For some time, before the invention of the telephone, and even long distance calling, there was something wonderful about receiving a long, newsy letter. This moment in time has long disappeared, although it made a brief reoccurrence in the 1990’s, with the advent of email or electronic mail, when it first became a mode of communication. Before spam, chain email, scams, phishing — many people would check their accounts hoping for a long, newsy letter via this electronic format, from people that lived far enough away that long distance calling was not possible or very infrequent. But eventually technology in the other forms primarily social media and the invention of the cell phone soon to be the smart phone took that all away.
Here hundreds of years before the word “electronic” — Jane Austen is writing from her home in Steventon writes her older sister Cassandra visiting their brother in Kent, a post-Christmas letter full of early January news, although per the notes, this letter follows one missing in the collection of her correspondence. Through the letter Austen states that she is feeling pretty ill, and in print documents, initially debates turning the letter over to their Mother to finish writing out for her.
This correspondence begins with Jane thanking her older sister for her latest letter, admiring her writing, “You must read your letters over five times in the future before you send them, & then perhaps you may find them as entertaining as I do.–I laughed at several parts of the one which I am now answering.” Again, this makes me long for Cassandra’s letters to read her side of their correspondence.” (Underline emphasis is Austen’s own.)
Austen starts this letter stating their brother Charles, with a worry because of an upcoming ball: “The Ball at Kempshott is this Evening, & I have got him an invitation, though I have not been so considerate as to get him a Partner.” (Underline emphasis is Austen’s own.) This continues with some sister discussion of a possible love interest, “But the cases are different between him & Eliza Bailey, for he is not a dieing way, & therefore may be equal to getting a partner for himself.” (Spelling is Austen’s own.)
Austen acknowledges relaying a previous incorrect date for the ball and is full on pushing back with her wicked wit: “Elizabeth is very cruel about my writing Music;–& as a punishment for her, I should insist upon always writing out all hers for her in the future, if I were not punishing myself at the same time.”
Which diverts into a comment about their brother Edward, “I am tolerably glad to hear of Edward’s income is so good a one–as glad as I can at anybody’s being rich besides You & me–& I am thoroughly rejoiced to here of his present to you.” Austen seems to be happy to hear Edward made some sort of a monetary gift to her older sister, then discusses her attire for the ball and other wardrobe issues, which includes a “Mamlouc cap,” which per the notes, was very much Egyptian inspired fashion of the time.
The next item she tackled was an upcoming visit to their Cooke cousins, which again per the notes, Cassandra may have censored to protect these relatives from the harsh if not wicked wit, “I assure You that I dread the idea of going to Bookham as much as you can do; but I am not without hopes that something may happen to prevent it, Theo’ has lost his Election at Baliol, & perhaps they may not be able to see company for some time.–They talk of going to Bath too in the Spring, & perhaps they may be overturned in their way down, & all laid up for the summer.”
Here, Austen notes, “I have had a cold & weakness in one of my eyes for some days, which makes Writing neither very pleasant nor profitable & which will probably prevent my finishing this letter myself.–My Mother has undertaken to do it for me, & I shall leave the Kempshott Ball for her.”
Austen continues joking in writing about the Wither family: “Mary grows rather more reasonable about her Child’s beauty, & says that she does not think him really handsome; but I suspect her moderation to be something like that of W-W-‘s Mama.” Per the notes, a descendent of the Wither family stated via F. Awry, A Country Gentleman of the Nineteenth Century, “‘It was a custom of the Wither clan to fuss and talk a great [deal] about bad health.'” So Cassandra, knowing the Withers, was well in on the joke.
Austen then describes the attendance at the event, “Catherine has the honour of giving her name to a set, which will be composed of two Withers, two Heathcotes, a Blackford, & no Bigg except herself.” (Spelling is Austen’s own.) Per the notes, Austen again is writing a bit of an inside joke with writing about “the set” for her sister about the house party in naming everyone as Catherine is technically the only Bigg, her father and brother were Bigg-Wither and her married sister the Heathcote.
Austen then reacts very pleasantly, presumably of Cassandra writing about their nephew, “My sweet little George!–I am delighted to hear that he has such an inventive Genius as to face-making.” Apparently, their nephew was inventive using the sealing wax, “I admire his yellow wafer very much, & I hope he will chuse the wafer for your next letter.” (Spelling is Austen’s own.)
Now there is a brief return to wardrobe or is there? “I wore my Green shoes last night & took my white fan with me: I am very glad he never threw it into the River.” Going to pause here for a moment, as fans were often used for communication and flirting, that doesn’t puzzle me — but sounds like there is more to the story here. Who is he, and how did he get Jane Austen’s fan? Did she give it to him? Was it a joke gone wrong or an argument of some sort? Questions remain, but Cassandra is in the know and sadly we are not and there is nothing in the notes about it.
Austen does not dwell here, presumably she continues writing with Cassandra’s understanding of the fan and river reference, and revisits the subject of their brother Edward again, and Mrs. Knight, “Mrs. Knights giving up the Godmersham Estate to Edward was no such prodigious act of Generosity after all it seems for she has reserved herself an income out of it still;–this ought to be known, that her conduct may not be over-rated.–I rather think Edward shows the most Magnanimity of the two, in accepting her Resignation with such Incumbrances.” (Austen’s own spelling and punctuation.) Seems to be commenting on the transition of Edward’s formal taking over the estate as well as Mrs. Knight’s yearly annuity of two thousand pounds which he must pay, but more so on their public and private personas and actions around this matter, which seems to be an ongoing issue of concern of the sisters for their brother. Not suggesting here that they are concerned for Edward supporting or sheltering them, although he would ultimately provide the Chawton cottage for them.
Austen continues this letter with a little update that she is feeling more and has not had to recruit Mrs. Austen just yet, “The more I write, the better my Eye gets, so I shall at least keep on till it is quite well, before I give up my pen to my Mother.” (Austen’s own punctuation.)
And so Austen describes the ball with all of her keen observations and touches of wicked wit: “Mrs. Bramston was very civil, kind & noisy.–I spent a very pleasant evening chiefly among the Manydown party.–There was the same kind of supper as last Year, & the same want of chairs.– There were more Dancers than the Room could conveniently hold, which is enough to constitute a good Ball at any time.”
Also notes for Cassandra how much she danced with a little bit of resignation: “I do not think I was very much in request–. People were rather apt not to ask me till they could not help it.”
Austen also describes a possible missed connection: “There was one Gentleman, an officer of the Cheshire, a very good looking young Man, who I was told wanted very much to be introduced to me;– but he did not want it quite enough to take much trouble in effecting it, We could never bring it about.” Austen seems disappointed writing to Cassandra, noting how the introduction was needed — I am presuming to have it go forward, and perhaps to dancing or conversation, but just did not happen.
Continues to update her older sister about the ball, while chiding their brother, “Charles never came!–Naughty Charles.”
Continues on with a wrap up of the ball and related news of the attendees, before Austen quips: “Miss Debary has replaced your two sheets of Drawing paper, with two of superior size & quality; so I do not grudge her of having them at all now.”
Austen then relays news of a couple of recent marriages before stating: “I do not wonder at your wanting to read first impressions again, so seldom as you have gone through it, & that so long ago.” This is an interesting reference to early draft manuscript of what would ultimately become Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. From Austen’s letter here, it seems Cassandra it seems to have an ongoing interest in the story and wanted to read and perhaps comment on it again.
There is no dwelling on her literary work here, Austen continues the letter, going back to more perhaps troubling domestic matters: “I am much obliged to you for meaning to leave my old petticoat behind You; I have long secretly wished it might be done, but had not the courage to make the request.”
Austen includes some local, business news as well: “The partnership between Jeffreys boomer & Legge is dissolved.” This was a banking partnership in Basingstoke, although the notes, do not clarify if the Austens were personally impacted, but apparently it was big enough neighborhood news for Jane to include it to Cassandra in this letter.
Austen closes with well wishes: “I wish you Joy of your Birthday twenty times over.” And then adds at the very end an apology: “Do not be angry with me for not filing my Sheet–” Perhaps because she was still feeling ill Austen did not use the last page of the letter entirely which was unusual because paper was so expensive, people wrote on every inch, plus per the notes, Cassandra would still have to pay the same amount of postage for an empty sheet.
All notes, cites to: Jane Austen’s Letters, collected and edited by Deidre LeFaye, Fourth Edition, Oxford University Press, 2011.