An exhibition offering a rare chance to see some of Jane Austen's letters has opened at Cambridge University Library. The correspondence on display is held by three different Cambridge collections. This is the first time that the letters have been shown together.

Austen’s letter is rich in detail about Bath, some damp accommodation, “the exorbitant price of fish”, and current fashion (“Black gauze Cloaks are worn as much as anything”).

On 5 May 1801 the novelist Jane Austen sat down in an upper room of a terraced house in Bath to write to her sister Cassandra. She had that day arrived in the popular spa town, following her father’s decision to leave the family home at Steventon in Hampshire.This decision had been distressing to Austen, who was 25 years old when she wrote this letter.

Austen’s letter is rich in detail about Bath, some damp accommodation, “the exorbitant price of fish”, and current fashion (“Black gauze Cloaks are worn as much as anything”). She would go on to set parts of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion in the town which she described to her sister as being “all vapour, shadow, smoke & confusion”.

This letter is the earliest of the correspondence displayed in an exhibition at Cambridge University Library to mark the 200th anniversary of Austen’s death on 18 July 1817. ‘Jane Austen: Letters and Readers’ exhibits three manuscript letters held in Cambridge collections: the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge University Library and King’s College. Only about 160 letters written by Austen survive worldwide.

‘Jane Austen: Letters and Readers’, which runs from 28 March to 8 April 2017, is a rare chance to view these precious letters along with other significant items relating to Austen in the University Library’s collection. It is the first time that the letters have been shown side by side.

The other two letters on display relate to the publication of Emma, Austen’s much-loved novel of 1816. An exchange of letters between Austen and Frances Parker, Countess of Morley, to whom Austen sent a copy of Emma, provides an insight into Austen’s contemporary readership.

Although Austen remained widely unknown during her lifetime and her novels were published anonymously, her reputation was growing, notably among aristocratic circles. In her letter to Austen, Frances Parker speaks of her intimacy with Austen’s characters, the “Bennetts [sic], Bertrams, Norriss & all their admirable predecessors”.

Frances Parker’s private responses give scholars valuable information as to how Austen’s work was being received. Elsewhere, the Countess testified to not liking Emma as much as Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park, because of its lack of story. Intriguingly, Parker herself was suspected by some to be the author of Austen’s fiction.

The last of the letters in the exhibition, dated 1 April 1816, is a short message from Austen to her publisher, the influential John Murray. In it, Austen discusses the novelist Walter Scott’s review of Emma, which was the first extended appreciation in print of Austen’s writing.

Scott recognised Austen’s innovative talent in “keeping close to common incidents, and to such characters as occupy the ordinary walks of life”. Austen also refers in this letter to another admirer, the Prince Regent, to whom the novel is (probably unwillingly) dedicated.

Alongside these letters, printed works are exhibited, including first editions of Austen’s fiction and items from the collection of Geoffrey Keynes, Austen’s bibliographer. A highlight from the Keynes collection is Oliver Goldsmith’s An History of the earth, and animated nature (1774), one of the few books known to have been owned by Jane Austen. Her signature inside the front cover, dated 1799, is on display.

The exhibition coincides with a conference at Trinity College (29-31 March 2017) to celebrate, in particular, the bicentenary of Sanditon, Jane Austen’s last, unfinished novel. The manuscript of Sanditon, which Austen was writing in the final year of her life, is held at King’s College. The last page is dated ‘March 18’. Austen died exactly four months later on 18 July 1817.

Participants in the conference will have the chance to see at King’s the manuscript of Sanditon, with other items from the College’s rich Jane Austen collection, including the manuscript continuation of the novel (in private ownership), written by Anna Lefroy, Austen’s niece. Lefroy was close to her aunt and received Austen’s literary advice. The two manuscripts are exhibited together for the first time.

Austen’s great-nephew Augustus Austen-Leigh was Provost of King’s between 1889 and 1905.  He married Florence Emma Lefroy, another Austen descendent (her great-great niece). Florence’s sister, Mary Isabella Lefroy, gave the manuscript of Sanditon to King’s in memory of “the most popular Provost, and Provostess “Kings” has ever had”.

‘Jane Austen: Letters and Readers’ runs from 28 March to 8 April 2017, 9am-6.30pm weekdays, 9am-5pm Saturdays, closed Sundays, in the entrance hall of Cambridge University Library. No charge.

For full details of the Trinity conference, events and registrations see:

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