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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

On this day in 1801. . .

Ninety-first in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.

A curious—and curiously contemporary--passage appears in the letter that the 25-year-old Jane Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 223 years ago today (#33 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


 “Your unfortunate sister was betrayed last Thursday into a situation of the utmost cruelty,” Jane tells Cassandra, who is on a family visit to their brother Edward, in Kent. “I arrived at Ashe Park before the Party from Deane, and was shut up in the drawing-room with Mr Holder alone for ten minutes. I had some thoughts of insisting on the housekeeper or Mary Corbett being sent for, and nothing could prevail on me to move two steps from the door, on the lock of which I kept one hand constantly fixed.”


Austen doesn’t explain why being briefly alone in a room with Mr. Holder—presumably James Holder, the tenant of Ashe Park, a man in his fifties—is “a situation of the utmost cruelty.” I suppose it’s possible that the sisters had a running joke about how boring he was.

But all the details—the yearning for a female chaperone, the refusal to move away from the door, the hand kept firmly on the latch—make it hard to escape the conclusion that the local ladies knew from experience that Mr. Holder was handsy, or worse. Alas, this is one scenario that needs no historical annotation to make it legible to contemporary readers, at least female ones.


Jane Austen’s novels include more than one scene of a woman trapped in an enclosed space with a man who seems unwilling to take no for an answer. In her books, that man—Mr. Collins, Mr. Elton, Henry Crawford—is typically proposing marriage, not doing . . . whatever the young Austen feared Mr. Holder might try, given half a chance. As blog readers know, I tend to eschew biographical explanations for Austen’s novelistic choices—that way reductionism lies, in my opinion.


Still, it’s not implausible to think that the claustrophobic feeling Austen so successfully conjures in, say, the scene of Mr. Elton’s importunate proposal to Emma during their Christmas Eve carriage ride could owe something to the uncomfortable ten minutes she spent in Mr. Holder’s drawing-room.


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