Deborah Yaffe

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On this day in 1801. . .

By Deborah Yaffe, May 21 2015 01:00PM

Reading Jane Austen’s letters – as I do for this occasional blog series – often resembles panning for gold. There’s the dross: bits of news that sometimes suggest historical or biographical insights but whose significance is mostly lost to us. And then there are the nuggets: delightful throwaways of Austenian wit and irony.


Reading the letter Austen started writing to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 214 years ago today (#37 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) provides a classic experience of panning for Janeite gold.


The Austen parents, along with Cassandra and the twenty-five-year-old Jane, had recently moved from Steventon to Bath, where they were staying with Uncle James Leigh-Perrot and his disagreeable wife, Jane, while hunting for a place of their own. That May day, Cassandra was away in Kintbury, Berkshire, visiting the brother and sister-in-law of Tom Fowle, who had been her fiancé before his tragic death four years earlier.


Amid the interesting but uninspiring dross of Austen's letter – details about apartment-hunting, the cost of a box of lozenges, and arrangements for Cassandra’s return to Bath eleven days later – come the laugh-out-loud nuggets of gold.


Austen recounts her almost too-vigorous walk with a new acquaintance: “We posted away under a fine hot sun. . . crossing the Church Yard at Weston with as much expedition as if we were afraid of being buried alive.”


She describes plans for a small gathering at home that night (“I hate tiny parties – they force one into constant exertion”) featuring a male guest – but “I am prevented from setting my black cap at Mr Maitland by his having a wife & ten Children.” (When Austen finished up the letter the next day, she added a P.S.: “I scandalized [Mr. Maitland] cruelly; he has but three Children instead of Ten.”)


And she reports the sudden death of an acquaintance: “So affectionate a family must suffer severely, & many a girl on early death has been praised into an Angel I beleive, on slighter pretensions to Beauty, Sense & Merit than Marianne.”


It’s the chance of stumbling across that disconcerting combination of genuine sympathy, cool detachment and irreverent humor that makes reading Austen’s letters such a bracing experience – one that repays the time spent sifting through what seems like dross.


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