Tuesday, 27 December 2016


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.

Jane Austen could not bear to be long without a pen in her hand, either progressing quietly with a novel or keeping in touch with her friends and relatives. She was a prolific letter writer. Letters sent to Cassandra whenever they were apart during the 1790s and 1800s show she constantly added jottings to the letter in progress and, after posting it, almost immediately started another. They took turns visiting friends and relatives, frequently their married brothers in London or Kent, and on such occasions the exchange of letters was constant.

When not writing to her sister, Jane was answering letters from other correspondents. Most of these letters have not survived. She mentions her 'political correspondents' with whom she must have discussed topical issues.

A close observer of events, conversations, appearances and moods, Jane mentally catalogued anything that might entertain her sister.

‘Our party last night supplied me with no new ideas for my Letter,' was a sentence squeezed in at the end of Letter 37 (in Deirdre Le Faye's Edition). She expected everything to supply her with ideas. Trivialities appealed: 'You know how interesting the purchase of a sponge-cake is to me’. She is writing from Godmersham in June 1808 (Letter 52).

Cassandra herself may well have set the tone for the intimate, witty and detailed content. There seems to have been a competitive element in their exchanges. Cassandra replied as readily as she received. Like Jane, she appears to have seen life as full of jokes. In only the fourth of Jane's surviving letters (written when she was twenty), she tells Cassandra: 'The letter which I have this moment received from you has diverted me beyond moderation. I could die of laughter at it, as they used to say at school. You are indeed the finest comic writer of the present age'. Two years later, Jane was telling Cassandra: 'You must read your letters over five times in future before you send them, and then perhaps you may find them as entertaining as I do. – I laughed at several parts of the one which I am now answering' (Letter 17).

Jane likes to tease inventively. She reports that Frank and Mary will be so cross if Cassandra is unavailable to help them with their purchases that 'they shall be as spiteful as possible & chuse everything in the stile most likely to vex you, Knives that will not cut, glasses that will not hold, a sofa without a seat, & a Bookcase without shelves' (Letter 50); and a few lines later, she refers to 'Mr Husket Lord Lansdown's Painter, – domestic painter I should call him, for he lives in the Castle – Domestic Chaplains have given way to this more necessary office, & I suppose whenever the Walls want no touching up, he is employed about my Lady's face' (Letter 50).

When writing in July 1816 to her seventeen-year-old nephew James-Edward Austen, whose letter to her from Steventon must have superfluously told her that as well as going to Winchester he had 'come home' again, she commented: 'I am glad you recollected to mention your being come home. My heart began to sink within me when I had got so far through your Letter without its being mentioned. I was dreadfully afraid that you might be detained at Winchester by severe illness, confined to your Bed perhaps & quite unable to hold a pen, & only dating from Steventon in order, with a mistaken sort of Tenderness, to deceive me. – But now, I have no doubt of your being at home, I am sure you would not say it so seriously unless it actually were so' (Letter 142). Later in the same letter, she has fun imagining the nephew's future life – she hopes his 'Physicians' will order him 'to the Sea, or to a house by the side of a very considerable pond'. (There was a pond outside her cottage.)

A few months later (Letter 146), when the nephew had just left Winchester School (and was attempting to write a novel before going up to Oxford), she wished him well and invited him to confess how miserable he had been at school: 'it will gradually all come out – your Crimes & your Miseries – how often you went up by the Mail to London & threw away Fifty Guineas at a Tavern, & how often you were on the point of hanging yourself – restrained only, as some illnatured aspersion upon poor old Winton has it, by the want of a Tree within some miles of the City'. She adds: 'Uncle Henry writes very superior Sermons. – You & I must try to get hold of one or two, & put them into our Novels; – it would be a fine help to a volume; & we could make our Heroine read it aloud of a Sunday Evening'.

To Cassandra, there are mock-rebukes: 'I shall not tell you anything more of William Digweed's China, as your Silence on the subject makes you unworthy of it'; 'I expected to have heard from you this morning, but no letter is come. I shall not take the trouble of announcing to you any more of Mary's children, if, instead of thanking me for the intelligence, you always sit down and write to James.' (Letter 12). 'You used me scandalously by not mentioning Edward Cooper's Sermons; – I tell you everything, & it is unknown the Mysteries you conceal from me' (Letter 66).

Much of the fun is in the comments about people. 'Mrs John Lyford is so much pleased with the state of widowhood as to be going to put in for being a widow again; – she is to marry a Mr Fendall, a banker in Gloucester, a man of very good fortune, but considerably older than herself & with three little children' (Letter 30); 'She appeared exactly as she did in September, with the same broad face, diamond bandeau, white shoes, pink husband, & fat neck' (Letter 27); 'Lizzie Bond is just apprenticed to Miss Small, so we may hope to see her able to spoil gowns in a few years' (Letter 13); 'Charles Powlett has been very ill, but is getting well again; – his wife is discovered to be everything that the Neighbourhood could wish her, silly & cross as well as extravagant' (Letter 14); 'Miss Blachford is married, but I have never seen it in the Papers. And one may as well be single if the Wedding is not to be in print' (Letter 118).

Notorious is the line 'Mrs Hall of Sherbourn was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, owing to a fright. – I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband' (Letter 10). It was in letters to Cassandra only that she made such outrageous jokes, confident that they would not be repeated. They were for private giggles. Frivolous, cruel humour is typical of the eighteenth-century literature on which Jane was nourished. Pope had given her the example of such ironies as 'Puffs, Powders, Patches, Bibles, Billet-doux' - the contents of Belinda's dressing-table - and the young girl's fear of losing 'her heart, or necklace, at a ball', or, even (about the young woman losing a lock of her hair):

Not louder shrieks to pitying heaven are cast, 
When husbands, or when lap-dogs, breathe their last.

Lady Sneerwell in The School for Scandal says 'There's no possibility of being witty - without a little ill nature: the malice of a good thing is the barb that makes it stick'. Jane Austen, particularly in her juvenilia and in her private letters (and in the behaviour of Emma Woodhouse) acknowledges the force of this.

When their acquaintance Lady Sondes was to marry again – her husband had died two years earlier – Jane wrote: 'Lady Sondes' match surprises, but does not offend me; – had her first marriage been of affection, or had there been a grown-up single daughter, I should not have forgiven her – but I consider everybody as having a right to marry once in their Lives for Love, if they can – & provided she will now leave off having bad head-aches & being pathetic, I can allow her, I can wish her to be happy' (Letter 63). (Lady Sondes' second husband was to be General Montresor. Later in the same letter, Jane adds, enjoying the comedy of stereotyping, 'I like his rank very much – & always affix the ideas of strong sense, & highly elegant Manners, to a General').

There is often cynical wisdom in the humour. 'Miss Blachford is agreeable enough; I do not want People to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal' (Letter 15). About her nephew little Georgy ('itty Dordy'), she writes: 'My dear itty Dordy's remembrance of me is very pleasing to me; foolishly pleasing, because I know it will be over so soon. My attachment to him will be more durable; I shall think with tenderness and delight on his beautiful & smiling Countenance & interesting Manners, till a few years have turned him into an ungovernable, ungracious fellow' (Letter 10). Even when affectionate, Jane was always free from illusions. Possibly this is why she never married!

Sometimes the jokes are of the nonsensical kind she enjoyed in her juvenile writings: 'You express so little anxiety about my being murdered under Ashe Park Copse by Mrs Hulbert's servant, that I have a great mind not to tell you whether I was or not' (Letter 17); 'Mr Richard Harvey's match is put off, till he has got a Better Christian name, of which he has great Hopes. Mr Children's two Sons are both going to be married, John and George – . They are to have one wife between them; a Miss Holwell, who belongs to the Black Hole at Calcutta' (Letter 6); 'There are two Traits in her Character which are pleasing; namely, she admires Camilla, and drinks no cream in her Tea' (Letter 6); 'The Tables are come, & give general contentment. ... They are both covered with green baize and send their best love' (Letter 25); 'we met a Gentleman in a Buggy, who on a minute examination turned out to be Dr Hall – & Dr Hall in such very deep mourning that either his Mother, his Wife, or himself must be dead' (Letter 19); 'We found only Mrs Lance at home, and whether she boasts any offspring besides a grand pianoforte did not appear' (Letter 49).