Letter from Jane Austen to Cassandra Austen 14–15 January 1796

Object name: Letter from Jane Austen to Cassandra Austen 14th – 15th January 1796

Object number: CHWJA:JAHLTR49

Category: Letter

Description: Letter from Jane Austen at Steventon to her sister Cassandra Austen at Kintbury (Letter 2 in The Letters of Jane Austen edited by Deirdre Le Faye Oxford University Press, 4th edition, 2011).  Two leaves quarto, red wafer seal. Addressed to Cassandra at ‘The Rev. Mr. Fowle’s, Kintbury, Newbury’.  The letter is headed ‘Steventon Thursday’; the date of the letter is taken from the postmark ‘16 96’.

Made: 14th-15th January 1796

Context: This letter, which dates from 14th/15th January 1796, was written by Jane Austen from Steventon Rectory, to her sister Cassandra who was staying with the Fowle family at Kintbury.  It is the earliest known surviving letter that carries Jane Austen’s signature.

The letter is bright, playful and chatty covering family news including the arrival of her cousin Edward Cooper and his family and the visit of  her brother Edward with some of his children.  The parts that attract the most interest however are Jane’s comments about the young Irish lawyer, Tom Lefroy, who was staying with his uncle and aunt –  Rev. Lefroy and his wife Anne – at nearby Ashe Rectory.

At the time this letter was written, Jane and Tom had already met at three balls and in an earlier letter, Jane had confessed to Cassandra that they had been ‘profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together’. In this letter, she is anticipating ‘flirting my last’ with Tom at the final ball before his departure.

The twenty year old Jane was obviously enjoying the admiration of the opposite sex. In the letter she offers, tongue in cheek, to give her other admirers to her friend Mary Lloyd leaving her free to focus on Tom:

‘Tell Mary that I make over Mr. Heartley and all his Estate to her for her sole use and Benefit in future, & not only him, but all my other Admirers into the bargain wherever she can find them, even the kiss which C. Powlett wanted to give me, as I mean to confine myself in future to Mr. Tom Lefroy, for whom I donot care sixpence.’

She also teases Cassandra that she expects ‘to receive an offer from my friend in the course of the evening. I shall refuse him, however, unless he promises to give away his white Coat.’

On the Friday of the ball she writes:

‘At length the Day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy, & when you receive this it will be over—My tears flow as I write, at the melancholy idea.’

The budding romance was however not to be as neither Tom nor Jane had the money to make a match possible.

How much this letter reflects Jane’s true feelings and how much was written to tease her sensible older sister has been much debated.  If she was upset, she soon recovered and embarked on writing the novel that was to later to become Pride and Prejudice.  She was however still interested enough in late 1798 to want to hear news of Tom but was too proud to ask, leaving it to her father to make enquiries. As an old man, Tom confessed he had loved Jane, although qualifying it as a ‘boyish love’.

Read a transcript 📖

Credit: This letter is owned jointly by the Bodleian Libraries and Jane Austen’s House. They were given from the Blavatnik Honresfield Library by the Friends of the National Libraries, 2022.

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