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Jane Austen’s letters, 1807-1809

April 18, 2011
Portrait of Henry IV. Ink and watercolor on pa...

Watercolour by Cassandra, for Austens (juvenile) "History of England" (Presumed public domain, courtesy Wikipedia)

The letters Jane Austen wrote between 1807 and 1809 seem somewhat different to those she wrote later. There are probably a number of reasons for this but one could be that this was an unsettled period for her. Her father died in early 1805 which changed her (and her mother’s and sister’s) life circumstances dramatically. From then until July 1809 they did not have a home of their own. It is interesting that while she had written earlier versions of some of her six completed novels in the late 1700s and early 1800s, none was published until after she, her mother and sister moved to Chawton. This must tell us something, surely, about her state of mind.

The letters, mostly written to her sister Cassandra, are not necessarily easy to read. They are full of pretty straightforward gossip and chat about family and friends. There are myriad names to wade through. (Fortunately Deirdre Le Faye’s edition has an excellent Biographical Index.) If you don’t get bogged down though, you will find some gems, and gain an understanding of life in Georgian and Regency England.

So, what do these letters tell us about her? To make it easy to read, I’ll use headings.

She was a keen, clear-eyed and somewhat acerbic observer of humanity

These letters often make you laugh (though perhaps not so much if you were the subject of some of her comments). Here she is on her oldest brother, James:

I am sorry & angry that his Visits should not give us more pleasure; the company of so good & so clever a Man ought to be gratifying in itself; – but his Chat seems all forced, his Opinions on many points too much copied  from his Wife’s, & his time here is spent  I think in walking about the House & banging the doors, or ringing the Bell for a glass of Water.

And on one Miss Curling:

I wish her no worse than a long & happy abode there [Portsmouth]. Here she wd probably be dull, & I’m sure she wd be troublesome.

And on Lady Sondes (and her second marriage):

…but I consider everybody as having the right to marry once in their Lives for Love, if they can – & provided she will now leave off having bad headaches & being pathetic, I can allow her, I can wish her to be happy.

Austen, it is believed, had a somewhat tricky relationship with her mother. She mentions her mother often in the letters, mostly with cool description rather than warmth, and sometimes rather more pointedly:

My mother has been lately adding to her possessions in plate – a whole Tablespoon & a whole dessertspoon, & six whole Teaspoons, which make our sideboard border on the Magnificent. They were mostly the produce of old or useless silver …

She understood the import of money

This period of her life – post her father’s death, and pre-Chawton and the publication of her books – was her most insecure financially. Consequently, money seems to feature more prominently in this section’s letters. On one acquaintance, she says:

She looks remarkably well (legacies are a very wholesome diet) …

And on some particularly rich people:

They live in a handsome style and are rich, and she seemed to like to be rich,  and we gave her to understand that we were far from  being so; she will soon feel therefore that we are not worth her acquaintance.

On the impact of her own impecunious state which meant, for example, that she had to rely on the favours (and therefore schedules) of others when travelling, she writes:

I shall be sorry to pass the door at Seale without calling, but it must be so … till I have a travelling purse of my own, I must submit to such things …

She thought about writing constantly

We know that Jane Austen had a longstanding interest in writing and this is obvious in these earlier letters – from her (sometimes self-deprecating) comments on her letter writing to her brief but pointed comments on the books she was reading. Through her letters we get a sense of what she thinks a good novel should be. For example, she says of  Sarah Harriet Burney‘s Clarentine that

It is full of unnatural conduct & forced difficulties, without striking merit of any kind.

We also see that she is ever conscious of the act of writing. Often she feels she has no news and mentions how this challenges her letter writing ability:

I really have very little to say this week, & do not feel as if I should spread that little into the shew of much. I am inclined for short sentences …

I enjoyed her praise of another letter writer, Mr Deedes, who

certainly has a very pleasing way of winding up a whole, & and speeding Truth into the World.

There are also descriptions and stories which clue us to her writing and story-telling bent. She describes a fire at Southampton, vividly and with a touch of humour. Always there is humour. In another letter, having discovered that her aspiring-writer niece is also reading her letters, she discusses (with humour again) her increasing awareness of her writing:

I begin already to weigh my words & and sentences more than I did, & am looking about for a sentiment, an illustration or a metaphor in every corner of the room. Could my Ideas flow as fast as the rain in the Storecloset, it would be charming. We have been in two or three dreadful states within the last week, from the melting of the snow &c. – & the contest between us & the Closet has now ended in our defeat; I have been obliged to move almost everything out of it, & leave it to splash itself as it likes.

By mid 1809, the family had moved to the “remarkably pretty village” of Chawton, and Austen at last settled down to her writing (but she had only eight more years to live). One of the last letters in this section is to a publisher asking about the non-publication of Susan (later, Northanger Abbey) which she’d sold to them in 1803. She never did see it published. It was bought back by her brother Henry in 1817, and published posthumously… How sad is that?

Note: This is my third post on Austen’s letters. The first looked at her letters from 1814 to 1816, and the second from 1811 to 1813. With this post covering 1807 to 1809, you might be wondering about 1810. Well, there are no letters from 1810. This is probably because they were among those destroyed by family members after her death. Why, we do not really know.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. April 18, 2011 2:16 pm

    Fascinating – particularly how her own circumstances somewhat informed her thoughts/opinions of others, a little, maybe? It’s also strange for my mind to come here as a break from reading up on homelessness issues – I’m yet again reading about a homeless woman! (In a manner of speaking…)

    • April 18, 2011 8:23 pm

      Yes, they probably did … she was very aware of the challenges for women of her class in which they lived to a certain style but had very little security. Emma was pretty rare among her heroines in terms of being independently wealthy.

  2. Anita Patel permalink
    April 18, 2011 6:19 pm

    I love Jane Austen’s caustic wit. Here is one of my favourite examples in a letter to Cassandra (J.A. at her most malevolent yet still witty): “Mrs. Hall of Sherbourn was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, owing to a fright – I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband”

    • April 18, 2011 8:20 pm

      Oh Anita … thanks for sharing that. It’s certainly a great one! She probably shocked her mother too many times for them to have a really close relationship methinks!

  3. April 19, 2011 12:11 am

    The first quote (about the brother) suggest that he was the model for the Dashwoods brother in S&S.

    • April 19, 2011 2:28 pm

      Good one Susan … I certainly feel that this peripatetic time in their lives, this uncertainty, was the inspiration for Sense and sensibility’s opening. Of course she had started it back in the 1790s as an epistolary novel – it would be interesting to find out (if we can) whether it had the same start.

  4. April 19, 2011 1:56 am

    Great excerpts. don’t you just wonder what those 1810 letters said that her family would want to destroy them? If only we had a time machine and could go back and find out.

    • April 19, 2011 2:30 pm

      Absolutely… it’s a real shame. Of course the main letters are to Cassandra and so she only wrote to her when they were apart but if you look at the time line for her life, they were apart at times in 1810. Were there other relationships? Did she say stronger things about members of the family? Will some more letters appear one day? One can always hope/

  5. April 19, 2011 5:26 pm

    I love books of letters – and while not an Austin fan myself I can see the fascination in these windows onto her life.

    BTW , I have just discovered “mash-up” books and this one came to my attention

    http://www.quirkclassics.com/index.php?q=senseandsensibilityandseamonsters

    • April 19, 2011 8:09 pm

      I like some letters, too. My sense is that these ones of Jane’s may not interest those not interested in her as they are very narrowly focused mostly.

      Thanks for your link. There are a few of these. Another is Pride and prejudice and zombies (by a different author). Those who have read them say that S & S and sea monsters is the best of them. I don’t plan to go there really. Too much else to read.

      I’m still waiting for you to see Austen for what she’s worth!!

  6. April 20, 2011 8:10 am

    I’ve read one volume of selected letters, but not all of the collected ones. You see flashes of Austen the great writer in the letters, but there is a lot of mundane detail, too. I suppose they were not written with an eye on posterity. I found the letters towards the end of her life where she began to accept that she was terminally ill so sad.

    • April 20, 2011 9:32 am

      You are absolutely right Nicola … as I said they are not an easy read. I have found reading the collected letters in chunks once a year to be rewarding for the insights BUT in one go they can become – yes, I can say it – a bit too much of the same.

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