My Dear Charlotte: With the Assistance of Jane Austen's Letters202
My Dear Charlotte: With the Assistance of Jane Austen's Letters202
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My Dear Charlotte,
Your letter this morning was quite unexpected and disappointed me of my first sentence which I had planned, full of proper hopes about your journey. I was sorry to hear that your trunk was too heavy to go by the coach from Taunton, but you were fortunate to find a wagon that could convey it all the way to Bath. I do indeed hope that you may not have taken cold after your stop at Shepton Mallet, but I have often found the brief introduction of a warming pan into cold sheets does provoke the feeling of dampness without the actual ill effects.
I am glad that our uncle has settled on a house in Green Park Buildings since the one that he and our aunt took last year in New King Street had pitifully small rooms. You may remember that the best of the sitting rooms was not as large as our parlour here. Those at G.P. Buildings are quite spacious and dry since I believe that no inconvenience from the river may be felt there. So I shall think of you happily established with a fire in your room and every kind of comfort about you.
I was surprised at your news that bonnets of cambric muslin are much worn in Bath and that there are a multitude of black gauze cloaks. Our mother has ordered a new bonnet; white stripe with white ribbon, while I shall continue with my old straw bonnet which I fancy is as smart as other people's.
My news is of a less elevated order, namely that Mrs Woodstock has taken to her old tricks of ill health again and, pronouncing herself to be dying once more, has ordered her nephew James Russell post haste from London to attend upon her. So our circle will be enlarged by one, and since he seems an agreeable young man (you will recall his being so obliging, the last time he was at one of our assemblies, to stand up with me for two of the dances) I for one am delighted at her indisposition.
We dine now at half after three, and have done dinner I suppose before you begin. We drink tea at half past six – I am afraid that when you return you will despise us.
Some of the flower seeds are coming up very well, but the pinks and mignonette make a wretched appearance. By the blossom we are likely to have a great crop of Orleans plums, but not many greengages. Your hens show no sign of missing you and continue to lay with great prodigality. Adieu – I must leave off to stir the fire and call on Miss Williams.
Yr affectionate sister, Elinor Cowper
My Dear Charlotte,
This will be a quick return for yours: I doubt it having much else to recommend it. I am sorry that your poor ankle prevented you from walking in the Crescent fields with Miss Winstone, but if the wind was cold perhaps it was as well you forwent the pleasure. It was fortunate that you had your new paisley shawl as well as your pelisse when you went to the Rooms with our uncle. I do trust that our aunt will soon be free of her bilious fever and hope that you do not feel obliged to follow the fashion she has set.
I do have one brand new item of news for you. A Mrs West and her daughter have taken Chilton's house by the Cobb. It is said that Miss West has been ill and has been advised to seek the beneficial effects of sea air. They come, it seems, from Kent and I would have thought that there would be sea air enough in that county to suffice, but perhaps it has not such a benevolent quality as that at Lyme. I should not complain of any addition to our company, although I have heard that Miss West, illness notwithstanding, is reckoned to be exceptionally good looking, so we may find ourselves eclipsed by the presence of a distinguished Beauty in our midst.
Henry Wilmot called yesterday to visit our father and stayed to drink tea with us. He is sadly accommodated at Charton, such a poor parish, a miserable house and less than £50 a year. If only he could get the curacy of Westover he would be made, but although the living is in Mr Woodstock's gift, the whole world knows that it is Mrs Woodstock's dislike of Mr Wilmot's Evangelicalism that holds him back from this felicity. Though our father , as you know, is fond of Mr Wilmot (in spite of his forever quoting the more extreme opinions of Mr Wesley) still I thought that yesterday even he was somewhat taken aback by our guest's enthusiasm. But I feel Mr Wilmot is a good man, forever on the lookout for some means of alleviating the wretchedness of the many needy souls in his charge and I wish he had a wife who might help to alleviate some of his, for he lives very poorly, and apart from the satisfaction of converting an obdurate parishioner, appears to have very little that might pass for happiness in his life.
If you will send our father an account of your washing and letter expenses etc, he says he will send you a draft for the amount of it as well as money for your next quarter. If you do not buy that gown of china crape now, on the strength of this, I shall never forgive you.
We have finished 'The Female Quixote' and our father is now reading Crabbe's "The Borough" once more for our evening's entertainment. Rugeley the bookseller has promised that Miss Edgeworth's latest work which he has at his Bridport shop will be at Lyme next week and also Mr Bickerstaff's play "The Hypocrite," if Mrs Jennings at Uplyme shall have returned it.
I hope your weather has been more agreeable than the variety we are enjoying here (though we both know that an umbrella is, of course, a prime necessity in Bath). The rain has been woefully persistent and I am feeling 'cabin'd, cribb'd, confined' by being limited to walking in the shrubbery these last few days. However the Lythams did brave the shocking roads to drink tea and play cribbage so we have not been left quite to our own resources. They have heard from their son John who is at Gibraltar and was thus able to give us news of the Scorpion. He had seen William and mentioned him in his letter in such terms as to relieve all our minds of anxiety and give great comfort and satisfaction to our mother.
It seems likely that William may be there for a little while yet, so that it might be possible to send his shirts as they are finished; one set could go this week. Mr Lytham who, as you know, has the ear of Admiral Gambier was most hopeful of William's prospects.
I hear from Martha who desires her best love and says a great many kind things about spending some time with you when you go to Robert and Mary later.
Your affectionate sister, E.C.
My Dear Charlotte,
I was astonished to hear how inhumanly thin of company the Upper rooms were – though the people there would have made five or six very pretty Lyme assemblies. I am glad that it cheered up after tea and that you were able to link the Winstones onto your party. I am sure that your muslin was greatly enhanced by the plaited white satin ribbon with the pearl edge, which must have made it practically a new gown. Was Mrs Winstone expensively and nakedly dressed, as she was when I saw her last? I was glad to hear that Mrs Maitland's disorder had not ended fatally as you had feared and that she was pronounced out of danger last Sunday.
Did you think of our ball last Tuesday and did you suppose me at it? On Monday morning it was settled that I should go with Mrs Holder and in the afternoon she sent to ask if I should mind if Mrs West and her daughter Caroline were of the party. You may imagine that I was delighted to have the opportunity of observing the Beauty at close quarters and you will also have guessed that I spent extra care on my choice of gown (the muslin with the glossy spot) and desired Lucy to curl my hair high up so that I might wear a band of the same muslin about my head.
I was by no means disappointed in Miss West's appearance. She is tall and decidedly handsome with golden hair (dressed á la Grèque) and large blue eyes. I would guess that she is nineteen or twenty and, as far as I could see, bore no trace of illness of any kind. Indeed her step was positively sprightly – she was wearing the most elegant white slippers – and she stood up for nine of the dances, of which there were only twelve. I danced ten and was merely prevented from dancing the rest by the want of a partner.
Miss West was all that was amiable and determined to be friendly.
"Do you read much, Miss Cowper?" she asked. "I am very fond of reading."
I agreed that reading was a pleasant pastime.
"Have you read "Udolpho," Miss Cowper? Is it not an excellent book?"
I confirmed her opinion.
"And do you care for walking, Miss Cowper?" she enquired. Mrs Holder being present declared that I was a great one for walking, even in the dirtiest of weather.
"Then," said Miss West "perhaps we could walk together, since I am sure there are many delightful walks in the neighbourhood, if you will be kind enough to shew them to me."
Mrs Holder seized upon this idea with all the enthusiasm of one who is not to be involved and so I am committed to an hour's insipid conversation tomorrow. Perhaps I may be permitted to learn what the mysterious illness was and why the air of Kent was not considered sufficient to ensure a full recovery from it, though this intelligence will hardly compensate me for such tedium.
The Misses Cox paid us a morning visit and from them we learned that James Russell is expected on Saturday, so I will hope to have more interesting news to give you in my next letter to balance the report of my excursion with Miss West.
I hear that Mr Littlemore is to be married to a very agreeable young lady, rich in music and money. I met her at the Chamberlynes once and found her like any other tall girl with a wide mouth, large nose and fashionable dress. However, Mr Littlemore can count himself fortunate to get her since, although he is a gentlemanlike young man, his legs are too short.
We all unite in love and I am affectionately yours, E.C.
My Dear Charlotte,
My expectations of Miss West were not disappointed. We were on the Cobb for an hour together, she having rejected my suggestion of a walk towards Charmouth.
"I adore walking, Miss Cowper," she said "indeed I am never happier than when so engaged, but the roads here are so very bad, quite unlike our roads in Kent which are clear even in the worst of winter." And so it was – a paean of praise for every aspect of Kentish life and everything at Lyme quite disparaged, which makes me wonder all the more what brings her to this despised place.
She is amazingly affable.
"I declare that is a delightful spencer you are wearing, Miss Cowper, kerseymere is so comfortable on such a brisk spring day as this. The sea air is so strong that I had barely stepped from our front door when I was obliged to return for my fur tippet. And such a charming purse; did you net it yourself? Is there a good draper here in Lyme? I am sadly short of knotting silk and gold paper. Do you know, I was so distressed to find that my silver embroidery scissors have been lost in our removal here. They were a present from a very dear friend and I value them greatly. I do not suppose that such a pair are to be had in Lyme." And so on, until Miss West declared that the wind coming off the sea was too strong for her to stand upright (it was the merest breeze) and we walked back to her house.
Like some young ladies Miss West is genteeler than her parent (I mean Mrs West since I have not yet discovered if there be a Mr West) who sat darning a pair of stockings the whole of my visit. She is a large-faced woman, of ample figure and dressed in grey but with black ribbons on her gown and cap, so perhaps Mr West is no more. She has an effusive manner of speech and rattles away with scarcely a pause for breath between the sentences and certainly no gap into which anyone else could conveniently drop a word. I sat as long as civility required and then thankfully made my escape without committing myself to another expedition, using your absence as an excuse for my busyness at home.
Indeed, it is no more than the truth since our mother is at present suffering from a cold which affects her in the usual way. Dr King called yesterday to see her and I hope she will soon physic away the worst part of it. Meanwhile I have taken on the housekeeping and am much tormented by thoughts of haunches of mutton and apple dumplings. I ordered three pair of small soles and although they only had a short journey to make from the harbour they cost the best part of three shillings. I have carefully concealed from our mother the intelligence you sent me that meat in Bath is only 8d a pound and cheese 9d, but I may let her know that salmon is 2s.9d. per pound the whole fish.
Lucy, thank goodness, is an excellent servant and greatly eases my burden, not least by her ready flow of information which keeps me amused during some of our more tedious household tasks. She tells me that Mrs Woodstock has turned away their coachman John, for no other reason than a slight delay in bringing round the carriage last month which, Lucy avows, was by no means his fault. This is particularly unfortunate since he was to marry Lucy's sister Sarah, who, you will recall, is the Woodstock's housekeeper, and now there will be no marriage since there is not money enough and, after such a dismissal, he will find it difficult to get another position in this neighbourhood. Lucy, by the by, does not think the mead in a state yet to be stopped down.
I forgot to say that I was in such a state of frustration after my miserable amble with Miss West that the next morning I walked the greater part of the way to Uplyme to visit Fanny Grafton, who among other more trivial items of news, told me that Mr Edmund Moore is to have the living of Kilmington and will thus be practically our neighbour. Now do not tell me that this news does not cause your heart to flutter a little. At least it will greatly increase our interest in the Axminster assemblies.
Mr James Russell is looked for tomorrow. We must hope that his delay in attending upon his aunt will not cause him to be turned away like poor John. I will keep you informed upon this and other important matters in my next letter. But now Lucy has come in asking for more soap so I must leave off and seek the storeroom key which I laid down I know not where this morning. So you see how greatly you are missed and what a poor creature is in your place.
My mother desires her love to you all.
Yours affectionately, E.C.
My Dear Charlotte,
My expectation of having more news for you being fulfilled, I lay aside my household duties to keep you properly informed.
Mr James Russell did indeed arrive yesterday, having been delayed, so my intelligence has it, by a broken trace the other side of Devizes. This apparently being considered a sufficient excuse, he is allowed to stay and be a comfort to his aunt's declining days, though I do not think her yet to be upon her death bed since we have this morning received an invitation – nay a Command – to dine at Holcombe Park.
Later this morning, as I was coming out of Layton's (very pretty English poplins at 4s 3d; Irish ditto at 6s, more pretty, quite beautiful), I was able to see for myself that Mr Russell is indeed in Lyme, for there he was standing looking into the window of Rugeley's shop, apparently perusing fine volumes of "Sir Charles Grandison" most elegantly bound with a great deal of gold leaf. He turned as I approached and, to my surprise, greeted me with the warmth of an old friend.
"Miss Cowper! Just the person I had wished to see. I hope you will spare the time to take a walk with me so that I may learn all that has happened in this delightful place since I was here last year."
I was decidedly taken aback since we had not been on such terms on his previous visit to warrant such a greeting. Nevertheless my curiosity (which you know to be greater than average) impelled me to walk with him along the promenade for half an hour. I will not conceal from you, dear Charlotte, the impulse of pleasure one feels from walking beside the sea on a fine spring morning with an agreeable young man. Mr Russell is of no great height (indeed I remember your remarking upon it when he was here) but being of slight build and with rather delicate features he has a most gentlemanlike appearance, especially since he was wearing what I take to be the most elegant London fashion. You may imagine that I was glad to be wearing my olive green pelisse and a new bonnet with the pleated lining so that I felt fit to be seen with him.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "My Dear Charlotte"
Copyright © 2009 Hazel Holt.
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