A Fragment of a Letter in Jane Austen’s Hand

Image of a two-page manuscript letter

Contributor: Kathryn Sutherland

Location: Jane Austen’s House, Chawton, Hampshire, England

Description: This fragment is a single leaf, pages 1 and 2 (20 + 20 lines; 281 words) of a letter bifolium, of which the second leaf is missing. The paper is weak at the original folds, with a short tear at the head. There is no signature, no date, and no address. An origin-address and date [‘From Hans Place | Nov. 29 1814’] have been added in pencil in another hand at the upper edge of page 1. The ink (iron gall) is bright, showing little evidence of light exposure. Written in Jane Austen’s clear, round hand, the leaf corresponds to the first section of Letter 112 in the authoritative Oxford edition. Austen writes from her brother Henry’s London home to her niece Anna Lefroy. The fragment opens ‘I am very much obliged to you, my dear Anna’; it ends at the foot of page 2 with the words: ‘& hugs Mr Younge delightfully’. In between, Austen discusses her social life during a London stay that includes a disappointing trip to the theatre (‘I fancy I want something more than can be. Acting seldom satisfies me. I took two Pocket handkerchiefs, but had very little occasion for either’). These two pages are a resilient survival of an act of loving destruction, representing the largest part of a four-page letter, dismembered for keepsakes, into at least five portions, one of which is now lost; two are in the British Library’s Charnwood Autograph Collection; and a further portion was sold at Sotheby’s into private hands on 11 July 2017, at which time the present portion failed to sell. We might see the dismemberment, private, and public fortunes of this letter as an expression in miniature of the fate and import of Austen’s letters, and indeed celebrity authors’ letters, more generally.

The only evidence we have of Austen speaking/writing in her own voice, we know she must have written several thousand letters. Cassandra Austen, her sister and chief correspondent, destroyed most of those she had received, dividing those she kept as mementoes among brothers, nieces, nephews. At the latest count, the texts of 161 letters survive in print; but the holographs of several are untraceable since they were first published in the late nineteenth century. Of those known to survive, the bulk are in North American institutions (the Morgan Library, New York, having the lion’s share); around 30 remain in private hands; and some, though remarkably few, are held, secure for the nation, in British institutions. Of 28 pre-1801 letters represented in print, 7 are now untraceable, and only 3 are in British public collections.

We cannot be sure when Letter 112 was dismembered; possibly around 1870, the date of the first full-length biography, written by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, brother to the letter’s addressee, Anna Lefroy. His Memoir of Jane Austen includes an extract. Short vertical pencil lines within the text on page 2 show the portion marked up at this time for inclusion: a fragment of this fragment. As printed in full in modern editions, however, the letter’s principal source is not Austen’s holograph but a copy made before the original’s dismemberment.

From the late eighteenth century, the handwriting of celebrated authors confirmed the link with personality and biography. Supported by the work of Johann Kaspar Lavater and other grapho-physiognomists, the view was precisely modern: letter formations, like facial expressions, offering clues from which to read character. Soon autograph hunting was a widespread amateur enthusiasm, contributing to the formation of a democratic celebrity culture across Europe: in possessing the autograph you possess a little of the prestige of its author. A modern equivalent is a selfie with a celebrity. Such specimen bagging had the adverse effect of scattering collections. Built from shards and fragments, autograph collections are not invulnerable to the same fate; hunting and swapping specimens, collectors flirt continuously with disorder and destruction. Incorporating personal letters from Byron into his printed recollections of 1828, Leigh Hunt remarked ‘The absence of the signature to this letter, as to others, is owing to my having given it away’ (Hunt, 154). The signature (even better if dated) early exceeded in its value other signs of the writer’s hand; hence the number of nineteenth-century letters stripped, like Letter 112, of their subscriptions.

Austen’s autograph quickly became valuable by its rarity: ‘I have hardly ever seen a collection in which Byron is not represented or one in which Jane Austen is’, Lady Charnwood, successful bagger of the subscription to 112, noted in 1930 (Charnwood, 42). So few were the available spoils, that Austen’s biographer-nephew was soon obliging collectors with portions of one of his father’s sermons, affixing to each scrap the information: ‘This is the hand writing, not the composition, of my Aunt, Jane Austen, Authoress of Pride & Prejudice.’ To his daughter he confided he was ‘able to break it up into about twenty sentences’ pasting ‘each on a large strip of paper’ and adding ‘a certificate’ to authenticate the hand (Le Faye, xvi).

Thus, if the fragment transfers glamour to its new possessor, content, too (often irreparably damaged in its acquisition), may be readily displaced as attention focuses on a different kind of intimate knowledge: the hand’s trace upon the paper, regardless of what is written, being sufficient.

The origins and development of institutional collections are regularly as fortuitous and piecemeal as of those assembled by autograph hunters: in part because most such collections grew from private beginnings and only later transferred through gift or purchase to public ownership. The private collection of scraps represents a form of material heritage distinct from the valuation of authors’ papers as clues to creative composition. Think of them as a kind of house clearance with items scattered in various directions—the Pembroke table one way, the Wedgwood coffee set another. Even now, thwarted by funding limitations and the action of auction houses on international markets, institutional ambitions to hold collections together regularly dwindle to specimen saving, as with this fragment, purchased by Jane Austen’s House for £35,000 in August 2019 following a national campaign.

Date: 29 November 1814

Creator: Jane Austen (1775-1817)

Subject: Jane Austen and Anna Lefroy (née Austen)

Media rights: copyright Jane Austen’s House

Object type: letter manuscript

Format: octavo bifolium (c. 188 x 111 mm); ink on paper

Related objects: The European Jane Austen

Publisher: Jane Austen’s House, Chawton, Hampshire

Digital collection record: https://janeaustens.house/object/principal-portion-of-a-letter-from-jane-austen-to-anna-lefroy-29-november-1814/

Catalogue number: CHWJA:JAHLTR.41


Jane Austen’s Letters, ed. Deirdre Le Faye 4th edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Dorothea, Lady Charnwood, An Autograph Collection and the Making of It. London: Ernest Benn Ltd, 1930.

Leigh Hunt, Lord Byron and Some of His Contemporaries. London: Henry Colburn, 1828.