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]

This App Lets You Download Free E-Books, Magazines, Comic Books, and Audiobooks From Your Library

boggy22, iStock via Getty Images
boggy22, iStock via Getty Images

Even if your local library is closed during the novel coronavirus outbreak, you can still use your library card in quarantine. As Thrillist reports, Libby is an app that works with local libraries to give you free access to audiobooks, e-books, comic books, and magazines wherever you are.

Libby, an app from the digital reading company Overdrive, is connected to 90 percent of public libraries in North America. To use the app, just enter the information from your library card and start browsing digital titles available through your local branches. If you don't have a library card yet, some participating libraries will allow you to sign up for a digital card in the app. That way, you don't have to leave home to start reading.

As more people are looking for e-books and audiobooks to pass the time at home, Overdrive has made it possible for multiple users to check out the same title at once. That means as more libraries shift to a 100 percent online loan system for the time being, it will be easier to meet their patrons' needs.

No matter what your current literary mood may be, you should have no trouble finding something to read on Libby. Downloadable titles from the New York Public Library currently available through the app include the e-book of Becoming by Michelle Obama, the e-book of Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer, and the audiobook of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. After you download a book, you can send it to your Kindle device, and all items are automatically returned on their due date. Download the free app today to start browsing.

[h/t Thrillist]

5 People Who Were Amazingly Productive In Quarantine

William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare
Hulton Archive/Stringer/Getty Images

Life has changed rapidly since WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11, 2020. As the novel coronavirus that causes the disease has spread across the U.S., offices have closed, public spaces have emptied, and officials have urged people to stay home as much as possible. Many Americans have suddenly found themselves with more free time (at least the ones without kids home from school to take care of) and limited ways to spend it. Isolation or quarantine is a great time to prioritize your mental and physical well-being, but if you also want to use it to be productive, you have plenty of historical role models to choose from. William Shakespeare wasn’t the only person who produced some of his best work during a pandemic—here are some other great thinkers and artists who used social distancing to their advantage.

1. William Shakespeare

“William Shakespeare wrote King Lear in quarantine” is exactly the type of exaggerated story you’d expect to see spread during a wild news cycle, but this is one viral tidbit that’s rooted in truth. Shakespeare was an actor and shareholder with The King’s Men theater troupe when the bubonic plague forced London theaters to close in the early 17th century. The official rule was that after weeks, when the death toll exceeded 30, public playhouses had to shut down. This meant that the theater industry was paralyzed for much of 1606 when the plague returned to the city. After suddenly finding himself without a steady job and lots of free time, Shakespeare got to writing. He composed King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra before the year was over.

2. Isaac Newton

Isaac Newton dispersing light with a glass prism.
Isaac Newton dispersing light with a glass prism.
Apic/Getty Images

A few decades after an isolated Shakespeare wrote some of his most famous plays, Isaac Newton found himself having to avoid disease in England. In 1665, when Newton was in his early 20s, one of the last major outbreaks of the bubonic plague hit the country. Classes at Cambridge University were canceled, so Newton retreated to his family estate roughly 60 miles away to continue his studies there. He didn’t have to worry about responding to professors' emails or video conferencing into classes, and with zero structure, he excelled. The young mathematician produced some of his best work during his year in quarantine, writing the papers that would become early calculus and developing his theories on optics while playing with prisms in his bedroom. This was also the time when his theory of gravity germinated. While an apple likely didn’t hit Newton on the head, there was an apple tree outside his window that may have inspired his revelation.

3. Edvard Munch

The Scream painter Edvard Munch didn’t just witness the Spanish Flu pandemic change the world around him—he contracted the disease around the beginning of 1919, while living in Norway. But instead of becoming one of its many victims, Munch lived to continue making great art. As soon as he felt physically capable, he gathered his painting supplies and began capturing his physical state. Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu shows him with thinning hair and a gaunt face sitting in front of his sickbed.

4. Thomas Nashe

Engraving of Thomas Nashe.
Engraving of Thomas Nashe.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Thomas Nashe was an Elizabethan playwright who gained fame around the same time as William Shakespeare. When the bubonic plague hit London in 1592, Nashe fled to the English countryside to avoid infection. This was the same time he wrote Summers' Last Will and Testament, a play that reflects his experiences living through the pandemic. One famous passage reads:

Adieu, farewell earths blisse,
This world uncertaine is,
Fond are lifes lustful joyes,
Death proves them all but toyes,
None from his darts can flye;
I am sick, I must dye:
Lord, have mercy on us.

5. Giovanni Boccaccio

Portrait of Giovanni Boccaccio.
Portrait of Giovanni Boccaccio.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Florentine writer and poet Giovanni Boccaccio was personally affected by the bubonic plague. When it hit Florence in 1348, both his father and stepmother succumbed to the disease. Boccaccio survived the outbreak by fleeing the city and hiding out in the Tuscan countryside. During this period, he wrote The Decameron [PDF], a collection of novellas framed as stories a group of friends tell each other while quarantined inside a villa during the plague.

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