"Pictures of perfection, as you know, make me sick & wicked"

- Jane Austen
"Jane Austen is weirdly capable of keeping everybody busy. The moralists, the Eros-and-Agape people, the Marxists, the Freudians, the Jungians, the semioticians, the deconstructors - all find an adventure playground in six samey novels about middle-class provincials. And for every generation of critics, and readers, her fiction effortlessly renews itself."

- Martin Amis, in The New Yorker

Friday, July 4, 2008

On Women "Seeking Their Fortune"

One of Jane Austen's most intriguing letters was written from Cork St, London in August 1796. Jon Spence has shown that this was the home of Benjamin Langlois, Tom Lefroy's great uncle, with whom Tom lived in London. It is letter no 3. in Deidre Le Faye's Jane Austen's Letters and the text can be found online here at the Republic of Pemberley site.

The relevant passage begins:

Edward & Frank [Jane's brothers] are both gone out to seek their fortunes; the latter is to return soon & help us seek ours.

We must ask to whom is Jane referring in speaking of “us” when her brothers have obviously both gone out? Even more intriguingly, what does she mean by saying that Frank will be returning from seeking his fortune to “help us seek ours”? In her first paragraph describing the journey to London, she uses “I” and “my” repeatedly, so the change to “us” and “ours” once she has arrived is noteworthy. She did not travel to London alone, as subsequent letters make it clear that her brothers would not have countenanced the idea. The “us” must refer to another person present in the Langlois household, apart from Jane and her brothers.

Tom Lefroy is the obvious conclusion, despite Joan Klingel Ray's quite unwarranted assumption, in my view, that he would not have been there. Her statement is based on the fact that Irish law students usually returned home during the long vacation. However, as Lefroy's uncle was a permanent resident of London and highly interested in Tom, his welfare and his education, it is by no means a foregone conclusion that Tom would have been obliged to go home only three weeks into his summer vacation. (Among the many things with which I disagree in this article, I am also unconvinced by Professor Ray's statements about the lengths of the various terms, although will leave that aside for the moment.)

But to return to Jane Austen's letter. To seek one’s fortune in a woman’s case meant to find it through marriage, as is best illustrated by Jane’s own aunt, Philadelphia Austen Hancock. Philadelphia, orphaned by the age of five, at twenty-one elected to become one of the notorious “fishing fleet” – young women who were shipped off to the colonies to catch the husbands they could not catch at home. As Austen biographer Claire Tomalin puts it: “Men went to India to make their fortunes through trade, honest or dishonest, and women went with a somewhat similar object, as everyone knew even if no one said so. Their business was to find a husband, the richer the better, among the Englishmen working there”.

There is a further reference to seeking one's fortune through marriage in Emma, Chapter 40, in a scene set a few days after Harriet's encounter with the gypsies and her "rescue" by Frank Churchill, and where she finally consigns her souvenirs of Mr Elton to the fire. The perennially misguided Emma is now keen to see Harriet get together with Frank Churchill:

'...There it goes, and there is an end, thank Heaven! of Mr Elton.'
'And when,' thought Emma, 'will there be a beginning of Mr Churchill?'
She had soon afterwards reason to believe that the beginning was already made, and could not but hope that the gypsy, though he had told no fortune, might be proved to have made Harriet's.'

Deirdre Le Faye Jane Austen's Letters Oxford University Press, 1997
Joan Klingel Ray The One Sided Romance of Jane Austen and Tom Lefroy Persuasions Online, Vol 28, No. 1 (Winter 2007)
Jon Spence Becoming Jane Austen Continuum International Publishing Group, 2007
Claire Tomalin Jane Austen: A Life Penguin, 2000

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