Letter from Jane Austen to Caroline Austen, 13 March 1816

Object name: Letter from Jane Austen to Caroline Austen, Wednesday 13 March 1816

Object number: CHWJA:JAHLTR39

Category: Letter

Description: Letter from Jane Austen at Chawton to her niece Caroline Austen at Steventon. Letter 137 in The Letters of Jane Austen edited by Deirdre Le Faye, Oxford University Press, 4th edition, 2011.  Two leaves octavo, laid. Red wax seal, design indistinct. Text on pages 1 and 2 only, page 3 is blank, page 4 address only. No postmark.

Made: Wednesday 13th March 1816

Context: Caroline was the youngest child of Jane’s eldest brother James and was 10 years old at the time Jane wrote this letter to her. A shy, intelligent girl, Caroline enjoyed reading and had written to her aunt to share her views of Les Veilles du chateau by Madame de Genlis, a popular book of morality tales for children. Jane shared her niece’s unhappiness with the fate of two of the characters:

‘You seem to be quite my own Neice in your feelings towards Mde de Genlis.  I do not think I could even now, at my sedate time of Life, read Olimpe et Theophile without being in a Rage. It really is too bad! – Not allowing them to be happy together, when they are married.’

The story under discussion tells the tale of a young man, Theophilus, who obeys his father’s wishes to become engaged to Olympia, a young lady of large fortune.  However before the wedding takes place, Olympia is deprived of her fortune and finds herself destitute and friendless.  The young man’s father withdraws his permission for the marriage but Theophilus is a man of honour and, ignoring his father’s wishes, marries Olympia. From that point their lives lurch from misfortune to misfortune ending in Olympia’s untimely death, the moral lesson clear, that a parent’s wishes must be followed.

Jane and Caroline Austen were not the only readers unhappy with the tale; Mary Wollstonecraft lambasted the story in A Vindication of the Rights of Women, referring to Mde de Genlis’ ‘absurd manner of making the parental authority supplant reason’.

Jane also mentions that she has received a nice letter from Caroline’s brother, James Edward, who at the time was a pupil at Winchester College. More than fifty years later, James Edward was to collaborate with Caroline and their half- sister Anna to write the first biography of Jane Austen, A Memoir of Jane Austen.

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