A Journey through Jane Austen’s Letters

I have read many of Austen’s letters through the years, and certainly know the majority of quotes that are repeated over and over…but I am finally committing myself to going through each letter in chronological order and reading through all the accompanying notes and references ( my source and Essential Austen title: Jane Austen’s Letters, collected and edited by Deirdre Le Faye, 3rd edition, Oxford University Press, 1997)…. and I invite you all to take this journey with me, one letter at a time, one day at a time. 

So often these letters, and the sentences or words from them, are quoted out of context, and I feel compelled to make some sense of it all, to go back to the original source and get a feel for what Austen was really saying.  There are so many gaps in the letters, either from Cassandra’s choice to edit and / or destroy many of her sister’s writings, or because the sisters were not apart and hence no need to write (and of course there are only a few letters from Cassandra herself, and because Austen often refers back to a received letter, and with her constant comments on her sister’s writing abilities and humor, the reader is saddened by this loss.)

There are also many primary and secondary sources on the letters and I will discuss these periodically (see also the Letters Page, which I will continually add to), but I think I better just start the process and let it evolve from there.  I encourage you to comment, suggest sources, offer suggestions or interpretation, so please visit often and participate.  For those of you who know the letters backwards and forwards, and for those just discovering them, please take this journey with me.  I think all of us might learn something new along the way.  I know I already have….

This will be the format: 

  • letter number
  • date
  • sender (their location) / recipient (their location)
  • location of letter today
  • synopsis; quotes of import; comment

So today I start with Letter No. 1:

  • January 9 – 10 (Sat, Sun) 1796
  • Jane (Steventon) to Cassandra (Kintbury, Newbury [Rev. Fowles home])
  • Original MS untraced

 This is Austen’s first documented letter and one of the most quoted.  It is here that Jane writes of her attachment to Tom Lefroy and she refers to him often in this letter…”I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved.  Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together.”  She tells of the balls- “we had an exceedingly good ball last night”, who she danced with (Warren, Charles Watkins, and “fighting hard” to escape John Lyford), commenting on Miss Heathcote (“[she] is pretty, but not near so handsome as I expected”), and the many references to friends that we meet again and again in her letters.  We read of her latest fashion thoughts, the silk stockings she cannot afford but the white gloves and pink persian (silk) she can, and much on her brother Charles and brother Henry and his latest plan to obtaining a lieutenancy.

The letter ends with another lengthy reference to Tom Lefroy:  “he has but one fault…his morning coat is a great deal too light.  He is a great admirer of Tom Jones, and therefore he wears the same coloured clothes, I imagine, which he did when he was wounded.”

So in this first letter,  (Jane was 20 years old writing this letter on Cassandra’s 23rd birthday and the letter opens with “In the first place I hope you will live twenty-three years longer”)  we are introduced into Austen’s life, her family and friends, her likes and dislikes, and her biting wit, her poking fun at others and so very often herself.  Her letters to her sister were entertainment for both of them when they were apart, and in just these few pages we are drawn into this late 18-century world, with all its domestic goings-on, and we are glad to be in such company.  These letters are a veritable feast!

4 thoughts on “A Journey through Jane Austen’s Letters

  1. Hmm, something tells me that Jane would have sense enough to be wary of a young man who was so fond of Tom Jones, as that character is hardly a model of masculine virtue or romantic constancy…

    It is great to go back to the primary sources of Jane’s own words, rather than rely on the many interpretations (in films, novels, and general rumor) that have come since. I look forward to reading this series on Jane’s letters!


  2. Pingback: The Austen Tattler: News and Gossip on the Blogosphere « Austenprose

  3. Hello Janefan, thank you for your comments. I agree that Jane’s reference to Tom Jones is quite ambiguous (the joy of the letters really!) There is so much LOL and worthy of conversation…and why I wanted to do this re-reading in cyberspace…glad to have you along on the journey! [Letter #2 tomorrow…or so the plan is]


  4. Hi Deb,
    Having our half term break at present, I have had time to look through your excellent JASNA blog.

    Your plan to take a journey through Jane’s letters beginning with the first, is an excellent idea. I think you can get closer to the real Jane through her letters than ever you can through the novels.The novels are polished stories, with much taken from experience no doubt, but they are at least a step or two removed from Jane herself. That sounds as though I am knocking the novels; far from it, I love them.They are great.

    I note the last correspondence on this blog about the letters was on September 20th 2008. That is a shame.

    I have read the first letter too and also the last letters by Cassandra to Fanny Knight and Anne Sharp and many in a sort of random order, between. I say random because I have discovered that I can, from where I live, use them like a guide book. I go for the letters that appertain to many places near here(Wimbledon).

    I have just written an article about, “Jane’s Kingston upon Thames,” on my blog. I was inspired by the recent Emma. Mr Knightley and Mr Martin both go to Kingston. So I have pulled out references from the novel and some from her letters. I began to see how the places she writes about in the letters begin to inform the novels.

    All the best,


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