Deborah Yaffe

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On this day in 1805. . .

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 24 2015 01:00PM

Seventh in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen’s letters.


One of the pleasures of reading Jane Austen’s letters to her beloved older sister, Cassandra, is the picture the correspondence paints of the relaxed, teasing relationship between the siblings. The letter Jane wrote to Cassandra from their brother Edward’s home at Godmersham Park exactly 210 years ago today (#45 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of the letters) is a case in point.


There is the mock insult: “Your going with Harriot was highly approved of by everyone; & only too much applauded as an act of virtue on your part,” Austen writes to Cassandra, who had recently left for an extended visit with Edward’s wife’s sister. “I said all I could to lessen your merit.”


There are the waspish reflections on social acquaintances: “I have discovered that L[ad]y Eliz:[abe]th for a woman of her age & situation, has astonishingly little to say for herself, & that Miss Hatton has not much more.”


And there is the slightly silly, entirely entertaining presentation of humdrum domestic information: “I have found your white mittens, they were folded up within my clean nightcap, & send their duty to you.”


For us, the pleasure of these lines lies in the tiny echoes of the voice we know from the novels: the keen observations of human foolishness, the ordinary-seeming sentences that turn out to have a sting in the tail. But for the Austen sisters, surely, these were just the raw materials out of which they fashioned the most important and sustained relationship of their lives.


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