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