Entire books have been written about Jane Austen’s wit, so I’m not going to try and do that here. I hope to make your day with just a few of the comments Jane Austen penned.
One of the things that readers of Jane Austen’s books enjoy most is her keen intelligence that manifested itself in the humorous and barbed comments that she wrote. We see it in her books and her correspondence, especially to her sister Cassandra. Typical is the following from one of her letters to Cassandra in 1811.
‘I will not say that your mulberry-trees are dead, but I am afraid they are not alive.’
When reading anything Austen-related, we have to be very careful as her wit can rise up and bite us in the butt before we know what has happened. Sometimes, it sneaks up on us and other times it just slaps us in the face.
I wonder if Cassandra wound up rolling in the floor with laughter over some of the things Jane wrote to her. In this letter of 1808, Jane wrote that there was to be a ‘tiny’ party, something that she really hated. She then goes on to list the persons that would attend and mentions
‘and I am prevented from setting my black cap at Mr. Maitland by his having a wife and ten children.’
A wife and ten children would be rather off-putting if one wanted to flirt a bit.
Evidently the Maitlands—mentioned above—were familiar to Jane for a number of years. In November of 1800, she wrote of several members of the family.
‘The Miss Maitlands are both prettyish…with brown skin, large dark eyes, and a good deal of nose.—The General has got the gout, and Mrs. Maitland the jaundice.—Miss Debary, Susan and Sally…made their appearance, and I was as civil to them as their bad breath would allow me.’
I’ve also wondered if Austen had a tendency to be more like Mr. Bennet than any of her other characters: tongue in cheek and looking at her neighbors with a jaundiced eye. Her comment to Cassandra in a missive dated 1798 might support that thought.
‘I don’t want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.’
Did she socialize just to sketch the attendees characters? Or was she looking for people to include in her books? Or did she just like to laugh at people in her letters to her sister?
One never knew what she might write in her correspondence. Maybe that’s why Cassandra destroyed so many of her letters after Austen died. In 1799, Jane tackled the topic of death.
‘At the bottom of Kingsdown Hill we met a gentleman in a buggy, who, on a minute examination, turned out to be Dr. Hall—and Dr. Hall in such very deep mourning that either his mother, his wife, or himself must be dead.’
Then, of course, there is the subject of Jane’s own demise referred to in January 1799.
‘You express so little anxiety about my being murdered under Ash Park Copse by Mrs. Hulbert’s servant, that I have a great mind not to tell you whether I was or not.’
And then there is the subject of marriage. In a letter dated September 1796 and another June 1799, Jane wrote the following.
‘Mr. Richard Harvey is going to be married; but as it is a great secret and only known to half the neighborhood, you must not mention it.’
‘Dr. Gardiner was married yesterday to Mrs. Percy and her three daughters.’
Family didn’t escape Jane Austen’s sharp tongue either. In 1801, the Austens moved to Bath, and Jane had something to say about that.
‘My mother looks forward with as much certainty as you can do to our keeping two maids…We plan having a steady cook and a young, giddy housemaid, with a sedate, middle-aged man, who is to undertake the double office of husband to the former and sweetheart to the latter. No children, of course, to be allowed on either side.’
In April 1811, the following comment was written to Cassandra concerning their brother Frank’s newly born son.
‘I give you joy of our new nephew, and hope if he ever comes to be hanged it will not be till we are too old to care about it.’
Apparently, there was no subject that was sacred to Jane Austen between the comments in her books and in letters to various family members. In fact, her barbed observations have had me in stitches for most of the time it’s taken me to put together this post.
I’m going to end, though, with a comment that her niece wrote that was included in Jane’s letter to Cassandra October 1813.
‘My dearest Aunt Cass, I have just asked Aunt Jane to let me write a little in her letter, but she does not like it, so I won’t—good-bye.’