In 1798, a little more than a week after her twenty-third birthday, Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra what might certainly be called a Christmas letter, as it was begun at Steventon on the Monday night of Christmas Eve. She opens with news of hopes for a promotion for her brother Frank, then a young Navy captain who was indeed promoted to commander a week later, commanding the sloop HMS Peterel, at Gibraltar. This was happy news for the Austen family, and having made the most of it, Jane Austen wrote, “There! – I may now finish my letter, & go & hang myself, for I am sure I can neither write nor do anything which will not appear insipid to you after this.”
Much more tamely she goes on to mention their mother’s health (“She does not like the cold Weather, but that we cannot help”), and then describes a ball at Manydown where she famously writes, “There were twenty Dances & I danced them all, & without any fatigue.” The next day, Christmas Day itself, she continues her letter to Cassandra, who was then at Godmersham Park and had sent her a long and exciting letter: “I am full of Joy at much of your information; that you should have been to a Ball, & have danced at it, & supped with the Prince, & that you should meditate the purchase of a new muslin Gown are delightful circumstances.” The Prince was HRH Major-General William-Frederick of Gloucester, a young man about Jane Austen’s own age, whose military duties brought him into Kent. Still in a merry spirit, Jane tells Cassandra, “I wish you a merry Christmas, but no compliments of the Season.”
After some discussion of an illness of their brother Edward at Godmersham, and of their mother’s “gouty swelling & sensation about the ancles,” Jane eagerly resumes good spirits with a gay “I cannot determine what to do about my new Gown; I wish such things were to be bought ready-made”. She mentions that she will see their friend Martha at the Christening next Tuesday of her first nephew, brother James’ son, the future James Edward Austen-Leigh, who was to be very dear to her, as well as becoming her first biographer. The christening was to be at James’ home, Deane, two miles from Steventon, but visits between the two houses were frequent, and she writes, “I was to have dined at Deane today, but the weather is so cold that I am not sorry to be kept at home by the appearance of Snow.” Later she adds that she did go to Deane after all for dinner on Christmas day, as “the Snow came to nothing yesterday.” She closes with another gay riposte, “You deserve a longer letter than this, but it is my unhappy fate seldom to treat people so well as they deserve.”
So that is what a Christmas holiday was like in Jane Austen’s youth, and we may be reminded once again what pleasure it is to dip in and out of her Letters, to visit her at Steventon, and elsewhere.
In celebration of Jane Austen’s Christmas, and the days of her life, I’m offering a gift of the beautiful Jane Austen’s Daybook, published by the British Library. This daybook, which can be used as a diary or simply enjoyed for its pictures and quotations, was compiled by my friend Freydis Jane Welland. Her mother, Joan Austen-Leigh, who was also a dear friend, inherited Jane Austen’s desk, which held the scrapbook of the charming silhouettes Joan’s ancestor James Edward Austen-Leigh (whose christening was mentioned above, to bring this full circle!), made and cut out for the amusement of his children. I have felt the thrill of holding this delicate artistic work in my hands, and it is my very great pleasure to celebrate it now, and to offer a copy of the Jane Austen Daybook, illustrated with many of these silhouettes, and quotes from our beloved author. It would make a wonderful Christmas gift for any Austen lover.
The winner will be chosen at random from all those who comment, so comment already! And a happy Christmas to all!