May 2012 Meeting: Jane Austen’s Letters 1801-06

Prepared by member Jessie


The 12th century Steventon church, which was t...

Steventon church (12th century), where George Austen, Jane Austen’s father, preached (Courtesy: David Brooks, using CC-BY-SA 2.5 via Wikipedia)

The years 1801-06 constituted a traumatic period in Jane Austen’s life encompassing the family’s move from Steventon to Bath, the death of the Reverend Austen and the women’s subsequent eventual move, after an unsettled period, to live with Frank’s new bride in Southampton. The prospect of living in Bath had at first appalled Jane but we soon see her strong character at work as she set herself about disposing of her personal effects that she would not be able to keep, and her determination to enjoy, or at least endure as well as she could, their new life.

After her father’s death it becomes apparent that they were moving in different circles as they could no longer afford to entertain on the same scale in their reduced financial circumstances. Nevertheless, after the initial adjustments the letters still show her customary wit in the observations she makes on their lives and on the people they are interacting with. One member of our group was disappointed with the style (or lack of it) of writing but most of us felt these were just chatty letters written to a loved sister with whom she was used to exchanging news and ideas.

She mentions nothing about her novel writing which indicated to us that life was too unsettled for her creative genius to be at work. Perhaps if she had already had Sense and Sensibility and/or Pride and Prejudice published thus providing her with an income to alleviate some of their financial worries it may have encouraged her to make some time and space in her life to continue writing.

Unlike in her novels where dress is seldom mentioned we noted many detailed reports of ‘cloathes’ – both their own and others’, the latter often with a sting in the tail such as Mrs Powlett’s being ‘expensively and nakedly dressed’. Plots in her novels are driven by conversations which were important in the social life of her era and there is not much description of landscape or buildings which we find is true of her letters, apart from an occasional comment such as the village of Appleshaw being of ‘wonderful elasticity’ and her initial description of Bath as being all ‘vapour, shadow, smoke & confusion’ (an indication probably of her mental state regarding the move).

Indeed, we can see many indications of her attitudes, e.g. her opinion of some members of the clergy, of schoolteachers and particularly her concern for the plight of governesses, all of which make their appearance in individual novels. Fortunately, though she was not writing, she was storing up impressions and experiences which also later made their appearances in the novels. Again, for example, her visit to Lyme where they walked on The Cobb provided atmosphere and, no doubt, the possibility for incident, for Ann’s visit to Lyme.

As with most authors no experience was forgotten and we can be thankful that she, Cassandra and her mother were finally provided with a home where she was happy and once again able to put her mind to writing. Her letters are proof of her wit and from them we can see that those seemingly arid years were not wasted.


There was very little business to be discussed but we were pleased to have our Quizmaster back to provide us with a teaser on Volume III of Pride and Prejudice and this was followed by our usual challenge of the quotes.

Our next meeting will be on 16th June when we will discuss secondary sources of Pride and Prejudice.


One Response to May 2012 Meeting: Jane Austen’s Letters 1801-06

  1. jessiet1 says:

    I recommend that you also read Whispering Gums 26th May post on her website reviewing these letters

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