Jane Austen’s letters, 1814-1816
By 1814, Jane Austen had published Sense and sensibility (1811) and Pride and prejudice (1813). Mansfield Park (1814) was about to be published, and Northanger Abbey had been written many years previously but was not yet published. She was over half way through her major published oeuvre of 6 books and had less than 4 years to live. Tragedy!
There have been several editions of her letters, the most recent being Jane Austen’s letters, published in 1995 and edited by Jane Austen scholar, Deirdre Le Faye. Of the estimated 3000 letters she wrote, only about 160 survive so it is well to savour them slowly. I have just (re)read the letters from 1814 to 1816, and found much to delight a Janeite. They contain some of her most famous quotes regarding her subject-matter and style, advice to her nieces on novel-writing, criticisms of other writing which provide insight into her own writing, as well as a lot of detail about her daily life.
One of her most famous comments was made to her niece Anna (nèe Austen) Lefroy in September 1814:
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.
Somewhat less well known is her response to James Stanier Clarke, the Prince Regent’s chaplain and librarian, who suggested she write a novel about an English Clergyman. She writes:
The comic part of the character I might be equal to, but not the Good, the Enthusiastic, the Literary. Such a Man’s conversation must at times be on subjects of Science & Philosophy of which I know nothing […] A Classical Education, or at any rate, a very extensive acquaintance with English Literature, Ancient and Modern, appears to me quite Indispensable for the person who would do any justice to your Clergyman. And I think I may boast myself to be, with all possible Vanity, the most unlearned, & uninformed Female who ever dared to be an Authoress. (December 1815)
False modesty perhaps, but she she knew what she was comfortable writing and this was not it. She makes clear in her letters exactly what she thinks makes good writing and one of those things is to write what you know. She tells Anna that it is fine to let some characters go to Ireland but not to describe their time there “as you know nothing of the Manners there” (August 1814). Interestingly, it would have been around this time that she was writing Emma – some of whose characters go to Ireland but no details are given of their life there. She also tells Anna that fiction must appear to be realistic as well as be realistic when she says:
I have scratched out Sir Tho: from walking with the other Men to the Stables &c the very day after his breaking his arm – for though I find your Papa did walk out immediately after his arm was set, I think it can be so little usual as to appear unnatural in a book. (August 1814)
In other words, truth is allowed to be stranger than fiction!
In the September 1814 letter referred to earlier, she advises Anna to keep her characters consistent, and to be careful about providing too “minute” descriptions. And in another letter written that same September she warns Anna off “common Novel style” such as creating a character who is “a handsome, amiable, unexceptionable Young Man (such as do not much abound in real Life)” and to not have a character “plunge into a ‘vortex of Dissipation’ … it is such thorough novel slang – and so old, that I dare say Adam met with it in the first novel he opened”!
There is a lot in these letters – about writing and getting published, the weather, fashion, health, and the like. However, in the interests of brevity I will close with something completely different but which, given the current popularity of Christos Tsiolkas’ The slap, seems very apposite. She writes this in 1815 about a young boy of her acquaintance: “we thought him a very fine boy, but in terrible want of Discipline – I hope he gets a wholesome thump, or two, whenever it is necessary”. If Jane thinks it’s a good idea, who are we to argue?