Jane Austen and Her Times
Chapter 17 - Fanny and Anna
The nephews and nieces at Godmersham were rapidly growing into men and women. Edward and George on leaving Winchester went to Oxford; the luxurious way in which they were brought up evidently sometimes annoyed their aunt, who was accustomed to see the younger generation more repressed; she says of them--
"As I wrote of my nephews with a little bitterness in my last, I think it particularly incumbent on me to do them justice now, and I have great pleasure in saying they were both at the Sacrament yesterday; now these two boys, who are out with the foxhounds, will come home and disgust me again by some habit of luxury or some proof of sporting mania."While Jane was at Godmersham in 1813, her brother Charles, his wife, and little daughters were there too. It was the custom then--though not an invariable one but a matter of inclination--for a captain in the Navy to take his wife and children voyaging with him. It will be remembered that in Persuasion Captain Wentworth says he hates "to hear of women on board," and Mrs. Croft, whose husband is an Admiral, declares "women may be as comfortable on board as in the best house in England. I believe I have lived as much on board as most nromen and I know nothing superior to the accommodation of a man-of-war."
Charles Austen's wife and children seem to have spent a good deal of time on board with him; and Cassy, the eldest girl, a delicate quiet child, suffered from seasickness during rough weather. Jane says affectionately of her, "Poor little love! I wish she were not so very Palmery, but it seems stronger than ever. I never knew a wife's family features have such undue influence." Cassy was not quite happy among her cousins, "they are too many and too boisterous for her." Jane speaks of her and her mother as being "their own nice selves, Fanny looking as neat and white this morning as possible, and Charles all affectionate, placid, quiet, cheerful good humour."
Alas, in September of the following year Mrs. Charles ilusten died in childbirth. Her husband, who was a very domestic man, felt the loss severely; subsequently he married her sister Harriet, and became the father of two boys in addition to his little daughters.
In 1814, Edward Knight was annoyed by a claimant to the Chawton estate, and it appears from what Miss Mitford says on the subject in her letters, that this was in consequence of old Mr. Knight's not having fulfilled some technical point in connection with the property. As Chawton was worth about £5000 a year, the matter was serious, and that it was not altogether a fancy originating in the mind of the claimant, is shown by the fact that after protracted discussions, Edward Knight did, in 1817, pay him a sum of money to settle the matter.
We have no letters of Jane's before November 1815 ; but she was probably at home at Chawton with her sister and mother, when the news that Napoleon had escaped from Elba burst upon the world like a thunderclap! The call to arms rang throughout Europe, and then followed the terrible Hundred Days which ended on June the eighteenth with the Battle of Waterloo.
Alison in his Epitome of Epitome of History of Europe says, "No one who was of an age to understand what was going on can ever forget the entrancing joy which thrilled through the British heart at the news of Waterloo. The thanks of Parliament were voted to Wellington and his army; a medal struck by government was given to every officer and soldier who had borne arms on that eventful day; and not less than £500,000 was raised by voluntary subscriptions for those wounded in the fight, and the widows and orphans of the fallen."
We wonder if the household at Chawton contributed its mite among the rest? Jane's heart surely must have thrilled in unison with those of her countrymen!
Louis XVIII. was once more placed on the throne of his fathers, and Napoleon was sent to St. Helena. He arrived there on November the sixteenth, and by that date Jane was again in London nursing her brother Henry.
Between 1814 and 1816 many charming letters passed between Jane and her young niece Fanny, and as these contain more of the personal element than any of the others that have been preserved, they are among the most interesting of all. At the beginning of these letters Fanny was twenty-one, which in those days was considered quite a staid age for an unmarried girl. In one of her letters she tells her aunt that her feelings had cooled towards someone, who at one time she had thought of marrying.
Jane's answer is full of sense and sympathy, and gives us much insight into her own views on the relations of the sexes. "What strange creatures we are," she writes, "it seems as if your being secure of him had made you indifferent. . . . There was a little disgust I suspect at the races, and I do not wonder at it. His expressions then would not do for one who had rather more acuteness, penetration, and taste, than love, which was your case, and yet after all I am surprised that the change in the feelings should be so great. He is just what he ever was, only more evidently and uniformly devoted to you . . .
"Oh dear Fanny! Your mistake has been one that thousands of women fall into. He was the first young man who attached himself to you. That was the charm, and most powerful it is. . . . Upon the whole what is to be done? You have no inclination for any other person. His situation in life, family, friends and above all his character, his uncommonly amiable mind, strict principles, just notions, good habits, till that you know so well how to value, all that is really ofthe first importance, pleads his cause most strongly. You have no doubt of his having superior abilities, he has proved it at the University, he is, I dare say, such a scholar as your agreeable idle brothers would ill bear a comparison with. The more I write about him the more strongly I feel the desirableness of your growing in love with him again. . . . There are such beings in the world, perhaps one in a thousand, as the creature you and I should think perfection, where grace and spirit are united to worth, where the manners are equal to the heart and understanding, but such a person may not come in your way, or, if he does, he may not be the eldest son of a man of fortune, the near relation of your own particular friend and belonging to your own country. . . . And now my dear Fanny, having written so much on one side of the question I shall turn round and entreat you not to commit yourself farther, and not to think of accepting him unless you really do like him. Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection; and if his deficiencies of manner strike you more than all his good qualities, if you continue to think strongly of them, give him up at once . . .
"When I consider how few young men you have yet seen much of; how capable you are of being really in love; and how full of temptation the next six or seven years of your life will probably be, I cannot wish you, with your present very cool feelings, to devote yourself in honour to him. It is very true that you never may attach another man his equal altogether; but if that other man has the power of attaching you more, he will be in your eyes the Inost perfect.
"You are inimitable, irresistible. You are the delight of my life. Such letters, such entertaining letters as you have lately sent! such a description of your queer little heart! such a lovely display of what imagination does! . . . You are so odd, and all the time so perfectly natural, so peculiar in yourself, and yet so like everybody else. It is very, very gratifying to me to know you so intimately. . . . Oh what a loss itwill be when you are married! You are too agreeable in your single state. I shall hate you when your delicious play of mind is all settled down into conjugal and maternal affections . . .
"And yet I do wish you to marry very much because I know you will never be happy till you are," and later on, apropos of someone else, she adds: "Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor, which is one very strong argument in favour of matrimony, but I need not dwell on such arguments with you, pretty dear. To you I shall say, as I have often said before, Do not be in a hurry, the right man will come at last; you will in the course of the next two or three years meet with somebody more generally unexceptionable than anyone you have yet known, who will love you as warmly as possible, and who will so completely attract you that you will feel you never really loved before."
But it was not until 1820 that Fanny married, as his second wife, the Rt. Hon. Sir Edward Knatchbull, 9th lft., who had already five sons and one daughter, the eldest boy being twelve years old. Six years after the marriage, the daughter married Fanny's brother Edward. She herself lived to nearly ninety, and was the mother of five sons and four daughters, and in 1880 her eldest son was created Baron Brabourne; and he, as has been already stated, was the editor of the volumes of Letters.
But Jane's sympathetic advice was called for by more than one niece passing through the difficult time between girlhood and womanhood; Anna, her eldest brother James's daughter, was a frequent visitor at Chawton, and though she does not seem ever to have taken quite the same position in her aunt's affections as Fanny did, she was yet a lively, amusing, pleasant girl.
She had evidently determined to follow in her aunt's footsteps, as was most natural, and had attempted to write a novel herself; Jane's treatment of her tentative efforts was very kind, some of the letters to the would-be authoress are preserved, and nothing could be gentler. "I am very much obliged to you for sending me your MS. It has entertained me extremely; indeed all of us. I read it aloud to your grandmamma and aunt Cass, and we were all very pleased. The spirit does not drop at all. Now we have finished the second book or rather the fifth: Susan is a nice animated little creature, but St. Julian is the delight of our lives. He is quite interesting. The whole of his break off mith Lady Helena is very well done." She then goes in great detail into all the characters, making various suggestions: "You are but now coming to the heart and beauty of your story. Until the heroine grows up the fun must be imperfect, but I expect a great deal of entertainment from the next three or four books, and I hope you will not resent these remarks by sending me no more."
Then she gives one or two characteristic touches.
"Devereux Forester's being ruined by his vanity is extremely good, but I wish you would not let him plunge into a vortex of dissipation.' I do not object to the thing but cannot bear the expression; it is such thorough novel slang, and so old that I daresay Adam met with it in the first novel he opened."
In 1814, Anna was engaged to Benjamin Lefroy, whom she married in November. After her marriage she first lived at Hendon, but in the following year she and her husband took a small house near Alton, so that she was within a walk of Chawton. She still went on with her novel-writing. And Jane continued to criticise her progress--
"We have no great right to wonder at his [Benjamin Lefroy's] not valuing the name of Progillian. That is a source of delight which even he call hardly be quite competent to."Anna became the mother of six daughters and one son, and lived until 1872.
"St. Julian's history was quite a surprise to me. You had not very long known it yourself I suspect. His having been in love with the aunt gives Cecilia an additional interest with him. I like the idea, a very proper compliment to an aunt! I rather imagine indeed that nieces are seldom chosen but out of compliment to some aunt or other. I daresay Ben was in love with me once, and would never have thought of you if he had not supposed me dead of scarlet fever."
This text was originally digitized by Catherine Dean for her "Jane Austen E-Texts, Etc." website, and is archived at Molland's with Ms. Dean's permission.