Saturday, 25 March 2017

Jane Austen: Agony Aunt

To her niece Fanny, Jane was a most caring aunt. Fanny confidentially sought advice on whether to marry John-Pemberton Plumptre (later M.P. for East Kent). He was gentlemanly and wise; but also religious and too serious. Jane Austen's Letter 109 was sent to Fanny on 18 November 1814. Jane forcibly puts both sides of the argument. Typically, she cannot help being torn between laughing and crying. I could lament in one sentence & laugh in the next, but as to Opinion or Counsel I am sure none will be extracted worth having from this Letter; ......I have no scruple in saying that you cannot be in Love. My dear Fanny, I am ready to laugh at the idea – and yet it is no laughing matter .... She points out that young women lose interest after being assured of their power to inspire love: What strange creatures we are! – It seems as if your being secure of him (as you say yourself) had made you Indifferent.

Fanny has made the common mistake of being charmed because he was the first young Man who attached himself to you. Yet Jane lists John Plumptre's many good qualities and concludes: Oh! my dear Fanny, the more I write about him, the warmer my feelings become, the more strongly I feel the sterling worth of such a young Man & the desirableness of your growing in love with him again. I recommend this most thoroughly.

Jane can excuse his evangelical fervour: don't be frightened by the idea of his acting more strictly up to the precepts of the New Testament than others. However, Jane's most characteristic advice follows: Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection; and if his deficiencies of Manner &c &c strike you more than all his good qualities, if you continue to think strongly of them, give him up at once.

(Remember that Emma Woodhouse opposed marrying without love, for without love, I am sure I should be a fool to change such a situation as mine. Fortune I do not want; employment I do not want; consequence I do not want: I believe few married women are half as much mistress of their husband's house, as I am of Hartfield.)

A few days later, Jane had to reply to another letter from the still-troubled Fanny. She reinforces the main point: I cannot wish you with your present very cool feelings to devote yourself in honour to him. It is very true that you may never attach another Man, his equal altogether, but if that other Man has the power of attaching you more, he will be in your eyes the most perfect' (Letter 114).

Eventually, John Plumptre married a Catherine Methuen from Wiltshire, had a long career as an M.P. and died in 1864.

Jane remained the 'agony aunt' even at the end of her life. Having yearned for and perhaps lost another lover, Fanny was now half in love again - this time with Mr. Wildman of Chilham Castle. Tormented, she again consulted Jane, who replied, You are inimitable, irresistable. You are the delight of my Life. Such Letters, such entertaining Letters as you have lately sent! – Such a description of your queer little heart! ... how full of Pity & Concern & Admiration & Amusement I have been. You are the Paragon of all that is Silly & Sensible, common-place & eccentric, Sad & Lively, Provoking & Interesting ... Mr J. W. frightens me. – He will have you. – I see you at the Altar ... Why should you be living in dread of his marrying somebody else? – (Yet, how natural) ... You are not in love with him. You never have been really in love with him' (Letter 151).

A few days later, in her penultimate surviving letter to Fanny, Jane wrote the stereotypical agony aunt's reassurance: Do not be in a hurry; depend upon it, the right Man will come at last ... (Letter 153). Fanny three years later married the widower Sir Edward Knatchbull and had nine children of whom one (Edward, Lord Brabourne) edited the first Letters of Jane Austen in 1884.