Something White and Womanish: Fresh Perspectives on Jane Austen’s Seaside Romance

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    That Jane Austen, inventor of the post-revolutionary romance, knew nothing about love is a conundrum her numerous biographers are still trying to unpick. The earliest of these, a Memoir published in 1869 by James Austen Leigh, a clergyman in his seventies, showed little insight into his aunt’s libido. Anxious to define her as an unworldly spinster, he admonished a reviewer in the Quarterly for suggesting in 1821 that Fanny Price’s passion for her cousin Edmund, a passion which ‘tinges every event, and every reflection’, had been written by someone who knew what she was talking about. Fanny’s raptures in Mansfield Park were, he tells us firmly, ‘drawn from the intuitive perceptions of genius, not from personal experience’.

    This entirely ‘homespun’ version of Austen made for dull reading. In the second edition, he cautiously admitted to ‘one passage of romance in her history’, a brief seaside encounter that Austen’s sister, Cassandra, had mentioned to her niece Caroline forty years earlier. Caroline was hazy about details but knew they related to the years 1800 -1804:

    while staying at some seaside place, they became acquainted with a gentleman, whose charm of person, mind, and manners was such that Cassandra thought him worthy to possess and likely to win her sister’s love. When they parted, he expressed his intention of soon seeing them again … Within a short time they heard of his sudden death … if Jane ever loved, it was this unnamed gentleman.

    Cassandra spoke of this mysterious figure as one ‘unusually gifted with all that was agreeable’. Nameless, dateless, and uncertain as to place, the anecdote conjured up a spectral presence, a dying kind of lover to match Cassandra’s own short-lived fiancé, Tom Fowle. Thereafter, according to Mrs Austen, the two sisters were effectively ‘married to each other’.

    The strangeness of this story is that no-one thought to ask the man’s name or why no letter referring to him had been allowed to remain in existence. A flirtation with fact, the episode recalls nothing so much as the final scene of Sanditon, the seaside novel on which Austen was at work when she died. This fragment breaks off with a tantalising glimpse of ‘something white and womanish’ behind a fence. Two lovers, believing themselves ‘perfectly secure from observation’, are suddenly, from one peculiar perspective, made visible. With this trace of erotic revelation, Jane Austen’s writing career comes to an end.

    Austen facelessness in love has remained almost a condition of her life story. She herself initiates this when she writes of the Rev Samuel Blackall: ‘our indifference will soon be mutual, unless his regard, which appeared to spring from knowing nothing of me at first, is best supported by never seeing me’. This facelessness reaches its apogee in Cassandra’s 1804 sketch of her. Somewhere at the seaside, Austen sits with her back to us, white bonnet ribbons untied, her skirt opening into nothingness.

    History of course has many cunning passages and romance is merely one of them. Austen’s passion, like that of Fanny Price, appears to have been essentially literary: what she wanted most was writing material. During the years when a French invasion seemed imminent, the Austen family visited resorts in Kent, Sussex, Hampshire, Dorset, Devon and Wales. We know from Madam Lefroy’s brother, the novelist Egerton Brydges, that Austen was in Ramsgate in 1803: he describes her as ‘fair and handsome, slight and elegant’. She was there visiting her sailor brother Frank who had been put in charge of the coastal defences. Frank had involved himself closely with the community, becoming engaged to a local girl, Mary Gibson, in 1804.

    Also in Ramsgate the year of Frank’s engagement was Samuel Rose, the charming young barrister who, in January, had defended William Blake at his trial for sedition in Chichester. Though Rose secured Blake’s acquittal, the trial cost him first his health and then his life. As the biographer of

    Oliver Goldsmith and the much loved friend of her favourite poet William Cowper, Rose would have been a figure of great interest to Austen. Cowper’s poetry was seldom far from her mind in these years as a stimulus to her own creativity. A poignant account of Rose’s death in December 1804 was included in an expanded edition of The Life of William Cowper written by their mutual friend, William Hayley. This sensational, best- selling biography first published in 1802 not only featured correspondence between Rose and Cowper; it also included Cowper’s letters to another man intimately connected with the Austen circle. The Reverent Joseph Hill, to whom Hayley paid a special tribute as Cowper’s oldest and staunchest friend, was also the legal agent for Austen’s uncle, Mr Leigh Perrot, a close relative during her years in Bath. Hill was present with the Austen ladies at Stoneleigh Abbey during their lengthy visit in 1806.

    Austen’s mysterious seaside lover is of particular importance to us, not for any evanescent romance but for what is concealed by his configuration: the deeper mystery of Austen’s creative development during these years. That glimpse of something white and womanish invokes more than her heroine’s creased muslin: it is her writing paper too. Austen’s early drafts of Susan; Elinor and Marianne; and First Impressions had achieved nothing. This first version of Pride & Prejudice returned unread by Cadell & Davies in 1797. Though Austen sold the manuscript of Susan to Crosby & Son in 1803, it remained there unpublished until she repurchased – and rewrote it – in 1809. To this transformative period also belongs Austen’s bleakest piece of realism, the fragment known as The Watsons, whose themes were to inform her later fiction. The most overtly autobiographical of her works, The Watsons offers rare insight into that dialogue between the powerless woman and the powerful writer which drove Austen’s creativity. As in Mansfield Park which followed it, two opposing types contest the centre ground: the sweet-natured suffering heroine, Emma, and her predatory, adventurous sister, Pen, who, at the start of the story is away in Chichester in marital pursuit of a much older man.

    The metonymic ‘Pen’ is the creative force that, in her own equally determined pursuit of fame, will become Austen’s alter ego (‘Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery…’). As Park Honan observed in his biography of Austen, no one risked more than she in her quest for a public voice. Her ‘romance years’ between 1800 -1804, were those when her game of chance, her Speculation with literary destiny, was at its most intense. The conclusion of 1804 delivered Austen a double bereavement. In December, Madam Lefroy was killed in a riding accident. The uncanny timing of her death, on Austen’s twenty-ninth birthday, stirred ambivalent memories of her intervention in Austen’s romance with her nephew. In The Watsons, powerful feelings of reviving romance are offset by the imminent death of the heroine’s father, a fiction overtaken by reality when the Rev George Austen died in January 1805, leaving his daughters, like the Watson girls, with little provision.

    Austen, however, was not alone in her emotional conflict. Cowper’s biographer, the elderly Chichester poet, William Hayley, was a fellow sufferer. His first wife, Eliza from whom he had been separated, had died in 1797. A literary lady who resembled Fanny Burney, Eliza had found it hard sharing her home with her husband’s son by another woman, especially when the mother too formed part of his establishment. This son, Tom, had died painfully in 1800, just a week after Cowper, leaving Hayley bereft of everything except the comforts of biography. His other intimate friend, George Romney, left London at the same time, returning to his family to die in 1802.

    Despite these losses, Hayley in 1804 was a resilient man. Now approaching sixty, he was once more looking for love. His lengthy but circumspect autobiography records him having met a young woman with literary and musical interests to whom he was strongly attracted. Samuel Rose’s tragic death in December ‘prevented him from advancing his design’, and put an end to his matrimonial plans. He closed the year ‘with a heart full of regret for dear Rose’. Austen herself began a rhyming game on the name shortly afterwards.

    The seaside was to become a resonant location in Austen’s later fiction, an image for deep change and sudden turns of luck. Certainly, she herself was on a winning streak in 1805 when, following her father’s death, the family, at her request, spent the autumn in Worthing. On their first day, according

    to the diary of her niece, Fanny Knight, the party ‘dined at 4 & went to a Raffle in the evening, where Aunt Jane won & and it amounted to 17s’. Austen’s much needed luck was not preserved in her own correspondence. From May 1801 until the start of 1807 when the family settled in Castle Square in Southampton, there are few surviving letters and none at all from Worthing.

    Moving there, Austen would have known that William Hayley, England’s foremost defender of women’s writing and the friend of Charlotte Smith was now a close neighbour, living only a few miles along the coast at Felpham. Hayley himself is remarkably reticent about 1805 in his autobiography but his only entry relates to Worthing: he records having lent a rare book to a literary acquaintance living there, the poetical Lord Strangford. Hayley had been the most celebrated writer of Austen’s youth and his biography of Cowper had revived his celebrity status so that ‘few strangers or visitors of any note’ came to Bognor without calling on him in his Turret House. Any friends ‘so near me as Worthing’ could expect to receive a personal invitation.

    That Austen visited Bognor is evident from Sanditon. According to The Guide to Watering and Sea Bathing Places (1815), one of Bognor’s specialisms was the location of its well-stocked library directly underneath the Subscription Rooms, the library with its modern romances also serving as a shop for ‘an assortment of fancy articles’, jewellery, music and prints. Bognor advertised itself as the ‘only place of resort for those who seek to vary the tranquil pleasures of retirement, by the recreations of a library’: the only one that is, apart from Austen’s Sanditon which also possessed a similar arrangement of subscription room, library and shop to tempt its visitors.

    Romance, biography and history intersected unforgettably in October 1805 when Austen’s time in Worthing coincided with Nelson’s glorious but fatal victory at Trafalgar. The event touched Austen and Hayley alike. Austen’s brother Frank, though commended by Nelson, needed consoling for having missed the action while to Hayley, who had also known the great man, fell the task of comforting Lady Hamilton. When Austen declared herself tired of Lives of Nelson, she was aware of the strong factions in competition to write them. While Hayley was sending Emma Hamilton his charming consolatory letters, he was also trying to persuade her to assist a young friend of his, James Stanier Clarke, who was busy on one of them. James Stanier Clarke had known Hayley for most of his life and been employed by him as a secretarial assistant on his Life of Milton in 1793. Clarke had also worked for Egerton Brydges when he rented Deane Parsonage from Austen’s father.

    Aware of Hayley’s long friendship with Emma, Clarke had asked him to intervene on his behalf, hoping for an interview and access to her papers. Emma had once claimed it was Hayley’s poem The Triumphs of Temper (1781) which had made her the wife of Lord Hamilton. During her years as George Romney’s muse, the famous portrait of Emma as ‘Sensibility’, which Hayley owned, had been painted at his request and as Romney’s biographer he could still affect her reputation. Emma’s position now was so precarious, she refused his request, forcing Clarke to rethink his biography. He recast Nelson as a latter-day Ulysses, with Emma as the kind of siren for whom such seafaring heroes had a legendary weakness! Nelson had been so jealous of the Prince Regent’s attentions to Lady Hamilton that he had forbidden her to see him. When, with Hayley’s influence, Clarke went on to become the Prince’s librarian at Carlton House, he was able to redress the balance by persuaded Austen to dedicate her Emma to Nelson’s royal rival.

    Though now largely forgotten, Hayley had been an influential figure in Regency culture. Austen not only owned a copy of his poems, her first appearance in print – in her brothers’ Oxford magazine The Loiterer – had been under a pseudonym, ‘Sophia Sentiment’ taken from one of his plays, The Mausoleum. Quick to respond to the new conditions of the literary market, Hayley had been one of the first to acknowledge the increasing importance of women both as writers and consumers. His influence on Austen’s writing is as pervasive as it has been unexplored. Her famous defence of the novel in Northanger Abbey is a reiteration of his insistence on the benefits of novel-reading for women in The Triumphs of Temper while his well-known collection of Plays of three acts; written for a Private Theatre (1784) is disastrously rejected in the Mansfield Park theatricals.

    Hayley’s most controversial work, A philosophical, historical and moral Essay on Old Maids (1785), which attempted to remodel the negative image of the spinster and blue-stocking, was seen by some as an attack on marriage, earning Hayley a reputation in conservative circles for lax morals and dangerous radicalism. Cowper was warned against his friendship. A brilliant conversationalist and unstintingly generous in his support for young writers, he remained, throughout his life, a man ‘unusually gifted with all that was agreeable’.

    When in October 1806 the Austen ladies moved to Southampton, they first shared temporary accommodation with Frank and Mary, before moving again in February 1807 to an old house in Castle Square owned by Lord Lansdowne. Austen persuaded the gardener there to plant them some syringa in honour of Cowper’s line from The Task: ‘Laburnum, rich/In streaming gold; syringe, iv’ry pure’. As this garden adjoined the old city walls, Austen had a privileged view of the comings and goings at the modern Gothic castle built in the Square by the second Marquis of Lansdowne for his mistress and her daughters. The plump, highly painted Countess made a very strong impression on both Austen and her first biographer, James Austen-Leigh, though his successor, R. A. Austen Leigh, considered it highly ‘unlikely…that the Austens had much, if anything, to do personally with Lord or Lady Lansdowne’. This family memoirist admitted surprised that, at the beginning of October 1808, Austen appeared to have inside knowledge of his lordship’s health and travel plans.

    The first week of October was a memorable one in Castle Square. Austen, far happier than she had been in Bath, adds a cheerful postscript to her letter: ‘Everybody who comes to Southampton finds it either their duty or pleasure to call upon us’. Confident and self-possessed, she had started to cultivate a life of her own, with secrets she did not always share with her family. In the summer of 1808, she declared a ‘private reason’ for needing to be at home, insisting on family secrecy. She is expecting unnamed visitors: both her honour and affection are at stake.

    The uncanny recurrences of time struck Austen forcibly: they were to structure her mature fiction. When a fire broke out on the fourth of October 1808, she recalled a similar fire at Lyme Regis four years earlier. Describing the event to Cassandra, she stressed the storminess of the weather. Two days, however, stood out as models of their kind: ‘we have had some very delightful days,’ she wrote carefully: ‘our 5th & 6th were what the 5th & 6th of October should always be’.

    The day of the fire, William Hayley had just arrived in Southampton for a three-day visit. He called at the Castle with William Meyer, son of the great miniature painter, hoping to interest the Marquis, a friend of his, on behalf of a new literary protégé. They were graciously received and shown round the architectural works. It was the last chance to see them. Austen moved to Chawton in 1809, the Marquis died shortly afterwards and his gothic extravaganza was demolished in 1818, the year which saw the publication of Northanger Abbey.

    Though older men like General Tilney could make sinister suitors, they could make useful professional friends. In 1809 William Hayley finally married a woman slightly younger than Austen. The marriage lasted only three years before the second Mrs Hayley returned to her family, making allegations of cruelty. Word had it she was jealous. The first glimpse we have of Hayley after the separation occurs in 1813 when the musician Edward Marsh called at his house. Hayley seemed unconcerned. He was wrapped up in a brilliant new novel called Pride and Prejudice. Austen’s Pen had turned up trumps.