In April 1811 Jane Austen, who was staying in London with her brother Henry, wrote to her sister Cassandra. The letter includes news about family and friends, as well as references to Austen’s novel Sense and Sensibility, which was published later that year.
News and gossipAusten was replying to a letter from Cassandra, who was staying with their brother Edward and his family in Kent. Austen tells her sister of the birth of a new nephew, Henry Edgar Austen, the third child of their brother Frank. The letter also includes news of yet another brother (Austen had six), Charles, who was serving in the Royal Navy. Austen had heard from an acquaintance in London that Charles’s ship, the Cleopatra, was returning to England.
The letter is packed full of detail, with Austen using every bit of the paper, including the margins, in order to fit in as much news as possible. Much of the letter is filled with everyday observations of the kind that occupy the characters in Austen’s novels: the weather, health, clothes and social engagements. Austen’s interest in human behaviour and her attention to detail will be familiar to readers of her novels, as will the letter’s gossipy tone: like many of her characters, Austen clearly enjoys speculating about the lives of those around her. She describes a party she attended the previous night, held by her sister-in-law Eliza, at which there was much merriment and music. Austen revels in the opportunity to scrutinise the guests, stating ‘ … we placed ourselves in the connecting passage, which was comparatively cool, and gave us … the first view of every new comer’. She goes on to make a number of sharp observations: ‘Poor Miss B. has been suffering again from her complaint and looks thinner than ever … Miss M. [who] seems very happy, but has not beauty enough to figure in London … Capt. S. was certainly in liquor’.Austen’s novel Emma, published four years later, contains a ball similar in some respects to the one described in this letter. The fictional ball is much smaller (Austen writes that there were 66 present at Eliza’s), but Mrs Weston, Emma and her father agonise for weeks over the arrangements, just as Eliza and the Austen family experience ‘many solicitudes, alarms & vexations’ in the planning of their ball. The ball in Emma, like Eliza’s, is held chiefly in two rooms connected by a passage, though in Emma there is much concern that characters will catch cold as they move through the cooler passage. At Austen’s sister-in-law’s ball, the passage’s coolness, and the extra room it provides, are an advantage.
References to Sense and SensibilityAusten first began writing an epistolary novel (a novel in letters) which became Sense and Sensibility around 1795. Cassandra has clearly inquired about the progress of the book as Austen writes that ‘I am never too busy to think of S&S. I can no more forget it, than a mother can forget her sucking child; & I am much obliged to you for your enquiries’. Austen explains that she is correcting part of the novel and that their brother Henry is planning to speak to her publisher very soon, which suggests that the novel was almost ready for publication.
My dearest Cassandra,
I can return the compliment by thanking you for the unexpected pleasure of your Letter yesterday, & as I like unexpected pleasure, it made me very happy; and indeed, you need not apologise for your Letter in any respect, for it is all very fine, but not too fine. I hope to be written again, or something like it. [ I think Edward will not suffer much longer from heat; by the look of Things this morn[ing] I suspect the weather is rising into the balsamic Northeast - It has been hot here, as you may suppose, since it was so hot with you, but I have not suffered from it at all, nor felt it in such a degree as to make me imagine it would be anything in the Country. Every body has talked of the heat, but I set it all down to London. [I give you joy of our new Nephew, & hope if he ever comes to be hanged, it will not be till we are too old to care about it. - It is a great comfort to have it so safely & speedily over. The Miss Curlings must be hard worked in writing so many Letters, but the novelty of it may recommend it to them; mine was from Miss Eliza, & she says that my Brother may arrive today. [No indeed, I am never too busy to think of S[ense] & S[ensibility]. I can no more forget it, than a mother can forget her sucking child; & I am much obliged to you for your enquiries. I have had two Sheets to correct, but the last only brings us to W[illoughby]’s first appearance. Mrs K. regrets in the most flattering manner that she must wait till May, but I have scarcely a hope of its being out in June. - Henry does not neglect it; he has hurried the Printer, & says he will see him again today. - It will not stand still during his absence
[upside down at top of sheet]
[ I shall write soon to Catherine to fit my day, which will be Thursday. - We have no engagements but for Sunday. Eliza’s cold makes quiet advisable. - Her party is mentioned in this morning’s paper. I am sorry to hear of poor Fanny’s state. - From that quarter I suppose is to be the alloy of her happiness. - I will have no more to say. -
Y[ours] affect[ionately] J. A.
Give my love particularly to my God-daughter.
it will be sent to Eliza. - [The Incomes remain as they were, but I will get them altered if I can. - I am very much gratified by Mrs K.s interest in it; & whatever may be the event of it as to my credit with her, sincerely wish her curiosity could be satisfied sooner than is now probable. I think she will like my Elinor, but cannot build on any thing else. [Our party went off extremely well. There were many solicitudes, alarms & vexations beforehand of course, but at last everything was quite right. The rooms were dressed up with flowers &c. & looked very pretty. - A glass for the Mantlepiece was lent by the Man who is making their own. - Mr Egerton & Mr Walter came at ½ past 5, & the festivities began with a p[air] of very fine Soals. [Yes, Mr Walter - for he postponed his leaving London on purpose - which did not give much pleasure at the time, any more than the circumstance from which it rose, his calling on Sunday & being asked by Henry to take the family dinner on that day, which he did - but it is all smooth’d over now; - & she likes him very well. - [At ½ past 7 arrived the Musicians in two Hackney coaches, & by 8 the lowly Company began to appear. Among the earliest were George & Mary Cooke, & I spent the greatest part of the even[ing] very pleasantly with them. - The Draw[ing] room being soon hotter than we liked, we placed ourselves in the connecting Passage, which was comparatively cool, & gave us all the advantage of the Music at a pleasant distance, as well as that of the first view of every new comer. [I was quite surrounded by ac-quintance, especially Gentlemen; & what with Mr Hampson, Mr Seymour Mr W. Knatchbull, Mr Guillimaide, Mr Cure, a Cap[tain] Simpson, brother to the Capt[ain] Simpson, besides Mr Walter & MrEgerton, in addition to the Cookes & Miss Beckford & Miss Middleton, I had quite as much upon my hands as I could do. - [Poor Miss B[eckford] has been suffering again from her old complaint, & looks thinner than ever. She certainly goes to Cheltenham the beginning of June. We were all delight & cordiality of course. Miss M[iddleton] seems very happy, but has not beauty enough to figure in London. - [Including everybody we were 66 - which was considerably more than Eliza had expected, & quite enough to fill
the Back Draw[ing] room, & leave a few to be scattered about in the other, & in the passage. [The Music was extremely good. It opened (tell Fanny) with “Poike pe Parp piss praise pof Prapela” - & of the other Glees I recommended, “In peace Love turns,” “Rosabelle”, “The red cross Knight” & “Poor Insect”. Be= tween the Songs were Lessons on the Harp, or Harp & Piano Forte together - & the Harp Player was Wiepart, whose name seems famous, tho’ new to me. - There was one female singer, a short Miss Davis all in blue, bring= ing up for the Public Line, whose voice was said to be very fine indeed; & all the Performers gave great satisfaction by doing what they were paid for, & giving themselves no airs. - No Amateur could be persuaded to do anything. [The House was not clear till after 12. - If you wish to hear more of it, you must put your questions, but I seem rather to have exhausted than spared the subject. [This said Capt[ain] Simpson told us on the authority of some other Capt[ain] just arrived from Halifax, that Charles was bringing the Cleopatra home, & that she was probably by this time in the Channel - but as Capt[ain] S[impson] was certainly in liquor, we must not quite depend on it. It must give one a sort of expectation however, & will prevent my writing to him any more. - I would rather he sh[ould] not reach England till I am at home, & the Steventon party gone. [My Mother & Martha both write with great satisfaction of Anna’s behaviour. She is quite an Anna with variations - but she cannot have reached her last, for that is always the most flourishing & shewey - she is at about her 3[r]d or 4th which are generally simple & pretty. - [Your Lilacs are in leaf, ours are in bloom. - The Horse chesnuts are quite out, & the Elms almost. I had a pleasant walk in Kensington G[ardens] on Sunday with Henry, Mr Smith & Mr Tilson - every thing was fresh & beautiful. [We did go to the play after all on Saturday, we went to the Lyceum, & saw the Hypocrites, an old play taken from Moliere’s Tartuffe, & were well entertained. Dowton & Mathews were the good actors. Mrs Edwin was the Heroine - & her performance is just what is used to be. - I have no chance of seeing Mrs Siddons. - She did act on Monday, but as Henry was told by the Box keeper that he did not think she would, the plans, & all thought of it, were given up. I should particularly have liked seeing her in Constance, & could swear at her with little effort for disappointing me. - [Henry has been to the Water colour Exhibition, which open’d on Monday, & is to meet us there again some morn[ing] - If Eliza cannot go - (& she has a cold at present) Miss Beaty will be invited to be my companion. - Henry leaves Town
on Sunday afternoon - but he means to write soon himself to Edward - & will tell his own plans. - [The Tea is this moment setting out: - [Do not have your col[oured] muslin unless you really want it, because I am afraid I c[ould] not send it to the Coach without giving trouble here. - [Eliza caught her cold on Sunday in our way to the D’Entraigne’s; the Horses actually gibbed on this side of Hyde Park Gate - a load of fresh gravel made it a formidable Hill to them, & they refused the collar; - I believe there was a sore shoulder to irritate - Eliza was frightened & we got out - & were detained in the Even[ing] air several mi-nutes. - The cold is in her chest - but she takes care of herself, & I hope it may not last long. - [This engagement prevented Mr Walter’s staying late. -
he had his coffee, & went away. - Eliza enjoyed her even[ing] very much, & means to cultivate the acquaintance - & I see nothing to dislike ^ in them, but their taking quantities of snuff. - Monsieur the old Count, is a very fine looking man, with quiet manners, good enough for an Englishman - & I beleive is a Man of great Information & Taste. He has some fine Paintings which delighted Henry as much as the Son’s music gratified Eliza - & among them, a Miniature of Philip 5 of Spain, Louis 14.s Grandson, which exactly suited my capacity. - Count Julien’s performance is very wonderful. [We met only Mrs Latouche & Miss East - & we are just now engaged to spend next Sunday Even[ing] at Mrs L[atouche’]s - & to meet the D’Entraignes - but M[onsieur] le Counte must do without Henry. If he w[ould] but speak english I would take to him.
Have you even mentioned the leaving off Tea to Mrs K? - Eliza has just spoken of it again. - The Benefit she has found from it in sleeping, has been very great.
Edw[ard] Austen’s Esq[uire]
Jane Austen 36525
- Article by:
- John Mullan
- The novel 1780–1832
Professor John Mullan explores the romantic, social and economic considerations that precede marriage in the novels of Jane Austen.
- Article by:
- John Mullan
- The novel 1780–1832
Questions of status and class are a major preoccupation of Jane Austen’s characters, and of the novels themselves. Professor John Mullan considers both the importance of social status and its satirical potential.
- Article by:
- Kathryn Sutherland
- Childhood and children's literature, The novel 1780–1832
Professor Kathryn Sutherland explores how Jane Austen’s education and upbringing shaped her childhood writing, and considers the relationship between these early works and her adult novels.