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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

On this day in 1808. . .

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

Novelists are a ruthless bunch. They find grist for their imaginative mill—“material,” to use the technical term--in every occasion, no matter how tragic or personal. They turn the people they meet into characters and sometimes care more about their characters than about the people they meet. Every lived moment is a scene in the making.

These novelistic impulses are on display in the letter that Jane Austen finished writing to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 215 years ago today (#59 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).

The circumstances could hardly have been more tragic: Less than a week earlier, the Austens’ sister-in-law Elizabeth Bridges Austen, the wife of their older brother Edward, had died suddenly, twelve days after giving birth to her eleventh child. Cassandra was staying with the bereaved family in Kent, while Jane, back home in Southampton, sent on family news, condolences from friends, and reassurances that Cassandra’s mourning clothes were in the mail.

But even in this extremity, Austen couldn’t completely rein in her imagination. “That you are for ever in our Thoughts, you will not doubt,” she wrote to Cassandra. “I see your mournful party in my mind’s eye under every varying circumstance of the day;--& in the Even[in]g especially, figure to myself its’ sad gloom—the efforts to talk—the frequent summons to melancholy orders & cares--& poor Edward restless in Misery going from one room to the other--& perhaps not seldom upstairs to see all that remains of his Elizabeth.”

From the stilted conversation to the restless pacing of the devastated husband, it's a detailed, affecting scene—and an entirely fictional one, albeit likely based on an intimate knowledge of Edward’s household. Even while joining her family in their shock and grief, Austen can’t help holding herself just a little bit apart, enough to sketch a portrait of a family experiencing shock and grief.

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