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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Cassandra's grief

Cassandra Austen gets a bad rap from Janeites. As I’ve noted before, many of us just can’t forgive her for burning who-knows-how-many of Jane Austen’s letters, depriving us of untold biographical insights.

But it’s a letter written by Cassandra herself (#CEA/3 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) that’s in the Janeite spotlight at the moment. Jane Austen’s House Museum, the cottage at Chawton where Austen spent the last six years of her life, is raising money to buy one of Cassandra’s three extant letters (the other two are in New York’s Morgan Library & Museum).

The letter, dated July 29, 1817 – eleven days after Jane Austen’s death – is currently on loan to the museum, which has until July to raise 10,000 British pounds towards its purchase. According to the BBC, the 20,000-pound balance of the purchase price has already been contributed by Britain’s Heritage Lottery Fund.

The letter makes clear that, despite Cassandra’s bonfire, there’s no doubting the depth of her affection for her brilliant sister – “the dear Angel,” as Cassandra calls her here.

Writing to Fanny Knight, the eldest of the Austen nieces, Cassandra describes the day of Jane’s funeral and offers to send Fanny a piece of jewelry made with her dead aunt’s hair.

But mostly Cassandra writes movingly of her grief, which she is palpably struggling to bring under the command of her religious faith.

“Of course those employments suit me best which leave me most at leisure to think of her I have lost & I do think of her in every variety of circumstance. In our happy hours of confidential intercourse, in the chearful family party, which she so ornamented, in her sick room, on her death bed & as (I hope) an inhabitant of Heaven,” Cassandra writes. “Oh! If I may one day be reunited to her there!”

And then she poignantly expresses that familiar paradox of grief, the pain whose diminution is another kind of pain: “I know the time must come when my mind will be less engrossed by her idea, but I do not like to think of it.”

Whatever you think of Cassandra, it’s a letter that belongs in the museum’s permanent collection, and I hope Janeites around the world will make the acquisition possible.

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