Jane Austen’s letters, 1796-1800
For the past five years my Jane Austen group has been reading Jane Austen’s letters in a rather higgledy piggdledy manner*. We have nearly finished now. We have just done her first letters, and next year we will conclude, logically at last, on her final letters. What a fascinating time we’ve been having.
Jane Austen’s first published letter was written in January 1796, when she was just 20, and it is in this first letter that she mentions Tom Lefroy, the young man, also just 20, with whom she had a romantic attachment. Lefroy later became the Lord Chief Justice of Ireland. When asked many years after her death about his relationship with Austen, he admitted to a “boyish love”. Here is our first mention, in Letter 1:
… I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together. I can expose myself however, only once more, because he leaves the country soon after next Friday, on which day we are to have a dance at Ashe after all. He is a very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man, I assure you. But as to our having ever met, except at the three last balls, I cannot say much; for he is so excessively laughed at about me at Ashe, that he is ashamed of coming to Steventon, and ran away when we called on Mrs. Lefroy [Tom’s aunt and a friend of the Austens] a few days ago.
In Letter 2, a few days later, she mentions a party to be held at the Lefroy home the next night:
I look forward with great impatience to it, as I rather expect to receive an offer from my friend in the course of the evening. I shall refuse him, however, unless he promises to give away his white Coat.
Is she expecting a proposal from Tom? The “great white Coat” is a tongue-in-cheek (and, perhaps, also self-preserving) reference to her comment in the previous letter about his morning coat being “a great deal too light”. Later in the letter, which she started on Thursday and finished on Friday, comes:
Friday. — At length the day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy, and when you receive this it will be over. My tears flow as I write at the melancholy idea.
The only other reference to Tom Lefroy occurs well over a year later in November 1798, Letter 11:
Mrs. Lefroy did come last Wednesday, and the Harwoods came likewise, but very considerately paid their visit before Mrs. Lefroy’s arrival, with whom, in spite of interruptions both from my father and James, I was enough alone to hear all that was interesting, which you will easily credit when I tell you that of her nephew she said nothing at all, and of her friend very little. She did not once mention the name of the former to me, and I was too proud to make any enquiries [my stress]; but on my father’s afterwards asking where he was, I learnt that he was gone back to London in his way to Ireland, where he is called to the Bar and means to practise.
It’s all very tantalising – but at the very least it’s pretty clear that Jane Austen learnt something about love and loss from this experience. A brief description of the “affair” can be read here on the JASA website.
Austen, though, was not one to wallow. I loved her comment in a later letter (January 1799) that:
I had a very pleasant evening, however, though you will probably find out that there was no particular reason for it; but I do not think it worth while to wait for enjoyment until there is some real opportunity for it. (Letter 18)
A positive philosophy that she does seem to have lived by, if her letters are to be believed.
These letters, like those I’ve written about previously, provide much information about her life and times – about the dangers of childbirth, health and medical treatment, men’s careers, farming, housekeeping and fashion – often delivered in Austen’s witty, often also acerbic tongue. As before, I’ll share just a few here …
Austen talks a lot about clothing in the letters, so much so that some readers find it boring. However, her fashion talk tells us more than simply what she and Cassandra are wearing. For example, we learn about the craze for Marmalouc caps, which reminds us of the Napoleonic Wars as the caps were inspired by Egyptian turbans after the Battle of the Nile in August 1798. We learn about Austen’s tight financial situation. Caps and gowns were re-trimmed to suit another Ball or season, items are shared (the Marmalouc cap itself was borrowed from sister-in-law Mary Austen). Best of all, though, we get her wit such as her description of the rage for wearing flowers and fruits (Letter 21) in Bath. In Letter 22, she responds to Cassandra’s request for some Bath fashion, but she’s having trouble deciding:
I cannot decide on the fruit until I hear from you again. – Besides, I cannot help thinking that it is more natural to have flowers grow out of the head than fruit. – What do you think on that subject?
Childbirth, Health and Medical Treatments
I could write a whole post just on her discussion of health-related matters. We hear of women dying in childbirth, of people taking or drinking the Waters in Bath for assorted health concerns, of her mother’s using laudanum for pain, of the use of electricity for pain relief … Again, though, there’s often a sting in the tail. It’s generally believed that Jane had a tricky relationship with her mother who was somewhat of a hypochondriac. In several of these early letters she reports on her mother’s health. Here is one (Letter 18):
She is tolerably well – better on the whole than she was some weeks ago. She would tell you herself that she has a very dreadful cold in her head at present; but I have not very much compassion for colds in the head without fever or sore throat.
In other letters, though, she does show more tenderness!
Writing and novels
Her own writing is rarely mentioned in these early letters, but the first version of Pride and prejudice, then titled First impressions, is referred to a couple of times. Here is a tongue-in-cheek reference to her friend and future sister-in-law Martha Lloyd reading it:
I would not let Martha read “First Impressions” again upon any account, and am very glad that I did not leave it in your power. She is very cunning, but I saw through her design; she means to publish it from memory, and one more perusal must enable her to do it.
But, my favourite comment on writing in this group of letters relates to her assessment of the novel, Fitz-Albini, that she and her father were reading (Letter 12):
We have got “Fitz-Albini;” my father has bought it against my private wishes, for it does not quite satisfy my feelings that we should purchase the only one of Egerton’s works of which his family are ashamed. That these scruples, however, do not at all interfere with my reading it, you will easily believe. We have neither of us yet finished the first volume. My father is disappointed – I am not, for I expected nothing better. Never did any book carry more internal evidence of its author. Every sentiment is completely Egerton’s. There is very little story, and what there is told in a strange, unconnected way. There are many characters introduced, apparently merely to be delineated. We have not been able to recognise any of them hitherto, except Dr. and Mrs. Hey and Mr. Oxenden, who is not very tenderly treated.
The novel was apparently highly autobiographical and in it, according to the Gentleman’s Magazine (1837), Egerton “depicted with the utmost freedom the foibles not only of his neighbours and acquaintances, but even [my stress] those of his own family and relations”. What I most like about Austen’s comment though is the insight it gives into her views on what makes a good novel. It shouldn’t be so transparently the author’s opinions; it should have a clear storyline; and the characters should have some substance. Ah Jane, she knew how to write …