Can You Decipher the Playful 1817 Letter Jane Austen Sent to Her Niece in Code?

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Jane Austen—homebrewer, musician, and, oh, one of the most famous novelists in the English language—didn’t limit her prose to the fictional world. She was a prolific correspondent, sending missives to friends and relatives (and occasionally soliciting feedback on her work). Some of these were quite playful, as a letter highlighted recently on the Two Nerdy History Girls blog shows.

Austen’s 1817 letter to her young niece, Cassandra Esten Austen, is a bit hard to read even if you are an expert in 19th century handwriting styles. That’s because all the words are spelled backwards. Instead of signing off with “Good bye my dear Cassy,” for instance, Austen wrote “Doog eyb ym raed Yssac.” The letter served as both a New Year’s greeting and a puzzle for the 8-year-old to solve.

A close-up of a handwritten letter with words written backwards
The Morgan Library & Museum, MA 1034.6. Photography by Schecter Lee, 2009.

The letter is currently on view at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City as part of the museum’s "Treasures From the Vault" exhibition, having been donated to the institution in 1975 by a Jane Austen collector and Morgan Library regular named Alberta Burke.

While any of Austen’s communications would be of interest to fans and literary scholars, this one is particularly unique as a historical object. In it, Austen wishes Cassandra a happy new year and writes about a visit she received from six of Cassandra’s cousins the day before, telling her about the cake they ate, feeding robins, Frank’s Latin studies, and Sally’s new green dress.

A handwritten letter from Jane Austen
The Morgan Library & Museum, MA 1034.6. Photography by Schecter Lee, 2009.

“Those simple details give a sense of the texture of Austen’s everyday life—and that she thinks to communicate them to her young niece makes clear that ‘Aunt Jane’ knew just the kinds of tidbits a child of that age would relish,” Christine Nelson, the Morgan’s literary and historic manuscripts curator, tells Mental Floss.

Austen would die just six months later, making it a valuable look at the end of her life. As far as we know, no other backwards-written letters like the one sent to Cassandra have survived in Austen’s archives, according to Nelson, but she says she wouldn’t be surprised if the famous author wrote more. “Given her love of riddles and linguistic games (which comes through, of course, in her novels), I have to believe that other family members were the recipients of similarly playful epistolary gifts,” Nelson says.

If you make it to New York City, you can go decode the letter yourself in person. It will be on display at the Morgan Library until March 11, 2018.

[h/t Two Nerdy History Girls]

House Boasting a ‘Harry Potter Room’ Under the Stairs Hits the Market in San Diego

Cupboard under the stairs featured on the Warner Bros. Studio Tour: The Making of Harry Potter in London.
Cupboard under the stairs featured on the Warner Bros. Studio Tour: The Making of Harry Potter in London.
Matt Robinson, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When Harry Potter fans dream of living like the boy wizard, they may picture Harry's cozy quarters in the Gryffindor dormitory at Hogwarts. One home owner in San Diego, California is trying to spin one of Harry's much less idyllic living situations as a magical feature. As The San Diego Union-Tribune reports, a listing of a three-bedroom house for sale in the city's Logan Heights neighborhood boasts a "Harry Potter room"—a.k.a storage room under the stairs.

In the Harry Potter books, the cupboard under the stairs of the Dursley residence served as Harry's bedroom before he enrolled in Hogwarts. Harry was eager to escape the cramped, dusty space, but thanks to the series' massive success, a similar feature in a real-world home may be a selling point for Harry Potter fans.

Kristin Rye, the seller of the San Diego house, told The Union-Tribune she would read Harry Potter books to her son, though she wouldn't describe herself as a super fan. As for why she characterized her closet as a “large ‘Harry Potter’ storage room underneath stairs" in her real estate listing, she said it was the most accurate description she could think of. “It’s just this closet under the stairs that goes back and is pretty much like a Harry Potter room. I don’t know how else to describe it," she told the newspaper.

Beyond the cupboard under the stairs, Rye's listing doesn't bear much resemblance to the cookie-cutter, suburban home of 4 Privet Drive. Nearly a century old, the San Diego house has the same cobwebs and a musty smells you might expect from the Hogwarts dungeons, the newspaper reports. But there are some perks, including a parking spot and backyard space for a garden or pull-up bar. The 1322-square-foot home is listed at $425,000—cheaper than the median price of $620,000 for a resale single-family home in the area.

If you want to live like a wizard, you don't necessarily need to start by moving under a staircase. In North Yorkshire, England, a cottage modeled after Hagrid's Hut is available to rent on a nightly basis.

[h/t The San Diego Union-Tribune]

10 Surprising Facts About E.B. White

Born on July 11, 1899 in Mount Vernon, New York, E.B. White wrote books, essays, and poems for both children and adults. Although you’ve probably read (and re-read) his books Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, there’s so much more to learn about White. In honor of his birthday, here are 10 things you might not know about the author of some of the most beloved children’s books of all time.

1. E.B. White went by "Andy."

Although children around the world know him as E.B. White, his friends and family called him Andy for most of his life. Born Elwyn Brooks White on July 11, 1899, he got the nickname Andy while he was a student at Cornell University. He shared a last name with Andrew Dickson White, the co-founder and first president of Cornell, and Cornell tradition dictated that all students with the last name White were given the nickname Andy. This suited Elwyn just fine; he once said, "I never liked Elwyn. My mother just hung it on me because she'd run out of names. I was her sixth child." It stuck, and he went by Andy for the rest of his life.

2. White wrote an obituary his dog for The New Yorker.

White’s love of animals is evident in his writing, and his dog Daisy was no exception. In 1932, he wrote an obituary for Daisy after a New York City cab hit her in front of a florist’s shop on University Place. Published in The New Yorker, the obituary describes Daisy’s life, from her birth to her untimely death at 3 years old: “Her life was full of incident but not of accomplishment … Once she slipped her leash and chased a horse for three blocks through heavy traffic, in the carking belief that she was an effective agent against horses … She died sniffing life, and enjoying it.”

3. White married his editor.

White began writing for The New Yorker in the mid 1920s. In 1926, he met Katharine Sergeant Angell, the magazine's fiction editor. Reminiscing about his first meeting with Katharine in the lobby of the magazine, he told The New York Times that she "had a lot of black hair and was very beautiful." Six years older than White, Katharine was a divorced mother with two kids, but the couple married in 1929 and eventually moved to a farmhouse in Maine.

"I soon realized I had made no mistake in my choice of a wife," White later said. "I was helping her pack an overnight bag one afternoon when she said, 'Put in some tooth twine.' I knew then that a girl who called dental floss tooth twine was the girl for me." Katharine continued to work remotely for The New Yorker, and the two were married until her death in 1977.

4. White's style guide for writers became a huge success.

The Elements of Style, a book that teaches people how to write effectively, clearly, and succinctly, is arguably the most famous writer’s bible in America. White’s English professor at Cornell, William Strunk Jr., originally wrote the book’s rules of grammar and composition in 1918. In 1959, White revised the book, and it has since sold millions of copies. In an interview with The Paris Review, White said: "My role in the revival of Strunk’s book was a fluke—just something I took on because I was not doing anything else at the time. It cost me a year out of my life, so little did I know about grammar."

5. White was a hypochondriac.

Throughout his life, White was a hypochondriac who worried that, for example, his sunburn was a brain tumor or an ant bite was fatal. In a piece for The New Yorker, his stepson, Roger Angell, posited that White’s anxieties were due to his childhood. White was the youngest of six kids (his parents were in their 40s when he was born), so minor ailments—such as a cough or stomachache—would likely elicit more parental attention and nurturing as the cherished baby of the family.

6. White struggled with anxiety.

In addition to his hypochondria, White suffered from a general anxiety that began in childhood. He described himself as "frightened but not unhappy … I lacked for nothing except confidence." As an adult, he was anxious about subways crashing, meeting new people, and speaking in public. At restaurants, he was overly cautious about accidentally eating clams (he claimed one had poisoned him once). He skipped weddings, parties, his Presidential Medal of Freedom awards ceremony, and even his wife’s (private) burial service, describing his anxiety as a "peculiar kind of disability."

7. White was an avid sailor.

Despite his massive success as a writer, White disliked reading indoors, much preferring outdoor activities. "I am restless and would rather sail a boat than crack a book," he remarked. That is, unless that book was about one of his favorite topics: sailing. “But when I latch onto a book like They Live by the Wind, by Wendell P. Bradley, I am glued tight to the chair. It is because Bradley wrote about something that has always fascinated (and uplifted) me—sailing." White injected his love of sailing into his book Stuart Little, which contains a sailboat race, and his son Joel became a world-renowned boat designer. Once, Joel made a boat named in honor of his daughter Martha, and White carved four dolphins on each side of the bow and sailed it afterward.

8. White fought to keep Hollywood's adaptation of Charlotte's Web true to the book.

In 1973, the animation studio Hanna-Barbera released an animated musical film version of Charlotte’s Web. The studio wanted to change the book’s ending by not having Charlotte die, but White pushed back against a happier ending. Although the studio obliged, White and his wife reportedly hated the animated Charlotte’s Web, regretting that it was made and calling it a travesty.

9. White was a major procrastinator.

White was open about his struggles with writing and procrastination. In an interview, he revealed that he would walk around his house, straightening picture frames and rugs, before sitting down to write. "Delay is natural to a writer," White admitted. But he cautioned that writers have to somehow conquer procrastination: "A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper."

10. White fought Alzheimer's disease with grace and humor.

Before White died in October 1985, he suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. His son read his father’s books and essays aloud, and White usually enjoyed hearing his writing. Because he didn’t remember that he was the author of the words, he would pooh-pooh some passages, saying that the writing wasn’t good enough. But when he liked other passages, he would ask his son, Joel, who wrote the words. "You did, Dad," Joel said. White replied, "Well, not bad."

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