Jane Austen Writes a Letter to Her Sister While Hung Over: “I Believe I Drank Too Much Wine Last Night”


In a time when peo­ple offer up every ges­ture as fod­der for their ador­ing social media pub­lic, it’s a lit­tle dif­fi­cult to imag­ine liv­ing a life as pri­vate as Jane Austen (1775–1817) did. And yet, the impres­sion we have of her as shy and retir­ing is mis­lead­ing. She did not achieve lit­er­ary fame dur­ing her life­time, it’s true, and it’s not clear that she desired it. As her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh wrote in the Mem­oir of Jane Austen, the 1870 bio­graph­i­cal sketch that helped pop­u­lar­ize Austen in the 19th cen­tu­ry, “her tal­ents did not intro­duce her to the notice of oth­er writ­ers, or con­nect her with the lit­er­ary world, or in any degree pierce through the obscu­ri­ty of her domes­tic retire­ment.” Yet, reduc­ing Austen’s per­son­al­i­ty, as Austen-Leigh does, to “the moral rec­ti­tude, the cor­rect taste, and the warm affec­tions with which she invest­ed her ide­al char­ac­ters” miss­es her fierce intel­li­gence and com­plex­i­ty.

Austen’s nephew’s por­trait of her seems con­cerned with pre­serv­ing those canons of pro­pri­ety that she scrupu­lous­ly doc­u­ment­ed and sat­i­rized in her nov­els. Per­haps this is part­ly why he char­ac­ter­izes her as a very shy per­son. But we know that Austen main­tained a live­ly social life and kept up reg­u­lar cor­re­spon­dence with fam­i­ly and friends. Her let­ter-writ­ing, some of it excerpt­ed in Austen-Leigh’s biog­ra­phy, gives us the dis­tinct impres­sion that she used her let­ters to prac­tice the sharp por­traits she drew in the nov­els of the mores and stric­tures of her social class. Thus it is sur­pris­ing when her nephew tells us we are “not to expect too much from them.” “The style is always clear,” he opined, “and gen­er­al­ly ani­mat­ed, while a vein of humour con­tin­u­al­ly gleams through the whole; but the mate­ri­als may be thought infe­ri­or to the exe­cu­tion, for they treat only of the details of domes­tic life. There is in them no notice of pol­i­tics or pub­lic events; scarce­ly any dis­cus­sions on lit­er­a­ture, or oth­er sub­jects of gen­er­al inter­est.”

What Austen’s nephew seems not to under­stand is what her legions of ador­ing read­ers and crit­ics have since come to see in her work: in Austen, the “details of domes­tic life” are revealed as micro­cosms of her soci­ety’s pol­i­tics, pub­lic events, lit­er­a­ture, and “sub­jects of gen­er­al inter­est.” Austen-Leigh almost admits as much, despite him­self, when he com­pares his aun­t’s let­ters to “the nest some lit­tle bird builds of the mate­ri­als near­est at hand, of the twigs and moss­es sup­plied by the tree in which it is placed; curi­ous­ly con­struct­ed out of the sim­plest mat­ters.” In Austen’s hands, how­ev­er, the small domes­tic dra­mas pro­ceed­ing on the coun­try estates around her were any­thing but sim­ple mat­ters. Let­ter-writ­ing plays a cen­tral role in nov­els like Pride and Prej­u­dice, as in most fic­tion of the peri­od. The sur­viv­ing Austen let­ters are worth read­ing as source mate­r­i­al for the novels—or worth read­ing for their own sake, so enjoy­able are their turns of phrase and with­er­ing char­ac­ter­i­za­tions.

Take a Novem­ber, 1800 let­ter Austen wrote to her sis­ter Cas­san­dra (pre­served in the so-called “Brabourne edi­tion” of her let­ters). Austen begins by con­fess­ing, “I believe I drank too much wine last night at Hurst­bourne; I know not how else to account for the shak­ing of my hand to-day.” To the “venial error” of her hang­over she attrib­ut­es “any indis­tinct­ness of writ­ing.” She then goes on to describe in vivid and very wit­ty detail the ball she’d attend­ed the night pre­vi­ous, tak­ing the risk of bor­ing her sis­ter “because one is prone to think much more of such things the morn­ing after they hap­pen, than when time has entire­ly dri­ven them out of one’s rec­ol­lec­tion.” Read an excerpt of her descrip­tion below and see if the scene does­n’t come alive before your eyes:

There were very few beau­ties, and such as there were were not very hand­some. Miss Ire­mon­ger did not look well, and Mrs. Blount was the only one much admired. She appeared exact­ly as she did in Sep­tem­ber, with the same broad face, dia­mond ban­deau, white shoes, pink hus­band, and fat neck. The two Miss Cox­es were there: I traced in one the remains of the vul­gar, broad-fea­tured girl who danced at Enham eight years ago; the oth­er is refined into a nice, com­posed-look­ing girl, like Cather­ine Bigg. I looked at Sir Thomas Champ­neys and thought of poor Ros­alie; I looked at his daugh­ter, and thought her a queer ani­mal with a white neck. Mrs. War­ren, I was con­strained to think, a very fine young woman, which I much regret. She has got rid of some part of her child, and danced away with great activ­i­ty look­ing by no means very large. Her hus­band is ugly enough, ugli­er even than his cousin John; but he does not look so very old. The Miss Mait­lands are both pret­ty­ish, very like Anne, with brown skins, large dark eyes, and a good deal of nose. The Gen­er­al has got the gout, and Mrs. Mait­land the jaun­dice. Miss Debary, Susan, and Sal­ly, all in black, but with­out any stature, made their appear­ance, and I was as civ­il to them as their bad breath would allow me.

You can read the let­ter in full at Let­ters of Note, who have includ­ed it in their excel­lent fol­low-up cor­re­spon­dence col­lec­tion, More Let­ters of Note. For more con­text and oth­er let­ters to Cas­san­dra from this peri­od, see this sec­tion of the Brabourne Austen let­ters.

via Let­ters of Note

Relat­ed Con­tent:

15-Year-Old Jane Austen Writes a Satir­i­cal His­to­ry Of Eng­land: Read the Hand­writ­ten Man­u­script Online (1791)

Jane Austen Used Pins to Edit Her Aban­doned Man­u­script, The Wat­sons

Down­load the Major Works of Jane Austen as Free eBooks & Audio Books

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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