Letter from Jane Austen to Cassandra Austen, 2 March 1814

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

It was Jane Austen’s practice to travel up to London with the manuscript of her latest novel, staying there during typesetting and proofing.  Under discussion in her 2-3 March letter to Cassandra, written from their brother Henry’s address of 10 Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, is her third novel, Mansfield Park, finally published on 9 May 1814.  Comments on Henry’s reading of the manuscript cast a fascinating light on Austen’s complex investment in this serious and moralizing work, so different in tone from Pride and Prejudice.  Especially interesting is the observation that Henry ‘understands’ the characters and ‘likes Fanny’. Fanny Price is a new kind of heroine: one who has more inner than outer life, and who appears in consequence modern.

To the twenty-first century reader, two months may seem an unusually compressed time-frame in which to turn manuscript into print, but in the 1810s it would not have been difficult to get a three-volume novel ready for publication within such a tight schedule.  In the intervals between correcting proofs, there was time for shopping and trips to the theatre.  Jane Austen relished her visits to London.

What else does Austen talk of in this letter? She mentions the novel she is reading: The Heroine; or, Adventures of a Fair Romance Reader, by Eaton Stannard Barrett (1813), ‘a delightful burlesque’ or spoof Gothic romance, far different in tone from Mansfield Park. She notes how hard it is to get seats at Drury Lane Theatre, where the actor Edmund Kean had recently made his first appearance to rave reviews.  She has paid a shilling for plaited willow (used for hat-making), and she turns the delay in dyeing her muslin into a pun at the expense of dyers who dip their souls ‘in Scarlet Sin’.  Jane Austen’s letters, like her novels, are full of what she calls the ‘little matters’ of everyday life; the challenge of both is to discover which, among those little matters, matters most and why.