Dec. 16, 2010

Walking Beside a Creek

by Ted Kooser

Walking beside a creek
in December, the black ice
windy with leaves,
you can feel the great joy
of the trees, their coats
thrown open like drunken men,
the lifeblood thudding
in their tight, wet boots.

"Walking Beside a Creek" by Ted Kooser, from Flying at Night. © The University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist Jane Austen, (books by this author) born in Steventon, England (1775). She grew up in a large family — six brothers and one sister. Her sister Cassandra, three years older than Jane, was her best friend, and neither of them ever married. Not much is known about Jane's life beyond small details recorded in the letters that have survived — Cassandra burned most of Jane's correspondence. And Jane's nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, began his biography of his aunt: "Of events her life was singularly barren."

There are only two drawings of Jane Austen that still exist, and one of them shows her from the back wearing a large bonnet, so it doesn't tell us much about her appearance. The other is a small drawing by her sister Cassandra, only a few inches tall, showing her face and her curly hair sticking out from under her cap. It's not the most flattering portrait, and it has been redrawn hundreds of times, often changed in small ways to make Austen look more conventionally beautiful. But there are plenty of written descriptions about her. Her niece wrote: "As to my aunt's personal appearance, hers was the first face I can remember thinking pretty. Her face was rather round than long — she had a bright, but not a pink color — a clear brown complexion, and very good hazel eyes. Her hair, a darkish brown, curled naturally, it was in short curls around her face. She always wore a cap."

Her niece also gave some insight into how Austen spent her days. She said: "Aunt Jane began her day with music — for which I conclude she had a natural taste; as she thus kept it up — though she had no one to teach; was never induced (as I have heard) to play in company; and none of her family cared much for it. I suppose, that she might not trouble them, she chose her practicing time before breakfast. She practiced regularly every morning. She played very pretty tunes, I thought — and I liked to stand by her and listen to them. At 9 o'clock she made breakfast — that was her part of the household work — the tea and sugar stores were under her charge — and the wine — Aunt Cassandra did all the rest." Austen spent the rest of the day doing needlework, going on walks with Cassandra, writing letters; and, of course, writing novels, although even her close relatives admitted that they never actually saw her working on them.

Jane Austen wrote her first full-length novel, Elinor and Marianne, sometime in the 1790s, a novel told in letters that many years later was published as Sense and Sensibility. But for now, she put it aside and wrote a second novel, First Impressions, which she completed at the age of 21, with the famous and cynical first line: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." Austen's father tried to publish First Impressions just a few months after she finished it, and it was rejected — although years later it, too, was retitled, as Pride and Prejudice. Her next novel was Susan, eventually titled Northanger Abbey. This one she did manage to get accepted, and the publisher paid her £10 and printed an ad saying that it would be published soon. But he didn't actually publish it.

That was in 1803. For the next few years, Austen was relatively unproductive. Her father left the ministry and moved the whole family to Bath, and it was a hard adjustment for Jane, leaving the house she had lived in her whole life. Her father died a few years later, and Jane, Cassandra, and their mother had no income — property was passed to sons or the nearest male relative, and there was no viable work for women in their social class. Finding a husband was really the only chance of financial stability, but Jane's one marriage proposal had occurred years before, from Harris Bigg Wither. Jane had known him since they were children — he was the brother of friends — but they had not seen each other for many years. In 1802, the Austens went to stay with the Bigg family, and within one week Harris proposed to Jane. Wither was large, unattractive, awkward, and he stuttered. The two did not have much in common, nor did they know each other very well or seem to have any sort of attraction to each other. But he needed a wife, and she needed financial stability — also, he lived just a few miles from the home where she had grown up, and which she missed so much while she was in Bath. So she accepted. That night she went to bed, had a sleepless night, got up in the morning, and announced that she could not marry him after all. She wrote to one of her nieces later in her life: "Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor, which is one very strong argument in favor of matrimony."

There are a few documented suitors in Jane's life. There was a young Irish man named Tom Lefroy, who was studying to be a judge. He was staying with the Austen's neighbors the Lefroys — Mrs. Lefroy was a friend of Jane's. A relative of Tom's described him as having "everything in his temper and character than can conciliate affections. A good heart, a good mind, good sense and as little to correct in him as ever I saw in one of his age." He came to stay when Jane was 20, the same time she was writing the novel that would become Pride and Prejudice. They talked and danced and flirted. She wrote to Cassandra: "You scold me so much in the nice long letter which I have this moment received from you, that I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together. I can expose myself however, only once more, because he leaves the country soon after next Friday, on which day we are to have a dance at Ashe after all. He is a very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man, I assure you. But as to our having ever met, except at the three last balls, I cannot say much; for he is so excessively laughed at about me at Ashe, that he is ashamed of coming to Steventon, and ran away when we called on Mrs. Lefroy a few days ago." She wrote about the dance: "I look forward with great impatience to it, 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." Soon after the ball, she wrote: "At length the day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy, and when you receive this it will be over. My tears flow as I write at the melancholy idea." No one knows what she really thought about him, but it was probably clear from the start that they could never marry — they were both too poor, and Tom's family was set on him marrying someone wealthier and increasing their family's status. So her friend Mrs. Lefroy intervened and the family shuttled Tom off to London. A few years later, he married an heiress.

So it might have been out of guilt that Mrs. Lefroy tried to set her friend up with someone new. That someone was the Reverend Samuel Blackall. He was a conceited and accomplished man, and Austen called him "a piece of perfection, noisy perfection." He seemed to be interested in the match, and as soon as he left he wrote a letter to Mrs. Lefroy about the Austens: "It would give me particular pleasure to have an opportunity of improving my acquaintance with that family — with a hope of creating to myself a nearer interest. But at present I cannot indulge any expectation of it." Jane wrote about this letter in a letter of her own to Cassandra, and she said: "This is rational enough. There is less love and more sense in it than sometimes appeared before, and I am very well satisfied. It will all go on exceedingly well, and decline away in a very reasonable manner." She wrote later, "There seems no likelihood of his coming into Hampshire this Christmas, and it is therefore most probable that 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."

And there is speculation that Austen had a doomed love affair with a man she met at the seaside, who may or may not have been a clergyman. But it is based on a third-hand account and has never been proven.

The family's move to Bath, the rejected marriage proposal from Harris Bigg Wither, her father's death, and her subsequent poverty all happened between 1803 — when Northanger Abbey was accepted but not actually published — and 1811, when she finally published her first novel, Sense and Sensibility. It was a success, got good reviews, and sold well. In 1813, Pride and Prejudice was published, and it did even better. She followed that up with Mansfield Park (1814) a year later, and Emma (1815) the year after that, both of them successes. But then, in 1816, her brother Henry's bank failed and the whole family lost money; the brothers could no longer support Jane, Cassandra, and their mother. Jane had finished the novel that would eventually be published as Persuasion, and she had bought back the copyright from the manuscript that would be Northanger Abbey, but she was distracted by finances and by a mysterious illness that began to slow her down that year. Scholars have argued about what Austen was sick with — the three main contenders have been Addison's disease, Hodgkin's lymphoma, and disseminated bovine tuberculosis — but no one knows for sure. Whatever it was, it ended up causing her death in 1817. She was just 41 years old. Persuasian and Northanger Abbey were published later that year.

In 1924 Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem called "Jane's Marriage," about Jane Austen dying and going to Heaven. It begins: "Jane went to Paradise: / That was only fair. / Good Sir Walter followed her, / And armed her up the stair. / Henry and Tobias, / And Miguel of Spain, / Stood with Shakespeare at the top / To welcome Jane." The angels offer Jane anything she can dream of, and she says "Love," so they find her long-lost lover, who is sitting in Heaven reading a copy of Persuasion.

She said, "I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal."

And she wrote: "For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?"

From the archives:

It's the birthday of Noel Coward, (books by this author) born in Teddington, Middlesex, England (1899). He became a successful child actor after he appeared as one of the Lost Boys in a London production of Peter Pan when he was 14 years old. Within a decade, he was writing plays, composing songs, and starring in many of his own productions, and he went on to write books of verse, short stories, and three memoirs. It took him less than a week to write each of his best-known plays, including Hay Fever (1925), Private Lives (1930), and Present Laughter (1943). Critics didn't take him seriously, because his work was mostly comic, but he said, "I could no more sit down and say, 'Now I'll write an Immortal Drama' than I could fly, and anyway I don't want to. I have no great or beautiful thoughts."

He chose the epitaph for his memorial stone in Westminster Abbey's Poet's Corner. It simply says: "A Talent to Amuse."

He said, "I am all that I have, to work with, to play with, to suffer and enjoy."

And, "Work is much more fun than fun."

It's the birthday of the philosopher and poet George Santayana, (books by this author) born in Madrid (1863). He's best known for having coined the famous phrase: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

He also said, "History is a pack of lies about events that never happened told by people who weren't there."

And, "There are books in which the footnotes or comments scrawled by some reader's hand in the margin are more interesting than the text. The world is one of these books."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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