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  • Deborah Yaffe

On this day in 1801. . .

Eighty-second in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


In January 1801, the twenty-five-year-old Jane Austen was preparing to move from her lifelong home at rural Steventon to the bigger, noisier city of Bath. According to family lore, Austen fainted when first informed of the household's impending relocation.


While the accuracy of the fainting story--an anecdote recalled only years later and at second hand--is open to question, it seems inarguable that Austen was unhappy about the decision to move, which her parents took without consulting the adult daughters who lived under their roof.


The letter Jane finished writing to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 222 years ago today (#30 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) makes clear how raw Austen’s feelings remained just a few weeks after the surprise announcement.


Apparently, talk about the appropriate disposition of the Austens’ excess possessions had already begun, four months ahead of their eventual move. “You are very kind in planning presents for me to make, & my Mother has shewn me exactly the same attention,” Jane writes to Cassandra, rather waspishly. “But as I do not chuse to have Generosity dictated to me, I shall not resolve on giving my Cabinet to Anna till the first thought of it has been my own.”


A sentence later, the bitterness that Austen seems to feel toward her oldest brother, James, who stood to benefit from his parents’ decision--his family was to move out of cramped quarters at Deane and into the more spacious Steventon rectory--spills into view.


“My father’s old Ministers are already deserting him to pay their court to his Son; the brown Mare, which as well as the black was to devolve on James at our removal, has not had patience to wait for that, & has settled herself even now at Deane,” Austen writes. “The death of [James’s horse] . . . has made the immediate possession of the mare very convenient; & everything else I suppose will be seized by degrees in the same manner.” Ouch!


More than one critic has seen this episode in Austen's life--sisters losing their longtime home when their older brother moves in--as an autobiographical inspiration for the famous sequence in the opening pages of Sense and Sensibility, when John Dashwood takes over his father's estate at Norland and sends his stepmother and half-sisters packing. The bitterness of the fictional scenes, some argue, points up Austen's real-life feelings toward her brother.


I'm more cautious about reading details from the fiction back onto Austen's life. Fiction is, well, fictional, and Austen left us little direct evidence of the process by which she transmuted her life into her art.


It's something else about this passage that intrigues me: Decades later, Cassandra burned many of her sister’s letters, perhaps to avoid the hurt feelings that might have resulted if relatives had read some of Jane’s less charitable remarks. Why did this letter survive the bonfire?


It’s impossible to know for sure, but perhaps Jane spoke for both Austen sisters when she voiced her anger at the way in which her life had been arranged without her permission.

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