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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

On this day in 1817. . .

Fourth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen’s letters

The letter-like document that Jane Austen addressed to her sister, Cassandra, on April 27 of 1817 – exactly 198 years ago today – is especially poignant. Ailing for months, Austen must have known that her death was imminent, and so she penned a brief “last Will & Testament” (#158 in Deirde Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s letters).

The will bears witness to the paucity of Jane Austen’s material wealth. Only three people are named as legatees.

Fifty pounds apiece go to Austen’s fourth-oldest brother, Henry, her sometime literary agent, whose banking business had failed a year earlier, taking his fortune with it; and to Françoise Bigeon, a Frenchwoman who, according to Claire Tomalin’s Austen biography, worked for Austen’s cousin, Eliza de Feuillide, both before and after Eliza’s marriage to Henry and then continued in Henry’s employ after Eliza’s death.

To Cassandra, “my dearest Sister,” Austen left the rest of her worldly goods: “every thing of which I may die possessed, or which may be hereafter due to me.”

At the time of Austen’s death, this amounted to a modest sum, and the long-ago expiration of her copywrights ensures that no surviving descendants of the Austen clan can profit from her posthumous celebrity.

Still, it’s an evocative phrase, “every thing. . . which may be hereafter due to me.” Take it metaphorically, as encompassing a fair return for all the joy, insight and wisdom that Jane Austen has given those of us who love her works, and it amounts to quite a lot.


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