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Thursday, 9 March 2017

JANE AUSTEN'S EARLY CORRESPONDENCE

Jane Austen's early letters enable us to visualise developments at Steventon Rectory, where she grew up. Hacker has been here today, putting in the fruit trees. – A new plan has been suggested concerning the plantation of the new inclosure on the right hand side of the Elm Walk – the doubt is whether it would be better to make a little orchard of it, by planting apples, pears & cherries, or whether it should be larch, Mountain-ash & acacia. – What is your opinion? (Letter 27). 

It is difficult to sort out the intricate network of relatives, Hampshire friends and acquaintances who are mentioned - often only in passing. Lord David Cecil in his book A Portrait of Jane Austen (1978) indicates the problem: 'The Chutes of The Vyne, the Mildmays of Dogmersfield, the Heathcotes of Hursley, the Holders of Laverstoke, the Terrys of Dummer, the Bramstons of Oakley Hall, the Portals of Freefolk, the Lefroys of Ashe, the Biggs of Manydown, the Digweeds of Steventon, the Harwoods of Deane – these are the names of which we read, as meeting to dine or dance or play cards or follow the hunt in each other's company... But, more frequent than names of friends and neighbours are those of relations. By far the most important family to the Austens was their own.'

Even forming a clear picture of the Austen family is difficult, because several husbands married twice and had two families (wives tended to die as a consequence of childbirth; and almost half of all deaths were of children under five). There are so many Johns, Edwards, Janes and Marys (and even three Cassandras), that identification is confusing.

In her youth, Jane Austen relished dancing. She sends Cassandra full accounts of her gowns, the number of dancers and other guests at the balls and assemblies, and of the partners with whom she danced. There were twenty Dances & I danced them all, & without any fatigue. – I was glad to find myself capable of dancing so much ... (Letter 15); Charlotte and I did my hair, which I fancy looked very indifferent; nobody abused it however, & I retired delighted with my success. – It was a pleasant Ball, & still more good than pleasant, for there were nearly 60 people, & sometimes we had 17 couple. – The Portsmouths, Dorchesters, Boltons, Portals & Clerks were there, & all the meaner and more usual &c. &c's ... I danced nine dances out of ten, five with Stephen Terry, T. Chute and Digweed & four with Catherine ... (Letter 24).

In Southampton, aged almost thirty-three, Jane was still eager to seize any opportunity to dance: Yes – I mean to go to as many Balls as possible, that I may have a good bargain (Letter 62).

Jane attended balls and other social assemblies in Bath. Sometimes they were disappointing (Another stupid party last night; perhaps if larger they might be less intolerable, but here there were only just enough to make one card table, with six people to look over, & talk nonsense to each other (Letter 36). In the same letter, she describes a ball which began very quietly, considering that it was held in the famous upper rooms; but it improved after tea, with the breaking up of private parties sending some scores more to the Ball, & tho' it was shockingly & inhumanly thin for this place, there were people enough I suppose to have made five or six very pretty Basingstoke assemblies.

The Upper Rooms had been built by John Wood the Younger between 1769 and 1771. After this, the prestige of the original Assembly Rooms declined. These original rooms were those which Jane knew as the Lower Rooms and with which Beau Nash had been associated earlier in the Century. The Lower Rooms were destroyed by fire in 1820. The Upper Rooms are two elegant blocks on Bennet Street and Alfred Street, with the octagonal card room and antechambers between them. They are still used for balls and public events.

Jane sees the funny side of her uneventful life-style: I bought some Japan Ink likewise, & next week shall begin my operations on my hat, on which You know my principal hopes of happiness depend (Letter 10). My mother desires me to tell you that I am a very good housekeeper, which I have no reluctance in doing, because I really think it my peculiar excellence, and for this reason – I always take care to provide such things as please my own appetite, which I consider as the chief merit in housekeeping. I have had some ragout veal, and I mean to have some haricot mutton tomorrow. We are to kill a pig soon (Letter 11); I am prevented from setting my black cap at Mr Maitland by his having a wife & ten children (Letter 37, at the end of which she apologises for scandalising him - she has discovered he has but three Children instead of Ten).

NOTE: The Numbers of the Letters are with reference to Deirde Le Faye's Edition.