• Deborah Yaffe

On this day in 1813. . .

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


Sometimes you read a famous author’s correspondence and wonder if these allegedly private letters, with their clever turns of phrase, poetic descriptive passages, or eloquent political opinions, were composed with an eye to eventual publication.


And sometimes you read Jane Austen’s letters and know for sure that they weren’t.


Case in point: The letter Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 209 years ago today (#95 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


Jane was on an extended visit to Godmersham, the palatial Kent estate of the third-oldest Austen brother, Edward; the previous day, she reported to Cassandra, the siblings had made a day trip to the nearby-ish city of Canterbury.


“He went to inspect the Gaol, as a visiting Magistrate, & took me with him,” Austen writes. “I was gratified--& went through all the feelings which People must go through I think in visiting such a Building.”


Jane Austen, one of the sharpest observers of human behavior ever to pick up a pen, visits a local jail and, in describing what she saw and how it affected her, tells us . . . absolutely nothing. “All the feelings which people must go through”? Such as what? Anger at lawbreakers, or at the unfairness of what passed for justice in nineteenth-century Britain? Horror at crime, or at the conditions of confinement? Stern delight in seeing wrongdoing punished, or there-but-for-the-grace-of-God compassion for human frailty? Austen’s truncated anecdote is so tantalizing and incomplete that at least one writer has built an entire novel around it.


If Austen had ever contemplated a future in which her ardent fans would hang on her every word, hungry for even scraps of information about her life’s experiences, surely she could have done better than this.

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