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Monday, 31 October 2016

An Introduction to Jane Austen's Letters


What has survived of Jane Austen's private letters is the text from 160 of them. Jane's sister Cassandra bequeathed only a judicious selection to their niece Fanny. Another niece – Caroline – said that Cassandra had destroyed many of the letters after Jane's death. These she must have considered too personal. All letters written by Jane between May 1801 and September 1804 were destroyed, possibly because they contained references to Jane's supposed romance with the gentleman met at the seaside, who died.

Fanny's son Lord Brabourne in 1884 published the letters, censoring them, however, with Victorian propriety: he deleted references to bowels, fleas, bad breath and pregnancy! He softened Jane's criticisms of people. Refurbishment took place in R. W. Chapman’s first edition of Jane's collected letters in 1932.

The best edition now available is Jane Austen's Letters collected and edited by Deirdre Le Faye (1996). This revision of Chapman's work incorporates the fruits of continual research. It is well annotated and has superb biographical and topographical indexes.

A few of the original letters are today in private hands but most have been acquired by institutions throughout the world. The Pierpoint Morgan Library, New York, has the most - over fifty. The British Library, with twelve, has the next largest collection and St. John's College, Oxford, has five. Unfortunately, fourteen letters have not been seen since the 1880s when they were bought by unknown purchasers. This happened at sales held by Sotheby's on 14 April 1886 and 11 May 1891, and at Puttick and Simpson's on 26 June 1893.

Letter 83 is a mere scrap supplied by Jane's brother Frank to an autograph hunter: the text is missing. A small number of other letters suffered from damage or mutilation before their contents were first published.

Very rarely, an original letter comes up for sale. At Christie's, New York, in a sale held on 7 June 1990, the letter written at Christmas 1798 and sent from Steventon to Cassandra at Godmersham was sold for $19800.

The letter of 26 February 1817 from Jane to her niece Caroline was sold at Sotheby's on 13 December 1994 for the remarkably modest price of £4400.

In 2000, Letter No. 10 was offered for private sale at £32,000.