Deborah Yaffe

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On this day in 1808. . .

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 15 2017 01:00PM

Twenty-fourth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


The letter Jane Austen began writing to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 209 years ago today contains nothing very remarkable, as Austen makes clear from its first line: “Where shall I begin?” she wonders. “Which of all my important nothings shall I tell you first?”


Jane and the family of her oldest brother, James, were on a visit to their brother Edward’s large family in Kent; Cassandra had stayed behind in Southampton, where the Austen sisters, their mother and their friend Martha Lloyd were living with the wife and baby of yet another Austen brother, sailor Frank.


The letter (#52 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) rattles on about the weather, the journey, the food at the inn, the doings of neighborhood acquaintances, and the welfare of a legion of nieces and nephews. And Jane encourages Cassandra to send back more of the same. “You know how interesting the purchase of a sponge-cake is to me,” she notes – possibly in jest, but possibly not.


Perhaps the most striking thing about this letter – and about the three successive letters that Jane wrote to Cassandra during the sixteen days between June 15 and July 1 of 1808 – is their sheer bulk. The shortest of the four letters runs to more than 1,500 words; together, all four total more than 6,800.


Publishers today suggest that a novel should comprise roughly 80,000 to 100,000 words; Austen’s own six range from nearly 78,000 words for Northanger Abbey to nearly 160,000 for Mansfield Park.


In other words, in a little over two weeks of correspondence with her sister, Austen wrote the equivalent of 4 to 9 percent of an entire book. By hand! With a quill pen! My wrist aches just thinking about it. And this doesn’t even count the other letters that Austen mentions along the way: Cassandra’s lengthy replies to Jane’s letters (“every page of yours has more lines than this, & every line more words than the average of mine” – letter # 53); their sister-in-law Mary Austen’s letter to her stepdaughter, Anna; Anna’s reply; and a letter from their brother Henry carrying news about Frank.


There are intimations that Austen chafed at all this letter-writing, perhaps because of the time it took away from her creative work: “As to Martha, she had not the least chance in the World of hearing from me again, & I wonder at her impudence in proposing it,” Jane writes to Cassandra in letter #55. “I assure you I am as tired of writing long letters as you can be. What a pity that one should still be so fond of receiving them!”


But what’s clear is that these women – with an occasional assist from their brothers and husbands – performed the time-consuming, labor-intensive and crucial job of sustaining connections of family and friendship across geographical distances that were far harder to surmount than they are today. It was tedious, unglamorous, unsung work, surely taken for granted by the men in their lives and perhaps by the women themselves. But it was work nonetheless.


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