Jane Austen’s letters, 1801-1806
The years from 1801 to 1806 were somewhat unsettled if not downright traumatic years for Jane Austen. In December 1800 her father retired and her parents decided to move themselves and their two daughters to Bath. And then in 1805 her father died, suddenly. She writes to her brother, Francis, on 21 January (Letter 40) that “I wish I could have given you better preparation-but it has been impossible”. The impact, though, was greatest on the women. It left them in a difficult and dependent financial position.
Austen writes about the above events in the letters, but there are others about which she is silent. This could be because she and her sister Cassandra, the main recipient of her letters, were together, but it could also be because Cassandra destroyed selected letters after Jane’s death in 1817. One event not in these letters is the famous proposal by Harris Bigg-Wither in 1802. Austen accepted the proposal but the next day changed her mind, and promptly left the Bigg-Wither home with Cassandra. It was a distressful situation, as the Bigg-Withers were family friends.
Something else she doesn’t talk about in this selection of letters is her writing. She didn’t write a lot during this time, and nothing, as far as we know, from the time of her father’s death until they settled in Chawton in 1809. But, she did revise Northanger Abbey (then called Susan) in 1802, selling it to a publisher in 1803, and she started her (unfinished, as it turned out) novel, The Watsons, in 1804.
So, there’s quite a bit she didn’t talk about – in the surviving letters – but there’s still plenty to interest here. These letters were written when Austen was aged 25 to 30 years old, years when she was still relatively young but old enough to have some experience of the world. As with the later letters, there’s a lot of gossip and chat about family and friends, but there are signs of the novelist she was becoming, in addition to insight into life in Georgian England.
As with my last post on her letters, I’ll use headings to structure my discussion.
Jane Austen wrote novels about her own era and in many ways her letters replicate in reality much of what we learn from her fiction. She describes, in these letters, modes of transport and particularly travelling arrangements for women, the boats her Naval brothers worked on, accommodation hunting in Bath, fashion, card games, balls and food. All of these we find in her novels – sometimes with barbed effect.
I particularly liked her descriptions of place. Here is Bath, soon after her arrival:
The first view of Bath in fine weather does not answer my expectations; I think I see more distinctly through rain. The sun was got behind everything, and the appearance of the place from the top of Kingsdown was all vapour, shadow, smoke, and confusion, (Letter 35)
And a little town called Appleshaw:
that village of wonderful Elasticity, which stretches itself out for the reception of everybody who does not wish for a house on Speen Hill (Letter 30)
How could someone who writes that not be a novelist!
Lyme, as Austen readers will know, is where a major scene occurs in Persuasion. What, though, do you think she thinks of the place when you read this description of
a new odd-looking man who had been eyeing me for some time, and at last, without any introduction, asked me if I meant to dance again. I think he must be Irish by his ease, and because I imagine him to belong to the hon(ble) Barnwalls, who are the son, and son’s wife of an Irish viscount, bold queer-looking people, just fit to be quality at Lyme
On her self
Not surprisingly, we learn quite a lot about Austen, directly and indirectly, through these letters. We learn much about her likes and dislikes. She’s interested in fashion but she doesn’t like “tiny” parties with only a few people “to talk nonsense to each other”. She spanned the Age of Reason and of Romanticism, but she’s more a child of the former: she highly values “wit”, a word that appears repeatedly in her descriptions of people, often defining whether she likes them or not, and she approves rationality. “To be rational in anything”, she says, “is great praise” (Letter 43).
We also learn something about her character. She’s stoical, for example, writing about a disappointment that “there is nothing which energy will not bring one too.” (Letter 33).
If you’ve read Jane Austen you know that she has pretty definite ideas on the clergy. She ridicules pomposity (Mr Collins in Pride and prejudice) and vanity (Mr Elton in Emma). She admires sense and responsibility (Edmund in Mansfield Park). I had to laugh, then, when I read this in her letter:
You told me some time ago that Tom Chute had had a fall from his horse, but I am waiting to know how it happened before I begin pitying him, as I cannot help suspecting it was in consequence of his taking orders; very likely as he was going to do Duty or returning from it. (Letter 44)
How I wish I could write letters like this!
Observations of people
It is her observations of people, however, that most delight readers of her letters and show us her novelistic eye in the making. In this group of letters, for example, is a wonderful description of an older woman that doesn’t take much to remind us of Emma’s Miss Bates:
Poor Mrs** stent! it has been her lot to be always in the way; but we must be merciful, for perhaps in time we may come to be Mrs** stents ourselves, unequal to anything & unwelcome to everybody. (Letter 44)
I would not have wished our Jane to have ended up as impecunious as poor Miss Bates, but I do wish she’d lived a bit longer to give us more novels and more letters to enjoy.