I have read many of Austen’s letters through the years, and certainly know the majority of quotes that are repeated over and over…but I am finally committing myself to going through each letter in chronological order and reading through all the accompanying notes and references ( my source and Essential Austen title: Jane Austen’s Letters, collected and edited by Deirdre Le Faye, 3rd edition, Oxford University Press, 1997)…. and I invite you all to take this journey with me, one letter at a time, one day at a time.
So often these letters, and the sentences or words from them, are quoted out of context, and I feel compelled to make some sense of it all, to go back to the original source and get a feel for what Austen was really saying. There are so many gaps in the letters, either from Cassandra’s choice to edit and / or destroy many of her sister’s writings, or because the sisters were not apart and hence no need to write (and of course there are only a few letters from Cassandra herself, and because Austen often refers back to a received letter, and with her constant comments on her sister’s writing abilities and humor, the reader is saddened by this loss.)
There are also many primary and secondary sources on the letters and I will discuss these periodically (see also the Letters Page, which I will continually add to), but I think I better just start the process and let it evolve from there. I encourage you to comment, suggest sources, offer suggestions or interpretation, so please visit often and participate. For those of you who know the letters backwards and forwards, and for those just discovering them, please take this journey with me. I think all of us might learn something new along the way. I know I already have….
This will be the format:
- letter number
- sender (their location) / recipient (their location)
- location of letter today
- synopsis; quotes of import; comment
So today I start with Letter No. 1:
- January 9 – 10 (Sat, Sun) 1796
- Jane (Steventon) to Cassandra (Kintbury, Newbury [Rev. Fowles home])
- Original MS untraced
This is Austen’s first documented letter and one of the most quoted. It is here that Jane writes of her attachment to Tom Lefroy and she refers to him often in this letter…”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.” She tells of the balls- “we had an exceedingly good ball last night”, who she danced with (Warren, Charles Watkins, and “fighting hard” to escape John Lyford), commenting on Miss Heathcote (“[she] is pretty, but not near so handsome as I expected”), and the many references to friends that we meet again and again in her letters. We read of her latest fashion thoughts, the silk stockings she cannot afford but the white gloves and pink persian (silk) she can, and much on her brother Charles and brother Henry and his latest plan to obtaining a lieutenancy.
The letter ends with another lengthy reference to Tom Lefroy: “he has but one fault…his morning coat is a great deal too light. He is a great admirer of Tom Jones, and therefore he wears the same coloured clothes, I imagine, which he did when he was wounded.”
So in this first letter, (Jane was 20 years old writing this letter on Cassandra’s 23rd birthday and the letter opens with “In the first place I hope you will live twenty-three years longer”) we are introduced into Austen’s life, her family and friends, her likes and dislikes, and her biting wit, her poking fun at others and so very often herself. Her letters to her sister were entertainment for both of them when they were apart, and in just these few pages we are drawn into this late 18-century world, with all its domestic goings-on, and we are glad to be in such company. These letters are a veritable feast!