Letter from Jane Austen to Cassandra Austen, 4 February 1813

Text by Gill Hornby, author

Pride and Prejudice was published at the end of January, 1813. This letter was written on February 4th. Jane is in Chawton, jittery with the anxieties and excitement that strike any author when a new work is launched; Cassandra – always so supportive, so good at keeping her calm – is, unhelpfully, a full twenty miles away, staying with James and Mary at Steventon.

Cassandra has already written, to say how well the novel is being received over there and the new author is grateful: “your praise…came at a right time”. Jane had just endured the agony of listening to her mother reading it aloud, rather badly, to Miss Benn in the village. She has spotted a printer’s “blunder” or two, and offers the – often quoted – criticism that the work is “too light and bright and sparkling”. But then tempers that with a dig at more serious novels, which divert with some “solemn specious nonsense”. She cannot quite hide her own enormous professional pleasure and satisfaction.

And, with Cassandra, she doesn’t need to. Jane’s situation is complicated: she longs to know how the world is reacting to Pride and Prejudice, without wanting the world to know that she is its author. Her sister is one of the few with whom she can be open, and the one she knows, above all, is on her side. The tone is teasing – “I know your starched notions” – and, as always, intimately chatty.

Cassandra bequeathed this letter to Charles Austen, who passed it on to his granddaughters who sold it. It has been in the Museum since 1969. The second leaf, though, is missing. It ends mid-sentence. Leaving us to wonder: did the rest of it simply get lost over time? Or did it contain some indiscretion that Cassandra did not want others to see?