A group read of Jane Austen's letters has begun in Austen L and Janeites, and here is my response to some interesting comments there by Diana Birchall about Letter #1, dated Jan 9-10, 1796, when Jane has recently turned 20.
[Diana] "How young she sounds in this first one. Laughing and mocking, very interested in young men, and sounding quite carefree, full of gayety"
Diana, JA's voice in this letter is, to me, uncannily similar to the voice of Elizabeth Bennet, but more so--it is like Lizzy after a couple of disinhibiting glasses of wine, and a couple of provoking Darcy sneers. ;)
"This tone, I recall, soon is somewhat reined in, but it's endearing to see it here."
What do you mean, Diana? Reined in by whom? The tone of this letter does not strike me as reined in at all--and may I immediately add--I love that it is not reined in, it suggests to me that JA was often "wired", particularly after a stimulating social event, such as the ball which is the subject matter of much of this letter. It means she was most fully alive after being in a crowd, enjoying the human comedy.
"Still, she is not quite like other girls - how many would write, "I am sorry for the Beaches' loss of their little girl, especially as it is the one so much like me."
That is putting it mildly. That is so "beyond everything" (to use the phrase JA used jokingly in later letters to CEA). It is consistent, right from this first surviving letter, with JA already feeling a lot of negative emotion, even aggression, associated with pregnancy and childbirth, especially death (of both mothers and infants) in childbirth. Here's the evidence.
First, Le Faye tells us that Henrietta-Maria Hicks-Beach, who was 36 when this letter was written, lost four of her nine children born live in infancy. I don't think JA was a cruel insensitive person who would mock such a sad history of personal loss of the poor mother--rather I hear JA's anger at that woman being subjected to such a life experience during what should have been the prime of life. This is gallows humor.
And the proof is in the very next sentence, which also is the last sentence of the letter, and therefore is also the end of JA's short literary "performance", and therefore has an extra oomph and wit befitting that placement:
"I condole with Miss M. on her losses and with Eliza on her gains, and am ever yours..."
Le Faye tells us that "Miss M." is Tom Fowle's maiden aunt Jane, who died in 1807--we can only speculate as to what "losses" JA is (I think ironically) referring to. See further below for my speculation.
Le Faye also claims that "Eliza" is Elizabeth Fowle, wife of Revd. Fulwar Craven Fowle, elder brother of Tom Fowle. It takes one minute to look at Le Faye's Bio Index and to also realize that of equal importance was that Eliza was the middle of the three Lloyd sisters, of whom Mary of course married James Austen, and Martha was JA's closest friend. So both JA and CEA each had two very close connections to this woman over a lifetime.
And looking at the description of Eliza's life in the Bio Index also gives us a big hint as to what "her gains" refers to---I believe Eliza had become pregnant _again_--I write "again" because she was in 1796 in her early thirties and had already borne children in 1791, 1792, 1793, and 1794 (baby born and died). That is _every_ year for four straight years.
Le Faye's listings show the next children born to Eliza in 1798 and 1799, resuming the annual drumbeat, but I betcha that the 3-year "gap" in between serial pregnancies was itself filled by one, maybe even two, miscarriages. Somehow I doubt that the good Revd Fowle took a 3-year vacation from his Biblical "duty" to multiply as rapidly as humanly possible.
And that also suggests to me that JA was joking with a dark edginess about Miss Murden's "losses", as it sounds a lot to me like JA's infamous bit of acid wit about Edward Austen Knight's 47-year old widowed "adoptive" mother in Letter 32:
"I am happy to hear of Mrs. Knight's amendment, whatever might be her complaint. [Words omitted in Brabourne edition: "I cannot think so ill of her however, in spite of your insinuations, as to suspect her of having lain-in -- I do not think she would be betrayed beyond an accident at the utmost."]
I think JA has, to add force to her comments about Eliza Fowle, conjured up a mini-tale of the pregnant maiden aunt having a miscarriage ("losses"). I think JA, at 20, already had a decided bent toward venting a considerable amount of anger, sarcasm and spleen when the topic of pregnancy and childbirth was extant, and it continued till the day she died.
"[Cassandra] must have shared in all the jokes.
Diana, I think that JA was the ticcingly inveterate punster, and that CEA was her "straight man"--and I think CEA did understand a good deal of JA's humor, but that does not mean that she was always happy with what came out of JA's mouth or quill pen. There are many close relationships like that, where opposite temperaments complement each other, and I speak from personal experience. I think JA spent her life trying to make CEA smile more....and also to get her overly compliant and submissive older sister to return to the days of The History of England, and get angry more.
I.e., I see a bit of the Banger Sisters in this passage.
- Deirdre Le Faye & Me: "I am a scholar, she is a scholar: so far we are equal"
- The Hunger Games’s Veiled Allusion to Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus
- Darcy's "We neither of us perform to strangers": a Radical New Interpretation
- August Wayne Booth in Once Upon A Time: Jane Austen Really IS Everywhere in 2012!
- 20 shades of hero/villain Mr. Darcy