Of all the treasures that survive from Jane’s life, her letters give us a unique insight into her daily life and personality.
Jane was a prolific letter writer, and it is estaimated she wrote over 3,000 letters in her lifetime. These were mostly to her sister Cassandra, as they wrote daily to each other when apart. She would always start her letters, ‘My dear Cassandra.’
During the Regency period, writing letters and reading them was key part of social life. Jane usually wrote her letters in the morning after breakfast, and would take them to the Coach House during her afternoon walk into town. She wrote to her brothers often with family news as they were away at sea for months at a time.
As the receiver of the letter paid the postage, Jane would often write down and then across her lines to get as much news as she could into her letter. It would then be carefully folded in, and she would write the address on the middle square on the outside.
Mail carriages transported letters and parcels up and down to London from the countryside two or three times a day, so it was posssible to send a letter in the morning and have the receiver reading it in the afternoon. Letters were treasured and would often be read aloud to a gathered party in the evenings to share news.
Jane often mentions letters in her novels, and uses them as a way of moving the story forward for the reader. In Sense and Sensibility, when Marianne receives a letter from Willoughby, her sister Elinor goes to her to see what it contains.
Jane writes, ‘On opening the door, she [Elinor] saw Marianne stretched on the bed, almost choked by grief, one letter in hand, and two or three other laying by her.’
In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth receives a letter from Mr Darcy after she rejects his proposal of marriage. ‘With the strongest curiosity Elizabeth opened the letter, and, to her increasing wonder, perceived an envelope containing two sheets of letter paper.. the envelope itself was likewise full.’
The fact that the letter was on two sheets of paper and filled the envelope, Jane shows the reader the importance, and weight, of the information inside.
In true Jane Austen style, the letter from Mr Darcy is a long one as he expresses his feelings for her. In one of Jane’s own letters, she apologises to Cassandra for the shortness of the letter, which is actually one of her longest ones!
Unfortunately for us, Cassandra felt that the letters written between her and Jane were too private to share. She burnt them before her death in 1832, and cut pieces out of those she kept, one of which I saw recently that included a few words and Jane’s signature.
From the thousands she wrote, only around 161 have survived.
You can find beautifully illustrated books of Jane Austen’s letters in The Illustrated Letters of Jane Austen selected by Penelope Hughes-Hallett.
A comprehensive compilation of Jane’s letters includes research collected by Deirdre Le Faye are in Jane Austen’s Letters (5th Ed).
Thirteen letters collected by Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton have been reproduced in Jane Austen: The Chawton Letters found at the Bodleian Library Bookshop.
At Project Gutenberg you can read The Letters of Jane Austen, selected from the compilation of her Great Nephew Edward, Lord Brabourne.
Write in Jane’s own handwriting by downloading the Jane Austen Font.
And finally, check if Jane Austen would use a word at her Thesaurus!