Jane Austen’s letters, 1811-1813

Mansfield Park book covers

Mansfield Park book covers - Penguin wins

Early in my blogging career I wrote a post on the letters Jane Austen wrote (well, those remaining anyhow) between 1814 and 1816. This was to coincide with my local Jane Austen group’s reading of Emma. This year we are reading Mansfield Park and so decided to read the letters she wrote during her writing of that novel, which was published in 1814.

These letters are less rich than the later ones in terms of containing specific information about her writing style and process, and they can be somewhat demanding to read as they are full of the names of people met and places visited. Le Faye, who edited the edition I read, provides excellent annotations and indexes to the letters so that you can look up the people and the places, but this can be tedious if you just want to get on with it. However, if you go with the flow, not worrying too much about all this detail, you can in fact glean a lot.

The most significant thing you learn, besides her biting wit as you will quickly see from the quotes below, is what a keen observer of people she was. This becomes very clear in a letter written from London in 1811, in which she speaks of visiting some museums:

… I had some amusement at each, tho’ my preference for Men & Women always inclines me to attend more to the company than the sight.

The letters are, consequently, full of her observations of people, and it’s easy to tell that they come from the pen of Jane Austen:

They have been all the summer, in Ramsgate, for her health, she is a poor Honey – the sort of woman who gives me the idea of being determined never to be well – & who likes her spasms & nervousness & the consequence they give her, better than anything else.

And I can’t help thinking that this woman provided the model for Miss Bates in Emma:

Miss Milles was queer as usual and provided us with plenty to laugh at. She undertook in three words to give us the history of Mrs Scudamore’s reconciliation, & then talked on about it for half an hour, using such odd expressions & so foolishly minute that I could hardly keep my countenance.

Many readers of Jane Austen, and I am one of them, see her as a protofeminist. There is a lovely, very Austen-ish, comment in an 1813 letter which supports this view. It regards the poor treatment of the Princess of Wales by her husband, the future George IV:

I suppose all the World is sitting in judgement upon the Princess of Wales’s Letter. Poor Woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman, & because I hate her Husband – but I can hardly forgive her for calling herself “attached and affectionate” to a Man whom she must detest…

And there is this on the education of the children of Reverend Craven:

…She looks very well & her hair is done up with an elegance to do credit to any education … & the appearance of the room, so totally un-school-like, amused me very much. It was full of all the modern Elegancies – & if it had not been for some naked Cupids over the Mantlepiece, which must be a fine study for Girls, one should never have Smelt Instruction.

As many of you probably know, her first novels were not published under her name, but during these years it was becoming harder for her to maintain her anonymity. In 1813, she writes to her brother Frances:

… but the truth is that the Secret has spread so far as to be scarcely the Shadow of a secret now – & that I believe whenever the 3rd [her third novel published, Mansfield Park] appears, I shall not even attempt to tell lies about it. – I shall rather try to make all the Money than all the Mystery I can out of it. – People shall pay for their Knowledge if I can make them.

As the poor daughter of a deceased clergyman, Austen highly valued the money she made from her books.

All this said, she does say a few specific things about writing. I found this one particularly interesting. It’s related to her finally receiving her “own darling Child” (that is, Pride and prejudice). She writes that:

There are a few Typical [typographical] errors – & a ‘said he’ or a ‘said she’ would sometimes make the Dialogue more clear – but ‘I do not write for such dull elves/As have not a great deal of Ingenuity themselves’*.

Hmm … perhaps that’s what Hilary Mantel would like to say to those readers who can’t cope with her use of “he” in Wolf Hall.

Another comment that gives us a sense of what she sees as important in a novel is this on Mary Brunton’s novel Self control:

I am looking over Self Control again, & my opinion is confirmed of its’ being an excellently-meant, elegantly-written Work, without anything of Nature or Probability in it.

Jane Austen, you see, was a realist. And in this section of letters we also discover the amount of research she did to get her facts right in Mansfield Park – ships, hedgerows in Northamptonshire, and buildings in Gibraltar are all things she wanted to get right.

These letters are full of other things too – family, food, and fashion feature heavily, as do the books she’s reading and the theatre she attends. If I have piqued your interest you can read them online here. In the meantime I’ll end with one of my favourite quotes from this section:

By the bye, as I must leave off being young, I find many Douceurs in being a sort of Chaperon for I am put on a Sofa near the Fire & can drink as much wine as I like.

Is it any wonder I like Jane Austen?

* Jane Austen here paraphrases Sir Walter Scott’s lines from his long poem Marmion.

Deirdre Le Faye
Jane Austen’s letters (3rd ed)
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995
ISBN: 9780192832979

Note: The spellings, punctuation etc used in the above quotes come from Le Faye’s edition.

15 thoughts on “Jane Austen’s letters, 1811-1813

  1. I love the quote about the woman “determined never to be well” – I’m sure we all know a few people today who could fit that description… people who enjoy feeling and detailing their various ailments and troubles!

  2. I’ve never seriously read Austen’s letters. Not sure why but you make me think it would be a fun project. (Maybe we need a Letters reading groups!)

  3. Lisa, there’s a silver lining to every cloud, as they say!

    Susan, the letters can be tedious as I say if you get bogged down in all the names, and the doings, and the comings and goings, but there really is a lot in there. There’s a wonderful one where she decides to write short sentences with two full stops to every line. The effect is dramatic – in rhythm of course but also in content. Somehow short sentences become statements of fact with less explication and qualification. It’s quite fascinating. (And it shows her love of language and writing). I like the way my group is doing it – a group at a time. Maybe a Letters and Diaries group would be good – except, who has the time!!

    • Absolutely. Is there any better reason? LOL. This is a rather quote-laden post, but it’s the best way I know of actually demonstrating why some of us like her so much. For too many it’s the romantic movies/miniseries but for the rest of us it’s her clear-eyed observations and the wit with which she expresses them.

  4. Some very useful quotes there! I can see what you mean about her being a keen observer of people.

    “I do not write for such dull elves/As have not a great deal of Ingenuity themselves” – why make life easy for your readers? Austen is a paragon of virtue in this regard compared to some modern writers.

    • I’m not sure whether you mean that to be a compliment to Austen or not! As I said to Tony, this post is more quote-laden than most of mine (though I’ve never averse to a good quote) but it seemed here to be the best way to show what she’s about. The letters aren’t as polished as her novels but they give a good sense of her all the same.

  5. I have this edition of Jane Austen’s Letters, but it’s currently looking at me in an intimidating manner and I’m afraid I’ll never get through them. I’d love to read them however and your way of reading them alongside a certain novel seems a great way to do it.

    • Thanks Iris. It is certainly a good way for me. I read many of her letters (the Chapman version) way back when, but I didn’t get through them all and have always felt a bit guilty about that. I am thoroughly enjoying reading them this way.

  6. What a fabulous idea to read Austen’s letters that she wrote at the same time as the book! I’d love to read Austen’s letters sometime, I so love to read other people’s letters. it brings out the busybody in me. Though it always makes me feel my own letters are so much less in comparison. I’m planning of a reread of Mansfield Park this year. I didn’t much like it when I first read it in college (I think I even called Fanny ‘insipid’ in a paper) so I am curious whether time will have changed my opinion of it.

    • LOL Stefanie, reading letters is well-suited for busy-bodies – and when you read the letters of such a busybody as Jane was you can’t lose! And, like you, it does make me worry about my ponderous, prosaic letters.

      Do tell what you think — I shall be watching your blog and engage when you’ve done it! (I have set up a little blog for my local Jane Austen group, JASACT – link above – which contains some reports by various members of our MP meetings this year.

  7. Hello,
    I was intrigued and prepared to be horrified by the blog title “whispering gums”….it conjured up images of sibilant utterings from a pink mouth devoid of teeth. I now realize this is very European impression and have given myself a shake to realize that in Australia this is an evocative romantic impression.
    Now as to the Jane Austen thread……….I am obsessed with 1811 hence my introduction to the blog in relation to J.A. I must read those letters but as a short cut can anyone inform me if there is any reference to the Peninsular wars or even on a wider canvas the Napoleonic wars? Apparently there is precious little mention of the wars in any of J.A.’s writing. I find this so very odd. The dramatic events in France had been on the boil since 1789 with the revolution and Britain had been in direct opposition to France since the beheading of King Louis xvi in 1793, the whole country was beset by the trials and tribulations brought on by this conflict. Tens of thousands of men had been involved in the wars, more directly since 1803 when the Treaty of Amiens finally collapsed after little more than a year of peace, the wars continued until Waterloo in 1815 including the carnage of the Penisular wars from 1808 to 1815. Nearly a whole generation blighted by the wars and yet hardly a mention by J.A. ? Surely this is taking frivoulous supeficiality too far?

    • LOL Pippa re my blog title. For me Whispering Gums is very evocative of our wonderful bush but I can see how it might be read another way.

      As for JA and the wars. A couple of her brothers were in the Navy, and one of her novels (Persuasion) features naval people quite strongly, but she doesn’t write about the war. A lot of people question this but, if we stop to think about it, do all novelists write about the political events of their time? Did all respected American writers write about 9/11?

      As you would probably guess I do not see JA as frivolously superficial but I do see her as being concerned more with the domestic socio-economic front in her writing than with the political. We do know from her letters that she read widely in fiction and nonfiction – for example she read at least one contemporary book on the Abolition of Slavery (another big issue of her time) – but she tends in the letters not to engage in political discussion but to report on what she is reading, seeing, doing. I’d love to discuss this more with you … but have probably rambled enough for now! Please comment again if you’d like.

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