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“We must think the best & hope the best & do the best.” Jane Austen wrote this line in a letter to her sister Cassandra on November 26, 1815, when their brother Henry was very ill, and I’ve returned to it many times over the years that I’ve been studying her life and letters. Henry has been hoping he’ll be able to travel to Oxford for a few days, but although he “gets out in his Garden every day … at present his inclination for doing more seems over” and “his feelings are for continuing where he is, through the next two months.” “One knows the uncertainty of all this,” Jane acknowledges, “but should it be so, we must think the best & hope the best & do the best.”

"We must think the best & hope the best & do the best." - Jane Austen

This is not the “syringa, iv’ry pure” of Cowper’s line, but I thought it was pretty anyway. “I could not do without a Syringa, for the sake of Cowper’s Line” (Jane to Cassandra, February 8 and 9, 1807)

She tells Cassandra that “Henry calls himself stronger every day & Mr. H. keeps on approving his Pulse – which seems generally better than ever – but still they will not let him be well. – The fever is not yet quite removed. – The Medicine he takes (the same as before you went) is cheifly to improve his Stomach, & only a little aperient. He is so well, that I cannot think why he is not perfectly well.”

She was determined to be optimistic in the face of death, just as she was eighteen months later after Henry had recovered and she herself was ill. She wrote to her friend Anne Sharp on May 22, 1817 that while “inspite of my hopes & promises when I wrote to you I have since been very ill indeed,” “Now, I am getting well again, & indeed have been gradually tho’ slowly recovering my strength for the last three weeks. I can sit up in my bed & employ myself, … & really am equal to being out of bed, but that the posture is thought good for me.” She was so well, it seems, that she could not think why she was not perfectly well.

Later in that same letter to Miss Sharp there’s another example of her “thinking the best.” She’s grateful for the kindness of those who are caring for her, and she concludes, “In short, if I live to be an old Woman I must expect to wish I had died now, blessed in the tenderness of such a family, & before I had survived either them or their affection.”

Jane Austen died 198 years ago today, on July 18, 1817.

I mentioned a few weeks ago that I was entertained by the only line in her letters in which she explicitly mentions her ambition: “I wore my Aunt’s gown & handkercheif, & my hair was at least tidy, which was all my ambition” (from a letter she wrote to Cassandra on November 20 and 21, 1800). I like the idea of putting this ironic line together with her more serious ambition to “think the best & hope the best & do the best.” What should we aim for, in ordinary life or under extraordinary duress? “The best.”

Quotations are from the fourth edition of Jane Austen’s Letters, edited by Deirdre Le Faye (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).