Helen Garner, One day I’ll remember this: Diaries, Volume 2, 1987-1995 (#BookReview)

Helen Garner, One day I'll remember this, book cover

I loved volume 1 of Helen Garner’s diaries, Yellow notebook (my review), last year, and equally enjoyed this second volume, One day I’ll remember this. As with my first volume post, I plan to focus on a couple of threads that particularly interested me.

First though, it’s worth situating these diaries in terms of Garner’s biography. The nine years encompass the writing of her screenplay The last days of chez nous (my review), her novel Cosmo cosmolino (my review), and her non-fiction work, The first stone (read before blogging). This time also covers the beginnings of her relationship with novelist Murray Bail (“V”) and the early years of their marriage. The trajectory of this fraught relationship gave the volume a strong narrative arc, though the volume concludes not on this relationship but her hysterectomy. Read into that what you will.

Like Yellow notebook, volume 2 offers much for Garner fans. It covers similar ground to the first: observations from life around her, snippets of conversations, occasional news items (like the fall of the Berlin Wall), thoughts about other writers, and of course reflections on her own writing. We watch the tortuous development of her relationship with Bail, and the ups and downs of some close friendships. Music and religion feature again. And, there’s a search for home, for a place of her own.

“the little scenes” and “she never invents anything” (1987)

In her preface to The last days of chez nous and Two friends, Garner characterised her writing as “the same old need to shape life’s mess into a seizable story.” Those who know Garner’s writing will know that she was, on the publication of her debut novel Monkey grip (1977), criticised for not writing fiction but just publishing her diaries. This issue of what sort of writer she is, and what sort of writer she wants to be, continues to occupy her in this volume. “My work is very minor”, she worries in 1990. She is not helped by Bail who clearly thinks that her subject matter is not worthy of her writing skills:

I asked V what he ‘really thought’ of my work. He said he thought it was very good but that I should get beyond the subject matter that limited me, ‘those households, what are they called? That you always write about?’ (1992)

So it seems did Z (who, I think, is David Malouf):

V reports Z’s ‘outburst’ against ‘women’s writing’ with its ‘domestic nuances’ which he dislikes and it not interested in. V tries to get me to pick up my upper lip but without success since he doesn’t hide the fact that he agrees with Z. (1989)

It’s not surprising that among the writers whom Garner admires is Canadian Nobel Prize for Literature Winner, Alice Munro, about whom Garner writes, immediately before the above outburst:

Alice Munro is deceptively naturalistic. All that present tense, detail of clothes, household matters, then two or three pages in there’s a gear change and everything gets deeper, more wildly resonant. She doesn’t answer the questions she makes you ask. She wants you to walk away anxious. (1989)

Bail and Malouf, like many, misread Garner if they think her writing is about unimportant stuff. Garner is interested in the sorts of things she admires in writers like Jolley and John McGahern, for example. She says of McGahern that “he goes in very deep, broaching a vast reservoir of sadness, passivity, hopelessness and despair” (1993). She is not at all interested in domesticity for domesticity’s sake but in understanding the darkness in human beings, and “what people do to each other”.

As well as content, Garner talks again about the process of writing, of the frustration when it feels “false and stiff”, “ugly, clumsy”, or exhibits “anxious perfectness”, and of the exhilaration when it all goes right:

Hours passed in big bursts and I ended up with seven pages of stuff I could never have foreseen or invented … This must be how it’s done–take your foot off the brake, unpurse the lips and see where it takes you. (1990)

These volumes offer wonderful insights into the insecurities, challenges, despair and triumphs of being a writer – and for Garner, specifically, of the struggle to find “her” mode:

I need to free myself from the hierarchy with the novel on top. I need to devise a from that is flexible and open enough to contain all my details, all my small things. If only I could blow out realism while at the same time sinking deeply into what is most real. (1989)

By the end of this volume Garner has moved from “those households” into The first stone – and from there, as we know, she took on narrative non-fiction, and produced books on her own terms in her own form. In these, she finally found a way to not only explore the “darkness” and the things “people do to each other”, but to do it with an openness that is not always pretty but that I admire immensely.

“This is what life is. It’s not for saying no” (1987)

So writes Garner about her newly developing relationship with “V”. This relationship provides the diary’s backbone. It drives, mostly, where she lives, who she sees, and how and where she works. As they move from place to place – in his Sydney and her Melbourne – Virginia Woolf’s A room of one’s own comes frequently to mind, because, wherever they are, he gets to work at home while she must find somewhere else. Even when she tries to put her foot down, she ultimately backs off and, yes, finds somewhere else. This, in many ways, epitomises their relationship – he confident in the rightness of his working where he wishes, and she uncertain about whether to compromise (again), he sure that he is “blameless”, and she, self-deprecatingly, wondering if she’s “a monster”. It’s a typical man-woman story in so many ways, and for women readers the gender issues are both illuminating and infuriating.

However, it’s not all bad. There are moments of generosity and tenderness, even of fun. There are conversations about books and reading, convivial times with friends, and trips away. But, it also seems clear from the beginning that they are the proverbial chalk and cheese. Garner is emotional – “hypersensitive, says friend R – and sociable. She loves nature, music and dancing. V, on the other hand, is reserved, austere, elitist, really. He is furious when someone criticises art that he believes (knows!) is good, while Garner is interested in the discussion.

It made for painful reading at times, but fortunately, there was always this sense, this thing she says early in the volume:

Nothing can touch me. The power of work. Art and the huge, quiet power it brings. (1987)

Amen to that, eh?

Challenge logo

Helen Garner
One day I’ll remember this: Diaries, Volume 2, 1997-1995
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2020
ISBN: 9781922330277

(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)

Helen Garner, Yellow notebook: Diaries, Volume 1, 1978-1987 (#BookReview)

Book coverThe opening session of last November’s inaugural Broadside Festival featured Helen Garner in conversation with Sarah Krasnostein about her recently published Yellow notebook, the first volume of her edited diaries. It was an excellent, intelligent conversation. Garner came across as the forthright writer she is, one who fearlessly exposes difficult and unpleasant things, alongside joys and triumphs.

The epigraph she chose for her diaries is therefore not surprising:

We are here for this–to make mistakes and to correct ourselves, to stand the blows and hand them out. (Primo Levi, The periodic table)

Certainly, in Yellow notebook, Garner both stands some blows and hands a few out. She admits to many mistakes. She allows herself to be vulnerable. She may have cut a lot, as she told Krasnostein, but she clearly didn’t sanitise. Her aim was to select what others might find interesting. She didn’t rewrite, only changing (or adding) something if it would otherwise have been meaningless. A diary, she said, “has no voiceover, unlike a memoir”. That is, a diary contains what you did/felt at the time without the benefit of later reflection; she had to accept herself – both hurting others and being hurt – as she was at the time of writing. This gave her “fellow-feeling” with others.

She also decided not to identify people. She uses initials, such as M for her daughter, F for her husband at the time. Some of these people are, of course, easily identifiable for anyone who knows her biography, but I think there is still value in taking this approach. In this spirit, I decided not to investigate beyond what I already knew about her life.

The yellow notebook has a lot to offer Garner lovers. For what is quite a short book, its content is wide-ranging. It includes observations from life around her (as you’d expect from a writer), snippets of conversations (both overheard and her own), the occasional news item, stories from her life, thoughts about other writers, and of course reflections on her own writing. We are introduced to her love of music, and her interest in religion. We hear about her marriage break-up and her all-encompassing love of her daughter. All this reveals a messy person – someone who can be wise at times, and immature at others, who can be confident but also excruciatingly insecure, who can be unkind but also warm and generous, a person, in other words, like most of us, except most of us don’t lay the worst of ourselves quite so bare.

I could give examples of all of the above – and I should, because there’s glorious sentence after glorious sentence – but I want to focus on her writing life. For the rest, do read the book yourself.

“thinking voluptuously of the stories I’m going to write”

Part of understanding a writer is knowing who they read and admire. The writer Garner mentions most in this volume is Elizabeth Jolley. While Jolley and Garner are, in some ways, quite different writers, they have a lot in common. Both don’t shy away from some of the darker aspects of human behaviour. Sometimes Garner simply quotes Jolley – as we do when a writer reminds us of something we’re experiencing. Sometimes she shares little anecdotes about Jolley, but other times she comments on Jolley’s writing, even when referring to another writer!

‘Cod seemed a suitable dish for a rejected one and I ate it humbly without any kind of sauce or relish.’ –Barbara Pymm, Excellent women. This is Elizabeth Jolley’s tone and it made me laugh out loud.

Elizabeth Jolley makes me laugh out loud too. Garner also loves Jane Austen. She writes:

Mansfield Park. She never tells you anything about the appearance of her characters. As if they were moral forces. I love it.

You can see why I love Garner. She, Jolley and Austen all get to the heart of humans, incisively – and with wit. Garner writes about being rejected:

My short story was rejected by the Bulletin because it contained four-letter words. A letter from Geoffrey Dutton: ‘It pains me to have to knock this back … it’s you at your best.’ Thanks a lot. I suppose he’s a skilled writer of rejection letters.

Other writers Garner mentions include, randomly, Frank Moorhouse, Janet Malcolm, Joan Didion, Tim Winton, Virginia Woolf, Patrick White, DH Lawrence (who “uses the same word over and over till he makes it mean what he needs it to”), EM Forster, Katherine Mansfield, Henry James, James Joyce, Doris Lessing, Christina Stead (whom, she discovers, is “a visonary”), Randolph Stow, Rosa Capiello, and Les Murray:

The infuriating accuracy and simplicity of his images – birds that ‘trickle down through’ foliage. Of course, I think, this is what they do – why didn’t I know how to say it?

Four of Garner’s own books are published during the ten years covered by these diaries, the novels Moving out (1983) and The children’s Bach (1984) (my review), and short story collections, Honour; and Other people’s children (1980) and Postcards from Surfers (1985) (my review).

She shares many of her struggles and challenges in writing The children’s Bach, in particular:

… each morning I set out for my office weak with fear. I will never be a great writer. The best I can do is write books that are small but oblique enough to stick in people’s gullets.


This flaming book is jammed again. I feel my ignorance and fear like a vast black hole.


I’m scared to go into my office in case I can’t make things up.


Went to work and fiddled around for half an hour, then began to properly feel it come … Delirious I ran downstairs and bought myself a pastie …

She shares her thoughts about writing, such as

About writing: meaning is in the smallest event. It doesn’t have to be put there: only revealed.

This is so Austen, too.

More broadly, she also speaks of critics, awards, and readers. It’s engaging and heart-rending all at once – and probably applicable to many writers.

Finally, she reflects on the value of art and on the creation process. Describing the experience of a painter finishing a portrait, Garner writes:

The miracle of making something that wasn’t there before. Pulling something out of thin air.

It’s that capacity that impresses someone like me. I’m sorry for the pain writers (and other creators) endure, but I’m so glad they are prepared to do it. I look forward to Volume 2, and beyond.

Challenge logoHelen Garner
Yellow notebook: Diaries, Volume 1, 1978-1987
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2019
ISBN: 9781922268143

(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)

Prison post: Letters of support for Peter Greste

GresteNewSouthIf you’re Australian, you’ll know who Peter Greste is. If you’re not, you may know. He was one of three Al Jazeera English journalists* who were arrested in Cairo in late 2013 for “spreading false news, belonging to a terrorist organisation and operating without a permit”. It was a ridiculous charge and we all thought they’d be released quickly, but instead, in June 2014, they were convicted of “spreading false news and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood”, and Greste was sentenced to 7 years in prison. At that point, Peter Greste’s family set up an email account encouraging people to send messages of support to Peter that they would then print out and deliver to him in prison.

After 400 days in prison, in February 2015, Greste was released, that is, deported. His conviction was not overturned. In September 2015, his two colleagues, who had been kept in prison, were pardoned and released. Australia’s Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, understands that Greste will be pardoned too, but I don’t think this has formally happened yet.

However, this book is not specifically about the legal story. Rather, it comprises a selection of the emails sent to Peter between his conviction on 24 June 2014 and the time of his deportation in early February this year. I have a copy of the book because my wonderful octogenarian mother was one of the correspondents. Some of her messages are included in the book.

To be honest, although I rather enjoy reading letters – you’ve seen posts about them here before – I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy a 200-plus-page book of letters (emails) to one person about one topic. But, I was bowled over, not simply because of the quantity of emails that were written, but because of their warmth, generosity and eloquence. Some are from Peter’s friends, acquaintances and colleagues, past and present, and a few are from well-known people like Julie Bishop and Wendy Harmer. But many are from complete strangers like my mother and, at the other end of the age spectrum, 9-year-old Grace. Grace writes:

Do you like to read? I love reading because when you are stressed or are worried or angry, reading takes you to a completely different world, where all your worries and fears are drowned away from your mind. (Grace Worthing, 11 July 2014)

Some of the strangers are journalists and journalism students. Many of these want to emulate him, while a few admit to lacking the necessary bravery to do so. All of the writers, though, strangers or not, are outraged by the idea and fact of Greste and his colleagues being imprisoned for doing their job, and many express appreciation for the work journalists like him do in telling the truth:

However small, I hope it is some consolation that your cause has given a voice to those of you in the business of giving others a voice. Your situation has highlighted the risks you take, the dangers you face, knowingly, in your dedication to shedding light on injustice and human suffering, and to exposing the truth, from all angles. (Lulu Nana, 25 July 2014)

Some writers tell of tweeting about the injustice of his imprisonment. They describe writing letters to government, diplomats, Amnesty International, or the editor of their local newspaper. They talk of taking part in fund-raisers and benefit shows. They will not, they say, let it rest until he is free.

Not all letters, however, are specifically political. Some are more personal. They want to cheer Peter up, offer him hope or sympathy, or just take his mind off where he is for a moment or two. They do this by telling him stories from their own lives, and or by sharing little jokes, proverbs or inspirational quotes. They quote from Shakespeare, the Bible, or poets like Robert Frost, but you probably won’t be surprised to hear that by far the most commonly quoted is Nelson Mandela. What is perhaps a little more surprising is that these Mandela quotes are all different!

Another common feature of the letters is praise for Greste’s family – his mother and father, his brothers, and his sisters-in-law. They are described as “diamond grade”, as inspirational in their strength, cohesion and dignity. One correspondent even went so far as to write, after Greste’s release:

I hope we don’t lose the Greste family from public life entirely. If any of our leaders, in various fields, have been paying attention they could’ve picked up some excellent lessons. (Amy Denmeade, 8 February 2015)

The letters are presented chronologically, but the chronology is broken into sections: section one, for example, comprising spontaneous responses to the announcement of his conviction; section two, the establishment of the email address and “call to arms”; and section five being letters written in December for his birthday and Christmas. (Several correspondents, including my mum, in fact, sat down and wrote an email on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.) Each of these sections has a brief introduction describing what is happening at that point in the chronology. There are also a timeline of events at the beginning of the book, a foreword by Greste himself, and an acknowledgement statement by editor-publisher Charlotte Harper.

What more can I say? The book could so easily have been schmaltzy, but it’s not, mainly because the writers, those selected for inclusion anyhow, are too unselfconsciously themselves. After all, when they wrote, they had no expectation that their letters would ever be published, so they wrote from their hearts. This is a book of its time, and yet is also timeless. That is, it relates to a very specific event involving very specific people, and yet it is really about big principles, like justice and truth, and about human values, like empathy and compassion. It is, in other words, a darned good read.

PS: Just in case you are interested, profits from the first year’s sales are going to the Foreign Prisoner Support Service. Digital copies can be ordered for $9.99 from Editia; and print copies for $24.99 from NewSouth Books.

Prison post: Letters of support for Peter Greste
Braddon: Editia, 2015
ISBN: 9781942189022

* The other two were journalist Mohamed Fahmy, and their producer Baher Mohamed.

Bacchus, Ruth & Hill, Barbara, First things first: Selected letters of Kate Llewellyn 1977-2004 (Review)

Ruth Bacchus and Barbara Hill, First things firstIt might look like I’ve suddenly hired myself as author Jessica White’s PR Consultant as this is the second post in a row that I’ve opened with her, but the coincidence was too great for me not to. You see, this week, White posted on her Facebook Author Page that she’d received funding for a novel from the Australia Council for the Arts, and exulted that “I’m so happy that I can a) afford to eat for the next 6 months …”. One of the several threads running through Kate Llewellyn’s letters in First things first is her struggle to survive financially as a writer. More on that anon …

First, how do you review a book of letters? Yes, I know I’ve done it before for Jane Austen’s letters, but that’s different. Jane Austen is long gone, and was long gone when her letters were first published. Kate Llewellyn is still, fortunately I might add, with us, so, as well as reviewing a book about a living author, which of course bloggers/reviewers do frequently, I’m reviewing something very personal, a book of her letters. She didn’t put this selection together – Charles Sturt University academics Ruth Bacchus and Barbara Hill did – but she allowed her letters to be published, “trusting us”, the editors say in their preface, “with the contents of her life”. And that, I think, is a brave thing to do. But then again, you have to be brave to be a writer, don’t you?

Some of you, particularly if you’re not Australian, may not know Kate Llewellyn, but she’s an Australian poet and prose writer. Her prose includes travel writing, autobiography, and what the editors describe as “a hybrid blend she has made her own and perhaps pioneered in Australian women’s writing – a sensuous journal, studded with poetry, laced with recipes and concerned with ‘the weather, domesticity, love, art, gardening, the names of plants, a woman’s simple daily tasks and her heart’s thoughts’*”. She also co-edited The Penguin book of Australian women poets, which I own and often refer to.

Now, back to my question of reviewing a book of letters. Late-ish in the book, Llewellyn writes in a letter to Ianesco (artist Ian North) about reading John Cheever’s journals:

I did not know at times if I should be reading them, it seemed even prurient. But I had to keep on reading … and to think he wasn’t even trying … just did it for himself … […] … sizzling honesty.

“Prurience” isn’t the word you’d use for reading Llewellyn’s letters, and these are letters so written for someone besides herself, but they were, initially anyhow, private and they contain a rawness and honesty, together with a poetic beauty, that struck me much the way it seems that Cheever struck her. This rawness and honesty is most apparent when she writes about her relationships with others (romantic and otherwise) and her struggle to survive as a writer. It’s this latter of course that Jessica White’s Facebook post struck a chord with.

“I wouldn’t want not to be vulnerable”

As a reader, I’m interested in how writers do it. How do they manage to write and live? Some, of course, produce bestsellers but they are few. Some have significant others who support them. But most, it seems, scrabble around putting together projects, applying for grants, undertaking speaking and teaching engagements to keep going. It is this, among other things, that Llewellyn conveys with fearless clarity through her letters. She details the challenges of co-editing the poetry anthology with Susan Hampton, and of the difficulty of finding a publisher when the first one fell through. She describes unsatisfying, if not downright unpleasant, experiences of some (though not all) writers’ retreats. She tells of sending pieces off to numerous magazines and editors and of writing applications for grants or positions as writer-in-residence, and shares the emotional and financial pain of rejection, alongside the occasional joy of success. She describes cobbling together projects, such as one which didn’t come to fruition with friend Marion Halligan. She loses confidence in writing poetry, and wants to change her prose style. She writes of “the spite and derangement of the literary world” and of the mismanagement of distribution. She wonders why certain poets don’t like her, questions why some reviewers feel the need to be cruel, and is aware that there are people on boards who “do not wish me well”. It’s an uncertain life, and yet, with her get-up-and-go spirit she writes:

I think there’s a lot to be said for perplexity and bewilderment. Certainty is not all it’s cracked up to be. (to Ianesco, 13 January, 1995)

So, I learnt quite a lot about the life of a working writer. I realise that, like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, every writer’s life is different, and that each is likely to respond differently to the challenges, but experience tells me there’s a significant core in Llewellyn’s experience that’s true for many writers. What, though, did I learn about Llewellyn, herself?

Well, here is the challenge of course, because not only is a volume of letters, like this, one-sided, but these letters are a selection (and a selection, at that, of a period of her life). What letters weren’t included and how might they have affected our view of Llewellyn? Not much I think, because Llewellyn is so honest with her friends – and these letters are all to friends, many of whom are artists, writers and musicians – that you get a clear picture of her. She’s funny, vulnerable, emotional, warm-hearted, generous of spirit, depressed and lonely at times, subversive and yet a little conservative too. She can also, she’s aware, be rather full-on (high-maintenance, perhaps): “when I meet people I’m attracted to and with whom I feel great sympathy … I leap in”. She’s intelligent and, of course, creative.

One of the delights of the book, besides its various insights, is her writing. Funny that! It’s almost impossible to find one good example, but I’ll try. How about this description of a couple met at a dinner:

The former was a thin 50 year-old woman with husband to match … it was like talking to an oyster … a khaki woollen frock, grey hair, no colour anywhere, no lipstick … cold, grey, elegant, been everywhere, smoking, khaki skin, eyes like cold stones … I felt so defeated in my scarlet outfit I decided to try to get some reaction … (to Jerry Rogers, 19 June 1992)

Llewellyn, you have probably gathered, likes colour and life, and she likes “ardour … perhaps more than anything else in life”. Anyhow, I can’t leave it at one example, so will share a few more:

In fact, I think this town [Sofala] where not one building stands erect, but leans like a person into the wind, has only goats and tourists for income. (to Marion Halligan, 11 April 1994).


I swam in and out of it [Adelaide Writers’ Week] like a fish and took what came my way, be it seaweed or krill, but no bait, I hope. (to Marion Halligan, 11 April 1994).


… she [friend Jerry Rogers’ teen granddaughter] has been a real joy here … laughing like a gutter full of fresh rain after a drought, it is the loveliest laugh I ever heard. (to Ianesco and Mirna, 8 July 1996).

I will write another post or maybe two on this book – to share some of her thoughts on Australian writers, and a little of her humour. But, I don’t want to give the whole book away … which brings me to the question of whether I’d recommend it. Well, yes I would, but with, I suppose, a little qualification. This is a book of letters, and letters aren’t for everyone. With the best editing in the world, they can’t help but be disjointed. However, for me, Llewellyn’s voice is so compelling, her persona so open, and her writing so frequently funny, that I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent in her head.

awwchallenge2015Bacchus, Ruth & Hill, Barbara
First things first: Selected letters of Kate Llewellyn, 1977-2004
Mile End SA, Wakefield Press, 2015
ISBN: 9781743053645

(Review copy supplied by Wakefield Press)

* Llewellyn’s own description of her best-selling book in this genre, The Waterlily, in a letter to Bob Boynes and Mandy Martin, 20 July 1987.

Jane Austen’s letters, 1796-1800

Austen's desk, Chawton. (Photo: Monster @ flickr.com)

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

For the past five years my Jane Austen group has been reading Jane Austen’s letters in a rather higgledy piggdledy manner*. We have nearly finished now. We have just done her first letters, and next year we will conclude, logically at last, on her final letters. What a fascinating time we’ve been having.

Jane Austen’s first published letter was written in January 1796, when she was just 20, and it is in this first letter that she mentions Tom Lefroy, the young man, also just 20, with whom she had a romantic attachment. Lefroy later became the Lord Chief Justice of Ireland. When asked many years after her death about his relationship with Austen, he admitted to a “boyish love”. Here is our first mention, in Letter 1:

… I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together. I can expose myself however, only once more, because he leaves the country soon after next Friday, on which day we are to have a dance at Ashe after all. He is a very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man, I assure you. But as to our having ever met, except at the three last balls, I cannot say much; for he is so excessively laughed at about me at Ashe, that he is ashamed of coming to Steventon, and ran away when we called on Mrs. Lefroy [Tom’s aunt and a friend of the Austens] a few days ago.

In Letter 2, a few days later, she mentions a party to be held at the Lefroy home the next night:

I look forward with great impatience to it, as I rather expect to receive an offer from my friend in the course of the evening. I shall refuse him, however, unless he promises to give away his white Coat.

Is she expecting a proposal from Tom? The “great white Coat” is a tongue-in-cheek (and, perhaps, also self-preserving) reference to her comment in the previous letter about his morning coat being “a great deal too light”. Later in the letter, which she started on Thursday and finished on Friday, comes:

Friday. — At length the day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy, and when you receive this it will be over. My tears flow as I write at the melancholy idea.

The only other reference to Tom Lefroy occurs well over a year later in November 1798, Letter 11:

Mrs. Lefroy did come last Wednesday, and the Harwoods came likewise, but very considerately paid their visit before Mrs. Lefroy’s arrival, with whom, in spite of interruptions both from my father and James, I was enough alone to hear all that was interesting, which you will easily credit when I tell you that of her nephew she said nothing at all, and of her friend very little. She did not once mention the name of the former to me, and I was too proud to make any enquiries [my stress]; but on my father’s afterwards asking where he was, I learnt that he was gone back to London in his way to Ireland, where he is called to the Bar and means to practise.

It’s all very tantalising – but at the very least it’s pretty clear that Jane Austen learnt something about love and loss from this experience. A brief description of the “affair” can be read here on the JASA website.

Austen, though, was not one to wallow. I loved her comment in a later letter (January 1799) that:

I had a very pleasant evening, however, though you will probably find out that there was no particular reason for it; but I do not think it worth while to wait for enjoyment until there is some real opportunity for it. (Letter 18)

A positive philosophy that she does seem to have lived by, if her letters are to be believed.

These letters, like those I’ve written about previously, provide much information about her life and times – about the dangers of childbirth, health and medical treatment, men’s careers, farming, housekeeping and fashion – often delivered in Austen’s witty, often also acerbic tongue. As before, I’ll share just a few here …


Austen talks a lot about clothing in the letters, so much so that some readers find it boring. However, her fashion talk tells us more than simply what she and Cassandra are wearing. For example, we learn about the craze for Marmalouc caps, which reminds us of the Napoleonic Wars as the caps were inspired by Egyptian turbans after the Battle of the Nile in August 1798. We learn about Austen’s tight financial situation. Caps and gowns were re-trimmed to suit another Ball or season, items are shared (the Marmalouc cap itself was borrowed from sister-in-law Mary Austen). Best of all, though, we get her wit such as her description of the rage for wearing flowers and fruits (Letter 21) in Bath. In Letter 22, she responds to Cassandra’s request for some Bath fashion, but she’s having trouble deciding:

I cannot decide on the fruit until I hear from you again. – Besides, I cannot help thinking that it is more natural to have flowers grow out of the head than fruit. – What do you think on that subject?

Childbirth, Health and Medical Treatments

I could write a whole post just on her discussion of health-related matters. We hear of women dying in childbirth, of people taking or drinking the Waters in Bath for assorted health concerns, of her mother’s using laudanum for pain, of the use of electricity for pain relief … Again, though, there’s often a sting in the tail. It’s generally believed that Jane had a tricky relationship with her mother who was somewhat of a hypochondriac. In several of these early letters she reports on her mother’s health. Here is one (Letter 18):

She is tolerably well – better on the whole than she was some weeks ago. She would tell you herself that she has a very dreadful cold in her head at present; but I have not very much compassion for colds in the head without fever or sore throat.

In other letters, though, she does show more tenderness!

Writing and novels

Her own writing is rarely mentioned in these early letters, but the first version of Pride and prejudice, then titled First impressions, is referred to a couple of times. Here is a tongue-in-cheek reference to her friend and future sister-in-law Martha Lloyd reading it:

I would not let Martha read “First Impressions” again upon any account, and am very glad that I did not leave it in your power. She is very cunning, but I saw through her design; she means to publish it from memory, and one more perusal must enable her to do it.

But, my favourite comment on writing in this group of letters relates to her assessment of the novel, Fitz-Albini, that she and her father were reading (Letter 12):

We have got “Fitz-Albini;” my father has bought it against my private wishes, for it does not quite satisfy my feelings that we should purchase the only one of Egerton’s works of which his family are ashamed. That these scruples, however, do not at all interfere with my reading it, you will easily believe. We have neither of us yet finished the first volume. My father is disappointed – I am not, for I expected nothing better. Never did any book carry more internal evidence of its author. Every sentiment is completely Egerton’s. There is very little story, and what there is told in a strange, unconnected way. There are many characters introduced, apparently merely to be delineated. We have not been able to recognise any of them hitherto, except Dr. and Mrs. Hey and Mr. Oxenden, who is not very tenderly treated.

The novel was apparently highly autobiographical and in it, according to the Gentleman’s Magazine (1837), Egerton “depicted with the utmost freedom the foibles not only of his neighbours and acquaintances, but even [my stress] those of his own family and relations”.  What I most like about Austen’s comment though is the insight it gives into her views on what makes a good novel. It shouldn’t be so transparently the author’s opinions; it should have a clear storyline; and the characters should have some substance. Ah Jane, she knew how to write …

* Past posts discussing the letters: The first covered her letters from 1814 to 1816, the second from 1811 to 1813, the third from 1807 to 1809, and the fourth from 1801-1806.

Jane Austen’s letters, 1801-1806

The  years from 1801 to 1806 were somewhat unsettled if not downright traumatic years for Jane Austen. In December 1800 her father retired and her parents decided to move themselves and their two daughters to Bath. And then in 1805 her father died, suddenly. She writes to her brother, Francis, on 21 January (Letter 40) that “I wish I could have given you better preparation-but it has been impossible”. The impact, though, was greatest on the women. It left them in a difficult and dependent financial position.

Austen writes about the above events in the letters, but there are others about which she is silent. This could be because she and her sister Cassandra, the main recipient of her letters, were together, but it could also be because Cassandra destroyed selected letters after Jane’s death in 1817. One event not in these letters is the famous proposal by Harris Bigg-Wither in 1802. Austen accepted the proposal but the next day changed her mind, and promptly left the Bigg-Wither home with Cassandra. It was a distressful situation, as the Bigg-Withers were family friends.

Something else she doesn’t talk about in this selection of letters is her writing. She didn’t write a lot during this time, and nothing, as far as we know, from the time of her father’s death until they settled in Chawton in 1809. But, she did revise Northanger Abbey (then called Susan) in 1802, selling it to a publisher in 1803, and she started her (unfinished, as it turned out) novel, The Watsons, in 1804.

So, there’s quite a bit she didn’t talk about – in the surviving letters – but there’s still plenty to interest here. These letters were written when Austen was aged 25 to 30 years old, years when she was still relatively young but old enough to have some experience of the world. As with the later letters, there’s a lot of gossip and chat about family and friends, but there are signs of the novelist she was becoming, in addition to insight into life in Georgian England.

As with my last post on her letters, I’ll use headings to structure my discussion.

Georgian England

Jane Austen wrote novels about her own era and in many ways her letters replicate in reality much of what we learn from her fiction. She describes, in these letters, modes of transport and particularly travelling arrangements for women, the boats her Naval brothers worked on, accommodation hunting in Bath, fashion, card games, balls and food. All of these we find in her novels – sometimes with barbed effect.

I particularly liked her descriptions of place. Here is Bath, soon after her arrival:

The first view of Bath in fine weather does not answer my expectations; I think I see more distinctly through rain. The sun was got behind everything, and the appearance of the place from the top of Kingsdown was all vapour, shadow, smoke, and confusion, (Letter 35)

And a little town called Appleshaw:

that village of wonderful Elasticity, which stretches itself out for the reception of everybody who does not wish for a house on Speen Hill (Letter 30)

How could someone who writes that not be a novelist!

Lyme, as Austen readers will know, is where a major scene occurs in Persuasion. What, though, do you think she thinks of the place when you read this description of

a new odd-looking man who had been eyeing me for some time, and at last, without any introduction, asked me if I meant to dance again. I think he must be Irish by his ease, and because I imagine him to belong to the hon(ble) Barnwalls, who are the son, and son’s wife of an Irish viscount, bold queer-looking people, just fit to be quality at Lyme

On her self

Not surprisingly, we learn quite a lot about Austen, directly and indirectly, through these letters. We learn much  about her likes and dislikes. She’s interested in fashion but she doesn’t like “tiny” parties with only a few people “to talk nonsense to each other”. She spanned the Age of Reason and of Romanticism, but she’s more a child of the former: she highly values “wit”, a word that appears repeatedly in her descriptions of people, often defining whether she likes them or not, and she approves rationality. “To be rational in anything”, she says, “is great praise” (Letter 43).

We also learn something about her character. She’s stoical, for example, writing about a disappointment that “there is nothing which energy will not bring one too.” (Letter 33).


If you’ve read Jane Austen you know that she has pretty definite ideas on the clergy. She ridicules pomposity (Mr Collins in Pride and prejudice) and vanity (Mr Elton in Emma). She admires sense and responsibility (Edmund in Mansfield Park). I had to laugh, then, when I read this in her letter:

You told me some time ago that Tom Chute had had a fall from his horse, but I am waiting to know how it happened before I begin pitying him, as I cannot help suspecting it was in consequence of his taking orders; very likely as he was going to do Duty or returning from it.  (Letter 44)

How I wish I could write letters like this!

Observations of people

It is her observations of people, however, that most delight readers of her letters and show us her novelistic eye in the making. In this group of letters, for example, is a wonderful description of an older woman that doesn’t take much to remind us of Emma’s Miss Bates:

Poor Mrs** stent! it has been her lot to be always in the way; but we must be merciful, for perhaps in time we may come to be Mrs** stents ourselves, unequal to anything & unwelcome to everybody. (Letter 44)

I would not have wished our Jane to have ended up as impecunious as poor Miss Bates, but I do wish she’d lived a bit longer to give us more novels and more letters to enjoy.

Note: This is my fourth post on Austen’s letters. The first covered her letters from 1814 to 1816, the second from 1811 to 1813, and the third from 1807 to 1809.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Women of letters

Women of Letters, edited by Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire

Women of letters (Courtesy: Penguin Books Australia)

Letter-writing has a long literary tradition – both fictional and non-fictional. Epistolary novels, according to Wikipedia, go back to the 1400s, and I’m sure if you’re a reader you’ve read at least a few. My favourite Australian example is a gut-wrenching young adult novel Letters from the inside by John Marsden. But these are not my topic today. The other sort of letters are the “real” letters written to “real” people. If the letters are good enough and/or the people significant enough these also have a long publishing tradition. I’ve reviewed some here – by Jane Austen (of course)! Collections of published letters can be found for some of Australia’s famous women writers, including Christina Stead, Henry Handel Richardson and Miles Franklin. But these aren’t today’s subject either.

My subject is a specific book of letters compiled by two Australian women, Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire, from an initiative of theirs in which they asked Australian women (initially) to “‘pen’ letters to a theme and read them aloud”. Their aim was to raise funds for Edgar’s Mission, “a not-for-profit sanctuary for neglected, discarded and abused farmed animals” in Victoria. Their project commenced in March 2010, and has involved live “shows” in several Australian cities – and now, this book.

The letters have been organised under 16 “recipients”, such as “To the night I’d rather forget”, “To my first boss”, and “To the photo I wish had never been taken”, which gives you a sense of where this collection is going. They are written by 69 well-known (though not quite all so to me) Australian women (mostly!) writers, performers, politicians and so on. I will admit that I have not read the whole 400+ pages book yet, but with Christmas around the corner and a good cause, now seemed to be a good time to write about it. (No, I am not under a retainer for Penguin!). Three of the contributors are writers I’ve reviewed in my blog, so I reckon they’d be a good place to start:

  • Anna Krien “to my first pin-up”. Trouble was Anna Krien was a tomboy and not like other little girls. When they wanted “love”, she wanted friends, so she turned to her cat, Tiger. It’s a light-hearted letter with a serious core about the damage that little girls can do to little girls (“the twisted best-friend bully dichotomy”), something Margaret Atwood explored to great effect in Cat’s eye.
  • Alice Pung “to the moment it all fell apart”. It contains anecdotes from her latest book, Her father’s daughter, presented as a letter to her father. She leads us on about an online relationship only to … but I won’t tell what, except to say it’s to something typically reflective of her and her father’s experiences.
  • Helen Garner “to the letter I wish I’d written”. That sounds like an apposite recipient for a writer who has never shied from controversy – but in fact, being Garner, her contribution isn’t the expected. Rather, it’s a series of letters to her “gazombies”, to people who’ve died, friends who’ve suddenly disappeared from her life, and people who crossed her path but became missed connections. They’re “fragments” that add up to a disjointed but very Garner-ish whole. She thanks the science teacher who taught her that “hot air rises”, she’s sorry that she lost contact with her “nanna” because “my adolescence extended right into my thirties”, she tells a man she regrets not accepting his offer to dance because blokes who can dance “are very thin on the ground”, and she writes to her three ex-husbands thanking them for what they gave her and telling them “there is nothing to forgive”.

There are a few contributions from men, mostly “To the woman who changed my life”. There are light-hearted letters such as actor Jane Clifton’s to her “1991 Nissan Pintara with only 20 000km on the clock” that she calls “the Nissan Piñata, because no matter how many times you get hit, you are the gift that keeps on giving”, and singer Georgia Fields’ to Mariah Carey telling her that “next time I’m at a party and your name comes up, I’m not going to sit quietly and pretend I don’t know you …”. But, I’ll conclude with actor Claudia Karvan’s letter to love, itself, in the “A love letter” section. It’s a cheeky little number telling love she is “eternally grateful for your landing on my shores” but suggesting:

You have a strange habit of departing, and departing quite swiftly. So quick your footsteps aren’t heard. No doorbell sounding the arrival of your cab, just bang, you’re gone […] You really are quite the magician.

This is, as you’ve probably worked out, a book for dipping into. The letters might be artificially created but there’s a lot of art in them – of letter writing, of life. Just the thing, really, for a post-Christmas read.

Do letters play a role in your life? Do you like to read them? Do you write them?

Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire (curated)
Women of letters: Reviving the lost art of correspondence
Camberwell: Viking, 2011
ISBN: 9780670076093

(Review copy supplied by Penguin Books Australia)

Jane Austen’s letters, 1807-1809

Portrait of Henry IV. Ink and watercolor on pa...

Watercolour by Cassandra, for Austens (juvenile) "History of England" (Presumed public domain, courtesy Wikipedia)

The letters Jane Austen wrote between 1807 and 1809 seem somewhat different to those she wrote later. There are probably a number of reasons for this but one could be that this was an unsettled period for her. Her father died in early 1805 which changed her (and her mother’s and sister’s) life circumstances dramatically. From then until July 1809 they did not have a home of their own. It is interesting that while she had written earlier versions of some of her six completed novels in the late 1700s and early 1800s, none was published until after she, her mother and sister moved to Chawton. This must tell us something, surely, about her state of mind.

The letters, mostly written to her sister Cassandra, are not necessarily easy to read. They are full of pretty straightforward gossip and chat about family and friends. There are myriad names to wade through. (Fortunately Deirdre Le Faye’s edition has an excellent Biographical Index.) If you don’t get bogged down though, you will find some gems, and gain an understanding of life in Georgian and Regency England.

So, what do these letters tell us about her? To make it easy to read, I’ll use headings.

She was a keen, clear-eyed and somewhat acerbic observer of humanity

These letters often make you laugh (though perhaps not so much if you were the subject of some of her comments). Here she is on her oldest brother, James:

I am sorry & angry that his Visits should not give us more pleasure; the company of so good & so clever a Man ought to be gratifying in itself; – but his Chat seems all forced, his Opinions on many points too much copied  from his Wife’s, & his time here is spent  I think in walking about the House & banging the doors, or ringing the Bell for a glass of Water.

And on one Miss Curling:

I wish her no worse than a long & happy abode there [Portsmouth]. Here she wd probably be dull, & I’m sure she wd be troublesome.

And on Lady Sondes (and her second marriage):

…but I consider everybody as having the right to marry once in their Lives for Love, if they can – & provided she will now leave off having bad headaches & being pathetic, I can allow her, I can wish her to be happy.

Austen, it is believed, had a somewhat tricky relationship with her mother. She mentions her mother often in the letters, mostly with cool description rather than warmth, and sometimes rather more pointedly:

My mother has been lately adding to her possessions in plate – a whole Tablespoon & a whole dessertspoon, & six whole Teaspoons, which make our sideboard border on the Magnificent. They were mostly the produce of old or useless silver …

She understood the import of money

This period of her life – post her father’s death, and pre-Chawton and the publication of her books – was her most insecure financially. Consequently, money seems to feature more prominently in this section’s letters. On one acquaintance, she says:

She looks remarkably well (legacies are a very wholesome diet) …

And on some particularly rich people:

They live in a handsome style and are rich, and she seemed to like to be rich,  and we gave her to understand that we were far from  being so; she will soon feel therefore that we are not worth her acquaintance.

On the impact of her own impecunious state which meant, for example, that she had to rely on the favours (and therefore schedules) of others when travelling, she writes:

I shall be sorry to pass the door at Seale without calling, but it must be so … till I have a travelling purse of my own, I must submit to such things …

She thought about writing constantly

We know that Jane Austen had a longstanding interest in writing and this is obvious in these earlier letters – from her (sometimes self-deprecating) comments on her letter writing to her brief but pointed comments on the books she was reading. Through her letters we get a sense of what she thinks a good novel should be. For example, she says of  Sarah Harriet Burney‘s Clarentine that

It is full of unnatural conduct & forced difficulties, without striking merit of any kind.

We also see that she is ever conscious of the act of writing. Often she feels she has no news and mentions how this challenges her letter writing ability:

I really have very little to say this week, & do not feel as if I should spread that little into the shew of much. I am inclined for short sentences …

I enjoyed her praise of another letter writer, Mr Deedes, who

certainly has a very pleasing way of winding up a whole, & and speeding Truth into the World.

There are also descriptions and stories which clue us to her writing and story-telling bent. She describes a fire at Southampton, vividly and with a touch of humour. Always there is humour. In another letter, having discovered that her aspiring-writer niece is also reading her letters, she discusses (with humour again) her increasing awareness of her writing:

I begin already to weigh my words & and sentences more than I did, & am looking about for a sentiment, an illustration or a metaphor in every corner of the room. Could my Ideas flow as fast as the rain in the Storecloset, it would be charming. We have been in two or three dreadful states within the last week, from the melting of the snow &c. – & the contest between us & the Closet has now ended in our defeat; I have been obliged to move almost everything out of it, & leave it to splash itself as it likes.

By mid 1809, the family had moved to the “remarkably pretty village” of Chawton, and Austen at last settled down to her writing (but she had only eight more years to live). One of the last letters in this section is to a publisher asking about the non-publication of Susan (later, Northanger Abbey) which she’d sold to them in 1803. She never did see it published. It was bought back by her brother Henry in 1817, and published posthumously… How sad is that?

Note: This is my third post on Austen’s letters. The first looked at her letters from 1814 to 1816, and the second from 1811 to 1813. With this post covering 1807 to 1809, you might be wondering about 1810. Well, there are no letters from 1810. This is probably because they were among those destroyed by family members after her death. Why, we do not really know.

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.

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!

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?