• Deborah Yaffe

On this day in 1801. . .

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


Jane Austen communicated nothing particularly remarkable in the letter she wrote to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 220 years ago today (#34 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence): news about their sailor brothers, Frank and Charles; an account of her ongoing visit with the Bigg sisters; a jokey reference to Cassandra’s recent trip to see a famous London menagerie during her stay with their older brother Henry.


What strikes the contemporary eye is a passage of logistical minutiae that no doubt seemed perfectly ordinary to the Austens.


“My visit to Miss Lyford begins tomorrow, & ends on Saturday, when I shall have the opportunity of returning here at no expence as the Carriage must take Cath[erine Bigg] to Basingstoke.—She meditates your returning into Hampshire together, & if the Time should accord, it would not be undesirable,” Austen writes to her sister. “I suppose whenever you come, Henry would send you in his Carriage a stage or two, when you might be met by John, whose protection you would we imagine think sufficient for the rest of your Journey. . . . James has offered to meet you anywhere, but as that would be to give him trouble without any counterpoise of convenience, as he has no intention of going to London at present on his own account, we suppose that you would rather accept the attentions of John.”


When this letter was written, Cassandra Austen had recently turned twenty-eight. She had been engaged and tragically bereaved, had helped care for her brothers’ young children, and knew a thing or two about running a busy household. She wasn’t a timid, inexperienced young girl – and yet the idea that she might travel the sixty miles from London to Hampshire alone on public transportation was so unthinkable that it had to be forestalled via a complicated alternate plan involving Catherine’s itinerary, Henry’s carriage, and the deployment of a servant called John, with a tangential foray into the schedule of James, the eldest Austen sibling.


Jane Austen probably recognized the absurdity of this situation; her reference to Cassandra’s opinion of the sufficiency of John’s protection sounds a note of mockery. Still, that note is muted. If the twenty-five-year-old Jane Austen resented these infantilizing restrictions, she doesn’t say so here -- at least not openly. We must look to her novels, and sometimes read between the lines even there, to understand what she thought about the limits on women’s freedom that her whole society took for granted.

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