This letter follows one that is missing in the chronology of Austen’s correspondence. Here she is writing to her older sister Cassandra in Stevenson from Bath, “I am obliged to you for two letters, one from Yourself & the other from Mary, for of the latter I knew nothing till on the receipt of Yours yesterday, when the Pigeon Basket was examined & I received my due.–”
Austen dives into business first, as for shopping and receiving what seems to be a reply to an order for certain wardrobe and latest fashionable clothing items from Bath: “I will lay out all the little judgment I have in endeavouring to get such such stockings for Anna as she will approve;–but I do not know that I shall execute Martha’s commission at all, for I am not fond of ordering shoes, & at any rate they shall have flat heels.” (Austen’s own spelling.) So apparently, not a fan of the shoe shopping. Duly she returns to the themes of shopping and fashion, as well as shoes later in this letter.
First, this letter proceeds with updates first on their brother with a dose of her wicked wit, “What must I tell you of Edward?–Truth or Falsehood?–I will try the former & you may cause yourself another time.” Seems she is being a bit cheeky here, but then gives an update, as it seems Edward has been somewhat ill from their travels or adjusting to the visit in Bath and is now recovering and taking part in some of the local activities, “He was better yesterday than he had been for two or three days before, about as well as while he was at Steventon–He drinks at the Hetling Pump, is to bathe tomorrow & try Electricity on Tuesday;–he proposed the latter himself to Dr. Fellowes, who made no objection to it, but I fancy we are all unanimous in expecting no advantage from it.” The notes does not offer any details and so presuming here that “electricity” is some sort of a curative that is a bit of a long shot, or is well known generally not too be really effective.
Hard to say at this point, if Austen is having a good stay or not on this short-term visit to Bath, along with a scheduling update: “At present I have no great notion of our staying here beyond the Month.–I heard from Charles last week; they were to sail on wednesday.” (Austen’s own capitalization.)
And onto with a very quick update on Mrs. Austen’s health which seems to always be a required part of her letters to Cassandra: “My Mother seems remarkably well.” Before adding, “My Uncle overwalked himself at first & can now only travel in a Chair; but is otherwise is very well.”
Austen then returns to clothing and wardrobe matters and the letter includes a short sketch of lace, “My Cloak is come home, & here follows the pattern of its’ lace.” (Austen’s own capitalization and punctuation.) Again there is a discussion of money for purchasing more lace and fabric, as well as Austen’s observances and experiences shopping in Bath, as well as her describing the fashion trend of flowers and faux fruit decorating hats: “Flowers are very much worn, & Fruit is still more the thing.–Eliz: has a bunch of Strawberries, & I have seen Grapes, Cherries, Plumbs & Apricots–There are likewise Almonds & raisins, french plumbs & Tamarinds at the Grocers, but I have never seen any of them in hats.” Per the notes,Tamarinds were pods from a tree native to East India and most likely the Bath shopkeeper were stocking them as a popular item in demand.
Austen then notes how much this fruit fashion trend will actually will cost to her older sister and possible bargain hunt, “A plumb or green gage would cost three shillings; Cherries & Grapes about 5 I believe–but this is at some of the dearest Shops;–My Aunt has told me of a very cheap one near Walcot Church, to which I shall go in quest of something for You.” (Austen’s own spelling.) “Dear” I believe in this context means expensive or costly.
Austen continues the fashion update with noting: “Eliz: has given me a hat & it is not only a pretty hat, but a pretty stile of hat too–It is something like Eliza’s–only instead of being all straw, half of it is narrow purple ribbon.–I flatter myself however that you can understand very little of it, from this description.–Heaven forbid that I should ever offer such encouragement to Explanations, as to give a clear one on any occasion myself.” (Austen’s own emphasis and spelling.)
The discussion of hats and fashion is left off at this point, for more of a social update, although it rings a bit of her being leery of meeting new people in Bath: “I spent friday evening with the Mapletons, & was obliged to submit to being pleased in spite of my inclination.” After a updating Cassandra on names of new acquaintances, Austen returns with including her worries about purchases and bringing them back to Steventon, “I am afraid I cannot undertake to carry Martha’s Shoes home, for tho’ we had plenty of room in our Trunks when we came, We shall have many more things to take back & I must allow besides for my packing.” (Austen’s own emphasis, spelling and punctuation.)
Austen then returns to telling Cassandra of the activities in Bath and apparently noting a disdain for concerts or loud music: “There is to be a grand gala on tuesday evening in Sydney Gardens;–a Concert with Illuminations & fireworks;–to the latter Eliz: & I look forward with pleasure, & even the Concert will have more than its’ usual charm with me, as the Gardens are large enough for me to get pretty well beyond the reach of its sound.” (Austen’s own punctuation.)
There is an off and off sad tone here I detect reading all of this, perhaps she is just missing her older sister, as well as a return to another fashion or wardrobe discussion this time of patterns and caps: “I am quite pleased with Martha & Mrs. Lefroy for wanting the pattern of our Caps, but I am not so well pleased with Your giving it to them.” Seems a little upset that Cassandra has been so generous with the patterns, but then continues: “Some wish, some prevailing Wish is necessary to the animation of everybody’s Mind, & in gratifying this, You leave them to form some other which will not probably be half so innocent.” (Austen’s own punctuation and capitalization.) There is really no way to know if she is referring back again to Martha and Mrs. Lefroy here, or if this an extension or a return to a discussion of another issue with Cassandra, as it seems more detailed and complex — but the specifics are lost.
This is where I wish, and I’m sure certain scholars for the return of the lost letters, and perhaps to read Cassandra’s letters — in order to “read” or “hear” Cassandra’s side of their conversations and discussions.
Austen closes the letter saying she will not forget to write to their brother Frank and includes a post script about their sisterly correspondence: “My Uncle is quite surprised at my hearing from you so often–but as long as we can keep the frequency of our correspondence from Martha’s Uncle, we will not fear our own.” Per the notes, this may be a reference to either Reverend John Craven or Reverend Thomas Fowle, but why either man would have an opinion on Jane and Cassandra’s often writing to each other is a mystery for me.
All notes to, Jane Austen’s Letters, Collected and Edited by Deirdre Le Faye, Fourth Edition, Oxford University Press, 2011.