The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen Online - Syrie James

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 En glish 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 tea 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.