I was but seven year auld
When my mither she did die;
My father married the ae warst woman
The warld did ever see.
For she has made me the laily worm,
That lies at the fit o’ the tree,
An’ my sister Masery she’s made
The machrel of the sea.
Jane has heard this song too. She was seven years old when she left home with her sister Cassandra to live with a family connection in Oxford, a stay that ended disastrously in illness. After a year recuperating, she went away again to school with Cassandra and only returned home to stay when she was twelve. Now that she is fifteen she thinks that being sent away so much might have been for financial reasons. She has already written quite a number of works, and financial insecurity plays a large and often nightmarish part in them, In Henry and Eliza (written between 1787 and 1790), a woman who has married for love later finds herself widowed and destitute and thrown into prison with her children. After a daring escape she sells her expensive clothes and buys a gold watch for herself and toys for her children. Jane describes the imprudence of this:
But scarcely was she provided with the above-mentioned necessaries, than she began to find herself rather hungry, & had reason to think, by their biting off two of her fingers, that her Children were much in the same situation.
With the special ruthlessness that a teenger can possess, and over and over again, Jane exposes the social hypocrisy that veils the necessity of marriage as a commercial negotiation for women. In Jack and Alice (written between 1787 and 1790):
“Why do you hesitate my dearest Lucy, a moment with respect to the Duke? I have enquired into his character and find him to be an unprincipaled, illiterate Man. Never shall my Lucy be united to such a one! He has a princely fortune, which is every day encreasing. How nobly you will spend it!, what credit you will give him in the eyes of all!, How much he will be respected on his Wife’s account!”
Cassandra is in bed beside her now and Jane is careful not to wake her. She herself has been awake for some time, having heard the steps of the housemaid on the stairs. She encounters the housemaid in person during Morning Prayers when the Family assembles with the servants. It would be rude on both sides for the housemaid and Jane to stare at each other, but these girls of identical ages do steal the occasional glance. Later Jane will write several prayers, including the following:
May we now, and on each return of night, consider how the past day has been spent by us, what have been our prevailing Thoughts, Words, and Actions during it, and how far we can acquit ourselves of Evil. Have we thought irreverently of Thee, have we disobeyed Thy commandments, have we neglected any known duty, or willingly given pain to any human being? Incline us to ask our Hearts these questions Oh! God, and save us from deceiving ourselves by Pride or Vanity.
Women had extremely limited opportunities for earning a living at this time, and for most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in England and America, married women could not legally own property. Women were extraordinarily dependent on a successful marriage for their material as well as psychological well-being, and the theme of the “marriage market,” and what love can mean in this context, haunts much of women’s writing. Harriet Beecher Stowe, in a book about household management (House and Home Papers, 1865) introduces the theme of love among directions for how to get servants to work well and what kind of china to stock:
No home is possible without love
All business marriages and marriages of convenience, all mere culinary marriages and marriages of animal passion, make the creation of a true home impossible in the outset. Love is the jewelled foundation of this New Jerusalem descending from God out of heaven, and takes as many bright forms as the amethyst, topaz, and sapphire of that mysterious vision. In this range of creative art all things are possible to him that loveth, but without love nothing is possible.
Pix from Top:
Jane Austen: watercolor by her sister Cassandra, 1810
Cassandra Austen: silhouette by an unknown artist