Looking at Letters from Jane Austen’s Era: Online Resources

What do real letters from Jane Austen’s era look like? As I’ve been planning to write some letters for the year 1814, that question has broken down into many very specific ones: What did people’s ordinary letter-writing handwriting look like? How were letters folded and sealed? How were they addressed? What marks did post offices and postal carriers add to the letters?  Did local and international letters look different? To help answer these questions, I’ve been looking at images of actual letters from the period. I’ve found a number of helpful online resources that I’d like to share with you today.

Jane Austen’s Letters

A letter from Jane Austen to Cassandra Austen, June 1808. (Source)

Of course I need to start with Jane Austen’s own letters, although the harvest is sparse on the web. While her surviving fiction manuscripts are readily viewable online, Austen’s letters are not as accessible.  The Morgan Library has made a few images available of their collection of Jane’s letters to Cassandra. The images offer tantalizing glimpses, as only one side of each sheet is depicted. Don’t miss a very good introductory essay on the technical details of Austen’s writing- her ink, pens, and paper.

Letters from the Shelley Circle

Letter from William Godwin and Fanny Imlay to Mary W. Godwin (later Shelley) and Percy B. Shelley, May 1816. (Source)

Being a famous writer seems to be the best way to get your letters preserved and readable online, as seen on the website accompanying the exhibit “Shelley’s Ghost” put on by the Bodleian and the New York Public Library.  Both institutions have extensive collections relating to the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his circle.  His circle is quite illustrious- his second wife, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, wrote Frankenstein as a teenager after all!  Her parents had also been sensational celebrities in their day- Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin were both famous radical philosophers, and it was their fame that drew Percy Shelley to Mary initially.

My favorite letter in the exhibit is pictured above. The main part of the letter was written by Mary’s father in May 1816 after Shelley (already married) had run off with Mary and her step-sister to the Continent. Godwin was cold and a bit stern in his letter to the runaways, but then he passed the paper on to his step-daughter Fanny Imlay. She filled in every bit of blank space that remained with her own letter, full of love and hurt at their sudden secret departure. She even wrote on the “outside” of the letter, on the flaps that would get folded in when she closed it, just as Austen did in the letter to Cassandra shown above.  She then sealed it with her own seal, engraved with her name “Frances.” It’s addressed to Poste Restante in Geneva and is pocked with a variety of postmarks picked up on the long journey from London.

The other letters in this online exhibit are just as poignant, ranging from the last letters written by Mary Wollstonecraft before her death in childbed to the heartbreaking suicide note left by Percy’s first wife.  I’m also fond of a letter from one of William Godwin’s female fans in 1800– it’s full of significant underlinings, tears of extasy, and a request to burn the letter (something he obviously didn’t do!). Even if you’re not a fan of Frankenstein or the tempestuous lives of the Romantic poets, these letters have so many details of letter-writing practice to offer!

  • Shelley’s Ghost – There are lots of amazing artifacts to explore in this online exhibit, including Mary Shelley’s drafts of Frankenstein and Percy Shelley’s doodles! The section of the exhibit titled Shelley and Mary seems to have the highest density of letters, but there are gems scattered throughout. Some parts of the letters are transcribed for easy reading, while others you may have to zoom in to read (be patient- the zoom takes a while to load).
  • The Abinger Collection at the Bodleian – A large collection of all kinds of papers related to this family.  Look for “Correspondence” in the Table of Contents, and click through to find links to images of individual letters.

Letters from the War of 1812

An 1808 letter from American sailor John Morrison in Breda Prison to Sylvanus Bourne, Consul General of the USA in Amsterdam. (Source)

And now for something a little different: Indiana University’s Lilly Library has an online exhibit on the War of 1812 which is full of letters written by famous statesmen and ordinary folks alike, mostly from the American side. The ones I’m most fascinated by are a group from American sailors who were impressed by the British Navy, then captured by the Dutch and held as prisoners of war. If you are an American history buff or a reader of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels, you’ll know how important an issue the impressment of American sailors was in the lead-up to the war. The sailors wrote or dictated impassioned letters to the American consul in Holland, Sylvanus Bourne, complaining that their imprisonment was unjust since they were not really British combatants and had been wrongly impressed to begin with.  This cache of letters is full of interesting details like different styles of handwriting and spelling. Best of all, it includes images of each page and the outside of the letter, or “cover,” which shows the address and seal.

The whole collection of War of 1812 manuscripts is pretty fantastic, extending from 1776 to 1879. Unfortunately it’s a little difficult to navigate in IU’s Archives Online- new tabs and viewing windows proliferate- but it’s worth clicking around until you figure it out.

  • The War of 1812 – The Lilly Library’s online exhibit is a bit easier to navigate than the Archives Online itself, and places the manuscripts alongside related printed documents. Click on the thumbnails to see the full document in the Archives Online. Here’s a link directly to the Sylvanus Bourne Letters in the exhibit.
  • War of 1812 MSS in Archives Online at IU – Each document is listed by date in the sidebar on the left. I recommend you use the search bar to narrow the field. I searched for ‘letter” to weed out the legal and bureaucratic documents also contained in the archive. A search for “impressment,”  turns up the Sylvanus Bourne letters mentioned above as well as some internal US government letters on the topic.

Postal History and Collectors’ resources

There is an active community of history buffs and collectors who focus just on postal history, especially in the UK. The kind of postage stamp you can collect and put in an album was not invented until 1840.  When looking at earlier periods, the “pre-stamp” era, historians and collectors focus on the written and stamped marks made by postal workers on the “cover” of the letter, the part that faces outside when folded.  Unfortunately for my purposes, they aren’t always as interested in the whole letter!

  • Letters from the Past – This page is an amazing resource, containing pictures and analysis of many individual British letters dating from 1660 to the 1890s – a large number of them from Jane Austen’s era. The author, Eunice Shanahan, has a lot to say about the contents and contexts of letters as well as the post-marks! She also has special expertise in the Regency period, so check out the links at the bottom of the page for more on the postal service of that era.  I’d seen some of this info re-published at other sites like VictorianWeb, so I was very glad to find that the Shanahans are still going strong and adding to their website!
  • Ebay search for “pre-stamp” in the stamps/philately category- Seriously! Postal history collectors and dealers sell a lot of ordinary correspondence from Jane Austen’s era on ebay, and that means there are a lot of informative images available in one place.  Some listings focus on the postmarks on the cover, but others sell and share pictures of complete letters.  Look for listings that say “Letter” or “Entire” rather than “Cover.” It’s a great way to see every-day correspondence from non-famous people.
  • Bath Postal Museum Digital Collection – great images of the outsides of letters from various periods of Bath’s postal history, but almost no information about the interiors of letters.

I hope that gives you a lot to chew on! Have you found any online treasure troves of period letters? Is there something that’s been puzzling you about correspondence from Jane Austen’s era? Let me know- I’d love to hear from you!

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