Deborah Yaffe


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.

By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 5 2015 02:00PM

Jane Austen was a country girl – she spent most of her life in a couple of small villages in Hampshire, England – and even today the places she knew best are hard to reach by public transportation and difficult to discover without a guide.

Thus I was excited to learn this week that Destination Basingstoke, a non-profit dedicated to promoting “Hampshire’s most visited town” (is there much competition for that title?) has added a six-mile, self-guided “Jane Austen Historical Walk” to its slate of Austen-themed tourist attractions. An accompanying leaflet, which can be downloaded here, provides a map and directions and includes relevant quotes from Austen letters, plus some useful background about Austen’s life.

The walking tour begins at St. Nicholas Church in Steventon, where Austen’s father, the Rev. George Austen, was rector; proceeds past the empty field where Austen’s birthplace, the long-gone Steventon rectory, once stood; and moves on other places associated with the Austen family, including Ashe Rectory, home of Austen’s dear friend Madame Anne Lefroy. The whole thing sounds like quite the most delightful way to spend an autumn afternoon.

Oh, to be in England. . .

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