Letter from Jane Austen to Francis Austen, 26 July 1809

Text by Professor Kathryn Sutherland, Emeritus Professor, St Anne's College, Oxford University

This is a draft copy in Jane Austen’s hand of a poem-letter written to brother Frank, on naval duty in China.  Its chief news of the safe delivery on 12 July of baby Francis William, Frank’s first son, prompts a rare glimpse into Austen’s early family life in the shape of affectionate memories of Frank’s childhood naughtiness. The important announcement of the birth is followed in the poem’s closing lines by another cause for congratulation: the Austen women at last have a home of their own. Mrs Austen, her daughters Cassandra and Jane, together with their lifelong friend Martha Lloyd, moved into the cottage in Chawton as recently as 7 July. The four women were by now a well-established family unit. In 1806 they had joined forces with Frank and his new wife, all living together in Southampton.  Frank’s interest in even the smallest detail of their new domestic arrangements therefore could be guaranteed: in Southampton, he had busied himself ‘making very nice fringe for the Drawingroom-Curtains’ (Jane to Cassandra, 20-22 February 1807).

The offer of a cottage as a permanent home on brother Edward’s Chawton estate only came in 1808 after the death of Edward’s wife.  Jane described its ‘six Bedchambers’ and ‘Garrets for Storeplaces’ (the ‘rooms concise or rooms distended’ of the poem) in a letter to Cassandra on 20 November 1808, when plans were already in place for renovations. Now, in possession, she cannot hide her pleasure at the prospect the cottage affords for comfort and security: ‘when complete, | It will all other Houses beat’.

Jane Austen shared the family tradition of writing light, often comic, verses to amuse those she loved.  This verse-letter is in the same metrical form as Walter Scott’s bestselling romance Marmion (1808), which a few months previously she had sent to Frank to pass on to their brother Charles, giving more point to the use here of its borrowed rhyme scheme.