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Posts Tagged ‘Jane Austen’s letters’

Portrait of Maria Edgeworth by John Downman (1807). Is it just wishful thinking on my part or does Jane Austen somewhat resemble this pretty, genteel author?

I’m sure others have been struck by this paragraph from Pride and Prejudice (see quote below), and wondered if perhaps it gives us a clue about how Cassandra was able to locate the many letters from Jane that she would destroy, for the majority of those that survived are innocuous and mundane. They reveal very little about the author’s observations and feelings about her family and friends, politics, and religion.

Cassandra, who outlived Jane by 26 years, kept her sister’s letters to reread during her lifetime. This gave her enough time to decide what to do with them. She burned most of Jane’s letters shortly before her death, redistributing the remaining few among friends and family.

Of the approximately 160 letters that survive from Jane, 95 were written to Cassandra. None of the letters Jane wrote to her parents survive, and very few to her brothers (none to Henry, her favorite brother). To be fair to Cassandra, who has been vilified by many for burning so many of Jane’s letters, it was the custom in those days to destroy such casual correspondence (much like we delete emails today).

A portion of Jane’s letter has been cut out. Image@Morgan Library

When they read their missives out loud to the family, the Austen sisters had a habit of censoring each other’s letters and leaving out sections that were meant to remain private.  Jane might have given us a clue in Pride and Prejudice on how Cassandra was able to go through thousands of letters and locate information that she was unwilling to pass down for posterity. In some instances Cassandra cut out the offending sentence, but generally she destroyed the entire letter. How did she know where to cut out only one sentence or passage?

This scene, in which Lydia has joined Colonel and Mrs. Foster in Brighton, gives us a clue:

When Lydia went away she promised to write very often and very minutely to her mother and Kitty, but her letters were always long expected and always very short. Those to her mother contained little else than that they were just returned from the library, where such and such officers had attended them, and where she had seen such beautiful ornaments as made her quite wild; that she had a new gown or a new parasol, which she would have described more fully, but was obliged to leave off in a violent hurry, as Mrs Forster called her and they were going to the camp; and from her correspondence with her sister there was still less to be learned, for her letters to Kitty, though rather longer, were much too full of lines under the words to be made public.

Reading out loud

Note how Kitty could not reveal the words and sentences that Lydia had underscored with lines, even to the family. Did Jane use such a system with Cassandra to keep her private thoughts only for her sister?  I’m curious to know.

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( A discussion about what friendship might be. A few thoughts and considerations while writing about Jane and Martha. You might agree. You might not. I am open for criticism. Guest writer Tony Grant of London Calling)

The Letter, Edmund Blair Leighton

Jane Austen didn’t marry. There are suggestions she did have love affairs but they did not come to fruition. Did this make her human experience less than those who have the love of another human? She had the love of her family and especially her sister Cassandra. She had the love of Martha Lloyd her best friend. She experienced love from other human beings and she gave love to others.

Lets have a look at what we can find out about Jane’s relationship with Martha Lloyd, her best friend.

Who was Martha Lloyd?

Martha Lloyd was born in 1765. Her mother, Martha Craven, had been the daughter of the Royal governor of South Carolina. Martha Craven , although coming from a wealthy background, married an obscure country vicar called the Reverend Nowis Lloyd who was the rector of Little Hinton, Wiltshire and who also, in 1771, became the vicar of Enborne near Newbury in Berkshire. After the Reverend Nowis died Martha and her two sisters, Mary and Eliza were left with their cruel and some say insane mother. They escaped by going to live with an aunt who lived in Newbury. They also have a brother but he died in a smallpox epidemic. Martha and Mary were both left scarred for life by the same epidemic. The younger sister, Eliza, is supposed to have escaped the epidemic unscathed. She married

It is not known how exactly the Lloyd family and the Austen family met but they had many acquaintances in common. The two families became very close after the Reverend Nowis died in 1789. The Reverend Austen gave the widow and her three daughters his unused parsonage at Deane a mile from Steventon. So Jane and Cassandra lived very close to the Lloyd sisters and they saw a lot of each other. There were not many chances to form close acquaintances in the countryside and the daughters of both families all became close friends, especially Martha Lloyd and Jane Austen. Jane was ten years younger than Martha but they obviously got on very well. Martha became like a second sister to Jane.

When James Austen married in 1792 he took over the parish at Deane and so required the parsonage there. The Lloyd family had to move out and went to Ibthorpe, a small hamlet near Hurstbourne Tarrant in Hampshire, fifteen miles further away. This must have been hard for Jane and Martha. They had no independent transport to visit each other.

Mary Lloyd, the younger of the two sisters, married James Austen as his second wife, after his first wife died.

The Reverend George Austen died on January 21st 1805 in Bath. Martha’s mother died soon after. Mrs Austen, Cassandra, Jane, and Martha decided to pool their resources and live together. They first moved to Southampton together to live with Jane’s brother Frank’s wife Mary, in Castle Square. Frank and Mary had only just got married and Frank had to go away to sea. The arrangement was beneficial to all concerned. Apparently they all got on well together.

On July 7th 1809 Jane, her mother, her sister Cassandra and Martha moved to the cottage at Chawton on their brother Edward Knight’s estate.

Martha knew all about Jane’s writing exploits, something Jane kept secret from most people. She even dedicated some early works to Martha, her friend. A sure sign of Jane’s close trusting affinity with Martha.

Jane’s letters show evidence of her easy and close relationship to Martha. Her comments are often teasing and full of fun about Martha but always show love for her friend. Sometimes there are mere asides mentioning Martha within a discussion about other people or other things. Martha’s opinion or what Martha is doing at the moment of writing. It’s as though she is always in Jane’s mind and presence.

Tuesday 11th June 1799, writing from Queen Square, Bath, to Cassandra.

“ I am very glad You liked my Lace, & so is Martha-& we are all glad together.-I have got your cloak home, which is quite delightful!….”

Again on Friday 9th December 1808 from castle Square to Cassandra.

“ Our Ball was rather more amusing than I expected, Martha liked it very much, & I did not gape until the last quarter of an hour.-It was past nine before we were sent for & not twelve when we returned…”

Jane Austen Invites, Sue Humphreys.* A Theatre Someone production ‘Jane Austen invites…’ written by Susan Leather, Lesley Sherwood & Sue Humphreys.

Jane’s letters have many short references to Martha. She is always present.

Other letters tell more detailed stories about Martha. While living in Castle Square, Southampton, the Austen’s attended services at All Saints church in the High Street where Dr Mant was the vicar. Dr Mant was well known in Southampton. He had been the headmaster of King Edward VII’s Grammar School in the town . He had also been a professor of Divinity at Oxford and written religious discussion pamphlets. He was a super star in the firmament of vicars. He was a very charismatic preacher too. Dr Mant had his following of inspired young ladies. Martha was apparently a besotted member of this clan.

Tuesday 17th January 1809 from castle Square to Cassandra.

“ Martha and Dr Mant are as bad as ever, he runs after her for having spoken to a Gentleman while she was near him the day before.- Poor Mrs Mant can stand it no longer; she is retired to one of her married daughters.”

This story sounds quite scandalous. One wonders what is Martha’s attractiveness. She obviously has a passionate heart and is prone to,”love.” A certain, young girlish tendency towards infatuation. And, poor Mrs Mant, what of her, indeed. Scandal is in the air or is Jane being creative with the truth? She feels free to be personal. She definitely has a relaxed attitude towards her dear friend. She is being very personal in this letter. Being able to get that close to somebody and maybe even play with their emotions is a sign of something close in a relationship.

Another letter highlights this playfulness again.

Tuesday 11th June 1799 form Queen Square to Cassandra.

“ I would not let Martha read First Impressions again upon any account,& am very glad that I did not leave it in your power.- She is very cunning , but I see through her design;-she means to publish it from memory & one more perusal will enable her to do it.”

And then there is the close affection and freedom each feels in the others presence expressed in this story of a night spent together. You can imagine the enjoyment of each others presence in this letter. Jane is full of fun and teasing.

Wednesday 9th January 1799 from Steventon to Cassandra.

“ You express so little anxiety about my being murdered under Ash Park Copse by Mr Hulbert’s servant that I have a great mind not to tell whether I was or not,&shall only say that I did not return home that night or the next, as Martha kindly made room for me in her bed, which was the shut up one in the new nursery.-Nurse and the child slept on the floor;&there we all were in some confusion& great comfort;- the bed did exceedingly well for us, both to lie awake in and talk till two o’clock,& to sleep in the rest of the night.-I love Martha better than ever …….”

These are two girls having the time of their lives. Totally at one, relaxed and full of fun with each other.

There are only four letters in existence that Jane wrote to Martha. The first, written in 1800 has two parts. Jane’s letters are always full of news about people and places she and the recipient of the letter have in common and in some ways we the present day reader of those letters are left out of this private world unless we find out for ourselves about her references. This first letter we have to Martha is partly taken up with this sort of news about people and places. However what makes this letter different is the opening, where Jane expresses her wish to be with Martha. There is an intensity shown in these words maybe even a passion to see her friend, revealed here.

Martha Lloyd lived long enough to be photographed

To Martha Lloyd, Thursday 13th November 1800 from Steventon:

“-You are very good at wishing to see me at Ibthorpe so soon, & I am equally good in wishing to come to you; I believe our merit in that respect is much upon a par, our Self denial mutually strong.-Having paid this tribute of praise to the Virtue of both, I shall have done with Panegyric & proceed to plain matter of fact.-In about a fortnights time I hope to be with you; I have two reasons for being not being able to come before; I wish so to arrange my visit to spend some days with you after your mother’s return, in the 1st place that I may have the pleasure of seeing her, & in the 2nd, that I may have a better chance of bringing you back with me.- Your promise in my favour was not quite absolute, but if your will is not perverse, You & I will do all in our power to overcome your scruples of conscience.- I hope we will meet next week to talk all this over, till we have tired ourselves with the very idea of my visit before my visit begins.”

Compare this to an exchange between Romeo and Juliet.

Act III Scene V Capulet’s Orchard:

Juliet:
Art thou gone so? Love, lord, ay husband, friend! I must hear from thee every day in the hour
For in a minute there are many days!
O, by this count I shall be much in years
Ere again I behold my Romeo!

Romeo:
Farewell! I will omit no opportunity
That may convey my greetings, love, to thee.

Juliet:
O thinks thou we shall ever meet again?

Romeo:
I doubt it not; and all these woes shall serve
For sweet discourses in our time to come.

The two situations are not exactly the same. There is no added angst of the forbidden meeting driving on the will to meet between Martha and Jane but there is the want brought about by separation.

Friendship indeed.

Is this what it’s all about?

Are we hard wired to get the friends we have? Hard wired meaning, made to relate with and find love with a certain person or type of person.

How do we get a friend? We choose friends, or do we? They have to come into our proximity, live near us, or be near us for part of our lives so we can actually meet. We could meet them at school, or university. They could be neighbours, attend a club we go to, work in a place we work in or be introduced to us. We have to make regular contact for some time in our life, with them, for the friendship to take wing and fly. So finding friends is accidental to a certain degree. But, we meet many people accidentally. They don’t all become our friends. So what is it, this friendship thing?

My opening question asked, “Are we hard wired to get the friends we have?” Our personality, our way of thinking, what we say, how we say it, our sense of humour, our moods, all these intangible things that make us the individual we are must in some way meld with these intangible things found in another person and somehow they are illuminated, expanded, ignited with this coming together.
Is friendship love? We love our husband , wife or partner. We love our children. We do love our friends. What are these different aspects of love? Or, are they different? Aren’t they the same?

Our children come from our bodies. Marriage is formalised in a church ceremony or a civil ceremony. Partners are people we at some stage decide to stay with. But do these guarantee love, friendship, a close relationship? A loving relationship of whatever label is beyond the label. The labels are just signs. But signs can be false. Do we all really love our husband, wife or partner all the time, part of the time or never? Do we really love our children because they come from us? Don’t we fall out drift apart, sometimes? Relationships can be split and the name friend, partner, wife, husband loses it’s meaning. So a real deep love and friendship is beyond the outward signs and words.

Why do we need a loving relationship?
They take us beyond ourselves. They take us beyond and out of ourselves. Phrases come to mind, “I love them more than life itself. I love them more than myself.” And there are other phrases, which describe it.

What is it all about? It’s a sort of searching and if we are lucky, a finding of something that necessary, life ennobling, deep within ourselves and even outside of ourselves. But is a husband, wife, partner, son, daughter, friend, enough and finally necessary? Do those relationships go deep enough? Does our real need go deeper?

What about those who stay single or people whose relationships are broken? Or consider the contemplative monk or nun who hardly ever speak, the celibate in or out of the religious life, the rejected and dejected, the drug addict, alcoholic, the tramp, the drop outs from society, those who have nobody, is their human experience less and are they denied love somehow because they don’t appear to have a close loving human relationship with someone? How deep can we go with this love thing? Is there something more infinitely deeper than the merely human side of it? Are human relationships, human love, really just a taste of something deeper and even more profound? Human relationships can be fickle, wither and dry up. People also die. Is the need and search for love within us naturally there? Are we born with the desire and need for it? What could it all be out? I don’t know.

But Jane had her friend.

Other posts by Tony Grant

*Image from Theatre Someone

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Inquiring reader: Recently I  had the pleasure of viewing Jane Austen’s letters in A Woman’s Wit: Jane Austen’s Life and Legacy, an exhibit showing at the Morgan Libraryin New York City until March 14th. My observations are those of a layman and amateur. Nevertheless, I thought I would share my impressions. As Janeites know, several years before Cassandra Austen’s death, she  ruthlessly censored Jane’s  letters. In this image, taken from the Morgan Library website, you can see that an entire portion of the letter  is missing. To the left of  the same letter, Jane drew the pattern of a piece of lace, writing, “My cloak is come home, and here is the pattern of its lace.”

Portion of autograph letter signed, dated Bath, 2 June 1799 to Cassandra Austen

I was struck by how finely some of the portions had been cut out. In one letter that Jane wrote in 1814, Cassandra snipped only a few words and the cut was so unobtrusive that at first I did not spot the missing area. The sentence began with “Edward is quite…” Then nothing. Only a sliver of a line with several additional words cut out. Did the phrase reflect negatively upon Edward or Jane or another member of the family? We shall never know.

Franking letters was expensive for Jane, whose yearly personal budget consisted of £50 or less. She followed the common practice of cross writing. I noted how straight her lines were, and how carefully she placed them between the blank spaces of the lines on the other side. The letter below shows both practices. The Morgan Library website features this letter and allows you to enlarge it. Scroll to the bottom and study it in more detail. Learn more about crossed letters and the paper Jane used in this link.

Letter to Godmersham

Jane’s letters were not always crossed, nor did she always use both sides of the paper. In this delightful example, written to her  niece, Cassandra, in the last year of her life, Jane takes care to keep a large amount of blank space around the lines. She also writes in a much larger script. Written entirely backwards with an unfaltering hand, the letter must have thrilled its young recipient.

It is estimated that Jane Austen wrote 3,000 letters in her lifetime. Of the 160 that remain, the Morgan Library has purchased 51.  Not all of the lettters in this exhibit were written to family members. In the image below, the letter on the left was written by the Prince Regent’s librarian, James Stanier Clarke, to Jane. To the right of it sits one of her letters to him. I was struck by the brown color of the ink, which in some letters was still strong and vigorous, and in others had faded to a pale, watery color. Jane used iron gall ink, an ink common in her era, which is initially blue-black and then fades to brown.

It is composed of tannin (gallic acid), iron sulfate (known as vitriol in the nineteenth-century), gum arabic, and water. Because it is indelible, it was used for official documents from the middle ages onward. The ink is easy to make, inexpensive, and can be transported as a powder and mixed whenever needed. When first applied to paper, the ink appears pale-gray; as it is exposed to air, the ink darkens to a rich blue-black tone. Eventually, most iron gall ink changes to a brown color, as is evident in Austen’s letters and manuscripts – Thaw Conservation Center.

To learn more about Jane’s letters in the exhibit, I urge you to click on the Morgan Library website and study the few images that are shared with the public. Sadly, the Morgan did not publish a catalog, and much of the information in the exhibit is available only to visitors. Click here to view images from the exhibit. Click here to read about the technicalities of letter writing in Jane Austen’s day.

More links about the exhibit:

More links on this blog about letter writing and the royal mail in Jane Austen’s day:

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Fanny Knight

Fanny Knight

In the last two years of her life, Jane Austen wrote five letters to her niece Fanny Knight that combined true affection, detached analysis, and rare good sense.*  Austen scholar Janet Todd characterized Jane’s role as an “agony aunt” who dispensed sympathetic advice to a motherless teenager with lines that are now famous: “Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor — which is one very strong argument in favor of matrimony. ” In 1814,  shortly after her first edition of Mansfield Park sold out,  Jane wrote a letter of caution to her niece Fanny Knight about marriage and affairs of the heart:

And now, my dear Fanny, having written so much on one side of the question, I shall turn round and entreat you not to commit yourself farther, and not to think of accepting him unless you really do like him. Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection; and if his deficiencies of manner, &c. &c., strike you more than all his good qualities, if you continue to think strongly of them, give him up at once…

It turns out that Fanny was never enamored enough to marry the young man. Fanny’s daughter Louisa wrote years later:

these five letters are peculiarly interesting, not only because in every line they are vividly characteristic of the writer, but because they differ from all the preceding letters in that they are written, not to an elder sister, but to a niece who constantly sought her advice and sympathy, and whom she addressed, of course, in a different manner, and from a different standpoint. The other and, naturally, to me a consideration even more important, is that, according to my humble judgment, these letters, whilst they illustrate the character of my great-aunt, cannot, when explained, do otherwise than reflect credit upon that of my beloved mother; whilst they prove the great and affectionate intimacy which existed between her and her aunt, and incidentally demonstrate the truth of a remark in one of Cassandra’s letters that there were many points of similitude in the characters of the two.

Jane’s own words to Fanny co-oberate their closeness:

“You are inimitable, irresistible. You are the delight of my life. Such letters, such entertaining letters, as you have lately sent! such a description of your queer little heart! such a lovely display of what imagination does. You are worth your weight in gold, or even in the new silver coinage.”

While Jane died young, Fanny lived to a great age. We know of Fanny’s infamous letter about her aunt written to her younger sister Marianne in 1869, over 50 years after Jane’s death, which did not exhibit the same degree of exuberant affection as Jane’s letters showed towards her niece. But Fanny’s words were written when she was an old woman who was influenced by Victorian sensibilities. In reality, the relationship between  Jane and her niece was both loving and complex, for Fanny recalled on numerous occasions her many walks with her Aunt Jane and very interesting conversations and delicious mornings.*

Learn more about their relationship in the following resources:

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During her short life, Jane Austen was a prolific writer of letters, yet few survive. It is widely known that a majority of Jane’s letters were burned by her sister Cassandra and destroyed by other members of her family. Their reasons were varied. This excerpt from Jim and Ellen Moody’s website: English and Continental Literature, discusses the destruction of these letters and the reasons for it:

Not all the Austens of Jane’s generation and increasingly fewer who belonged to the later generations wanted the family’s private papers destroyed. It was not Jane but Cassandra who burnt ‘the greater part’ of Jane’s letters, and she only committed them to the fire when in 1842 she understood her own death could not be far off. Jane’s letters to Eliza and Henry and hers to them were left in Henry’s hands, and they have not survived. However, Frank, throughout a long mobile life, carefully preserved Jane’s letters to his first wife, Mary Gibson, and her packets of letters to himself and to Martha Lloyd (who became his second wife). It was Frank’s youngest daughter, Fanny-Sophia, who destroyed these and she did so after her father’s death (Family Record, p. 252). She acted without consulting anyone beforehand because by that time mores had changed and other of Frank’s children and grandchildren would have objected. Happily Philadelphia Walker had no direct descendants who felt their reputations or self-esteem put at risk by the existence of Eliza’s letters to her, and she lived long enough so that upon her death these letters fell into the hands of someone disinterested enough to save them, though in a somewhat mutilated state. A record of Jane Austen’s great-grandmother, Elizabeth Weller Austen’s steady courage, which enabled Jane’s branch of the family to maintain the status of gentleman and amass wealth and prestige, survives in a seventeenth century manuscript because several generations of Austens who descended from her second oldest son, the attorney, Francis Austen of Sevenoaks, preserved it (Austen Papers, p. 2).

As a result of the destruction of Jane’s own words, biographers have over the years come to widely different conclusions about Jane’s thoughts and motives. Ellen Moody outlines some of these varying interpretations in the link I have provided.

To read Jane’s letters, click on the following sites:

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During Jane Austen’s time, letters were written on sheet of paper that were folded and sealed, as in this sample. The recipient of the letter had to pay for the delivery. Therefore, the fewer pages that were used, the less expensive the cost, since the fee was based on the size of a letter and the distance it traveled.

Envelopes were not used. They would have added an additional sheet of paper and cost more for the recipient. To keep the letter affordable, people also wrote in a cross letter style as shown below.
Hand made papers were made in molds, hence one could readily observe the paper marks and ribbing from the parallel wires in the mold. Often these “laid” papers also bore distinctive watermarks. Double click on the image below to view these distinctive markings up close.

Writing implements included the quill pen, an inkstand filled with ink, pen knife, and sometimes a writing box.

Roller blotters made their appearance during the 19th century. Before this time, writers dried wet ink by sprinkling grains of sand over the words.


Creating quill pens was an art, since the nib had to be carefully cut with a knife so that the hollow core would hold just the right amount of ink and release it steadily under pressure. If the writer wrote for any length of time, fingers on the writing hand would often become ink stained. Quill pens, most commonly obtained from the wing feathers of a goose, had to be sharpened often with a pen knife. The average quill pen lasted for only a week before it was discarded.

After folding the paper, a sender would seal the letter with a custom wax seal stamp, that in some instances bore the family crest or the sender’s initials. The address on the outside remained simple, directing the bearer of the letter to the city or town, street, and the name of the receiver.
This is a photo of Jane Austen’s writing table and chair at Chawton, where she wrote the bulk of her novels and, I imagine, her letters as well.

Find out more about letter writing here:

Jane Austen’s Writing (Sloping) Desk

The Writing Implement of Jane Austen: The Quill Pen

London Mail and Postal Service: The Georgian Index

18th and 19th Century Wooden Seal Boxes

Cutting a Quill Pen

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