Jane Austen’s Letters: What a bit of pewter will supply

Illustration from Ackermann's Repository, a Walking Dress (1817)My Dearest 

The parcel arrived safely, & I am much obliged to you for your trouble. It cost 2 shillings 10 but as there is a certain savings of 2 shillings 4 ½ on the other side, I am sure it is well worth doing. I send 4 pair of Silk Stockings but I do not want them washed at present. In the 3 neckhandfs, I include the one sent down before. These things perhaps Edward may be able to bring, but even if he is not, I am extremely pleased with his returning to you from Steventon. It is much better – far preferable. I did mention P.R. (Prince Regent) in my note to Mr. Murray, it brought me a fine compliment in return; whether it has done any good I do not know, but Henry thought it worth trying. The Printers continue to supply me very well, I am advanced in vol. 3 to my arra-root, upon which peculiar style of spelling, there is a modest query in the Margin. I will not forget Anna’s arrow-root. I hope you have told Martha of my first resolution of letting nobody know that I might dedicate &c for fear of being obliged to do it & that she is thoroughly convinced of my being influenced now by nothing but the most mercenary motives. I have paid nine shillings on her account on her account to Miss Palmer; there was no more owing. Well, we were very busy all yesterday; from ½ past 11 to 4 in the Streets, working almost entirely for other people, driving from Place to Place after a parcel for Sandling which we could never find, & encountering the miseries of Grafton House to get a purple frock for Eleanor Bridges. Letter to Cassandra, 26 November 1815 from Hans Place, London 

1815 were heady times for Jane Austen. Her novel Emma had been accepted for publication by John Murray, one of the most important and influential publishing houses in London. She would be in fine company with Sir Walter Scott, Washington Irving, Lord Byron, George Crabbe (her personal favorite) and many others on Murray’s roister of prestigious authors. She had learned that the Prince Regent so admired her first three novels that he would endorse her new effort by allowing her to dedicate it to him. Though she did not agree with this lifestyle, she did not decline the honor, knowing full well what the publicity and sales would generate. “…but tho’ I like praise as well as anybody, I like what Edward calls Pewter too.”(Letter to Cassandra, 30 November 1814). Even though she has book royalties coming in, she is still keenly aware of how much a shilling is worth! 

You can feel her energy and confidence in her letters of this period. As a spinster, she was dependent on her family for financial support. Emma would be her fourth novel to earn her ‘pewter’, and even though it would be published at her expense, she would realize the profits after the payment of a 10 percent commission was paid to Murray. [1] With money coming in and further recognition of her talent, she was experiencing a bit of pride and self-assurance in her life. In this letter to her sister Cassandra from her brother Henry’s residence of Hans Place in London, we see her bustling about town to purchase or collect items for neighbors and family, and a few niceties for herself. The bit about the 4 pairs of silk stockings always makes me smile. It pleases me to think of Jane Austen able to purchase such a luxury items from her own hard earned funds and so concerned over their care. Silk does shrink when you wash it! 

Reading her letters brings her life closer to heart. Even the smallest enjoyment of silk stockings, or her kindness in running errands for her in-law Eleanor Bridges, who was the wife of a Baronet and far richer than Austen would ever be, is enchanting. I can just envision her calling at Grafton House, a stylish linen-drapers on New Bond Street to collect Mrs. Bridges frock, and being amazed at the choice of the color purple. One can only imagine what she had to say to her sister Cassandra in private over her color choice! Oh what a bit of pewter can supply! 

Further reading 

1. David Gilson, A Bibliography of Jane Austen, 2nd ed., Oak Knoll Press, New Castle, Delaware (1997) pp 67

Vintage flourish urn

4 thoughts on “Jane Austen’s Letters: What a bit of pewter will supply

  1. Thank you Laurel Ann for this lovely post! – it is indeed a pleasant thought to think of Austen scurrying around London doing errands for everyone else and working with her publisher on Emma, all the while puzzling over whether to dedicate her book to the dreaded Prince!
    Deb

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  2. I highly appreciated your post. Does it sound Austenean? Joking but I do mean it. I also like to imagine Jane enthusiastic and satisfied days in London. What a great achievement for a woman at that time…
    MG

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  3. Oops I was re-reading my comment and realize I forgot an ” ‘s”! Since I’m a teacher, I’m supposed to correct mistakes not to make them. So I mean’t “Jane’s enthusiastic and satisfied days…” Have a nice evening!
    (Well, at least it’s 10 p.m. here in Italy).
    MG

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  4. I have struggled to enjoy Austen’s letters because they are so densely packed with the minutiae of her life and not her art, but your post has given me a new perspective on how to approach the letters. Nice post–thanks.

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