Cassandra Austen and the destroyed letters

Not much is known today about the life of Jane Austen, largely because her beloved sister, Cassandra, reportedly destroyed two-thirds of Jane’s letters. The ones that she kept are as sharply funny, observant, and well-written as any Janeite could hope, but the fact remains that Jane Austen is a shadowy figure. Some have tried to recreate various periods of her life. One such work is Becoming Jane, in which the biographer speculates about a romance between Jane and her neighbor’s nephew, Tom Lefroy. It makes for a nice story, but it is unsubstantiated. We simply cannot know for sure.

Some Janeites mourn the loss of the destroyed letters. Cassandra Austen loved and wanted to protect her younger sister, but in the process she destroyed a connection with her readers. I have been thinking more about this as I read The Silent Woman, which is about the attempts at writing biographies of Sylvia Plath and more generally about the difficulties of the genre of biography. It discusses how Ted Hughes and his sister Olwyn had been turned into villains by biographers, set against the helpless Plath. Hughes destroyed her last journal and claimed that another had disappeared. Hughes and his sister were the gatekeepers, the inheritors of an intangible legacy. And, like Cassandra Austen, they chose what they wanted the public to know and what they did not want them to know.

The situations, however, between Plath and Austen could not be more different. Plath was separated from Hughes at the time of her death. She had discovered that he was having an affair. Olwyn Hughes apparently did not like Plath, but she became the literary agent of Plath’s writings. On the other hand, Cassandra Austen was and remained until death the beloved sister of Jane. Where the similarities lie is that both Hughes and Cassandra Austen inherited after the deaths of Plath and Jane, and both chose to destroy a portion of those writings. Why, as readers, do we protest against this? Why do we feel that we know better, that we have a right to read and know all about the writers we venerate?

Perhaps it has something to do with the intimacy of writing. When we read, another person is inviting us into their world. When we read another’s personal journals and letters, the gap is further lessened. It is as if the letters or journals were written specifically for us, despite the fact that they are completely private and should be considered separate from the public novels and poems and short stories. The line becomes less clear to some readers, and they feel the need to attack the idea that something about the writer’s life has been hidden or destroyed.

When I meet another person who loves Austen’s works, we gush about our mutual admiration of Jane. We feel as if we know her from the words that she wrote, from her characters and wry descriptions. But it is interesting to think about why we try to dig deeper, why we look for letters or journals or anything else to tell us more about the writer’s life.