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Posts Tagged ‘Jane Austen’s letters’

During her short life, Jane Austen was a prolific writer of letters, yet few survive. It is widely known that a majority of Jane’s letters were burned by her sister Cassandra and destroyed by other members of her family. Their reasons were varied. This excerpt from Jim and Ellen Moody’s website: English and Continental Literature, discusses the destruction of these letters and the reasons for it:

Not all the Austens of Jane’s generation and increasingly fewer who belonged to the later generations wanted the family’s private papers destroyed. It was not Jane but Cassandra who burnt ‘the greater part’ of Jane’s letters, and she only committed them to the fire when in 1842 she understood her own death could not be far off. Jane’s letters to Eliza and Henry and hers to them were left in Henry’s hands, and they have not survived. However, Frank, throughout a long mobile life, carefully preserved Jane’s letters to his first wife, Mary Gibson, and her packets of letters to himself and to Martha Lloyd (who became his second wife). It was Frank’s youngest daughter, Fanny-Sophia, who destroyed these and she did so after her father’s death (Family Record, p. 252). She acted without consulting anyone beforehand because by that time mores had changed and other of Frank’s children and grandchildren would have objected. Happily Philadelphia Walker had no direct descendants who felt their reputations or self-esteem put at risk by the existence of Eliza’s letters to her, and she lived long enough so that upon her death these letters fell into the hands of someone disinterested enough to save them, though in a somewhat mutilated state. A record of Jane Austen’s great-grandmother, Elizabeth Weller Austen’s steady courage, which enabled Jane’s branch of the family to maintain the status of gentleman and amass wealth and prestige, survives in a seventeenth century manuscript because several generations of Austens who descended from her second oldest son, the attorney, Francis Austen of Sevenoaks, preserved it (Austen Papers, p. 2).

As a result of the destruction of Jane’s own words, biographers have over the years come to widely different conclusions about Jane’s thoughts and motives. Ellen Moody outlines some of these varying interpretations in the link I have provided.

To read Jane’s letters, click on the following sites:

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During Jane Austen’s time, letters were written on sheet of paper that were folded and sealed, as in this sample. The recipient of the letter had to pay for the delivery. Therefore, the fewer pages that were used, the less expensive the cost, since the fee was based on the size of a letter and the distance it traveled.

Envelopes were not used. They would have added an additional sheet of paper and cost more for the recipient. To keep the letter affordable, people also wrote in a cross letter style as shown below.
Hand made papers were made in molds, hence one could readily observe the paper marks and ribbing from the parallel wires in the mold. Often these “laid” papers also bore distinctive watermarks. Double click on the image below to view these distinctive markings up close.

Writing implements included the quill pen, an inkstand filled with ink, pen knife, and sometimes a writing box.

Roller blotters made their appearance during the 19th century. Before this time, writers dried wet ink by sprinkling grains of sand over the words.


Creating quill pens was an art, since the nib had to be carefully cut with a knife so that the hollow core would hold just the right amount of ink and release it steadily under pressure. If the writer wrote for any length of time, fingers on the writing hand would often become ink stained. Quill pens, most commonly obtained from the wing feathers of a goose, had to be sharpened often with a pen knife. The average quill pen lasted for only a week before it was discarded.

After folding the paper, a sender would seal the letter with a custom wax seal stamp, that in some instances bore the family crest or the sender’s initials. The address on the outside remained simple, directing the bearer of the letter to the city or town, street, and the name of the receiver.
This is a photo of Jane Austen’s writing table and chair at Chawton, where she wrote the bulk of her novels and, I imagine, her letters as well.

Find out more about letter writing here:

Jane Austen’s Writing (Sloping) Desk

The Writing Implement of Jane Austen: The Quill Pen

London Mail and Postal Service: The Georgian Index

18th and 19th Century Wooden Seal Boxes

Cutting a Quill Pen

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