While continuing to keep up with the A Month of Letters challenge (now successfully completed), I have been browsing the bookshelves to remind myself what letter collections I have tucked away. Possibly one of the most famous letter writers in literary history was Jane Austen, whose main correspondent was her elder sister Cassandra. Perhaps it is more correct to say that, Austen’s letters to her sister have survived, whereas others have been lost (Cassandra destroyed many letters before her own death in 1845). After Cassandra’s death, the surviving letters passed to her great niece Fanny Knight and in due course, Fanny’s son published these letters in 1884.
It is a sample of these letters that are published in My Dear Cassandra: Letters to her Sister (selected and introduced by Penelope Hughes-Hallett). The book is fully illustrated and features notes to contextualise the letters and excerpts from Austen’s fiction. It is a lovely book to own, though I have to confess that I do not remember when or from where I bought my copy. This collection was published as a hardback gift edition for Past Times in 1990 (paperback 1991) and it is clearly not intended to be a comprehensive, scholarly edition. However, as an introduction to Jane Austen, her letters and her world it is an excellent choice. As you start to read, you can see how Austen garnered the material for the novels yet to come. The reader can follow up references for further biographical reading, although this edition pre-dates Claire Tomalin and David Nokes’ biographies of Jane Austen (1997).
As you might suppose, this collection of letters has lain on The Landing TBR Pile for some years, so it is about time that I perused a few of the letters. I did not intend to read straight through, but of course, as the letters are presented chronologically, you read on to find out what happened next, as in any good novel. Not surprisingly, there are gaps in the story however, when they didn’t exchange the twice-weekly letters, due to being together. For instance, from 1801- 1805, there is more need of contextual prose in the absence of original letters, to keep the continuity of events flowing. The sisters corresponded when one or other was away on the extended family visits and duties that were common in that period. The one thing that is hard to appreciate is the frequency with which letters were delivered in the 1800s. We think that we are well connected now, but it is amazing to think that you could once have had an evening postal delivery.
The problem with reading someone else’s letters is that you are peeking into to a different life and don’t know the dramatis personae. Add to that, a different century and an alien social milieu and even with the helpful notes (and they can inevitably only go so far) it can be difficult to put flesh on the incidents and people mentioned. Even so, what comes over is that Jane Austen was an observant student of human nature and enjoyed regaling her sister with various goings-on. She clearly had a great affection for family and friends but she enjoyed poking fun at various people.
Sometimes there seems to be a sharp contrast between her mocking of acquaintances, and her affectionate regard for her family. This letter from 1798, has an almost cruel throwaway comment about a neighbour, yet displays doting affection for her three-year-old nephew:
Mrs Hall, of Sherborne, was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, owing to a fright. I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband.
We are very glad to hear such a good account of your patients, little and great. My dear itty Dordy’s remembrance of me is very pleasing to me – foolishly pleasing, because I know it will be over so soon. My attachment to him will be more durable. I shall think with tenderness and delight on his beautiful and smiling countenance and interesting manners till a few years have turned him into an ungovernable, ungracious fellow.
Her trademark humour is there in the line about the likelihood of the boy growing up much changed, but it is not as barbed as her comment about the bereaved Mrs Hall. I wonder what this woman was to Jane Austen that she felt the need to be so flippant. Maybe however, this was merely misfired humour in a family letter, which would never have seen the light of day if its author had not become famous. In a later letter, Jane Austen writes of how amusing Cassandra’s latest letter was, so I cannot help wishing that I could read it too. I assume that Cassandra’s letters were lost, but I have not researched this yet.
I do not think I was very much in request. People were rather apt not to ask me till they could not help it; one’s consequence, you know, varies so much at times without any particular reason. There was one gentleman, an officer of the Cheshire, a very good-looking young man, who, I was told, wanted very much to be introduced to me; but as he did not want it quite enough to take much trouble in effecting it, we never could bring it about.
I wonder whether this young man regretted in later years, that he could not boast of having once danced with the famous author. How does that song go, ‘I’ve danced with a man, who’s danced with a girl, who’s danced with the Prince of Wales’ (Herbert Farjeon, 1927).
I definitely have more letters stashed away on The Landing, so perhaps I will have another delve later in the year. I don’t really need the excuse of A Month of Letters to read other people’s letters. Meanwhile, I will have a root around for the subject of my next blog post…