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

Letters, Letter-writing and Other Intimate Discourse by Wendy Russ at Wendy.com includes links to Jane Austen’s letters, Brabourne edition, on the Republic of Pemberley, and Austen on Epistolary letters, also from The Republic of Pemberley. The reason I am pointing you to Wendy’s site is the number of links she provides to letter writing in general.

One of the most moving and memorable letters I have ever read, which she also includes, is by Sullivan Ballou. He is the Civil War soldier who wrote  the memorable letter to his wife before he died. If you have not read it, I recommend that you do, for his words echo what is in a soldier’s heart when he is poised for battle and thinks of his beloved. Here is a portion of that letter, which is so appropriate for Memorial Day:

But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the garish day and in the darkest night — amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours – always, always; and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.”

I cry every time I read this letter, and when I think of a true hero (pardon me, Mr. Darcy), I think of Mr. Ballou. Here is a 3 minute YouTube link if you would like to listen to his beautiful words instead.

Image of Fanny Knight by Cassandra Austen.

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During Jane Austen’s time, letters were written on sheet of paper that were folded and sealed, as in this sample. The recipient of the letter had to pay for the delivery. Therefore, the fewer pages that were used, the less expensive the cost, since the fee was based on the size of a letter and the distance it traveled.

Envelopes were not used. They would have added an additional sheet of paper and cost more for the recipient. To keep the letter affordable, people also wrote in a cross letter style as shown below.
Hand made papers were made in molds, hence one could readily observe the paper marks and ribbing from the parallel wires in the mold. Often these “laid” papers also bore distinctive watermarks. Double click on the image below to view these distinctive markings up close.

Writing implements included the quill pen, an inkstand filled with ink, pen knife, and sometimes a writing box.

Roller blotters made their appearance during the 19th century. Before this time, writers dried wet ink by sprinkling grains of sand over the words.


Creating quill pens was an art, since the nib had to be carefully cut with a knife so that the hollow core would hold just the right amount of ink and release it steadily under pressure. If the writer wrote for any length of time, fingers on the writing hand would often become ink stained. Quill pens, most commonly obtained from the wing feathers of a goose, had to be sharpened often with a pen knife. The average quill pen lasted for only a week before it was discarded.

After folding the paper, a sender would seal the letter with a custom wax seal stamp, that in some instances bore the family crest or the sender’s initials. The address on the outside remained simple, directing the bearer of the letter to the city or town, street, and the name of the receiver.
This is a photo of Jane Austen’s writing table and chair at Chawton, where she wrote the bulk of her novels and, I imagine, her letters as well.

Find out more about letter writing here:

Jane Austen’s Writing (Sloping) Desk

The Writing Implement of Jane Austen: The Quill Pen

London Mail and Postal Service: The Georgian Index

18th and 19th Century Wooden Seal Boxes

Cutting a Quill Pen

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