My dear Cassandra, Where shall I begin? Which of all my important nothings shall I tell you first? – Jane Austen, June 15, 1808
Two years ago I purchased the lovely illustrated volume My Dear Cassandra by Penelope Hughes-Hallet (1990). Inspired by Jane Austen’s close relationship with her sister Cassandra, it is chockablock full of her letters embellished with beautiful Georgian and Regency-era color illustrations of landscapes, portraits and buildings mentioned in her correspondence. Sadly, the book is out of print, but can still be purchased online through book dealers at Amazon and Advanced Book Exchange. It was also issued under The Illustrated Letters of Jane Austen in 1996. It is a treasure trove of information on the era and a wonderful glimpse into two famous sister’s correspondence.
On April 1 of this year, Penelope Hughes-Hallet passed away at age 82. Born Penelope Fairbain in London in 1927, she spent her early childhood at Patience Close in Steventon, Hampshire (formerly known in Austen’s time as Glebe Farm). Since Steventon was also Jane Austen’s town of birth, we can imagine that the famous authoress’ life permeated her early life and later inspired her interest in the Regency-era leaving us with four fascinating books, two of which are richly illustrated editions: My Dear Cassandra (1990) and Home at Grasmere: The Wordsworths and the Lakes (1994). Her final book was a novel The Immortal Dinner (2000) inspired by the 1817 dinner-party given in London by the painter Benjamin Haydon whose guests included poets Wordsworth and Keats, author Charles Lamb and other significant men arts and science of the day. It received high praise from critics when it was released and is on my to be read list.
Regretfully, as in many cases with living authors who wish to remain in the background, there was very little information about Hughes-Hallet online when I researched her when I purchased the book. Her obituary in the Telegraph online fills in quite a bit more than we usually see for a minor author and is written with reverence and personal insight, almost like it was from a family member or personal friend. Though it answers my questions about her life and career, I am still craving more sumptuous illustrated editions and clever prose from this author. I think I am so drawn to her work and life because I admire her choices, enthusiasm, perspective and legacy. She seems to have had it all. Raised in Steventon, married with a lovely family and her final years as a respected author. Life does not get much better. R.I.P.