“Unequal to Anything” — Now Available Digitally! Jane Austen’s Letters to her sister Cassandra

By Emma Sarconi, Reference Professional for Special Collections

The other week, a researcher contacted Public Services staff via the Ask Us! form with questions about the letters between Jane Austen’s sister, Cassandra Austen, and her niece, Anna Austen Lefroy (aka “Mrs. B. Lefroy”). These documents live in the massive and wide-ranging Robert H. Taylor Collection of English and American Literature (call number RTC01), which spans the years 1280 all the way to 1958. 

After requesting the box in our finding aid system, retrieving it from the vault and setting it up in my office, I reached for folder nine in pursuit of answering the patron’s question. It was then that I saw that folder eleven was titled “Austen, Jane, 1775-1817: two autograph letters to sister, Cassandra” and my heart skipped a little beat. 

Now, we at Princeton are not short on notable Austen holdings — we have first editions of each of her books as well as at least two books owned by her (A Companion to the Altar and Travels from St. Petersburg, in Russia, to diverse parts of Asia), with her ownership marking in the fronts —  but letters, and not just any letters but those to her sister, that’s a horse of a different color (at least in this librarian’s heart). 

Sometimes, in the rush of doing the work of being a reference librarian, I feel my sense of wonder slip away a bit. “Oh look, another George Washington letter” I think to myself placidly in the same way that  I would imagine someone who works at Yellowstone would feel after seeing Old Faithful erupt for the thousandth time. We all lose sight of the marvels in front of us from time to time, don’t we? 

Well on this day, seeing that letter, dear reader, my sense of wonder was out in full force. How could I, a woman who first watched the PBS version of Sense and Sensibility with her mother at age eight, whose same mother has read all Austen novels too many times to count, who owns and frequently plays the card game Marrying Mr. Darcy, and, on top of it all, is named EMMA, pass this folder by? (Although Emma Woodhouse is sort of terrible and not, in my opinion, the kind of person you want to be named after, which incidentally, I am not.) Well, this woman just could not. 

I read the letters, the original in one hand, the transcription, thoughtfully copied by some wonderful library worker of the past letting me avoid laboring over 18th century handwriting, in the other, and then called my mom and read them to her. They are, much like Austen’s novels, incredibly witty, very dry, deliciously catty, tender and sweet. 

First page of the letter from Jane to Cassandra, April 21st

Below is the transcription, but thanks to the quick digitization work of my colleagues AnnaLee and Brianna, you are welcome to view high quality images of this material (as well as letters between Cassandra (both mother and sister) and Anna) directly in the finding aid site.

One day, I hope you come to our reading room on C-floor of Firestone library to view them yourself in person and feel a little bit of wonder.

In the meantime, enjoy. To learn more about Jane, Cassandra or Anna Austen, there are numerous Jane Austen appreciation societies including the Jane Austen Literary Foundation Pride and Possibilities blog and the Jane Austen Society of North America that will help you get started.

Castle Square, 
Tuesday, Dec. 17th (1808) 

My dear Cassandra, 

[Page 1] I can now write at leisure and make the most of my subjects, which is lucky, as they are not numerous this week. Our house was cleaned by half past eleven on Saturday, and we had the satisfaction of hearing yesterday that the party reached home in safety soon after 5. I was very glad of your letter this morning, for my mother taking medicine, Elisa keeping her bed with a cold, and Charles not coming, made us rather dull and dependent on the post. You tell me much that gives me pleasure but I think not much to answer. I wish I could help you in your needlework, I have two hands and a thimble that lead a very easy life. (Lady Sondes’ match surprises, but does not offend me; had her first marriage been of affection, or had there been a grown up single daughter, I should not have forgiven her — but I consider everybody as having a right to marry once in their life for love, if they can — and provided she will not leave off having bad head-aches and being pathetic, I can allow her, I can wish her to be happy. Do not imagine that your picture of your tete-a-tete with Sir B. Makes any change in our expectations here; he could not be really reading though he held the newspaper in his hand; he was making up his mind to the deed, and the manner of it. — I think you will have a letter from him soon). I have heard from Portsmouth yesterday, and as I am to send them more clothes, they cannot be expecting a very early return to us. Mary’s face is pretty well, but she must have suffered a great deal with it — an abscess was formed and opened. Our evening party on Thursday, produced nothing more remarkable than Miss Murden’s coming too, though she had declined it absolutely in the morning, and sitting very ungracious and very silent with us from 7 o’clock, till half after 11- for so late was it, owing to the chairman, before we got rid of them. The last hour, spent in yawning  and shivering in a wide circle round [Page 2] the fire was dull enough — but the tray had admirable sweets. The widgeon and the preserved Ginger even as delicious, as one could wish. But as to our Black Butter, do not decoy anybody to Southampton by such a lure, for it is all gone. The first pot was opened when Frank and Mary were here and proved not at all what it ought to be; – it was neither solid nor entirely sweet — and on seeing it, Elisa remember that Miss Austen had said she did not think it had been boiled enough. It was made you know when we were absent. Such being the event of the first post, I w’d not save the second, and we therefore ate it in unpretending privacy, and tho not what it ought to be, part of it was very good. Jame means to keep three horses on this increase of income, at present he has but one; Mary wishes the other two to be fit to carry women— and in the purchase of one, Edward will probably be called upon to fulfill his promise to his godson. (We have now pretty well ascertained James’ income to be Eleven Hundred Pounds, curate paid, which makes us very happy — the ascertainment as well as the income.) Mary does not talk of the Garden, it may well be a disagreeable subject to her — but her Husband is persuaded that nothing is wanting to make the first new one good, but trenching, which is to be done by his own servants and John Bond by degree-not at the expense which trenching the other amounted to. I was happy to hear, chiefly for Anna’s sake that a Ball at Marrydown was once more in agitation; it is called a child’s Ball and give by Mrs. Heathcote to Wm.; —such was its beginning at least —but it will probably swell into something more. Edward was invited during his stay at Marrydown, and it is to the place between this and twelfth day. Mrs. Hulbert has taken Anna a pair of white shoes on the occasion. I forgot in my last to tell you, that we have by way of Kintbury and the Palmers that they were all well at Bermuda in the beginning of Nov.-Wednesday. Yesterday must have been a day of sad remembrance at Gno. I am glad it is over. We spent Friday even’g with our friends at the Boarding House, and our curiosity was gratified by the sight of their fellow-inmates, Mrs. Drew and Miss Hook, Mr. Wynne and Mr. Fitshugh, the latter is brother to Mrs. Lance, and ver much the gentleman. He has lived in that house more than twenty years. And moor Esau [Page 3] is so totally deaf that they say he c’d now hear a cannon, were it fired close to him; having no cannon at hand to make the experiment, I took it for granted, and talked to him a little with my fingers, which was funny enough. I recommended him to read Corinna. Miss Hook is a well behaved genteelism woman; Mr. Drew well behaved without being at all genteel. Mr. Wynne seems a chatty and rather familiar young man. Miss Murden was quite a different creature this last even’g. from what she had been before owing to her having with Martha’s health found a situation in the morning, which bids very fair for comfort. When she leaves Steventon, she comes to board and lodge with Mrs. Hookey, the chemist, for there is no Mr. Hookey. I cannot say that I am in any hurry for the conclusion of her present visit, but I was truly glad to see her comfortable in mind and spirits; at her age perhaps one may be as friendless oneself, and in similar circumstances quite as captious. My mother has been lately adding to her possessions in plate— a whole tablespoon and a whole dessertspoon and six whole teaspoons, which makes our side board border on the magnificent. They were mostly the produce of old or useless silver. I have turned the 11’s in the list into 12’s and the card looks all the better, a silver Tea-ladle is also added, which will at least answer the purpose of making us sometimes think of John Warren. I have laid Lady Sondes case before Marta— who does not make the least objection to it, and is particularly pleased with the name of Montresor. I do not agree with her there, but I like his rank very much, and always affix the ideas of strong sense, and highly elegant harness to a General. (I must write to Charles next week. You may guess in what extravagant terms of praise Earle Harwood speaks of him. H his looked up to by everybody in America.) I shall not tell you anything more of Wm. Digweed’s china, as your silences on the subject makes you unworthy of it. Mrs. H. Digweed looks forward with great satisfaction to our being her neighbors. I w’d have her enjoy the idea to the utmost, as I expect there will not be much in the reality. With equal pleasure, we anticipate an intimacy with [Page 4] her husband’s Bailiff and his wife, who live close by us, and are said to be remarkably good sort of people. (Yes, yes, we will have a pianoforte, as good a one as can be got for 30 Guineas, and I will practice country dances, that we may have some amusement for our nephew sand nieces when we have the pleasure of their company.) Martha seas her love to Henry and tells him that he will soon have a Bill of Miss Chaplin’s about £14 to pay on her account, but the bill shall not be sent in, till his return to town. I hope he comes to you in good health in spirits as a first return to Godmersham can allow. With his nephews he will force himself to be cheerful, till he really is so. Send me some intelligence of Elisa, it is a long while since I have heard of her. We have had snow on the ground here almost a week, it is now going, but Southampton must boast no longer. We all send our love to Edward, Jan and his brothers, and I hope speculation is generally liked. Fare you well, Yrs. affect’ll J. Austen. 

My mother has no been out of doors this week but she keeps pretty —. We have received through Brookham an indifferent account of your Godmother. 

Gay St. Sunday Evening. April 21st. 

My dear Cassandra, 

[Page 1] I am much obliged to you for writing to me again so soon; your letter yesterday was quite an unexpected pleasure. Poor Mrs. Sten! It was been her lot to be always in the way; but we much be merciful, for perhaps in time we may come to be Mrs. Stents ourselves unequal to anything and unwelcome to everyone — We shall be very glad to see you whenever you can get away, but I have no expectation of your coming before the 10th or 11th of May. Your account of Martha is very comfortable indeed, & now we shall be in no fear of receiving a worse. This day, if she has gone to Church, must have been a trial of her feelings, but I hope it will be the last of an acuteness. — James may not be a Man of Business, but as a “Man of Letters” he is certainly very useful; he affords you a most convenient communication with the Newbury Post. – You were very right in supposing I wore my crepe sleeves to the Convert, I had them put in on the occasion; on my head I wore my cape and flowers, but I do not think it looked particularly well. — My Aunt is in a great hurry to pay me for my Cap. But cannot find in her heart to give me good money. “If I have any intention of going to the Grand Sydney-Garden Breakfast, if there is any party I wish to join, Periot will take out a ticket for me”. — Such an offer I shall of course decline; & all the service she will render me therefore, is to put it out of my power to go at all, whatever may occur to make it desirable. – Yesterday was a busy day with me. Or at least with my feet & my stockings’ I was walking almost all day long; I went to Sydney Gardens soon after one, & did not return till four, & after dinner I walked to Weston. – My morning engagement was with the Cookes, & our party consisted of George & Mary, A Mr. and Miss Bendish who had been with us at the Concert, & the youngest Miss Whitby; – Not Julia, we have done with her, she is very ill, but Mary; Mary Whitby’s turn is actually come to be grown up & have a fine complexion & wear great square muslin shawls. I have no expressly enumerated myself among the party, now & then in the intervals of his more animated fooleries with Miss Bendish, who is very young & rather handsome [Page 2] and whose gracious manner, ready whit, & solid remarks put me somewhat in mind of my old acquaintance Lucy Lefroy. – There was a monstrous deal of stupid quizzing, & common-lace nonsense talked, but scarcely any White; – all that border’d on it, or on Sense came fro my Cousin George, whom altogether I like very well – Mr. Bendish seems nothing more than a tall young Man, – I met Mr. F. Bonham the other day, & almost his first salutation was “So Miss Austen, your Cousin I come”. – My Evening engagement & walk was with Miss Armstrong, who had called on me the day before, & gently upbraided me in her turn with change of manners to her since she had been in Bath, or at least of late. Unlucky me! That my notice should be of such consequence & my Manners so bad! – She was so well-disposed & so reasonable that I soon forgave her, & made this engagement with her in proof of it, – such is really an agreeable girl, so I think I may like her, & her great want of a companion at home, which may well make any tolerable acquaintance important to her, gives her another claim on my attention. – I shall endeavor as much as possible to keep my Intimacies in their proper place & prevent their clashing. I have been this morning with Miss Irvine; it is not in my power to return her evening-visits at present; I must pay her as I can – On Tuesday we are to have a party. It came into my wise head that tho’ my Mother did not go out of an evening, there was no reason against her seeing her friends at home, & that it would be as well to get over the Chamberlaynes visit now, as to delay it. I accordingly invited them this morning, Mrs. C fixed on Tuesday, & I rather think they will all come; the possibility of it will deter us from asking Mr. and Mrs L.P. to meet them – I asked Mrs. Irvine, but she declined it, as not feeling quite stout, & wishing to keep quiet; – but her Mother is to enliven our circle. – Bickerton has been at home for the Easter Holidays, & returns tomorrow; he is a very sweet boy, both in manner & countenance. He seems to have the attentive, affectionate feelings of Fulwar-Williams – who by the bye is actually fourteen – what are we to do? I have never seen Bickerton without his immediately enquiring whether I had heard fro you – from “Miss Cassandra”, was his expression at first. – AS far as I can learn, the Family are all very much pleased with Bath, & excessively overcome by the heat or the Cold, or whatever happens to the be the weather. – They go on with their Masters & Mistresses, & are now to have a Miss; Amelia is to take lessons of Miss Sharpe. [Page 3] – Among so many friends it will be well if I do not get into a scrape; & now here is Miss Blanchford come. I should have gone distracted if the Bullers had staid. – The Cookes leave Bath next week I believe, & my Cousin goes earlier. – The papers announce the Marriage of the Rev. Edward Bather, Rector of some place in Shropshire to a Miss Emma Halifax. A wretch! – He does not deserve and Emma Halifax’s maid Betty. Mrs. Hampson is here; this must interest Martha; I met him the other morning in his way (as he said) to Greek Park Bus; I trusted to his forgetting our number in Gay st., when I gave it to him, & so I concluded he has, as he has not yet called . – Mrs. Stanhope has let her house from Midsummer, so we shall get rid of them. She is luck in disposing of it so soon, as there is an astonishing number of houses at this time vacant in that end of the Town. – Mrs. Elliot is to quit hers at Michaelmas. – I wonder whether Mr Hampson’ friend Mr. Saunders is any relation to the famous Saunder those letters have been lately published. – I am quite of your opinion as to the folly of concealing any longer our intended Partnership with Martha, whenever there has been of late been an enquiry on the subject I have always been sincere, & I have sent word of it to the Mediterranean in a letter to F[rank]. None of our nearest connections I think will be unprepared for it’ and I do not know how to suppose that Martha’s have no foreseen it. – When I tell you that we have visiting a Countess this morning, you will immediately & with great justice, but no truth, guess it to be Lady Roden. No, it is Lady Leven, the mother of Lady Balgonie. On receiving a message from Lord and Lady Leven thro’ the Mackays declaring their intention of waiting on us, we thought it right to go to them. I hope we have not done too much, but the friends & admirers of Charles must be attended to. -They seem very reasonable, good sort of people, very civil, and fully of his praise. – We were shown at first into an empty Drawing-room, & presently in came his Lordship, not knowing who we were, to apologize for the servants mistake, & tell a lie himself, that Lady Leven was not within. – He is a tall, gentlemanlike looking man, with spectacles, & rather deaf; – after sitting with him ten minutes we walked away; but Lady L. Coming out of the dining parlor as we passed the door, we were obligated to attend her back to it, & pay our visit over again, – She is a very stout woman with a very handsome face. – By this means we had the pleasure of hearing Charles’s praises twice over; – they think themselves excessively obliged to him, & estimate him so highly as to wish Ld. Balgonie when he is quite recovered, to go out to him. – The long man is much better, & is gone fo rate confirmation of his health to Penzance. – There is a pretty little Lady Marianne, of the party, to be shaken hands with & asked if she remembers Mr. Austen.

[Page 4] Monday
The Cooke’s place seems of a sort to suit Isacc if we means to go to service again, & does not object to changes of Country. He will have a good Soil, & a good Mistress, & I suppose will not mind taking physic now & then. The only doubt which occurs to me is whether Mr. Cooke may not be a disagreeable, fidgety Master, especially in matters concerning the Garden. – Mr. Mant has not yet paid my Mother the remainder of her money, but she has very lately received his apology for it with his hope of being able to close the account shortly. – You told me sometime ago that Tom Chute had had a fall from his horse, and I am waiting to know how it happened before I being pitying him, as I cannot help suspecting it was in consequence of his taking order. Very likely as he was going to Duty or returning from it. 

I have not much more to add. My Uncle & Aunt drank tea with us last night, & inspire of my resolution to the contrary, I could don’t help putting forward to invite them again this Evening. I thought it was the first consequence to avoid anything that might seem a slight to them. I shall be glad when it is over, & hope to have no necessity for having so many dear friend at once again. – I shall write to Charles by the next Packet, unless You tell me in the meantime of your intending to do it. Believe me if you choose. 

Yr. affectionate sister