Room 6: Letters in fragments/precious relics

Letters come in all shapes and sizes.  Handwritten letters hold more meanings than simply the words they contain.  The text of a letter is bound intimately and tightly to its physical form and to the esteem we feel for its writer. We can even receive a thrill from knowing that a beloved hand once held and wrote upon a particular piece of paper—perhaps a piece that we can, in our turn, touch and hold.  As artefacts, letters carry traces of their writers—traces we might cherish.  Electronic messaging services are convenient and swift communication techniques, but something is lost in the shift to virtual space.

Object 9: ‘Amelia Webster, an interesting & well written Tale’

Here is the thirteen-year-old Jane Austen offering spoof advice on the art of letter writing: make it as short as possible and pretend to have run out of paper. We’ve all done it!

View the original manuscript, owned by the Bodleian Library, Oxford

Object 10: Fragment of a letter written 29 November 1814

Austen’s rising fame through the nineteenth century led adoring fans to write to members of her family asking for specimens of her handwriting.  Very quickly, her written hand became valuable by its rarity.  Her niece Anna Lefroy divided one letter around 1870 into five (possibly more) portions to satisfy enthusiasts.  Two portions, one no more than the date, the other its closing salutation and signature, are now in the British Library; another is in a private collection; another has so far not resurfaced.  After a public campaign and donations big and small from around the world, Jane Austen’s House bought this, the largest portion, in July 2019.

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Click here to read a transcript

Object 11: Mansfield Park, 1814, volume 2, ch. 9

‘My very dear Fanny, you must do me the favour to accept’

These are the opening twelve words of a hasty note to Fanny Price begun by her cousin Edmund Bertram.  The note accompanies his gift of a gold chain for her amber cross. Fanny seizes on the note as the greater treasure of the two.  The narrator pokes gentle fun at teenage Fanny, observing: ‘Two lines more prized had never fallen from the pen of the most distinguished author’.  For Fanny, long starved of love, the tiniest object (even the scrap of a letter) can acquire a wealth of emotional meaning.  It is Fanny alone who invests it with value because of her love for its writer.

Read the extract 📖 or watch the video ↓

Rachel Winters reads this extract from Mansfield Park