University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Using Personal Sources: Jane Austen’s Letters

Eleanor Doyle, a second year History student at the University of Portsmouth, wrote the following blog entry on one of Jane Austen’s letters to her sister Cassandra for the Introduction to Historical Research Unit. Eleanor discusses how we can use personal sources such as this to understand more about an author’s personal relationships as well as wider contemporary experiences. The unit is co-ordinated by Dr Maria Cannon, Lecturer in Early Modern History at Portsmouth.

Jane Austen’s reputation as a celebrated English novelist is well established. However, her letters to her sister, Cassandra Austen, provide a rewarding insight into her as an individual. This blog will focus on a letter Jane sent to her sister in September 1813. [1] Studying Jane through her own words seems particularly appropriate when considering Robert Liddell’s view that her novels, such as Pride and Prejudice, were “her true form of expression.” [2] However, this identifies a significant academic debate: Liddell prioritises the value of Jane’s novels, while Elaine Bander and Robert Chapman argue that the letters reveal personal aspects of Jane. [3] This blog favours the latter interpretation and will demonstrate how this letter makes it possible to understand and value Jane’s relationship with Cassandra, as well as helping us to learn significantly about Jane and her close female friends’ attitudes to fashion and clothing.  Therefore, while the limitations of this letter will be discussed, this blog maintains that it offers a unique perspective into Jane Austen’s life.

Portrait of Jane Austen (c. 1810) by her sister Cassandra

The value of this letter cannot be understood without recognising the author’s relationship with the intended reader, Cassandra. The first sentence acknowledges it is a reply to Cassandra’s letter and that this letter, written “after dinner” follow’s Jane’s earlier reply. [4] Although a single letter cannot be used to prove a pattern, Elaine Bander recognises that the sisters wrote to each other two or three times a week. [5] Furthermore, the frequency and content of their letters suggests a close bond between the two sisters. Mary August Austen-Leigh notes that they were educated together since time apart from her “beloved sister” would have “broken her [Jane’s] heart.” [6] This close bond is best evidenced in this letter in the thoughtfulness Jane demonstrates in waiting to hear if her sister likes the colour of ‘the Gown’ she sent to her. [7] Furthermore, Carol Houlihan Flynn notes that the ease and informality with which Jane wrote to her sister, using dashes to “casually break up endless paragraphs” confirms their deep bond. For example, Jane’s discussion of the new caps she and Fanny bought is immediately followed by concern for her brother Henry. [8] Since these two matters have no apparent link, the seemingly chaotic structure of this letter should be understood, as Joan Rees notes, as evidence of the relationship “between two close and affectionate sisters.” [9] This demonstrates, therefore, that Jane’s letters offer an insight into her relationship with her sister that could not be understood through reference to her novels alone.

The letter’s content also reveals a greater understanding of contemporary attitudes to fashion and clothing. There are numerous references made to items of clothing throughout the letter such as ‘gowns’, ‘caps’, ‘stockgs’ (stockings), and “a white silk Handkf” (handkerchief). [10] However, this letter provides more than a list of popular items. It also identifies that some items such as the caps were made elsewhere since Jane records their arrival, along with their descriptions: such as “white sarsenet and Lace”. [11] However, because Jane discusses being “tempted” by some ‘Edging” and purchasing “some very nice plaiting Lace”, as well as mentioning Fanny buying “Net for Anna’s gown”, it can be inferred that at least some of their clothes were made by the women. [12] This is confirmed by Sarah Tytler, who praises Jane’s needlework skills as having “exquisite finish”; a view also echoed by Hilary Davison. [13] Therefore, this letter strongly suggests that Jane and her close friends were involved in making their own clothes. As Davison has noted, this is very difficult to evidence by using a material culture approach alone. This, then, demonstrates the value of personal sources to resolve issues in studies of material culture. However, the frequency with which fabric and style are discussed suggests that Jane’s letters could also be used as a means by which to investigate contemporary fashion. Claire Tomalin recognises that Cassandra and Jane often wrote to each other about fashion and fabrics. [14] Therefore, it would be appropriate to conclude that these letters provide a unique insight into the activities of Jane and her close female friends. The insight provided into Jane’s life as a relatively wealthy woman in the early nineteenth century is significant and identifies areas for further investigation.

Finally, it has been demonstrated that this single letter reveals more about the life of Jane Austen than might be expected, and thus deserves further consideration by academics. Fittingly, Roger Sales argues that the collection of Jane’s letters remains “the single most neglected historical source for this period”. [15] However, it must also be recognised that this letter, and the collection it belongs to, has limitations. Firstly, as has been discussed, this letter, along with the majority of other letters compiled by Chapman, were sent to Cassandra, who edited and destroyed parts of Jane’s letters before she passed her collection on. [16] Consequently, it is impossible to know whether valuable letters were lost. However, it is arguable that Cassandra’s editing is further evidence of her close relationship with Jane and perhaps an attempt to censor or to highlight what she considered to be important. [17] Since their letters reflect their personal relationship it is possible that she believed some of the content to be unimportant or too sensitive to be read by others. Sales’ view that the letters allowed Jane and her contemporaries to “lose the ‘countenance’” expected of them in public would support this view. [18] It is unwise to suggest that a true idea of Jane Austen can be understood through her letters. As Marian Dobson has recognised, most academic opinion suggests letters offer a place for the individual to discuss their feelings rather than show their true self. [19] Rees has also acknowledged (in the case of Harold Nicolson) that much academic criticism has focused on the lack of interesting content in such letters. [20] An example of this is perhaps the “Eighteen pence due to my Mother” than Jane encloses. [21] However, the more recent historiographical shift to focusing on the ‘mundane’ and valuable ‘nothingness’ in these letters to help explain wider contemporary experiences is highly important. [22] The findings of this blog about Jane’s letter have indeed shown that the seemingly small or insignificant details, such as the lace she bought, actually offer important insights into her life. [23]

This analysis of Jane Austen’s letter to her sister demonstrates that this personal document allows us a deeper understanding of Jane’s life. This letter offers specific detail on Jane’s relationship with her sister and illuminates aspects of Jane’s experience of fashion and clothing. Although our understanding of Jane Austen would greatly benefit from a comparative analysis studying all of her letters, this work has shown that her life is more richly understood by using her private letters to her sister.



[1] Jane Austen, “Thursday 16th September 1813,” R.W. Chapman, Jane Austen’s Letters to her sister Cassandra and others, volume 3 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1932), 325-328.

[2] Elaine Bander, “Jane Austen’s World: Jane Austen’s Words,” Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal 37 (2015): 186; Robert Liddell, The Novels of Jane Austen (London: Longmans, Green and Co, 1963), 143.

[3] Bander, “Jane Austen’s World,” 186; R.W. Chapman, Jane Austen Facts and Problems (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1948), 1-2.

[4] Austen, “Thursday 16th September 1813.”

[5] Bander, “Jane Austen’s World,” 187 -188.

[6] Mary August Austen-Leigh, Personal Aspects of Jane Austen (London: John Murray, 1920), 21.

[7] Austen, “Thursday 16th September 1813.”

[8] Ibid.

[9] Joan Rees, Jane Austen: Woman and Writer (London: Robert Hale & Company, 1976), 52.

[10] Austen, “Thursday 16th September 1813.”

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Sarah Tytler, Jane Austen and Her Works (London: Cassell, Petter Galpin & Co, 1880), 11. Quoted in Roger Sales, Jane Austen and Representations of Regency England (London: Routledge, 1994), 4;  James Edward Austen-Leigh, A Memoir of Jane Austen and Other Family Recollections, ed. by Kathryn Sutherland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 77. Quoted in Hilary Davison, “Reconstructing Jane Austen’s Silk Pelisse, 1812-1814,” Costume 49, no.2 (2015): 211.

[14] Claire Tomalin, Jane Austen: A Life (London: Penguin Books, 1997), 112.

[15] Sales, Jane Austen and Representations, xiv.

[16] R.W. Chapman, Jane Austen’s Letters to her sister Cassandra and others, volume 3 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1932); Carol Houlihan Flynn, “The Letters,” in The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen ed. Edward Copeland and Juliet McMaster (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 100; Rees, Jane Austen: Woman, 13; Robert Liddell, The Novels of Jane Austen (London: Longmans, Green and Co, 1963), 145.

[17] Houlihan Flynn, “The Letters,” 100.

[18] Sales, Jane Austen and Representations, xiv.

[19] Miriam Dobson, “Letters” in Reading Primary Sources: The Interpretation of Texts from Nineteenth and Twentieth Century History, ed. by Miriam Dobson and Benjamin Zieman (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009), 60.

[20] Harold Nicholson, Report Jane Austen Society (1948). Quoted in Rees, Jane Austen: Woman, 52.

[21] Austen, Thursday 16th September 1813.

[22] Dobson, “Letters,” 58-60; Houlihan Flynn, “Letters,”110-113.

[23] Austen, “Thursday 16th September 1813.

Source: Austen, Jane. “Thursday 16th September 1813,” R. W. Chapman, Jane Austen’s Letters to her sister Cassandra and others Volume 3, 325-328. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1932.


Eleanor Doyle is President of the University of Portsmouth Students’ Union History Society.

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