Jane Austen’s handwritten letter in Canberra

“I would not let Martha read “First Impressions” again upon any account, and am very glad that I did not leave it in your power.” – Jane Austen

I trekked from Sydney to Canberra a few weekends ago to see an original handwritten letter from Jane Austen to Cassandra that is housed in the National Library of Australia after my publishing editor told me that he had seen it there some weeks ago. Three hours, traffic stress and seventy dollars worth of petrol later and I had made it to Australia’s capital, ACT. Every moment was worth it, to see this:

(A big thanks to N for going back in to take the picture on her iPhone, how would I do without?)

Upon entering the National Library, which is a strange-looking place in itself – a solitary building with colonnades in the middle of a huge park – I was immediately struck by its very modern appearance. It definitely has more of a museum-feel than the musty libraries that I am used to. It even had water fountains (you can see one in the picture bottom right) and banners advertising the Treasures collection (an (AU) $7 million collection chosen from the library’s stock of 12 million items, in which the Jane Austen letter is kept in perpetuity) and ‘Handwritten: ten centuries of manuscripts from staatsbibliothek zu Berlin‘ which is currently showing (get in quick as it ends on 18 March 2012, is only in Canberra and is free). After entering at 11.40am, we were given tickets for 12pm to go into the Manuscripts exhibition – it was good that they were managing it correctly to avoid being overcrowded as there were many many people viewing the works and even with this measure in place it took a while to wait for everyone to walk around the different artefacts.

The library itself has a little giftshop with books, tea-towels, postcards and stationery – a lot of which has an Australian/Indigenous/Settler feel to it that we amused ourselves in before we were able to go in. Unfortunately, I had to give my huge tardis bag in to the reception in order to be able to go in to see the letters (so a note to all those trekking in: bring a small handbag) which meant that I had to go back and get my notebook, and then my phone. We walked into the exhibition, and despite some walking the wrong way and finally figuring out that it was in chronological order around the rooms we began peering into the windows that each showcased a piece of writing from one of the greats-and-influentials.

You have to be excited about this. Having letters and notes, illuminated bibles and manuscripts from some of the greatest minds our world has known in one room is an absolute pleasure. Isaac Newton, Alfred Nobel, Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Franz Kafka, Louis Pasteur, Galileo Galilei, Michelangelo, Albert Einstein, Mozart and Florence Nightingale are only a few of the stand outs that come to mind. While many are in foreign languages, and thus unreadable to me, and some are in unreadable states despite being in my native tongue, you get this sort of strange awe knowing that they touched that – that their thoughts were spilled onto a piece of paper that they held and that you are now staring at some hundreds of years later.

This was especially true for the illuminated manuscripts of bibles and prayer books (in Latin). You could imagine the monks poring over it, decorating it with the gold leaf and decorations that were in such fine detail they could have been done in gel pen. You can understand, then, how this was a perfect introduction and platform to the library and to the Treasures collection in the room next to it and served for an incredible build up for The Letter (even more so as we had heard a couple arguing over whether Charles Dickens or Jane Austen was better in the Handwritten exhibition).

The Treasures collection features items such as James Cook’s diary, the only surviving Aussie first fleet convict uniform, Utzon’s model for the opera house (spoiler: it’s a sphere) and, the Australian novelist, Patrick White’s glasses as well as significant documentation from the Mabo incident. For the truly Aussie there’s also an original manuscript for Waltzing Matilda. Among all this Australiana, however, under the M category was the item of specific interest to me. I walked slowly to it, looking at the items around it beforehand (a 1927 aeroplane jelly advertising jingle poster and a Lontar palm-leaf manuscript) and then I peered into the glass cabinet that held the Jane Austen letter.

The plaque mentioned that it contained a mention of the First Impressions (Pride and Prejudice) manuscript, and I must admit that my heart was doing a weird skippy beat at this point in time, my hands and nose pressed up against the glass display and my eyes unblinkingly staring at the letter. (I was probably annoying a lot of people here as I stood at the display for quite some time as though it were a shrine.) I could imagine her hand running across it with the sketchy quill, dabbing at it. Her handwriting is such that the ‘Ds’ slope left when they curl back and while there are few crossing outs or marks, it feels natural and as though she had a great amount of enthusiasm when writing it. Which is strange as I imagine her to be quite considered in her speech, but with an arch sense of humour/sarcasm like Elizabeth Bennet.

I hate to sound like a gushing fan – actually, I don’t care – but it was quite intense imagining her hand scratching a quill across it. I think handwriting is a very sensual thing and says a lot about the person. Typing obviously delivers the same words and message, but there is an emotion in someone’s own writing that is quite moving. When someone you love writes you something down it is treasured and I felt this very much about the letter, the emotion was just leaping off the page through the enthusiasm in her writing.

I read an analysis briefly the other day of her handwriting (it was actually by chance in Basement Books in a big coffee table style book that analysed the handwriting of the greats called ‘Handwriting of the Famous and Infamous’) and you can see it for free in the Amazon preview. I didn’t think much of it at the time but now I have seen her writing I kind of get it. It analyses her handwriting in 1805 in a letter to her brother, Frank. “The large, round middle-zone writing that can usually be seen in modern young women of Austen’s time is missing. In its place we find a well-organized writing with a focus on movement, with narrow margins, a strong right slant, and long lower zone. At the time of writing Austen was probably an active young woman, easily bored, whose interests encompassed a wide range,” the book explains. Apparently, she was likely shy due to the “expanded spaces between letters” but narrow letters themselves.

She can also be thought to be a good friend, a quick wit (long t-crosses, tall upper zone and missing initial strokes), an intellectual, curious about the world, with a love of beautiful things and strong values from her parents. Interestingly, the ‘d’ that I really liked is called a “Greek d” or a “Poet’s d” and is supposed to indicate a good writer. This is just a tidbit of what people hand analysed from her handwriting. I think it would be best if the analysis was done “blind” and the expert didn’t know it was her to start with so as to avoid any allowing of that to colour their interpretation. But anyway. There’s a pretty good analysis online from My Strength and Song that discusses the main features. I just really wanted to touch it and to know that we had both touched the same piece of paper (although knowing we had both looked at it was good enough!).

I wrote down what I could decipher of it, but due to the years of degradation, the calligraphic style of her hand (and obviously her grammar, which leaves something to be desired) and the size of her writing this was no easy task. Also, some of the text was written on the back of the letter (which is not viewable due to the display) and upside down. My suspicion that I would be able to find a proper translation on the internet based on what I had managed to scrawl down was, however, correct! And so, in full, this is what is contained in the letter:

My dear Cassandra,

Your letter yesterday made me very happy. I am heartily glad that you have escaped any share in the impurities of Deane, and not sorry, as it turns out, that our stay here has been lengthened. I feel tolerably secure of our getting away next week, though it is certainly possible that we may remain till Thursday the 27th. I wonder what we shall do with all our intended visits this summer! I should like to make a compromise with Adlestrop, Harden, and Bookham, that Martha’s spending the summer at Steventon should be considered as our respective visits to them all.

Edward has been pretty well for this last week, and as the waters have never disagreed with him in any respect, we are inclined to hope that he will derive advantage from them in the end. Everybody encourages us in this expectation, for they all say that the effect of the waters cannot be negative, and many are the instances in which their benefit is felt afterwards more than on the spot. He is more comfortable here than I thought he would be, and so is Elizabeth, though they will both, I believe, be very glad to get away — the latter especially, which one can’t wonder at somehow. So much for Mrs. Piozzi. I had some thoughts of writing the whole of my letter in her style, but I believe I shall not.

Though you have given me unlimited powers concerning your sprig, I cannot determine what to do about it, and shall therefore in this and in every other future letter continue to ask your farther directions. We have been to the cheap shop, and very cheap we found it, but there are only flowers made there, no fruit; and as I could get four or five very pretty sprigs of the former for the same money which would procure only one Orleans plum — in short, could get more for three or four shillings than I could have means of bringing home — I cannot decide on the fruit till I hear from you again. Besides, I cannot help thinking that it is more natural to have flowers grow out of the head than fruit. What do you think on that subject?

I would not let Martha read “First Impressions” again upon any account, and am very glad that I did not leave it in your power. She is very cunning, but I saw through her design; she means to publish it from memory, and one more perusal must enable her to do it. As for “Fitzalbini,” when I get home she shall have it as soon as ever she will own that Mr. Elliott is handsomer than Mr. Lance, that fair men are preferable to black; for I mean to take every opportunity of rooting out her prejudices.

Benjamin Portal is here. How charming that is! I do not exactly know why, but the phrase followed so naturally that I could not help putting it down. My mother saw him the other day, but without making herself known to him.

I am very glad you liked my lace, and so are you, and so is Martha, and we are all glad together. I have got your cloak home, which is quite delightful — as delightful at least as half the circumstances which are called so.

I do not know what is the matter with me to-day, but I cannot write quietly; I am always wandering away into some exclamation or other. Fortunately I have nothing very particular to say.

We walked to Weston one evening last week, and liked it very much. Liked what very much? Weston? No, walking to Weston. I have not expressed myself properly, but I hope you will understand me.

We have not been to any public place lately, nor performed anything out of the common daily routine of No. 13, Queen Square, Bath. But to-day we were to have dashed away at a very extraordinary rate, by dining out, had it not so happened that we did not go.

Edward renewed his acquaintance lately with Mr. Evelyn, who lives in the Queen’s Parade, and was invited to a family dinner, which I believe at first Elizabeth was rather sorry at his accepting; but yesterday Mrs. Evelyn called on us, and her manners were so pleasing that we liked the idea of going very much. The Biggs would call her a nice woman. But Mr. Evelyn, who was indisposed yesterday, is worse to-day, and we are put off.

It is rather impertinent to suggest any household care to a housekeeper, but I just venture to say that the coffee-mill will be wanted every day while Edward is at Steventon, as he always drinks coffee for breakfast.

Fanny desires her love to you, her love to grandpapa, her love to Anna, and her love to Hannah; the latter is particularly to be remembered. Edward desires his love to you, to grandpapa, to Anna, to little Edward, to Aunt James and Uncle James, and he hopes all your turkeys and ducks, and chicken and guinea fowls are very well; and he wishes you very much to send him a printed letter, and so does Fanny — and they both rather think they shall answer it.

“On more accounts than one you wished our stay here to be lengthened beyond last Thursday.” There is some mystery in this. What have you going on in Hampshire besides the itch from which you want to keep us?

Dr. Gardiner was married yesterday to Mrs. Percy and her three daughters.

Now I will give you the history of Mary’s veil, in the purchase of which I have so considerably involved you that it is my duty to economise for you in the flowers. I had no difficulty in getting a muslin veil for half a guinea, and not much more in discovering afterwards that the muslin was thick, dirty, and ragged, and therefore would by no means do for a united gift. I changed it consequently as soon as I could, and, considering what a state my imprudence had reduced me to, I thought myself lucky in getting a black lace one for sixteen shillings. I hope the half of that sum will not greatly exceed what you had intended to offer upon the altar of sister-in-law affection.

Yours affectionately, Jane.

They do not seem to trouble you much from Manydown. I have long wanted to quarrel with them, and I believe I shall take this opportunity. There is no denying that they are very capricious — for they like to enjoy their elder sister’s company when they can.

After looking through the exhibition, we went outside for a picnic, a cup of Earl Grey and I began scrawling down notes for the blog, adding to those I had taken during the displays (you’d be surprised at how many people were also viewing the manuscripts with a notebook and pen in hand) and felt all cathartic. I recommend taking a picnic to relax afterwards, and just take it in. I really like the mention of First Impressions. I sort of feel as though it shows how much she cared about Pride and Prejudice, how it was her “child” as so many different things mention her referring to the book as. It also sort of shows how much hard work it might have been. If you’re like me, you possible occasionally forget that it didn’t just fall out of her like water and was probably an effort and a half to physically write with ink and quill let alone to actually write without the aid of a computer to change things in a flash. It’s just an incredible talent.

For those of you who love the handwriting as much as I do, there’s a free font download online called the ‘Jane Austen Font‘ that is brilliant and tremendous fun to play with in eBooks and word documents. Do you know of any other Austen letters and related items around Australia? If you haven’t been, I really recommend going – truly an experience worth having and a weekend I will treasure in my heart for many years.


Filed under A good find, Discussion, Other Review

4 responses to “Jane Austen’s handwritten letter in Canberra

  1. Loved the post, I thing I would collapse If I saw a manuscript of Jane Austen. My dream is to find a first edition of Pride and Prejudice. But it will cost a fortune right? So i just have to be happy if I can find a beautiful edition without the poster of the movies in the cover.

    • thatjennie

      Unfortunately first editions are expensive :(. I think it cost 140 thousand pounds at auction two years ago! I love the idea of a fan finding a copy though, there have to be many more out there we don’t know about!

      I’m glad you liked the post, I definitely found it inspiring to see it!!

  2. Wonderful post! I love the description of seeing the letter. When I went to Chawton, I experienced abit of the same emotion.Especially moving were the handwritten music books. The Boston Public Library has letter #3. I have to go over soon. Cheers and thanks!
    -Kirk from Austen in Boston: A Jane Austen bookclub

    • thatjennie

      I would love to visit Chawton! As it is, I’m praying for a Jane Austen exhibition to come to Sydney (although I would travel far too go). I can’t imagine why there hasn’t been one, that I know of at least. There are so many people who would go that I’m sure any losses would be immediately ruled out by big profits (even selling tacky merc they’d break even).

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post! I’ll be updating regularly with any other good finds!

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