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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Family letters

As we Janeites know to our sorrow, only 160 of Jane Austen’s letters survive, and some of those are filled with details that mean little to us now -- references to private jokes, mysterious events, and unidentified acquaintances, with all context lost to the ravages of time.

So it’s hard not to sigh with jealousy over the news that the Huntington Library in Southern California has recently acquired an annotated archive of nearly four hundred letters exchanged among members of one branch of Austen’s family: the Leighs, relations of the author’s mother, Cassandra Leigh Austen.

The trove of letters, which date from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, was annotated by Molly Leigh, whose father was Theophilus Leigh, the longtime master of Oxford’s Balliol College and a great-uncle of Jane Austen.

“Molly’s notes identify some of the subjects in the family’s letters, offer extra details about the topics discussed in many of the letters, and sometimes even relate what transpired after a letter was sent,” Huntington curator Vanessa Wilkie wrote last month, in a blog post about the acquisition. “In addition to being one of the authors of the archive, she also served as its narrator.”

A twentieth-century Leigh descendant, Gwen Beachcroft, did further organizational work, transcribing and footnoting the letters and adding details about the writers and recipients. The new Leigh Family Archive joins hundreds of other Leigh family papers held by the Huntington, a renowned research library, art museum, and botanical garden located outside Los Angeles.

Alas, the newly acquired Leigh Family Archive -- which will eventually be digitized and made available online -- includes no letters to or from Jane Austen. We’re left to our regrets that the nearer branches of the Austen family included no amateur archivists as zealous as Molly Leigh.

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