Last Sunday I pretended to be Cassandra Austen, sister of the famous writer. I was on a panel of “siblings” at the Denver/Boulder regional meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America. We panelists fielded questions from our members regarding the sibs-four of the brothers and one sister.
The most compelling question for me as Cassandra was, of course, “Why did you destroy the letters?” What I wanted to say was, “It’s complicated!” But as Cassie, I couldn’t. So, here’s what I actually said:
“Jane and I had a habit of ‘censoring’ each other’s letters when we shared them with the family-leaving out sections when we read them out loud. We both desired this holding back of details meant for ourselves alone.
“I lived 28 years after Jane’s death, thus allowing me a great deal of time to decide what to do with her letters. I destroyed many of them due to their personal and private content. This is what Jane would have wanted. Some were written during periods of great stress, such as the aftermath of the family’s decision to move to Bath; others contained remarks which may have been hurtful to others.
“Jane never desired fame. She wanted recognition, to be taken seriously as a writer, but never fame. Publishing her most private and personal correspondence would have been disgusting to her.”
Other than her correspondence with Cassandra, Jane Austen’s surviving letters are mainly to her nieces and nephews, and a few to friends. Not one to her mother or father. None to Henry, her favorite brother, and the one who helped publish her novels not only in her lifetime, but also after her death. She didn’t live to see Persuasion and Northanger Abbey in print; Cassandra and Henry made certain that the world would have all her work. And we are eternally grateful!
One poignant image I haven’t been able to get out of my mind: Henry riding alongside the carriage carrying Jane Austen and Cassandra to Winchester, Jane’s final journey. Apparently it rained throughout the 16 mile trip. How appropriate.