This collection of six letters, either written by or relating to the novelist Jane Austen, is one of the most interesting items held in St John’s College Library. George Austen, Jane’s father (and the writer of one of the letters), and her brothers James and Henry all studied at and became Fellows of St John’s, giving the family a connection to the College.
The letters are mounted in a guard book and consist of one letter written by George Austen, followed by five written by Jane herself to her niece Anna Austen (later Anna Lefroy). The letters remained in the Lefroy family; the latter were donated to the College by Mary Isabella Lefroy (Anna’s granddaughter) in 1939, and the former by Miss L. L. Lefroy the following year.
George Austen’s letter is dated the 1st November 1797, and addressed from the family home in Steventon, Hampshire, where he was rector. It was sent to the publisher Thomas Cadell, (presumably Thomas Cadell the younger), owner of a successful and respected London publishing firm established by his father. George offers Cadell the manuscript of First Impressions, which would eventually become Pride and Prejudice – today perhaps Jane’s best-known and most-loved work. In the letter, frequently cited by Austen scholars, George describes the book as ‘about the same length as Miss Burney’s Evelina’, referring to a hugely popular novel of 1776, which is generally considered to have had some influence on Jane’s work. His efforts were unsuccessful however; a note on the top of the letter states that the manuscript was ‘declined by return of post’. This very blunt rejection marked the start of Jane’s struggle to get her works published, something that she would only achieve fourteen years later with Sense and Sensibility.
Jane’s letters, by contrast, are of a personal rather than commercial nature. Written in 1814, they also give a different perspective on her career; by that time she was a published author, albeit an anonymous one. Sense and Sensibility, as noted above, had been published in 1811, Pride and Prejudice in 1813 and Mansfield Park earlier in 1814. They had all been commercial successes, and had given Jane experience of dealing with publishers. With this in mind it is perhaps unsurprising that the content of the letters, written to Anna Austen (later Anna Lefroy), concerns the recipient’s own attempts at writing a novel. Jane provides criticism, advice and encouragement regarding her niece’s efforts, as well as discussing more general domestic and familial news. Most are sent from the Hampshire village of Chawton, part of Jane’s brother Edward’s estate, where she lived from 1809 with her mother and sister Cassandra and which marked one of the most productive stages of her career. The letters therefore give a sense of Jane’s confidence in her authorial identity; her status as a writer becomes an inherent part of her general correspondence with her niece. In short, the letters provide insights both into Jane’s career as a writer and the ways in which members of her family engaged with it.
Butler, Marilyn, ‘Austen, Jane (1775 – 1817)’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2010 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/904, accessed 24 June 2014]
Dille, Catherine, ‘Cadell, Thomas, the elder (1742 – 1802)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/4302, accessed 24 June 2014]