Last year, the Huntington Library in Southern California announced the acquisition of an annotated trove of nearly four hundred letters exchanged among members of the Leigh family, relatives of Jane Austen’s mother, Cassandra Leigh Austen.
Now the library has produced a promotional video that offers a glimpse of the collection for those of us who don’t live near enough for a visit. It’s a tantalizingly brief journey through several centuries of elegant handwriting, from the adorable block printing of an eighteenth-century five-year-old writing to her father to the careful lettering of a twentieth-century family historian who painstakingly copied out and footnoted her ancestors’ correspondence.
The collection doesn’t include any letters to or from Jane Austen herself--if only!--and although the Huntington's video is titled “Letters from Jane Austen’s Mom,” an online search of the digitized holdings suggests that the archive also contains no, um, letters from Jane Austen’s mom.
Still, the Huntington’s archivists are clearly—and rightly--delighted by their cache, which, they point out, can offer valuable context for understanding the world that produced Austen’s novels.
“Austen scholars, in particular, are quite voracious for any window into her wider life,” Huntington senior curator Vanessa Wilkie says, with notable understatement. “And because so many of her books are about gender politics and about family relations and multi-generational family relations, her own family archive can help create a framework to think with when reading her novels.”