Jane Austen and Her Times
Chapter 1 - Preliminary and Discursive
Of Jane Austen's life there is little to tell, and that little has been told more than once by writers whose relationship to her made them competent to do so. It is impossible to make even microscopic additions to the sum-total of the facts already known of that simple biography, and if by chance a few more original letters were discovered they could hardly alter the case, for in truth of her it may be said, "Story there is none to tell, sir." To the very pertinent question which naturally follows, reply may thus be given. Jane Austen stands absolutely alone, unapproached, in a quality in which women are usually supposed to be deficient, a humorous and brilliant insight into the foibies of human nature, and a strong sense of the ludicrous. As a writer in The Times (November 25, 1904) neatly puts it, "Of its kind the comedy of Jane Austen is incomparable. It is utterly merciless. Prancing victims of their illusions, her men and women are utterly bare to our understanding, and their gyrations are irresistibly comic. "Therefore as a personality, as a central figure, too much cannot be written about her, and however much is said or written the mystery of her genius will still always baffle conjecture, always lure men on to fresh attempts to analyse and understand her.
The data of Jane Austen's life have been repeated several times, as has been said, but beyond a few trifling allusions to her times no writer has thought it necessary to show up the background against which her figure may be seen, or to sketch from contemporary records the environment amid which she developed. Yet surely she is even more wonderful as a product of her times than considered as an isolated figure; therefore the object of this book is to show her among the scenes wherein she moved, to sketch the men and women to whom she was accustomed, the habits and manners of her class, and the England with which she was familiar. Her life was not long, lasting only from 1775 to 1817, but it covered notable times, and with such an epoch for presentation, with such a central figure to link together the sequence of events, we have a theme as inspiring as could well be found.
In many ways the times of Jane Austen are more removed from our own than the mere lapse of years seems to warrant. The extraordinary outburst of invention and improvement which took place in the reign of Queen Victoria, lifted manners and customs in advance of what two centuries of ordinary routine would have done. Sir Walter Besant in his London in the Eighteenth Century says, "The passing of the Reform Bill in 1832, the introduction of steamers on the sea, the beginning of railways on land, make so vast a break between the first third and last two-thirds of the nineteenth century, that I feel justified in considering the eighteenth century as lasting down to the year 1837; in other words, there were so few changes, and these so slight, in manners, customs, or prevalent ideas, between 1700 and 1837, that we may consider the eighteenth century as continuing down to the beginning of the Victorian era, when change after change--change in the constitution, change in communications, change in the growth and extension of trade, change in religious thought, change in social standards--introduced that new time which we call the nineteenth century."
According to this reckoning, Jane Austen may be counted as wholly an eighteenth-century product, and such a view is fully justified, for the differences between her time and ours were enormous. It is impossible to summarise in a few sentences changes which are essentially a matter of detail, but in the gradual unfolding of her life I shall attempt to show how radically different were her surroundings from anything to which we are accustomed.
It is an endless puzzle why, when her books so faithfully represent the society and manners of a time so unlike our own, they seem so natural to us. If you tell any half-dozen people, who have not made a special study of the subject, at what date these novels were written, you will find that they are all surprised to hear how many generations ago Jane Austen lived, and that they have always vaguely imagined her to be very little earlier than, if not contemporary with, Charlotte Brontë or George Eliot. So far as I am aware, no writer on Jane Austen has ever touched on this problem before. Her stories are as fresh and real as the day they were written, her characters might be introduced to us in the flesh any time, and, with the exception of a certain quaintness of eighteenth-century flavouring, there is nothing to bring before us the striking difference between their environment and our own. It is true that the long coach journeys stand out as an exception to this, but they are the only marked exception. If we had never had an illustrated edition of Jane Austen, nine people out of ten at least would have formed mental pictures of the characters dressed in early Victorian, or perhaps even in present-day, costume. It is only since Hugh Thompson and C. E. Brock have put before us the costumes of the age, that our ideas have accommodated themselves, and we realise how Catherine Morland and Isabella Thorpe looked in their high-waisted plain gowns, when they had arrived at that stage of intimacy which enabled them to pin "up each other's trains for the dance." Or how attractive Fanny Price was in her odd high crowned hat, with its nodding plume, and the open-necked short-sleeved dress, as she surveyed herself in the glass while Miss Crawford snapped the chain round her neck. The knee-breeches of the men, their slippers and cravats, the neat, close-fitting clerical garb, these things we owe to the artists,--they are taken for granted in the text. It would have seemed as ridiculous to Jane Austen to describe them, as for a present-day novelist to mention that a London man made a call in a frock-coat and top-hat.
Yet her word-pictures are living and detailed, filled in with innumerable little touches. How can we reconcile the seeming inconsistency? The explanation probably is, that Without acting consciously, she, with the unerring touch of real genius, chose that which was lasting, and of interest for all time, from that which was ephemeral. In her sketches of human nature, in the strokes with which she describes character, no line is too fine or too delicate for her attention; but in the case of manners and customs she gives just the broad outlines that serve as a setting. Her novels are novels of character. But the problem is not confined to the books; in her letters to her sister, though there is abundant comment on dress, food, and minor details which should mark the epoch, yet the letters might have been written yesterday. Austin Dobson in one of his admirable prefaces to the novels says: "Going over her pages, pencil in hand, the antiquarian annotator is struck by their excessive modernity, and after a prolonged examination discovers, in this century-old record, nothing more fitted for the exercise of his ingenuity that such an obsolete game at cards as 'Casino' or 'quadrille.'
And this is true also of her letters. More remarkable still is the entire absence of comment on the great events which thrilled the world; with the exception of an allusion to the death of Sir John Moore, we hear no whisper of the wars and upheavals which happened during her life. It is true that the Revolution in France, which shook monarchs on their thrones, occurred before the first date of the published letters, yet her correspondence covers a time when battles at sea were chronicled almost continuously, when an invasion by France was an ever-present terror; Trafalgar and Waterloo were not history, but contemporary events; but though Jane must have heard and discussed these matters, no echo finds its way into her lively and amusing budgets of chit-chat to her sister. Of course women were not supposed to read the papers in those days, but with to sailor brothers the news must have often been personal and intimate, and she was, according to the notions of her time, well educated; yet we search in vain for any allusion to such contemporary matters. It may be objected that the letters of a modern girl to a sister would hardly touch on questions which agitate the public, but there are several replies to this: in the first place, few such exciting events have occurred in recent times as happened during Jane Austen's life; our war in Africa was a mere trifle in comparison with the bloody field of Waterloo, where Blucher and Wellington lost 30,000 men, or the thrilling naval victory of Trafalgar; and stupendous as have been the recent battles between Russia and Japan, they affect us only indirectly--England is not herself involved in them, nor are her sons being slain daily. In the second place, surely even the South African War would probably produce some comment in letters, especially if the writer had brothers in the army as Jane had brothers in the navy. Thirdly, letters in Jane Austen's time were one great means of news, for newspapers were not so easy to get, and were much more costly than now, so that we expect to find more of contemporary events in letters than at a time like the present, when telegrams and columns of print save us the trouble of recording such matters in private.
In the forty-two years between 1775 and 1817, vast discoveries of world-wide importance were made. When Jane Austen was born, Captain Cook was still in the midst of his exploration, and the map of the world was being unrolled day by day. Though New Zealand and Australia had been discovered by the Dutch in the previous century, they were all but unknown to England. Six years only before her birth had the great navigator charted and mapped New Zealand for the first time, also the east coast of Australia, and had christened New South Wales. When she was four years old, Cook was murdered by the natives at Hawaii.
The atlas from which she learnt her earliest geography lessons was therefore very different from those now in use. The well-known cartographer, S. Dunn, published an atlas in 1774, where Australia is marked certainly, but as though one saw it through distorted glasses; the east coast, Cook's discovery, is clearly defined, the rest is very vague; and the fact that Tasmania was an island had not then been discovered, for it appears as a projecting headland. In the same general way is New Zealand treated, and neither has a separate sheet to itself; beyond their appearance on the map of the world, they are ignored. Japan also looks queer to modern eyes, it almost touches China at both ends, enclosing a land-locked sea.
The epoch was one of change and enlargement in other than geographical directions. In the thirty years before Jane Austen's birth an immense improvement had taken place in the position of women. Mrs. Montagu, in 1750, had made bold strokes for the freedom and recognition of her sex. The epithet "blue-stocking," which has survived with such extraordinary tenacity, was at first given, not to the clever women who attended Mrs. Montagu's informal receptions, but to her men friends, who were allowed to come in the grey or blue worsted stockings of daily life, instead of the black silk considered de rigueur for parties. Up to this time, personal appearance and cards had been the sole resources for a leisured dame of the upper classes, and the language of gailantry was the only one considered fitting for her to hear. By Mrs. Montagu's efforts it was gradually recognised that a woman might not only have sense herself, but might prefer it should be spoken to her; and that because the minds of women had long been left uncultivated they were not on that account unworthy of cultivation. Hannah More describes Mrs. Montagu as "not only the finest genius, but the finest lady I ever saw . . . her form (for she has no body) is delicate even to fragility; her countenance the most animated in the world; the sprightly vivacity of fifteen, with the judgment and experience of a Nestor."
In art there had never before been seen in England such a trio of masters as Reynolds, Gainsborough, and Romney. Isolated portrait painters of brilliant genius, though not always native born, there had been in England,--Holbein, Vandyke, Lely, Kneller, and Hogarth are all in the first rank,but that three such men as the trio above should flourish contemporaneously was little short of miraculous.
In 1775, Sir Joshua had passed the zenith of his fame, though he lived until 1792. Gainsborough, who was established in a studio in Schomberg House, Pall Mall, was in 1775 at the beginning of his most successful years; his rooms were crowded with sitters of both sexes, and no one considered they had proved their position in society until they had received the hall-mark of being painted by him. He was only sixty-one at his death in 1788. Romney, who lived to 1802, never took quite the same rank as the other two, yet he was popular enough at the same time as Gainsborough; Lady Newdigate (The Cheverels of Cheverel Manor) mentions going to have her portrait painted by him, and says that "he insists upon my having a rich white satin with a long train made by Tuesday, and to have it left with him all the summer. It is the oddest thing I ever knew." Sir Thomas Lawrence and Hoppner carried on the traditions of the portrait painters, the former living to 1830; with names such as these it is easy to judge art was in a flourishing condition.
Among contemporary landscape painters, Richard Wilson, who has been called "the founder of English Landscape, "lived until 1782. But his views, though vastly more natural than the stilted conventional style that preceded them, seem to our modern eyes, trained to what is "natural," still to be too much conventionalised. Among others the names of Gillray, Morland, Rowlandson stand out, all well on the way to fame while Jane was still a child.
These preliminary remarks have been made with a view to giving some general idea of that England into which she was born, and they refer to those subjects which only affected her indirectly. All those things which entered directly into her life, such as her country surroundings, contemporary books, prices of food, fashions, and a host of minor details, are dealt with more particularly in the course of the narrative.
As we have said, matters of history are not mentioned or noticed in Jane Austen's correspondence, which is taken up with her own environment, her neighbours, their habits and manners, and illumined throughout by a bright insight at times rather too biting to be altogether pleasant. Of her immediate surroundings we have a very clear idea.
Of all the writers of fiction, Jane Austen is most thoroughly English. She never went abroad, and though her native good sense and shrewd gift of observation saved her from becoming insular, yet she cannot be conceived as writing of any but the sweet villages and the provincial towns of her native country. Even the Brontës, deeply secluded as their lives were, crossed the German Ocean, and saw something of Continental life from their school at Brussels. Nothing of this kind fell to Jane Austen's share. Yet people did travel in those days, travelled amazingly considering the difficulties they had to encounter, among which were the horrors of a sailing-boat with its uncertain hours. Fielding, in going to Lisbon, was kept waiting a month for favourable winds! There was also the terrible embarking and landing from a small boat before such conveniences as landing-stages were built.
In one of Lord Langdale's letters, dated 1803, we have a vivid description of these horrors: "We left that place [Dover] about six o'clock last Saturday morning, and arrived at Calais at four in the afternoon. Our passage was rather disagreeable, the wind being chiefly against us, and rain sometimes falling in torrents. I never witnessed a more curious scene than our landing. When the packet-boat had come to within two miles of the coast of France, we were met by some French rowing boats in which we were to be conveyed on shore. The French sailors surrounded us in the most clamorous and noisy manner, leaping into the packet and bawling and shouting so loud as to alarm the ladies on board very much. To these men, however, we were to consign ourselves, and we entered their boats, eight passengers going in each. When we got near the shore, we were told it was impossible for the boat to get close to land, on account of the tide being so low, and that we must be carried on the men's shoulders. We had no time to reflect on this plan before we saw twelve or fourteen men running into the water,--they surrounded our boat and laid hold of it with such violence, that one might have thought they meant to sink it, and fairly pulled us into their arms. . . . For my part I laughed heartily all the time, but a lady who was with us was so much frighted, that I was obliged to support her in my arms a considerable time before she was able to stand."
It was not only in the arms of men that passengers were thus carried ashore, in Napoleon's British Visitors and Captives, by J. G. Alger, there is a still more extraordinary account quoted from a contemporary letter. "In an instant the boathead was surrounded by a throng of women up to their middles and over, who were there to carry us on shore. Not being aware of this manoeuvre, we did not throw ourselves into the arms of these sea-nymphs so instantly as we ought, whereby those who sat at the stern of the boat were deluged with sea spray. For myself, I was in front, and very quickly understood the clamour of the mermaids. I flung myself upon the backs of two of them without reserve, and was safely and dryly borne on shore, but one poor gentleman slipped through their fingers, and fell over head and ears into the sea."
From the same entertaining book we learn that, "For £ 4, 13s. you could get a through ticket by Dover and Calais, starting either from the City at 4.30 a.m. by the old and now revived line of coaches connected with the rue Notre Dame des Victoires establishment in Paris, or morning and night by a new line from Charing Cross. Probably a still cheaper route, though there were no through tickets, was by Brighten and Dieppe, the crossing taking ten or fifteen hours. By Calais it seldom took more than eight hours, but passengers were advised to carry light refreshments with them. The diligence from Calais to Paris, going only four miles an hour, took fifty-four hours for the journey, but a handsome carriage drawn by three horses, in a style somewhat similar to the English post-chaise, could be hired by four or five fellow-travellers, and this made six miles an hour."
During a great part of Jane Austen's life, much of the Continent was closed to English people because of the perpetual state of war between us and either Spain or France, but in any case such an expedition would seem to have lain quite outside her limited daily round, and was never even mooted.
Steventon Rectory, where she was born on December 16, 1775, has long ago vanished, and a new rectory, more in accordance with modern luxurious notions, has been built. Of the old house, Lord Brabourne, great-nephew to Jane Austen, writes:"The house standing in the valley was somewhat better than the ordinary parsonage houses of the day; the old-fashioned hedgerows were beautiful, and the country around sufficiently picturesque for those who have the good taste to admire country scenery.
Steventon is a very small place, lying in a network of lanes about seven miles from Basingstoke. The nearest points on the high-roads are Deane, on the Andover Road, and Popham Lane on the Winchester Road. There is an inn at the corner of Popham Lane to this day, and that there was an inn there in Jane Austen's time we know, for Mrs. Lybbe Powys, writing in 1792, says: "We stopped at Winchester and lay that night at a most excellent inn at Yopham Lane." At this time, curiously enough, her fellow-travellers were Dr. Cooper, Jane Austen's uncle, and his son and daughter, though whether the party made a detour to visit the rectory we do not know. Of course at that time Jane was of no greater importance than any seventeen-year-old daughter of a country clergyman, and there would be no reason to mention her.
It is difficult to find Steventon, so little is there of it, and that so much scattered; a few cottages, a farm, and beyond, half a mile away, the church, with a pump in a field near to mark the site of the old rectory house where Jane Austen was born. This is all that remains of her time. The new rectory stands on the other side of the narrow road, raised above it, and sheltered by a warm backing of trees in which evergreens are conspicuous. A very substantial-looking building it is, much superior to what was considered good enough for a clergyman in the eighteenth century. The country is well wooded, and the roads undulating, so that there are no distant views. Probably a good deal of the planting has been done since Jane Austen's time, but that there were trees then we know from her own account, and some of the fine oaks that still stand can have altered but little since then. Mr. Austen-Leigh's account of the house in which she was born is worth quoting--
"North of the house, the road from Deane to Popham Lane ran at a sufficient distance from the front to allow a carriage drive through turf and trees. On the south side, the ground rose gently, and was occupied by one of those old-fashioned gardens in which vegetables and flowers are combined, flanked and protected on the east by one of the thatched mud walls common in that country, and overshadowed by fine elms. Along the upper or southern side of this garden ran a terrace of the finest turf, which must have been in the writer's thoughts when she described Catherine Morland's childish delight in rolling down the green slope at the back of the house.'"Though there is so little left to see, and the church has been "restored," yet it is worth while to pass through this country to realise the environment in which the authoress spent her childhood. There are still left in the neighbourhood, notably at North Waltham, some of the old diamond-paned, heavily-timbered brick houses with thatched roofs, to which she must have been accustomed. The gentle curves of the roads, the oak and beech and fir overshadowing the sweet lanes, the wild clematis, which grows so abundantly that in autumn it looks like hear-frost covering all the hedge-rows, these things were prominent objects in the scenery amid which she lived. It is not likely she looked on her surroundings in the same way as any ordinarily educated person would now look on them. Love of scenery had not then been developed. The artificial and formal landscape gardening, with "made" waterfalls, was the correct thing to admire. Genuine nature, much less homely nature, was only then beginning to be observed. This is strange to us, for, as Professor Geikie says, "At no time in our history as a nation has the scenery of the land we live in been so intelligently appreciated as it is to-day." But Jane was not in advance of her times, and though she loved her trees and flowers, we find in her writings no reflections of the scenes amid which she daily walked; in her books scenery is simply ignored. We know if it rained, because that material fact had an influence on the actions of her heroines, but beyond that there is little or nothing; yet she greatly admired Cowper, one of the earliest of the "natural" poets.
Mr. Austen-Leigh, her own nephew, speaks of the scenery around her first home as "tame," and says that it has no "grand or extensive views," though he admits it has its beauties, and says that Steventon "from the fall of the ground, and the abundance of its timber, is certainly one of the prettiest spots. But this quiet prettiness, without the excessive richness to be found in other south-country villages, is perhaps more thoroughly characteristic of England than any other."
The impressions of childhood are invariably deep, and are cut with a clearness and minuteness to which none others of later times attain. Just as a child examines a picture in a story-book with anxious and searching care, while an adult gains only a general impression of the whole, so a child knows the place where it has played in such detail that every bough of the trees, every root of the lilacs, every tiny depression or ditch is familiar. And thus Jane must have known the home at Steventon.
Writing about a storm in 1800, she says: "I was just in time to see the last of our two highly valued elms descend into the Sweep!!! The other, which had fallen, I suppose, in the first crash, and which was the nearest to the pond, taking a more easterly direction, sunk amid our screen of chestnuts and firs, knocking down one spruce fir, beating off the head of another, and stripping the two corner chestnuts of several branches in its fall. This is not all. One large elm out of the two on the left-hand side as you enter, what I call, the elm walk, was likewise blown down; the maple bearing the weathercock was broke in two, and what I regret more than all the rest is that all the three elms which grew in Hall's meadow, and gave such ornament to it, are gone."
This bespeaks her intimate acquaintance with the trees, of which each one was a friend.
The country and the writer suited each other so wonderfully, that one pauses for a moment wondering whether, after all, environment may not have that magic influence claimed for it by some who hold it to be more powerful than inherited qualities. Influence of course it has, and one wonders what could possibly have been the result if two such natures as those of Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë had changed places; if Jane had been brought up amid the wild, bleak Yorkshire moors, and Charlotte amid the pleasant fields of Hampshire. As it is, the surroundings of each intensified and developed their own peculiar genius.
The Rev. James Austen and the Rev. George Austen
Jane was born of the middle class, her father, George Austen, being a clergyman in a day when clergymen were none too well thought of, yet taking a better position than most by reason of his own family and good connections. George Austen had early been left an orphan, and had been adopted by an uncle. He showed the possession of brains by obtaining first a scholarship at St. John's College, Oxford, and subsequently a fellowship.
He took Orders which, in the days when rectories were looked upon simply as"livings,"was a recognised mode of providing for a young man, whether he had any vocation for the ministry or not. But he seems to have fulfilled his duties, or what were then considered sufficient duties, creditably enough. Of George Austen one of his sons wrote--
"He resided in the conscientious and unassisted discharge of his ministerial duties until he was turned of seventy years." He was a "profound scholar" and had "exquisite taste in every species of literature."The subject of the clergy at that date, and the examples of them which Jane has herself given us in her books, is an interesting one, and we shall return to it. The rectory of Steventon was presented to George Austen by Mr. Knight, the same cousin who afterwards adopted his son Edward; and the rectory of Deane, a small place about a mile distant, was bought by an uncle who had educated him, and given to him. The villages were very small, only containing about three hundred persons altogether. In those days parish visiting or parochial clubs and entertainments were unthought of, Sunday schools in their earliest infancy, and we hear nothing whatever throughout the whole of Jane Austen's correspondence which leads us to think that she, in any way, carried out the duties which in these days fall to the lot of every clergyman's daughter. This is not to cast blame upon her, it only means that she was the child of her times; these things had not then been organised.
George Austen married Cassandra, youngest daughter of the Rev. Thomas Leigh, who was of good family, her uncle was Dr. Theophilus Leigh, Master of Balliol College, a witty and well-known man. These things are not of importance in themselves, but they serve to show that the family from which Jane sprang was on both sides of some consideration. The Austens lived first at Deane, but moved to Steventon in 1771. They had undertaken the charge of a son of Warren Hastings, who died young, and they had a large family of their own, as was consistent in days when families of ten, eleven, and even fifteen were no uncommon thing.
There were five sons and two daughters in all, and Jane was the youngest but one. (See Table) James, the eldest, was probably too far removed in age from his younger sister ever to have been very intimate with her. It is said that he had some share in her reading and in forming her taste, but though she was very fond of him she never have had quite the same degree of intimate affection for him as she felt for those of her brothers nearer to her own age. James was twice married, and his only daughter by his first wife was Anna, of whom Jane makes frequent mention in her letters, and to whom some of the published correspondence was addressed. His second wife was Mary Lloyd, whose sister Martha was the very devoted friend, and frequent guest, of the girl Austens, and who late in life married Francis, one of Jane's younger brothers. The son of James and Mary was James Edward, who took the additional name of Leigh, and was the writer of the Memoir which supplies one of the only two sources of authoritative information about Jane Austen. He died in 1874.
The next brother, Edward, as already stated, was adopted by his cousin Mr. Knight, whose name he took. He came into the fine properties of Chawton House in Hampshire and Godmersham in Kent, even during the lifetime of Mr. Knight's widow, who looked on him as seems, as was very natural, to a son and retired in his favour. Edward married Elizabeth Bridges, and had a family of eleven children, of whom the eldest, Fanny Catherine, married Sir Edward Knatchbull, and their eldest son was created Lord Brabourne; to him we owe the Letters which are the second of the authoritative books on Jane Austen.
Jane Austen was attached to her niece Fanny Knight in a degree only second to that of her attachment to her own sister Cassandra. Fanny's mother, Mrs. Edward Austen or Knight (for the change of name seems not to have taken place until her death), died comparatively young, and the great responsibility thrown upon Fanny doubtless made her seem older, and more companionable, than her years; of her, her famous aunt writes--
"I found her in the summer just what you describe, almost another sister, and could not have supposed that a niece would ever have been so much to me. She is quite after one's own heart. Give her my best love and tell her that I always think of her with pleasure."The third Austen brother, Henry, interested himself much in his sister's writing, and saw about the business arrangements for her, when, after many years, she decided to publish one of her own books at her own risk. He was something of a rolling stone, filling various positions in turn, and at length taking Orders and succeeding his brother James in the Steventon living. During part of his life he lived in London, where Jane often stayed with him. He married first his cousin Eliza, the daughter of George Austen's sister; she was the widow of a Frenchman, the Count de Feuillade, who had suffered death by the guillotine. Eliza was very popular with her girl cousins, as we can see from Jane's remarks; she died in 1813, and in 1820 Henry married Eleanor, daughter of Henry Jackson. The two youngest brothers, Francis and Charles, came above and below Jane, with about three years' interval on either side. They both entered the navy, and both became admirals.
Frank rose to be Senior Admiral of the Fleet, and was created G.C.B.; he lived to be ninety-two. He, like another of his brothers, was twice married,--a habit that ran abnormally in the family,--and his second wife was Martha, the sister of his brother James's wife, mentioned above. Charles married first Fanny Palmer, and was left a widower in 1815 with three small daughters. He married secondly her sister Harriet. The two Fannies, Mrs. Charles Austen and the eldest daughter of Edward Knight, sometimes cause a little confusion. Jane Austen mentions calling with the younger Fanny on the motherless children of her brother, one of whom was also Fanny, soon after their loss. "We got to Keppel Street, however, which was all I cared for, and though we could only stay a quarter of an hour, Fanny's calling gave great pleasure, and her sensibility still greater; for she was very much affected at the sight of the children. Little Fanny looked heavy. We saw the whole party."
It has been necessary to give a few details respecting the brothers who played so large a part in Jane's life, because her visits away from home were nearly all to their houses, her letters are full of allusions to them, and the great family affection which subsisted between them all made the griefs and joys of the others the greatest events in a very uneventful life. The dearest, however, of the whole family was the one sister Cassandra, who, like Jane herself, never married, which seems the stranger when we consider how many of the brothers married twice. There was a sad little love-story in Cassandra's life. She was engaged to a young clergyman who had promise of promotion from a nobleman related to him. He accompanied this patron to the West Indies as chaplain to the regiment, and there died of yellow fever. There is perhaps something more pathetic in such a tale than in any other, the glowing ideal has not been smirched by any touch of the actual sordid daily life, it is snatched away and remains an ideal always, and the happiness that might have been is enhanced by romance so as to be a greater deprivation than any loss of the actual.
The two sisters were sisters in reality, sharing the same views, the same friendships, the Same interests. When away, Janes letters to Cassandra are full and lively, telling of all the numberless little events that only a sister can enjoy. And if Jane's own estimate is to be believed, Cassandra's are to the full as vivacious.
"The letter which I have this moment received from you has diverted me beyond moderation. I could die of laughter at it~ as they used to say at school. You are indeed the finest comic writer of the present age."
Cassandra lived to 1845, long enough to see that her beloved sister's letters would in all probability be published; she was of a reticent nature, with a strong dislike to revealing anything personal or intimate to the public, she therefore went through all these neatly written letters from Jane, which she had so carefully preserved, and destroyed anything of a personal nature. One cannot altogether condemn the action, greatly as we have been the losers; the letters that remain, many in number, deal almost entirely with outside matters, trivialities of everyday life, and they are written so brightly that we can judge how interesting the bits of self-revelation by so expressive a pen would have been.
In 1869, when Mr. Austen-Leigh Published his Memoir, only one or two of Jane Austen's letters were available; but in 1802, on the death of Lady Knatchbull (née Fanny Knight), the letters above referred to, which Cassandra Austen had retained, were found among her belongings, having come to her on her aunt's death. Her son, created Lord Brabourne, therefore published these in two volumes in 1884, and when quotations and extracts are given in this book without further explanation, it must be inferred that these are taken from letters of Jane to Cassandra, as given by Lord Brabourne.
This text was originally digitized by Catherine Dean for her "Jane Austen E-Texts, Etc." website, and is archived at Molland's with Ms. Dean's permission.