a quiet country neighbourhood), a very fair amount of society to be had around Steventon.

Readers of Jane Austen's letters will come across the names of many Hampshire neighbours, with occasional indications of the estimate which she formed of their intellects and characters. Probably there were many different degrees of refinement in different families; and towards the bottom of the list must have come the squire of many acres,[51] who, we are told, inquired of Mr. Austen whether Paris was in France or France in Paris, and who quoted a speech of the Rector's wife as beginning with a round oath, saying, when remonstrated with, that it was merely his 'way of telling the story.' When the author of the Memoir expresses his belief that a century and a half ago the improvement of manners in most country parishes began with the clergy, he was no doubt thinking of the more learned minority of that body, who would bring into the depths of the country something of the enlightenment of a university. To this minority Jane's father and brother belonged, and thus the family probably gave to the society around them at least as much culture as they received from it in return.

In the outer circle of their neighbourhood stood the houses of three peers--those of Lord Portsmouth at Hurstbourne, Lord Bolton at Hackwood, and Lord Dorchester at Greywell. The owners of these places now and then gave balls at home,[52] and could also be relied upon to bring parties to some of the assemblies at Basingstoke. Hardly less important than these magnates were the Mildmays of Dogmersfield and the Chutes of The Vyne. The Mr. Chute of that day was not only one of the two M.P.'s for the whole county of Hampshire, but was also a well-known and popular M.F.H., and the husband of an excellent and cultivated wife. Then came other squires--Portals at Freefolk, Bramstons at Oakley Hall, Jervoises at Herriard, Harwoods at Deane, Terrys at Dummer, Holders at Ashe Park--with several clerical families, and other smaller folk.

But there were three houses which meant to the Austen sisters far more than any of the others. The Miss Biggs[53] of Manydown Park--a substantial old manor-house owned by their father, Mr. Bigg Wither, which stands between Steventon and Basingstoke--were especial friends of Cassandra and Jane. One of these, Elizabeth, became Mrs. Heathcote, and was the mother of Sir William Heathcote of Hursley Park--a fine specimen, morally and intellectually, of a country gentleman, and still remembered by many as Member for Oxford University, and as sole patron of John Keble. Catherine, another sister, married Southey's uncle, the Rev. Herbert Hill; and Alethea, who never married, was probably for that very reason all the more important to the Steventon sisters. One of the latest of Jane's extant letters is addressed to Alethea.

A still closer friendship united Jane and Cassandra to a family named Lloyd, who for a short time inhabited their father's second house, the parsonage at Deane. Mrs. Lloyd had been a Craven--one of the unhappy daughters of a beautiful and fashionable but utterly neglectful mother, who left them to shift for themselves and to marry where they could. In this respect Martha Craven had done better than some of her sisters, having become the wife of a beneficed clergyman of respectable character and good position. With him she had led a peaceful life, and, on his death in January 1789, she spent the first two or three years of a quiet widowhood at Deane. Her second daughter, Eliza, was then already married to a first cousin, Fulwar Craven Fowle; but the two others, Martha and Mary, were still at home. Both became fast friends of Cassandra and Jane, and both were destined eventually to marry into the Austen family. For the present, their near neighbourhood came to an end at the beginning of 1792, when Mrs. Lloyd removed to Ibthorp, eighteen miles distant from Steventon. It was on the occasion of this removal that Jane, then just sixteen years old, presented to Mary Lloyd an interesting specimen of her own needlework--still existing. It is a very small bag, containing a yet smaller rolled-up housewife furnished with minikin needles and fine thread. In the housewife is a tiny pocket, and in the pocket is enclosed a slip of paper, on which, written as with a crow-quill, are these lines:--

This little bag, I hope, will prove
To be not vainly made;
For should you thread and needles want,
It will afford you aid.

And, as we are about to part,
'Twill serve another end:
For, when you look upon this bag,
You'll recollect your friend.
January 1792.
It is made of a scrap of old-fashioned gingham, and, having been carefully preserved, it is in as perfect a condition as when it was first made a hundred and twenty years ago; and shows that the same hand which painted so exquisitely with the pen could work as delicately with the needle.[54]

Martha Lloyd also had her dedicatory poem. Some years later, when, it seems, she wanted to go to Harrogate, and hoped in vain for the escort of a Mr. Best, Jane presented her with a copy of doggerel--and probably almost extemporaneous--verses:--

Oh! Mr. Best, you're very bad
And all the world shall know it;
Your base behaviour shall be sung
By me, a tuneful poet.

You used to go to Harrogate
Each summer as it came,
And why, I pray, should you refuse
To go this year the same?

The way's as plain, the road's as smooth,
The posting not increased,
You're scarcely stouter than you were,
Not younger, Sir, at least.
&c., &c.
We must mention one other intimate friendship--that which existed between the Austens and the Lefroys of Ashe. Mr. Lefroy was Rector of that parish; and his wife, known within it as 'Madam Lefroy,' was sister to Sir Egerton Brydges to whom we are indebted for the very early notice of Jane Austen as a girl which we have already given.

'Mrs. Lefroy was a remarkable person. Her rare endowments of goodness, talents, graceful person, and engaging manners were sufficient to secure her a prominent place in any society into which she was thrown; while her enthusiastic eagerness of disposition rendered her especially attractive to a clever and lively girl.'[55] How intensely Jane loved and admired her is shown by some lines which she wrote on December 16, 1808--the anniversary both of her own birth and of the sudden death of her friend, killed by a fall from her horse in 1804. It has sometimes been assumed that the self-restraint in expressions of affection to be found throughout Jane's published writings, and the self-control they display in matters of emotion, arises from the fact that in the writer's nature there were no very ardent affections to be restrained, and no overpowering emotions to be suppressed. These lines show the baselessness of such an assumption. It was not for the gaze of the public, but to relieve her own heart, that Jane, at the age of thirty-three, wrote thus, four years after the death of this elder friend. Here she dared to speak as she felt, striving in all the warmth and depth of enduring attachment and admiration to paint a character which she yet declares to have been 'past her power to praise.' The verses continue thus:--

But come, fond fancy, thou indulgent power;
Hope is desponding, chill, severe, to thee:
Bless thou this little portion of an hour;
Let me behold her as she used to be.

I see her here with all her smiles benign,
Her looks of eager love, her accents sweet,
That voice and countenance almost divine,
Expression, harmony, alike complete.

Listen! It is not sound alone, 'tis sense,
'Tis genius, taste, and tenderness of soul;
'Tis genuine warmth of heart without pretence,
And purity of mind that crowns the whole.

* * * * *

Can aught enhance such goodness? Yes, to me
Her partial favour from my earliest years
Consummates all: ah! give me but to see
Her smile of love! The vision disappears.
Time was now to bring changes to the Austens. The elder brothers married. James had a curacy at Overton, and near Overton was Laverstoke Manor House, now occupied by General and Lady Jane Mathew. James became engaged to their daughter Anne, five years older than himself. They were married in March 1792, and started life on an income of £300 (of which £100 was an allowance made by General Mathew), keeping, it is said, a small pack of harriers for the husband, and a close carriage for the wife. James afterwards moved to Deane, where he was his father's curate. The married life of the couple was but short. Their one child, always known as Anna, was born in April 1793, and the mother died suddenly in May 1795, leaving to her daughter only a shadowy recollection of 'a tall and slender lady dressed in white.' The poor little girl fretted in her solitude, till her father took the wise step of sending her to Steventon Rectory to be comforted by her aunts. She was admitted to the chocolate-carpeted dressing-room, which was now becoming a place of eager authorship. Anna was a very intelligent, quick-witted child, and, hearing the original draft of Pride and Prejudice read aloud by its youthful writer to her sister, she caught up the names of the characters and repeated them so much downstairs that she had to be checked; for the composition of the story was still a secret kept from the knowledge of the elders.

Anna also composed stories herself long before she could write them down, and preserved a vivid remembrance of her dear Aunt Jane performing that task for her, and then telling her others of endless adventure and fun, which were carried on from day to day, or from visit to visit.

Towards the end of 1796 James became engaged to Mary Lloyd, and they were married early in 1797. The marriage could hardly have happened had not General Mathew continued, for the sake of Anna, the £100 a year which he had allowed to his daughter. The event must have been most welcome to Jane; and Mrs. Austen wrote a very cheerful and friendly letter to her daughter-in-law elect, expressing the 'most heartfelt satisfaction at the prospect.' She adds: 'Had the selection been mine, you, my dear Mary, are the person I should have chosen for James's wife, Anna's mother and my daughter, being as certain as I can be of anything in this uncertain world, that you will greatly increase and promote the happiness of each of the three. . . . I look forward to you as a real comfort to me in my old age when Cassandra is gone into Shropshire,[56] and Jane--the Lord knows where. Tell Martha she too shall be my daughter, she does me honour in the request.' There was an unconscious prophecy contained in the last words, for Martha became eventually the second wife of the writer's son Francis.

Edward Austen's marriage had preceded his brother's by a few months. His kind patrons, the Knights, would be sure to make this easy for him; and it must have been under their auspices that he married (before the end of 1791) Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Brook Bridges, and was settled at Rowling, a small house belonging to the Bridges family, about a mile away from their seat at Goodnestone. No doubt it was a suitable match; but it must also have been a marriage of affection, if one may judge from the happy life which ensued, and from the lovely features of Mrs. Edward Austen, preserved in the miniature by Cosway.[57] Some of Jane's earliest extant letters were written from Rowling.

The place was not, however, to be the home of the Edward Austens for long. Mr. Thomas Knight died in 1794, leaving his large estates to his widow for her life. Three years later, in 1797, she determined to make them over, at once, to the adopted son, who was after her death to become their owner, retaining for herself only an income of £2000. On learning her intentions, he sent her a most grateful and affectionate letter,[58] saying that he wrote because he felt himself incapable of speaking with her on the subject; that it was impossible for him and his wife to accede to her plan, for they should never be happy at Godmersham whilst she was living in a smaller and less comfortable house, having quitted a mansion where he had so often heard her say her whole happiness was centred. This protest by no means turned Mrs. Knight from her intentions; on the contrary, she expressed them still more strongly, and in so charming a spirit that we must quote a considerable part of her letter:--

Godmersham Park: Friday.

If anything were wanting, my dearest Edward, to confirm my resolution concerning the plan I propose executing, your letter would have that effect; it is impossible for any person to express their gratitude and affection in terms more pleasing and gratifying than you have chosen, and from the bottom of my heart I believe you to be perfectly sincere when you assure me that your happiness is best secured by seeing me in the full enjoyment of everything that can contribute to my ease and comfort, and that happiness, my dear Edward, will be yours by acceding to my wishes. From the time that my partiality for you induced Mr. Knight to treat you as our adopted child I have felt for you the tenderness of a mother, and never have you appeared more deserving of affection than at this time; to reward your merit, therefore, and to place you in a situation where your many excellent qualities will be call'd forth and render'd useful to the neighbourhood is the fondest wish of my heart. Many circumstances attached to large landed possessions, highly gratifying to a man, are entirely lost on me at present; but when I see you in enjoyment of them, I shall, if possible, feel my gratitude to my beloved husband redoubled, for having placed in my hands the power of bestowing happiness on one so very dear to me. If my income had not been sufficient to enable us both to live in affluence I should never have proposed this plan, for nothing would have given me more pain than to have seen a rigid economy take the place of that liberality which the poor have always experienced from the family; but with the income I have assigned you, I trust, my dear Edward, you will feel yourself rich. . . . You may assure yourself and my dear Lizzie, that the pain I shall feel in quitting this dear place will no longer be remembered when I see you in possession of it. My attachment to it can, I think, only cease with my life; but if I am near enough to be your frequent daily visitor and within reach of the sight of you and your boys and Lizzie and her girls, I trust I shall be as happy, perhaps happier, than I am now. . . .

Your most sincere friend,
C. K.

Meanwhile, Francis Austen had made a good start in his profession. Going out to the East Indies, according to the custom of those days as a 'volunteer,' he became a midshipman, but remained one for four years only. Promotion--'that long thought of, dearly earned, and justly valued blessing'--was bestowed upon him two years sooner than it fell to the lot of William Price in Mansfield Park, and he became a lieutenant at the age of seventeen--a sufficient testimony to that steadiness of character which distinguished him throughout the course of a very long life. As lieutenant he remained another year in the East Indies, and then returned to serve on the Home Station. The result of this last move was that in 1793, rather more than a year after the marriages of James and Edward, their parents had the delight of welcoming back a son, who, having quitted them as a boy not yet fifteen years old, reappeared as a young man and successful officer, of whom his family might be justly proud.

Other events, grave and gay, were now happening at Steventon. Besides Eliza de Feuillide, who took refuge there with her young son while the clouds were gathering round her husband in France, the rectory had another visitor in the summer of 1792, in Jane Cooper, daughter of Mrs. Austen's only sister, who came here after her father's death. Dr. Cooper had set out in June with his son and daughter, and his neighbours, the Lybbe Powyses, on a tour to the Isle of Wight. The tour had important results for the young Coopers, as Edward became engaged to Caroline Lybbe Powys, and his sister to Captain Thomas Williams, R.N., whom she met at Ryde. Dr. Cooper, whose health had been the chief reason for the tour, did not long survive his return, dying at Sonning (of which he had been vicar since 1784) on August 27. The date of his daughter's wedding was already fixed, but had of course to be postponed. She went immediately to Steventon, and was married from the Rectory on December 11 of the same year. One happy result of this marriage was to provide an opening for the naval career of the youngest of the Austens, Charles, who was three years younger than Jane, and whom we last met in the nursery. As he was also five years junior to Francis, the latter must have quitted the Naval Academy some time before his brother entered it. Charles Austen was one of those happy mortals destined to be loved from childhood to old age by every one with whom they come in contact. How great a favourite he was at home is easily to be read between the lines of his sister's letters; and when he died at the age of seventy-three as Admiral of the British Fleet in the Burmese waters, one who was with him wrote that 'his death was a great grief to the whole fleet--I know I cried bitterly when I found he was dead.' The charming expression of countenance in the miniatures still existing of this youngest brother makes such feelings quite comprehensible.

On leaving the Academy he served under his cousin's husband, Captain Thomas Williams, and was fortunate enough to witness and take part in a most gallant action when, in June 1796, Captain Williams's frigate, the Unicorn, gave chase to a French frigate, La Tribune, and, after a run of two hundred and ten miles, succeeded in capturing her. To Charles, at the age of seventeen, this must have been a very exciting experience; while to Captain Williams it brought the honour of knighthood.

What with their visitors and their dances, and with a wedding to prepare for, life must have been gay enough for the Miss Austens during the autumn of 1792. Cassandra and Jane were now of an age to enjoy as much dancing as they could get: in fact, if Jane began dancing as early as she made Lydia Bennet begin, she may already have been going for a year or two to the monthly assemblies that Basingstoke (like every other town of any size) boasted of during the winter months.

Unfortunately, we know very little of Jane's personal history from 1792 to 1796. Most of her time would naturally be spent at home; but we catch an occasional glimpse of her, now dancing at Southampton, now travelling with Cassandra one hot summer's day from London to stay with her brother Edward at Rowling (in 1794), now visiting in Gloucestershire.[59]

Early in 1794 came the shock of the execution of the Comte de Feuillide; and Eliza, widowed and motherless, and with an invalid boy, must have become more of a serious care to her relations. Over the acquittal of her benefactor and godfather, Warren Hastings, there was but one feeling in the family. They all admired him as a high-minded patriot, a warm and disinterested friend, and a scholar whose approbation was an honour. The event inspired Henry Austen with more than his usual grandeur of language. 'Permit me,' he says (writing to Hastings) 'to congratulate my country and myself as an Englishman; for right dear to every Englishman must it be to behold the issue of a combat where forms of judicature threatened to annihilate the essence of justice.'

One event of the deepest interest occurred during this period--namely, Cassandra's engagement to Thomas Fowle (brother of Eliza Lloyd's husband), which probably took place in 1795 when she was twenty-three years old. She had known him from childhood, as he was a pupil at Steventon Rectory in 1779. Mr. Fowle had taken Orders, and was at this time Rector of Allington in Wiltshire. An immediate marriage did not seem prudent, but advancement was hoped for from his kinsman, Lord Craven; and, as one of the livings in his gift was Ryton in Shropshire, it must have been to this place that Mrs. Austen alluded as the future home of Cassandra in the letter to her intended daughter-in-law, Mary Lloyd. At present, however, Lord Craven could only show his interest in Mr. Fowle by taking him out with him to the West Indies as chaplain to his own regiment.

Jane's literary projects were now assuming a more definite shape, although the process of selection and elimination both in subjects and method was not yet finished. To this period belongs Elinor and Marianne, a first sketch for Sense and Sensibility, but written in letters. We know that it was read aloud, but no details have come down to us, and it is difficult to guess between whom the letters can have passed, for in the novel Elinor and Marianne are never parted, even for a single day. It seems therefore as if the alterations subsequently made must have been radical; and the difficulty and labour which such a complete transformation would involve make the author's unfavourable judgment on her own earlier method of writing all the stronger. If she decided against using letters as a vehicle for story-telling in the future, it seems all the more probable that the only other instance of her use of this style was at least as early as the date we have now reached.

The author of the Memoir yielded with reluctance to many solicitations asking him to include Lady Susan in his second edition;[60] while he himself agreed with other critics that the work was 'scarcely one on which a literary reputation could be founded.' As a stage in the development of the author it has great interest. Strictly speaking, it is not a story but a study. There is hardly any attempt at a plot, or at the grouping of various characters; such as exist are kept in the background, and serve chiefly to bring into bolder relief the one full-length, highly finished, wholly sinister figure which occupies the canvas, but which seems, with the completion of the study, to have disappeared entirely from the mind of its creator. It is equally remarkable that an inexperienced girl should have had independence and boldness enough to draw at full length a woman of the type of Lady Susan, and that, after she had done so, the purity of her imagination and the delicacy of her taste should have prevented her from ever repeating the experiment.

But if Jane Austen never again wrote a story in letters, no one was ever more successful in using them for exhibitions of character. The letters of Lucy Steele, Mr. Collins, Isabella Thorpe, Lady Bertram, and Mary Musgrove are all masterpieces of unconscious humour--and some of the more serious letters are not far behind them.

The extant letters of Jane herself begin in 1796, and will accompany us through the rest of the story. They are far the most important additions that can be made to the short history contained in the Memoir; and the little notices which we have given--it may have seemed with needless particularity--of her relations and neighbours have been given partly in order to enable the readers of her letters to follow the numerous personal allusions to be found in them. We must not, however, try to extract more out of the letters than they will yield. The bulk of them belong to the collection published by Lord Brabourne, and nearly the whole of this collection consists of letters from Jane to Cassandra. But the normal condition of the sisters' lives was to be together--residing in one house, sleeping in one room. We can therefore only learn from this source what happened on the comparatively rare occasions when they were separated. Nor is this all, for a good deal of their correspondence is missing. Some of it is probably lost by accident; a great deal was certainly destroyed by Cassandra of set purpose. The Austens had a great hatred and dread of publicity. Cassandra felt this with especial force, and the memory of Jane was to her so sacred that to allow the gaze of strangers to dwell upon the actions or the feelings of so precious a being would have seemed to her nothing short of profanation. In her old age she became aware that Jane's fame had not only survived but increased, and that a time might come when the public would wish to know more details of her life than had been given in the short memoir, written by Henry Austen, and prefixed to her posthumous works. Cassandra would not indeed be likely to think it possible that the letters themselves should be published,[61] but they might be made use of as materials, and so she determined to do what must have been a great sacrifice, and burn all those which were specially dear to herself, feeling confident that the remainder would not be disturbed. The destroyed MSS. without doubt included much that would have been of particular value to the biographer.

We must also remember that the correspondence was between sisters who knew, each of them, what the other was thinking, and could feel sure that nothing one might say would be misapprehended by the other; and the sort of freemasonry which results from such a situation adds to the difficulty of perfect comprehension by outsiders. Jane, too, was a mistress of subtle irony: the inveterate playfulness which is constantly cropping up in her books appears also in her letters. Secure of her correspondent, she could pass criticisms, impute motives, and imagine circumstances which would have been very far from her nature had she thought it possible that any less perfectly informed third person could see them.

All our authorities agree in describing her as one of the most considerate and least censorious of mortals. 'She was singularly free,' says one of her nieces, 'from the habit . . . of looking out for people's foibles for her own amusement, or the entertainment of her hearers. . . . I do not suppose she ever in her life said a sharp thing.' We may be sure, therefore, that when she seems to imply that her mother's ailments were imaginary, or that Mrs. Knight's generosity to Edward was insignificant, or that Mrs. Knight herself was about to contract a second marriage, she is no more serious than when she describes herself as having taken too much wine, as a hardened flirt, or as a selfish housekeeper ordering only those things which she herself preferred.

We must therefore take the letters as they are, without expecting to find any expression of views on such important subjects as religion, politics, or literature--subjects which might better be discussed in conversation with Cassandra; and with these limitations in our minds we shall probably agree with Mr. A. C. Bradley,[62] who does not find the letters disappointing because 'the Jane Austen who wrote the novels is in them.'

Notes

[51] Memoir, p. 9.

[52] Lady Dorchester gave one in January 1799, not at Greywell, but at Kempshot, which her husband acquired shortly before the end of the eighteenth century.

[53] The sisters kept the name Bigg, though father and brother became Bigg Wither.

[54] Memoir, pp. 93, 94.

[55] Memoir, p. 54.

[56] See p. 79.

[57] Chawton Manor and its Owners, p. 159.

[58] These letters will be found in Mr. W. H. Pollock's Jane Austen, her Contemporaries and herself.

[59] Brabourne, vol. ii. p. 341, and vol. i. p. 281. The Gloucestershire visit was probably to the Fowles at Elkstone. See p. 373.

[60] It was far from being his wish that Lady Susan should form the title of a separate volume. This work, and The Watsons, were to be printed as an appendix at the end of the Memoir. By some mistake, however, when the second edition appeared, the whole book bore the title of Lady Susan on its outside cover.

[61] How little she expected them to be published may be gathered from a sentence written by her niece Anna, at the time of the publication of the Memoir: 'I can fancy what the indignation of Aunt Cassandra would have been at the mere idea of its [the correspondence] being read and commented upon by any of us nephews and nieces, little or great.'

[62] Essays and Studies by Members of the English Association, vol. ii. p. 10.