I love Jane Austen’s wit, and I feel the places that it shows up best is in her letters to her sister Cassandra. There I think she was less restrained than she might have been in her books. She wrote Cassandra fairly frequently but had no qualms about speaking her mind.
In this letter, Jane is relating a dinner and dance that she attended. Apparently, she was a popular guest participating in most, if not all, the dances.
I do not think I was very much in request. People were rather apt not to ask me until they could not help it; one’s consequence, you know, varies so much at times without any particular reason. There was one gentleman, an officer of the Cheshire, a very good-looking young man, who, I was told, wanted very much to be introduced to me; but as he did not want it quite enough to take much trouble in effecting it, we could never bring it about.
Telling of a walk to Beacon Hill that she participated in, she mentioned the following in a different letter.
We had a Miss North and a Mr. Gould of our party; the latter walked home with me after tea; he is a very young man, just entered of Oxford, wears spectacles, and has heard that Evelina was written by Dr. Johnson…
I had to laugh when I discovered that Fanny Burney’s father was Dr. Burney and that Dr. Johnson and Jane Austen were both fans of her books. Although Dr. Burney had some qualms about his daughter’s writings and popularity, Austen enjoyed her books and apparently derived the title ‘Pride and Prejudice’ from the final pages of Cecilia.
In that same letter, Jane made another comment to Cassandra that may have been ‘tongue in cheek.’
I am quite pleased with Martha and Mrs. Lefroy for wanting the pattern of our caps, but I am not so well pleased with your giving it to them.
November 12, 1800, Jane gently upbraided her sister concerning Jane’s coming visit.
You distress me cruelly by your request about books. I cannot think of any to bring with me, nor have I any idea of our wanting them. I come to you to be talked to, not to read or hear reading. I can do that at home; and indeed I am now laying in a stock of intelligence to pour out on you as my share of conversation. I am reading Henry’s History of England, (Here is where I broke up in laughter.) which I will repeat to you in any manner you may prefer, either in a loose, desultory, unconnected strain, or dividing my recital as the historian divides it himself, into seven parts. The Civil and Military – Religion – Constitution – Learning and Learned Men – Arts and Sciences – Commerce, Coins and Shipping – and Manners; so that for every evening of the week there will be a different subject…
One never quite knows if Austen was being serious or not. Then again, there is this description.
There were only twelve dances, of which I danced nine, and was merely prevented from dancing the rest by want of a partner…There were very few beauties, and such as there were, were not very handsome. Miss Iremonger did not look well, and Mrs. Blount was the only one much admired. She appeared exactly as she did in September, with the same broad face, diamond bandeau, white shoes, pink husband, and fat neck…
And, as usual, Jane Austen was just being herself at the ending of one of her letters.
You deserve a longer letter than this; but it is my unhappy fate seldom to treat people so well as they deserve…God bless you!
If you enjoyed this post, let me know in your comments below. Jane was a prodigious writer, not only of books but letters as well. Let me know if you would like another ‘Letters to Cassandra #3.’