I’m sure others have been struck by this paragraph from Pride and Prejudice (see quote below), and wondered if perhaps it gives us a clue about how Cassandra was able to locate the many letters from Jane that she would destroy, for the majority of those that survived are innocuous and mundane. They reveal very little about the author’s observations and feelings about her family and friends, politics, and religion.
Cassandra, who outlived Jane by 26 years, kept her sister’s letters to reread during her lifetime. This gave her enough time to decide what to do with them. She burned most of Jane’s letters shortly before her death, redistributing the remaining few among friends and family.
Of the approximately 160 letters that survive from Jane, 95 were written to Cassandra. None of the letters Jane wrote to her parents survive, and very few to her brothers (none to Henry, her favorite brother). To be fair to Cassandra, who has been vilified by many for burning so many of Jane’s letters, it was the custom in those days to destroy such casual correspondence (much like we delete emails today).
When they read their missives out loud to the family, the Austen sisters had a habit of censoring each other’s letters and leaving out sections that were meant to remain private. Jane might have given us a clue in Pride and Prejudice on how Cassandra was able to go through thousands of letters and locate information that she was unwilling to pass down for posterity. In some instances Cassandra cut out the offending sentence, but generally she destroyed the entire letter. How did she know where to cut out only one sentence or passage?
This scene, in which Lydia has joined Colonel and Mrs. Foster in Brighton, gives us a clue:
When Lydia went away she promised to write very often and very minutely to her mother and Kitty, but her letters were always long expected and always very short. Those to her mother contained little else than that they were just returned from the library, where such and such officers had attended them, and where she had seen such beautiful ornaments as made her quite wild; that she had a new gown or a new parasol, which she would have described more fully, but was obliged to leave off in a violent hurry, as Mrs Forster called her and they were going to the camp; and from her correspondence with her sister there was still less to be learned, for her letters to Kitty, though rather longer, were much too full of lines under the words to be made public.
Note how Kitty could not reveal the words and sentences that Lydia had underscored with lines, even to the family. Did Jane use such a system with Cassandra to keep her private thoughts only for her sister? I’m curious to know.
- Jane Austen’s Writing Sloping Desk
- Ladies of the Regency: Women of Letters
- Cassandra Elizabeth Austen: protector or vandal of Jane Austen’s legacy