• Deborah Yaffe

On this day in 1798. . .

Eightieth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


Nowadays, an unpublished writer can upload her as-yet-unappreciated work to the cloud, keeping her words safe and secure even as she moves from garret to garret. Imagine how much harder it must have been for Jane Austen, who toted hundreds of pages of unknown masterworks through a wide swath of southern England across eight years and multiple household moves. Imagine how easily Pride and Prejudice could have accidentally ended up on a trash heap, instead of on the syllabus of every college course on the development of the novel.


Actually, we don’t have to imagine, because the letter the 22-year-old Jane Austen wrote to her sister exactly 224 years ago today (#9 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) makes clear exactly how such a catastrophe could have happened.


Austen writes to Cassandra from an inn, where Jane and their parents had broken the multi-day journey back home to Hampshire after a visit to the third-oldest Austen son, Edward, in Kent.


“After we had been here a quarter of an hour it was discovered that my writing and dressing boxes had been by accident put into a chaise which was just packing off as we came in, and were driven away towards Gravesend in their way to the West Indies,” Austen writes. Luckily, the crisis was short-lived: The landlord of the inn “immediately despatched a man and horse after the chaise,” Austen continues, “and in half an hour’s time I had the pleasure of being as rich as ever; they were got about two or three miles off.”


What was in that writing-box? The only items Austen mentions to Cassandra are a not-insignificant sum of money and a document that Edward was sending to a Hampshire neighbor. Perhaps the early drafts of Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice were packed in a different box, or had remained safely back home in Steventon during the family vacation. But it’s hard not to shudder at the might-have-beens.


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