My dear Cassandra,
Your letter came quite as soon as I expected, and so your letters will always
do, because I have made it a rule not to expect them till they come, in which
I think I consult the ease of us both—
wrote Jane Austen to her sister in 1798, revealing the author’s wry turn of phrase and subtle sense of humor. Many of her letters have a teasing tone to them. Jane was a prolific letter writer, and some scholars have estimated that she wrote around 3,000 of them in her 41-year lifetime. Only 161 are extant. The letters reveal much about Austen as a person and as a writer.
An early novel by Austen titled Lady Susan (only published after her death), is written entirely of letters. She was likely less than twenty years old when she authored it. This story begins with a letter from Lady Susan to her brother Mr. Vernon. Even before its “affectionate” closing, we have a rather clear picture of Susan’s dissolute character, despite her declarations to the contrary, which builds—or more, accurately, diminishes—with each succeeding letter. The novel is brief but charming and highlights the novelist’s early “powers” as critics of the early 19th century liked to characterize artistic talents, abilities, or, perhaps, even well-practiced craft. Those readers drawn to Jane Austen narratives should not miss Lady Susan.
I am in the midst of a book by William Deresiewicz, the title of which is nearly as long as Austen’s “aforementioned” (don’t you love that word) novel. Mr. Deresiewicz has written A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter. I was perversely drawn to the book because the author says he discovered Jane Austen very much against his will when he went back to school to work on his Ph.D. Even though I never took a single course on Austen, having discovered her on my own at a somewhat tender age, I took umbrage at the suggestion that anyone could not appreciate Austen’s genius. He goes on to say that of all the literature he least wanted to study, it would have to be 19th century English novels ( or something to that effect). Herein or herewith (two more interesting words) comes my perversion in reading his book: of all of literature, I am most drawn to the works of 19th century English writers, well, if you throw in a few Russians (Tolstoy and Chekov) and some Americans (Edith Wharton comes quickly to mind, though I think her novels were actually published in the early 20th Century—oh, well, close enough). In all truthfulness, I do understand his previous prejudices against Austen as some men (and here I hope I am not getting into sexist territory) have a rather knee-jerk reaction against anything revolving too snuggly around home and hearth. And, the highly structured and restrictive social system in England at this time can be off-putting.
However, reading Mr. Deresiewicz’s book is an on-going pleasure. If you are a fan of Jane Austen, or even more importantly, if you are not, I think A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter is a must read.
A couple of other books concerning Jane Austen that I’d like to recommend (I expect they are still in-print) are Fay Weldon’s LETTERS TO ALICE on first reading Jane Austen ©1984 and The Illustrated Letters of JANE AUSTEN, edited by Penelope Hughes-Hallett ©1990.
Faye Weldon uses the epistolary form (shades of Lady Susan) in explaining what writers do, why they write, and who Jane Austen was in regard to her times and to the rules, conditions, and society in which she lived and wrote. In my estimation, it is a brilliantly and beautifully written book. I’ve hung on to it all these many years. There are so many excerpts from the book that I’d love to share here, but I dare not upon reading the strong copyright warning on the title’s verso. As an educator, I was used to some latitude in such things, but I am more restricted now. Suffice it to say that Fay Weldon is an insightful writer who manages to entertain as she enlightens. If you care at all about the works or times or person of Jane Austen or in writing in general, this is a book well worth your time.
While you can go online, including to The Gutenberg Project (which is what I did in writing this post) and find the letters of Jane Austen, another book I ran across and bought years ago is the already mentioned The Illustrated Letters of Jane Austen. While Gutenberg is wonderful, this book contains excerpts from several of Austen’s letters and novels, and, better yet, provides context and timelines for them. While we can read her letters, and appreciate her wit and attention to daily happenings, the context fleshes out our understanding.
As my highly anticipated “return” trip to England draws nearer, I will likely find myself writing about other British literary and/or historical figures. There are lots of books I’d like to recommend—some of them from several years ago—I like to say they are old but certainly not dated. We shall see.
3 thoughts on “Yours Affectionately, J.A.”
I like the use of stories to allow for a better understanding of how so much of life is a common experience. Locations and fashion are just variables that allow for the creation of mind pictures.
I really enjoyed reading this post and I really like Jane Austen’s books! She’s very talented! A Jane Austen Education sounds really interesting!
Thanks, Hannah. Glad you enjoyed it.