Jane Austen writes again to her older sister Cassandra, who remains away visiting their brother Edward in Kent. Per the notes, there is a letter missing here in her correspondence. Austen though seems to be continuing an apology for an empty sheet/requiring the postage being paid for blank paper from previous letters earlier in January and perhaps the missing letter from before this one, was rather on the shorter side, because she writes joking about the charge from the local postmaster: “I will endeavour to make this letter more worthy your acceptance than my last, which was so shabby a one I think Mr. Marshall could never charge you with postage.” (Austen’s own spelling.)
Austen then relays that her eyes are improving from her previous illness and gives an update on their brother Charles and his naval commissions, and his plans to travel to recently arrived and docked ship, “The Tamar,” which did not exactly work out. Austen in fact sounded like she was a bit frustrated about scheduling: “I want to go with him, that I may explain the country to him properly between Canterbury and Rowling, but the unpleasantness of returning by myself deters me.”
The relaying a little bit of gossip and/or another’ lady’s opinion of the Austen men: “Martha writes me word that Charles was very much admired at Kintbury, and Mrs. Lefroy never saw anyone so much improved in her life, and thinks him handsomer than Henry.”
Austen adds on her own comments about their brother Charles: “He appears to far more advantage here than he did at Godmersham, not surrounded by strangers and neither oppressed by a pain in his face or powder in his hair.” Austen leaves off and goes onto other subjects, but later will return to the change in Charles’ appearance.
She then includes an update family news via letter received by Mrs. Austen from their cousin Edward Cooper, details a new living and a move to Staffordshire including a good amount of Austen’s wicked wit: “Staffordshire is a good way off; so we shall see nothing more of them till, some fifteen years hence, the Miss Coopers are presented to us, fine, jolly, handsome, ignorant girls.” Austen then specifies the amount of the living before again summing up, and somewhat teasingly adding: “Our first cousins seem all dropping off very fast.”
Austen then jumps from family to neighborhood social news, “Our ball on Thursday was a very poor one, only eight couple and but twenty-three people in the room; but it was not the ball’s fault, for we were deprived of two or three families by the sudden illness of their neighbor Mr. Wither, who was seized that morning at Winchester with a return of his former alarming complaint.”
Continues to update Cassandra with a run down of the smaller ball and her dancing partners, as well as an update for Mr. Withers who had fallen ill: “In such a disorder his danger, I suppose, must always be great; but from this attack he is now rapidly recovering, and will be well enough to return to Manydown.” As well as a bit of a report on their sister: “Mary behaved very well, and was not at all fidgety. For the history of her adventures at the ball I refer you to Anna’s letter.”
Austen then shifts back to their brother Charles and apparently outfitting him for his new post, then pausing to note: “Tuesday.–Your letter has pleased and amused me very much. Your essay on happy fortnights is highly ingenious, and the talobert skin made laugh a good deal.”
Readers here are left out of the loop. There is no way to know what Cassandra wrote about a “happy fortnight” or two weeks, and the notes presume “talobert” is either a misreading of rabbit skin or a in-family joke.
Also in response to Cassandra’s recent letter, Austen provides a mom update: “It began to occur to me before you mentioned it that I had been somewhat silent as to my mother’s health for some time, but I thought you could have no difficultly in divining its exact state–you, who have guessed so much stranger things.”
From the tone, seems Austen’s patience with her mother’s complaints are wearing a bit thin: “She is tolerably well–better upon the whole than she was some weeks ago. She would tell you herself that she has a very dreadful cold in her head at present; but I have not much compassion for colds in the head without fever or sore throat.”
The it’s back to domestic business, with a reference to Charles “Our own particular little brother,” resuming his travel plans and per the notes a joke and/or reference to Burney’s novel Camilla. Before happily delegating to Cassandra, purchasing clothes while away in Kent: “I have no objection at all to your buying our gowns there, as your imagination has pictured to you exactly such a one as is necessary to make me happy.” Austen also praises Cassandra, “You quite abash me by your progress in notting, I am still without silk.” Per the notes, “notting” is most likely a misreading of “netting,” which was a fashionable at the time, and a process often used on clothing and accessories, and per the notes, Austen referenced netting in her novels: Northanger Abbey and Pride and Prejudice.
Here, Austen returns to the recent changes in their brother Charles’ appearance. Per the notes, apparently he cut his hair, as Austen refers to him as a “crop.” In addition, the fashion of the cropped hair and losing the wigs, was it appears, a bit of a touchy subject between the siblings: “I thought Edward would not approve of Charles being a crop, and rather wished you to conceal it from him at present, lest it might fall on his sports and retard his recovery.”
Although it is difficult to know, but it definitely seems like Austen is asking for a sisterly confidence here. Again missing letters perhaps hold the key, but apparently Edward was ill, and from afar their brother Edward (the wealthly brother), may have been upset by these changes in Charles, even if it wasn’t politically motivated. Per the notes, “a new fashion for young men, and viewed with some disapproval since it might imply sympathy with the fashions of Republican France.”
This letter then turns to domestic talk of animals and food provisions, as well as another update on a neighborhood marriage announcement, before Austen implores her sister: “What time in March may we expect your return in? I begin to be very tired of answering people’s questions on the subject, and, independent of that, I shall be very glad to see you home again, and then if we can get Martha and shirk … … who will be so happy as we?” Presuming that “Martha” is their friend Martha Lloyd — rest though a mystery. Per the notes, it’s unclear if Cassandra or another relative struck this out, regarding Austen’s plans: “I think of going to Ilbthorop in”
But this is left as a fragment, for Austen continues noting: “Wednesday, 23rd.” With birthday wishes to her niece: “I wish my dear Fanny many returns of this day, and receiving from her doll’s beds.”
And Austen closes this letter a final update about their brother: “I have just heard from Charles, who is by this time at Deal. He is to be Second Lieutenant, which pleases him likewise.” Apparently, there was a change in ship assignment as well: “He expects to be ordered to Sheerness shortly, as the ‘Tamar’ has never been refitted.”
All notes/cites to: Jane Austen’s Letters, collected and edited by Deidre Le Fay, Oxford University Press, 4th edition, 2011.