This book was on my Austen in August reading list.
There is something decidedly voyeuristic about reading the private correspondence of another person. Even if that person happens to have died almost two hundred years ago.
Collections of Jane Austen’s letters have been around since the 1930s, when R. W. Chapman first began assembling them for historians and lovers of the famous author to peruse at will. Since then many have been rediscovered, and the collection has grown with every new edition.
So what might prompt someone to read the letters of Jane Austen? For many historians and scholars, it is a case of wanting to discover more about the life and mind of one of English literature’s greatest heroes. They approach them, no doubt, hoping that her day-to-day correspondence will enlighten the material she presents us with in her novels.
For others, it may simply be a case of wanting to feel ‘closer’ to Austen. A peep into her everyday life would surely offer readers an example of what she might have thought, said, worn… the list goes on.
I must confess that I can’t be sure what my motivation was for wanting to read Austen’s letters. I suppose it was partly a desire to find out more about Austen – her life, manners, company – but also to see whether reading the letters would in any way change my opinion of her work.
In the past, when letter-writing was not just something people did in olde-worlde movies, and the only way to convey news was through paper and ink, many famous writers and politicians elevated letter-writing to the status of a kind of art. Several people wrote letters with the intention of publishing them, knowing that these letters could contribute to the reputation of the writer.
Austen’s letters do not strike me as the kind of things intended for mass perusal. In many ways they are like a riddle, containing a great deal of cryptic information about people and places that are long gone, and events which we could not possibly know about. Austen resists offering scholars much in the way of new insights; the writer of the letters maintains her right to privacy with a relentless zeal. In a range of letters dating from 1796 to 1817, the year she died, Austen writes primarily to her friends and family, exchanging news relevant mostly to the family, and to the neighbourhood that the family inhabits. Reading the letters is rather like following Austen from girlhood, through to adulthood (and, of course, authorship), and finally death. But it is by no means a complete and uninterrupted picture. The letters are full of gaps – literal and metaphoric. Some have been damaged, some lost, some destroyed. This is not so much a picture of Austen’s life as snapshots, or jumbled voices from the past.
For someone like me, obsessed with promoting the image of Austen as Author, the most interesting letters are those in which she talks about her writing. There are letters to her publisher (including one where, writing to demand the return of her manuscript, she writes under the assumed name of Mrs Ashton Dennis, and signs off the letter with her initials – MAD), and several letters which show Austen staying in London, eagerly overseeing the final stages of Emma, and negotiating for a swift publication. She also records the reactions of friends and family to reading her novels, and later in life, offers her nieces long and detailed critiques of the novels they themselves have written.
But it is all to easy to forget, while reading, that unlike anything else Austen wrote, what is being spoken of is real people, places, and events. It is hard not to be moved by the later letters of the collection, which reveal Austen’s worsening health, and then finally, the last letter in the collection written by her and – perhaps rather evocatively – cut off, and incomplete, due to the loss of the rest of the epistle.
The volume concludes with several letters written by Austen’s sister, Cassandra. In a strange way, these letters are the most affecting of all. I think there are few who would not find Cassandra’s letters moving, particularly when she reaches this famous passage:
I have lost a treasure, such a Sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed, – She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow, I had not a thought concealed from her, & it is as if I had lost a part of myself.
(Letter from Cassandra Austen to Fanny Knight, Sunday 20th July 1817)
Or Cassandra’s description of the funerary procession, which she watched from her window (women were not permitted to attend funerals at this time):
… I was determined I would see the last … I watched the little mournful procession the length of the Street & when it turned from my sight & I had lost her for ever-
(Letter from Cassandra Austen to Fanny Knight, Tuesday 29th July 1817)
Reading these final remarks brought back to me, with incredible clarity, the fact that I was reading the words of real people – not the words of characters in books, but the sensations of human beings who had cared deeply for each other. I put the book down with a little disgust, and wondered what I had actually gained by intruding, for a few days, on the private lives of these people. I had certainly not been invited, and I wondered if I had gained as much as I had imagined. Though the letters themselves were incredibly interesting – revealing the voice in which Jane Austen addressed the people she knew best – I couldn’t help wondering if perhaps I had intruded on things that were just a little too private, even after two hundred years.
Rating: 4 Stars