The Times Online in this Then and Now article re-publishes the Times Literary Supplement review of November 10, 1932, E.M. Forster on Chapman’s edition of Austen’s letters. It is a fascinating read.
And on that note, I continue my Austen Letters journey, here with Letter No. 2:
- January 14-15, 1796 (Thursday, Friday)
- Jane Austen (Steventon) to Cassandra Austen [Kintbury, Newbury: Rev, Fowle’s home]
- Present ownership and location unknown
Austen begins with a response to Cassandra’s last letter, and feeling disappointed that their plans to be reunited have gone awry; she then talks of the upcoming ball at Ashe and the friends she will see there: Edward Cooper, James, Buller, and of course Tom Lefroy. This passage and the later one penned the next day have long been the subject of a wide range of conjecture in articles, essays, biographies, and movies. Little did Jane suspect that these few lines would give rise to such a mass of words!…so I quote these directly:
…I look forward with great impatience to it [the ball at Ashe], as I rather expect to receive an offer from my friend in the course of the evening. I shall refuse him, however, unless he promises to give away his white Coat.
…Tell Mary that I make over Mr. Heartley & all his Estate to her for her sole use and Benefit in future, & not only him, but all my other Admirers into the bargain wherever she can find them, even the kiss which C. Powlett wanted to give me, as I mean to confine myself in future to Mr. Tom Lefroy, for whom I donot care sixpence….
Friday.- At length the Day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy, & when you receive this it will be over – My tears flow as I write, at the melancholy idea.
So much speculation on all this, coupled with Austen’s later reference to Lefroy in her letters, as well as other family references…one is not sure how to interpret Austen’s feelings for Lefroy. The various biographers have their own opinions, from Park Honan, who says that Austen pursued Tom Lefroy and “fell deeply in love” and was “long obsessed with [him]” and equates Anne Elliot’s “we do not forget you” speech in Persuasion with Austen’s not forgetting Tom Lefroy all those years later; Honan has a very romantic interpretation that Jane was very forward and suffered much in his leaving. David Nokes in his Jane Austen: A Life [Farrar, 1997] emphasizes Austen’s love of flirtation and concludes that the attachment between Jane and Tom was very real. Claire Tomalin in Jane Austen: A life [Viking 1997] states that Austen’s first extant letter is the “only surviving letter in which Jane is clearly writing as the heroine of her own youthful story” and that by Letter 2 she already has her defences up [p.119]. Tomalin believes that Austen’s reference to Fielding’s Tom Jones [in Letter 1] is a very provocative remark…Austen is making clear that “she doesn’t mind talking about a novel that deals candidly and comically with sexual attraction and sexual behaviors and she is telling Cassandra that she and Lefroy have openly discussed this book [p. 117]. But she is gravely injured in his leaving, and henceforth “her writing becomes informed by this knowledge of sexual vulnerability, running like a dark undercurrent beneath the comedy” [p.122].
But the book and movie “Becoming Jane” has played upon the most romantic notions that stay with us in our hopes that Jane did have such a love and lost [see the references below that try hard to refute all this, especially by Joan Klingel Ray, who makes a strong case that Lefroy was already spoken for and realized he he was acting badly to Austen knowing she was “interested” in him…shades of Frank Churchill and Edward Ferrars?]. The Family Record makes it clear that as there was no further information as to what happened at the ball that last night, “it is unlikely he proposed or that Jane Austen thought that he would;” Tom was never asked there again as Madame Lefroy “did not like Tom because he had behaved badly to Jane”… but concludes that this was all a “temporary disappointment” as she shortly afterwords began her “bright and sparkling” story of “First Impressions” [later P&P]
Is Austen just evoking humor here to give Cassandra a laugh, offering up all her potential beaus to others, or does she really care something for Lefroy and really hurting at his going away? Does the “offer” she refer to mean a marriage proposal or an offer to dance [as Ray suggests in her article]? The fact that Cassandra did not destroy or edit these passages seems to indicate that they did not mean as much as “Becoming Jane” would like us to believe. It is so easy to let our imaginations fill in the gaps that the letters leave for us. So I put this out there for discussion… what do you think Austen means in these passages?? How much is she just playing and being facetious?
Though Austen speaks of Tom Lefroy in several places in this letter, there are other lines of interest: one oft-quoted passage is “I am very much flattered by your commendation of my last Letter, for I write only for Fame, and without any view to pecuniary Emolument.” Here is Austen at her very best! And there are the usual references to friends and family, those whose names will appear again and again : Eliza; Charles Fowle (“I hope he will be too hot for the rest of his life for it!” (regarding her stockings…); the Coopers, Anna; the Miss Biggs; Tom Fowle; the Rivers; and a comment to Cassandra that “I am very glad to find from Mary that Mr. & Mrs. Fowle are pleased with you…I hope you will continue to give satisfaction.”… and so on to Letter 3 for another day… with a huge jump from January 1796 to August 1796…
Further reading: (just a few of the many…)
- Auerbach, Emily. “Searching for Jane Austen: Restoring the ‘Fleas’ and ‘Bad Breath.’ ” Persuasions, No. 27 (2005), pp. 31-38.
- Bander, Elaine. “Jane Austen’s Letters: Facts and Fictions.” Persuasions, No. 27 (2005), pp. 119-129.
- Fergus, Jan. ” ‘The Whinnying of Harpies’? – Humor in Jane Austen’s Letters.” Persuasions, No. 27 (2005) pp.13-29.
- Wenner, Barbara. “Following the Trail of Jane Austen’s Letters.” Persuasions, No. 27 (2005), pp. 130-141.
- Ray, Joan Klingel. “The One-Sided Romance of Jane Austen and Tom Lefroy” Persuasions Online Vol. 28, No. 1, Winter 2007.
- Canal Academie: “The True Love Life of Jane Austen” discusses the movie “Becoming Jane.”
- Spence, John. Review of Jane Austen: A Family Record in JASNA News (Summer 2005), where Spence questions Le Faye’s interpretation of this letter about Tom Lefroy.
- Huff, Marsha. “Becoming Jane: Sorting Fact from Fiction,” at JASNA.org.
- Walker, Linda Robinson. “Jane Austen and Tom Lefroy: Stories” Persuasions Online, v.27, no 1 (Winter 2006)
- ” ‘I was too proud to make any inquiries’ ” Jane Austen’s Eleventh Letter” at the The Loiterer
- Nokes, David. Jane Austen: A Life. Farrar, Straus, 1997. See online, Chapter 5 “Proflilgate and Shocking.”
- Tomalin, Claire. Jane Austen: A life. Viking, 1997.
- Honan, Park. Jane Austen, her life. St. Martin’s Press, 1987.
- Austen-Leigh, William and Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh. Jane Austen: a Family Record; revised and enlarged by Deirdre Le Faye. London, 1989. See also the 2nd edition published by Cambridge University Press, 2003, which includes additions and corrections and a changed format.
- The Becoming Jane Fansite, the go-to place for all things Jane & Tom.
- Fashion and Fun in 1796 (from the Regency Fashion Page), for thoughts on what was going on when Austen wrote this letter.
Deb makes an exellent point: if this letter implied what it sometimes is thought to imply Cassandra would probably have destroyed it.
Mine may be an unpopular position, but I believe Jane often composed ‘dramatic’ comments for comic effect, those about Tom Lefroy being no exception. Her letters can be so intensely arch that, without being in the know, we who never ‘knew’ her can only guess at the meanings she sought to convey beneath short, pithy sentences.
Statements such as ‘my tears flow as I write’ and ‘Tell Mary that I make over Mr. Heartley & all his Estate to her for her sole use and Benefit’ can neither of them be taken at face-value. They both read like sisterly in-jokes, to which outsiders could never be privy…
Think: this over-analysis of her sister’s life was exactly what Cassandra had hoped to avoid!