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.