“excuse the scrawl”: literary letters from St. John’s special collections

Alongside collections of manuscripts and early printed books, St. John’s College’s Special Collections include personal papers of a number of well-known literary figures: Robert Graves, A.E. Housman, Jane Austen, Philip Larkin, Spike Milligan and Professor J.B. Leishman. Included in these papers is a great deal of correspondence, occasionally between other literary figures, or concerning literary topics.

The library’s current exhibition (Trinity Term – Summer Vacation 2017) displays the letters of twenty-two of these correspondents. All members of St. John’s College are welcome to attend the exhibition and to bring their guests. Non-members should contact the Librarian (library@sjc.ox.ac.uk) to arrange a viewing appointment.

Literary Societies

1) W.B. Yeats to Charlotte Shaw, 22nd September 1932

W.B. Yeats writes to Charlotte Shaw in 1932

While certain literary groupings such as the “war poets” and the Movement of the 1950s were never formally endorsed by its supposed members, the Irish Academy of Letters, discussed in this letter from W.B. Yeats to Charlotte Shaw, was different altogether. The Academy sought to organise Irish writers chiefly in order to counter censorship. By September 1932, when this letter was sent, James Joyce had refused an invitation to join the Academy, while authors such as Padraic Colum and James Stephens, the novelist Edith Somerville, the short story writer Frank O’Connor, and the dramatist Lennox Robinson, had all become members.

Continue reading


Jane and George Austen, Letters (MS 279)

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 Letter

Letter from George Austen to Thomas Cadell, 1st November 1797 (MS 279) (Reproduced by permission of the President and Fellows of St John’s College, Oxford)

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 Austen Letter

Letter from Jane Austen to Anna Austen, 1814 (MS 279) (Reproduced by permission of the President and Fellows of St John’s College, Oxford)

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]