May 2013 Meeting: Jane Austen’s Letters 1798-1800 (Letters 1-28)

Prepared by member Marilyn

Discussion

General discussion opened the meeting with general comments such as that capitalisation was inconsistent when the letters were written, and that spelling had not been standardised in the early eighteenth century.

Writing

The letters reveal elements of the embryonic writer’s style and give glimpses of her personality and relationships.

Letters provide a positive foundation for a writer who wrote frequently. Many creative writing teachers must agree that such daily letter writing could provide a sound foundation for budding writers.

Paper restrictions were perhaps the reason the topics flow into each other without paragraph changes; and the writing is spontaneous, not always connected and sometimes unclear. We noted that Jane sometimes clarified her ambiguous statements.

In her conversational tone, especially in letters written to Cassandra, JA makes amusing comments such as

I only write for fame, and without any view to pecuniary Emolument.” (Letter 2)

The familiar ironic style, especially pertaining to people she met, was evident in the views of the young Jane Austen, indicating that she would incorporate these into her mature writing. The acerbic tongue is amusing and evident in comments such as that relating to the stillborn child –

Mrs. Hall, of Sherborne, 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 also indicates that perhaps she may have deserved her reputation for sharp comments.

Customs of the day

We are given insights into the behaviours of the day, including the need for a guarantor in the profession and the acceptance of professional patronage. Jane’s father wrote to admirals he knew enquiring after the promotion prospects of his sons:

My father has written to Daysh to desire that he will inform us if he can, when the Commission is sent. (Letter 15)

Jane’s  amusement in life and daily routines are written in her entertaining style.

I do not know what is the matter with me today, but I cannot write quietly; I am always wandering  away into some exclamation or other. (Letter 21)

Jane thought that “perhaps breakfast may assist my ideas … but I  was deceived” (Letter 22) and her delight in words and writing abounds as she compliments Cassandra as a writer, even describing her “The finest comic writer of the present age”. (Letter 4)

Your essay on happy fortnights is highly ingenious and the talobert skin made me laugh a good deal. (Letter 18)

Details of Jane’s domestic responsibilities aroused our sympathy although she speaks of them positively:

I always take care to provide such things as please my own appetite, which I consider the chief merit in housekeeping. I have had some  ragout veal, and I mean to have some  haricot mutton tomorrow … (Letter 11)

Mr Lyford, her mother’s doctor, is invited to stay for dinner:

and partook of our elegant entertainment. I was not ashamed at asking him to sit down to table, for we had some pease-soup, a sparerib, and pudding. (Letter 13)

Her reference to walking – particularly “the walk in the cold black frost ” (Letter 21) – reminded us of Elizabeth’s delight in walking to Netherfield in Pride and Prejudice. A member suggested that, before the building of public toilets in the nineteenth century, women’s walking was limited by the distance between access to toilets.

Recreation and entertainment

Austen describes her enjoyment of simple pleasures:

I had a very pleasant evening, however, though you will probably find out that there was no particular reason for it; but I do not think it worth while to wait for enjoyment until there is some real opportunity for it. (Letter 18)

Evening entertainment often consisted of reading aloud, and Austen refers to books being acquired and read. Her father, she says, was disappointed in Egerton (Letter 12) but liked Cowper. (Letter 14)

The rereading of  titles was common, as is apparent in this amusing comment regarding her early version of Pride and prejudice:

I would not let Martha read First Impressions again upon any account….she is very cunning, but I see through her design; – she means to publish it from memory. (Letter 21)

She writes of the formation of a lending library:

I  have received a very civil note from Mrs Martin requesting  my name as a Subscriber to her Library  which opens on 14 of January […] : her Collection is not to consist only of novels, but of every kind of  Literature. (Letter 14)

And also talks of personal lending, such as lending books to family friend Martha. (Letter 26)

References to social activities, especially balls, informed our understanding of the novels. We were intrigued by the role played by the dance record, when Jane missed out on some dances, refused some partners and complained about the lack of choice on other occasions (Letter 14). In one letter she says she “escaped being asked”. We noted that at some balls there were few couples to dance, and believe this was common in country social life.

Tom Lefroy

She makes a few references to her association with Tom Lefroy . That she “cried”, expected “an offer”, and was too proud to ask his aunt Mrs Lefroy about him, seemed revealing of her sadness at the end of the affair.

I was too proud to make any enquiries; but on my father’s afterwards asking where he was, I learnt that he was gone back to London.

and

there seems no likelihood of his coming into Hampshire this Christmas, and it is therefore most probable that our indifference  will soon be mutual. (Letter 11)

We noted how often she crossed the path of the Lefroy family members.

Health

English: "The Apothecary came" - A d...

“The Apothecary came” – A doctor comes to visit Jane at Netherfield. Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. London: George Allen, 1894, page 44. (Wikipedia)

There are frequent references to Jane’s concern for the health of family members. The references to her mother suggest hyperchondria

My Mother continues hearty, her appetite and nights are very  good … she sometimes complains of an Asthma, a dropsy, Water in her chest & a Liver disorder (Letter 14)

and

Mother made her entree into the dressing room through crowds of admiring spectators.

and

My mother’s spirits are not affected by her complication of disorders; on the contrary they are altogether as good as ever. (Letter 15)

Such a comment makes one wonder what Jane was responding to. In fact, this was a common response of ours since we are denied the complete set of letters.

Jane reports of news of the neighbours and the fragility of life:

Mrs Coulthard and Ann, late of  Manydown, are both dead, and both died in childbed. (Letter 11)

But she shielded her pregnant sister-in-law Mary from this news, writing that “we have not regaled Mary with this news”. This doesn’t stop her criticising Mary for not being tidy enough!

Her letters from Bath, include many reference to the health issues, including Gout (Letter 22).

She mentions her concern for her brother Edward’s illnesses and the various suggested remedies such as to ” try the electricity”:

Poor Edward It is very hard that he who has everything else  in the World that he can wish for, should not have good health too. (Letter 15)

Fashion

We were reminded that it was wartime and to consider the discussion of clothing construction and hats in this context, as there was as much recycling of fabrics and borrowing of hats.

I took the liberty a few days ago of asking your Black velvet Bonnet to lend me its cawl, which it readily did.  (Letter 14)

She discusses the range of fabrics available and the relative high cost of irish linen, at 3/6 a yard. We realised that shirt making for the brothers was a time-consuming activity, and learnt that some gowns were made by hand, others by dressmakers.

Fashion in Bath was of great interest, and she reports of fruit preferred to flowers to decorate hats:

I cannot decide on the fruit until I hear from you again… (Letter 21)

Her mention that the Mamalouc cap was now in fashion (Letter 17) is clearly a reference to Egyptian style after Napoleonic wars.

Household staff

Unlike the novels, household staff are mentioned, and seemed in short supply. One maid was to be accepted but needed to be “taught  the dairy”. On another occasion she writes that:

Nanny has kept her bed these three or four days, with a pain in her  side and fever, and we are forced to have two charwomen. (Letter 12)

That all women seemed to be knowledgable about household skills but staff were used to undertake them fits with Lady Catherine’s advice to Charlotte and Mrs Bennet’s snobbery when announcing that her daughters didn’t do these things.

Duels

Although duelling was illegal, accidents by pistol shot were still about. (Letter 25)

Austen reports on young Harwood shooting himself in the leg, the complications involved in extracting the bullet, and the fact that his parents were concerned that the injury was the result of a duel, indicating that perhaps he was a wayward young man to some degree. (Letter 18)

Business

Our meeting concluded with our “quotes” challenge.

Our next meeting will be on 15th June when we will discuss Jealousy and Envy in Jane Austen.

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