Speaking of behalf of Jane Austen’s House Museum at our event at Maggs Bros Ltd in Bedford Square, London on 23 July, Kathryn Sutherland delivered the following speech to help raise funds for the purchase of a portion of Jane Austen Letter 112 (Le Faye edition, 2011):
Her letters are the only evidence we have of Jane Austen speaking/writing in her own voice: no diaries or journals survive. We know she must have written several thousand letters: hers was a letter-writing age and, as a dependent female in a large and dispersed family, this was one of her sociable duties. Cassandra Austen, her sister and chief correspondent, destroyed, in or around 1843, most of those she had received, dividing the 94 she kept as mementoes among brothers, nieces, nephews. At the latest count, the texts of 160 letters survive in print (161, if we include Austen’s Will); but the holographs of several of those 161 are untraceable since they were first published in the late nineteenth century. Of those known to survive, the bulk are in North American institutions (the Morgan Library having the lion’s share); around 30 holographs remain in private hands (some of these on deposit in public collections); and some, though remarkably few, are held, secure for the nation, in British institutions. For example, of 28 pre-1801 letters represented in print, 7 are now untraceable, and only 3 are in British public collections.
Of English writers, Jane Austen is second only to Shakespeare in terms of cultural reach; Shakespeare and Austen, they are the gold standards of our literary culture. Caroline Spurgeon, first woman professor and head of English at Bedford College, London University, declared in 1927 that ‘every scrap of information and every ray of light on Jane Austen are of national importance’. In the 1930s Cassandra Austen’s letter to their niece Fanny Knight, written only days after Jane Austen’s death in July 1817, came into Spurgeon’s possession. Spurgeon bequeathed it to the distinguished medieval scholar Helen Waddell. Both women were active in international women’s movements between the wars. Through her charismatic lectures, Waddell gained a surprising range of acquaintances and correspondents: from Queen Mary to George Bernard Shaw, Siegfried Sassoon, Stanley Baldwin, and General de Gaulle. (Such are the company and proxy associations that letters, dispersed, might find.) In 2015, with National Lottery Heritage Fund support and a grant from the Friends of the National Libraries, Jane Austen’s House Museum was able to purchase Spurgeon’s Cassandra letter from its latest private owner and give it a permanent home in a national collection.
Jane Austen’s letters have been at the heart of Jane Austen’s House Museum since it opened 70 years ago today in 1949. In the previous year, T. Edward Carpenter, who purchased Austen’s former home and oversaw its transformation into a memorial, acquired from Maggs several Austen letters recently come onto the market—part of the portion handed down by Cassandra to their youngest brother Charles. Currently, the Museum holds 12 Austen letters, which are key to our interpretation of its space as both domestic and a writer’s house. We are firmly committed to securing the public future of more letters, where we can, as they come up for sale. Unfortunately for us, the ultimate test in Britain of an object’s importance to national culture is its price on the international market. A small, independent museum, we cannot always be successful in matching those prices. Fortunately for us, there is still Maggs, as there was in 1948 when our collecting began. We are hugely grateful to and cheered by your enlightened and generous assistance and your patience over recent months, as we campaigned to find the necessary funds to secure this letter. Thank you for this, for advice, and now for your wonderful hospitality this evening.
What you will see when you look at the letter on display is a single leaf of a standard letter bifolium: pages 1 and 2. It comprises an opening greeting and continuous text across two pages, written in Jane Austen’s clear, round hand. The leaf forms the opening section of Letter 112 in Deirdre Le Faye’s authoritative Oxford edition of 2011. In it, Jane Austen writes from her brother Henry’s home, Hans Place, London, to her niece Anna Lefroy on Tuesday 29 November 1814. 1814 was a significant year in Austen’s relationship with 21-year-old Anna who was trying her hand at a novel, under Aunt Jane’s supervision. The letter opens ‘I am very much obliged to you, my dear Anna’; the fragment ends at the foot of p. 2 with the words: ‘& hugs Mr Younge delightfully’. There is no signature, no date, and no address.
In material terms, the two-page portion is a resilient survival of an act of loving destruction: it represents the largest part of a letter that was dismembered, no doubt to be given as keepsakes, into at least five portions, one of which is now lost; two are in the Charnwood Autograph Collection (BL Add. MS 70949); and a further portion was sold at Sotheby’s into private hands on the 11th of July 2017, at which time the present portion failed to sell. We might see the dismemberment, scattering, private and public fortunes of this letter as an expression in miniature of the fate of Austen’s letters more generally.
We cannot be sure when the letter was dismembered; possibly around 1869, around the significant moment of the first full-length biography of Jane Austen, written by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, brother to the letter’s addressee, Anna Lefroy. His Memoir of Jane Austen includes extracts from the letter.
As any two pages go, these are delightful and rich in information. The letter fits wonderfully well with others in the Museum’s collection: we have two earlier examples from Austen’s visits to London where she stayed with brother Henry, in May 1813 and March 1814. This, from November 1814, the latest of the visits, was written when she was in London to discuss a second edition of her most recent novel, Mansfield Park, with her then publisher Thomas Egerton. The letter is interesting on family detail (widowed Henry’s search for a second wife); on social history (with its insight into how widely letters were communicated—she writes of ‘hearing’ letters sent to others); and it includes an intriguing comment about ‘first Cousins’ being ‘but one remove from B[rothe]r & S[iste]r.’ –which appears to be straight out of Mansfield Park. Our portion ends with Austen’s funny and caustic comment on the actress ‘Miss O’neal’, who played the lead in David Garrick’s Isabella; or, the Fatal Marriage (1776), a performance of which Austen had enjoyed at Covent Garden the evening before. Eliza O’Neill, the stage sensation of the day, was known for her raw acting style and celebrated ability to draw sympathy from her audience. Describing O’Neill’s Belvidera in Otway’s tragedy Venice Preserv’d (1682), a few years later, the theatre critic William Hazlitt remarked on her ‘tears, sighs, convulsive sobs, shrieks, death-like stupefaction, and laughter more terrible than all’ (The Times, December 1817). Alas, Austen proved immune to such feeling, reporting to Anna that ‘I took two Pocket handkerchiefs, but had very little occasion for either. She is an elegant creature however & hugs Mr Younge delightfully’. And so our portion of the letter ends.
Letters are intimate and evocative artefacts, their texts (their words) bound closely to the spaces they fill. We may have all that we know of Austen’s letters in print, though it would not be surprising if the holographs of some that were lost come to light and others yet unknown were discovered. But words alone do not exhaust a letter’s meaning.The object itself holds meaning in its folded and secret spaces. The American poet Emily Dickinson knew quite a bit about letters’ secret spaces. Let me leave you with these lines from a poem of 1862:
The Way I read a Letter’s—this—
‘Tis first—I lock the Door—
And push it with my fingers—next—
For transport it be sure—
And then I go the furthest off
To counteract a knock—
Then draw my little Letter forth
And slowly pick the lock—
Update from Jane Austen’s House Museum: The public fundraising target of £10,000 has been reached for the letter. Thank you for your generous support! We are now finalising the details to secure the letter for the Museum’s collection. We will be sharing more news shortly, so please do stay tuned.