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Bill curates: Jane Austen’s letters, 1814-1816

June 5, 2020

Bill curates is an occasional series where I delve into Sue’s vast archive, stretching back to May 2009, and choose a post for us to revisit.

Book coverI said, when I introduced this series, that Sue began writing Whispering Gums in May 2009. It seems that once begun she could not stop. There are WG posts for May 2,4,5,6,10,14,15,16,19,21,22,27,28,30,31. The May 31 post is titled, prophetically, “When too much Jane Austen is barely enough”, and is in fact the third Jane Austen post for the month. Today I reprise the second. But there will be more.

Diedre Le Faye ed., Jane Austen’s Letters, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2014

More Jane Austen from Whispering Gums (here)

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My original post

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!

Jane Austen's desk with quill

Austen’s desk, Chawton. (Courtesy: Monster @ flickr.com)

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?

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When Bill offered this series to help me out, he said he’d start with Eve Langley’s The pea pickers, which he did. I wondered what he would choose next, but I should have guessed that he would have turned to another favourite that we share, Jane Austen.

We’d love all you other Austenites to show yourselves and tell us what you most love about her.

21 Comments leave one →
  1. June 5, 2020 1:55 am

    Thanks for that article. I’m sure her letters are wonderful. Even the excerpts you show here are lovely – it’s the language. You know, when I’m reading Jane Austen I begin to speak like her characters. Everything is “prodigious”! Also I sit up very straight!

    • June 5, 2020 6:48 am

      I love C19th English, all those sonorous phrases, but when I go to write it I can’t quite pull it off. Perhaps I should try sitting straighter – I could never manage that well brought up young woman’s thing of sitting without touching the chair back.

      • June 5, 2020 8:24 am

        Yoga will help you pull that off Bill! As for writing like that, no I can’t do it either – which I suppose is not surprising.

    • June 5, 2020 8:23 am

      Haha Em (Pink Roses), I love that impact on you of reading her. What a hoot. If only more books had such impact on our vocabulary and posture!

    • June 5, 2020 10:04 am

      I began reading JA as a teenager, and I know she influenced my vocabulary and writing style. In the diaries in which I poured out my soul (now mercifully all lost to posterity) I used the same sentence structures and all.
      It took university and the influence of the modernists to bring me into the C20th…

      • June 5, 2020 10:22 am

        There are plenty of worse places to start. Her writing is very clear as well as of course grammatical. And, while you might not want us to read your journals, I am surprised you don’t want to re-read them yourself.

        • June 5, 2020 10:58 am

          Yes, me too Bill. I wish I’d written journals when I was young but I never did really. I’d love to read what I felt and thought back then.

        • June 5, 2020 12:26 pm

          Heavens no, Bill! My adolescent rantings are best forgotten.

      • June 5, 2020 10:56 am

        Haha, that’s fascinating Lisa. I suspect my writing was also influenced to a degree by her style but I’m not specifically aware of it.

  2. buriedinprint permalink
    June 5, 2020 8:05 am

    Hahaha. How funny that there are THAT many posts in the first month. But I think that was true for me, in early days, too. And I think I’ve said this before, but it’s lovely to see that these older thoughts/ideas/reviews will be revisited.

    I’m not an Austenite/Janeite, but I do have a collection of her letters and I have read all the completed novels. A couple of them more than once. I suppose one thing that I love about her is the fact that even people who do not read a lot, but do at least dabble in literature studies, have read her books and there’s something shared there that one can discuss, even when literary tastes diverge from there. I’ve also enjoyed many of the film adaptations. And I recently LOVED Jo Baker’s Longbourn, even though I’m not generally interested in the books which work to continue on with her stories. Ah, that doesn’t sound suitably thankful for her stories, which I have thoroughly enjoyed. But I’m reluctant to oversell my familiarity because so many people truly love love love her books and the world they portray and I don’t feel I’m part of that devotion.

    • June 5, 2020 8:13 am

      WG is the Janeite, I’m just a dilettante. I thought Longbourn was ok but (and Sue will strike me down for saying this on her blog) I have been listening to and enjoying the entirely ridiculous Mr Darcy’s Daughters.

      • June 5, 2020 8:33 am

        What, Bill? Strike you down! No, actually, tell me why. I’ve been give a couple of the fan fiction novels over the years, and that may be one of them. The only two I’ve read so far is Longbourn and Death comes to Pemberley because my Jane Austen group did them.

        I’m like you, I thought Longbourn was ok, as I’ve explained to Buried.

      • buriedinprint permalink
        June 12, 2020 6:45 am

        Hahaha. Oh, dear. Well, you WERE invited.

    • June 5, 2020 8:30 am

      Anyone who really loves her writing and has read al her books, some or all more than once is a devotee I’d say, Buried, because that’s the important stuff. Getting into the nitty gritty that we Janeites/Austenites do is our bit of enjoyment and our wish to understand her as much as we can.

      I liked some aspects of Longbourn, the social history side, but not really what she did with the story.

  3. George permalink
    June 5, 2020 9:02 am

    She didn’t give us a great deal of the good and literary sides of Mr. Collins, did she? And I don’t remember Edmund in Mansfield Park as being distinguished by learning–kindness, perhaps.

    Actually, given her clerical background, I took the “curates” in the title to be a noun, not a verb.

    Truth and fiction: In most novels, one person is making up the fiction. In every society, a great number of very different persons are making up the reality that we call truth. I can remember a great number of notably stupid, clever, kind, or cruel actions that took place before my eyes. Whether any of them would look plausible in a novel would depend entirely on the skill of the author. An example along the Sir Thomas lines comes to mind: a programmer I worked with would play tackle football on the weekends. One Monday he came in to work feeling poorly. When he flew his nose, the skin under one eye puffed out as if there was an egg under it–he had cracked a bone so that the sinus had crack to seep out through. How would that look in a novel?

    • June 5, 2020 10:26 am

      George, I’m the Bill who curates. I’m afraid altar boy is as far as I got in that direction. My father was an Anglican lay preacher and that was enough curates for me. I think JA quite likes Edmund though he’s a bit bossy for me.

    • June 5, 2020 10:51 am

      True, George, about Mr Collins, though I think he liked to think he was literary!

      Haha re “curates”. I should have thought of that.

      And you’re right, the skill of the author, and the genre they’re writing in, play a big role in plausibility.

  4. June 6, 2020 6:20 pm

    This was a superb post. Jane Austen was one of the greatest creative minds that ever lived. That quotation about fiction is very insightful as to her thinking and writing I would imagine a peek into these letters would be well worth it. I may spend some time and delve into them myself.

    • June 6, 2020 7:15 pm

      Thanks Brian … she was amazing wasn’t she. Her letters have a lot of ordinary stuff in them, but even they give you insight into her mind and interests.

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