On this day in 1813. . .
By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 24 2018 01:00PM
Thirty-seventh in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.
Jane Austen never lived alone. From her earliest days, she was surrounded by parents and siblings; on visits away from home, she stayed with friends and extended family. Her writing time was snatched in shared living spaces rendered temporarily quiet enough to facilitate mental concentration. Surely she must sometimes have been frustrated by the enforced companionship.
Perhaps that’s why I like to imagine her as she describes herself in the letter she finished writing to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 205 years ago today (#89 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).
Austen was on a long visit to Godmersham Park, her wealthy brother Edward’s stately home in Kent, and most of the letter recounts the doings of Edward’s family, friends, and visitors. “We live in the Library except at Meals & have a fire every Even[in]g,” Austen wote.
By the time she finished the letter, however, the others had apparently scattered: “I am now alone in the Library, Mistress of all I survey,” Austen wrote, “—at least I may say so & repeat the whole poem if I like it, without offence to anybody.”
The poem in question is Cowper’s “The Solitude of Alexander Selkirk,” published in 1782, which famously begins, “I am monarch of all I survey.” Selkirk was the marooned sailor whose story helped inspire Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and Cowper imagines him lonely and despairing, pining for human contact.
Austen’s ironic self-description – as she well knew, she was mistress of nothing, least of all Edward’s many expensive books -- suggests more satisfaction than despair: a moment of breathing-room snatched amid the doings of a busy household.
But not for long: by the time Austen finished the letter, a few paragraphs later, she had a message for the people back home in Chawton, courtesy of her eight-year-old niece: “Louisa’s best Love & a Hundred Thousand Million Kisses.”
Louisa was the ninth of Edward’s eleven children. She sounds adorable, and probably also exhausting. No wonder Austen found her moment of solitude in the library worth memorializing in print
Louisa was the same niece who is covered in "Sophia Hillan's excellent 2011 book "May, Lou and Cass - Jane Austen's Nieces in Ireland". She married her brother in law (after her sister May died) which was illegal in England at the time. These were the younger nieces that mentioned how they as younger children were shut out of Jane Austen's reading of her manuscripts to the elder siblings, and could only hear the laughter of the others through the door.
Thanks for adding this! Some really good research has been done on JA's extended family.
Louisa was also JA's godchild among the 11 Knight children, and (along with her oldest sister, Fanny) a recipient of a specific bequest from JA. Cassandra wrote to Fanny after JA'a death, "...she desires that one of her gold chains be given to her God-daughter Louisa & a lock of her hair be set for you."
Lovely details! Thanks for adding this.