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Monday, July 20, 2015

Another Letter by Cassandra Austen: A Little Nostalgic Humor from Jane Austen's Sister

A letter--THE letter, you might say--written by Cassandra Elizabeth Austen about her sister Jane is currently in the news, as Jane Austen's House Museum is trying to raise funds to purchase it by July 31.  Today, I'm looking at a much later letter, with a vastly different tone, written by Cassandra about another relative's passing.   

My dearest Cassandra,
The letter which I have this moment received from you has diverted me beyond moderation. I could die of laughter at it, as they used to say at school. You are indeed the finest comic writer of the present age.
So wrote Jane Austen in 1796, in reply to some joke, now lost to us, from her sister Cassandra.  Cassandra has often been considered dour--for example, “humorless” and “rigid” are among the adjectives that Claire Harman applies to her in Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World.  Jane may have been exaggerating in her praise of her sister's comic abilities, but, after reading a letter written by Cassandra to her niece Anna Lefroy in 1838, I have to give the elder Austen sister some credit for wit, as shown by an offhand bit of humor in an unexpected context. 

On February 26, 1838, Cassandra began a letter to Anna, describing the death and funeral of Mary Dorothea Knight, wife of Edward Knight II (Jane and Cassandra Austen’s nephew).[See Note 1, bottom]  Mary Dorothea had died in London on February 22, 1838, of what her doctor termed “a constitutional tendency to determination of blood to the head” and was interred days later in the Knight family vault in Chawton.  Cassandra, in reporting the news to Anna, said that she was less shocked than she might have been because she had been alerted to Mary Dorothea’s “severe” distress early on by Edward.  So little shocked was Cassandra, in fact, that she included a touch of levity in her description of the burial arrangements:  

The old vault has been opened and is now under repair – It contains at present four Coffins, I suppose those of Lady Knight, alias Betty Martin, her two Husbands and one Brother, or perhaps two Brothers and one Husband – but this is all guess on my part.
 Not exactly a knee-slapper, I know, but the odd phrase “Lady Knight, alias Betty Martin” deserves a closer look.

First, we need to know who this “Lady Knight, alias Betty Martin” was.  Elizabeth Knight (born Elizabeth Martin in 1670) owned Chawton House, the accompanying land, and substantial other property, having inherited the Knight estates after Sir Richard Knight, the last male in the original line of Knights, failed to produce an heir and left his estates to his aunt’s grandchildren.  The property went first to Elizabeth’s two brothers in turn, and then to Elizabeth.  All three of the Martins assumed the “Knight” surname.
Elizabeth Knight by Jeremiah Davison, ca. 1730 (CHL)

Elizabeth married twice, but she did not take the last name of either of her husbands – instead, they took hers.  Both men were Members of Parliament and landowners in their own right, but when it came to running the Knight estates, Elizabeth was in charge.  For 35 years, she kept an eye on the estate accounts, hired and fired employees, and made sure that the Knight property would go wholly to her designee, not to one of her husbands’ relations.  Montagu Knight and W.A. Leigh, authors of Chawton Manor and Its Owners, who had read some of Elizabeth Knight’s correspondence, described her as:  
...a woman of strong character, masterful but affectionate, and with a keen sense of the duties as well as of the dignity of her position. She was somewhat of a grande Dame...
Queen Anne by Edmund Lilly, 1703
A portrait of Elizabeth at Chawton House, painted by Jeremiah Davison around 1730, confirms this impression of strength.  Not one of nature’s most delicate specimens, she is richly clothed and has a rather commanding look in her eye.  She looks, in fact, strikingly like Queen Anne, as painted by Edmund Lilly in 1703. It’s tempting to imagine that either the painter or Elizabeth herself decided to underscore her “grande dame” qualities by visually associating her with royalty, though this may have been simply a conventional pose for portraiture.[Note 2]
Back to Cassandra, Anna, and Jane.  In her 1838 letter, Cassandra calls Elizabeth Knight “Lady Knight”.  Elizabeth Knight was in no way eligible to use the title “Lady” (and I’m not aware that she ever did so)--so Cassandra’s use of that title, underlined to draw attention to it in her letter, must have been intended humorously. 

One way to mock the grandeur of the great lady was to inflate her title from “Mrs.” to “Lady”; another way was to downgrade her to common “Betty Martin.”  Betty Martin was not just a diminutive form of Elizabeth Knight’s birth name, however:  It was also part of an idiomatic expression that took different forms over the years.  A few examples:

That’s my eye, Betty Martin (Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1788)

My eye and Betty Martin (from a song of the same name in Ashburner’s New Vocal Repository, 1807)

It’s all my eye and Betty Martin (Hampshire Chronicle, 1810)

Oh! My eye, Betty Martin! (Oxford University and City Herald and many other newspapers, 1814)

All Betty Martin (A Disagreeable Surprise (play), 1828)

Whatever its form, the expression was well-known, and its meaning was, essentially, “That’s bunk--I’m not buying your story.”  (Who Betty Martin was and how the expression originated are unknown.)  Cassandra Austen’s words “Lady Knight, alias Betty Martin,” suggest that Elizabeth Knight was a bit of a fraud, and beneath the satin gown and queenly stare was only plain old Betty Martin, raised to riches and prominence by her lucky inheritance of the Knight estates.  I don't think Cassandra necessarily believed this--Elizabeth inherited the Martin estate in Oxfordshire and would have been well-off anyway--but the name made the joke too good to resist. The fact that Cassandra and Jane’s brother Edward was similarly transformed into a Knight gives this modest piece of wit an extra dimension. 

Anna Lefroy in later life
I think Cassandra was nostalgically sharing with Anna an old joke that they (and presumably Jane) had shared years before, when Anna as a teenager came to stay at the cottage with her aunts and grandmother.[Note 3]  (It would be distinctly odd for Cassandra to write like this to Anna in 1838 out of the blue, without any prior context.)  Perhaps young Anna and her aunts had looked up at the portrait of Elizabeth Martin hanging in Chawton House and had poked fun at the “grande dame.”   No doubt they had seen the memorial plaques for Elizabeth and her two husbands and one brother in the Church of St. Nicholas many times, and they might even have heard stories from villagers about the formidable lady squire of the previous century.  If they joked about Edward’s rise to wealth and power, too, it would be a bit of private consolation for those who only shared his good fortune at second hand.  There could also be affection in such humor, a reminder that "Mr. Knight" (as both Jane and her mother sometimes referred to him in correspondence to third parties) was at heart their brother "Neddy," as he was known in boyhood.  I recall Jane Austen's 1813 comment that "Edward is very well & enjoys himself as thoroughly as any Hampshire born Austen can desire"--Jane still thought of her brother as an Austen, and was happy to see that he did not forget his roots, despite his change of name and situation.  

It may seem strange and inappropriate for Cassandra to have taken a humorous tone in a letter reporting on the death of her nephew’s wife – but then, Jane Austen made many tart witticisms about the recently deceased in letters that she assumed would always remain private.  Their cool attitude toward the deaths of those who were not particularly dear to them emphasizes, by contrast, the pathos that suffuses the letter Cassandra wrote after Jane’s death on July 17, 1817.

That unique and important letter, written by Cassandra to niece Fanny Knight from Winchester, is currently the subject of a fundraising campaign by Jane Austen’s House Museum, which hopes to secure it for permanent exhibition in the museum.  The campaign ends July 31, 2015 – please visit http://campaign.justgiving.com/charity/jamt/cassandrasletter and contribute if you can. 

[1]  This letter, 23M93/84/1/14, is held by the Hampshire Record Office but is miscatalogued; HRO describes it erroneously as a letter about the 1808 death of Elizabeth Austen, wife of Edward Knight, Sr.  The text of Chawton Manor and Its Owners suggests that Montagu Knight may have seen this letter in the early 20th century, but I have not seen it published or quoted anywhere.  (If I'm wrong, please let me know!)
[2] Years ago, when I was touring Chawton House, another woman on the tour pointed out this resemblance to Queen Anne.  I don’t know who that person is, but I think she’s on to something.
[3]  Jane Austen included an Elizabeth Martin--Robert Martin’s sister and Harriet Smith’s schoolfriend--in Emma.  Coincidence or an in-joke? 

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