Tuesday, 29 November 2016


The seeking out of personal letters by the biographers of the Great used to strike me as a relatively modern phenomenon. I thought it was in the early Twentieth Century that biographers started to become more interested in primary sources.

That was before I read Mansfield Park.

I am always struck by the moment when Fanny Price appropriates a scrap of paper on which Edmund has completed only the first twelve words of a note to her and Jane Austen writes: 'Two lines more prized had never fallen from the pen of the most distinguished author – never more completely blessed the researches of the fondest biographer'. (My emphasis)

Clearly - even in those days - biographers liked to get hold of letters; and Jane Austen knew it. Yet it never seems to have occurred to her how precious her own surviving letters might one day be to researchers.

It must be put down to her characteristic modesty. She did not expect female novelists to have biographies written about them. She expected her brothers to become famous; but she was - and would remain - merely the uncelebrated spinster daughter of a parson.

Jane's surviving letters were certainly not written with an eye to posterity. They prattle about trivialities – buying materials for clothes and meeting new people. Their equivalent today is telephone gossip. Like all such private gossip, they can indulge in surreal comedy. 'He has lived in that House more than twenty years, & poor Man, is so totally deaf, that they say he could not hear a Cannon, were it fired close to him; having no cannon to hand to make the experiment, I took it for granted ...'. Those words (they always make me laugh!) from a letter written to her sister Cassandra in 1808 reflect the spirit of much of her correspondence.

There are delightful sentences which could have come straight from the novels: 'To sit in idleness over a good fire in a well-proportioned room is a luxurious sensation' (Letter 25); or 'Moral as well as Natural Diseases disappear in the progress of time, & new ones take their place' (Letter 50, in the course of noting that little children are full of confidence, when they used to be shy). Typical of the elegance with which she adorns the ordinary is the following: 'Pray give my love to George, tell him that I am very glad to hear he can skip so well already, & that I hope he will continue to send me word of his improvement in the art' (Letter 30).

With so many of Jane's letters lost and almost all that survive  addressed to close relatives (especially Cassandra), we do not have a complete picture of Jane Austen's habits and interests as a correspondent. However, they reveal much about her personality and the minutiae of her days. 'I am weary of meandering,' she writes in January 1809 (Letter 67), 'so expect a vast deal of small matter concisely told, in the next two pages'. Small matter concisely crammed into two pages was exactly what she invariably achieved.

Letters were written on different grades of paper according to the wealth of the writer. Normally, the recipient had to pay for the postage, based on the amount of paper used. Typically, to receive a letter, one paid about 6d (six old pence). To keep the cost down, many correspondents not only covered all of the sheet but turned it at a 90o angle and wrote more. This was called crossing the lines. One needed a clear hand and a sharp pen to make this readable. Pens were made from goose quills and sharpened to a point, using a 'penknife'. People often made copies of their letters. After the letter was written, all sides were folded in. The letter was sealed with a wafer (a red pasted paper disc) or a blob of wax impressed with a seal.

To give good value, Jane would squeeze in words, writing over the same page twice, inserting lines the other way up or across as well as down. Often a postscript would be added below the address panel. Jane tended to fold her sheets with the same neatness she showed in her needlework. These quarto sheets she fastened with wafers or seals, many of which have since been cut away. 

Sometimes a person would send a coin under the seal (as in Mansfield Park). There was a penny post in London and people could sometimes pre-pay for letters. (Let us hope Frank Churchill prepaid as the Bates did not have much money.) In the city the postman delivered letters. (In Portsmouth, the postman calls daily at Fanny Price's home, bringing her the latest news of injury and scandal from Edmund, Mary and Lady Bertram.) In the country, one usually had to go to the post office - the post house which was  most likely attached to an inn - to pick up the mail. Jane Fairfax went every day to do so. Rich people sent servants. In Jane Austen's Steventon days, the Austens collected theirs from the Wheat Sheaf Inn, Popham Lane, at the junction with the main road. However, in later years at Chawton, as we learn from Jane's letter to Cassandra of 16  September 1813, the postman delivered to their cottage even on a SundayWhere the service was justified by the density of houses, a postman called. 

It is interesting to find letters were delivered on Sundays in England in 1813. By the Twenty-First Century, this was no longer the case. Such is progress!

Envelopes were not yet commonplace, (though Darcy and Captain Wentworth famously used them). Replying in 1813 to a letter from her brother Frank, who was commanding a ship in the Baltic, Jane Austen wrote: 'I assure you I thought it very well worth its 2s/3d. – I am very much obliged to you for filling me so long a sheet of paper, you are a good one to traffic with in that way, You pay most liberally' (Letter 90).