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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

A controversial rarity

Because Jane Austen’s letters are such rare and precious gems, it’s semi-big news whenever one of the extant 160(ish) turns up on exhibition–let alone when the letter in question is a doozy, like the one currently on display at Jane Austen’s House in Chawton.

The letter, which the 22-year-old Jane Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, on October 27-28, 1798–it’s #10 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence–contains the most controversial and reviled passage in Austen’s oeuvre. (Or so I once claimed, and I stand by that judgment.)

It’s the infamous dead-baby joke: “Mrs Hall of Sherbourn was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, oweing to a fright.—I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband.” Hilarious or horrid? You decide. I’m on Team Hilarious.

Jane Austen’s House, which recently acquired the letter from the estate of a Cambridge collector, has put it on display through October 29, as part of a small exhibition entitled “My Dear Cassandra. . .” The exhibition, intended to mark the 250th anniversary of Cassandra Austen’s birth on January 9, 1773, also includes Cassandra’s handwritten copy of the Sanditon fragment; the “Winchester Races” poem Jane dictated on her deathbed; and Cassandra’s heartbreakingly beautiful letter to her niece Fanny Knight, written just days after Jane’s death.

If you can’t make it to Chawton this year, an online version of the show can be viewed here. But nothing beats the rare and precious experience of seeing a Jane Austen letter up close.


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