Do you remember when we used to send and receive letters? Actual, physical letters? Were you a person like me who used to sit down with a feeling of relish at the blank paper in front of you, in anticipation of what you would write to your friend, mother, sister, dad, brother, boyfriend, or girlfriend, while always conscious that either the amount of paper you could use was limited (because maybe it was a from a nice stationery set) or because you knew your hand would grow too tired at some point to continue? And then, oh then, the happiness of receiving that long awaited reply! I’m not the first one to observe that some specialness has been lost in the rapidity and conciseness of exchanging emails instead of “snail mail.” To me, it’s just not the same. But though I still send cards, I very rarely write a physical letter anymore. How awe-inspiring it is then, to think of the immense amount of letter writing Jane Austen did in her day. I think I read somewhere that she wrote in excess of 400 letters in her lifetime, though it is a fact that only 160 of those have been preserved.
One of the most memorable experiences of my life was going to an exhibit of Jane’s letters and early published copies of her books at the Morgan Library in New York in 2010. Some of you may have seen some of these treasures in person, and will know how truly incredible it is to stand there in front of a letter written in Jane’s own script that you know she touched with her own quill, ink, and hands. At one point I became so overwhelmed I had to go to the ladies room and cry. This was back when I was still writing my first novel, The Time Baroness, in which the main character time travels back in time to Regency England, and I was steeped in research on the period. It was also before people were writing much in the way of JAFF, or at least I wasn’t connected to them, and didn’t have all the helpful blog posts and things that we have now for quick research. One of my pieces of research was a book of all surviving letters to and from Jane, many exchanged between her and sister Cassandra. The minutiae of her thoughts fascinate me.
It’s because of that trip to the Morgan Library, as a matter of fact, that I have the book, an anniversary gift from my husband. Here is part of the inscription he wrote in it. Please excuse me for a moment as I swoon over the man who, after thirty years of marriage, can still make me weak in the knees. (He’s such a dude that you’d never know he harbored such a flare for the poetical.) Anyway, in the inscription he spends a few paragraphs rhapsodizing over the expression on my face the day we got married, and again when my son was born, and then goes on to say: “…So it is then, on this occasion, that I wish to acknowledge the moment when recently that expression of warmth, radiance, and love swept across your face once again. It was when you stood, motionless, transfixed, and mute before the display of the letters of Ms. Jane Austen. That expression led me to purchase this book, to write this note, to express my admiration and love for you, and to remind you that the expression I speak of is always there, reflected back to you in my eyes across years, months and days to this eternal moment. It is the expression of my heart.” He doesn’t really get Jane Austen, but he obviously gets that I get her.
Inspired by the letters in that book, I included in The Time Baroness a scene in which the main character, whose name is also Cassandra, takes a trip to Steventon to see the home where Jane grew up. In my book, Jane has been three years dead, Cassandra having particular reasons for going back in time after Jane has passed, which I won’t go into now. Anyway, one of Jane’s brothers still lived at Steventon Parsonage at the time, and was raising his family there. Cassandra is kind of snooping around, and discovers a young woman out behind the house, burning something over a fire. She goes to talk to her, and discovers that it is Jane’s niece, Fanny, burning her aunt’s letters, which both she and Jane’s sister did apparently do. Cassandra freaks out and begs her to stop, asking if she can have one of the letters, explaining that she’s a fan of the still not well-known author. Fanny reluctantly agrees, and Cassandra returns to the future with a priceless relic that will always remain her own.
Having been to that library exhibit, I could well imagine how my character felt, and, of course, that’s why I wrote the scene. To touch something that Jane touched is almost unimaginable. That is also why many of us try to take the pilgrimage to Bath, Chawton House, or Lyme Regis, so that we can tread where Jane trod…see what she saw with her own eyes.
I still have many letters from special people in my life from over the years – some dating back to when I was a child. I culled them out when I moved a couple of years ago, but I tried to keep those that I knew would remain meaningful. I may not look at them often, but they’re there for when I want to remember, for whatever reason, the people who sent them. Even though the collection doesn’t include letters I wrote, maybe someday readers of my books will value those too. Hey, an author can dream, can’t she?