Posts Tagged ‘Letter Writing in Jane Austen’s Time’

Inquiring readers:  CLD Stationery has been creating personalised stationery for over thirty years. Its staff has learned a great deal about the traditions and etiquette of stationery and letter writing through the ages, especially the history of personal correspondence, from beautiful writing instruments and the development of the quality of paper to the evolution of quality inks.  At my request, this post was written especially for Jane Austen’s World. Enjoy!

How many of us take pens and paper for granted? Correspondence is such an integral part of our daily lives and it has played such an important role in the history of our civilisation.

Jane Austen as we know well, was a prolific writer and not just of novels, she enjoyed writing many personal letters that are thankfully, still in existence today for us to enjoy.  In particular, there are many splendid examples of letters that Jane sent to her sister Cassandra that have been collected into this fascinating book.

“You deserve a longer letter than this; but it is my unhappy fate seldom to treat people so well as they deserve” From a letter to her sister Cassandra, 1798

Her letters are delightfully witty and they are also beautifully written – despite her misgivings. When you think of how easy it is for us to write and edit our work today on a computer, it adds an extra dimension to her wonderful writing skills.  The image below shows a real excerpt in her own handwriting from the novel Persuasion.


During Jane Austen’s life, metal pen nibs had already been invented but were still rare and much more expensive than using a quill pen.  The majority of people were still using feather quills for all their personal correspondence. Jane Austen at this time would be using a quill made from a large goose feather or perhaps even a crow’s feather for smaller text.  The most desirable and hiqh quality quills were made from swans or peacocks feathers.

The feather quill has the ability to hold a little ink, allowing for less dipping time than using a reed or fine brush, this accounts for its huge popularity.  Interestingly, the feather quill is still used today as the preferred choice for calligraphy experts, due to it’s flexibility. The quill is cut with a knife to vary the thickness of writing, creating the perfect bespoke nib for the writer.

“I must get a softer pen. This is harder. I am in agonies. … I am going to write nothing but short sentences. There shall be two full stops in every line.” From a letter to her sister Cassandra, 1813

The quill cannot just be taken from the goose and cut, it needs to be hardened and there is some skill needed in creating the perfect writing tool – as you can read from Jane’s frustrations with her own quill!

If, like Jane Austen, you are a prolific letter writer and you favour the personal touch of a handwritten letter, then do visit our CLD Stationery website where we have a great selection of personalised stationery, from invitations to correspondence cards.

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Inquiring reader: Recently I  had the pleasure of viewing Jane Austen’s letters in A Woman’s Wit: Jane Austen’s Life and Legacy, an exhibit showing at the Morgan Libraryin New York City until March 14th. My observations are those of a layman and amateur. Nevertheless, I thought I would share my impressions. As Janeites know, several years before Cassandra Austen’s death, she  ruthlessly censored Jane’s  letters. In this image, taken from the Morgan Library website, you can see that an entire portion of the letter  is missing. To the left of  the same letter, Jane drew the pattern of a piece of lace, writing, “My cloak is come home, and here is the pattern of its lace.”

Portion of autograph letter signed, dated Bath, 2 June 1799 to Cassandra Austen

I was struck by how finely some of the portions had been cut out. In one letter that Jane wrote in 1814, Cassandra snipped only a few words and the cut was so unobtrusive that at first I did not spot the missing area. The sentence began with “Edward is quite…” Then nothing. Only a sliver of a line with several additional words cut out. Did the phrase reflect negatively upon Edward or Jane or another member of the family? We shall never know.

Franking letters was expensive for Jane, whose yearly personal budget consisted of £50 or less. She followed the common practice of cross writing. I noted how straight her lines were, and how carefully she placed them between the blank spaces of the lines on the other side. The letter below shows both practices. The Morgan Library website features this letter and allows you to enlarge it. Scroll to the bottom and study it in more detail. Learn more about crossed letters and the paper Jane used in this link.

Letter to Godmersham

Jane’s letters were not always crossed, nor did she always use both sides of the paper. In this delightful example, written to her  niece, Cassandra, in the last year of her life, Jane takes care to keep a large amount of blank space around the lines. She also writes in a much larger script. Written entirely backwards with an unfaltering hand, the letter must have thrilled its young recipient.

It is estimated that Jane Austen wrote 3,000 letters in her lifetime. Of the 160 that remain, the Morgan Library has purchased 51.  Not all of the lettters in this exhibit were written to family members. In the image below, the letter on the left was written by the Prince Regent’s librarian, James Stanier Clarke, to Jane. To the right of it sits one of her letters to him. I was struck by the brown color of the ink, which in some letters was still strong and vigorous, and in others had faded to a pale, watery color. Jane used iron gall ink, an ink common in her era, which is initially blue-black and then fades to brown.

It is composed of tannin (gallic acid), iron sulfate (known as vitriol in the nineteenth-century), gum arabic, and water. Because it is indelible, it was used for official documents from the middle ages onward. The ink is easy to make, inexpensive, and can be transported as a powder and mixed whenever needed. When first applied to paper, the ink appears pale-gray; as it is exposed to air, the ink darkens to a rich blue-black tone. Eventually, most iron gall ink changes to a brown color, as is evident in Austen’s letters and manuscripts – Thaw Conservation Center.

To learn more about Jane’s letters in the exhibit, I urge you to click on the Morgan Library website and study the few images that are shared with the public. Sadly, the Morgan did not publish a catalog, and much of the information in the exhibit is available only to visitors. Click here to view images from the exhibit. Click here to read about the technicalities of letter writing in Jane Austen’s day.

More links about the exhibit:

More links on this blog about letter writing and the royal mail in Jane Austen’s day:

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write letter byron 2003Gentle readers,

The Lady Susan Soiree is going full tilt at Austenprose, where Laurel Ann and her band of readers are finishing up Jane Austen’s last published novel. Lady Susan is an epistolary novel, or one that is written in letter format. Last week I wrote a post about Upper Seymour Street, one of the prominent addresses in the novel, this week I will be writing about the postal service during the Georgian era. Not only did Jane Austen write a novel in letter format, she was a great letter writer herself. Sending a letter over two hundred years ago was much like sending an email today: the service was expensive and it depended upon the smooth running of a money making operation. But in London the service was different, for the Penny-Post had been introduced. This form of sending letters was both easy, affordable and practical, and explains how a lady with straitened finances like Lady Susan Vernon could afford to write so many letters in such a short space of time.

During the eighteenth century a letter from London to Bath could take three days to arrive, but by the 1820s, mail was delivered the morning after posting in towns more than 120 miles apart. In central London the postal service was so efficient, and there were such frequent deliveries, than an invitation issued in the morning could be acknowledged the same afternoon. – High Society, Venetia Murray, ISBN: 0670857580, p. 2.

Venetia Murray’s entry about the postal service was short and to the point, but it does not come close to telling the entire story. Because I uncovered so much information, I am dividing this post into three parts: 1) Letters and the Penny-Post, 2) Post Roads and Post Boys, and 3) John Palmer and the Royal Mail Coach.

Part One: Letters and the Penny-Post

In 1635 Charles I opened up his ‘royal mail’ for use by the public. Oliver Cromwell established the General Post Office in 1657 and after the Restoration, Charles II authorized the General Post Office to operate the ‘royal mail’, with the revenue from the postal service going to the Government.

Small cross written letter

Small cross written letter

In those early days, postal rates were calculated according to the distances traveled and the number of sheets that comprised a letter. Because of their cost, only businesses and the wealthy could afford to send letters. Others simply had to entrust their missives to friends and family members, or ask people traveling to another town to serve as a messenger. Even the wealthy kept their sheets of paper small and wrote in a cross writing style to conserve space. (See the  image at right and click here to read my post on Letter Writing in Jane Austen’s Time.) Envelopes would have been considered an additional sheet, so these very early letters did not include them.  A letter was simply folded over and sealed with wax that was stamped by a signet ring or a seal.  Recipients, not the sender, had to pay for the cost of a letter. This system caused hardship in cases where the recipient did not have the money, and as a result many letters languished on a post office shelf or were thrown away. Knowing these facts about the postal system of the period helps the reader to understand the following passage from Mansfield Park. Even though this scene occured in the early 19th century, the costs associated with sending letters from one city to another had not changed in over 100 years, for the postal system would not significantly improve until 1837, when Rowland Hill set out to reform it.

    “But William will write to you, I dare say.” “Yes, he had promised he would, but he had told her to write first.” “And when shall you do it?” She hung her head and answered hesitatingly, “she did not know; she had not any paper.”

    “If that be all your difficulty, I will furnish you with paper and every other material, and you may write your letter whenever you choose. Would it make you happy to write to William?”

    “Yes, very.”

    “Then let it be done now. Come with me into the breakfast room, we shall find every thing there, and be sure of having the room to ourselves.”

    “But, cousin—will it go to the post?”

    “Yes, depend upon me it shall; it shall go with the other letters; and, as your uncle will frank it, it will cost William nothing.”

    “My uncle!” repeated Fanny, with a frightened look.

    “Yes, when you have written the letter, I will take it to my father to frank.”

    Fanny thought it a bold measure, but offered no farther resistance

Edmund also sits down to write “with his own hand his love to his cousin William, and sent him half a guinea under the seal.” This was a remarkable sum of money for the day, and demonstratedEdmund’s character like no words could. From this point on, William would have enough money to pay for Fanny’s letters as they came.

William Dockwra's postal markings

William Dockwra's postal markings

Interestingly, the Post Office did not handle letters sent from one London address to another. The city was a thriving metropolis and trading center, yet merchants had to employ private messengers to carry letters and packages across town, much like the poor in other parts of the country. In 1680, an enterprising merchant named William Dockwra introduced a local Penny-Post in London, which carried letters within a ten mile radius. His service also introduced the pre-payment of letters, a revolutionary idea. William’s advertisement in the Mercurius Civicus read:

“The Undertakers for the Incomparable and Advantageous Design for the Speedy and safe Conveyance of Letters and packquets under a pound weight, to all parts of the Cities of London and Westminster, and the suburbs thereof … [have] ordered their Messengers to call for all Letters at all Coffee-Houses in the High Roads and Streets following . . . And all persons, who leave their Letters at any of the places aforesaid, may be sure to have them speedily dispatched for ONE PENY”.

William’s method of operation was immediately successful, “particularly as letters left at any Penny-Post House were sent out “successively every hour of the Day, till Eight of the Clock at Night”. Furthermore, to ensure that correspondence was delivered as soon as possible, each letter was stamped with the hour of the day on which it was sent out. This way, people could work out whether the “delays that may happen be really in the Office, or their own Servants (or other) with whom their Letters were left in due time”. “– Potted History by Ben Locker

Dockwra used two main postmarks for each letter. One was a triangular stamp with “Penny-Post Paid” on the three sides and the initials of the sorting office in the centre. This indicated that the rate had been paid and there was no further charges necessary on receipt. The second postmark was a heart shaped stamp indicating the date and time of dispatch.

There was a great deal of opposition to Dockwra’s post from porters and messengers whose livelihood was affected by the service. The church, a powerful force at the time, also had strong opposition!

The most serious opposition to Dockwra’s system came from the General Post Office, which heavily resented the competition. As such, in 1682 legal action was taken against William Dockwra in the name of the Duke Of York (Later King James II.) who was responsible for overseeing the Post Office at the time. – William Dockwra

Unfortunately, the Duke of York  held the monopoly on collecting revenue from the mail. He prosecuted Dockwra for £100 (Wikipedia says it was £2,000)  in damages and forced the merchant to relinquish control of his enterprise. Four days after the judgement, the London Gazette announced that the Penny-Post would shortly be reopened as part of the General Post Office.  For nine years Dockwra petitioned the Duke to save him and his “family of 9 children from Ruine.” Eventually in 1689, after James II’s death, Dockwra received a “seven-year pension of £500 “in consideration of his good service in inventing and setting up the business of the Penny-Post.” (Potted History by Ben Locker)

General Post Office in Lombard Street, London

General Post Office in Lombard Street, London

“The Penny-Post was quickly adopted in other cities and towns, like Dublin, Edinburgh and Manchester. Revenues steadily increased, and by 1727 the London District Post was so well regarded that ‘Daniel Defoe praised it for not charging for “a single Piece of Paper, as in the General Post-Office, but [sending] any Packet under a Pound weight . . . at the same price.'” The employment of extra letter carriers increased the number of deliveries, so that the system became even more efficient. From the 1770s the numbering of houses began, and by 1805 this system became mandatory in London Streets, making it even easier for letter carriers to deliver mail (Potted History by Ben Locker).  In contrast to the Penny-Post, letters that went out via the General Post Office still charged recipients for distance traveled and the number of sheets used, so that a letter sent from Steventon Rectory to Chawton would be quite expensive as compared to a letter sent from one London address to another, or one Manchester address to another.

Letter carrier, 1800, with bell and satchel

Letter carrier, 1800, with bell and satchel

For ordinary people the cost of receiving a letter was a significant part of the weekly wage. If you lived in London and your relatives had written to you from Edinburgh you would have to pay one shilling and one pence per page – more than the average worker earned in a day. Many letters were never delivered because their recipients could not afford them, losing the Post Office a great deal of money.” – Rowland Hill’s Postal Reforms

To help finance the war against Napoleon, the London Penny-Post was increased to tuppence in 1801; in 1805 the amount was raised to three pence. The beginning of uniform penny postage in 1840 made sending mail affordable to all for the first time. In 1837, English schoolmaster, Rowland Hill, wrote a pamphlet, Post Office Reform: its Importance and Practicability, which was privately circulated. In that year, he also invented the postage stamp, which necessitated the use of an envelope. “The Penny-Post system that began in 1840 used a lozenge-shaped sheet more akin to today’s aerogrammes, though in the same year George Wilson patented a system for printing several envelopes from one large sheet of paper, and in 1845 a steam-driven cutting and folding machine was invented.”  History of the Humble Envelope

Hill’s famous pamphlet, Post Office Reform, was privately circulated in 1837. The report called for “low and uniform rates” according to weight, rather than distance. Hill’s study showed that most of the costs in the postal system were not for transport, but rather for laborious handling procedures at the origins and the destinations.

Costs could be reduced dramatically if postage were prepaid by the sender, the prepayment to be proven by the use of prepaid letter sheets or adhesive stamps (adhesive stamps had long been used to show payment of taxes – for example, on documents).

Letter sheets were to be used because envelopes were not yet common – they were not yet mass produced, and in an era when postage was calculated partly on the basis of the number of sheets of paper used, the same sheet of paper would be folded and serve for both the message and the address. In addition, Hill proposed to lower the postage rate to a penny per half ounce, without regard to distance. He presented his proposal to the Government in 1838.

Postal service rates were lowered almost immediately, to fourpence from the 5 December 1839, then to the penny rate on the 10 January 1840, even before stamps or letter sheets could be printed. The volume of paid internal correspondence increased dramatically, by 120%, between November, 1839 and February, 1840. – Rowland Hill

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A person who can write a long letter with ease, cannot write ill.”- Jane Austen

jane-writesIn Miss Austen Regrets, Olivia Williams as Jane Austen is seen at her sloped writing box writing her novels or composing letters during her visits to Chawton House. While portable writing desks similar to Jane’s were popular all through the 19th century, they did not become widespread until travel became more convenient for the middle and upper classes in the late 18th century. Writing boxes were versatile and portable and could easily be carried. They were placed on a table or one’s lap, and were as personal as a diary, containing  paper, pens, ink, and hidden compartments.

Sample of Persuasion in Jane Austen's handwriting

Sample of Persuasion in Jane Austen's handwriting

Today, Jane Austen’s writing box, spectacles, and the History of England and two cancelled chapters of Persuasion can be viewed at the John Ritblat Gallery at the British Library. Jane was a careful and meticulous writer, and the two chapters that have survived in her own hand show her creative mind at work. Crossed out lines and revisions and margin notes are quite evident. At Chawton, Jane placed her writing slope on a tiny round table next to a window in the sitting room.  (View images here and here on flickr)

Austen did not like to write in front of other people, and would hide her work as soon as the squeak of her door announced the presence of a visitor. She wrote Persuasion on very small pieces of paper so she could easily conceal the pages when interrupted. Jane Austen in London

The little round writing table at Chawton.

The little round writing table at Chawton.

Jane’s father most likely purchased the writing slope for her in December of 1794. I have wondered if he gave it to her on her birthday.

Jane's window

Jane's window

Hidden for generations, the desk resurfaced in 1999 when Joan Austen-Leigh, the great-granddaughter of Jane’s biographer and nephew, James Austen-Leigh, donated it to the British library. The desk had been kept by the family for over 40 years in a suitcase in a closet in Canada. (Jane Austen for Dummies)

writing-box1The wood rectangular box opened to reveal a sloped writing surface embossed in leather. Compartments stored writing implements like paper, pens, ink, stamps, sealing wax, etc. From the black and white image of Jane’s writing desk, hers seems to be a simpler model than the Sheraton writing box depicted above.

Image of Jane’s writing slope from JASA

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The Duke of Wellington, the much decorated general who defeated Napoleon twice and who, to many in the era, defined the British character, still had to answer a flurry of petty questions generated by bureaucrats in London. The following is a letter he wrote to the National Office in 1812 in response to some trifling expenses for which he was held accounted:


Whilst marching from Portugal to a position which commands the approach to Madrid and the French forces, my officers have been diligently complying with your requests which have been sent by H.M. ship from London to Lisbon and thence by dispatch to our headquarters.

We have enumerated our saddles, bridles, tents and tent poles, and all manner of sundry items for which His Majesty’s Government holds me accountable. I have dispatched reports on the character, wit, and spleen of every officer. Each item and every farthing has been accounted for, with two regrettable exceptions for which I beg your indulgence.

Unfortunately the sum of one shilling and ninepence remains unaccounted for in one infantry battalion’s petty cash and there has been a hideous confusion as the the number of jars of raspberry jam issued to one cavalry regiment during a sandstorm in western Spain. This reprehensible carelessness may be related to the pressure of circumstance, since we are war with France, a fact which may come as a bit of a surprise to you gentlemen in Whitehall.

This brings me to my present purpose, which is to request elucidation of my instructions from His Majesty’s Government so that I may better understand why I am dragging an army over these barren plains. I construe that perforce it must be one of two alternative duties, as given below. I shall pursue either one with the best of my ability, but I cannot do both:

1. To train an army of uniformed British clerks in Spain for the benefit of the accountants and copy-boys in London or perchance.

2. To see to it that the forces of Napoleon are driven out of Spain.

Your most obedient servant,


Update: While I try to link to resources directly (see link list below), at times I can find no attributions or a source. I found this letter on a fun fact site and had no initial reference to point to. If you will note, this blog largely consists of a series of links to other sites of interest, especially in the pages at top. In addition, as with David Brass Rare Books, I receive their permission to write about their publications and use certain images PROVIDED I make no money off the enterprise and make certain that I mention David Brass Rare Books prominently in my posts. I also try to use e-text quotes and images that are in the public domain (Wikimedia Commons), or to quote no more than a paragraph from books that are copyrighted. Publishers that have asked me to review their books have given me permission to use images of their book covers and use quotes. When I am reviewing a blog post (as in my Seen Over the Ether post), I will use an identifying image from that post.

Other links:

Image: William Heath, A Wellington Boot – or Head of the Army.

Portrait of the Duke by Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830), 1814.

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