When Austen scholars and knowledgeable Janeites hear the name “Mrs. Craven”, the first (and only) association they are all likely to make is to the grandmother of Mary and Martha Lloyd, an infamously cruel harridan who is supposed by many to have been a model for the decidedly unmaternal Lady Susan —we’re talking stuff like not giving her daughters enough to eat, really nasty stuff. However, that “great lady” died two years before Jane Austen was born, and so she was definitely not a “Mrs. Craven” whom Jane Austen knew personally.
And…”Mrs. Craven” was also not the _Countess_ Craven who was better known to the world for many years as Louisa Brunton, the former actress who was for years Lord Craven’s mistress (and JA famously mentions her as his mistress in an earlier letter), but who eventually did marry him.
I mention these two female Cravens to distinguish both of them from the “Mrs. Craven” about whom we first read in Letter 38:
“I am very glad that Martha goes to Chilton; a very essential temporary comfort her presence must afford to Mrs Craven, and I hope she will endeavour to make it a lasting one by exerting those kind offices in favour of the young Man, from which you were both with-held in the case of the Harrison family by the mistaken tenderness of one part of ours. “
Per Le Faye, Mrs. Craven was the widow of Revd. John Craven, the maternal uncle of Martha, Mary and Elizabeth Lloyd, sire of a junior line of the Craven family. John was a contemporary of Revd. Austen and died at 71 in 1804.
His first wife was Elizabeth Raymond of Barton Court, who was a weak minded heiress—they had no children, and he cheated on her late in the marriage, and got caught and paid adultery penalties to a Mr. Harris in 1774-5. Shortly afterwards, his first wife died and he then married Catherine Hughes in 1779, and with her he had 2 sons and a daughter. So Catherine Craven is the “Mrs. Craven” ofwhom JA wrote in Letter 38, a gentlewoman with no special aura about her.
My first question about this Mrs. Craven is: what is JA talking about exactly in the above quoted passage? If you read it through a few times, you will quickly understand why Le Faye refers to this as an “obscure passage”. I found JA’s mysterious description intriguing, and decided to try to sleuth out what JA meant.
After a while, I arrived at the hypothesis that the “kind offices” had something to do with matchmaking—what other favors might Martha Lloyd be likely to perform for a young man? Plus, in MP, NA and Lady Susan, the phrase “kind offices” _does_ have to do with matchmaking, so that supports my hypothesis. As does the reference to “mistaken tenderness”, which seems to me to be closely related to the reference JA makes to “mistaken tenderness” in a much later letter written to her nephew JEAL. In that later letter, JA suggests that JEAL might have concealed an illness from her, out of a misguided desire not to cause her distress. So I can see how Mrs. Austen, perhaps, might have put the kibosh on a proposed match involving the Harrison family some years earlier.
I also surmised that “the young Man” was probably Mrs. Craven’s elder son, Fulwar Craven. He was then 19, two years older than his brother Charles, and therefore the most likely candidate to have benefited from matchmaking.
Here’s what eventually happened to Mrs. Craven’s three children, marriage-wise:
Fulwar Craven married at 27 in 1809 and has five children. Charles Craven married in 1817 at age 33and had three children. He matriculated St. Johns College in Dec. 1802. And the much younger Charlotte Craven married an MP in 1819 at age 21.
So any matchmaking services rendered in 1801 apparently came to naught.
But I then became curious to know more about Mrs. Craven, and was excited when Le Faye’s index alerted me that she was referred to by JA in several later letters over a period of years. This of course makes sense, as Mrs. Craven was Martha and Mary’s aunt, who was also not that much older than her two nieces. Given that Martha lived with JA for so many years, that meant that Mrs. Craven would have been a kind of honorary aunt to JA and CEA as well.
> From those references in JA’s later letters, I discerned one other
mystery, regarding Mrs. Craven’s finances, which goes to the heart of JA’s feminism, as I understand it. Here it is, in a nutshell.
In 1804, at approximately the age of 40, she found herself a widow with two sons out in the world and one very young daughter to care for. Within a year after being widowed, she relocated to Speen Hill, where I gather she lived a modest but solvent existence. Here is what JA writes to CEA in 1805:
“I am heartily glad that you can speak so comfortably of your own health & looks, tho' I can scarcely comprehend the latter being really approved. Could travelling fifty miles produce such an immediate change?-You were looking so very poorly here; everybody seem'd sensible of it.-Is there a charm in an hack postchaise?-But if there were, Mrs. Craven's carriage might have undone it all.”
I gather from this description that Mrs. Craven kept a carriage, but it was what was referred to in the Fifties as a “jalopy” rather than a first class carriage. So she was neither poor nor rich, I imagine.
Then in June 1808 we learn that Mrs. Craven is doing well enough to afford taking a vacation on the Isle of Wight, and to invite Frank Austen’s wife Mary and her newborn to join her there.
Then we fast forward ahead 5 years to May 1813, when JA makes a special point of visiting Charlotte Craven, Mrs. Craven’s daughter, who has attained the age of 15 and is at school in London, where JA famously observes:
“I was shewn upstairs into a drawing-room, where she came to me, and the appearance of the room, so totally unschoollike, amused me very much; it was full of all the modern elegancies-& if it had not been for some naked Cupids over the Mantlepiece, which must be a fine study for Girls, one should never have smelt instruction.” So there is still money to pay for her daughter to go to school in London.
Why I keep harping on Mrs. Craven’s financial health are the following comments by JA in Letter 92 (10/14/13) and Letter 105(8/23/14), respectively:
“Does Martha never hear from Mrs. Craven?-Is Mrs. Craven never at home?....The same good account of Mrs. C.'s health continues, & her circumstances mend. She gets farther & farther from Poverty. What a comfort!”
What happened to Mrs. Craven so suddenly to cause JA to be so anxious for her welfare in 1813-1814? Apparently she was very ill, and as a result, perhaps, her finances went into a tailspin? Had she overextended her finances paying for London schooling for her daughter?
Whatever is the cause, I got a sudden glimpse behind the curtain of Miss Bates (and Mrs. Austen) at that moment, thinking of the wife of a comfortably well off clergyman who, upon her husband’s death first has to relocate to a more modest home, and then finds herself one day on the brink of poverty in her early fifties.
But fortunately the Craven ship appears to have righted itself after that, because Mrs. Craven wound up surviving till a ripe old age, dying in 1839, and all her children also enjoyed full life spans as well.
I find it interesting that the tale of Mrs. Craven has never been considered worth telling by any Austen biographer, despite her making a half dozen appearances in JA’s letters, and being close family to Martha Lloyd. But I do believe that one of the real life personages inhabiting Miss Bates was this very same Mrs. Craven, and that JA considered this lady’s life worthy of notice, and so I am glad to remember her life.
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