Jane Austen: Letters to Cassandra

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.Jane Austen Letters

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. Back Cover Illustration

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.

Inside TextTo finish, I will give you a snapshot of Austen’s experience at a dance in 1799, which conjures up vivid impressions of her fictional country balls:

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…

 

Penguin Postcards for ‘A Month of Letters’

Penguin Postcards Box

100 cards to choose from…

Longstanding readers of The Landing will know that February is the time for my contribution to the Month of Letters Challenge (#LetterMo). American writer Mary Robinette Kowal runs the letter writing challenge and you can check out the Month of Letters website for details if you want to jump on board. I have always loved both writing and receiving letters and I am also a great hoarder of letters. I have stopped throwing old letters out in a fit of spring-cleaning, as I have discovered that that way lies regret. I used to have a French pen friend when I was at school (though I don’t think the relationship lasted for long) and I wish I still had the letters. The Bookworm recently asked if she could read some of the letters between me and my school friends (just think, we actually used to write to each other in the summer holidays, how quaint was that!) The nice thing is that I have letters going back for many years, from people with whom I am still in contact. What will people do in the future when they want to have a burst of nostalgia? Comb through their email archive I suppose. Methinks it hardly sounds like an enticing prospect. It did occur to me that I should have my own mini challenge to re-read an old letter on every day of the month, but I think after all that I will just stick to writing to people in February. Maybe I will save re-reading letters for the dark, chilly November evenings by the fireside.

This year, by way of a change I have decided to write postcards for everyone, from my lovely box of Penguin book jacket postcards. My original aim was to try to match a person to a book postcard, but I’m not sure how realistic that will be to manage. So far, I think I have done reasonably well matching two friends who like gardening and cooking respectively, with an appropriate choice of book title. I also despatched an art-themed postcard to a creative artist friend, so far so good. Ideally, I would like to match each recipient with a favourite author, book, genre or topic as far as possible. However, I have been through the box a few times now and I have discovered that some book titles might be difficult to place with a home. I suggest Scootering: a Penguin Handbook or Common Sense about Smoking: a Penguin Special as uncommon choices for uncommon readers. On the fiction front while Orange PenguinsA Severed Head (Iris Murdoch) and Vile Bodies (Evelyn Waugh) are fine as books, would you choose to send them as a postcard design unless you were sure of a good reception?

Penguin Postcards Selection

I’ll never use all of them…

I will write an update on my progress with the book title/matching process in a few days. Meanwhile I might delve into depths of The Landing and see what I have unread in the way of collected letters. I think I may have mentioned before that I enjoy reading other people’s letters…all above board, of course…

Month of Letters Update

I have written about tackling the February ‘Month of Letters’ challenge before on The Landing and on Writing.ie, so I thought that I would give you a progress report on my 2015 attempt. As usual, I began writing enthusiastically, but this time around, I entered a sort of sluggish phase part way into the month. The original rules of the challenge state that you don’t have to post on Sundays (nor, as the challenge was set by an American writer, on February 16 for President’s Day). On my first couple of attempts, I was enthusiastic enough to include Sundays (despite there being no mail collection on Sunday in Ireland) but this year I have observed the breaks and I feel slightly lazy for having done so. As I ignore the US Public Holiday, that means posting twenty-four items during February.

Card from Claire

Note from Claire

Missing the Sunday letter meant that I despatched my first mailing on 2 February – so far so good. I began the month with a list of possible suspects (in no particular order) and worked from that as the days went on. Originally I had conceived the idea of putting names of possible recipients into a hat and drawing one each day. I thought this would be great way to add a nice element of serendipity to the proceedings. Sadly, it was not to be due to my unfortunate inefficiency. Therefore, I am still working from the list but trying to maintain an air of randomness by not following the list in order. The down side to this is that I have noticed a distressing tendency to do the ‘soft options’ first. In other words, the people I see the most often and to whom I therefore wouldn’t send a long letter, but perhaps only a postcard or note.

Of course I worry that someone will think, ‘Hang on a minute, how come I am not getting a letter until the 23rd? Does this mean that I’m not as important as 22 other people?’ or words to that effect. Maybe I just worry too much. After all, as I write this blog post I am aware that I have yet to post a letter to one of my sisters but I don’t think she’s likely to take offence at that (I hope). Some folks do actually end up getting more than one billet doux as the challenge rules stipulate that you must reply to every letter received. If you really get into the spirit and rhythm of the challenge then there is no reason to post only one item a day. I could post two, three or even more.

As February moves on to meet the March lamb (or lion) I am feeling pleased that I have kept my pen diligently moving. I might even have a last minute flurry of scribbling to squeeze in a few extra people. As usual, I have factored in my dad’s birthday and my parent’s anniversary. I was probing my conscience as to whether I can claim dad’s birthday present as an item posted when I have already counted his card in. It seems rather sharp practice to me, so I might have to reprimand myself. As in previous years, I have been delighted when my recipients have responded in kind. I have scanned in a couple of replies, including Teri Farrell’s postcard with her original artwork. One to frame I think.

Daffodil from Teri

Daffodil from Teri

I am already thinking about how to make next year’s challenge a little bit different from previous years. The author of the challenge Mary Robinette Kowal suggests that you don’t have to actually send a letter, but something else such as a swatch of fabric as a keepsake. I like that idea, so perhaps I will collect miscellaneous items during the year and then decide whom to send them to next February. And as next year will be a leap year then it would be a great way to do something a little different.

Meanwhile, it’s back to the letter writing for 2015. Has anyone else been participating in Month of Letters?

Landing news: A quick catch-up

My Month of Letters participation went well this year with at least one item of mail (and often two) posted every day of the month. I was keeping a tally of recipients as I went along this time around so my final totals are:

 

A Month of Letters badge

Happy letter writing!

Correspondence sent to twenty-four people plus my parents x two items

Birthday card for my dad

One reply to a Month of Letters response (thanks Grainne!)

The lovely thing about sending #Lettermo mail this year, has been receiving post in return. One day I came home to the thrill of finding four non-brown envelope items on the door mat, which these days is quite something. To mark the occasion I assembled several items for a photograph. After much posing and arranging, here they are:

letters and cards

The cards sat on the mat…

I do plan to keep up my rekindled enthusiasm for writing letters and postcards and have even bought a

rather nice postcard calendar (marked down to clear) so that I need never be short of something to send. For this year’s letter writing challenge a special Month of Letters postcard design was available to order so I splashed out on a bundle of them.

Maybe I will manage to be less of a Facebook-er and more of a pen friend correspondent this year. Watch this space…

Another Challenge: The Easter egg hunt continues…

I wrote a piece for the Irish News Review about participating in the Big Egg Hunt, which is aiming to raise money for the Jack and Jill Foundation. Well, that was only the beginning folks! My quest began with the modest aim of finding twenty out of a possible hundred, which is all you need to find for the Egg Hunt. Finding twenty eggs and submitting the form in the I-Spy booklet means that you may enter into a draw to win a year’s supply of chocolate. There is also a diamond bracelet on offer, but what is that compared to lots of chocolate?  The hunting bug has completely claimed us however, to the extent that we are now aiming for the round hundred, no less. So apart from my February Month of Letters challenge, I have now added hunting Easter eggs. I think that we have reached the sixty eggs mark, or thereabouts. We scent victory in our hunt…

I Spy Booklet

Easter Egg Hunting…

Today’s bag focussed on the three to be found at Malahide Castle (but I am not saying exactly where, or which ones they are so as not to spoil anyone’s fun) which made for a pleasant Sunday morning excursion. Before heading to Pearse Station to get the DART, we decided to tick off the last of the Southside city centre Easter eggs. We were only missing the egg on display in the Merrion Hotel. (Now, this is going to be a bit of a spoiler so look away now if you prefer). As we approached the hotel, I was rather hoping to spot the egg on a plinth outside the building. It was not alas, to be. I had visions of us trawling around the interior of this smart hotel on a rather ‘egg-centric’ search while brandishing our booklet and pen to the alarm of respectable hotel residents enjoying a late breakfast.

I confess here and now that I did ask the trio of door attendants standing chatting outside, about the exact location of the egg. They said that it was inside the premises (they did specify the location but my lips are sealed) and pointed in the general direction. At the hotel desk, I asked staff for more specific details, and one receptionist very kindly showed us to the egg. I will just say that we might not have located it otherwise, without wandering for quite a while through lounges and corridors. By the time the hunt is over, the amiable staff of the Merrion Hotel might be a little tired of random people wandering in off the street waving maps at them. Perhaps some of the hunters may stay on to have tea afterwards and make it worthwhile for the hotel staff. Could this have been the cunning plan all along?

I will let you know if and when we reach our goal of making a century of eggs. Meanwhile, I am almost at the end of my February letter and postcard writing stint which I have greatly enjoyed. In my next post I will give a progress report on both of those challenges.

The trouble is, I just can’t stop thinking about chocolate Easter eggs. On with The Big Easter Egg Hunt!