The context of Jane’s May 1801 letters

Find out more about the fascinating background to Jane's letters of May 1801 in this article by Professor Kathryn Sutherland

These four letters give us a rich and amusing picture of social life in Bath immediately after the move from Steventon, the only home Jane Austen had known until then. Steventon was a quiet village, a backwater; Bath was a resort city filled with public and private amusements, even if, in 1801, it was past its fashionable best. Jane moved to Bath in May, following her father’s handing over of Steventon Rectory to his eldest son James. Jane was now aged 25 and ready to take full advantage of Bath’s entertainments. But there are signs that she quickly found the daily round of visiting, tea-drinking, and private parties stifling: ‘Another stupid party last night; perhaps if larger they might be less intolerable’ (Letter 36, Wednesday 13 May).

From the outset there were strains and tensions, especially in relations with her aunt Jane Leigh Perrot, whom she found tiresome. There was also the matter of Mrs Leigh Perrot’s notoriety: as recently as 1799 she had been gaoled on a charge of shoplifting and, though eventually acquitted in 1800, the scandal must still have hung in the air only a year later and affected the family’s social standing in that gossip-hungry city.

Biographers and critics have speculated about Jane Austen’s state of mind while she lived in Bath: was she unhappy to leave the Hampshire countryside? Did she enjoy the extended social opportunities of the city? Did Bath have a good or malign influence on her ability to write? After all, you don’t need to be happy to write; some might say the opposite is true.

Jane Austen did not write her letters with publication in mind. Nevertheless she understood there was an art to letter writing; and her letters are extremely artful. Letters to Cassandra (all four here) are filled with familiar chat that is carefully balanced between spontaneity and self-consciousness. They are full of cleverly crafted little stories. In her letter style, Austen drew inspiration from Hester Thrale Piozzi whose Letters to and from the Late Samuel Johnson, published in 1788, provided her with a model. She imitates Piozzi’s chatty style and in Letter 38 references her specifically (‘Now this, says my Master will be mighty dull’—this was Mrs Piozzi’s way of describing her husband in her letters).