Monday, 4 July 2005

Jane Austen’s letters

Listening to:

Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter’s Easy to love.

Just read:

Jane Austen, Complete letters.

I’m going through a bit of an “Austen-kick” at the moment. I expect to have knocked off all the novels in the not too distant future (all but Northanger Abbey will be re-reads, but you will be relieved to know that the List’s rules allow this), have recently watched DVDs of the BBC’s recent Pride and Prejudice adaptation, and also have Claire Tomalin’s biography to come. The letters are just another symptom of the wider interest.

What with my reviewing backlog, it’s now a little while since I finished the letters, and I can comment on the overall impression that they left with me more accurately than I can describe the details. I do recall that reading the letters totally submerged me in amazing levels of detail, some of which was near incomprehensible, even with the notes (yes, more endnotes) to refer to. I suppose if someone attempted to plough their way through all the e-mails I have written in the 15 years I have had access to e-mail, they might find it pretty bewildering if they didn’t know me. Austen’s letters cover a similar period (perhaps more like 20 years), and even if letters weren’t quite as easy to send (they cost money on a per-letter basis for one thing), it’s clear that letters were to Austen as e-mail is to me, at least to a first approximation.

To make things worse for the person not intimately familiar with my activities, if they were to have to read my e-mail in the way that I read Austen’s letters, they would only be given roughly 10% of them. It’s estimated that Austen probably wrote about 2000 letters in her life-time; less than 170 survive. Much of this is due to the efforts of Austen’s biggest correspondent, her sister Cassandra, who destroyed most of their letters. What a biographer would do to go back in time and get their hands on that stash!

Nonetheless, with a little effort, and with the help of the notes and appendices, I did find it possible to keep track of most of the family’s names and inter-relationships. The broad impression is of a very foreign world. Women of Austen’s standing tend not to go anywhere beyond their village or town of residence unless accompanied by a man. A significant portion of women’s lives is dominated by the hunt for material to make new clothes.

In addition to her circumstances, Austen’s character (or 10% of it!) does also come through. She seems to have been witty, understanding, kindly and intelligent. It’s interesting, for example, to read her letters to her niece about whether or not the niece should marry a possible suitor.

The letters are not an easy read, because their paucity makes for disjointed narratives, and because there is so much trivial detail to them. On the other hand, there’s no other way of getting as close to conversing with a famous, long-dead author.