On this day in 1808. . .
By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 24 2019 01:00PM
Forty-eighth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.
When Jane Austen sat down to write a letter to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 211 years ago today, her family was in the midst of transitions both tragic and auspicious.
Two weeks earlier, thirty-five-year-old Elizabeth Austen, the wife of the third-oldest Austen son, Edward, had died suddenly, twelve days after giving birth to her eleventh child. And soon after her death, Edward had offered his sisters and widowed mother the use of a cottage on his estate at Chawton in Hampshire – a secure home at last, after more than three years of journeying from one unsatisfactory temporary lodging to another.
Austen biographers have speculated that it was opposition from Elizabeth -- a gently-bred woman who, family lore suggests, was no fan of her husband’s less exalted relations -- that prevented Edward from offering the cottage sooner.
Whatever the truth – and it’s unobtainable at this distance – the Austen women’s move to Chawton cottage in the summer of 1809 was a boon for world literature. Finally granted peace and stability, Austen found the time and mental space to write or revise all six of her completed novels, publishing four of them before her own untimely death in 1817.
Both the tragic and the hopeful aspects of the family’s situation are on display in Austen’s letter (#60 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence), written from Southampton, where the Austen women were living with the family of another Austen brother, Francis.
Cassandra was staying at Edward’s home at Godmersham, in Kent, helping to care for his suddenly motherless children; meanwhile, the two oldest of Edward’s sons, ages fourteen and twelve, had recently arrived in Southampton for a visit with their grandmother and aunt.
Austen describes her efforts to entertain the two bereaved boys, distracting them from their grief with endless cup-and-ball games and a visit to a ship under construction. She promises that the tailor is at work on their mourning clothes, reports how moved her teenaged nephew was by the Sunday sermon, and passes along condolences from friends.
And, discreetly, she plans for a happier future. “Of Chawton I think I can have nothing more to say, but that everything you say about it in the letter now before me will, I am sure, as soon as I am able to read it to her, make my mother consider the plan with more and more pleasure,” Austen writes.
Her tone is sober and restrained, filled with genuine concern for her abruptly widowed brother and his young children. And yet, she cannot help her moments of optimism about that new home she glimpses on the horizon. “We are all quite familiarised to the idea ourselves,” she writes. “What sort of a kitchen garden is there?”
While, like you, I don't wish to cast aspersions where we don't have proof, I still can't overlook the close connection in time between Elizabeth's death and Edward's offer of Chawton Cottage. Hmmmm.
And as an enthusiastic gardener myself, I do appreciate JA's question about the kitchen garden. (Knowing about Mrs. GA's enthusiasm for gardening has mellowed my view of her.)
On the other hand, here's another way to explain that close connection: Elizabeth had always wanted to do something for the Austen women, but Edward had been holding out. When she died, he felt, in his grief, that he should honor her memory by finally complying with her wishes.
Do I think that's the way it happened? Probably not -- but I think we have about as much direct evidence for the one scenario as for the other (i.e., none).