The World on a Two-Inch Bit of Ivory: Jane Austen Writes to Her Sister

No English writer could supply trifles with more vivid spontaneity than Jane Austen. Her masterpieces "” the six finished novels, Northanger Abbey, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion "” work on a small scale; she spoke of them as paintings on "œa little bit of ivory two inches wide." Their artistry, however, is beloved and studied everywhere. An unmarried woman living a quiet but full life in the English provinces, Austen wrote this letter, full of the acute social observances so typical of her novels, to her closest friend, her sister Cassandra. Her letters to Cassandra form one of the most important correspondences of her life; of those extant, this letter is one of the longest. It was written from her brother Henry's home in London, where Austen stayed from October 4 to December 16 in 1815. The people mentioned in the letter are brothers, sisters-in-law, nieces, and friends, as well as a handful of unidentified personages. The "P.R." is the Prince Regent, who "had read and admired all [her] publications." In addition to enjoying the social whirl of London, Austen is busy correcting the proofs for Emma, published by John Murray in December of that year (but dated 1816):

I did mention the P.R. "” in my note to Mr. Murray, it brought me a fine compliment in return; whether it has done any other good I do not know, but Henry thought it worth trying. "” The Printers continue to supply me very well, I am advanced in vol. 3 to my arra-root, upon which peculiar style of spelling, there is a modest query in the Margin. "” I will not forget Anna's arrow-root. "” I hope you have told Martha of my first resolution of letting nobody know that I might dedicate &c "” for fear of being obliged to do it "” & that she is thoroughly convinced of my being influenced now by nothing but the most mercenary motives....

Jane Austen. Autograph letter, signed, to Cassandra Austen, November 26, [1815].
The New York Public Library, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.


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