History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

11 June 2009

A Day in the Life

How I wish someone would publish an annotated edition of Jane Austen's letters which I'm reading, or dipping into, as part of my research for my (tentatively titled) Immortal Jane books.

I wouldn't go so far as to agree with the description of the letters as "a desert of trivialities punctuated by occasional oases of clever malice" (H.W. Garrod) but they can be hard going. I've picked a letter Jane wrote to her sister Cassandra 210 years ago, on Tuesday, June 11, 1799, and will share with you what I found.

Jane was probably finishing Susan (renamed Northanger Abbey) around this time. There's a reference in this letter to First Impressions, revised almost a decade later to become Pride & Prejudice. Jane, Mrs. Austen and Edward Austen/Knight had arrived in Bath on May 17, and were staying at 13, Queens Square. They returned home at the end of June.

Much of the letter is to do with fashion. Jane had certain shopping errands she had to fulfill in the big city, including finding trimmings for Cassandra's hat:
Though you have given me unlimited powers concerning Your Sprig, I cannot determine what to do about it, & shall therefore in this & every future letter continue to ask you for further directions.--We have been to the cheap Shop, & very cheap we found it, but there are only flowers made there, no fruit--& as I could get 4 or 5 very pretty sprigs of the former for the same money which would procure only one Orleans plumb, in short could get more for three or four Shillings than I could have means of bringing home, I cannot decide on the fruit till I hear from you again.--Besides, I cannot help thinking that it is more natural to have flowers grow out of the head than fruit.--What do you think on that subject?

Sure enough, the Lady's Magazine of May 1799 pronounced: No woman, truly loyal to the divinity of fashion, can possibly appear now without feathers and flowers.

No mention of fruit, however, which Cassandra seemed to have her heart set on, and the Orleans plum[b] was a fairly ordinary dark-red English-grown fruit, nothing particularly exotic. To me, that begs the question of why you'd want it on a hat in the first place.

Jane mentions in the letter that they have not been out anywhere public, but in her previous letter of June 2 she mentioned that they were planning several outings, including attending
a Concert with Illuminations and fireworks;--to the latter Eliz. & I look forward with pleasure, & even the Concert will have more than its' usual charm with me, as the Gardens are large enough for me to get pretty well beyond the reach of its sound.
This was Jane Austen the music lover? Or should we assume that the musicianship at Sydney Gardens was of a particularly low standard? This outing was to have taken place on June 4, George III's birthday, but rain required the event to be postponed until June 18. It had been a particularly unpleasant spring and early summer in England that year, cold and rainy. The oboist in the orchestra, which Jane was so avid not to hear, was Alexander Herschel[l], brother of astronomer and composer William Herschel.

I'll blog another time about Sydney Gardens, a fashionable pleasure garden at the end of Great Pulteney Street, complete with a moated castle ruin, bowling green, labyrinth, and many other delights.

Here's another quote from today's letter which strikes a particular chord with me:
I do not know what the matter is with me today but I cannot write quietly; I am always wandering away into some exclamation or other.
I think I've probably answered my own question of why no one has annotated Austen's letters, or, more likely, demonstrated my incompetence at an attempt. Have you read Austen's letters? Whose letters from the period would you recommend? And do you agree with Austen that it's more natural to have flowers than fruit growing from one's head?

Le Faye, Deirdre. Jane Austen: A Family Record. Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Le Faye, Deirdre (ed.). Jane Austen's Letters. Oxford University Press, 1997.
Snaddon, Brenda. The Last Promenade: Sydney Gardens, Bath. Millstream Books, 2000.

And now, in a blatant burst of self-promotion:
New website and contest at janetmullany.com and a chance to win a signed copy of A Most Lamentable Comedy in Pam Rosenthal's latest contest.
Plus today I'm blogging over at Risky Regencies about John Constable, whose birthday it is today, and talking about Immortal Jane at Austenprose and Jane Austen Today.

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Blogger Unknown said...

Wow, Janet. You're really getting around today, LOL! I've read some of Austen's letters, but only in the context of books about clothing and fashion (she talks about these topics a LOT).

One of my favorite collections is Letters to His Son on the Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman (1746-1747), the Earl of Stanhope:


The Present State of Wit (1711) by John Gay is another that I love:


And I'm currently working my way through "A Residence in France During the Years 1792, 1793, 1794 and 1795, Complete Described in a Series of Letters from an English Lady: with General
and Incidental Remarks on the French Character and Manners"


Project Gutenberg is filled with letters and journals, as is Google Books. And I can download the Gutenberg stuff into my CyBook!!!

7:05 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Wonderful post, Janet! I have read some of Austen's letters, not nearly all. They may wander a bit all over the place, but there are some fascinating social history details (I think I'm inclined to agree with her about the flowers). I love letters for research in general. My favorite collections are the letters of Emily Cowper and the letters of Harriet Cavendish and then a later collection of her letters as Harriet Granville after she married. They have a lot of wonderful details of life in the social/political world, which is where a lot of my books are set.

7:43 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Great post, Janet -- and marvelous illustrations to it!

I read Jane's letters (a few years ago, while I was researching and writing BY A LADY, my time-travel historical in which Jane is a character and 90% of her dialogue in my novel came from Jane's pen (whether from her letters, juvenilia, or her novels). In fact, I have her paying a visit with my time traveling heroine to a Milsom Street milliner in 1801 Bath and the young ladies are trying on all the hats -- one step up from window shopping since neither of them can afford these costly millinery confections -- and I used Jane's remark about the flowers versus the fruit. Pretending to play the serious fashionista for a moment, my Jane can barely keep a straight face, since she clearly thinks neither is natural.

11:21 AM  
Blogger Caffey said...

I didn't know of Jane's letters! I need to go look this up on Amazon. I just re-read P&P for the first time last month since HS! It was so wonderful to re-read this but too more in a relaxed fashion that I could just read an savor it. I think because I wasn't doing it as part of a class but too I know more of the terms and Society then since I've read alot more historical and learned alot more here! Thanks for telling me about this book!

7:38 PM  
Blogger Caffey said...

Oh too a couple things. I didn't know who to write here to ask if you did a post in the past on what the homes looked like during the Regency times? I'm reading a Mary Balogh's THEN COMES SEDUCTION and she goes into details on the house and some terms I didn't hear of before and will look up but wondered if you ever did a post on how the houses looked then and what included, etc?

Too I don't know if its me, but the font on the side of the blog is very small that I can't read it at all, so I couldn't even see where to go to ask about this. Maybe its something to do with blogger tonight, I'm not sure. Thanks!


7:42 PM  
Blogger Janet Mullany said...

I discovered that there is a new edition of the Selected Letters available, Cambridge University Press (I think), a reissue from 2004 with a lot of notes etc.

Caffey, take a look at http://www.rth.org.uk for some really great info on a house from the 1820s in Brighton.

4:26 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I haven't read Jane Austen's letters (partly because nothing anybody ever quotes from them makes me want to go there).

Letters I have read (from a slightly later period) and quite liked were from Claire Claremont (Mary Shelley's sister-in-law -- a tumultuous life among the romantic poets) and Emily Eden's (comfortable Tory aristocracy, houseparties, boating expeditions, lots of society gossip).

8:03 AM  
Anonymous Jane O said...

I do love reading people's letters, and I do enjoy dropping in on this site because you ladies are always providing me with something new about something old.

On the subject of fruit on the hat, however, since it seemed a bit odd to you, I would like to mention that in the 1950s I had a spring hat trimmed with cherries and it was not at all unusual.

9:38 AM  

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