Here, Jane Austen is quite literally: “on the road again” traveling with her parents home.
This letter was written from the Bull and George, “a coaching inn,” that was located in Dartford, Kent. Per the notes, Dartford was originally a market town with manufacturing 19 miles southeast of London, and “the first post-town on the Dover road; now nearly part of Greater London.”
Jane Austen is reporting news, details and mishaps to her older sister Cassandra, as they traveled through Kent, starting with: “You have already heard from Daniel, I conclude, in what excellent time we reached and quitted Sittingbourne, and how very well my mother bore her journey thither.”
Two observations here: 1) the Austens had left and were returning home but Cassandra apparently stayed behind for a longer visit, and 2) Daniel via the notes, was very likely a coachman from Godmersham estate owned by Austen’s brother Edward Austen Knight (EAK), and apparently Daniel worked for EAK for quite some time — per the notes: “possibly the Daniel Boys who was buried at Godmersham on 22 December 1835 aged 73.”
Again via the notes, — Sittingbourne is a “country town” in Kent, 46 miles southeast of London, and 16 miles from the Godmersham estate.
Mrs. Austen seems to wax and wane in her traveling and health complaints, as Austen notes about their mother: “I am now able to send you a continuation of the same good account of her. She was very little fatigued on her arrival at this place, has been refreshed by a comfortable dinner, and now seems quite stout.”
Per previously reading the notes to these letters, and paraphrasing other Regency era references — during this time period, the word “stout” was used to convey “healthy” or “being of good general health and nourishment.”
Their visit at the country town of Sittingbourne was short: “It wanted five minutes of twelve when we left Sittingbourne, from whence we had a famous pair of horses, which took us to Rochester in an hour and a quarter; the postboy seemed determined to show my mother that Kentish drivers were not always tedious and really drove as fast as Cax.”
Per the notes, Cax is probably a misprint or a misreading of Cox or Cook’s which was a coach company — running a route from Salisbury to London and back. Another example of Austen’s wicked wit here — basically writing to Cassandra about how they had a crazy-fast driver, in comparing him to the London route drivers — which I guess had a reputation for speed at the expense of safety — in any case, Cassandra I presume would have gotten the reference and or joke.
Austen’s letter then gives another update on Mrs. Austen’s well being: “My mother took some of her bitters at Ospringe, and some more at Rochester, and she ate some bread several times.”
Apparently there were several inns located in Dartford, Kent, during the time Jane Austen visited during her travels, “but the best was the Bull (later called the Royal Victoria and Bull), opposite was a smaller establishment, the Bull and George.”
Austen then details their quarters at the Bull and George, which again was the smaller inn, located in Dartford, which she noted, resulted in some compromise, “We have got apartments up two pairs of stairs, as we could not otherwise be accommodated with a sitting-room and bed chambers on the same floor, which we wished to be.”
And then kind of a major crisis: “I should have begun my letter soon after our arrival but for a little adventure which prevented me. After we had been here a quarter of an hour it was discovered that my writing and dressing boxes had been by accident put into a chaise which was just packing off as we came in, and were driven away towards Gravesend in their way to the West Indies. No part of my property could have been such a prize before, for in my writing-box was all my worldly wealth, 7l, and my dear Harry’s deputation.” (The underline is Austen’s own notation.)
Okay so her writing box was put on the wrong coach en route to the West Indies no less. Austen seems to be upset more about the money kept in the box, and EAK apparently had issued a letter to allow their neighbor Harry Digweed back home — giving Henry the right to shoot on the Steventon estate — so Austen was acting as a courier and transporting this official letter.
Although I think the worldly or historical impact would have been the loss of her literary work in the writing-box. Austen seems more matter of fact — fixated on the loss of the money. Luckily, Mr. George Nottley (via the notes could have been Knottley), the landlord of the George & Bull inn in Dartford stepped in, “immediately despatched a man and horse after the chase, and in half an hour’s time I had the pleasure of being rich as ever; they were only got about two or three miles off.” Phew crisis avoided. (The spelling ‘despatched’ is Austen’s own.)
Austen continues noting the journey has been pretty pleasant and goes into accounts and exchanges about the weather, and a little account about their dad via a little book and reading update, “My father is now reading the ‘Midnight Bell,’ which he has got from the library, and my mother is siting by the fire.” The notes describe this book as: The Midnight Bell, a German Story, Founded on Incidents in Real Life, by Francis Lathom (1798), with a reference to Austen’s Northanger Abbey, chapter six (6). So another connection from Austin’s letter to a novel she wrote. It’s unclear though which library Austen is referring to here in this letter — thinking possibly it was from the library at Godmersham or from a lending library back at home — although I think the former is more likely as they were leaving EAK’s estate and traveling back to Steventon.
Austen closes this letter with the uncertainty of their scheduling and route home, and noting the strong opinions of the inn’s landlord which differ from the Austens, “Our route to-morrow is not determined. We have none of us much inclination for London, and if Mr. Nottley will give us leave, I think we shall go to Staines through Croydon and Kingston, which will be much pleasanter than any other way; but he is decidedly for Clapham and Battersea.” (The spelling ‘to-morrow is Austen’s own.)
The very last line: “God bless you all!” And then she adds a postscript, referencing the nickname of EAK’s second son George, “I flatter myself that itty Dordy will not forget me at least under a week. Kiss him for me.” (The underline is Austen’s own.) Think this is a reference to why Cassandra remained, most likely to help with EAK’s children.
Addendum here per the notes, in this collection of Austen’s letters: “Letter missing here, dated Thursday 25 October 1798.” Which denotes a missing letter in chronological order, etc.
All notes unless otherwise noted are to: Jane Austen’s Letters, Fourth Edition, Collected and Edited by Deirdre Le Fay, Oxford University Press 2011.