• Deborah Yaffe

On this day in 1805. . .

Seventy-fourth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


Jane Leigh-Perrot, who was married to the older brother of Jane Austen’s mother, was by all accounts a difficult and unpleasant woman: domineering, self-involved, and possibly larcenous. Further evidence of Mrs. Leigh-Perrot’s character flaws seems to emerge from the letter Jane Austen began writing to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 217 years ago today (#44 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


“My Aunt is in a great hurry to pay me for my Cap, but cannot find in her heart to give me good money,” the twenty-nine-year-old Austen wrote from Bath, where the Austen women were still living a few months after the death of Jane and Cassandra’s father. “ ‘If I have any intention of going to the Grand Sydney-Garden Breakfast, if there is any party I wish to join, Perrot will take out a ticket for me.’---Such an offer I shall of course decline; & all the service she will render me therefore, is to put it out of my power to go at all, whatever may occur to make it desirable.”


If I’m understanding this passage correctly, it looks like Aunt Leigh-Perrot was trying to discharge some kind of debt (for a cap? But why would either woman have been buying a cap for the other?) by fobbing her niece off with an in-kind purchase (a breakfast ticket) rather than the ready cash that Austen would have preferred. How delicious it would be to know the details of this situation, rife as it is with comic potential! If only Austen had written it all down, rather than – as we may surmise – waiting to recount the whole story upon Cassandra’s return from her visit to family friends!


However annoyed she was at her aunt's behavior , however, Austen knew the wisdom of staying on the good side of this wealthy skinflint, for she concludes her letter two days later with an additional tidbit of news: “My Uncle & Aunt drank tea with us last night, & in spite of my resolution to the contrary, I could not help putting forward to invite them again this Evening,” she wrote. “I thought it was of the first consequence to avoid anything that might seem a slight to them. I shall be glad when it is over.”


Sucking up to the wealthy Leigh-Perrots was an imperative that did not have to be explained to any of the Austens: The family’s shared hopes for a fat legacy were so well-understood as to remain unspoken – at least until those hopes were bitterly disappointed.

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