This letter written by Jane Austen from her home in Steventon to her older sister Cassandra, who is away visiting at their brother Edward’s Godmersham Park estate in Kent is full of family news as well as details of holiday events, plus a lot of “sisterly affection.” This letter is a good example of the close relationship between the two sisters and their writing and sharing information with each other of their individual and daily experiences.
Austen begins this letter with news about one of the seafaring Austen brother’s Frank, with details about posts and plans of an imminent promotion with a bit of detour, “There!–I may now finish my letter, & go & hang myself, for I am I sure I can neither write nor do anything which will not appear insipid to you after this.–Now I really think he will soon be made, & only wish we could communicate or fore-knowledge of the Event, to him when it principally concerns.” This is a little bit cryptic but I’m presuming perhaps part of the code between the sisters in sharing hopes and dreams for their brother and not wanting to jinx anything, but the intrigue continues: “Your cheif wish is now ready to be accomplished; & could Lord Spencer give happiness to Martha at the same time, what a joyful heart he would make of Yours!” (Austen’s own spelling.) Per the notes, Cassandra and Jane were both trying to do a bit of matchmaking here for their friend Martha Lloyd, which ironically did not take until about 30 years later. In 1806, Frank first married Mary Gibson and had eleven children with her (six sons and five daughters). However, Mary passed away in July 1823, and Frank married Martha in in July of 1828.
This letter then takes a turn back here, to more news of Frank, and his upcoming commission, before Austen gives Cassandra an update on Mrs. Austen, “I returned from Manydown this morning, & found my Mother certainly in no respect worse than I left here.–She does not like the cold Weather, but that we cannot help.”
From there, Austen gives Cassandra an update on her visit and the people she met, “Our Ball was very thin, but by no means unpleasant.” Jane Austen gives her older sister a pretty good account of the meet and the greet, plus a little update on the Rev, John Calland, per the notes, Rector of Bentworth near Alton, “Mr. Calland, who appeared as usual with his hat in his hand, & stood every now & then behind Catherine & me to be talked to & abused for not dancing.–We teized him however into it last last;– I was very glad to see him again after so long a separation, & he was altogether rather the Genius & Flirt of the Evening,–He enquired after You.” (Spelling and capitalization are Austen’s own).
Again, per the notes regarding Mr. Calland: “his attachment to his hat are well known to the Austens.” Interesting to note, Austen’s inclusion to Cassandra of his attendance, being teased about not dancing, then peer-pressured into it and then being thought of as a “Genius” and “Flirt” of the evening. Wondering if there was some sort of love interest here, since Austen particularly noted, that he enquired after Cassandra and she specifically relied that back to her sister. As well as just the idea of teasing an eligible man for not dancing, perhaps this was something Austen and/or other’s did and naturally fit into the characters of her fictional work, most notably Mr. Darcy — who is later called out by Elizabeth for his past refusal to dance, when male partners were short, etc.
Austen then recounts how she danced all 20 dances, as well as noting, “My black Cap was openly admired by Mrs. Lefroy & secretly I imagine by everybody else in the room.” This is followed by a break and a date designation of Tuesday, with the receipt of Cassandra’s letter and news from Kent: “I thank you for your long letter, which I will endeavour to deserve by writing the rest of this as closely as possible.–I am full of joy at much of your information: that you should have been to a Ball, & have danced at it & supped with the Prince.” Per the notes, Cassandra’s ball included the attendance of HRH Major-General Prince William-Frederick of Gloucester, who was in Kent via military duties. So Cassandra was out and about, and per the notes, Ashford is country town about 7 miles from Godmersham, and the balls were usually held at the Saracen’s Head, which was the coaching inn.
Austen continues her letter in reply with discussing wardrobe options an improvements, although right the middle of it, Austen pauses, commenting again on news from Cassandra that Edward, their wealthy brother has been ill, “Poor Edward! It is very hard that he who has everything else in the World that he can with for, should not have good health too.–”
Which leads to another update on their mother’s health, “My Mother’s Spirits are not affected by her complication of disorders; on the contrary they are altogether as good as ever; nor are you to suppose that these maladies are often thought of.–She has at times had a tendency towards another which always releives her, & that is, a gouty swelling & sensation about the ancles.” (Austen’s own underline and spelling.)
Austen returns to her joy about Cassandra’s experience at the Ashford ball, discussions about wardrobe, repairing, repurposing and perhaps donating certain items. before noting to Cassandra, “I am glad to hear such a good account of Harriet Bridges; she goes on now as young Ladies of 17 ought to do; admired & admiring; in a much more rational way than her three elder Sisters, who had so little of that kind of Youth.” Per the notes, the three elder Bridges sisters: “had all married straight from the schoolroom, and thereby assumed domestic and maternal responsibilities at a very early age.” This is a little telling again, at Austen’s view of life and marriage, and marrying for love and not for domestic security.
She then returns to updating Cassandra on her activities, “I was to have dined at Deane to day, but the weather is so cold that I am not sorry to be kept at home by the appearance of Snow.” As well as possibly lamenting some upcoming plans, “We are to have Company to dinner on friday; the three Digweeds & James.–We shall be a nice silent party I suppose.” The tone here tends to land a little flat, like she’s really not all that thrilled about it but duly relaying it to Cassandra.
Although this letter diverts again, “Seize upon the Scissors as soon as you possibly can on receipt of this. I only fear your being too late to secure the prize.” This is followed by a bit of a cryptic update concerning Charles and efforts in what seems again, to be related to a posting and naval career issues, before Austen then sends a directive from Mrs. Austen, “My Mother wants to know whether Edward has ever made the Hen House which they planned together.”
With another nod to Martha and scheduling, Austen then concludes, but not before she apologizes to Cassandra for the inferiority of her letter, “You deserve a longer letter than this; but it my unhappy fate seldom to treat people so well as they deserve.” The Wednesday postscript she added gives Cassandra a bit more news. “The Snow came to nothing yesterday, so I did go to Deane, & returned home at 9 o’clock at night in the little carriage–& without being very cold.–Miss Debary dines with us on friday as well as the Gentlemen.”
All cites to Jane Austen’s Letters, Fourth Edition, edited by Deirdre Le Faye, Oxford University Press, 2011.