Preparing to visit friends, Jane Austen style

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 .

18 thoughts on “Preparing to visit friends, Jane Austen style

    • We are in Yorba Linda for a few days Bekah, then over to Toronto where our daughter is staying for two weeks, then back to YL for 3 nights before returning home. Unfortunately, no snail mail letters home … They are getting our travel blog instead. My main snail mail recipient is the person we are staying with.

  1. Having just finished reading Herodotus I was astonished by how far and wide *he* travelled. When you think of the limitations of transport back then, it was a lifetime’s work just to get about in the Mediterranean but he rampaged around all over Europe too.
    One thing I did not realise about women travelling in Austen’s day until I learned it at university, was that women had to have permission to do it and in some circumstances had no option to refuse an invitation either. So when one of her heroines was fed up at so-and-so’s place she had to wait until she had parental permission to return home (and permission wasn’t always forthcoming) – this was especially frustrating when wanting to return for personal reasons. Women were invited or sent to look after the unwell or take on various other duties at the home of relations and there they had to stay till their duty was done. This can be inferred from the novels, but does Austen comment on it at all in her letters?

    • I don’t have my letters with me, Lisa, to find specific examples but as I recollect there are references to restrictions on travel – to having to wait until someone can travel with her or her sister and having that affect length of visits.

      And, back to the novels, a key point in Northanger Abbey is when General Tilney sends Catherine home unaccompanied as a sign of his, unreasonable, displeasure. He shows himself to be less than he ought to be as a man of position.

  2. One of the most charming books I’ve read was about a lady in the 19th century travelling Wales… I don’t recall her doing a lot of reading, though. 🙂 If you pass through Indiana, give us a wave. Enjoy your trip!

    • Thanks vyvienn. I feel I know that book but can’t recollect the title. Thanks for the good wishes. I might have to wave from the plane as our trip is only taking in Southern California and Toronto … Might we manage to hit your airspace or just miss it? I’ll wave just in case.

      • Long-distance wave, much appreciated. Sadly, I’m far away from the west coast these days. P.S. Am currently reading Tea with Jane Austen during breakfasts. It’s actually much more interesting than I would have thought, even though I was really hoping for English teatime recipes (it does have a few) 🙂

    • Thanks MR … My favourite part of the small study of linguistics at university was semantics and the study of how words change in meaning. It can be a trap for us, can’t it, when reading older books.

  3. What cheek! Somehow I had a feeling Jane would be this type of girlfriend. Makes you wonder they nattered about.

  4. What a wonderful Austen letter! So you are hobnobbing with the rich folk in Yorba Linda, huh? Will you be venturing over to Anaheim for a day at Disney? Or to the coast and the beach? If the weather in Toronto has been anything like in Minneapolis, it will be cool but not bad. Enjoy your vacation!

    • LOL Stefanie … Sorta. No Disney this time. We did do a daytrip to Temecula, and an Easter Sunday lunch at Orange. On our return for a couple of days we haven’t firmed our plans but will do some LA sight seeing the day we fly out as we donT leave until pretty late in the evening. Toronto is probably mild though these days it’s pretty close to our winter with low teens °C maximums. However, the sky was clear and blue today which made it nice.

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