Per the notes, this letter also follows several that are missing in Jane Austen’s correspondence time line. Austen writes to her older sister Cassandra from their home in Steventon in the weeks before Christmas, and apparently Cassandra is away visiting their brother Edward at his large home Godmersham Park. From the opening it sounds like Austen was missing Cassandra very much, “Your letter came quite as soon as I expected, and so your letters will always do, because I have made it a rule not to expect them till they come, in which I think consult the ease of us both.”
The whole, making a rule reference — sounds like Austen is trying to assure her sister she is not hanging on her every letter, which sort of reflects both her missing Cassandra and confirming again to her older sister that she knows she is busy and doesn’t expect her to write all the time.
Next item up is a reference to some sort of legal business for Cassandra, per the notes perhaps the legacy (pension) left to Cassandra by her fiancé Tom Fowle who perished en route to a position in the West Indies, and then Austen goes right into planning for winter clothes and accessories, “I shall keep my ten pounds too to wrap myself up in next winter.” (Underline by Austen.) Per the notes, the ten pounds Austen cites here may either being their Christmas allowance from her father Mr. Austen, or a gift from Mrs. Knight — their extended family member, who adopted their brother Edward as her male heir. Continues describing a black velvet bonnet in particular, and possible changes to it and other hats, and also she seems to be asking Cassandra for input on in trying to update a hat to one similar to one fashionable at that time, per the notes references a red poppy color, or perhaps otherwise try to save them and not replace them to avoid more expense.
Austen then talks about one of their seafaring brothers, Charles, “I am sorry that our dear Charles begins to feel the Dignity of Ill-usage. — My father will write to Admiral Gambier.” Per the notes, it seems that Charles was trying to transfer to another post/larger ship. Apparently there are some ideas being discussed to help Charles with his situation in the Navy, plus some scheduling plans, and apparently there was a bit of a glitch going on, “I cannot approve of your scheme of writing to him (which you communicated to [p.2] a few nights ago) to request him to come hoe & convey you to Steventon. — To do you justice however, You had some doubts of the propriety of such a measure yourself.” (Underline and page cite are Austen’s own.)
This letter then goes onto the topic of their nephew George (Edward’s son aka itty Dordy), who seems to be generally regularly discussed back and forth between the sisters in their letters. Austen has routinely sent regards to her little nephew with comments that are sort of anxious that he will forget her. “I am very much obliged to my dear little George for his messages, for his Love at least; — his Duty I suppose was only in some consequence of some hint of my favourable intentions towards him from his Father or Mother,” (Underlines are Austen’s own.) Austen also includes a reference to the tradition of someone having a “dish of tea” on their birthday, and again per the notes, the saucers were so large during that time period, it was deemed socially fine to drink out of it — the idea of saying a “dish of tea” was a more popular expression than a “cup of tea.” Wrapping up discussing their nephew little George, Austen adds, “Give my best Love to him.” Before relaying news of a morning visit by neighborhoods to Steventon, by Mr. Holder and Mr. Harwood.
Austen then informs Cassandra she received a note about a circulating library from a Mrs. Martin, which was an invitation to subscribe to her collection, “which opens the 14th of January, & my name, or rather Yours is accordingly given.” Circulating libraries were popular during Jane Austen’s time, and they cost money to be able to borrow the books or “subscribe.” Not sure about this, I’m wondering if Cassandra would be listed as a subscriber because she is an oldest sister, or simply because Jane Austen just could not afford her own library subscription at the time, but the notes do not offer a cite or any clarification here. Austen continues in this letter, “My Mother finds the Money — Mary subscribes too, which I am glad of, but hardly expected. — As an inducement to subscribe Mrs. Martin tells us that her Collection is not to consist only of Novels, but of every kind of Literature &c &c — She might have spared this pretension to our family who are great Novel-readers & not ashamed of being so; — but it was necessary I suppose to the self-consequence of half her Subscribers.” (Underlines and &c are Austen’s own.)
Austen doesn’t seem to really have a great opinion of Mrs. Martin, mostly for Mrs. Martin’s pitch that she was offering more than novels in this circulating library collection. Chiefly because during that time period, novels were sort of looked down upon as sort of lighter or trash reading. To make a comparative popular culture reference today, I guess it would be a similar social-type stigma, if someone said they only watched reality/staged television shows and nothing else what so ever. My take on this is: 1) on one Austen seems to be saying to Cassandra that she thinks Mrs. Martin is being pretentious in advertising the library will be more diverse with different types of books and that is fine, but Mrs. Martin could have spared this pitch to the Austens because they all as she said love to read novels and I guess everyone knows this about them, but 2) then Austen acknowledges to Cassandra, perhaps Mrs. Martin is just doing a much larger sales pitch to make other people happy and get more subscribers.
After the discussion of the subscription library, Austen returns to neighborhood and family news updates relaying them all to Cassandra, including nightly rituals at Steventon in comparison to a large house like Godmersham, “We dine now at half after Three, & have done dinner I suppose before you begin — We drink tea at half after six. I am afraid you will despise us. — My Father reads Cowper to us in the evening, to which I listen when I can.” Austen then sets down a series of questions to Cassandra asking her how they are passing the evenings at Godmersham, before going into an obligatory update about their mother, concerning Mrs. Austen’s health and ongoing issues. Austen continues with updates with the Lefroy and Digweed families, close friends and neighbors, including James Digweed being kicked by a young horse and getting a nasty cut.
Then Austen circles back to her cap and situation with the current fashion with updates to hats and gowns, as well as more news and her frustration in making plans for her own travels and visits, “Perhaps I may stay at Manydown as long as Monday, but not longer. — Martha sends me word that she is too busy to write to me now, & but for your letter, I should have supposed her deep in the study of Medicine preparatory to their removal from Ibthrop.” Apparently having learned from Cassandra’s letter that Martha wrote to Cassandra and not here, claiming she was busy — Austen was perhaps annoyed that their dear friend Martha had not wrote back personally to her, and throws a bit of wicked slide at Martha’s being “too busy” as if Martha were a medical student — the idea and or concept which was nearly impossible during this time period.
Another visit seems to be in the works but Austen does not seem to be looking forward to it, “The letter to Gambier goes to day. — I expect a very stupid Ball, there will be nobody worth dancing with, & nobody worth talking to but Catherine; for I believe Mrs. Lefroy will not be there; Lucy is to go with Mr. Russell.” Per the notes, most likely Jane Austen, referencing “Madame Lefroy,” her friend and mentor who died in a tragic riding accident which inspired Austen to write a memorial poem four years after her death. Madame Lefroy was also married/a connection to Tom Lefroy, Austen’s “Irish Friend.” Per the notes, “the earliest English Lefroys were Huguenots (French Protestants cast out of France), who came to this country in the late sixteenth (16th) century and settled in Kent.” (Notes in parenthesis are my own.)
Continues to sort of lament different circumstances here to her older sister, venting a little bit perhaps about their economical situation and those of their friends in Steventon, “People get so horridly poor & economical in this part of the World, that I have no patience with them. — Kent is the only place for happiness, Everybody is rich there; — I must do similar justice however to the Windsor neighborhood.”
This is followed by telling Cassandra that two sheets of her drawing paper were given away, and Cassandra may want to restock on drawing paper when she goes to town. Presuming here Austen means London. Austen closes this letter by saying she has finally heard from Martha, not citing a letter and also their other Naval brother Frank, “all well, & nothing particular.”
All notes to Jane Austen’s Letters, collected and edited by Deidre LeFay, 4th edition, Oxford University Press, 2011.