Welcome again to All Things Austen in April! Today Shannon Winslow shares a few thoughts about Austen, the doting aunt, as illustrated by her famous “Backwards Letter.”
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Jane may not have had any offspring of her own, but that didn’t mean she suffered from a lack of children in her life. Not at all! Thanks to her brothers, she had plenty of nieces and nephews. James had 3 children, Edward 11, Francis 11 also, and Charles 8 for a total of 33. Wow!
Although Jane never knew some of the younger children, since they were born after her death, she had close, affectionate relationships with several of the older ones, established over the years through extended visits and correspondence. Both Jane and her sister Cassandra were called on to help out in their brothers’ homes at times of illness and childbirth. Then, after Mr. Austen died (and most of the family income with him), the Austen ladies were forced to rely heavily on the hospitality of these same brothers, giving Jane more time with her nieces and nephews. When the ladies at last had a settled home again, at Chawton, James’ three children (James Edward, Anna, and Caroline) lived nearby at the Steventon rectory. They got to know Jane well enough that they all three contributed biographical writings about her after her death.
Jane’s story-telling ability made her a favorite with children, including her nieces and nephews, some of whom she tutored in the art of story-writing later on.
We’re given additional insight into these affectionate relationships through her surviving letters. Below is my favorite: her famous backwards letter, where she spelled each individual word backwards. It receives high marks for creativity and entertainment value.
Ym raed Yssac, I hsiw uoy a yppah wen raey. Ruoy xis snisuoc emac ereh yadretsey dna dah hcae a eceip fo ekac. Siht si elttil Yssac’s yadhtrib, dna ehs si eerht sraey dlo. Knarf sah nugeb gninrael Nital. Ew deef eht Nibor yreve gninrom. Yllas Mahneb sah tog a wen neerg nwog. Teirrah Thgink semoc yreve yad ot daer ot Tnua Ardnassac. Doog eyb ym raed Yssac. Tnua Ardnassac sdnes reh tseb evol, dna os ew od lla. Ruoy Etanoitceffa Tnua, Enaj Netsua
The letter is dated January 6th from Chawton (year unknown). If you’ve managed to decipher it, you know it’s addressed to Cassy (Cassandra) – a very popular moniker amongst the Austen females (Jane’s mother, sister, this niece and her three-year-old cousin also mentioned above).
It’s not easy to read, is it? Nor for me to type (and my spell-check program didn’t take too kindly to it either!). Consider how much more difficult it would have been for Jane to write it out in cursive longhand. I respect the brain power it took to do it. But I guess I’m more impressed that she took the time and trouble, simply to delight her niece. I think Cassy was very lucky to have such an aunt, as were all the others.
Is there a special aunt, like Jane Austen, in your life? Or perhaps you are a special aunt to someone else. Share your story with us!