Jane’s letters to Cassandra fulfilled a very important purpose. They were to lift the spirits. They are full of gossip and jokes. Sometimes the jokes fall flat, like the time Jane passed on the news of a stillbirth. She comments, “it was owing to a fright. – I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband.” It was not heartlessness just a black joke that did not work. There are similarities with the stand up comedians of today who sometimes do not hit the mark or hit the wrong mark.
There are also letters that are serious and heartfelt. But mostly the letters that have survived are like modern emails and text messaging where you keep jokes running to make your friends or family laugh. Humour was important to Jane. When life could serve up a pretty grim limiting world it is important to keep your spirits up to emphasise the funny. This was what many of the surviving letters of Jane Austen were for. She was helping to keep Cassandra’s spirits up and in turn this kept her own up. Throughout Jane’s letters there are multiple references to the fact that the letters make them happy. Twenty-three year old Jane writes to Cassandra, “I have written enough to make you happy”.
None of Cassandra’s everyday letters survive so it is not possible to independently analyse her style, but we have what Jane said about them. Jane says, no doubt inoffensively mockingly, that her sister Cassandra was the “one of the finest comic writers of the age”. Obviously, Jane is being a little mischievous, as is her usual tone, but it clearly tells us that Cassandra’s letters to Jane were meant to be humorous and uplifting.
Humour was a way to be emotionally intelligent. It was a way then and it is still a way now. And it is quite delicious to think Austen could be so wicked and mischievous as to say: “it was owing to a fright. – I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband.” Not at all like the author of stories about morals and manners! And just a tad subversive. And not so very nice after all.
- The Real Regency Hoyden: according to Jane Austen (angelynschmid.com)