On this day in 1813. . .
By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 3 2017 01:00PM
Twenty-fifth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.
Jane Austen wrote for money.
Not only for money, of course – she began writing as an adolescent, long before she had a chance of getting published, and kept going despite rejection and disappointment that must have sometimes made her wonder if anyone besides her family would ever read a word of her books.
But make no mistake about it: She wanted to be paid for her work, and she liked it very, very much when she was. Although her relations, with their genteel squeamishness about women and work, sometimes tried to pretend she gave no thought to pecuniary considerations, her letters make clear that she did. And who can blame her? It’s satisfying to earn a small measure of independence and self-sufficiency through hard work well done.
That sense of satisfaction comes through loud and clear in the postscript to the letter that Jane Austen began writing to her older sailor brother, Frank, exactly 204 years ago today (#86 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).*
“You will be glad to hear that every copy of S.&S. is sold & that it has brought me £140—besides the Copyright, if that shd ever be of any value,” Jane writes to Frank. “I have now therefore written myself into £250.—which only makes me long for more.”
What would Austen have thought if she could have known how valuable the copyright of Sense and Sensibility would indeed become? On the strength of this letter, I’d guess she would have kicked herself for dying too soon to get a piece of that action.
* It’s one of only a handful of surviving letters to Frank: Although he kept his sister’s letters throughout his long life, preserving them even as he captained ships and participated in naval battles, his youngest daughter destroyed them soon after his death in 1865, at the age of ninety-one. So while we’re hating on Cassandra Austen for burning or censoring her letters from her sister, let’s spare a little vitriol for Frances Sophia Austen, who never even knew her Aunt Jane but nevertheless took it upon herself to destroy a priceless part of our cultural heritage.
Now that the comments are functioning here again, I'd like to weigh in on this post. (Better late than never.) I agree that Fanny Sophia is greatly to blame for her wholesale destruction of JA's remaining letters to Frank--but Frank himself should come in for a raspberry or two, as he began cutting up his letters from JA for autograph seekers in midcentury. (The signature owned by my friend Edith Lank is from one of these letters. It's #83 in the Le Faye editions.)
And here's a bouquet for someone who, IMO, never gets credit for what she did: Cassandra Esten Austen, Charles's oldest daughter. Despite apparently having been a bit of a handful as a child (JA once called her "that puss Cassy"), she was Cassandra's executrix, and seems to have performed her duties scrupulously--seeing to it that the letters and writings Cassandra had designated for various relatives went to the recipients C specified. About all I know about Cassandra Esten otherwise is that she died unmarried in her late 80s (as per the D. Le Faye Chronology). I'd love to know more.
Thanks, Marie -- I didn't know all that about Cassy Esten! The unsung work of so many women is crucial to carrying on our cultural legacies. . .
As for Frank: Well, I cut him a bit of a break since he was trying to be nice to early Janeites. Presumably he just thought he was dealing with letters from his kid sister, not priceless cultural treasures.