By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 15 2020 01:00PM
Fifty-seventh in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.
“Only think of Mrs Holder’s being dead!” Jane Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, in the letter Austen finished exactly 207 years ago today (#92 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence.) “Poor woman, she has done the only thing in the World she could possibly do, to make one cease to abuse her.”
It’s hardly news to any reader of Jane Austen’s letters that the great author could sometimes be a Mean Girl—catty about other people’s looks, brains, personalities, and conversation. And this letter from Godmersham, the stately home in Kent where Austen was staying with her widowed brother Edward’s large family and an array of other houseguests, seems to have brought out her mean streak in spades.
The deceased Mrs. Holder (what was wrong with her? We’ll never know) is the least of it, although it is delicious to hear Austen skewering the “poor woman” in the very act of proclaiming her beyond skewering,
Elsewhere, Austen cuttingly sums up Lady Fagg and her five daughters (“I never saw so plain a family, five sisters so very plain!”), a new acquaintance named Mr. Wigram (“They say his name is Henry. A proof how unequally the gifts of Fortune are bestowed.—I have seen many a John & Thomas much more agreable”), and even her own niece Cassy -- the daughter of the youngest Austen brother, Charles, and his wife, Fanny Palmer Austen -- who was all of four years old (“Poor little Love.—I wish she were not so very Palmery—but it seems stronger than ever.—I never knew a Wife’s family-features have such undue influence”).
Even when Austen claims to be pleased with the company, she puts a sting in the tail of her praise: “I like him very much. I am sure he is clever & a Man of Taste,” she writes of a fellow guest, Stephen Lushington, who at the time was representing Canterbury in Parliament. “He is quite an M.P.—very smiling, with an exceeding good address, & readiness of Language.—I am rather in love with him.--I dare say he is ambitious and Insincere.”
It’s enough to make you agree with one of Austen’s most unsympathetic biographers, John Halperin, that “one does have the feeling, reading Jane Austen’s letters, that the milk of human kindness was often kept in the larder, and the tea served with lemon.”
To be fair -- fairer than Halperin is -- Austen's little digs seem to have been kept between herself and Cassandra; as far as we know, she never taunted the Fagg sisters with their plainness or told Mr. Wigram how unfavorably he compared with the Johns and Thomases she knew. Her letters to Cassandra were safe places for Austen to vent her frustration and fatigue about the weeks she spent as a guest, mandated to gratitude and required to make small talk with dullards instead of investing her time in those she truly valued. Perhaps, like the embattled Jane Fairfax in Emma, Austen found herself longing for "the comfort of being sometimes alone!" (ch. 42)
“The Comfort of the Billiard Table here is very great,” Jane confided to Cassandra, in a throwaway remark that illuminates, and perhaps mitigates, the unkindness on display elsewhere. “It draws all the Gentlemen to it whenever they are within, especially after dinner, so that my Br[other] Fanny & I have the Library to ourselves in delightful quiet.”