Jane Austen’s letters, 1796-1800

Austen's desk, Chawton. (Photo: Monster @ flickr.com)

Austen’s desk, Chawton. (Photo: Monster @ flickr.com)

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 …

* Past posts discussing the letters: The first covered her letters from 1814 to 1816, the second from 1811 to 1813, the third from 1807 to 1809, and the fourth from 1801-1806.

20 thoughts on “Jane Austen’s letters, 1796-1800

  1. I wonder what Jane would have thought of Carmen Miranda? Austen’s letters are as delightful as her books.

    I have Weldon’s Letters to Alice which I’ll be getting to soon. You’ve read that, haven’t you?

    • She would have laughed I reckon … What goes around comes around, eh?

      Yes, I have read the Weldon, but probably two decades ago now. Keep wanting to read it again. As I recollect it was delicious. I look forward to hearing what you think.

  2. How fun to have a group that reads Austen together. I wish we had more of her letters. Oh Cassandra — you were a good sister, but I wish you hadn’t burned those letters.

    • Oh yes Beverly – thanks for commenting – and it would have been great to have had some of Cassandra’s letters to know what JA was replying too at times. But, to have more of the letters. What ho!

    • Oh yes … we’ve all been there. It’s painful. But Austen had the right attitude … look for enjoyment where you can. She had a great facility to laugh. I can just imagine how much her friends and family must have enjoyed receiving her letters (like we enjoy reading your blog!)

  3. What a great post Sue! (and your other Austen ones too). I had no idea that her letters were in print, and I think writers’ letters in general (I’m thinking of Virginia Woolf here) are charming for showing the self, with warts and all, that created the novels. I also came across this account of ballroom dancing in Austen’s time (which you may have already read) – it doesn’t sound like they were sedate affairs! http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/may/03/jane-austen-strictly-ballroom

    • Hi Jessica … glad you liked the post. Her letters are great reading once you decide not to let all the names of people worry you, though the latest editions by Deirdre Le Faye have wonderful notes plus biographical and topographical indexes.

      I’ll check out that link – thanks. I have done some Regency/Georgian era dancing and learnt at the same time a bit about their social history. They were the only opportunity for young people to meet “privately” (ha!) and touch so they were not all that sedate. Young people will be young people and will get away with what they can!!

  4. How I admire you and your group to be able to enjoy JA’s letters. This is an excellent write-up so I can at least get a taste of what your discussions are like. I’ve always felt a bit sorry for Jane not being able to experience marriage and having her own family, esp. with the young romantic possibility Tom LeFroy… until I read Tomalin’s JA bio, which has this to say regarding her renouncing Bigg-Wither’s marriage proposal:

    “We would naturally rather have Mansfield Park and Emma than the Bigg-Wither baby Jane Austen might have given the world, and who would almost certainly have prevented her from writing any further books.”

    Some are destined to be great, and remain single. 😉

    • That’s the thing isn’t it Arti, that artists often have to suffer for their art. Particularly in those days, but even now, it was much harder for women for follow a creative bent and be a wife and mother. Still, I wonder what Jane herself would have chosen. Would our loss have been her gain? We’ll never know I guess. She was only just starting to enjoy some of the trappings of success when she died.

      Oh, and if you are ever down our way, you’d be most welcome at our meetings!

  5. I don’t think it very natural to have fruit or flowers growing out of one’s head, but oh, that snip made me laugh. And her flirtation with Tom that she thought was going somewhere but didn’t. How disappointed she must have been. Is there a complete collected letters? All I seem to see around are selected.

    • Yes, she often makes one laugh but that was a good’un. As for her letters, the best current edition as far as I know is Deirdre Le Faye’s published by Oxford University Press. It contains by no means all her letters but I think it contains all the ones known to have survived. There are many gaps because Cassandra is known to have destroyed some after her death. On top of that of course is the fact that her main correspondent was Cassandra so when they were together she would not have written many letters. I think some analysis has been done of when letters were written and are now destroyed/missing and when there probably weren’t any letters. We fans though keep hoping more will be found!

  6. With letters, the writer really steps off the page and we see something of the essence of the person. I enjoyed reading these.

    Re the Fitz Albini, I suppose books were far fewer in number in those days and an event like a new one from a well-known author would have been an even more significant event than it is today.

    • Oh that’s great Tom … I tried to pick out excerpts that would show her (but there were other great ones too.) I suspect you’re right about book publication at that time.

  7. Wow, I didn’t realise you could get a copy of her letters. Will try and get hold of one – especially to see any of her correspondence with Eliza(her cousin and later, sister-in-law) as I’m playing her in a production!

    • Oh welcome Phoebe – and glad to be of service to you. Oh yes I know Eliza! I can’t recollect if there are any letters to Eliza … most are to Cassandra, and there are some to others including her friend and later sister-in-law, Martha Lloyd, and her nieces Fanny and Anna. Eliza is referred to in some of the later letters as I recollect. Anyhow, you should be able to find that out pretty easily. She will be a fun character to play!

  8. Yes, laugh and joke Jane, that is your way. And so Tom Lefroy was sent away as Jane Austen was left to invent her cover of jocular indifference. All the while, she was collecting and copying out Irish songs, perhaps for that time when he might return by invitation or otherwise. Her time would have been better spent doing other things. And she did better things; she wrote the first draft of the novel that you and I know as Pride and Prejudice. It is a story about a young man who, as his housekeeper would relate, was always kind and affectionate as a boy and as a man. Not many would guess that, because he was the kind of man that displayed an hauteur caused by great shyness. An hauteur that got him into great trouble because it led him to make such a terrible and misleading first impression. This was the Jane Austen character who was too silent in unfamiliar company and would only show his wit when challenged to deadly debate by the woman he loved. This was Fitzwilliam Darcy. I have offered this opinion of Darcy’s nature in another place . Darcy was not the perfect copy of Jane’s Irish friend because she decided to liberate this copy by bestowing upon him a great personal fortune. In this way, Darcy was given independence and freedom-of-action that Tom Lefroy was never to possess.

    • Ah, nicely said Paul … Austen certainly did understand, didn’t she, the role of money in the marriage market, as her own acceptance and then refusal a few years later of Harris Bigg-Wither’s proposal shows. But, she kept picking herself up, looking for the enjoyment …

  9. How lovely it would be to travel back and meet her! Her words are so deft and she sounds like great company in a rather stifled world. Her mother and hat decorations! Hilarious. Ah but the pain is there, isn’t it? And the sharpness in her critique of Egerton’s novel. I did love the comment about a pleasant evening being had, when it was ‘not worthwhile to wait for enjoyment until there is some real opportunity for it’. How telling and how fundamental!

    • Oh it so would, Catherine …. but it could be scary too. Her wit is so sharp! I think she must have made her family laugh and laugh. I hope she did anyhow, that is, I hope they enjoyed her humour. The idea of her friend stealing her book by memory!

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