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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, February 10, 2012

Letter 65: an odd thing to occur to Cassandra

"I am happy to say that we had no second Letter from Bookham last week. Yours has brought its usual measure of satisfaction and amusement, and I beg your acceptance of all the Thanks due on the occasion.-Your offer of Cravats is very kind, and happens to be particularly adapted to my wants-but it was an odd thing to occur to you."

I've come to realize over the past 65 weeks that Jane Austen loved to begin her letters with something spicy, and, therefore, rare has been the humdrum beginning, and frequent has been the intriguing opening hook. This week's version is a little mystery--not a mystery, we would imagine, to Cassandra, but definitely one to us reading Letter 65 today.

At first, there seems nothing strange about JA offering thanks to Cassandra on the occasion of Cassandra having, in her last letter to JA, offered Cravats to JA. But what is very strange and very mysterious is what comes next: JA refers to these Cravats as being "particularly adapted" to JA's "wants". What could render Cravats "particularly adapted" to the "wants" of a 34 year old woman? And, even stranger and more mysterious, why does JA add that it (i.e., the offer of the Cravats) "was an odd thing to occur to" Cassandra?

Anyone have any theories as to what is going on here?

The first question that comes to my mind, and perhaps a Regency Era fashion maven can enlighten us, is as to whether ladies ever wore Cravats during JA's lifetime, and, if so, whether it was a fashion or political statement of some kind? Was a lady wearing a Cravat the equivalent of a lady wearing pants instead of a gown? Or was it stylish for both ladies and gentlemen to wear Cravats?

The answer to that question will go a long way, I think, toward explaining JA's observations about the particular adaptiveness of the Cravats, and the oddness of CEA's offer.

Now, with JA there is always the chance of a put-on, and this is no exception--except....that last part about oddness does not sound ironic to my ear.

It may or may not be relevant that this passage in Letter 65 happens to be the _only_ reference to cravats in all of JA's surviving letters, and, curiously, the only three references to cravats in the six novels _all_ appear in Northanger Abbey, and all seem to refer to same as items of _male_ apparel:

Chapter 3: They were interrupted by Mrs. Allen: "My dear Catherine," said she, "do take this pin out of my sleeve; I am afraid it has torn a hole already; I shall be quite sorry if it has, for this is a favourite gown, though it cost but nine shillings a yard." "That is exactly what I should have guessed it, madam," said Mr. Tilney, looking at the muslin. "Do you understand muslins, sir?" "Particularly well; I ALWAYS BUY MY OWN CRAVATS, and am allowed to be an excellent judge; and my sister has often trusted me in the choice of a gown. I bought one for her the other day, and it was pronounced to be a prodigious bargain by every lady who saw it. I gave but five shillings a yard for it, and a true Indian muslin." Mrs. Allen was quite struck by his genius. "Men commonly take so little notice of those things," said she; "I can never get Mr. Allen to know one of my gowns from another. You must be a great comfort to your sister, sir." "I hope I am, madam."

Chapter 22: "[Catherine's] greedy eye glanced rapidly over a page. She started at its import. Could it be possible, or did not her senses play her false? An inventory of linen, in coarse and modern characters, seemed all that was before her! If the evidence of sight might be trusted, she held a washing-bill in her hand. She seized another sheet, and saw the same articles with little variation; a third, a fourth, and a fifth presented nothing new. Shirts, stockings, CRAVATS, and waistcoats faced her in each. Two others, penned by the same hand, marked an expenditure scarcely more interesting, in letters, hair-powder, shoe-string, and breeches-ball..."

Chapter 30: " [Catherine's] silence and sadness she was the very reverse of all that she had been before. For two days Mrs. Morland allowed it to pass even without a hint; but when a third night's rest had neither restored her cheerfulness, improved her in useful activity, nor given her a greater inclination for needlework, she could no longer refrain from the gentle reproof of, "My dear Catherine, I am afraid you are growing quite a fine lady. I do not know when poor Richard's CRAVATS would be done, if he had no friend but you. Your head runs too much upon Bath; but there is a time for everything—a time for balls and plays, and a time for work. You have had a long run of amusement, and now you must try to be useful."

And finally, here is an informative blog post about the basics of cravat wearing by dandies during the Regency Era:

So, I invite those who are as intrigued as I am to speculate as to what JA meant in that passage in Letter 65. In doing so, please feel free to be as playful and Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan are when they try to figure out the meaning behind the numerical I.D. that he has been hiding behind in exchanging emails with her. Here are my guesses, and you can figure out which are playful and which are serious:

1. JA was going to a masquerade party dressed as a man.

2. JA needed to escape from the dreary walkup in Southampton by tieing the cravats in series as a rope ladder to ease herself down to the ground.

3. JA was dressing like a man without going to a masquerade party, i.e., in order to walk about as a man on Southampton's streets, and see what it was like.

4. JA canniballized the cravats in order to redesign them into some article of female attire.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Response by Teresa:

I did a little digging (though not too deeply, so I could be wrong but I think my guess is a possibility)

I read the rest of the letter closely and it clearly shows that Cassandra was away from home. Cassandra always struck me as unworldly and rather a homebody (reasons that I think don't need to be delved too deeply into right now, but we probably know why). The only place Cassandra would have went was to stay with was brother Edward to take care of the numerous Knight children.

However, for a time, it appears that young Edward and George Knight went to stay in Southampton with Aunt Jane (perfect timing as a bed was free in such a crowded house). It occurred to me that the cravats could have been intended for the boys if they were there then, or if they were expected there in the future.

When Jane mentioned her wants, it made me think that she meant she had a project in mind. Perhaps embroidery of initials or a little extra sewing to these cravats.

I was just at Chawton last month and examples of Jane's needlework were all over the house and it was pointed out more than once that Jane was VERY proficient with her needle.

Just my two cents...