A Letter from Jane Austen to William Shakespeare

Chawton, Hampshire, January, 1813

Dear Mr. Shakespeare,

I hope you will permit this unexpected intrusion on your time and patience; however, I have long anticipated writing you a letter, and I have at last worked up sufficient courage to do so.

This letter is from an acolyte: a celebrant at your temple of genius; and I am taking up my pen, not in want of a favor, but only to thank you for setting me an example that has been of profound and consistent inspiration throughout my little life as a writer.

(I use the adjective “little” in a manner of self-deprecation that my mother dislikes; she says frequently to me: “Jane, you may be short or tall, but you are never little!”)

My second sustained attempt at novel was an effort entitled First Impressions. I wrote it in my early twenties – and recently revised it, and have retitled it Pride and Prejudice. I am taking the liberty of enclosing a copy for you, since it has just been published! It is only the second publication of my own work that I have undergone; it is in three volumes; and I am so pleased with myself when I look upon the finished product that I am insufferable to be with.

The reason I am making so bold as to write you this letter is to express my sincere thanks to you, since it is one of your plays that provided the inspiration for Pride and Prejudice. When you read it, as I hope you will, you will see that the central relationship between the two main characters is inspired by one of your most famous plays.

Not a soul who has thus far read or reviewed this book has noted the source of my inspiration; but I know that you will recognize in Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy your own creations, Beatrice and Benedick from Much Ado About Nothing.

Each pair of lovers disagree, fight, argue and scrape heads over everything under the sun, from manners to morals, until at last they admit how much they love each other and fall happily into each other’s arms. I know that you invented this literary conceit of the ‘warring couple’ as a romantic partnership, and I here acknowledge and thank you for the idea.

I am not, of course, the only author since Much Ado About Nothing to borrow this idea from you: many of the greatest plays and novels in English, Irish and Continental literature have done the same.

Once again I thank you for being the inspiration for every author in the English language since the day that you put down your pen. We are all in your debt in everything that we, as writers, can ever do.

I remain always and for all time,

Your humble servant,

Jane Austen*

* This letter, found by Ken Ludwig, author of How To Teach Your Children Shakespeare, was sent by Mr. Ludwig to Random House “with gratitude.” In his note to Random House, Mr. Ludwig observes that Miss Austen’s sentiments are extremely similar to those that he expresses in How To Teach Your Children Shakespeare: viz., that every great author since 1600 has known their Shakespeare and learned from him; and that we, as readers, young and old, can never truly understand these writers unless we know a little Shakespeare ourselves.

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