Jane Austen, Her Life and Letters

A Family Record

Chapter VII

Authorship and Correspondence


The appearance of Jane Austen's name among the list of subscribers to Madame d'Arblay's Camilla, in 1796, marks the beginning of her literary career. Her father must have paid the necessary subscription for her: and he probably did so believing that his daughter's talent deserved encouragement. Jane's cousins, the Cookes of Bookham, were some of Madame d'Arblay's closest friends while the latter was living in that neighbourhood, from 1793 to 1797, and it is quite likely that they were active in getting subscribers. One likes to think that--as Miss Hill has suggested[70]--Jane may have met Madame d'Arblay when paying a visit to Bookham.

Jane was destined to have two periods of active authorship: periods of unequal length, and divided from each other by eight or ten nearly barren years. This unfruitful time has been accounted for in several different ways: as arising from personal griefs, literary disappointment, or want of a settled home. These disturbing causes all existed, and it is probable that each contributed its share to her unwillingness to write; but at present she enjoyed hope and happiness, the vigour and cheerfulness of youth among congenial companions, and a home as yet unvisited by any acute sorrows.

No precise date has been assigned to the writing of Elinor and Marianne; but after the completion of that sketch her time has been fully mapped out[71] as follows:--

First Impressions (original of Pride and Prejudice), begun October 1796, ended August 1797.

Sense and Sensibility, begun November 1797.

Northanger Abbey (probably called Susan), written in 1797 and 1798.

It has been usual to dwell on the precocity of intellect shown in the composition of the first two of these works by a young and inexperienced girl, and no doubt there is much justice in the observation; but we venture to think that it is in Northanger Abbey that we get the best example of what she could produce at the age of three- or four-and-twenty. In the two others, the revision they underwent before publication was so complete that it is impossible now to separate the earlier from the later work; whereas in Northanger Abbey, while there is good evidence from the author's preface of a careful preparation for the press before she sold it in 1803, there is no mention of any radical alteration at a subsequent date. On the contrary, she apologises for what may seem old-fashioned in the social arrangements of the story by alleging the length of time that had elapsed since its completion. There is internal evidence to the same effect: she has not quite shaken off the tendency to satirise contemporary extravagances; and it is not until several chapters are past that she settles herself down to any serious creation of characters. The superiority also in interest and fun of the first volume over the second, though no doubt inherent in the scheme of the story, is a defect which she would hardly have tolerated at a later date. Nevertheless, we think her admirers may be satisfied with this example of her youthful style. The charm with which she manages to invest a simple ingenuous girl like Catherine, the brightness of Henry Tilney--even the shallowness of Isabella and the boorishness of John Thorpe--are things we part from with regret. And in parting with our friends at the end of one of her novels, we part with them for good and all; they never re-appear in another shape elsewhere; even Mrs. Allen and Lady Bertram are by no means the same.

It seems to have been only a happy accident (though no doubt an accident very likely to occur) which prevented First Impressions from appearing in its immature shape.

George Austen was ready, and indeed anxious, that his daughter's work should be published; and when she had finished the story in August 1797, he took steps to find a publisher. Years afterwards (probably in 1836), at the sale of the effects of Mr. Cadell, the famous London publisher, the following letter was purchased by a connexion of the family:--

SIR,--I have in my possession a manuscript novel, comprising 3 vols., about the length of Miss Burney's Evelina. As I am well aware of what consequence it is that a work of this sort sh^{d.} make its first appearance under a respectable name, I apply to you. I shall be much obliged, therefore, if you will inform me whether you choose to be concerned in it, what will be the expense of publishing it at the author's risk, and what you will venture to advance for the property of it, if on perusal it is approved of. Should you give any encouragement, I will send you the work.

I am, Sir, your humble servant,

Steventon, near Overton, Hants.:
November 1, 1797.

This proposal, we are told, was declined by return of post.

The earliest of Jane's letters which have survived date from the year 1796. They begin at Steventon in the middle of their winter engagements, and when Tom Lefroy was in the foreground.[72]

Steventon: Saturday [January 9, 1796].

In the first place, I hope you will live twenty-three years longer. Mr. Tom Lefroy's birthday was yesterday, so that you are very near of an age.

After this necessary preamble I shall proceed to inform you that we had an exceeding good ball last night, and that I was very much disappointed at not seeing Charles Fowle of the party, as I had previously heard of his being invited.

* * * * *

We were so terrible good as to take James in our carriage, though there were three of us before; but indeed he deserves encouragement for the very great improvement which has lately taken place in his dancing. Miss Heathcote is pretty, but not near so handsome as I expected.

* * * * *

Henry is still hankering after the Regulars, and as his project of purchasing the adjutancy of the Oxfordshire is now over, he has got a scheme in his head about getting a lieutenancy and adjutancy in the 86th, a new-raised regiment, which he fancies will be ordered to the Cape of Good Hope. I heartily hope that he will, as usual, be disappointed in this scheme.

Steventon: Thursday [January 14, 1796].

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.

Tell Mary[73] that I make over Mr. Heartley and all his estate to her for her sole use and benefit in future, and not only him, but all my other admirers into the bargain wherever she can find them, even the kiss which C. Powlett wanted to give me, as I mean to confine myself in future to Mr. Tom Lefroy, for whom I don't care sixpence. Assure her also as a last and indubitable proof of Warren's indifference to me, that he actually drew that gentleman's picture for me, and delivered it to me without a sigh.

The next batch of letters date from a visit paid by Jane, in August 1796, to Rowling, the Kent home of her brother Edward. She seems to have experienced a difficulty in finding an escort for her return journey. Henry kept changing his plans; and Frank, the sailor, was liable to be sent for at a day's notice. She had evidently been studying her copy of Camilla.

Cork Street: Tuesday morn [August 1796].

MY DEAR CASSANDRA,--Here I am once more in this scene of dissipation and vice, and I begin already to find my morals corrupted. We reached Staines yesterday, I do not [know] when, without suffering so much from the heat as I had hoped to do. We set off again this morning at seven o'clock, and had a very pleasant drive, as the morning was cloudy and perfectly cool. I came all the way in the chaise from Hartford Bridge.

Edward and Frank are both gone out to seek their fortunes; the latter is to return soon and help us seek ours. The former we shall never see again. We are to be at Astley's to-night, which I am glad of. Edward has heard from Henry this morning. He has not been at the races at all, unless his driving Miss Pearson over to Rowling one day can be so called. We shall find him there on Thursday.

I hope you are all alive after our melancholy parting yesterday, and that you pursued your intended avocation with success. God bless you! I must leave off, for we are going out.

Yours very affectionately,

Everybody's love.

Rowling: Thursday [September 1, 1796].

MY DEAREST CASSANDRA,--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.

* * * * *

I am sorry that you found such a conciseness in the strains of my first letter. I must endeavour to make you amends for it, when we meet, by some elaborate details, which I shall shortly begin composing.

Our men had but indifferent weather for their visit to Godmersham, for it rained great part of the way there and all the way back. They found Mrs. Knight remarkably well and in very good spirits. It is imagined that she will shortly be married again. I have taken little George once in my arms since I have been here, which I thought very kind.

* * * * *

To-morrow I shall be just like Camilla in Mr. Dubster's summer-house; for my Lionel will have taken away the ladder by which I came here, or at least by which I intended to get away, and here I must stay till his return. My situation, however, is somewhat preferable to hers, for I am very happy here, though I should be glad to get home by the end of the month. I have no idea that Miss Pearson will return with me.

What a fine fellow Charles is, to deceive us into writing two letters to him at Cork! I admire his ingenuity extremely, especially as he is so great a gainer by it.

* * * * *

I am glad to hear so good an account of Mr. Charde, and only fear that my long absence may occasion his relapse. I practise every day as much as I can--I wish it were more for his sake. . . .

Frank has turned a very nice little butter-churn for Fanny. I do not believe that any of the party were aware of the valuables they had left behind; nor can I hear anything of Anna's gloves. Indeed I have not enquired at all about them hitherto.

We are very busy making Edward's shirts, and I am proud to say that I am the neatest worker of the party.

Rowling: Monday [September 5, 1796].

MY DEAR CASSANDRA,--I shall be extremely anxious to hear the event of your ball, and shall hope to receive so long and minute an account of every particular that I shall be tired of reading it. . . . I hope John Lovett's accident will not prevent his attending the ball, as you will otherwise be obliged to dance with Mr. Tincton the whole evening. Let me know how J. Harwood deports himself without the Miss Biggs, and which of the Marys will carry the day with my brother James.

We were at a ball on Saturday, I assure you. We dined at Goodnestone, and in the evening danced two country-dances and the Boulangeries. I opened the ball with Edward Bridges[74]; the other couples were Lewis Cage and Harriet, Frank and Louisa, Fanny and George. Elizabeth played one country-dance, Lady Bridges the other, which she made Henry dance with her, and Miss Finch played the Boulangeries.

In reading over the last three or four lines, I am aware of my having expressed myself in so doubtful a manner that, if I did not tell you to the contrary, you might imagine it was Lady Bridges who made Henry dance with her at the same time that she was playing, which, if not impossible, must appear a very improbable event to you. But it was Elizabeth who danced. We supped there and walked home at night under the shade of two umbrellas.

* * * * *

We have just got some venison from Godmersham, which the two Mr. Harveys are to devour to-morrow, and on Friday or Saturday the Goodnestone people are to finish their scraps. Henry went away on Friday, as he purposed, without fayl. You will hear from him soon, I imagine, as he talked of writing to Steventon shortly. Mr. Richard Harvey is going to be married; but as it is a great secret, and only known to half the neighbourhood, you must not mention it. The lady's name is Musgrave.

* * * * *

Pray remember me to everybody who does not enquire after me; those who do, remember me without bidding. Give my love to Mary Harrison, and tell her I wish, whenever she is attached to a young man, some respectable Dr. Marchmont may keep them apart for five volumes.

Rowling: Thursday [September 15, 1796].

At Nackington we met Lady Sondes' picture over the mantelpiece in the dining-room, and the pictures of her three children in an ante-room, besides Mr. Scott, Miss Fletcher, Mr. Toke, Mr. J. Toke, and the Archdeacon Lynch. Miss Fletcher and I were very thick, but I am the thinnest of the two. She wore her purple muslin, which is pretty enough, though it does not become her complexion. There are two traits in her character which are pleasing--namely, she admires Camilla, and drinks no cream in her tea. If you should ever see Lucy, you may tell her that I scolded Miss Fletcher for her negligence in writing, as she desired me to do, but without being able to bring her to any proper sense of shame--that Miss Fletcher says in her defence, that as everybody whom Lucy knew when she was in Canterbury has now left it, she has nothing at all to write to her about. By everybody, I suppose Miss Fletcher means that a new set of officers have arrived there. But this is a note of my own.

* * * * *

His Royal Highness Sir Thomas Williams has at length sailed; the papers say 'on a cruise.' But I hope they are gone to Cork, or I shall have written in vain. Give my love to Jane, as she arrived at Steventon yesterday, I dare say.

* * * * *

Edward and Frank went out yesterday very early in a couple of shooting jackets, and came home like a couple of bad shots, for they killed nothing at all. They are out again to-day, and are not yet returned. Delightful sport! They are just come home, Edward with his two brace, Frank with his two and a half. What amiable young men!

Rowling: Sunday [September 18, 1796].

This morning has been spent in doubt and deliberation, in forming plans and removing difficulties, for it ushered in the day with an event which I had not intended should take place so soon by a week. Frank has received his appointment on board the Captain John Gore commanded by the Triton[75] and will therefore be obliged to be in town on Wednesday; and though I have every disposition in the world to accompany him on that day, I cannot go on the uncertainty of the Pearsons being at home, as I should not have a place to go to in case they were from home.

My father will be so good as to fetch home his prodigal daughter from town, I hope, unless he wishes me to walk the hospitals, enter at the Temple, or mount guard at St. James'. It will hardly be in Frank's power to take me home--nay, it certainly will not. I shall write again as soon as I get to Greenwich.

* * * * *

I am very glad that the idea of returning with Frank occurred to me; for as to Henry's coming into Kent again, the time of its taking place is so very uncertain that I should be waiting for dead men's shoes. I had once determined to go with Frank to-morrow and take my chance, &c., but they dissuaded me from so rash a step, as I really think on consideration it would have been; for if the Pearsons were not at home, I should inevitably fall a sacrifice to the arts of some fat woman who would make me drunk with small beer.

In some way or other, Jane managed to reach Steventon, and at once set to work on First Impressions. From that point the letters cease for two years--namely, till October 1798. Several family events occurred during the interval. In January 1797 came the wedding of James Austen and Mary Lloyd. Owing to the friendship which had long existed between the Austens and the Lloyds, this marriage gave great pleasure at Steventon, and Eliza de Feuillide remarks on it as follows:--

James has chosen a second wife in the person of Miss Mary Lloyd, who is not either rich or handsome, but very sensible and good humoured. . . . Jane seems much pleased with the match, and it is natural she should, having long known and liked the lady.

Not long after this happy event, the rectory at Steventon was plunged into deep grief, for news came that Cassandra's intended husband, Thomas Fowle, who was expected home from St. Domingo in a few weeks, had died in February of yellow fever. Our chief informant is again Eliza de Feuillide, who writes on May 3:--

This is a very severe stroke to the whole family, and particularly to poor Cassandra, for whom I feel more than I can express. Indeed I am most sincerely grieved at this event, and the pain which it must occasion our worthy relations. Jane says that her sister behaves with a degree of resolution and propriety which no common mind could evince in so trying a situation.

His kinsman, Lord Craven, who had taken him out as chaplain to his regiment, said afterwards that, had he known of his engagement, he would not have allowed him to go to so dangerous a climate.

* * * * *

After such a blow as this, Jane was hardly likely to leave Cassandra, and the absence of letters at this time is easily understood. In November of this same year, Mrs. Austen, whose health was not good determined to go to Bath with her daughters. The route from Steventon was by Andover and Devizes, one night being usually spent at the latter place. Mrs. Austen's brother, Mr. Leigh Perrot, was a regular visitor to Bath, and there is every reason to suppose that Jane had already visited the Leigh Perrots or the Coopers, or both, at this still fashionable resort, whose place was only gradually being usurped by Brighton. Owing to the absence of contemporary letters our knowledge of her stay there in 1797 is chiefly derived from reminiscences in later correspondence. Thus in May 1799, when visiting Bath again, Jane remarks that it rained almost all the way from Devizes; 'and our first view of Bath has been just as gloomy as it was last November twelve-month.' We may therefore imagine them 'entering Bath on a wet afternoon'--like Lady Russell, in Persuasion--'and driving through the long course of streets . . . amidst the dash of other carriages, the heavy rumble of carts and drays, the bawling of newsmen, muffin-men and milkmen, and the ceaseless clink of pattens.' The Austens probably stayed with the Perrots at their house, No. 1 Paragon Buildings.

Writing in April 1805, Jane describes a visit to a riding-school, and says: 'Seven years and four months ago we went to the same riding-house to see Miss Lefroy's performance. What a different set are we now moving in!' It would be interesting to know in what way the set differed, whether in kind or only in the individuals composing it. In this earlier visit Jane was likely to have seen plenty of company, as the Leigh Perrots had a large acquaintance.[76] The Austens stayed at Bath into December, for Elizabeth de Feuillide mentions, on December 11, that she had heard very lately from Jane, 'who is still at Bath with her mother and sister. Mr. Hampson, whom I saw yesterday . . . told me he had heard Cassandra was going to be married, but Jane says not a word of it.' When we think of Jane's silence, and still more of Cassandra's recent grief, we may safely discredit this extremely improbable rumour.

On returning home for Christmas, they received a piece of news which, even if it did not come entirely as a surprise, can hardly have given unmixed pleasure. This was the engagement of Henry Austen to his cousin, Eliza de Feuillide--his senior by some ten years. Intended originally for the Church, Henry Austen had abandoned the idea of taking Orders, and had joined the Oxford Militia as lieutenant, in 1793, becoming adjutant and captain four years later. Though he was endowed with many attractive gifts there was a certain infirmity of purpose in his character that was hardly likely to be remedied by a marriage to his very pleasure-loving cousin.

In default of Eliza's letter on the occasion to her uncle, we may quote that which she wrote to Warren Hastings:--

DEAR SIR,--As I flatter myself you still take an interest in my welfare, I think it incumbent on me to acquaint you with a circumstance by which it must be materially influenced. I have consented to an Union with my Cousin, Captain Austen, who has the honour of being known to you. He has been for some time in Possession of a comfortable income, and the excellence of his Heart, Temper and Understanding, together with steady attachment to me, his Affection for my little Boy, and disinterested concurrence in the disposal of my Property in favour of this latter, have at length induced me to an acquiescence which I have withheld for more than two years. Need I say, my dear Sir, that I most earnestly wish for your approbation on this occasion, and that it is with the sincerest attachment I shall ever remain

Your much obliged
and affectionate God-daughter,

I beg leave to present my affectionate compliments to Mrs. Hastings.

December 26, 1797.

Neither side wished for a long engagement, and they were married on December 31. Henry continued with the Militia regiment probably till the Peace of 1802. By 1804 he had joined a brother Militia officer of the name of Maunde, and set up as banker and army agent, with offices in Albany, Piccadilly; removing in or before 1808 to 10 Henrietta Street, Covent Garden. Poor little Hastings de Feuillide became subject to epilepsy, and died on October 9, 1801, while the Henry Austens were living in Upper Berkeley Street.[77]

During the first half of 1798, Jane, fresh from her late visit to Bath, was able to devote some happy months of unbroken leisure to writing the first draft of the book known to us as Northanger Abbey; but her comedy was once more interrupted by one of the tragedies of real life. On August 9 occurred the death of her cousin, Lady Williams (Jane Cooper): while she was driving herself in a whiskey, a dray-horse ran away and drove against the chaise. She was thrown out and killed on the spot: 'never spoke again,' so Mrs. Lybbe Powys records the news on August 14. Jane Williams had been married from Steventon Rectory, and had been, both before and after that event, so frequent a visitor there that her death must have been severely felt by the Austens--especially by the daughters of the family, her friends and contemporaries.


[70] Juniper Hall, p. 223.

[71] In a memorandum written by Cassandra.

[72] Other portions of these two letters are quoted in Chapter VI.

[73] Cassandra was now staying with the Fowles at Kintbury, and 'Mary' was no doubt Eliza Fowle's sister, Mary Lloyd; not yet engaged to James Austen.

[74] Edward Bridges was brother, and Harriet and Louisa were sisters, of Elizabeth Austen; Lady Bridges being their mother. Harriet was afterwards married to the son of Archbishop Moore.

[75] A playful inversion on Jane's part.

[76] Mrs. Lybbe Powys records in her diary under April 26, 1799: 'To a party at Mr. Leigh Perrot's; eight tables, ninety people' (Passages from the Diaries of Mrs. Philip Lybbe Powys, 1756-1808).

[77] Gentleman's Magazine, vol. lxxi. p. 965; see also p. 1049.