This chapter begins the process of establishing Regency contexts for Austen’s writings, as well as situating them within critical debates. Cassandra Austen has often been blamed for destroying some of her sister’s letters which may have contained forthright opinions on family and wider matters. It seems likely that she did indeed burn letters and other documents in the years just before her death in 1845. Jo Modert nevertheless suggests that there are also other explanations as to why some of the letters did not survive. Other members of the family such as Henry Austen and his connections suppressed the collections that were in their possession. Some letters held by the family may have been dispersed later on in the century to provide collectors with autographs. 1 One of the arguments here and later on is that the surviving letters should be seen as being both an important literary text and a historical source rather than as a collection that always has to be read with disappointment because of what it might have contained.
The aim of this particular chapter is not to dwell too much on biography but, rather, to concentrate more on some of the thematic and stylistic features of the letters which are repeated in the Regency novels. The first section explores the way in which the letters alternate between keeping and then losing what Austen and her contemporaries called countenance, as a way of contributing to the critical debate about their abusiveness. This is followed by a closely related argument which brings out their highly theatrical qualities and thus their Regency tone. The third section suggests that the representation of themes such as invalidism needs to be seen as being both sustained and political. These sections discuss the letters as a whole, whereas the final one offers a reading of a single letter in order to fill out some of the previous points, as well as to look more closely at thematic movement and structure. Contexts that are established by the chapter include the