One of the things we learn through Jane Austen’s letters – and indeed through her novels – is how much visiting and travelling people did in the early eighteenth century. They travelled to stay with or help out friends and family; they travelled for health purposes (such as to take the Waters at Bath); they travelled to see sights; and they travelled for business. Since we are currently on a brief trip to North America to visit friends and family, it seems appropriate to share some words from my favourite wise writer, Jane Austen.
In late 1800, Jane Austen was preparing to stay with her dear friend Martha Lloyd*. Here is a letter she wrote to Martha regarding that visit:
You distress me cruelly by your request for Books; I cannot think of any to bring with me, nor have I any idea of wanting them. I come to you to be talked to, not to read or hear reading. I can do THAT at home; & indeed am now laying in a stock of intelligence to pour out on you as MY share of Conversation. – I am reading Henry’s History of England, which I will repeat to you in any manner you may prefer, either in a loose, disultary, unconnected strain, or dividing my recital as the Historian divides it himself, into seven parts, The Civil & Military – Religion – Constitution – Learning & Learned Men – Arts & Sciences – Commerce Coins & Shipping – & Manners; – so that for every evening of the week there will be a different subject; The friday’s lot, Commerce, Coin & Shipping, You will find the least entertaining; but the next Eveng:’s portion will make amends. – With such a provision on my part, if you will do your’s by repeating the French Grammar, & Mrs** Stent will now & then ejaculate some wonder about the Cocks & Hens, what can we want? (Letter 26, 12 November, 1800, to Martha Lloyd)
This tells us quite a lot about Jane and her friend, about their relationship and how they liked to spend their time together. It gives us insight into Austen’s cheeky humour and her comfort in teasing her friend. It also tells us about her times, the books people read and how they read them. And, it shows us that deciding what books to take with you on your holiday is not a new problem – even though on this occasion Austen plans to eschew books in favour of conversation with her friend!
Now, what books shall I find time to read while away … you’ll have to watch this blog to find out.
* Martha Lloyd is a significant person in Jane Austen’s life (and therefore biography). She was a long-standing friend whom Jane saw as a second sister. She later came to live with Jane, her mother and sister when they moved to Chawton and, many years after Jane’s death, she married Jane’s brother, Frank, after his wife had died. Her recipes form the basis of The Jane Austen Cookbook, compiled by Maggie Black and Deirdre Le Faye. Martha Lloyd’s chicken curry is a regular presence at my Jane Austen group’s Regency potluck get togethers.
NOTE: The asterisks in the letter are not footnote-related but are some sort of artefact in the University of Virginia e-text edition of the letters I used .