Letter from Mrs Austen to Mrs Walter, 20 August 1775

Text by Dr Mary Guyatt, former Director at Jane Austen's House

On 20 August 1775, the Reverend George Austen’s wife Cassandra sat down at Steventon Rectory, Hampshire, to write this letter to Susannah Walter, her sister-in-law who lived in Kent. Indicating her regret that Mrs Walter had been unable to visit the Rectory that summer, Mrs Austen may have been especially disappointed because she was in no position to make any travel plans of her own. She was five months pregnant, and, though still ‘nimble and active’, would soon be preparing for her baby’s birth. A daughter, Jane, arrived on the 16th of December. Her eighth and final child, a son, followed in 1779.

That summer Mrs Austen had a mere six children to look after, and in this letter we meet four of them. Little Henry, then four, thought himself just as grown-up as his seven-year-old brother Edward. Two-year-old Cassie entertained her mother by talking ‘all day long’, while Francis, the youngest, was becoming a sturdy toddler. Jane evidently enjoyed growing up in this large family of mainly older boys and, although in her novels she would question the primacy of the firstborn male, she would also write tenderly about sibling relationships and family ties.

This is a happy letter containing a delightful first reference to our famous Miss Austen. It is nonetheless sad to think that its author, Mrs Austen, would outlive two of her eight children. There is in fact a striking symmetry between this letter and Object 21, a letter written in July 1817. On each occasion, Jane is strangely half-present, first as a mother’s unborn baby and then as the subject of a sister’s deepest grief.