Friday, 23 December 2016


What has survived of Jane Austen's private letters is the text from 160 of them. Jane's sister Cassandra bequeathed only a judicious selection to their niece Fanny. Another niece – Caroline – said that Cassandra had destroyed many of the letters after Jane's death. These she must have considered too personal. All letters written by Jane between May 1801 and September 1804 were destroyed, possibly because they contained references to Jane's supposed romance with the gentleman met at the seaside, who died.

Fanny's son Lord Brabourne in 1884 published the letters, censoring them, however, with Victorian propriety: he deleted references to bowels, fleas, bad breath and pregnancy! He softened Jane's criticisms of people. Refurbishment took place in R. W. Chapman’s first edition of Jane's collected letters in 1932.

The best edition now available is Jane Austen's Letters collected and edited by Deirdre Le Faye (1996). This revision of Chapman's work incorporates the fruits of continual research. It is well annotated and has superb biographical and topographical indexes.

A few of the original letters are today in private hands but most have been acquired by institutions throughout the world. The Pierpoint Morgan Library, New York, has the most - over fifty. The British Library, with twelve, has the next largest collection and St. John's College, Oxford, has five. Unfortunately, fourteen letters have not been seen since the 1880s when they were bought by unknown purchasers. This happened at sales held by Sotheby's on 14 April 1886 and 11 May 1891, and at Puttick and Simpson's on 26 June 1893.

Letter 83 is a mere scrap supplied by Jane's brother Frank to an autograph hunter: the text is missing. A small number of other letters suffered from damage or mutilation before their contents were first published.

Very rarely, an original letter comes up for sale. At Christie's, New York, in a sale held on 7 June 1990, the letter written at Christmas 1798 and sent from Steventon to Cassandra at Godmersham was sold for $19800.

The letter of 26 February 1817 from Jane to her niece Caroline was sold at Sotheby's on 13 December 1994 for the remarkably modest price of £4400.

In 2000, Letter No. 10 was offered for private sale at £32,000.

Jane Austen could not bear to be long without a pen in her hand, either progressing quietly with a novel or keeping in touch with her friends and relatives. She was a prolific letter writer. Letters sent to Cassandra whenever they were apart during the 1790s and 1800s show she constantly added jottings to the letter in progress and, after posting it, almost immediately started another. They took turns visiting friends and relatives, frequently their married brothers in London or Kent, and on such occasions the exchange of letters was constant.

When not writing to her sister, Jane was answering letters from other correspondents. Most of these letters have not survived. She mentions her 'political correspondents' with whom she must have discussed topical issues.

A close observer of events, conversations, appearances and moods, Jane mentally catalogued anything that might entertain her sister.

‘Our party last night supplied me with no new ideas for my Letter,' was a sentence squeezed in at the end of Letter 37 (in Deirdre Le Faye's Edition). She expected everything to supply her with ideas. Trivialities appealed: 'You know how interesting the purchase of a sponge-cake is to me’. She is writing from Godmersham in June 1808 (Letter 52).

Cassandra herself may well have set the tone for the intimate, witty and detailed content. There seems to have been a competitive element in their exchanges. Cassandra replied as readily as she received. Like Jane, she appears to have seen life as full of jokes. In only the fourth of Jane's surviving letters (written when she was twenty), she tells Cassandra: 'The letter which I have this moment received from you has diverted me beyond moderation. I could die of laughter at it, as they used to say at school. You are indeed the finest comic writer of the present age'. Two years later, Jane was telling Cassandra: 'You must read your letters over five times in future before you send them, and then perhaps you may find them as entertaining as I do. – I laughed at several parts of the one which I am now answering' (Letter 17).

Jane likes to tease inventively. She reports that Frank and Mary will be so cross if Cassandra is unavailable to help them with their purchases that 'they shall be as spiteful as possible & chuse everything in the stile most likely to vex you, Knives that will not cut, glasses that will not hold, a sofa without a seat, & a Bookcase without shelves' (Letter 50); and a few lines later, she refers to 'Mr Husket Lord Lansdown's Painter, – domestic painter I should call him, for he lives in the Castle – Domestic Chaplains have given way to this more necessary office, & I suppose whenever the Walls want no touching up, he is employed about my Lady's face' (Letter 50).

When writing in July 1816 to her seventeen-year-old nephew James-Edward Austen, whose letter to her from Steventon must have superfluously told her that as well as going to Winchester he had 'come home' again, she commented: 'I am glad you recollected to mention your being come home. My heart began to sink within me when I had got so far through your Letter without its being mentioned. I was dreadfully afraid that you might be detained at Winchester by severe illness, confined to your Bed perhaps & quite unable to hold a pen, & only dating from Steventon in order, with a mistaken sort of Tenderness, to deceive me. – But now, I have no doubt of your being at home, I am sure you would not say it so seriously unless it actually were so' (Letter 142). Later in the same letter, she has fun imagining the nephew's future life – she hopes his 'Physicians' will order him 'to the Sea, or to a house by the side of a very considerable pond'. (There was a pond outside her cottage.)

A few months later (Letter 146), when the nephew had just left Winchester School (and was attempting to write a novel before going up to Oxford), she wished him well and invited him to confess how miserable he had been at school: 'it will gradually all come out – your Crimes & your Miseries – how often you went up by the Mail to London & threw away Fifty Guineas at a Tavern, & how often you were on the point of hanging yourself – restrained only, as some illnatured aspersion upon poor old Winton has it, by the want of a Tree within some miles of the City'. She adds: 'Uncle Henry writes very superior Sermons. – You & I must try to get hold of one or two, & put them into our Novels; – it would be a fine help to a volume; & we could make our Heroine read it aloud of a Sunday Evening'.

To Cassandra, there are mock-rebukes: 'I shall not tell you anything more of William Digweed's China, as your Silence on the subject makes you unworthy of it'; 'I expected to have heard from you this morning, but no letter is come. I shall not take the trouble of announcing to you any more of Mary's children, if, instead of thanking me for the intelligence, you always sit down and write to James.' (Letter 12). 'You used me scandalously by not mentioning Edward Cooper's Sermons; – I tell you everything, & it is unknown the Mysteries you conceal from me' (Letter 66).

Much of the fun is in the comments about people. 'Mrs John Lyford is so much pleased with the state of widowhood as to be going to put in for being a widow again; – she is to marry a Mr Fendall, a banker in Gloucester, a man of very good fortune, but considerably older than herself & with three little children' (Letter 30); 'She appeared exactly as she did in September, with the same broad face, diamond bandeau, white shoes, pink husband, & fat neck' (Letter 27); 'Lizzie Bond is just apprenticed to Miss Small, so we may hope to see her able to spoil gowns in a few years' (Letter 13); 'Charles Powlett has been very ill, but is getting well again; – his wife is discovered to be everything that the Neighbourhood could wish her, silly & cross as well as extravagant' (Letter 14); 'Miss Blachford is married, but I have never seen it in the Papers. And one may as well be single if the Wedding is not to be in print' (Letter 118).

Notorious is the line 'Mrs Hall of Sherbourn was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, owing to a fright. – I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband' (Letter 10). It was in letters to Cassandra only that she made such outrageous jokes, confident that they would not be repeated. They were for private giggles. Frivolous, cruel humour is typical of the eighteenth-century literature on which Jane was nourished. Pope had given her the example of such ironies as 'Puffs, Powders, Patches, Bibles, Billet-doux' - the contents of Belinda's dressing-table - and the young girl's fear of losing 'her heart, or necklace, at a ball', or, even (about the young woman losing a lock of her hair):

Not louder shrieks to pitying heaven are cast, 
When husbands, or when lap-dogs, breathe their last.

Lady Sneerwell in The School for Scandal says 'There's no possibility of being witty - without a little ill nature: the malice of a good thing is the barb that makes it stick'. Jane Austen, particularly in her juvenilia and in her private letters (and in the behaviour of Emma Woodhouse) acknowledges the force of this.

When their acquaintance Lady Sondes was to marry again – her husband had died two years earlier – Jane wrote: 'Lady Sondes' match surprises, but does not offend me; – had her first marriage been of affection, or had there been a grown-up single daughter, I should not have forgiven her – but I consider everybody as having a right to marry once in their Lives for Love, if they can – & provided she will now leave off having bad head-aches & being pathetic, I can allow her, I can wish her to be happy' (Letter 63). (Lady Sondes' second husband was to be General Montresor. Later in the same letter, Jane adds, enjoying the comedy of stereotyping, 'I like his rank very much – & always affix the ideas of strong sense, & highly elegant Manners, to a General').

There is often cynical wisdom in the humour. 'Miss Blachford is agreeable enough; I do not want People to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal' (Letter 15). About her nephew little Georgy ('itty Dordy'), she writes: 'My dear itty Dordy's remembrance of me is very pleasing to me; foolishly pleasing, because I know it will be over so soon. My attachment to him will be more durable; I shall think with tenderness and delight on his beautiful & smiling Countenance & interesting Manners, till a few years have turned him into an ungovernable, ungracious fellow' (Letter 10). Even when affectionate, Jane was always free from illusions. Possibly this is why she never married!

Sometimes the jokes are of the nonsensical kind she enjoyed in her juvenile writings: 'You express so little anxiety about my being murdered under Ashe Park Copse by Mrs Hulbert's servant, that I have a great mind not to tell you whether I was or not' (Letter 17); 'Mr Richard Harvey's match is put off, till he has got a Better Christian name, of which he has great Hopes. Mr Children's two Sons are both going to be married, John and George – . They are to have one wife between them; a Miss Holwell, who belongs to the Black Hole at Calcutta' (Letter 6); 'There are two Traits in her Character which are pleasing; namely, she admires Camilla, and drinks no cream in her Tea' (Letter 6); 'The Tables are come, & give general contentment. ... They are both covered with green baize and send their best love' (Letter 25); 'we met a Gentleman in a Buggy, who on a minute examination turned out to be Dr Hall – & Dr Hall in such very deep mourning that either his Mother, his Wife, or himself must be dead' (Letter 19); 'We found only Mrs Lance at home, and whether she boasts any offspring besides a grand pianoforte did not appear' (Letter 49).

Sunday, 11 December 2016


Lesley Castle was written when Jane Austen was sixteen. Jane's assured tone is apparent right from the start. It is an epistolary novel, proudly described as 'Unfinished'!

Lesley Castle comprises just ten letters from six correspondents. From the family castle in Scotland, Margaret Lesley exchanges letters with her old Sussex school-friend Charlotte. The humour owes much to the way they (especially Charlotte) are self-obsessed.

The letters from Charlotte reflect her obsession with cooking. She has spent five weeks preparing food for her sister's wedding and is angry because the wedding has been cancelled. She laments at great length all the 'roasted Beef, Broiled Mutton, and Stewed Soup' she has produced and wonders how it will ever be eaten, only to reveal casually much later the reason why the wedding is off: the groom has died.

When the bride howled hysterically, Charlotte could only assume it was because the wedding breakfast would be wasted. The humour is partly monty-pythonesque; and there is obviously black comedy ["'I dare say he'll die soon, and then his pain will be over and you will be easy, whereas my Trouble will last much longer for work as hard as I may, I am certain that the pantry cannot be cleared in less than a fortnight.' Thus I did all in my power to console her...".]

Margaret and her sister Matilda in their castle near Perth lead what Margaret describes as a sheltered life, 'for we visit no one but the M'Leods, The M'Kenzies, the M'Phersons, the M'Cartneys, the M'donalds, The M'Kinnons, the M'lellans, the M'Kays, the Macbeths and the Macduffs', but she claims they are happy, witty, 'agreable' and 'handsome'. She boasts that the greatest of their perfections is that they are 'entirely insensible of them' themselves.

Margaret's father, Sir George, is a fifty-seven-year-old playboy. He remarries; and there is jealousy between the new mother and her step-daughters. The step-mother is unusually short, the sisters unusually tall. (In several of her works, Jane Austen has fun with the notion that beauty requires a golden mean in height.) Margaret sends Charlotte a long account of her brother's courtship and marriage to his first wife, Louisa Burton. Charlotte replies that it 'has not the less entertained me for having often been repeated to me before.'

Charlotte insensitively writes to Margaret about the ways her new step-mother will be sure to usurp her place, deprive her of the family jewels and waste the family fortune. With equal insensitivity, Margaret describes Charlotte's appearance: 'How often have I wished that I possessed as little personal Beauty as you do; that my figure were as inelegant; my face as unlovely; and my Appearance as unpleasing as yours!' If that were the case, she says, she would not be pursued by so many pestering men!

The novel is preceded by a parody of a 'Dedication' - to Jane's brother Henry, a student at Oxford at the time. He appears to have collaborated in the joke. Acting as 'patron', he has written a note asking a spoof bank to pay one hundred guineas to 'Jane Austen Spinster'.

Among the literary conventions parodied are: the letter within a letter, the abandoned child, the naming of 'literary' characters (Eloisa for the bereaved fiancée; Fitzgerald for a potential over), possible love-matches always in the air, and the movement of characters around centres of romance and fashion - Scotland, London, (mentions of) Tunbridge, Bristol and Naples. 

Lady Lesley (she who marries the playboy widower who is Margaret's father) is a forerunner of Lady Susan. Even her first name is Susan. She is similarly spunky and sharply dismissive of persons she considers inferior to herself. She describes her new husband as 'horribly ugly' and 'a fright'!

Interestingly, William Fitzgerald finds Matilda's complexion made more attractive by exercise, just as Darcy was to observe of Lizzie some time later.

We know Jane Austen was eventually to drop the epistolary technique, presumably because she discovered its weaknesses. This little composition, however, shows how well aware she was also of its strengths. The letters (like many of Jane's own) reveal character, contain sharp observations one can share only with friends, and they ramble over a wide territory, advance the narrative in bounds and include lively reported dialogue. 

Sir George Lesley (a shadowy figure) - the father of Margaret - is perhaps modelled on Sir Thomas Grandison.

Friday, 9 December 2016


Jane Austen's personal letters offer something to anyone interested in the efforts ladies such as Jane went to in obtaining gowns, caps, bonnets and stockings. There is scarcely a letter to her sister Cassandra that does not contain references to clothes they were buying, borrowing, commissioning, adapting or altering. We could be forgiven for thinking the writer of these letters more expert in millinery and dressmaking than in novel-writing. My Cap is come home & I like it very much, Fanny has one also; hers is white Sarsanet & Lace, of a different shape from mine, more fit for morning, Carriage wear – which is what it is intended for – & is in shape exceedingly like our own Sattin & Lace of last winter – shaped round the face exactly like it, with pipes & more fullness, & a round crown inserted behind. My Cap has a peak in front. Large, full Bows of very narrow ribbon (old twopenny) are the thing. One over the right temple perhaps, & another at the left ear (Letter 88).

In Guildford Jane was happy to pick up a pair of gloves: .. got them at the first shop I went to, though I went into it rather because it was near than because it looked at all like a glove shop, & gave only four Shillings for them; – upon hearing which every body at Chawton will be hoping & predicting that they cannot be good for anything (Letter 84).

In London a few days later she collected a gown for her mother from Laytons (Layton and Shears, Henrietta Street) – 7 yds at 6/6 (Letter 85).

Typically, in Letter 35, sent from Bath in May 1801, we find: Mrs Mussell has got my Gown, & I will endeavour to explain what her intentions are. – It is to be a round Gown, with a Jacket, & a Frock front, like Cath: Bigg's to open at the side. – The Jacket is all in one with the body, & comes as far as the pocketholes; – about half a quarter of yard deep I suppose all the way round, cut off straight at the corners, with a broad hem. – No fullness appears either in the Body or the flap; – the back is quite plain, in this form – [here she draws a little shape like a tumbler] – and the sides equally so. – The front is sloped round to the bosom and drawn in – & there is to be a frill of the same to put on occasionally when all one's handkercheifs are dirty – which frill must fall back. – She is to put two breadths & a half in the tail, & no Gores; – Gores not being so much worn as they were ....

Letter 27 includes the following information: Miss Summers has made my gown very well indeed, & I grow more and more pleased with it. – Charles does not like it, but my father and Mary do; my Mother is very much reconciled to it, & as for James, he gives it the preference over everything of the kind he ever saw; but a few lines later she adds Charles likes my gown now.

In Letter 57, we read, how is your blue gown? – Mine is all to peices. – I think there must have been something wrong in the dye, for in places it divided with a Touch. – There was four shillings thrown away.

We hear about the commissioning of headgear and pelisses in Southampton: Miss Burton has made me a very pretty little Bonnet – & now nothing can satisfy me but I must have a straw hat, of the riding hat shape, like Mrs Tilson's; & a young woman in this Neighbourhood is actually making me one. I am really very shocking; but it will not be dear at a Guinea. – Our Pelisses are 17/S. each – she charges only 8/ for the making, but the Buttons seem expensive; – are expensive, I might have said – for the fact is plain enough (Letter 70).

On a visit to London in 1811, she wrote to Cassandra, I am sorry to tell you that I am getting very extravagant & spending all my Money; & what is worse for you, I have been spending yours too; for in a Linendraper's shop to which I went for check'd Muslin, & for which I was obliged to give seven shillings a yard, I was tempted by a pretty coloured muslin, & bought 10 yds of it, on the chance of your liking it; – but at the same time if it shd not suit you, you must not think yourself at all obliged to take it; it is only 3/6 pr yd, & I shd not in the least mind keeping the whole. – In texture, it is just what we prefer, but its' resemblance to green cruels I must own is not great, for the pattern is a small red spot (Letter 70).

Jane was skilful with the needle. With little to do at Southampton, she tells Cassandra: I wish I could help you in your Needlework, I have two hands and a new Thimble that lead a very easy life (Letter 63).

Other domestic and culinary activities are occasionally mentioned: we are brewing Spruce Beer again (Letter 62); a Hamper of Port & Brandy from Southampton, is now in the Kitchen. ... We began Pease on Sunday, but our gatherings are very small ... Yesterday I had the agreable surprise of finding several scarlet strawberries quite ripe ... There are more Gooseberries & fewer Currants than I thought at first. – We must buy currants for our Wine (Letter 75).

[My references are to Deirdre Le Faye's edition of the Letters.]

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Songs For Jane Austen's Characters

Today, just a bit of fun.

Which songs do you consider most appropriate to characters from Jane Austen's novels? I've come up with these. I would be pleased to hear of any more suggestions.

Fanny Price : 'Once I Had a Secret Love'

Jane Fairfax : 'I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter' 

Mr Bennet : 'Take Five' 

Tom Bertram : 'Hey Big Spender' 

Willoughby : 'I've Found a New Baby' 

Darcy : 'I Won't Dance' 

Marianne Dashwood : 'Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby?' 

Maria Bertram: 'I'm always true to you, darling, in my fashion; I'm always true to you, darling, in my way.' 

Reginald de Courcy : 'If You Knew Susie' 

The Bertram Girls : 'I'm just Wild About Harry' 

Eliza Bennet : 'Them There Eyes' 

John Dashwood : 'Money Money Money' 

Mrs. Bennet : 'Don't Blame Me' 

Mrs. Bates : 'Don't Get Around Much Any More' 

Dr Grant : 'Food, Glorious Food' 

John Thorpe : 'How to Handle a Woman' 

Jane Bennet : 'Singing in the Rain' 

Rushworth : 'Somebody Stole My Gal' 

Louisa Musgrove : 'Stumbling' 

Mr Collins : 'What Kind of Fool am I?' 

Lydia Bennet: 'I'm Just a Gal Who Cain't Say No' 

Mr Knightley : 'Thank Heaven for Little Girls'

Monday, 5 December 2016


The manuscript of Sanditon has survived. It is in the library of King's College, Cambridge. A facsimile of the manuscript was published in 1975 to mark the Bicentenary of Jane's birth.
Jane Austen probably invented the name 'Sanditon' out of 'Sandy Town', just as she probably derived Meryton from 'Merry Town'. 

The last page of Sanditon is dated 18 March 1817.

Poor Mr. Hollis! – It was impossible not to feel him hardly used; to be obliged to stand back in his own house and see the best place by the fire constantly occupied by Sir Harry Denham.

How sad it is, after arriving with pleasure and anticipation at the end of that sentence, to turn the page and find nothing more. For this is the novel Jane Austen left uncompleted when she died. Jane began the novel in January 1817, and, despite her fatal illness, managed to work on it for eight weeks. She died exactly four months after penning that final sentence of Chapter 12. 

Sanditon offers a reprise of many pleasures which run through Jane's fiction. Language is used with consummate precision. Again she invents wonderful individuals. Still she uses ordinary situations as a basis for intriguing plot development. Fun is made of fads and fashions. Character is measured against implied standards of propriety and decency. 

The events of Sanditon relate to the commercial development of a tranquil Sussex seaside village. The fashion for seaside holidays and health cures was still fairly new. As alternatives to spas such as Bath and Tunbridge Wells, coastal resorts had some years earlier begun to attract the wealthy. Bathing-machines were in use before Jane Austen was born.

Audrey Hawkridge, in Jane Austen and Hampshire (published by Hampshire County Council in 1995), says Southampton (where Jane had lived) was typical in making claims to use sea-water as a treatment for 'tedious and obstinate agues, black and yellow jaundice, schirrus of the spleen..., scurvy, green sickness and even paralytic disorders'. In Sanditon, Jane quietly poked fun at such extravagant claims.

Possibly the germ for Sanditon is in The Magic of Wealth, a novel by Thomas Skinner Surr, published in 1815. This didactic work tries to show how traditional values of dignity and hospitality are being destroyed by the corrupting effects of money. Surr's Flimflamton is a watering place being developed by the power and wealth of a banker. However, there is no evidence that Jane knew Surr's novel. It is quite possible that the two writers were independently attracted by this theme suggested by contemporary trends. 

Even at this final stage in Jane's writing, there are some surprises. The subject matter takes us from the age of the idle, landed gentleman to that of the entrepreneur. We are invited to look at new commercial developments which are to have a major impact on society. 

There are some interesting thoughts about economics: the effects of market forces are discussed. We do not think of Jane Austen's novels as places to look for discussions on economics. That is what we find, however, when Tom Parker tries to explain to the sceptical Lady Denham how the increase in wealthy holiday-makers will benefit the whole community. She fears prices will rise. He offers the counter-argument that sales everywhere will increase. Tradesmen will fare so well that 'in proportion to their profit must be ours eventually in the increased value of our houses'.

A surprisingly Freudian moral issue is raised: does the depiction of sexual violence incite weak-minded, susceptible men to crime? The lengthy passage dealing with this subject is characteristically frank.

There is a much about health: more is made of the malade imaginaire than in any previous novel. In view of Jane's illness, this is remarkable, especially as she treats these topics with characteristic flippancy. The insights into illness and hypochondria are remarkably modern. 

Jane Austen was, incidentally, a great observer of the ways in which stress affected health. Some had the character to cope with stress better than others: think not only of the three Parkers in Sanditon but also of Mary Musgove (and the effects of her self-pity), Mrs. Bennet (and her self-pity), Mr. Woodhouse and his daughter, Isabella, of Jane Fairfax, Marianne Dashwood, Fanny Price. We are invited to admire the ways in which the robust spirits of Admiral Croft's wife and of Mrs. Smith enable them to cope with anxiety or ill-health.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Jane Austen's 'Pride and Prejudice': Years in the Making

In 1796, when she was 20, Jane Austen's clergyman father stopped taking boarding-pupils. The parsonage at Steventon became more peaceful.

Probably that helped Jane write First Impressions (the first draft of Pride and Prejudice).

It is astonishing that Jane Austen drafted one of the greatest novels in the English Language before she was quite twenty-one. Her father was so impressed that he offered it to the publisher Cadell. But Cadell could not be bothered to read it.

Fourteen years later at Chawton, having achieved some fame with Sense and Sensibility, Jane re-worked First Impressions, pruning it and making it fit the calendars of 1811-12. She sold the copyright for a mere £110. With its new title Pride and Prejudice, it was published in 1813 - just four years before Jane died. The deceitfulness of first impressions and the hypocrisy and heartlessness of mercenary people were to remain two of Jane Austen's major themes.

The Bennet family lived and moved in her imagination for over twenty years: in the last year of her life, she told her niece Anna and nephew James-Edward that after the novel ended Kitty Bennet married a clergyman near Pemberley and Mary married one of her uncle Phillips's clerks.

Thursday, 1 December 2016


Near the end of Jane Austen's first childhood notebook is a ‘novel’ that foreshadows her mature work. The Three Sisters is in letter form, which it handles skilfully. There is graphic detail and lively dialogue. Strongly delineated characters emerge. The theme, which was to concern Jane Austen throughout her adult fiction, is the relative importance in match-making of love and money.

Mary Stanhope has received a proposal from Mr. Watts but does not know whether to accept. She hates him; and he is old (thirty-two!), ugly and disagreeable; but he is rich and, if she does not secure him, one of her sisters will: she could not endure that. Mary is riven by the problem. Her sister Georgiana writes to tell a friend that she and her sister have tricked Mary into accepting Mr. Watts by making her believe they would gladly marry him, if he proposed to either of them.

Mr. Watts himself, says: ' I am by no means guided by a particular preference to you above your Sisters it is equally the same to me which I marry of the three' - the sentiments of a Mr. Collins!

Mary sets out her terms of acceptance in a long list of personal luxuries her future husband must grant her. When he refuses, she has to accept him on his terms. After he has gone, Mary says 'how I do hate him!' - a wonderful start for a marriage! However, she takes her sisters next day to their friends the Duttons, so that she may boast of her engagement. 

Typical of the conversations (here between Mary and her mother) is the following. It hints at the sharp dialogue that was to be a feature of Jane's later writing:

'...if you do not give him your final answer tomorrow when he drinks Tea with us, he intends to pay his Addresses to Sophy.'

'Then I shall tell all the World that he behaved very ill to me.'

'What good will that do? Mr. Watts has been too long abused by all the World to mind it now.'

Jane Austen was discovering that she had the power to produce not merely brief parodies and squibs but also a worthwhile novel in its own right.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016


The seeking out of personal letters by the biographers of the Great used to strike me as a relatively modern phenomenon. I thought it was in the early Twentieth Century that biographers started to become more interested in primary sources.

That was before I read Mansfield Park.

I am always struck by the moment when Fanny Price appropriates a scrap of paper on which Edmund has completed only the first twelve words of a note to her and Jane Austen writes: 'Two lines more prized had never fallen from the pen of the most distinguished author – never more completely blessed the researches of the fondest biographer'. (My emphasis)

Clearly - even in those days - biographers liked to get hold of letters; and Jane Austen knew it. Yet it never seems to have occurred to her how precious her own surviving letters might one day be to researchers.

It must be put down to her characteristic modesty. She did not expect female novelists to have biographies written about them. She expected her brothers to become famous; but she was - and would remain - merely the uncelebrated spinster daughter of a parson.

Jane's surviving letters were certainly not written with an eye to posterity. They prattle about trivialities – buying materials for clothes and meeting new people. Their equivalent today is telephone gossip. Like all such private gossip, they can indulge in surreal comedy. 'He has lived in that House more than twenty years, & poor Man, is so totally deaf, that they say he could not hear a Cannon, were it fired close to him; having no cannon to hand to make the experiment, I took it for granted ...'. Those words (they always make me laugh!) from a letter written to her sister Cassandra in 1808 reflect the spirit of much of her correspondence.

There are delightful sentences which could have come straight from the novels: 'To sit in idleness over a good fire in a well-proportioned room is a luxurious sensation' (Letter 25); or 'Moral as well as Natural Diseases disappear in the progress of time, & new ones take their place' (Letter 50, in the course of noting that little children are full of confidence, when they used to be shy). Typical of the elegance with which she adorns the ordinary is the following: 'Pray give my love to George, tell him that I am very glad to hear he can skip so well already, & that I hope he will continue to send me word of his improvement in the art' (Letter 30).

With so many of Jane's letters lost and almost all that survive  addressed to close relatives (especially Cassandra), we do not have a complete picture of Jane Austen's habits and interests as a correspondent. However, they reveal much about her personality and the minutiae of her days. 'I am weary of meandering,' she writes in January 1809 (Letter 67), 'so expect a vast deal of small matter concisely told, in the next two pages'. Small matter concisely crammed into two pages was exactly what she invariably achieved.

Letters were written on different grades of paper according to the wealth of the writer. Normally, the recipient had to pay for the postage, based on the amount of paper used. Typically, to receive a letter, one paid about 6d (six old pence). To keep the cost down, many correspondents not only covered all of the sheet but turned it at a 90o angle and wrote more. This was called crossing the lines. One needed a clear hand and a sharp pen to make this readable. Pens were made from goose quills and sharpened to a point, using a 'penknife'. People often made copies of their letters. After the letter was written, all sides were folded in. The letter was sealed with a wafer (a red pasted paper disc) or a blob of wax impressed with a seal.

To give good value, Jane would squeeze in words, writing over the same page twice, inserting lines the other way up or across as well as down. Often a postscript would be added below the address panel. Jane tended to fold her sheets with the same neatness she showed in her needlework. These quarto sheets she fastened with wafers or seals, many of which have since been cut away. 

Sometimes a person would send a coin under the seal (as in Mansfield Park). There was a penny post in London and people could sometimes pre-pay for letters. (Let us hope Frank Churchill prepaid as the Bates did not have much money.) In the city the postman delivered letters. (In Portsmouth, the postman calls daily at Fanny Price's home, bringing her the latest news of injury and scandal from Edmund, Mary and Lady Bertram.) In the country, one usually had to go to the post office - the post house which was  most likely attached to an inn - to pick up the mail. Jane Fairfax went every day to do so. Rich people sent servants. In Jane Austen's Steventon days, the Austens collected theirs from the Wheat Sheaf Inn, Popham Lane, at the junction with the main road. However, in later years at Chawton, as we learn from Jane's letter to Cassandra of 16  September 1813, the postman delivered to their cottage even on a SundayWhere the service was justified by the density of houses, a postman called. 

It is interesting to find letters were delivered on Sundays in England in 1813. By the Twenty-First Century, this was no longer the case. Such is progress!

Envelopes were not yet commonplace, (though Darcy and Captain Wentworth famously used them). Replying in 1813 to a letter from her brother Frank, who was commanding a ship in the Baltic, Jane Austen wrote: 'I assure you I thought it very well worth its 2s/3d. – I am very much obliged to you for filling me so long a sheet of paper, you are a good one to traffic with in that way, You pay most liberally' (Letter 90).

Sunday, 27 November 2016

'Henry and Eliza' and 'Amelia Webster' - Two of Jane Austen's Childhood Novels

Let me tell you about two of the little novels Jane Austen as a child wrote in one of her notebooks.

Henry and Eliza is a skit on the sensational and sentimental. Baby Eliza is brought up by Sir George and Lady Harcourt after they find her abandoned under a haycock. Later, turned out for stealing, she is taken in by a duchess, runs off with the lover of the duchess's friend, is widowed in France, returns in her 'man of War of 55 guns', escapes from a dungeon, is reduced to begging and is eventually reunited with her loving parents. The stupidity of such plots is finally ridiculed when Lady Harcourt claims she had forgotten it was she herself who put the infant Eliza - truly her own baby - under the haycock all those years before!

The Harcourts, by the way, are probably inspired by a real George Harcourt, who inherited Nuneham Courtenay in 1777. He and Lady Harcourt, influenced by Rousseau, presented estate awards to labourers for virtue and industry but shunned the shabby. Jane makes fun of the idea: 'Sir George and Lady Harcourt were superintending the Labours of their Haymakers, rewarding the industry of some by smiles of approbation, and punishing the idleness of others, by a cudgel...'!

In the miniature epistolary novel Amelia Webster George Hervey gets married on the strength of falling in love in this way: 


An humble Admirer now addresses you. – I saw you lovely Fair one as you passed on Monday last, before our House in your way to Bath. I saw you thro' a telescope, and was so struck by your Charms that from that time to this I have not tasted human food. !

Friday, 25 November 2016


Quite apart from her family's amateur dramatics at Steventon, Jane was interested in the theatre. She must have witnessed good productions (especially in Bath) though there is little evidence in the surviving letters. She thought little of Southampton's offerings: Martha ought to see the inside of the Theatre once while she lives in Southampton, & I think she will hardly wish to take a second veiw (Letter 61). In September 1813, Jane reported on some London pantomime-style productions at the Lyceum which seem to have been more enjoyed by her nieces than herself. They revelled last night in Don Juan, whom we left in Hell at ½ past 11. – We had Scaramouch & a Ghost – and were delighted; – I speak of them; my delight was very tranquil, & the rest of us were sober-minded. Don Juan was the last of 3 musical things (Letter 87). Next day they had a good box at Covent Garden for the double-bill of The Clandestine Marriage by George Colman and Midas: An English Burletta by Kane O'Hara. Although The girls were very much delighted, there was no acting more than moderate (Letter 87). Expanding on this in a letter to her brother Frank a week later, she said the performances were mainly Sing-song & trumpery ... I wanted better acting. – There was no Actor worthy naming. – I beleive the Theatres are thought at a low ebb at present (Letter 90). 

Jane attended more London entertainments in 1814, but was rarely impressed. It was difficult to obtain tickets to see Edmund Keane, the new acting sensation. She reported, so great is the rage for seeing Keen that only a 3d & 4th row could be got. As it is in a front box, however, I hope we shall do pretty well. – Shylock. – A good play for Fanny (Letter 97). After the performance, she reported: We were quite satisfied with Kean. I cannot imagine better acting, but the part was too short, & excepting him & Miss Smith, & she did not quite answer my expectation, the parts were ill filled & the Play heavy ... it appeared to me as if there were no fault in him anywhere; & in his scene with Tubal there was exquisite acting (Letter 98). Jane and her party left before the end of Illusion, or the Trances of Nourjahad, the melodramatic spectacle that followed. After such entertainment, she regretted that more theatre tickets were being sought: I have had enough for the present (Letter 98). However, tickets were obtained for Charles Dibdin's The Farmer's Wife at Covent Garden. Jane reported: The Farmer's Wife is a musical thing in 3 Acts, & as Edward was steady in not staying for anything more, we were at home before 10 (Letter 99). Jane had reasonable pleasure in watching an adaptation of Molière: ... we went to the Lyceum, & saw the Hypocrite, an old play taken from Molière's Tartuffe, & were well entertained. Dowton & Mathews were the good actors. Mrs Edwin was the heroine – & her performance is just what it used to be. – I have no chance of seeing Mrs Siddons. – She did act on Monday, but as Henry was told by the Boxkeeper that he did not think she would, the places, and all thought of it, were given up. I should particularly have liked seeing her in Constance, & could swear at her with little effort for disappointing me (Letter 71). 

There was further disappointment in November 1814. Jane saw Garrick's play Isabella, or the Fatal MarriageWe were all at the Play last night, to see Miss O'neal in Isabella. I do not think she was quite equal to my expectation. I fancy I want something more than can be. Acting seldom satisfies me. I took two Pocket handkerchiefs, but had very little occasion for either (Letter 112).

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Jane Austen's Margaret Dashwood in 'Sense and Sensibility'

Everyone knows that the sisters Elinor and Marianne are at the centre of Sense and Sensibility. It is easy to forget that there is also a younger sister.

That sister - Margaret - is such a shadowy figure that we may wonder whether she is really necessary. She is rarely on stage and is considered unpromising at the age of thirteen:

   Margaret, the other sister, was a good-humoured, well-disposed girl; but as she had already imbibed a great deal of Marianne’s romance, without having much of her sense, she did not, at thirteen, bid fair to equal her sisters at a more advanced period of life.

However, there is an amusing moment shortly after Willoughby carries Marianne home with her sprained ankle.

  Marianne's preserver, as Margaret, with more elegance than precision, styled Willoughby, called at the cottage early the next morning.

The idea of a thirteen-year-old labelling the new man in her elder sister's life in this way is delightful. How much better it is than merely saying 'Willoughby called next morning...'. There must have been some fun in the Dashwood household and one suspects it may echo the kind of humour Jane Austen knew among her own brothers and sister at Steventon, and perhaps still with her sister at Chawton.

No wonder that, in her film version of the novel, Emma Thompson chose to flesh out the character of Margaret, giving her more lines and scenes.

We are to have another potentially irritating and embarrassing younger sibling in Northanger Abbey: when Henry, wanting to get Catherine alone, asks her to show him to the Allens' house, little sister Sarah says: 'You may see the house from this window, sir'!