What do Jane Austen’s letters tell us?

I’ve been reading various books about Jane Austen and by Jane Austen this month. Today I’ll focus on her letters. I’ve been reading Jane Austen’s letters and biography as a pair. It’s helpful to read the biography alongside, or at least a chronology of the author to make sense of the letters.

I have four observations to share:

If you haven’t tried to read them, what’s your expectation of her letters? What might a woman say to her sister in a letter in the late 18th century? Maybe something like the letters in her novels? There’s Captain Wentworth’s final letter to confess his love, Mr Darcy’s letter to explain the situation and his feeling for Elizabeth, or even Mr Collin’s letter to announce his visit to Longbourne. They’re full of feelings, emotions or at least information.

Could Austen’s letters be similar to those? That would be delicious to read! But having read her letters that cover the period of ten years, I can tell you that they’re nothing like the letters in her novels.

Austen’s letters are long but they have little to say

I’m not being rude when I say her letters are long and dull – she writes so herself.

At the beginning of one letter, she says, “Expect a most agreable Letter; for not being overburdened with subject – (having nothing at all to say) – I shall have no check to my Genius from beginning to end.” Then she carries on for two and a half pages.

In one letter, after writing full four pages, she writes, “There, I flatter myself I have constructed you a Smartish Letter, considering my want of Materials.”

She begins another letter: “Where shall I begin? Which of all my important nothings shall I tell you first?”

And another begins, “I am not surprised my dear Cassandra, that you did not find my last Letter very full of Matter,” – even though the last letter was three pages – “& I wish this may not have the same deficiency; but we are doing nothing ourselves to write about, & I am therefore quite dependant upon the Communications of our friends, or my own Wit.”

But if she had nothing to say, how did she write such long letters? That’s the second observation:

Despite having very few subjects, she keeps on going until the paper is filled

Here’s an interesting historical fact: postage was paid by the recipients, and the cost was calculated by the number of sheets of paper. The sisters didn’t have a great deal of money, so in order to make the most of Cassandra’s postage fee, and to give her as much information and entertainment as possible, Jane crammed as much in as possible, even if that meant she had to write nonsense.

So how did she fill the paper? With small matters, quoting herself, “important nothings”.

I’m half joking when I say her letters are long and dull – there are many ordinary accounts of the daily events but there are also many interesting things. And the playful tone is definitely from the same author as Pride and Prejudice.

About their new maid, “We are very much disposed to like our new maid; she knows nothing of a dairy, to be sure, which, in our family, is rather against her, but she is to be taught it all. In short, we have felt the inconvenience of being without a maid so long, that we are determined to like her, and she will find it a hard matter to displease us.”

Sometime near her birthday in 1798, “I am very much obliged to my dear little George (nephew) for his messages, for his Love at least; – his Duty I suppose was only in consequence of some hint of my favourable intentions toward him from his father or Mother. – I am sincerely rejoiced however that I ever was born, since it has been the means of procuring him a dish of Tea.”

“I must leave off to stir the fire & call on Miss Murden. Evening. I have done them both, the first very often.” It shows the letters were not written in one sitting but in chunks; she had to go and do other duties every now and then, and she would come back and carry on.

The letters, or the lack of them, are particularly interesting when major life events happened

Letters from Jane to Cassandra are usually a week or two apart. The address changes often – this is where the biography comes in handy,

For example, on Friday 7 Oct 1808, the letter to Cassandra starts, “Your letter on Tuesday gave us great pleasure, & we congratulate you all upon Elizabeth’s hitherto happy recovery…” A week later, it reads ”Your accounts make us as comfortable as we can expect to be at such a time. Edward’s loss is terrible, & must be felt as such, & these are too early days indeed to think of Moderation in grief, either in him or his afflicted daughter…”

By consulting the biography, we find that that was when Edward’s wife died after giving birth to a child at Godmersham Park. It sounds like she recovered well initially but died quite suddenly a week later. And I remember reading somewhere that immediately after Elizabeth’s death, Edward provided his mother and two sisters a house to live in. You see in the letters just how ‘immediately’ that happened and you couldn’t help but wonder the reason he didn’t do it earlier.

But there are also some big gaps – what happened after the ball when Tom Lefroy was supposed to propose but didn’t? What happened after Cassandra’s fiancé died? What happened after Austen accepted and rejected the marriage proposal? Possibly the sisters were together so there was no need to write, possibly the letters were later destroyed. We could never know.

Her dependence on her father and brothers for travel

Austen was not able to travel anywhere on her own.

One letter says, “To-morrow I shall be just like Camilla in Mr Dubster’s summer-house; for my Lionel will have taken away the ladder by which I came here, or at least by which I intended to get away, and here I must stay till his return.”

Camilla, Mr Dubster and Lionel are characters in Frances Burney’s novel Camilla. In the story, accompanied by their brother Lionel, Camilla and her sister are shown around the house of Mr Dubster. Having helped Camilla and Eugenia into the partially built summerhouse by way of a ladder, Lionel abandons them to join a passing hunt, taking the ladder down as he leaves and they are unable to get down until his return.

Once Austen wished to go to London with her brother Frank but didn’t hear from their friends in London whether they would be at home to receive her. “tho’ I have every Disposition in the world to accompany him on that day, I cannot go on the Uncertainty of the Pearsons being at Home; I should not have a place to go to, in case they were from Home.” It sounds like an inn was not fit for a single woman.

If the London friends couldn’t receive her, “Edward (another brother) has been so good as to promise to take me to Greenwich on the Monday following… My Father will be so good as to fetch home his prodigal Daughter from Town, I hope… I am very glad that the idea of returning with Frank occurred to me, for as to Henry’s coming into Kent again, the time of its taking place is so very uncertain, that I should be waiting for Deadmen’s Shoes.”

She mentions her father and three brothers in this letter as possible ways of getting her home. it must be frustrating to rely on other people’s goodwill and convenience to simply get from A to B.

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