Cassandra & Jane (a review)

“When I am gone…,” Jill Pitkeathley’s Cassandra Austen muses on the letters written to her by her sister Jane. “When I am gone, perhaps before, they will want them, they will pour over them, examine them in detail and discuss them without limit.” Who would Cassandra’s they have been? She may immediately have thought of family, but how apt that they can be broadened to include, yes, this very reader. For ‘pour over’ and ‘examine’ is exactly what Austen-lovers do with her extant letters. James Edward Austen-Leigh utilized letters in his early biography; Lord Brabourne published (though not entirely verbatim) the letters in his possession; the son and grandson of Austen-Leigh included them in their family biography; Deirdre Le Faye brought out editions of both that biography and the letters themselves. Romanticists invent romances; writers cite Austen’s few references regarding writing and publishing; historians pluck from them pictures of England and London during the reign of George III and the Prince Regent. We all mine Austen’s letters for what they can tell us about what we most want to know, be it her life, her art, her world.

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