Deborah Yaffe

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The not-so-unseen letter

By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 11 2014 02:00PM

Jane Austen loved her sister Cassandra, and so we Janeites must try to do so as well. But that bonfire makes it hard.


Cassandra Austen lived for nearly twenty-eight years after her sister’s death, and for much of that time she kept and reread Jane’s letters, a poignant indication of how deeply she missed that beloved voice. But shortly before her own death in March 1845, Cassandra burned many of those letters–we can’t know how many–and censored some of those she kept.


Although most of Jane Austen’s correspondents never bothered to keep her letters in the first place–the vast majority of those we do have come from Cassandra’s collection–Janeites can’t help thinking resentfully of how much more we might know if only someone had kept Cassandra from playing with matches.


Hence the brief excitement over a report a few days ago that England’s Torquay Museum was planning to sell a “previously unseen letter” from Jane Austen to her sister. If true, this would have been huge news, even if the letter in question had turned out to be a request that Cassandra pick up a dozen eggs and a bottle of milk. And imagine if it had instead been an account of Austen’s relationship with the mysterious suitor!


Alas, like all things too good to be true, this one isn’t. A glance at the photo accompanying one of the initial reports made clear that the letter, far from “previously unseen,” is #17 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence.


The truth, though sad, seems pretty mundane: a struggling regional museum, facing cuts in government funding, is considering selling off some of its treasures. One of those is a pretty well-known letter from Jane Austen.


So if you have thousands of British pounds sterling just lying around gathering dust, you may want to consider a marquee addition to your Jane Austen collection. You can keep it right next to the Jane Austen Action Figure.


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