• Deborah Yaffe

On this day in 1796. . .

Seventy-ninth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


In December of 1775, the Rev. George Austen wrote to a relative announcing the birth of his seventh child -- a girl who would be, he predicted, “a present plaything for her sister Cassy and a future companion.”


The father’s vision of the future came true, for Jane Austen adored her only sister, Cassandra, nearly three years older. When they were children, according to their nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh’s 1870 Memoir of Jane Austen, their mother joked that “if Cassandra were going to have her head cut off, Jane would insist on sharing her fate.” As adults, without husbands or children of their own, the sisters lived together, weathering family tragedy and genteel poverty. And when Jane’s death finally parted them, Cassandra paid tribute to their closeness, calling her sister “the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow.”


But before that grief came plenty of happiness, as is clear from the letter that the 20-year-old Jane wrote to Cassandra exactly 226 years ago today (#4 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


“The letter which I have this moment received from you has diverted me beyond moderation,” Austen writes from Rowling House in Kent, where she was visiting the Austens’ brother Edward and his family. “I could die of laughter at it, as they used to say at school. You are indeed the finest comic writer of the present age.”


High praise, coming as it did from the person who really was the finest comic writer of the age.


Alas, Cassandra’s letter doesn’t survive, so it’s impossible to know what Austen found so diverting in her sister’s account of the news back home in Steventon, or whether Cassandra’s literary gifts would seem equally apparent to a reader who didn’t love her like a devoted sister.

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