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]

Can You Identify the Classic Novel by Its Opening Lines?

Annotations in Copy of Shakespeare's First Folio May Have Been John Milton's

GeorgiosArt/iStock via Getty Images
GeorgiosArt/iStock via Getty Images

It's a well-known literary fact that William Shakespeare had an enormous influence on "Paradise Lost" poet John Milton, and new evidence suggests that super fan Milton—who even wrote a poem called "On Shakespeare"—might have owned his idol's first folio.

The folio, which contains 36 of Shakespeare’s plays, was published in 1623—seven years after the Bard’s death. An estimated 750 first folios were printed, with only 233 of them known to have survived, including one with annotations written throughout it. As it turns out, those scribbles might be Milton's.

According to The Guardian, Cambridge University fellow Jason Scott-Warren believes that Milton wrote those important annotations. Scott-Warren read an article about an anonymous annotator written by Pennsylvania State University English professor Claire Bourne. The Folio copy in question has been stored in the Free Library of Philadelphia since 1944, and Bourne was able to date the annotator back to the mid-1600s. (Milton died in 1674.) It was Scott-Warren who noticed that the handwritten notes looked similar to Milton’s handwriting.

"It shows you the firsthand encounter between two great writers, which you don’t often get to see, especially in this period,” Scott-Warren told The Guardian. “A lot of that kind of evidence is lost, so that’s really exciting.”

If the writing does indeed belong to Milton, it’s not the first time the poet has left notes on another writer's work; he supposedly marked up his copy of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Life of Dante as well. Scott-Warren and Bourne plan to pair up to find out if Milton left annotations on any other notable works.

"It was, until a few days ago, simply too much to hope that Milton’s own copy of Shakespeare might have survived—and yet the evidence here so far is persuasive,” Dr. Will Poole, a fellow and tutor at Oxford's New College said. "This may be one of the most important literary discoveries of modern times."

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