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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

On this day in 1813. . .

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

Exactly 209 years ago today, Jane Austen wrote a letter to her brother Frank, or perhaps to his wife. And . . . we have no idea what it said.

The letter (#83 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) survives only as a scrap bearing a date and Austen’s signature – a scrap that, decades after his sister’s death, Frank sent to an aristocrat seeking an Austen letter for a friend’s autograph collection.

“I have several letters of hers in my possession, but not one that I could feel justified in parting with,” Frank wrote to Lord William FitzRoy in 1841, as quoted in Le Faye’s endnotes. “I send you however her Signature such as she usually wrote it when she used (which she rarely did) more than her initials.”

From the autograph collector, the scrap eventually made its way to Edith Lank, a New York Janeite whom I interviewed for my book Among the Janeites. Indeed, it’s only because of Frank’s willingness to partially mutilate his dead sister’s correspondence by slicing off a signature — special-collections librarians everywhere are grimacing in pain at the very thought -- that we know this letter even existed.

An untold number of other Austen letters in Frank’s possession did not long survive his death, at the age of ninety-one: “Although Frank had carefully preserved the letters that Jane had written to his first wife Mary Gibson, his youngest daughter Fanny-Sophia had destroyed them all, following his death in 1865, without consulting anyone else beforehand,” according to Deirdre Le Faye’s 1989 revision of Jane Austen: A Family Record.

As I’ve noted in the past (for example, here, here, and here), Janeites tend to resent Cassandra Austen’s late-life decision to torch her sister’s surviving letters. But most of the extant Austen correspondence comes to us precisely because of Cassandra, who kept her letters from Jane while God-knows-how-many other recipients were using theirs to line birdcages.

The tantalizing half-life of Letter #83 – glimpsed, but only just, through the scrim of two centuries – is a salutary reminder to be grateful to Cassandra for what we have.

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