Jane Austen and Her Times

Chapter 6 - Letters and Post

The main source of information about Jane Austen is contained in her letters. The bulk of those that have been preserved are to be found in the two volumes edited by Lord Brabourne, her great-nephew. And these are only the remnant of what we might have had but for Cassandra's action. It could not matter to Jane or Cassandra now if those gay out-pourings had been published in full, and we should have had a much more complete and true picture of one whom England holds among her three greatest women novelists. As it is, anything based on these letters must necessarily be subject to modification, the inferences drawn are imperfect, and there are long gaps in continuity, while many events of great moment to the writer herself are not so much as referred to in them. We owe it, however, to the fact that visits then really were visits, extending over weeks or months, to compensate for the difficulty and expense of travelling, that what remain are many in number; and also we have cause to be thankful that on account of Mrs. Austen and the household, the two sisters made a point of not leaving home together, generally taking turns, so that the letters are very much more numerous than they might otherwise have been.

Besides those written to Cassandra, there are a few given by Lord Brabourne, which were written to his own mother as a girl, and these are by no means the least interesting in the book. A certain number also are addressed to Jane's other niece, Anna. Besides those in Lord Brabourne's book, there are one or two additional ones in the Memoir by Mr. Austen-Leigh, Jane's own nephew.

The first of the published letters is dated the beginning of 1796, when Jane was twenty-one. As the letters contain many comments on dress, food, daily occurrences of all sorts, the best method seems to be to use them as a thread on which to hang notes of the everyday life of the period, collating what the writer herself says with what is otherwise known, and in this way to gain a background against which her own figure will stand out.

One great characteristic of her correspondence is its extreme liveliness and humour. This is the more remarkable because in her age and time letters were, with a few brilliant exceptions, ponderous and laboured, written in the grand style, as was perhaps natural when the sending of a letter was a serious consideration.

The following is a good specimen of the style considered proper for a boy of sixteen, writing to his mother--

"I am extremely sorry to be thus troublesome to you, but I hope the time may come when I shall be able to say that I have in some small degree deserved the many cares and anxieties I have cost you, at least no effort shall be lost to attain that end. There are two objects (virtue and ability) constantly before my eyes; if I attain them I know myself sure of your approbation, in the possession of which I shall be happy, and without which I should be miserable, so that if selfish gratification was the only cause, I should proceed in my grand object. A more powerful cause, however, employs its influence upon my mind, a desire of doing good, which cannot operate without ability, cannot have effect without virtue."

If a fond mother of the present day got such a letter from a schoolboy son she would probably take the first train to see if he were ill!

The same stiffness was the rule in intimate family relations. This boy, who was no peculiar specimen, but a natural boy of his times, writes about his little sister:"I am very glad to hear that Anna Maria is such a nice girl. I hope she is clever both at her books and at her needle . . . at the former I am sure she is, if she always writes such nice letters as the last she sent to me. Is it asking too much, to beg her to write another before she returns to Kendal?"

How different these sentences are from the lively ones of Jane Austen to her sister: "Everybody is extremely anxious for your return, but as you cannot come home by the Ashe ball, I am glad I have not fed them with false hopes. James danced with Alithea, and cut up the turkey last night with great perseverance. You say nothing of the silk stockings, I flatter myself therefore that Charles has not purchased any, as I cannot very well afford to pay for them. . . . We received a visit from Mr. Tom Lefroy and his cousin George. The latter is really very well behaved now, and as for the other he has but one fault, which time will, I trust, entirely remove, it is that his morning coat is a great deal too light."

And again, "I am very much flattered by your commendation of my last letter, for I write only for fame and without any view to pecuniary emolument."

It was an age of letter writing, periodicals were expensive, and, in remote districts, difficult to get; even when obtained, the news was what we should deem at the present time scanty in the extreme. The Times, for instance, consisted of only a single folded sheet, of which the front page was occupied with advertisements. The foreign news was always some days old, as it was obtained by special packet-boats, which brought across the French papers. These boats being dependent on the wind and currents, were subject to many delays. The newspaper taxes were heavy and burdensome, and though even the poorest sheet of news must be considered wonderful in view of the difficulty and expense attendant on the procuring of news in pre-telegraph days, the fact remains that much was left out which could only be supplied by private correspondence. Horace Walpole, of course, stands out as the prince of letter-writers of his time; his published letters now amount to over two thousand, and deal with all the current questions of the day. Of course these letters are on an altogether different plane from the little batch of about two hundred, which are all we have of Jane's. Walpole's letters are read, not only for their style and manner, but for the light they throw on society and politics. Jane's can be of interest to none but those who are interested in her. And at the time they were published there were many voices raised in protest against the publication of such very "small beer," but in so far as they throw light on her own daily life they are certainly worth having.

Considered merely as private productions, it is wonderful, considering the expense of letter carriage and the delay of correspondence, that she wrote so much as she did.

Letters in those days consisted only of a single sheet without an envelope, which was formed by the last page of the sheet itself being folded over and fastened by a wafer. This did not leave much room for writing.

Jane wrote very small, and her lines are neat and straight, so that she got the largest amount possible into the available space. At that time a single sheet of paper, not exceeding an ounce in weight, varied in price from 4d. to 1s. 6d., according to the distance it was carried; if it exceeded an ounce, it was charged fourfold; any additional bit of paper made it into a double letter, which was charged accordingly. But the thing which would seem to us most intolerable of all, was that the recipient and not the sender paid for the missive, whereby many modest souls must have been prevented from ever writing to their friends lest the letter should not be considered worth the charge. Not until long after Jane had been in her grave did adhesive stamps come into use.

It is a commonly received idea that the Post Office as an institution dates from the establishment of universal penny post in the British Isles by Rowland Hill in 1840. But this is far from being the case; there was a postmaster in 1533, if not before. In 1680 a parcels post at a penny a pound was established in London by William Dockwra, who also suggested passing letters in London at the same rate.

The profits of the post-office at that time were, by a most flagrant abuse, the monopoly of the Duke of York, who vehemently resented Dockwra's improvements. In spite of this, however, Dockwra won his way. The London letters for the penny post were daily "Transmitted to Lyme Street, at the Dwelling House of the said Mr. Dockwra, formerly the Mansion House of Sir Robert Abdy, Kt.

"There are Seven sorting Houses proper to the seven Precincts into which the undertakers have divided London, Westminster, and the Suburbs, situated at equal Distances, for the better maintenance of mutual Correspondence.

There are about 400 or 500 receiving Houses, to take in letters, where the Messengers call every hour, and convey them as directed; as also post letters, the writing of which are much increased by this accommodation, being carefully conveyed by them to the general Post Office in Lombard Street."

These "post letters" are those for the country, still the monopoly of the Duke, who had been persuaded to yield to Dockwra's scheme as likely to further his own revenue.

Also, "By these [clerks, messengers, etc.] are conveyed Letters and Parcels not exceeding one Pound Weight, nor Ten Pound in Value, to and from all Parts at Seasonable Times, viz.: of the Cities of London and Westminster, Southwark, Redriff, Wapping, Ratcliff, Limehouse, Stepney, Yoplar, and Blackwall, and all other places within the weekly Bills of Mortality, as also the four towns of Hackney, islington, South Newington Butts, and Lambeth, but to no other townsi and the letters to be left only at the receiving offices of those towns, or if brought to their Houses a penny more."

Dockwra not only carried, but insured letters and parcels up to £ 10 in value. He was liberal in his deliveries. "To the most remote Places Letters go four or five times of the day, to other Places six or eight times of the day. To Inns of Court and Places of Business in Town, especially in term or Parliament time, ten or twelve times of the day." Stamps were also used to mark the hour when the letters were sent out to be delivered, an item only recently reintroduced into our postal service. Much wailing was heard at Dockwra's reforms from the porters of London, who had made a fine living by carrying correspondence, their outcries were much the same as those of the watermen, who afterwards wailed at the introduction of hackney coaches.

Dockwra was not long allowed to enjoy his idea, for his scheme was incorporated into the General Post Office, though he afterwards received a pension of £500 a year, and was made Comptroller of the London Post Office.

For anything outside of London, distance still counted in the cost, though we read in The Times of 1793 a penny post had been established in Manchester. It was Rowland Hill who introduced the universal penny post in Great Britain, thus extending the Dockwra idea. In 1710 the postal system was reformed and improved, three rates were put in force, namely: threepence if under eighty miles; fourpence if above; and sixpence to Edinburgh or Dublin. This explains the custom of carrying letters for some distance and then posting them; Jane Austen says, "I put Mary's letter into the post office with my own hand at Andover," this was on the way to Bath. In 1720 cross-posts were introduced by the suggestion of Ralph Alien, a Bath postmaster; before that time every letter had to go round by London to be cleared, even supposing it to be intended for a town not far off from the sender. Alien offered to organise the whole thing, paying a fixed rent, and taking the profits. His plan succeeded so well that he cleared £10,000 a year. At his death in 1764 the Government took over the contract.

Up to 1784, letters were carried on horseback by post-boys, who were underpaid and undisciplined; if a boy got drunk, or entered into conversation with strangers who turned out to be well-mannered footpads, the bags never reached their destination. In 1783, John Palmer, manager of the Bath and Bristol Theatre, suggested the employment of regular coaches, which might at the same time carry passengers, hence the inauguration of mail-coaches, the first two of which started between London and Bristol in August 1784 The drivers and guards were armed, and if this did not altogether ensure the safety of the mails--as the weapons were often a mere farce, and the men themselves either chicken-hearted or in collusion with the robbers--it proved, at all events, productive of greater regularity in the delivery of letters.

"Hark! 'Tis the twanging horn! O'er yonder bridge
That with its wearisome but needful length
Bestrides the wintry flood, in which the moon
Sees her unwrinkled face reflected bright;
He comes, the herald of a noisy world,
With spattered boots, strapped waist, and frozen locks,
News from all nations lumbering at his back.
True to his charge the close packed load behind,
Yet careless what he brings, his own concern
Is to conduct it to the destined inn,
And having dropped the expected bag--pass on." (Cowper.)

Hannah More remarks on the innovation: "Mail coaches, which come to others, come not to me; letters and newspapers now that they travel in coaches, like gentlemen and ladies, come not within ten miles of my hermitage."

The system of franking is one of those things that make us realise the difference between the ideas of our own time and those of the eighteenth century more than anything else; that such an abuse can have been permitted is incredible, monstrous. Of course as it was in force everybody availed themselves of it without scruple, few indeed are the persons whose private consciences are in advance of public rules; Jane writes frequently on the subject--

"As Eliza has been so good as to get me a frank, your questions shall be answered without much further expense to you. . . . On Thursday Mr. Lushington, M.P. for Canterbury, and manager of the lodge hounds, dines here and stays the night. If I can, I will get a frank from him, and write to you all the sooner."

"Now, I will prepare for Mr. Lushington, and as it will be wisest also to prepare for his not coming, or my not getting a frank, I shall write very close from the first, and even leave room for the seal in the proper place."
"Letters were sent when franks could be procured,
And when they could not, silence was endured." (Crabbe.)
Horace Walpole says, "I have kept this letter some days in my writing box till I could meet with a stray member of parliament, for it is not worth making you pay for."

"The franking of letters as an institution commenced as early as the year 1660, when it was resolved that members' letters should come and go free, during the sitting of the House. When the Bill was sent up to the Lords, it was thrown out because the privilege was not extended to them. When, however, the omission was supplied, the Bill passed. The privilege in course of time was grossly abused. Members signed large packets of envelopes at once, and either sold them, or gave them to their friends. It was worth the while of a house of business, when letters cost sixpence apiece, to buy a thousand franks at fourpence apiece; sometimes servants got them from their masters and sold them. In the year 1715, franked letters representing £24,000 a year passed through the post. In 1763 the amount was actually £170,000. Supposing that each letter would have brought in sixpence to the post office, this means nearly 7,000,000 letters, so that every member of the two Houses would have signed an average of 7000 letters a year. It was then enacted that no letter should pass free unless the address, as well as the signature, was in the member's handwriting. Lastly, it was ordered that all franks should be sealed and that they should be put into the post on the day of the date. Even with these precautions the amount of franks represented £84,000 a year. The privilege was finally abolished with the great reforms of 1841. It is needless to add that a system of wholesale forgery had sprung up long before. "Members of Parliament sold their privileges of franking sometimes for £300 a year."(Sir Walter Besant, London in the Eighteenth Century.)

In Joseph Brasbridge's Fruits of Experience, it is mentioned that a large firm of drapers used to buy their franks from the poor relations of M.P.'s at forty-eight shilling the gross.

The abuse of franking was called in question at various dates, and reforms advised. In reply to questions asked in Parliament, it was stated that various clerks in Government offices used to frank to any amount--not only their own correspondence but that of others; probably receiving large sums of money for doing so. In fact it was known that some persons whose salaries were £300 or £400 a year had been making incomes of £1000 and £1200 by this means! The celebrated bookseller Lackington had friends in one of the offices, and sent his catalogues free all over the country. A majority of twelve decided for the Question in the House.

The reforms practically meant the abolition of franks so far as private persons were concerned, as Hannah More put it, Pitt had murdered scribbling; while speaking of a friend she writes: "She will generously tell me she has postage in her pocket, but we have been used to franks, and beisides the post is bewitched and charges nobody knows what for letters two shillings and ninepence, I think Mrs. L. says she paid for a letter." And again, "The abolition of franks is quite a serious affliction to me, not that I shall ever regret paying the postage for my friends' letters, but for fear it should restrain them from writing. It is a tax upon the free currency of affection and sentiment, and goes nearer my heart than the cruel decision against literary property did, for that was only taxing the manufacture, but this the raw material."

These remarks were caused by the reforms of 1784.

But, as we have said, the whole system of franking was not abolished until 1841.

Of course there were no postmen to deliver letters as they do now. It was considered a great convenience to have a post-office at all, from which letters could be fetched. In 1787, Horace Walpole says there was no posthouse at Twickenham. The fetching of letters is one of the minor peeps we get into the times through the novels. In Emma, when Mr. Knightley meets Miss Fairfax he says--

"'I hope you did not vetlture far, Miss Fairfax, this morning, or I am sure you must have been wet. We scarcely got home in time. I hope you turned directly!'

"'I went only to the post-office,' said she, 'and reached home before the rain was much. It is my daily errand, I always fetch the letters when I am here. It saves trouble, and is a something to get me out. A walk before breakfast does me good.'

"'The post-office has a great charm at one period of our lives. When you have lived to my age you will begin to think letters are never worth going through rain for.'

"'You are speaking of letters of business; mine are letters of friendship.'

"'I have often thought them the worse of the two,' he replied coolly.

"'Ah ! You are not serious now. . . . You have everybody dearest to you always near at hand. I probably never shall again; and therefore until I have outlived all my affections, a post-office, I think, must always have power to draw me out, in worse weather than to-day.'"
When we realise that every one of the letters preserved for us in Lord Brabourne's book must have cost on an average a shilling, we feel more strongly than before the tie between Jane and Cassandra, which demanded such constant communication, and the retailing of every minute affair.

We have nothing to tell us how letters came to Steventon, but can form some sort of conjecture for ourselves. There was of course no post-office in such a minute place; the letters would arrive at Winchester, and from thence be forwarded by the Basingstoke coach, and dropped at the inn which stands at Popham Lane End, about two miles away. It would be almost certainly impossible for Jane to walk, except in the driest weather, through lanes of which we are told they were impassable for carriages at certain seasons, and could only be traversed on horseback. The man-servant would therefore probably be detailed to go for the post-bag, possibly riding on one of the carriage horses; and Jane would wait in the damp mist of an autumn afternoon by the front door, dressed in a costume most unsuitable for the climate, according to our ideas, with thin heel-less slippers kept up by crossed elastic, and long clinging skirts, with bare arms and only a dainty chemisette not reaching to her neck. She would greet the man eagerly to see if there was a letter for her in the handwriting of her beloved sister,--a welcome break on the monotony of a grey day, when perhaps Mrs. Austen was in bed with one of her chronic complaints.

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.