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The surviving letters of Jane Austen

Famed English novelist Jane Austen had an extensive, intimate correspondence with her older sister Cassandra throughout her life, writing thousands of letters before her untimely death at the age of 41 in July 1817. However, only 161 have survived to this day. Cassandra purged the letters in the 1840s, destroying a majority and censoring those that remained of any salacious gossip in a bid to protect Jane’s reputation.

Electronic Enlightenment has collected the Austen letters that remain, where, despite Cassandra’s best efforts, some of Jane’s tantalizing observations can still be glimpsed. Below are a few excerpts (copied verbatim with their influx of dashes and semicolons):

You scold me so much in the nice long letter which I have this moment received from you, that I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together. I can expose myself, however, only once more, because he leaves the country soon after next Friday, on which day we are to have a dance at Ashe after all.

– Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra, 9 January 1796

After they left us, I went with my Mother to help look at some houses in New King Street, towards which she felt some kind of inclination — but their size has now satisfied her ; — they were smaller than I expected to find them. One in particular out of the two, was quite monstrously little ; — the best of the sittingrooms not so large as the little parlour at Steventon, and the second room in every floor about capacious enough to admit a very small single bed. — We are to have a tiny party here tonight ; I hate tiny parties — they force one into constant exertion.

– Jane to Cassandra, 21 May 1801

A few days ago I had a letter from Miss Irvine, and as I was in her debt, you will guess it to be a remonstrance, not a very severe one, however ; the first page is in her usual retrospective, jealous, inconsistent style, but the remainder is chatty and harmless. She supposes my silence may have proceeded from resentment of her not having written to inquire particularly after my hooping cough, &c. She is a funny one.

– Jane to Cassandra, 7 January 1807

I continue to like our old Cook quite as well as ever — & but that I am afraid to write in her praise, I could say that she seems just the servant for us. — Her Cookery is at least tolerable ; — her pastry is the only deficiency.

– Jane to Cassandra, 31 May 1811

I am amused by the present style of female dress ; the coloured petticoats with braces over the white Spencers and enormous Bonnets upon the full stretch, are quite entertaining. It seems to me a more marked change than one has lately seen. — Long sleeves appear universal, even as Dress, the Waists short, and as far as I have been able to judge, the Bosom covered. — I was at a little party last night at Mrs Latouche’s, where dress is a good deal attended to, and these are my observations from it. — Petticoats short, and generally, tho’ not always, flounced. — The broad-straps belonging to the Gown or Boddice, which cross the front of the Waist, over white, have a very pretty effect I think.

– Jane to her sister-in-law Martha, 2 September 1814

In addition to Jane’s regular letters, a few key outliers exist, such as a poem to her brother upon the birth of his son and a coded message to her 8-year-old niece:

My dearest Frank, I wish you joy

Of Mary’s safety with a Boy,

Whose birth has given little pain

Compared with that of Mary Jane. —

May he a growing Blessing prove,

And well deserve his Parents’ Love ! —

Endow’d with Art’s & Nature’s Good,

Thy name possessing with thy Blood,

In him, in all his ways, may we

Another Francis William see ! —

– Jane to her brother Francis, 26 July 1809

Modern colorized version of 1873 engraved depiction of Jane Austen, based on rudimentary sketch by Cassandra. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Ym raed Yssac

I hsiw uoy a yppah wen raey. Ruoy xis snisuoc emac ereh yadretsey, dna dah hcae a eceip fo ekac. Siht si elttil Yssac’s yadhtrib, dna ehs si eerht sraey dlo. Knarf sah nugeb gninrael Nital. Ew deef eht Nibor yreve gninrom. — Yllas netfo seriuqne retfa uoy. Yllas Mahneb sah tog a wen neerg nwog. Teirrah Thgink semoc yreve yad ot daer ot Tnua Ardnassac. — Doog eyb ym raed Yssac. — Tnua Ardnassac sdnes reh tseb evol, dna os ew od lla.

[My dear Cassy

I wish you a happy new year. Your six cousins came here yesterday, and had each a piece of cake. This is little Cassy’s birthday, and she is three years old. Frank has begun learning Latin. We feed the Robin every morning. — Sally often enquires after you. Sally Benham has got a new green gown. Harriet Knight comes every day to read to Aunt Cassandra. — Good bye my dear Cassy. — Aunt Cassandra sends her best love, and so we do all.]

– Jane to her niece Cassandra Esten Austen, 8 January 1817

Though these letters are only a small fraction of her total epistolary output, Jane’s character and wit still bleed through. They are still a valuable look at the daily life of one of the great English writers, so one can imagine if we had access to them all?

Featured image credit: Debby Hudson, CC0 via unsplash.

Recent Comments

  1. David Deterding

    The poem to her brother Francis suggests that ‘prove’ and ‘love’ rhymed, and also ‘good’ and ‘blood’. Is this correct? Has the pronunciation of these words changed in the intervening years? Or was she playing games, using “sight rhymes”?

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