On this day in 1805. . .
By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 11 2019 01:00PM
Forty-third in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.
"It is a period, indeed!” Captain Wentworth exclaims to Anne Elliot, as their long estrangement begins to thaw in Chapter 22 of Persuasion. “Eight years and a half is a period!"
A similar spirit of mingled pain and nostalgia seems to have animated Jane Austen in the letter she finished writing to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 214 years ago today (#43 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).
The preceding months had been difficult ones for the Austens. On Jane’s twenty-ninth birthday, in December 1804, her beloved friend and mentor Anne Lefroy, known as Madame Lefroy, was killed in a horseback riding accident at 55. Two weeks later, the Austen patriarch, the Rev. George Austen, died unexpectedly at 73. His death, with the loss of his clerical pension, inaugurated a financial slide that would eventually force the surviving Austen women to move repeatedly, as they sought ever-cheaper rented rooms in less and less desirable parts of Bath.
Some inkling of these troubles surely hangs over the letter Jane wrote to Cassandra, who was back in Hampshire, the county the Austen sisters had called home until four years earlier, when their parents uprooted them. While Cassandra helped nurse the dying Mrs. Lloyd, mother of their sister-in-law Mary Austen and their close friend Martha Lloyd, Jane reported the news from Bath.
“This morning we have been to see Miss Chamberlayne look hot on horseback,” Jane wrote to Cassandra. “Seven years & four months ago we went to the same Ridinghouse to see Miss Lefroy’s performance!—What a different set are we now moving in! But seven years I suppose are enough to change every pore of one’s skin, & every feeling of one’s mind.”
By our standards, Jane Austen was still young in 1805, and it would be another decade before she began Persuasion. But already, in this letter, we can glimpse the emotional raw materials of the novel: a melancholy sense of the inexorable passage of time.
One of the best moments of my teaching career thus far was during a Year 11 Literature class in 2017 when we were studying Austen's 'Persuasion'. The joy I felt in seeing a class of 21st century pupils in a time of social media, transience and superficiality so transfixed by the depth of Austen's language and the power of the emotions it instills that they, and I, became completely oblivious to the realities of their school day and remained in the moments provided by the text, and our discussions of it, until we had to be forcibly, and repeatedly, reminded that our time together that day had finished. It is one of the true extended moments of absolute flow, total absorption and complete connection I've experienced with a class and was all due to Austen's phenomenal abilities.
Lovely story! Thanks for sharing, and for introducing teenagers to Jane Austen.