Sunday, July 18, 2010

July 18, 2010

Today is the anniversary of Jane Austen's death.

Although she died in 1817, nearly 200 years ago, her books have survived to delight generations of readers and inspire generations of writers. Recently Jane's works have inspired an entirely new subgenre, the paranormal classic. Some Jane Austen enthusiasts (Janeites) feel Jane must be rolling in her grave to see her works so polluted. Michael Thomas Ford, author of Jane Bites Back, imagines Jane as a member of the undead, still attempting to get published. I, for one, feel Jane would be flattered and bemused, not only to see how her work has survived, but to see how we have adapted her stories to reflect our own modern lives and tastes.

Also surviving Jane are a few of the letters she wrote to her sister Cassandra. Although Jane certainly wrote hundreds of letters in her lifetime, Cassandra is known to have burned many of them before her own death in 1845. Cassandra's exact motivation is now unknowable, but many believe she wished to protect the privacy of a dear sister whose moderate level of fame was enough to make people want to pry into her private life. Of the letters that survive, many have passages excised from them, so we can only speculate what cutting observation or personal aside might have been written therein.

I was fortunate enough to have an opportunity to view some of the surviving letters when they were on display at the Morgan Library in New York City. It was a privilege to have the opportunity to read Jane's writing, but one of the most memorable of the exhibit was, in fact, not hers. The most memorable letter was written by Cassandra upon the occasion of Jane's death, to Fanny Knight, their niece. Although I found Regency penmanship difficult to read, and I did not have as much time to study every letter as I wished, I found myself drawn into this particular letter, the full text of which can be read here. This letter, written by a grieving sister, could not help but bring a tear to my eye, even though Jane died more than a century and a half before my birth.

As a self-proclaimed Janeite, and a lifetime member of the Jane Austen Society of North America, I often delight in Jane's works, but today, I find myself thinking of her life, and her death, and mourning a dear friend whom I never had occasion to meet.

1 comment:

  1. We are fortunate to know as much about Jane Austen's life as we do--and that Casandra did not destroy all of her letters. It is so interesting to see her handwriting, and how she wrote both horizontal and vertical lines in her letters to get more in on a single page. But I agree. Of all the letters in the Morgan Library collection, Casandra's to their niece, Fanny, notifying her of Jane's death is the most poignant.