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"Flames" by Esther Byrne

From the diary of Cassandra Austen, sister of Jane Austen

I have a choice, one which I fear may attract some consternation and regret. Circumstances dictate that I must make a decision soon, as time pushes me on like an angry mother lamenting filial disobedience.

I have in my possession many letters written in your fair hand; my dear, departed sister. They hold within them much that is secret; secret and steeped in venom, the venomous barbs with which only you knew how to pierce. You were private, and you confided in me many things too dreadful to see the light of day. You were not in the habit of withholding your scathing understanding of the very darkest edges of the human condition.

And as I walk through the winter of my life, I fear that there will come a day when the world seeks to know what was hidden in the private chambers of your heart.

But what right do they have to speak of your heart? What claim can they make upon your laughter and your tears? You and I shared more than your novels, more than your stories and your imaginings. You let me in, utterly, and between us we made a pair, which some struggled to tell apart.

I was always there, the useful sister, bidden to a bedchamber of childbirth, chained to the scrubbings of a dirty floor. And I was content to do it, to be the ‘sensible and pleasing Cassandra’, my head always ‘full of joints of mutton and doses of rhubarb’, so that you might be everything that your talent would create.

You called me a phoenix once, and I have kept that image close to my heart, even now, after all of these years. I am old, and increasingly of little good to anyone, but I remember what you said, and I sincerely hope that there will be another rising once all is sunk into the ashes. Not for myself, but for you, dear sister. For you and your blessed children; the brilliant works you left behind.

It has been my privilege to care for them and help them to their proper place, and now I am tired.

I busy myself in my garden and I knit calmly by the fire, but I am lonely. All have left me, and I am burdened with the oppressive hours of a life now spent in painful isolation. I find the hours have leant me great means of reflecting on your words, and I imagine how others may feel and judge without understanding the real nature of who you were.

Your tongue and your talent were tied together; one did not exist without the other, though I fear this will not be recognised if your ungenteel utterances are laid bare.

I feel honour bound to protect you as I prepare to follow you into the unknown; to follow you as you once followed me to school, because you could not bear to be separated.

You have been gone these many years, but I love you still, and I know in my heart what I must do. This will hurt me, but it will hurt you more if I do not act.

I have given them pieces, but the masterpiece that was the true Jane Austen shall remain with me.

I have shared your work, but I will not share you.

I will commit your letters to the flames.

I have made my choice. I had truthfully made it before I even took up my quill, and I take this action now, not out of pride, or selfishness, or jealousy.

My dearest Jane, forgive me.

This is an act of love.

Esther Byrne is a writer from Yorkshire, UK. She has had short stories published with, Toasted Cheese and Secret Attic. In 2021, she was runner-up for the Val Wood Yorkshire prize.

She lives with chronic illness and is passionate about encouraging people with disabilities to express themselves creatively.

You can see more of her work at


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