On this day in 1811. . .
Eighty-fifth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.
Nowadays, when a new acquaintance turns out to be the college roommate of a childhood friend or the second cousin of a next-door neighbor, we laughingly proclaim, “Small world!” It’s easy to forget that Jane Austen lived most of her life in a really small world – the kind where it was very hard to avoid running into exactly the people you would least like to meet.
As, for example, in the situation described in the letter that Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 212 years ago today (#73 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).
Eighteen months earlier, Austen’s niece Anna had announced her engagement to the Rev. Michael Terry, whose family lived in the village of Dummer, less than five miles from Anna’s home in Steventon. Anna’s father and stepmother opposed the match, but by the spring of 1810, they relented and allowed Anna to visit her fiancé’s family – upon which further acquaintance, she changed her mind, and the match was broken off.
Given that, at the time, Anna was sixteen and Terry about thirty-four, it hardly seems remarkable that this little adventure ended as it did. “As a match, it would have been about as suitable as one between Lizzie Bennet & Mr. Collins,” Le Faye quotes one of Anna’s daughters as writing years later.
But among the middle classes of early nineteenth-century Hampshire, it was apparently just as hard to avoid running into an ex as it is in a twenty-first-century high school homeroom. And so it was with relief that Jane reported to Cassandra about the comings and goings of Anna, then visiting at Chawton.
Anna “was with the Prowtings almost all Monday. . . which was rather lucky, as we were called upon to meet Mrs & Miss Terry the same even[in]g at the Digweeds,” Austen wrote to Cassandra, “--& tho’ Anna was of course invited to, I think it always safest to keep her away from the family, lest she sh[oul]d be doing too little or too much.”
Imagine living under that kind of microscope! Anna must have found it a relief some three years later, when she finally escaped into an arguably more suitable marriage.