Reading the Collections, Week 10: Fortune and Frivolity: letters from home in the time of Jane Austen
It won’t take long to read 18 letters I thought. These are family letters to Lt Thomas Harriott, who was serving in the Staff Corps of the British Army in the Peninsular Wars against Napoleon and his allies, from late 1812 to 1814. The letters are from his father Thomas, mother Diana, brother William and sisters Clara and Elizabeth. However each letter is the size of an A3 sheet, each is closely written by at least 3 members of the family, sometimes all five get a share of the letter, and paper and postage being expensive, many are cross-hatched to get it all in, like this:
The trick is to focus only on one plane at a time and ignore the rest entirely. Have a go.
The letters are extremely rewarding to try one’s eyesight on. When I read parts of the letters a while ago I noticed how they were very much like a Jane Austen novel, set at the same time and in the same social milieu. The Napoleonic wars are the backdrop of most of her novels in that there are militia everywhere, causing chaos in Pride and Prejudice, Captain Wentworth in Persuasion comes home a rich man after victories with the Royal Navy, Fanny’s brother William is also in the Royal Navy in Mansfield Park.
Austen-like themes include balls and gigs and sea bathing; summers at Hastings, Bath and Brighton; unsuitable marriages, livings and cheap lodgings, and, of course, money.
Thomas’s father writes about the family finances, his mother writes with family news and gossip, and his siblings with lively description of balls and dancing until 5 in the morning, trips to opera, theatre and Vauxhall Gardens, the Frost Fair of 1814, and the illuminations in London which celebrated each fresh victory.
Carlton House was certainly the most magnificent and princely, the lamps forming the words “Russia” “Prussia” “Austria” and England besides laurel leaves, Louis 18th….at the top was a transparency of a figure of triumph placing the French crown over the fleur-de-lis…most people wore the white cockade (in support of the Bourbon dynasty).
Written by Clara on 10th April 1814. (No 18)
Diana was a well-known painter of miniatures – you can see her portrait of her husband here, now at the V&A. She met Harriott in India where he was serving in the East India Company. She was a young widow by then, and had been given permission to travel to India to work as an artist. Her sons obviously inherited her talent. India was a popular marriage market, as she herself notes when she wrote that a cousin was going out to India and ‘would most likely settle with a husband in that country’ (No 5). She stayed 20 years before they returned to West Hall, Mortlake, in 1806.
William tells Thomas about art exhibitions he has seen, artists he knows and about his own paintings, and how the war in France is going, politics and Royal scandals at home.
We have had a succession of delightful Balls. The Band of an Irish militia regiment plays on the Parade by the Sea four times in the week where all the company assembles (No 1)
Dancing is so much the rage now in England that we scarcely go into an evening party without dancing (No 2)
William writes of the ball they are to hold at West Hall, and the preparations he has made for the dangerous new dance, the waltz:
I have been instructed by Miss Page Turner of Harley Street in the Waltz steps, and hope soon to become a proficient in this now prevalent and fashionable dance, as frequently a man is wished for to make up the number. Waltzing is not much admired by the Parents of Children as it is thought too loose an accomplishment and apt to hurt their morals. (No 3)
Surely Miss Page Turner can’t be her real name! Maybe I am reading a novel after all.
Friends and neighbours gathered to hear the most recent letter, and the letters show the affectionate relationships between five family members. Thomas was only 22 in 1813, but had already been away from home for four years and the correspondents frequently say how much they miss him and how they wish he would be home soon.
They also show that networks of acquaintances stretched across Europe, offering letters of recommendation to merchants who could have helped Thomas when his baggage was lost and he arrived in Oporto in just the clothes he stood up in. And how transfers of money worked, drafts and bills written to one another and to be honoured here and there.
As in an Austen novel, everyone is frank about money, who earns what, who is marrying who and for how much:
Miss Caroline Jackson, who is shortly to be married to Mr Loder, a widower with an estate of £3000 (No.11)
The elder Gossett announced his going to be married to a Lady of Winsor. She is an amiable young woman but has no fortune, of course his mother does not highly approve of the match. He has and will have about 16 or 18 hundred a year enough for both parties (No.13)
This is at the kernel of most of Austen’s novels – the woman with no fortune. This would probably affect Clara too as her respectable but impoverished family may not have had the money to marry her off.
The Harriotts write about having to let West Hall and move to lodgings in Bath or Hastings where they can live quietly on £600 a year, as their Indian estate in Dinapore (Danapur, Bihar) had not yielded any income for a few years. (No. 4)
I think the Gossetts are pretty well recovered the death of the poor Dr they comfort themselves with above a thousand per annum each (No 4)
The Harriotts had sent their sons into the traditional professions of church, army and law. Patronage helped many a career and William, in training as a law clerk, had been noticed by Lord Sidmouth, who procured him a sinecure in the Exchequer and seemed to promise to further his interests when he could. His mother approved of this:
It will enable him to form acquaintances in the first circle who hereafter may be of consequence to all his family (No 11)
Thomas senior always kept his eye on the list of officers ahead of Thomas for promotion, noting his rapid progression from 9th to 4th in just 2 years, and hoped he would soon have a company of his own.
Haydock was Thomas’s half-brother from Diana’s first marriage to Haydock Hill. Many letters contain news of his search for a suitable curacy, where he would be well paid and able to drive his curricle and horse up to London as often as he liked.
Haydock came here yesterday, he is in want of a curacy, and is a gentleman at large now which does not suit his pocket (No 15)
Thomas writes from Seville, Cadiz, Madrid, and then Oporto, and later on his way home through Paris. He had been working on fortifications, planning for hospital building, and making views and sketches in the Pyrenees. He asks for a list of scientific instruments, including pocket sextant, phosphoric match light and marquois scales, so seems to be working as an engineer or surveyor. Interestingly there is a 17th century Thomas Harriott, a famous mathematician, whose friends Dee and Digges lived at Mortlake. Coincidence that our Thomas is a mathematician/surveyor/engineer?
His family is happy to provide anything that will help his career, but there is a falling out over his request for a Hussar’s saddle and bridle. This appears to be the most expensive kind he could have asked for, at £40-50, when a much cheaper one would do. He also had a new red coat and pantaloons made up by the regimental tailor and sent out. His father thinks Thomas is too keen to impress by appearance rather than hard work and competence, and worries that his idle friends are having a bad influence on him.
Last night brought your welcome letter of 17th ultimo – I say welcome notwithstanding the horse and its cost 75 guineas (No.14)
Even his doting mother is angry:
You must be strangely altered from what you were before, when you know there is not a shilling to spare and that we are deprived of all society that cost any money and our friends at a distance beyond a walk are obliged to be given up altogether (No 14)
These first signs of vanity and extravagance have all the makings of an intriguing story if a creative writer would like to continue on after the letters end, and tell us what happened to Thomas.