Jane Austen: Letters to Cassandra

While continuing to keep up with the A Month of Letters challenge (now successfully completed), I have been browsing the bookshelves to remind myself what letter collections I have tucked away. Possibly one of the most famous letter writers in literary history was Jane Austen, whose main correspondent was her elder sister Cassandra. Perhaps it is more correct to say that, Austen’s letters to her sister have survived, whereas others have been lost (Cassandra destroyed many letters before her own death in 1845). After Cassandra’s death, the surviving letters passed to her great niece Fanny Knight and in due course, Fanny’s son published these letters in 1884.Jane Austen Letters

It is a sample of these letters that are published in My Dear Cassandra: Letters to her Sister (selected and introduced by Penelope Hughes-Hallett). The book is fully illustrated and features notes to contextualise the letters and excerpts from Austen’s fiction. It is a lovely book to own, though I have to confess that I do not remember when or from where I bought my copy. This collection was published as a hardback gift edition for Past Times in 1990 (paperback 1991) and it is clearly not intended to be a comprehensive, scholarly edition. However, as an introduction to Jane Austen, her letters and her world it is an excellent choice. As you start to read, you can see how Austen garnered the material for the novels yet to come. The reader can follow up references for further biographical reading, although this edition pre-dates Claire Tomalin and David Nokes’ biographies of Jane Austen (1997).

As you might suppose, this collection of letters has lain on The Landing TBR Pile for some years, so it is about time that I perused a few of the letters. I did not intend to read straight through, but of course, as the letters are presented chronologically, you read on to find out what happened next, as in any good novel. Not surprisingly, there are gaps in the story however, when they didn’t exchange the twice-weekly letters, due to being together. For instance, from 1801- 1805, there is more need of contextual prose in the absence of original letters, to keep the continuity of events flowing. The sisters corresponded when one or other was away on the extended family visits and duties that were common in that period. The one thing that is hard to appreciate is the frequency with which letters were delivered in the 1800s. We think that we are well connected now, but it is amazing to think that you could once have had an evening postal delivery. Back Cover Illustration

The problem with reading someone else’s letters is that you are peeking into to a different life and don’t know the dramatis personae. Add to that, a different century and an alien social milieu and even with the helpful notes (and they can inevitably only go so far) it can be difficult to put flesh on the incidents and people mentioned. Even so, what comes over is that Jane Austen was an observant student of human nature and enjoyed regaling her sister with various goings-on. She clearly had a great affection for family and friends but she enjoyed poking fun at various people.

Sometimes there seems to be a sharp contrast between her mocking of acquaintances, and her affectionate regard for her family. This letter from 1798, has an almost cruel throwaway comment about a neighbour, yet displays doting affection for her three-year-old nephew:

Mrs Hall, of Sherborne, was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, owing to a fright. I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband.

We are very glad to hear such a good account of your patients, little and great. My dear itty Dordy’s remembrance of me is very pleasing to me – foolishly pleasing, because I know it will be over so soon. My attachment to him will be more durable. I shall think with tenderness and delight on his beautiful and smiling countenance and interesting manners till a few years have turned him into an ungovernable, ungracious fellow.

Her trademark humour is there in the line about the likelihood of the boy growing up much changed, but it is not as barbed as her comment about the bereaved Mrs Hall. I wonder what this woman was to Jane Austen that she felt the need to be so flippant. Maybe however, this was merely misfired humour in a family letter, which would never have seen the light of day if its author had not become famous. In a later letter, Jane Austen writes of how amusing Cassandra’s latest letter was, so I cannot help wishing that I could read it too. I assume that Cassandra’s letters were lost, but I have not researched this yet.

Inside TextTo finish, I will give you a snapshot of Austen’s experience at a dance in 1799, which conjures up vivid impressions of her fictional country balls:

I do not think I was very much in request. People were rather apt not to ask me till they could not help it; one’s consequence, you know, varies so much at times without any particular reason. There was one gentleman, an officer of the Cheshire, a very good-looking young man, who, I was told, wanted very much to be introduced to me; but as he did not want it quite enough to take much trouble in effecting it, we never could bring it about.

I wonder whether this young man regretted in later years, that he could not boast of having once danced with the famous author. How does that song go, ‘I’ve danced with a man, who’s danced with a girl, who’s danced with the Prince of Wales’ (Herbert Farjeon, 1927).

I definitely have more letters stashed away on The Landing, so perhaps I will have another delve later in the year. I don’t really need the excuse of A Month of Letters to read other people’s letters. Meanwhile, I will have a root around for the subject of my next blog post…



Serendipity: Jane Austen, a family letter and Somerset Maugham

While I was over visiting my parents before Christmas, I had my usual riffle through their bookshelves in search of old friends. I came across a book that I had completely forgotten leaving behind. (Or did I lend it to someone?) The book in question was Almost Another Sister: The Story of Fanny Knight, Jane Austen’s Favourite Niece by Margaret Wilson (George Mann Books, 1998) which I see from my note on the flyleaf that I actually bought in the year of publication.

Fanny Knight book

The picture on the cover is Fanny’s childhood home, Godmersham Park

In the previous year were published biographies of Jane Austen by Claire Tomalin and David Nokes so I was well into Austen family history by the time I bought the Fanny Knight book. I can’t remember how I came to hear of it, but I must have ordered it especially as it wasn’t published by a mainstream publisher. The book represents the extensive research of archivist and former teacher Margaret Wilson, who embarked on a study of Fanny Knight while working at the Centre for Kentish Studies (formerly the Archives Office).

Frances (Fanny) Knight (1793-1882) was the daughter of Jane Austen’s elder brother Edward who had the good fortune to gain a benefactor in Thomas Knight, a wealthy cousin. He made Edward heir to his estates on condition that Edward took the family name. By the time that Edward took the name of Knight, his daughter Fanny was a young woman of nineteen. It must have been strange for her to change from Austen to Knight, given that she probably anticipated changing name yet again on marriage. In 1820, when she was twenty-seven, Fanny married Sir Edward Knatchbull a widower with five children. The couple went on to have a further nine children.

Margaret Wilson has delved into family archives, Fanny Knight’s diaries and surviving letters to paint what she calls a ‘cameo’ rather than a ‘full biography’. This is due to the patchy nature of the available sources, such as the brief diary entries and scraps enclosed which the author describes thus: ‘The overall effect is of a multitude of minutiae, like tiny fragments of a jigsaw picture which is too complex ever to complete in full yet offers tantalising glimpses of the finished scene’. Nevertheless, the book is a fascinating account of a life that bridged two centuries and saw many changes as the Regency period gave way to the Victorian age.

As Fanny grew up, she visited and corresponded with Jane and her sister Cassandra. There was a strong connection between the branches of the Austen family, Jane in Hampshire and Fanny’s family in Kent. Apparently, Fanny was particularly close to Aunt Jane, though sadly not many of their letters survive. A quote from one of Jane’s letters to Cassandra gives an idea of how fond Jane was of Fanny:

A young Fanny Knight

A Young Fanny Knight

I am greatly pleased with your account of Fanny; I found her in the summer just what you describe, almost another sister – and could not have supposed that a niece would ever have been so much to me. She is quite after one’s own heart; … I always think of her with pleasure.

At this point you are probably wondering where Somerset Maugham fits into the picture. It is simple (and highly serendipitous). I was skimming through the bibliography of Fanny Knight when I came across mention of a collection of essays by Maugham, Ten Novels and their Authors. (1954, Pan Macmillan 1978). This sounded familiar so I had a root around on the shelves (in the living room, not in the landing ones this time) and lo and behold, I unearthed the very book. I had picked it up at a second-hand bookstall in Wexford a couple of years ago and never got around to reading it since.

Maugham has an essay on Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice, which he feels to be her best book. His collection of essays has its origins in a challenge issued to him (by the editor of a journal called Redbook) to pick out the ten greatest novels in the world. Maugham comments ‘Of course my list was arbitrary. I could have made one of ten other novels, just as good in their different ways as those I chose, and give just as sound reasons for selecting them’. But he goes on to speculate that if a hundred readers produced a similar list, selecting perhaps two or three hundred novels, then ‘I think that in all the lists most of those I have chosen would find a place’. 

Fanny Knight in later life

Fanny Knight (Lady Knatchbull)

Margaret Wilson makes use of Maugham for his discussion of a particular letter that Fanny Knight wrote to one of her sisters many years after Jane Austen’s death. If you are a clued-up Austen fan, you will know to what letter I refer, as Margaret Wilson says that ‘Fanny has acquired a poor reputation’ because of the much-debated letter. In this much quoted letter, Fanny is clearly responding to a query or alluding to a previous conversation about her late aunt when, in 1869 she writes,

Yes my love it is very true that Aunt Jane from various circumstances was not so refined as she ought to have been from her talent, & if she had lived 50 years later she would have been in many respects more suitable to our more refined tastes. They were not rich, & the people around with whom they chiefly mixed, were not at all high bred, or in short anything more than mediocre & they of course though superior in mental powers & cultivation were on the same level so far as refinement goes – …

Both Maugham and Wilson quote the offending passages and Wilson also includes the remainder of the letter in an appendix. The discussions about what Fanny did or did not mean by her remarks are interesting. It was all new to me as I had never heard about these criticisms of Aunt Jane. Key to understanding the letter seems to be the changing social times and also Fanny’s social elevation as the result of her marriage. I was amused by Maugham’s reflection that, ‘It is regrettable, but it is a fact, that children do not look upon their parents, or their relations belonging to another generation, with the same degree of affection as their parents, or relations, look upon them. Parents and relations are very unwise to expect it’. In other words he is, perhaps wisely, not particularly surprised that Fanny should be rather mean about the aunt who cared for her so much.

Ten Novels

A bargain in 1978 at 90p!

I would love to have Jane Austen’s thoughts on the offending letter. I am sure that would be worth reading! Since that is an impossibility I will have to make do with reading more of Maugham’s literary criticism. I feel sure that he would be a good subject for a further blog post as he has plenty to say on the art of fiction. Perhaps my new TBR Challenge should explore all of the lit crit lurking around on The Landing!

Any thoughts?