Jane wrote one of her last surviving letters on Monday 16 December 1816. She was celebrating her 41st birthday, and it would be her last before she sadly passed away in the July of the following year.
Jane was at home at home in Chawton Cottage with her sister Cassandra and her mother. The letter is full of family news, and you can tell that Jane had been enjoying herself catching up with her brothers.
It was for her fondest nephew (James) Edward Austen, the eldest son of her brother James. He was christened James after his father and Edward after his uncle and godfather and was known as Edward throughout his life.
Edward had been studying at Winchester College, and it seems sad to think that Jane had no idea at the time that she would pass away in a cottage just behind the college walls a little more than six months later.
Edward had recently graduated from Winchester College, and it seems he was unhappy there.
One reason for my writing to you now, is that I may have the pleasure of directing to you Esqre – I give you Joy of having left Winchester – Now you may own, how miserable you were there; now, it will gradually all come out – your Crimes & your Miseries – how often you went up by mail to London & threw away Fifty Guineas at a tavern.
Jane follows with updates on the many members of their family. She had seen Edward’s cousin Charles, who was 13 years old at the time that very day,
Charles Knight & his companions passed through Chawton about 9 this morning; later than it used to be. Uncle Henry & I had a glimpse of his handsome face, looking all health & goodhumour. –
The stagecoach to and from London passed the Dining Parlour window of Chawton Cottage, close enough to see the faces of the passengers. This is where the family mostly sat in the winter as it had a large fireplace and was the most comfortable.
However, the passengers could also see into the cottage, as a gentleman in a coach reported seeing the ‘Chawton party looking comfortable at breakfast’.
She continues with news of her brothers looking well.
I wonder when you will come and see us. I know what I rather speculate upon, but shall say nothing. We think Uncle Henry in excellent Looks. ..& we have the great comfort of seeing decided improvement in Uncle Charles, both as to Health, Spirits & Appearance. -And they are each of them so agreeable in their different way, and harmonise so well, that their visit is thorough enjoyment.
Jane’s brothers most probably visited her to wish her happiness on her birthday, and she seems to have enjoyed it immensely. Charles was often away serving in the Navy, and Henry had been a soldier and a banker before being ordained. For a short time and to Jane’s pleasure, he was curate at St Nicholas Church in Chawton at the end of her life.
Uncle Henry writes very superior sermons. You & I must try to get hold of one or two, & put them into our novels; -it would be a fine help to a volume; & we could make our heroine read it aloud of a Sunday evening…
Jane did in fact include the reading of sermons in her own novel Mansfield Park when Fanny refers to prayers at Sotherton, ‘A whole family assembling regularly for the purpose of prayer, is fine’.
Religion was an important part of her life, and Jane and her family often read poems and plays aloud in the evenings followed by prayers.
Jane ends the letter reassuring her nephew about her own health. Although she started to feel unwell in the latter part of 1816, it seems she was feeling better or at least putting on a brave face for her nephew.
Ben was here on Saturday, to ask Uncle Charles & me to dine with them, as tomorrow, but I was forced to decline it, the walk is beyond my strength (though I am otherwise very well) & this is not a Season for Donkey Carriages;..
The visitor was Ben Lefroy, the husband of Anna, and Jane’s niece who lived at Wyards within walking distance of Chawton Cottage. The donkey and cart was kept behind the cottage so the ladies could gallop around the Hampshire countryside by themselves.
Jane signs the letter with a playful, Adieu Aimable!
Jane’s letter here is quoted from Jane Austen’s Letters, Deirdre Le Faye. It is letter 146 dated Monday 16 – Tuesday 17 December 1816.
The prayers Jane wrote to read aloud to her family are from Jane Austen’s Prayers by Emma Darlington.
For more about the 200th anniversary of Jane’s death, see Jane Austen 200.
Whilst researching, I came across a talk written by James Edward Austen’s granddaughter which I found most enlightening.
Written by Emma Darlington. This website is where I share my research whilst writing about Jane Austen and her life. If you enjoyed it, please share a ‘virtual’ coffee with me or sign up to the newsletter to hear more about Jane Austen and the Regency period. Thank you.