Penelope Hughes-Hallet, Author of My Dear Cassandra Succumbs at 82

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.

My Dear Cassandra, or The Illustrated Letters of Jane Austen is one of my favorite editions in my Austen library. Please seek it out and take a gander. You will not be disappointed.

My Personal Austen: Does Reading Jane Austen Make Me a Better Person?

Image of a Silhouette of Jane AustenIf anyone out there has ever wondered where I get my inspiration to write continually about one subject – Jane Austen – for six months and counting, you might be amused at what from time-to-time inspires those brain cells into action. Many times, I will be Googling along and happen upon something that I was not searching for in the first place. Serendipity and all that! Often I get an inspiration while driving in my car! Go figure. Here is a meanderin’ tale of my trail of discovery and inspiration for this post today!

Recently I purchased the most amazing book My Dear Cassandra: The Letters of Jane Austen, selected and introduced by Penelope Hughes-Hallet, Clarkson, Collins, New York (1990). I had been aware of this book for years, but had never had the pleasure of seeing it first hand. A few months ago I read a beaming review of it by Book Chronicle whose opinions I respect and admire, resulting in it being pushed up to the top of my ‘must have’ Austen book queue. Yes, gentle readers; – I keep a list! La! 

Image of the cover of My Dear Cassandra, edited by Penelope Hughes-Hallet, Clarson & Potter, New York (1990)

The book is sadly no longer in print, which is *never* a deferent to this obsessive used book lover! I was able to track down an American first edition in ‘like new’ condition at Advance Book Exchange (www.abe.com). Hurrah! It arrived last week, and it is an eye popper; beautifully designed, copiously illustrated and reverently edited. It was a spiritual experience for me, like one of those beautiful Medieval illuminated manuscripts that monks laboured over for years to glorify the Bible! The holy grail of Austen books. Wow! Serious book swoon here!  Continue reading