Austen Letter No. 2 ~ “My Tears Flow…”

The Times Online in this Then and Now article re-publishes the Times Literary Supplement review of November 10, 1932,  E.M. Forster on Chapman’s edition of Austen’s letters.  It is a fascinating read.


And on that note, I continue my Austen Letters journey, here with Letter No. 2:

  • January 14-15, 1796 (Thursday, Friday)
  • Jane Austen (Steventon) to Cassandra Austen [Kintbury, Newbury: Rev, Fowle’s home]
  • Present ownership and location unknown

Austen begins with a response to Cassandra’s last letter, and feeling disappointed that their plans to be reunited have gone awry; she then talks of the upcoming ball at Ashe and the friends she will see there:  Edward Cooper, James, Buller, and of course Tom Lefroy.  This passage and the later one penned the next day have long been the subject of a wide range of conjecture in articles, essays, biographies, and movies.  Little did Jane suspect that these few lines would give rise to such a mass of words!…so I quote these directly:

…I look forward with great impatience to it [the ball at Ashe], as I rather expect to receive an offer from my friend in the course of the evening.  I shall refuse him, however, unless he promises to give away his white Coat.

…Tell Mary that I make over Mr. Heartley & all his Estate to her for her sole use and Benefit in future, & not only him, but all my other Admirers into the bargain wherever she can find them, even the kiss which C. Powlett wanted to give me, as I mean to confine myself in future to Mr. Tom Lefroy, for whom I donot care sixpence….

Friday.- At length the Day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy, & when you receive this it will be over – My tears flow as I write, at the melancholy idea.

 So much speculation on all this, coupled with Austen’s later reference to Lefroy in her letters, as well as other family references…one is not sure how to interpret Austen’s feelings for Lefroy.  The various biographers have their own opinions, from Park Honan, who says that Austen pursued Tom Lefroy and “fell deeply in love” and was “long obsessed with [him]” and equates Anne Elliot’s “we do not forget you” speech in Persuasion  with Austen’s not forgetting Tom Lefroy all those years later; Honan has a very romantic interpretation that Jane was very forward and suffered much in his leaving.  David Nokes in his Jane Austen: A Life [Farrar, 1997] emphasizes Austen’s love of flirtation and concludes that the attachment between Jane and Tom was very real.  Claire Tomalin in Jane Austen: A life [Viking 1997] states that Austen’s first extant letter is the “only surviving letter in which Jane is clearly writing as the heroine of her own youthful story” and that by Letter 2 she already has her defences up [p.119].  Tomalin believes that Austen’s reference to Fielding’s Tom Jones [in Letter 1] is a very provocative remark…Austen is making clear that “she doesn’t mind talking about a novel that deals candidly and comically with sexual attraction and sexual behaviors and she is telling Cassandra that she and Lefroy have openly discussed this book [p. 117].  But she is gravely injured in his leaving, and henceforth “her writing becomes informed by this knowledge of sexual vulnerability, running like a dark undercurrent beneath the comedy” [p.122].   

But the book and movie “Becoming Jane” has played upon the most romantic notions that stay with us in our hopes that Jane did have such a love and lost [see the references below that try hard to refute all this, especially by Joan Klingel Ray, who makes a strong case that Lefroy was already spoken for and realized he he was acting badly to Austen knowing she was “interested” in him…shades of Frank Churchill and Edward Ferrars?].  The Family Record makes it clear that as there was no further information as to what happened at the ball that last night, “it is unlikely he proposed or that Jane Austen thought that he would;” Tom was never asked there again as Madame Lefroy “did not like Tom because he had behaved badly to Jane”… but concludes that this was all a “temporary disappointment” as she shortly afterwords began her “bright and sparkling” story of “First Impressions” [later P&P]

Is Austen just evoking humor here to give Cassandra a laugh, offering up all her potential beaus to others, or does she really care something for Lefroy and really hurting at his going away?  Does the “offer” she refer to mean a marriage proposal or an offer to dance [as Ray suggests in her article]?  The fact that Cassandra did not destroy or edit these passages seems to indicate that they did not mean as much as “Becoming Jane” would like us to believe.  It is so easy to let our imaginations fill in the gaps that the letters leave for us.  So I put this out there for discussion… what do you think Austen means in these passages??  How much is she just playing and being facetious?

Though Austen speaks of Tom Lefroy in several places in this letter, there are other lines of interest:  one oft-quoted passage is “I am very much flattered by your commendation of my last Letter, for I write only for Fame, and without any view to pecuniary Emolument.”  Here is Austen at her very best!  And there are the usual references to friends and family, those whose names will appear again and again :  Eliza; Charles Fowle (“I hope he will be too hot for the rest of his life for it!” (regarding her stockings…); the Coopers, Anna; the Miss Biggs; Tom Fowle; the Rivers; and a comment to Cassandra that “I am very glad to find from Mary that Mr. & Mrs. Fowle are pleased with you…I hope you will continue to give satisfaction.”… and so on to Letter 3 for another day… with a huge jump from January 1796 to August 1796…

Further reading: (just a few of the many…)

  • Auerbach, Emily.  “Searching for Jane Austen: Restoring the ‘Fleas’ and ‘Bad Breath.’ ”  Persuasions, No. 27 (2005),  pp.  31-38.
  • Bander, Elaine.  “Jane Austen’s Letters:  Facts and Fictions.”  Persuasions, No. 27 (2005), pp. 119-129.
  • Fergus, Jan. ” ‘The Whinnying of Harpies’? – Humor in Jane Austen’s Letters.” Persuasions, No. 27 (2005) pp.13-29.
  • Wenner, Barbara. “Following the Trail of Jane Austen’s Letters.”  Persuasions, No. 27 (2005), pp. 130-141.
  • Ray, Joan Klingel.  “The One-Sided Romance of Jane Austen and Tom Lefroy”  Persuasions Online Vol. 28, No. 1, Winter 2007.
  • Canal Academie: “The True Love Life of Jane Austen”  discusses the movie “Becoming Jane.”
  • Spence, John.  Review of Jane Austen: A Family Record  in JASNA News (Summer 2005), where Spence questions Le Faye’s interpretation of this letter about Tom Lefroy.
  • Huff, Marsha.  “Becoming Jane:  Sorting Fact from Fiction,” at
  • Walker, Linda Robinson.  “Jane Austen and Tom Lefroy: Stories”  Persuasions Online, v.27, no 1 (Winter 2006)
  • ” ‘I was too proud to make any inquiries’ ” Jane Austen’s Eleventh Letter” at the The Loiterer
  • Nokes, David.  Jane Austen: A Life. Farrar, Straus, 1997.  See online,  Chapter 5 “Proflilgate and Shocking.”
  • Tomalin, Claire.  Jane Austen: A life.  Viking, 1997.
  • Honan, Park.  Jane Austen, her life.  St. Martin’s Press, 1987.
  • Austen-Leigh, William and Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh.  Jane Austen: a Family Record; revised and enlarged by Deirdre Le Faye.  London, 1989.  See also the 2nd edition published by Cambridge University Press, 2003, which includes additions and corrections and a changed format.
  • The Becoming Jane Fansite, the go-to place for all things Jane & Tom.
  • Fashion and Fun in 1796 (from the Regency Fashion Page), for thoughts on what was going on when Austen wrote this letter.

A Journey through Jane Austen’s Letters

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
  • date
  • 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!

ESSENTIAL AUSTEN: A Chronology of Jane Austen and Her Family (a review)

Writers necessarily edit as they write; to make paragraphs and resultant chapters coherent, some information has to be gone into in depth, while other information reluctantly or automatically must be jettisoned. Too much information, unskillfully crafted, will leave readers in the dust. A skillful author, however, molds the story with the facts at hand, picking and choosing what to include, and how to phrase or emphasize those inclusions. This is particularly true of biography.

Take, for instance, the prize-winning A MIDWIFE’S TALE, by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. While confronted with an entire decades-long diary (spanning 1785-1812), Dr Ulrich carefully chose certain illustrative sections in which to pinpoint aspects of Martha Ballard’s life. Reader’s interested in the minutiae of that life, as described by its protagonist, must unearth a copy of the published diary or go to the copy online.

The minutiae of life is exactly what Deirdre Le Faye gives readers in her superb and invaluable A CHRONOLOGY OF JANE AUSTEN AND HER FAMILY. This is certainly not the type of book one takes to bed, but it is nevertheless an engrossing read. Within its pages are the lives of not only Jane Austen, but also her forebears, immediate family, cousins, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews – a three-hundred-year span from 1700 to 2000. This result of Le Faye’s digging through archives, private collections and published works provides Austen fans the bones with which to build biographies all our own. Through it, you can uncover the additions and deductions of Austen bank accounts; follow the rise and fall of Henry Austen’s partnership with Tilson; chart the Hampshire weather utilizing the notations in neighbor Eliza Chute’s diaries; and find the private thoughts of girls like Fanny Austen Knight.

Some random samples:

In 1796 [p. 187]

September 2, Friday

Rowling: HTA leaves to return to Great Yarmouth. He will write soon to Steventon.
Hampshire: A ball is held in the Steventon district, possibly today (or possibly it is the next assembly ball at Basingstoke, on 8 September, Thursday), at which CEA is present. Other dancers include a large party from the Terry family of Dummer, Mr John Lovett, Mr Tincton, Mr John Harwood, Mary Lloyd, Mary Harrison and James Austen.
[Letters 4, 5]

September 3, Saturday

Rowling: EAK, Elizabeth, JA and FWA, dine at Goodnestone and have an impromptu dance afterwards. Others present are Lady Bridges and her children Edward, Harriet, Louisa and George, as well as Fanny and Lewis Waltham, the Misses Anne and Mary Finch. The invalid Marianne Bridges does not appear. The Rowling four walk home afterwards.
[Letters 5]


In 1802 [p. 267]

January 18, Monday

Dummer: ‘Miss Terry, Anne & I rode & called at Worting, Manydown, Oakley Hall, & Deane.’
[Powlett journal 119A00/1]

January 21, Thursday

London: Army agents Cox & Greenwood debit Major Thomas Austen’s account: ‘Cash paid freight of a Hogshead of rum from Jamaica, £2.8s.11d.’
[Cox & Greenwood ledger, fo. 33]

January 24, Sunday

London: Army agents Cox & Greenwood credit Major Thomas Austen’s account: ‘By 31 days Pay to 24 January 1802, £21.16s.7d.’
[Cox & Greenwood ledger fos. 33, 212]
The Vyne: ‘Misling small rain most of the day. Church. Mr. Austin to dinner.’
[Chute pb 23M93/70/1/9]


In 1809 [p. 369]


Alton: MLA goes to stay with Mary Gibson in Rose Cottage for about a month, while Mary G is expecting her second child.
[CMCA Rems 19]

June 14, Wednesday

Canterbury: ‘Aunt Louisa came & dressed here & dined with [three words illegible] where we met G.M. Bridges, Uncle B. & Mr. Champneys. Papa & Aunt J. with G.M. [Austen] & Aunt C. from Godmersham dined with Mrs Knight & called here in the morning. Mr. & Mrs. E. Cage & Annetta called. Aunt Louisa slept here. Little George Moore not very well went to stay at Goodnestone Farm for change of air.’
[FCKpb U.951/F.24/6]

June 15, Thursday

Canterbury: ‘Uncle & Aunt M. dined at Dr. Walsby’s & Aunt L. & I with Mrs. Knight where we met G.M. Bridges again & Aunt L. went back with her. Walked about the town in the morning. Fine & hottish.’
[FCKpb U.951/F.24/6]

The abbreviations utilized (fully explained at the front of the book) are, most of them, the typical used for personages and already well known: CEA = Cassandra Elizabeth Austen [Jane’s sister]; EAK = Edward Austen Knight [Jane’s brother]; CMCA = Caroline Mary Craven Austen [Jane’s niece, younger daughter of James]. Pb = pocket book. Entries are arranged with the geographic (town, estate, etc) in italics; and the source is clearly marked on the side margin [they appear below entries only in this review].

The sources for these listings are astounding: letters, diaries (pocket books), accounts books, taxation records, published memoirs and biographies, privately-held papers.

The one minus: while readers will be grateful for the extensive Personal Names index (which runs from pages 757-776, three columns per page), you do end up searching for references because, rather than indexed by page number, everyone is indexed by year. For instance:

Knatchbull, Joan: 1796
Knatchbull, Mary Dorothea, see Knight
Knatchbull, Wadham: 1813
Knatchbull, Wyndham: 1784, 1805, 1808, 1810-14 [page 768]

This obviously works best for people who occur multiple times within a given year; it does give a quick indication of which ‘periods someone appears in; and must have provided the publisher with a space-savings.

The structure of the book includes a substantial bibliography (712-724); thirty-two family trees (725-756); a frontispiece map and several illustrations. This is truly a publication of Le Faye’s DECADES of research into the Austen family; readers will feel as if they are sitting down with the scholar and picking her brain. In her preface, she says: ‘I hope that this uniquely detailed chronology will be of the greatest use to all future biographers, literary critics and historians, providing as it does accurate documented facts gathered from a wide variety of sources.’ We all owe her a debt of gratitude (to Cambridge University Press as well; although the steep $168 price tag does seem more geared towards library rather than individual purchase) for sharing the results of her researches with us all. It represents Le Faye’s gift to serious scholars, making this an Essential Austen volume.

* * *

ESSENTIAL AUSTEN is a series we will continue, which will introduce or earmark those books (and other items?) essential to an Austen collection.