How it Began

The minute I saw the letter, I knew it was hers.

There was no mistaking it: the salutation, the tiny, precise handwriting, the date, the content itself, all confirmed its ancient status and authorship.

I came upon it entirely by accident. It lay buried between the pages of a very old book of eighteenth-century British poetry that I’d found at a used bookstore in Oxford—an impulsive purchase I’d made to add to my library back home and to keep me company during a few days of sightseeing in England.

It was to be a quick trip—less than a week. When I’d learned that my boyfriend, Dr. Stephen Theodore, was attending a medical conference in London, I hadn’t been able to resist tagging along. Although I knew he’d be tied up almost the entire time, it was a great excuse to do some touring on my own. My first stop was Oxford, the site of my unfinished education. I still felt pangs about having to abandon my doctoral studies in English literature, and returning to the “city of dreaming spires” filled me with nostalgia. I’d spent a lovely June afternoon and evening exploring my favorite old haunts—wishing, every step of the way, that I could have shared them with Stephen—but we kept in constant touch via e-mail, phone, and text.

I’d found the book in a dusty pile on a shop’s back table, unappreciated and ignored. I could see why. It wasn’t the prettiest of volumes. It was still in its original, temporary binding—the pages hastily sewn together inside a cheap, cardboardlike cover, with the title printed on a tiny paper label pasted on the spine. The publication date was missing, but I judged the book to be at least two hundred years old.

I didn’t have a chance to really study my new treasure until the morning after I’d bought it. I awoke to grey and stormy skies, and after a leisurely English breakfast at my B&B, I decided to wait out the rain with a cup of coffee in my cozy little room. I sank down into a comfortable chair by the window, turned on the old-fashioned lamp, and carefully opened the aging volume.

The pages at the beginning were brown and soiled at the edges, but as I went further in they became clean and white, with only a light brown speckling in the margins. I slowly thumbed through the volume, smiling at the familiar, much-loved poems set in antique type. The edges of the pages were ragged where the original owner had used a knife to cut open the folds. Near the end of the book, I noticed that a few pages hadn’t been cut, but were still joined at the edge, creating a kind of pocket. I borrowed a letter opener from the B&B proprietor and gently sliced open the remaining pages. To my surprise, tucked in between the leaves of the last pocket, I discovered a single sheet of paper neatly folded into envelope shape and size.

I opened it. It was an unfinished letter. The paper was of substantial weight and bore a watermark and the distinctive ribbing from the paper molds of yesteryear. The ink was black-brown. The date and elegant cursive hand proclaimed that it had been written by quill. I read the greeting, and my heart jumped. With disbelieving eyes, I read it through.

Tuesday 3 September 1816

My dearest Cassandra,

Thank you for your Letter, which was truly welcome. I am much obliged to you for writing so soon after your arrival, and for sharing the particulars of your Lodgings, which I suspect provided far more entertainment for the reader, than for the writer.—Although your Bedroom sounds comfortable enough, I am sorry you had no fire, and am appalled that Mrs. Potter thinks to charge three Guineas a week for such a place! Cheltenham is clearly to be preferred in May! Your Pelisse is no doubt very happy it made the journey, for it will be much worn. I hope Mary gains more benefit from the waters than I did. Do let me know how she gets on. We are well here. The illness which I suffered at the time of your going has very kindly taken its leave, without so much as a good-bye, and I am happy to say that my back has given me very little pain the past few days. I am nursing myself into as beautiful a state as I can, so as to better enjoy Edward’s visit. He is a great pleasure to me. He is writing a Novel—We have all heard it, and it is very good and clever. I believe it could be a first-rate work, if only he can bring himself to finish it.

Listening to Edward’s composition has put me in something of a melancholy state and given rise to Feelings I had thought long got over, and of which I may give vent only to you. I promise to indulge for no more than five minutes.—It brings to mind that early Manuscript of my own, which went missing at Greenbriar in Devonshire. Even at a distance of fourteen years, I cannot help but think of it with a pang of fondness, sorrow, and regret, as one would a lost child.—Do you recall my theory as to how it came to be lost? I still maintain that it was all vanity, nonsense, and wounded pride. I should never have read it out to you that night during our stay but kept it safe with all the others—although we did have a good laugh! (What banner years for me—two Proposals!) It is tragic that I had only the one Copy.—And yet perhaps it was simply fate, and it was never meant to be seen. You did persuade me to tell no one about it while I was writing it, and you were right; it might indeed have troubled that most valued member of our family. Every time I thought of trying to write it out again, something happened to prevent it—all our travels—so difficult, you will recall, to work at Sydney Place—and then papa died, and it was quite impossible. To recall it now from memory would prove to be a task beyond my power. I have been inspired, however. Yesterday, I sat down and poked fun at my poor, lost creation with a piece of foolishness I call Plan Of A Novel. It is in part what I remember of that Story, embellished with hints from Fanny and others who have been kind enough to suggest what I ought to write next. I hope it will make you laugh.—Which reminds me. To-night, we are to drink tea with

It ended there—a fragment, unfinished, and unsigned.

Hands trembling, I read the letter a second time, and a third. There was only one person who could have written that letter; one person, and she happened to be one of the most famous and beloved authors of all time: Jane Austen. That she was my personal favorite author—that I had studied her life and work in detail, and that she had inspired the topic of my never-completed dissertation—only added to my astonishment and excitement.

If this was authentic—and I felt in my bones that it was—then I had come upon something extremely rare and valuable. Jane’s sister Cassandra, shortly before her death, had burned most of her correspondence with Jane, or expunged those parts she preferred to keep private, before giving them as mementos to her nieces and nephews. Some 161 letters survived and had been published—and I was certain this was not among them.

This was something new…

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