Lost Letters…

August 22, 2009 at 9:42 am (books) (, , , , , , )

I am reading (a library copy) Katherine Sutherland’s Jane Austen’s Textual Lives. She has much to say about the Austen-Leigh Memoir with which _I_ would disagree, but I want to comment on the “Cassandra Controversy” Sutherland and everyone writing on Austen sooner or later bring up. Why is it, I ask myself this morning, everyone cares ONLY for the letters of Jane written to Cassandra?? Is it because we know they once existed? Does the imagined ‘bonfire’ ignite the passion for the “lost letters”?? (They were Cassandra’s property to do with as she pleased…) My indignation (rather too strong a word, but I will use it) comes from the fact that no one cares – or at least writes about – the lost letters of CASSANDRA! If Jane wrote to her, she wrote to Jane. They existed, though are a bit more ephemeral from the perspective of not being divvied up, not being knowingly burned, not being by the famous sister.

Jane Austen did not live in a vacuum. My own researches into the letters of the Smith family prove that each member of a family wrote — in turn — to other members of the family. Therefore, not only would there have been Jane’s letters to the likes of cousins like Eliza, Jane would have written her mother, her father, her brothers, her friends (Martha Llloyd, the Bigg sisters); and oh! what ever happened to the letters to Miss Sharp.

Cassandra, too, would have had a circle of correspondents. Never mind the brothers, with their wide circles of acquaintance.

The volume of family letters known as the Austen Papers, which I make no bones about saying “collate ALL the known Austen letters, Jane’s and her family’s, into a volume” are easily dismissed by Austen scholars: They should not be! That would be like presenting Mozart’s letters without those of his father.

An interesting point, to get back to the “circle” of correspondents a singular writer would have had: Emma writes to one of her sisters a letter already addressed to another sister! The opening line apologizes, claiming that although the letter was written to one it is “by rights” the turn of this sister, whose name was inserted near the crossed out name of the original recipient. Did the sister mind? Evidently not! Did the sister desire a letter, any letter, rather than that it went to the original sister? – Evidently! That was of more importance than the crossing out and substitution! After all, most letters were read aloud. (I have only come across ONE letter, one written by Mary Smith, in which the writer designated the letter ‘private’ = which therefore would NOT have been read out or passed around to other readers.)

There is much, in this age of phone calls and emails, that people do not think about concerning the age of letter-writing. I sincerely wish the laments for the “lost” Austen letters extended to the “lost” letters that were either also later destroyed (the niece’s destruction of letters to her father comes to mind), but also perhaps were never kept.

There has long been the question in the back of my mind as regards keeping correspondence. This came up when reading about Mozart’s many, many moves in the years of his marriage: All those letters from Papa Mozart were hauled from house to house to house. Imagine the *desire* to keep such items!!

Through this blog, I have met several people who have some snippet of surviving family correspondence. How lucky they are! All I have of my family are a handful of sepia photographs – which I treasure, I must confess, because of the rarity of their survival.

In short, we should be grateful for what we have, and stop harping on what was lost (through whatever means: destruction, carelessness, or cutting up for souvenirs). I am, for the Smith letters, even while I hope there is more to uncover!



  1. Mary Ellen said,

    I’ve always wanted to see Cassandra’s letters to Jane! That might make an interesting novel–recreating Cassandra’s responses to the letters of Jane that we have.

  2. Janeite Kelly said,

    Dear Mary Ellen, that would indeed make for interesting reading!

    I can understand WHY the focus is always on Jane’s letters, but Cassandra — perhaps because of her ‘shadowy’ presence, has long captured my imagination.

    It would be wonderful to think that Cassandra’s letters reside somewhere at this moment; never know! Was reading yesterday that Anglo-Saxon treasures (including a braclet with Latin inscription, which was pictured with the article) were unearthed in the UK by a ‘sleuth’ with a metal detector. Odder things have happened. I’ve heard of sections of letters going to different branches of family within the Smith family (particularly as regards the letters of Aunt Chute).

    Yet, I have to wonder if Cassandra’s bonfire more concerned her own papers than her sisters… They were hers to do with as she wanted, after all.

    Was watching lasting night a two-part show on Winslow Homer; he had the opportunity to have a biographical sketch publish when he was nearing the end of his career; thanks but no thanks was his response. Rather a ‘my life has had nothing interesting that people will want to read’ and ‘what was of interest is none of their business’ dual attitude.

    Now that you’ve tossed out the idea of a JA-Cassandra novel in letters — might that be something you’d work on??!! See the novel Dear Charlotte, by Hazel Holt (just out a few months ago) – she’s used Braybourne’s edition of the letters, and worked them into a mystery.

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