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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

On this day in 1816. . .

Sixth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen’s letters

By all accounts, Jane Austen was an exceptional aunt, and she had a broad field on which to exercise her powers: in her lifetime, four of her brothers produced a total of twenty-five nieces and nephews. (Another eight were born after her death, and all but five of the thirty-three survived into adulthood).

The most famous of these Austen offspring is James Edward Austen, whom his family called Edward, the only son of Jane’s oldest brother, James. In 1870, Edward – by then using the surname Austen-Leigh, in honor of the rich great-uncle and -aunt who had left him a tidy fortune – published his Memoir of Jane Austen, the first biography of the author and still a key source for anyone interested in her life.

The letter Austen wrote to the 17-year-old Edward exactly 199 years ago today (#142 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) makes clear why her nieces and nephews adored her: she addresses him as an adult, sending along tidbits of news about family and friends, but she also indulges in the affectionate teasing and silliness that so often make her letters entertaining even at a remove of two centuries.

She complains about the rain – in order, she says, to get rid of it, “for I have often observed that if one writes about the Weather, it is generally completely changed before the Letter is read.” She jokes about his needing a change of scene for his health: “Your Physicians I hope will order you to the Sea, or to a house by the side of a very considerable pond.”

And she teases him for, apparently, dating the letter she is answering from Steventon, his parents’ house, and then redundantly mentioning that he is back from school at Winchester. “I am so glad you recollected to mention your being come home,” Austen jokes. “My heart began to sink within me when I had got so far through your Letter without its being mentioned. I was dreadfully afraid that you might be detained at Winchester by severe illness, confined to your Bed perhaps & quite unable to hold a pen, & only dating from Steventon in order, with a mistaken sort of Tenderness, to deceive me. – But now, I have no doubt of your being at home, I am sure you would not say it so seriously unless it actually were so.”

Now who could resist an aunt like that?


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