A Gift

“Happy Christmas” from Jane Austen in Vermont!

Our gift today shares short comments from a reader of Austen in 1836. Thanks to R.W. Chapman, we possess the reactions of family and friends that Jane Austen herself collected (printed in his volume of Austen Juvenilia). Here – in the diary of Ellen Tollet of Betley Hall (edited by Mavis E. Smith and newly published) – we see reactions to the novels from a reader with no ties to Austen. Miss Tollet perhaps treasured copies of the first edition, but likely came to read Austen because of the reprintings of the 1830s (for instance, see our 1833 copy of Sense and Sensibility). She does, however, mention “volumes” which indicates the sets – three volumes for all except Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (which appeared together in four volumes) – of the originals printed during Austen’s lifetime.

The first reference Miss Tollet makes of Austen is this entry of Saturday, 2 January 1836:

Cold, bad day – snow on the ground. Set Charles [her brother] to read ‘Mansfield Park’. How I delight in that book! I fancy all the people so well. I confess I think Edmund and Fanny too much alike to marry. I think he is something like W. Egerton [a family friend] though, of course, taller or more like a hero rather. [page 99]

Miss Tollet notes more Austen at the end of February:

Began to read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ to Mary [her sister-in-law]. A very good book for the purpose, but I don’t like it so well as ‘Mansfield Park’ or ‘Persuasion’. It is a broad farce and the humour less delicate, and the story not so feeling or pretty. [p. 118: Thursday, 25 February 1836]

Days later she expounds on her views, and we perceive something of the reading habits of this young woman (born in 1812):

Read for the tenth time [!] the third volume of ‘Pride and Prejudice’. How excellent it is! Mr Bennet is enchanting, but Lydia’s disgrace far too bad. Great want of taste and delicacy towards her heroines. [p. 120: Tuesday, 8 March 1836]

In this day of television and film adaptations, it is refreshing to read (however short) comments about and reactions to Austen’s characters and situations (see also the post on Miss Russell Mitford). We invite readers to share with us their finds, among nineteenth century letters and diaries, revealing just what Austen’s early crop of readers thought and felt.

One thought on “A Gift

  1. One reason many people will be interested in Ellen Tollet is her friendship with Emma Darwin, and some letters at the back of the book (which I’ve not yet gotten to!) from Florence Nightingale. But here is a Mrs Gaskell connection!

    This is from the book FURTHER LETTERS OF MRS GASKELL (2004), ed. by John Chapple and Alan Shelston:

    To Mrs Archer Clive, dated 16 June [c1862]

    It is with extreme regret that Mrs Gaskell finds herself compelled to decline Mrs Archer’s [sic] Clive’s invitation for Friday Evening next. There are very few arrangements depending upon her own will which would have prevented Mrs Gaskell availing herself of the pleasure offered, but she promised Miss Ellen Tollet some time ago to go and see her at Betley once more; and on Saturday last Miss Tollet wrote to say that, as they were leaving on the 25th, Wednesday the 18th would be the most convenient day on which to receive Mrs Gaskell. (p. 296)


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