Monday, October 10, 2011

Jane Austen's letters

Jane Austen's Letters, Deirdre Le Faye, ed.

Reading Irene Collins' book Jane Austen and the Clergy made me want to re-read Jane Austen's letters.  As I mentioned in my post about the book, Collins quotes frequently from the letters.  Many of the quotes were familiar, and brief as they were, they still seemed to speak in Austen's voice.

I've read Deirdre Le Faye's edition of the letters several times over the past few years.  The first time was rather frustrating, especially reading Jane's letters to her sister Cassandra, which make up the bulk of the book.  They are almost telegraphic in style, and I felt they were in a code to which I had no key.  I was also concerned with checking every reference note, trying to keep track of the many, many people mentioned in the letters, as well as the locations.  As I have read more about Austen and her family, and have figured out the more important people in her world, I can read the letters with less effort and more enjoyment.

I have now accepted that I will never fully decode the letters to Cassandra.  In that telegraphic style, Jane's brief sentences and one-liners conveyed a world of meaning to her sister, based on their shared lives.  In these letters especially is a world of context that is lost to us, and perhaps more importantly, a continuing conversation, of which we catch only snatches.  Jane noted this herself:
"I have now attained the true art of letter-writing, which we are always told, is to express on paper exactly what one would say to the same person by word of mouth; I have been talking to you as fast as I could the whole of this letter" (L.29, 1801).
I also have a strong feeling that Jane, the younger sister, was constantly trying to make Cassandra laugh, or to spark a reaction out of her.  To my mind, this accounts for some of the lines that seem heartless or in questionable taste, the ones that are always quoted to show that Jane Austen wasn't a meek little spinster, like "Mrs Hall of Sherbourn was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child . . . I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband" (L.10, 1798).  These particularly waspish comments appear more in the early letters, and they are more in keeping with the broad humor of some of the Early Works.

I noted this time the very different tones in the letters to her brother Frank, to their family friend and adopted sister Martha Lloyd, and to her nieces and nephew.  Though there are of course family references and jokes, they seem almost formal in comparison to the letters to Cassandra.  Letters to her niece Anna, regarding a novel that Anna was writing, amount to almost a tutorial on writing fiction, giving us Jane's views on characterization, location, and plot:
"You are now collecting your People delightfully, getting them exactly into such a spot as is the delight of my life; - 3 or 4 Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on" (L.107, 1814).
I love the references to Jane's own work:
"I would not let Martha read First Impressions again upon any account, & am very glad that I did not leave it in your power. -She is very cunning, but I see through her design; -she means to publish it from Memory, & one more perusal must enable her to do so" (L.21, 1799).
"My greatest anxiety at present is that this 4th work [Emma] shd not disgrace what was good in the others. But on this point I will do myself the justice to declare that whatever may be my wishes for its' success, I am very strongly haunted by the idea that to those Readers who have preferred P&P. it will appear inferior in Wit, & to those who have preferred MP. very inferior in good Sense"  (L132(D), 1815).
Le Faye includes at the end of the book the letters that Cassandra Austen wrote to her niece Fanny Austen Knight, describing Jane's last days and her death, sharing her grief at the loss of "a treasure, such a Sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed."  Cassandra was the first editor of her sister's letters, physically removing parts of letters and apparently destroying others entirely, possibly because they contained frank discussions of family members.  Though we can regret what Cassandra destroyed, in reading these letters I am so grateful for what she retained, and for this marvelous view into Jane Austen's mind and heart.

On a side note, this is my 100th post.  Somehow that doesn't seem possible, and then somehow it feels like I've been doing this forever.  Thank you for reading along.


  1. Congratulations on your 100th post - an exciting achievement! I've never read Austen's letters except as extracts in other books but now I really want to, particularly to see how her tone varies depending on who she is writing too. I know I've read parts of her letters to female family members but I'm not sure I've read any of her letters to Frank or her nephews.

  2. I'm going to look for these...I've now read all the novels (finally), and two or three biographies, and I find myself liking her (!) so much and wanting to read more.

    So glad you're reading The House of the Seven Gables with us! I hope you're enjoying it. (I am...finding it a little strange in spots and suprisingly funny in others.)

    Congratulations on your 100th!

  3. I think you would both enjoy these very much. Claire, there is a fascinating series of letters to Fanny Austen Knight, about whether she should marry this one particular young man, analyzing her feelings and also Austen's general ideas about marriage. Audrey, reading the letters makes me really like her as well!

    I've just started Seven Gables, and since I don't remember anything really but the little shop, I'm interested to see how the story develops.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!