My dear Cassandra,' wrote Jane Austen to her sister on Saturday, March 5, 1814. 'Do not be angry with me for beginning another letter to you. I have read [Byron's poem] the Corsair, mended my petticoat and have nothing else to do ...'
Deirdre Le Faye, the editor of this new edition of Jane Austen's letters, writes that Austen's letters to Cassandra are 'the equivalent of telephone calls between the sisters'.
But there is a better comparison. These letters are exactly like the affectionate, hastily written emails with which so many of us keep in touch with our friends and family.
After Jane's death both her sister and her favourite niece, Fanny, destroyed bundles of her letters. Their loss is lamentable, for the correspondence that survives gives a sparkling, intimate portrait of the novelist.
In 1870, her nephew, the Rev James Austen-Leigh, published a memoir of his aunt, quoting some of her letters with the patronising caveat that 'the reader must be warned not to expect too much from them ... for they treat only of the details of domestic life'.
But for modern readers, it is the domestic detail that makes the letters so fascinating - that and Jane's sharp wit. The letters are acerbic to the point of savagery about the tedium of provincial social life. 'Miss Debary, Susan and Sally made their appearance and I was as civil to them as their bad breath would allow me,' runs one fairly mild example.
Jane Austen's biographer, Claire Tomalin, writes 'the most striking aspect of Jane's adult letters is their defensiveness. They lack tenderness towards herself as much as towards others ... They are the letters of someone who does not open her heart'. They are also, perhaps, the letters of someone who doesn't dare open her heart, for fear of what she might find there.
In 1805, three years after she had turned down what she must have known would be her last proposal of marriage, she wrote to Cassandra of an acquaintance: 'Poor Mrs Stent! It has been her lot to be always in the way; but we must be merciful, for perhaps in time we may come to be Mrs Stents ourselves - unequal to anything and unwelcome to everybody.'
Between such moments of clearsightedness there is a great deal of playfulness and fun. Even advancing middle age has its redeeming features: 'As I must leave off being young, I find many Douceurs in being a sort of Chaperon for I am put on the sofa near the fire and can drink as much wine as I like.'
Jane's vivid capacity for enjoyment is marked in her correspondence, especially in her descriptions of clothes - a constant topic in the letters to Cassandra. 'I am amused by the present style of female dress - the coloured petticoats with braces over the white spencers and enormous bonnets are quite entertaining.'
This volume concludes with Cassandra Austen's grief-stricken letter to Fanny, describing Jane's final illness.
'She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure', wrote Cassandra.
And in reading these letters, a little of that golden warmth falls on us, too.JANE-AUSTENS-LETTERS-COLLECTED-AND-EDITED-BY-DEIRDRE-LE-FAYE.