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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

On this day in 1808. . .

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

The letter Jane Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 215 years ago today (#54 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) seems to contain an allusion to a mildly scandalous incident—arguably, one of the most dramatic moments of Austen’s largely undramatic life.

Characteristically, however, that allusion is so heavily veiled that modern readers can understand it only by consulting the footnotes.

Austen had been staying for more than a week at Godmersham, her brother Edward’s family home in Kent, and plans called for her to return to Hampshire in July. But complications had arisen, she wrote to Cassandra.

“I have been so kindly pressed to stay longer here, in consequence of an offer of Henry’s to take me back some time in September, that not being able to detail all my objections to such a plan, I have felt myself obliged to give Edw[ar]d & Eliz[abet]th the strength of it, & say no more;--& one can rely on their secrecy,” Austen wrote. “After this, I hope we shall not be disappointed of our Friends’ visit;--my honour, as well as my affection will be concerned in it.”

Objections? Secrecy? Honor? What the heck?

Le Faye’s footnote proposes an explanation: Catherine and Alethea Bigg were the friends expected for a visit back in Southampton, where the Austen sisters were then living. More than five years earlier, in an episode well-known to Janeites, their brother Harris Bigg-Wither had proposed to Austen, who agreed to marry him but changed her mind overnight and withdrew her acceptance the next day.

Despite this mortifying episode, the Austens had managed to maintain their close ties to the Bigg sisters, but even years later, the relationship apparently still needed delicate handling. Austen “may have felt that staying on at Godmersham would look like a deliberate attempt to avoid meeting his sisters,” Le Faye suggests.

It’s hard to be sure, though, since Austen doesn’t spell out the details. Unlike us, Cassandra didn’t need any footnotes.

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