Deborah Yaffe

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Life imitates Northanger Abbey

By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 14 2019 01:00PM

The bitterest pill that Janeites must swallow is the knowledge that Cassandra Austen kept dozens – nay, perhaps hundreds! – of her sister Jane’s letters for decades after the novelist’s untimely death, only to burn them in 1843, two years before Cassandra herself died.


We cannot forgive her.


It doesn’t matter how often we remind ourselves that most of the Austen letters that have come down to us are extant only because Cassandra lovingly preserved them. It doesn’t matter that Austen must have written hundreds of letters to other relatives and friends who apparently used those precious documents to line their birdcages and light their fires within moments of reading them. It doesn’t even matter that the greater sin may well have been that of Austen’s officious niece Fanny-Sophia, who waited until the 1865 death of her father, Austen’s older brother Francis, to incinerate the letters from Jane that he had carefully preserved for half a century.


No, we can’t forgive Cassandra. We can’t forgive her because we value every scrap of information about Jane Austen, and because those scraps are so few. But we also can’t forgive her because we assume that she must have destroyed the good stuff – the revelations about love affairs and political opinions and family scandals that are markedly absent from most of Austen’s surviving correspondence. After all, Cassandra was Jane’s closest friend and confidante! If there was good stuff to be had, surely Cassandra must have been privy to it!


Last month, however, we got a salutary reminder that just because something is missing doesn’t mean that it’s incendiary. Six previously missing lines from an 1813 letter Jane wrote to Cassandra turned up in an autograph album auctioned two years ago – and they concern . . . sheets and towels.


"By the time you get this, I hope George & his party will have finished their Journey,” Austen wrote from London, at the end of what is now known as Letter #87 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence. “God bless you all. I have given Mde. B. my Inventory of the linen, & added 2 round towels to it by her desire. She has shewn me all her storeplaces, & will shew you & tell you all the same. Perhaps I may write again by Henry."


I am by no means the first to notice the life-imitates-art similarity of this whole episode to Catherine Morland’s realization that the mysterious manuscript she has discovered in the Northanger Abbey cabinet is nothing but a washing-bill. Like Catherine, we Janeites have to confront the sad fact that, most of the time, daily life includes more laundry than scandal.


So did Cassandra destroy the good stuff, or just a bunch of old laundry lists? We’ll never know – and for that we’ll never forgive her.


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