With trembling hands, I untied the faded blue ribbon holding the first bundle of letters together.  Forgetting to put on my archiver’s cotton gloves, I delved into the one on top; a folded piece of parchment paper, water marked and stained with what looked like splotches of tar.  It had been sealed, in fact, with a well-placed drop of bubbling tar, as if from the deck of a ship.  Although I was sure this was a literary hoax, I delved in, anxious for a diversion from my research, which had grown quite tedious.

The date was unreadable, a mere blur of ink engulfed in a water mark.  Below the date I could make out the letters HMS but the ship’s name was smudged beyond recognition.  My eyes flew to the body of the letter.

Dear Jane,

How to begin?  How to introduce myself to my own sister, by birth?  A sister who should know me well and have tender feelings for me, but for our parent’s neglect.  Perhaps you do have some recollection of my birth?  Or have you convenientlly forgot, along with the others?  The way you forgot our poor George.  And Aunt Lenora, for that matter.  Out of sight, out of mind, it worked well for our family, did it not?  Then again, there were so very many of us…  Mother and father were forced to chuse which ones to give their attentions to.  I (being the third girl, and painful to look at) was easy to forget.

I was told by my foster mother that I was born in January of 1778, a healthy pink female, bald as a billiard, my face covered with stork bites.  After three months at the breast mother dearest put me out with them, John and Elizabeth Littleworth (their surname tells it all, does it not?  England’s under-valued people, the poor-to-middling, the backbone of our great nation) near two miles away at a Cheesedown farmhouse near Deane. Here I thrived.  Or, at least, I survived.   

Mother farmed you out too, dear sis, to the very same family.  But you, she came back for, once you were out of nappies and past the mewling, puking, bawling stage.  Me, she quite forgot.  At least, I prefer to think she simply forgot me.  Unlike our brother George, who was placed elsewhere because he was dim-witted and had embarassing fits of some sort.  And Edward, lucky Edward, but we’ll speak of him later.

Like you, sister Jane, I lived my first years in the Littleworth’s thatched-roof hovel on the Cheesedown, near Deane; a noisy, mud-floored tenant farmhouse crowded with kids of all ages.  That’s how my foster mother supplemented her husband’s meagre earnings, minding the brats of more well-to-do families.  Because our father was the parson, dear Mrs. Littleworth probably hoped to gain a little influence with the Almighty.  I cannot help but wonder, since they never came for me, if I was not my father’s daughter, afterall.   Or p’raps I was my father’s daughter, but not out of the loins of our dear mother.   But that’s a scandelous thing to say about one’s birth parents.  I prefer to think they simply mislaid me, like a stocking lost under the bed.  And who cares? For what good is a daughter, except to match up and marry off to a wealthy family?    But an ugly girl is so difficult to foist off –unless she comes with a nice dowry.  Yet ugly has served me well, as you shall see.

I write you, hoping you might write a story about me, dearest sister.  It’s a lurid tale, one that Defoe and Cleland would be envious of.   Your brothers are not the only ones who went to sea for their li 

The remaining sentence and last paragraph on the page is washed out and unreadable.  At the very bottom of the page I can make out a closing and signature:

Your forgotten sister, etc. etc.

Lizzie, a.k.a. Carlisle Littleworth Austen

Copyright 2013 by Linda Collison