Jane Austen’s May 1801 Letters: Letter 38Letter 38: Tuesday 26th to Wednesday 27th May 1801
Now in the collection of Jane Austen’s House Museum!
The intriguing references to Mr Evelyn and his ‘very bewitching Phaeton’ make us wish to know more: how far did Jane encourage the flirtation she hints at between them? or was it no more than a story spun to amuse her sister? How did Mr Evelyn acquire his reputation for being dangerous? Did he use his sporty, flashy carriage, like the predatory John Thorpe in Northanger Abbey (ch. 11), to attract and seduce young women? Or did he really drive out into the countryside just to collect food (‘Groundsel’) for his birds? Jane imbues the brief sketch with tantalizing comic possibilities. We know no more than this: the Evelyns, introduced in a letter of 11 June 1799 as acquaintances of Jane’s brother Edward, leave no further trace.
This letter is significant for its mention of the gift of gold chains and topaz crosses bought for his sisters by Charles, the youngest of the Austen children, with his share of prize money from the capture of an enemy ship. Charles, a lieutenant on HMS Endymion, has been on patrol in the western Mediterranean. His gift later provided Jane with the idea for the ‘very pretty amber cross’ that William Price, also a sailor, brings from Sicily and gives to his sister Fanny in Mansfield Park (ch. 26). The crosses accompanied the letter as it descended through the Austen family. Letter and crosses were presented to the Jane Austen Society in 1974.
Troops to Egypt: reference to Charles’s ship taking troops to Egypt reminds us that Britain was at war against Napoleon’s France.
4th of June … fireworks: the celebrations for George III’s birthday.