• Deborah Yaffe

On this day in 1817. . .

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


The letter that Jane Austen wrote to her 11-year-old niece Caroline exactly 205 years ago today (#154 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) is filled with charm and good humor.


“You will receive a message from me Tomorrow; & today you will receive the parcel itself; therefore I should not like to be in that Message’s shoes, it will look so much like a fool,” Austen begins. Then she goes on to congratulate Caroline on the progress of her fiction-writing, share some tidbits of family news, and report on a recent payment of royalties for Sense and Sensibility. Austen concludes by sending Caroline regards from the family pianoforte, which “will be happy to see you whenever you can come.”


All in all, it’s a virtuoso performance of Good Aunt-ness, which is no surprise, given the fondness with which Austen’s many nieces and nephews remembered her. What’s remarkable about the letter is its timing: Austen produced this eloquent performance of lightness and good cheer only four days before she became too ill to continue writing fiction.


During the early weeks of 1817, Austen had begun work on Sanditon, that tantalizing story of intrigue at an up-and-coming seaside resort. But on March 18, she wrote a last sentence, dated her page, and never went back to the project. The cheerful note to Caroline is the last extant Austen letter written before that sad milestone


Jane Austen had been writing fiction steadily since she was Caroline’s age; giving it up, exactly four months before her death, must have been a wrenching loss necessitated by intense physical suffering. But nothing in this letter betrays Austen’s pain. For her young correspondent’s sake, she chose joy.

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