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The secrets kept between Jane Austen and her best friend

Austen gives female relationships centre stage in many of her novels, as the women struggle to achieve the social and financial stability of marriage in a society that denied them true independence. And it is the friendship between sisters that stands out the most. There is a very good reason for that.

In real life Jane was very close to her sister Cassandra. Many Janeites, when they get in a scrape, like to ask ‘what would Jane do?’—but the better question might be ‘what would Cassandra say?’ After all, Cassandra was the sensible one, keeping our dear Jane in check.

The sisters were life-long companions who wrote to each other almost every day they were apart. Jane probably spent as much time, if not more, writing to Cassandra than she did crafting her novels.

One can only imagine the huge pain Jane's death must have caused Cassandra. As she wrote in a letter not long after, ‘She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow.’

Cassandra outlived Jane by 26 years, during which time she re-read Jane’s letters often. But towards the end of her life, Cassandra burned most of the letters before distributing out the remaining ones to friends and family.

We don’t know what Cassandra chose to edit out from the record. Was Cassandra trying to protect Jane’s memory by hiding some scandal? Was she worried Jane’s caustic wit and unkind words about others, read out of context, would paint her in a bad light? Or had she burned the more mundane letters so only the most sparkling would remain? We will never know for sure. But it seems only fitting Jane and Cassandra, who were so close and shared so much, should have some sisterly secrets that will remain between the two of them for eternity.


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