I mentioned in my post on the second volume of Jane Austen’s Juvenilia, that I might do a separate post on one of its longer pieces, Lesley Castle. It’s one of her three longer pieces in that volume, and is often published separately or in other compilations, so warrants some attention, methinks!
Lesley Castle is another of Austen’s epistolary pieces. According to Juliet McMaster, writing in Persuasions Online, it represented a “step forward” in epistolary novels because the writers correspond with each other, rather than to someone “off-stage”. In this piece, in fact, there are several correspondents, writing to each other, resulting in different perspectives being offered on some of the main “characters”.
Lesley Castle is essentially an unfinished collection of correspondence between various “friends” who talk mostly of marriage – and of each other. Like many of the Juvenilia pieces, it demonstrates Austen’s love of writing about wickedness. It starts with Margaret writing of her brother’s adulterous wife running off, leaving not only her husband but her 2-year-old child, and of her widowed father, “fluttering about the streets of London, gay, dissipated and thoughtless at the age of 57”. Her correspondent, Charlotte, reports back about her tragedy, the death of her sister’s fiancé from falling off his horse, but she is more interested in food than in her bereaved sister. Insensitively, she describes her distraught sister’s face being “as White as a Whipt syllabub“. Such-self-centredness is rife in Austen – and you can hear her cheeky teenage self laughing as she wrote it!
Interestingly, this story is set largely in Scotland, which Austen never visited, and rarely mentioned in her works. Why Scotland, then? One reason could be to mock the vogue at the time for things Scottish. Margaret claims that she and her sister are happy there:
But tho’ retired from almost all in the World, (for we visit no one but the M’Leods, the M’Kenzies, the M’Phersons, the M’Cartneys, the M’donalds, the M’Kinnons, the M’lellans, the M’Kays, the Macbeths and the Macduffs) we are neither dull not unhappy …
The inclusions of “the Macbeths and Macduffs” is an additional pointer to Austen’s love of nonsense. She used lists frequently in the Juvenilia, often ending them with something extra “silly” to make her point. As I said in my first Juvenilia post, subtlety was to come in her mature works!
The new Lady Lesley, the aforementioned dissipated father’s new wife, is not so taken. She is also a friend of Charlotte’s and writes to her about her new Scottish-based step-daughters:
I wish my dear Charlotte that you could but behold these Scotch giants; I am sure they would frighten you out of your wits. […] Those girls have no music, but Scotch airs, no drawings but Scotch mountains, and no books but Scotch poems–and I hate everything Scotch.
Charlotte, meanwhile, had written to Margaret about Lady Lesley whom she sees as favouring “haunts of Dissipation” (essentially, cities):
Perhaps however if she finds her health impaired by too much amusement, she may acquire fortitude sufficient to undertake a Journey to Scotland in the hope of finding it at least beneficial to her health, if not conducive to her happiness.
The piece continues in this sort of vein with the correspondents often writing at cross-purposes, and, it must be said, focusing more on self-interest than the needs of others.
Of course, Austen readers always look for hints not only of style and themes (here, self-centredness, snobbishness, sensibility, hypocrisy, country versus city, and marriage) but of characters to come. In Lesley Castle, Charlotte reminds us particularly of a few Emma characters: Mr Woodhouse and his focus on food (though his is of a very particular type), Mrs Elton and her self-centred obliviousness to the needs of others, and, even, says Heller (referenced below) of Miss Bates in her garrulousness.
Margaret is a good example of Austen’s deluded characters who see themselves one way, while showing themselves to be very different. Many of the letters open affectionately, but contain or end with cutting remarks. Margaret, for example, writes to Charlotte complaining about being admired by too “many amiable Young Men” and expressing her “Aversion to being so celebrated both in Public, in Private, in Papers, & in Printshops”. She continues:
How often have I wished that I possessed as little personal Beauty as you do; that my figure were as inelegant; my face as unlovely; and my Appearance as unpleasing as yours!
Lesley Castle is probably not for every-one. So, rather than try to convince you to read it, I’ll conclude with Zoë Heller in The Guardian. Writing about Austen’s youthful work, she says that “as always in Austen’s work, recklessness with facts and inattention to detail are the rhetorical clues to a deeper-seated, moral carelessness”. How perceptive.
“Juvenilia. Volume the second” (ed. R.W. Chapman & Brian Southam)
in The Oxford illustrated Jane Austen. Vol VI, Minor works
London: Oxford University Press, 1969 (revision)
ISBN: 19 254706 2