I have loved going through Jane Austen’s letters to Cassandra, to other family members, and her friends. Her letters were not only interesting to read, her handwriting was also lovely and would have made the reading enjoyable as well.
Some of her letters were businesslike, others were funny, and a few were poignant as when her sister-in-law, Elizabeth Knight, died shortly after having her eleventh child and Jane wrote her dear sister Cassandra.
I have received your letter, and with most melancholy anxiety was it expected, for the sad news reached us last night, but without any particulars; it came in a short letter to Martha from her sister, begun at Steventon, and finished in Winchester.
We have felt, we do feel, for you all – as you will not need to be told – for you, for Fanny, for Henry, for Lady Bridges, and for dearest Edward, whose loss and whose sufferings seem to make those of every other person nothing. God be praised! That you can say what you do of him – that he has a religious mind to bear him up, and a disposition that will gradually lead him to comfort.
Not only did Jane have a talent for writing wonderful novels and comforting letters, she wrote poetry as well. Here is an ode written about the Austen’s arrival at Chawton.
My dearest Frank, I wish you joy
Of Mary’s safety with a Boy,
Whose birth has given little pain
Compared with that of Mary Jane.
May he a growing Blessing prove,
And well deserve his Parents’ Love!
Endow’d with Art’s and Nature’s Good,
Thy Name possessing with thy Blood,
In him, in all his ways, may we
Another Francis William see!
Thy infant days may he inherit,
Thy warmth, nay insolence of spirit;
We would not with one fault dispense
To weaken the resemblance.
May he revive thy Nursery sin,
Peeping as daringly within,
His curly Locks but just descried,
With ‘Bet, may be not come to bide.’
Fearless of danger, braving pain,
And threaten’d very oft in vain,
Still may one Terror daunt his Soul,
One needful engine of Controul
Be found in this sublime array,
A neighbouring Donkey’s awful Bray.
So may his equal faults as Child,
Produce Maturity as mild!
His saucy words and fiery ways
In early Childhood’s pettish days,
In Manhood, shew his Father’s mind
Like him, considerate and Kind;
All Gentleness to those around,
And anger only not to wound.
Then like his Father too, he must,
To his own former struggles just,
Feel his Deserts with honest Glow,
And all his self-improvement know.
A native fault may thus give birth
To the best blessing, conscious Worth.
As for ourselves we’re very well;
As unaffected prose will tell.
Cassandra’s pen will paint our state,
The many comforts that await
Our Chawton home, how much we find
Already in it, to our mind;
And how convinced, that when complete
It will all other Houses beat
The ever have been made or mended,
With rooms concise, or rooms distended.
You’ll find us very snug next year,
Perhaps with Charles and Fanny near,
For now it often does delight us
To fancy them just over-right us.
In 1813, Henry Austen’s wife Eliza died, after a severe illness, with Jane Austen by her side. The two cousins were very close and several of Jane’s characters (from Juvenilia, Lady Susan, and Mansfield Park) apparently were modeled after the Comtesse. In her letter of July 3, 1813, Jane tells Cassandra that they still mourn her loss, but one can tell that Jane is beginning to get her sense of humor back. Perhaps the close friendship with Eliza, who may have been a little outrageous in her speech and actions much like Elizabeth Bennet, may have been an encouragement to Austen to rejoice in life.
Our mourning for her is not over, or we should be putting it on again for Mr. Thos. Leigh, the respectable, worthy, clever, agreeable Mr. Thos. Leigh, who has just closed a good life at the age of seventy-nine, and must have died the possessor of one of the finest estates in England and of more worthless nephews and nieces than any other private man in the United Kingdoms…
I can just imagine Eliza leaning over Jane’s shoulder and giggling at what her friend wrote to her beloved sister. Cassandra probably smiled as well.