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Monday, December 17, 2012

Jane Austen's Letter 91: “Jemima Brydges….is nobody knows where.—What an unprosperous family!”




The following short passage in Letter 91 caught my eye and my heart this morning, and I’ve just finished making myself an authority on its full significance—and what a terrible significance it has, as I will now tell you. 

“I enquired of Mrs. Milles after Jemima Brydges & was quite greived to hear that she was obliged to leave Canty some months ago on account of her debts & is nobody knows where.-What an unprosperous Family!”

Jemima Brydges was the never-married sister of two persons whom every Janeite knowledgeable about Jane Austen’s biography knows well---Madam Lefroy and Sir Egerton Brydges. At the time JA wrote the above words, Jemima was in her early sixties. Except for JA’s brief but strong expression of sadness over the cruel fate of Jemima Brydges, I can find no other information about her on the Net, other than that she died in 1819. But we can make certain reasonable inferences about the last decade of her life, based on what we do know.

First, it appears likely to me that it was the death of Jemima’s widowed mother at age 82, in 1809, which left her in dire financial peril, and, within a few years, compelled  her to abscond in the dead of night from her lifelong home in Canterbury. Apparently Jemima was the one child who remained with her mother, and somehow they were being maintained in Canterbury. However, once her mother died, perhaps that maintenance was discontinued when it was only Jemima requiring assistance?

Second, may we also infer from JA’s explicit reference to debts as the reason why Jemima was compelled to leave Canterbury without leaving any information behind as to her whereabouts, that Jemima was driven underground by the threat of being sent to debtor’s prison?

Now, this would be an awful enough story if the Brydges family had truly been, as JA wrote, “unprosperous”---i.e., if financial distress had fallen equally on everyone in the family. But what makes it a far more awful story is that we know very well that Sir Egerton Brydges, the brother of Jemima Brydges, was NOT suffering from any financial straits whatsoever!

If we didn’t know of his prosperity in any other way, we’d know it because Sir Egerton apparently had sufficient resources to continue pressing his obsessive claims over a period of years in the Chandos peerage case, ultimately achieving the following result in 1814, less than a year after JA wrote Letter 91:

“Preparatory to the advancement of Samuel-Egerton Brydges, of Denton Court, in the county of Kent, esquire, to the dignity of a baronet, the above arms and crest (without the inescocheon of the arms of Ulster) were, upon his memorial for that purpose to the Earl Marshal, granted to the said Samuel-Egerton Brydges, to be borne by him and by his only surviving brother, John-William-Head Brydges, of Wootton Court, in the county of Kent, esquire, and by their issue respectively, and the said arms by his two sisters, Charlotte Jemima Brydges, spinster, and Charlotte, wife of John Harrison, of Denne Hill, in the parish of Kingston, in the same county, esquire, by patent under the hands and seals of Sir Isaac Heard, knt. Garter, principal king of arms, and George Harrison, esquire, Clarenceux king of arms, bearing date the 27th of December, 1814. {Grants, vol. xxviii. 273.)”   

What a cruel, cruel irony, that Jemima Brydges was entitled to rights vis a vis the family crest and arms, but that did not do her a whole lot of good, if she couldn’t pay her bills, and she was not being supported by her well-heeled brother!

And the icing on the cruel cake, so to speak, is that this was very stale news when JA first heard it. Part of what appalls JA is that she only heard via her Kentish female “gossip” network that this elderly spinster had been driven from her lifelong home after her mother’s death, and that no one in her family had stepped up to support her.

Apparently brother Edward Knight and niece Fanny Knight did not consider Jemima Brydges’s forced exile to be newsworthy enough to pass on to JA and CEA when it actually happened.

Yet another example of the casual cruelty of the rich. I can’t help but be reminded of Sir Walter Elliot and Mrs. Smith in Persuasion. And I also checked on JA’s usage of variants of the word “prosperous” in the novels, and the following passage leapt out at me:

 "Probably not; -- but Mr. Darcy can please where he chuses. He does not want abilities. He can be a conversible companion if he thinks it worth his while. Among those who are at all his equals in consequence, he is a very different man from what he is to the less prosperous. His pride never deserts him; but with the rich he is liberal-minded, just, sincere, rational, honourable, and perhaps agreeable -- allowing something for fortune and figure."

Wickham is telling Lizzy that Darcy treats the rich well, but treats the less than rich less than well. Darcy sounds a lot like Sir Egerton Brydges.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter


2 comments:

Arnie Perlstein said...

Diana Birchall just wrote the following in Austen L and Janeites:

"...Oh yes, Jemima Brydges, about whom JA was "quite greived to hear that she was obliged to leave Canty some months ago on account of her debts & is nobody knows where. - What an unprosperous family!" Can we find out something about that? The Jemima Brydges of Deirdre's notes, this girl's mother, died 1809, the widow of Edward Brydges, and a lively witty person who kept a salon in Kent. Of her eight children, the Jemima Austen refers to, died unmarried in 1818. Deirdre does not give her birth date, but as her brothers and sisters were born in the 1840s she must have been in her late 60s when she died. As for why this elderly unmarried woman contracted debts and had to leave The Precincts, Canterbury, we can't guess, though it is four years after her mother's death. Nor is there anything about the unprosperousness of the family, though if Jane Austen, so clear with words, meant "unfortunate" she would have said so. Jemima's older sister was Anne Lefroy, Jane's own good friend who died in a horseback accident in 1804, so perhaps the "unprosperous" comment relates to Anne. Deirdre also relates the story of Anne and Jemima's younger brother, Sir Samuel-Egerton (1762-1837), antiquarian and author of the novels Mary de Clifford and Arthur Fitz Albini. He was obsessed with his claim to a barony, which he never achieved. He set up a press and lived extravagantly, receiving a baronetcy, but fled to the Continent to avoid his creditors in 1818 and was ultimately ruined by a lawsuit. Some of these dramatic events were in the future, unknown to Jane Austen, but he may have been unprosperous enough to her knowledge to include him in her comment."

See my next comment for my reply to Diana.

Arnie Perlstein said...

Diana, I wrote my speculations about Jemima Brydges (the daughter) a few days ago. I did not recall that Egerton Brydges fled to avoid creditors in 1818, but it fits perfectly well with my comment in my earlier post....

"Yet another example of the casual cruelty of the rich. I can’t help but be reminded of Sir Walter Elliot and Mrs. Smith in Persuasion."

....Sir Walter Elliot _is_ the quintessence of Egerton Brydges, a selfish, vain, genealogy-obsessed fool. And now JA's short comment about the invisible Jemima Brydges adds another crucial element to the satire on Egerton Brydges--the way he lived so extravagantly that he squandered the family inheritance; and as he lived far above his means, he also callously ignored the genteel poverty of single women who deserved his support, most of all his unmarried sister who had spent her entire life with their mother:

"Westgate Buildings!" said he, "and who is Miss Anne Elliot to be visiting in Westgate Buildings? A Mrs Smith. A widow Mrs Smith; and who was her husband? One of five thousand Mr Smiths whose names are to be met with everywhere. And what is her attraction? That she is old and sickly. Upon my word, Miss Anne Elliot, you have the most extraordinary taste! Everything that revolts other people, low company, paltry rooms, foul air, disgusting associations are inviting to you. But surely you may put off this old lady till to-morrow: she is not so near her end, I presume, but that she may hope to see another day. What is her age? Forty?"

There you have, I suggest, Egerton Brydges's callous view of his unmarried sister. First, his disregard for her needs drove her into hiding from her creditors far from her lifelong home---then, after his endless pursuit of his idiotic manias led to his own money eventually disappearing, he nonetheless had sufficient resources to make a safe escape to post-Napoleonic Europe.

I am guessing that JA knew Jemima Brydges pretty well from her visits to Godmersham up till 1808, and so was genuinely "quite greived" to find Jemima absent five years later in 1813---a real-life Mrs. Smith who (we can only hope) found a way, with the help of some real life "Nurse Rooke", to survive in dignity for the last years of her life. I bet there are resources not yet findable on the internet which perhaps shed some light on how Jemima Brydges spent her last 5 years of life. Anyone got any ideas of how to find that info?

And finally, JA, by covertly skewering Egerton Brydges in the character of Sir Walter, was exacting truly poetic justice, as it is a famous factoid of Austen biography that JA pointed out how Brydges depicted many of his own Hampshire neighbors in his novel Fitz Albini.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: I just did some Googling and saw that Ian Jack, in 1990, may have been the first Austen scholar to claim that Sir Walter Elliot was a representation of Egerton Brydges (I write "may have been" because a snippet I read in Google Books suggests that Christopher Gillie may have made that claim much earlier, in 1971, in "A Preface to Jane Austen"). Subsequently, Jocelyn Harris, in her 2007 book A Revolution Beyond Expression, repeated that claim, as then also did Janine Barchas in her 2102 book about real life subtexts in JA's novels. I am pleased to be in synch with all of their outside-the-box analyses.