Monday, 16 January 2017


In admiring the fabric of Emma, note even the perfect way the story is framed by its first and last sentences. Concise and purposeful, they are typical of the skill with which Jane Austen structures the entire novel. Emma is a woman who is blind to everything she does not wish to see. She likes to queen it over the little society in which she lives. The book begins:

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

It ends by looking positively to her future happiness: 

But, in spite of these deficiencies, the wishes, the hopes, the confidence, the predictions of the small band of true friends who witnessed the ceremony, were fully answered in the perfect happiness of the union.

In the last year of her life, Jane told niece Anna and nephew James-Edward what happened after the novel ended. Mr. Woodhouse survived for two years. Jane Fairfax lived for only ten years after marrying Frank. Jane Austen also revealed that the letters Frank placed in front of Jane Fairfax (which she brushed away) made the word 'pardon'.

Saturday, 14 January 2017


What appears after her History of England in Jane's childhood notebook – again inspired by popular literature – is a collection of letters.

The first is based on novels in which mothers give their daughters a sheltered 'education' and then introduce them into the 'world'. In Jane's case, facing 'the world' turns out to be merely drinking tea with a neighbour and receiving an occasional caller!

The second 'Letter' is 'From a Young lady crossed in Love to her Freind'. It is full of absurdity. (Mr. Bennet, in Pride and Prejudice, was later to say that a girl likes to be crossed in love from time to time.)

The third – a miniature novel written in the first person – is 'From A young Lady in distress'd Circumstances to her freind'. Maria Williams relates how, just because she is poor, she has to endure impertinence from her wealthy neighbour Lady Greville. As an exercise from the author who was to give the world Elizabeth Bennet and Lady Catherine de Bourgh, it is interesting – like a sketch drawn by Rembrandt when planning a great canvas. Jane Austen creates character and uses detail in ways which she was to develop. Lady Greville humiliates Maria, publicly criticizing her clothes, her family and their poverty. She asks in a loud voice whether her grandfather was not in a humble trade and her father once in prison for debt. Maria does not quite display the spirit of Elizabeth Bennet in coping with this, though she has the excuse that her mother has instructed her to be 'humble and patient'.

Lady Greville calls at Maria's home, has her fetched from the house and makes her stand in a cold wind while she remains in her carriage. She even has the impudence to say: 'I would not have my Girls stand out of doors as you do in such a day as this. But some sort of people have no feelings either of cold or Delicacy –'. (The incident was to be repeated when Miss De Bourgh similarly treated Charlotte Collins.)

Maria has some of Elizabeth Bennet's sense of humour: ‘ "There will be no occasion for your being very fine for I shan't send the carriage – If it rains you may take an umbrella –." I could hardly help laughing at hearing her give me leave to keep myself dry.' Lady Greville adds: 'You must tell your Maid to come for you at night – There will be no moon – and you will have an horrid walk home – My Compliments to your Mother...'.

The fourth letter is from a Nosey Parker, who is proud of her officious prying. 

'You came from Derbyshire?' 

'No, Ma'am!' appearing surprised at my question, 'from Suffolk.' You will think this a good dash of mine, my dear Mary, but you will know that I am not wanting for Impudence when I have any end in veiw.

Failing to coax Miss Grenville into revealing any 'misfortunes' she has suffered, she tries the ploy of offering herself as a friend: ' appear extremely young – and may probably stand in need of some one's advice whose regard for you, joined to superior Age, perhaps superior Judgement might authorise her to give it –. I am that person, and I now challenge you to accept the offer I make you of my Confidence and Freindship, in return to which I shall only ask for yours –.'

'You are extremely obliging, Ma'am' – said She – 'and I am highly flattered by your attention to me . But I am in no difficulty, no doubt, no uncertainty of situation in which any Advice can be wanted...'.

The final letter is from Henrietta, 'a Young Lady very much in love', an heiress who cannot see that Tom Willoughby is merely a fortune-hunter. She encloses a copy of a letter Tom has sent her. She also encloses a copy of the reply she is sending him (so we have 'letters-within-a-letter'). The comedy is ironic. Henrietta is untroubled even when Tom writes: 'Angelic Miss Henrietta, Heaven is my Witness how ardently I do hope for the death of your villainous Uncle and his Abandoned Wife, Since my fair one will not consent to be mine till their decease had placed her in affluence above what my fortune may procure–'!

Thursday, 12 January 2017


The Monthly Review (August 1790 edition - published when Jane was fourteen) states that 'The manufacture of novels has been so long established, that in general they have arrived at mediocrity ... We are indeed so sickened with this worn-out species of composition, that we have lost all relish for it'. The years were particularly lacking in novels worth taking seriously. I have not been able to trace any novel of repute, for example, from the years 1774, 1780 and 1781.

Henry Brooke's The Fool of Quality (1770) illustrates why the novel needed rescuing. This story stretches to five volumes, has a repetitive central plot (in which each 'villain' is humbled and reformed, becoming the 'hero' of the next section), and depends continually on coincidences and providential deliverances. There are digressions on the importance of commerce, the status of women, the British constitution and the use of prisons. There is much sobbing.

For an example of the state of the novel even when Jane Austen was writing, take The Nuns of the Desert by Eugenia de Acton (1805). We have Brimo, a talking dog, who answers questions put by witches. This is bunglingly explained later as ventriloquism. It is not surprising that Jane Austen developed a strong scepticism about contemporary ideas of what novels should seek to achieve. 

Yet book sales quadrupled between 1771 and 1791. By the end of Jane's childhood, there were a few novelists of fair ability. In 1795, Musgrave, Smith, Kelly, Lathom, Parsons and Robinson all produced readable novels.

Importantly, women writers were able to take advantage of a genre with no learned tradition or classical precedents. But women faced a peculiar difficulty: unless they were prepared to be considered indelicate, they could not claim too wide an experience of life. It was almost impossible for them to depict scenes in which men appeared on their own, away from women. (Jane Austen herself felt this inhibition.) Women writers were not immediately taken seriously by the critics.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017


Jane Austen found rain very useful as an aid to plotting. Rain forcing her to shelter at the Parsonage makes a significant difference in Mansfield Park to Fanny's social life and causes her 'friendship' with Mary to blossom. Marianne Dashwood's emotional life (and near-brush with death) is stimulated by rain. Jane Fairfax is suspiciously defiant of rain. Sheltering from rain in Molland's of Milsom Street brings Anne Elliot into renewed contact with Captain Wentworth.

And of course, without rain, Jane Bennet would not have had such a good chance of consolidating her hold on Bingley (and - more significantly and ironically - Elizabeth Bennet would not have had such a good chance of unwittingly consolidating her hold on Darcy). 

Possibly rain was more than a convenient plot device: it could have been a ‘real life’ plot device, in the sense that it gave people (particularly women) a pretext for putting themselves into situations and to meet others in ways that propriety would not otherwise sanction. 

It is interesting that the last thing Jane Austen wrote (during the week in which she died) was also inspired by the heavy rains of the preceding days.

Sunday, 8 January 2017


In Jane Austen's unfinished novel Sanditon an amusing trio of caricatures are the hypochondriacs, Mr. Tom Parker's relatives. His sisters Diana and Susan claim to suffer from any number of ailments. Unable to get much sympathy from doctors, they have taken to prescribing their own cures. Despite declaring themselves too ill to travel, they soon arrive and take lodgings at Sanditon.
Diana is about thirty-four. For all her protestations of ill-health, she proves a robust, officious person. 
She looks 'delicate' rather than 'sickly' and has 'a very animated eye'. Boasting of schemes to entice holiday-makers to Sanditon, Diana says, 'I heard again from Fanny Noyce, saying that she had heard from Miss Capper, who by a letter from Mrs. Darling understood that Mrs. Griffiths has expressed herself in a letter to Mrs. Darling...' and so on. Jane Austen is re-visiting the comic nonsense she wrote as a teenager.

Diana claims to have persuaded two wealthy parties to come to Sanditon. This turns out to have been bungling interference: the 'two' parties prove to be one and the same - Mrs. Griffiths, who runs a seminary, with three of her pupils.

Diana is so meddlesome that she has dashed around booking lodgings at eight guineas per week in Sanditon and making arrangements with cooks, washer-women and housemaids for the non-existent second group, led by a 'lady whom she had never seen, and who had never employed her'. Even after the truth comes out, Diana continues interfering on behalf of anyone with the slightest problem.

When Charlotte expresses surprise that such an invalid can be so active, Diana insists that 'it is the bounden duty of the capable to let no opportunity of being useful escape them. – My sister's complaints and mine are happily not often of a nature, to threaten existence immediately'.

The second sister, Susan, talks incessantly and, though she sits administering phials and salts to herself, appears to Charlotte to have no 'symptoms of illness which she, in the boldness of her own good health, would not have undertaken to cure, by putting out the fire, opening the window, and disposing of the drops and the salts by means of one or the other.' Though it is a warm summer day, the brother and sisters stay indoors with a 'brisk fire' and all windows closed.

Brother Arthur shares none of Diana's desire to be useful. Having discovered the efficacy of hypochondria in securing a life of ease and idleness, he has turned self-indulgence into an art. About twenty-one years old and with plenty of money, he has no wish to get involved like Tom in commercial activity. He finds it convenient to be 'so delicate that he can engage in no profession'. Charlotte is grateful that his bulk (remarkable for an invalid) shields her from the fire's heat.

Though idle and overweight, 'heavy in eye as well as figure', Arthur is pleasant company. He claims to suffer from rheumatism and nerves. Charlotte notes that he eats and drinks heartily, while attempting to conceal this trait from his sisters: '...she saw him watching his sisters, while he scrupulously scraped off almost as much butter as he put on, and then seize an odd moment for adding a great dab just before it went into his mouth. Certainly, Mr. Arthur Parker's enjoyments in invalidism were very different from his sisters' – by no means so spiritualized.’

Friday, 6 January 2017


Elizabeth Bennet is possibly the best-known heroine in English Literature. Jane moulded the heroine partly in her own form. Like the author, Elizabeth Bennet is twenty. Like Jane Austen's, her education has been leisurely and conducted at home. She admits 'We never had a governess' but explains there was no shortage of private tutors: '...such of us as wished to learn never wanted the means. We were always encouraged to read, and had all the masters that were necessary. Those who chose to be idle certainly might.’ (Jane Austen uses the impertinent interrogation by Lady Catherine to elicit these points.)

Elizabeth Bennet may be a little more audacious than her creator; but she has the same sense of humour and she expresses it in the same way. When her father advises her to fall in love with Wickham because he 'would jilt you creditably', she wittily replies 'We must not all expect Jane's good fortune.' Jane Austen's letters are generally in that tone. Even during those days after Jane Bennet becomes engaged and is wishing Lizzy could have as much happiness as herself, Lizzy (who is in suspense waiting to see whether Darcy will propose again) says: '...if I have very good luck, I may meet with another Mr. Collins in time'.

Elizabeth shares Jane Austen's interests - social and family life, relationships with young men, the study of people in a country setting. Cheerfulness is natural to them both. When slighted (Darcy describes her as 'tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me'), she enjoys telling the story 'with great spirit' among her friends, 'for she had a lively, playful disposition, which delighted in anything ridiculous'. In the same way, being 'not formed for ill-humour', she soon overcomes her disappointment at Wickham's absence from the Netherfield Ball on November 26th, by having fun telling Charlotte about the 'oddities of her cousin', Mr. Collins.

Conversations between Mr. Bennet and Elizabeth sometimes have uncomfortable undertones. Fun is made of Mrs. Bennet and even of Jane, who - we must believe - is genuinely suffering. However, Mr. Bennet also makes fun of Elizabeth, who receives it in kind. The reason we like this conversation is that it is private between the two of them, and it is very much only between them. Because they can do this, they can otherwise suffer fools gladly in more public situations. Mr. Bennet can deal with serious family interactions only through humour, something that many people do. He is aware of Jane's unhappiness but can only joke. He also disapproves of Mrs. Bennet's harping on it.

Elizabeth is very much her father's daughter – as shown by her remarks about the few she loves and the few of whom she really thinks well. She tends to be contemptuous easily and thinks well of her perception and character-studying ability at this time. She is going to revise her opinions fairly soon, but she will always maintain the distinction in her mind - the distinction between loving and thinking well of someone.

Elizabeth is so lively, cheerful, witty and sensitive – in most cases - to the feelings of others that her attraction to readers is obvious. Add to this her interesting discovery of love, through esteem for a man she at first dislikes, and we have one of the most appealing heroines in literature.

She values books, but claims 'I am not a great reader, and I have pleasure in many things'. She chooses to read rather than play at loo when visiting the sick Jane at Netherfield, but this is because she suspects the company to be 'playing high'. (In a letter to her sister Cassandra, Jane Austen also once said she opted out of a gambling game – commerce – because she could not afford to risk losing).

Elizabeth's beauty is left partly to the reader's imagination. Her face is (in Darcy's view) 'rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes'. Though he sees 'more than one failure of perfect symmetry in her form', he finds her figure 'light and pleasing'; and her manners, though not those of the fashionable world, are attractive because of their 'easy playfulness'. After her muddy walk to Netherfield, he admires the 'brilliancy which exercise had given to her complexion’.

Like her creator, Elizabeth is a student of human nature and is proud of her skill in this respect, though she has to learn to beware of prejudice. She resolutely sticks to opinions even when the more charitable Jane offers alternative interpretations. Discussing Wickham's version of events, Jane says, 'One does not know what to think'; but Elizabeth insists, 'I beg your pardon; one knows exactly what to think.' Darcy warns her she tends wilfully to misunderstand people. She speaks her mind and is usually right, particularly about women. With 'more quickness of observation and less pliancy of temper than her sister', she immediately finds Bingley's sisters proud and conceited.

Although Jane Austen never says so, it is possible that Charlotte Lucas is secretly the schemer who brings Darcy and Elizabeth together (partly with a view to improving her own prospects through Darcy's patronage of her husband.). Where else can the 'gossip' about Darcy and Elizabeth - that reached Lady Catherine's ears - have come from? 

There is an interesting paragraph in the middle of Chapter 46 about ways of falling in love. With Wickham, Elizabeth had tried the love-at-first-sight method and it did not work. With Darcy, love has been based on a foundation of 'gratitude and esteem' - the method Jane Austen approved. 

Without marriage, Lizzy's only financial prospects are 'one thousand pounds in the four per cents', as Mr. Collins ungraciously points out while proposing to her. He says her 'portion is, unhappily, so small' that she may never receive another offer of marriage. It says much for her integrity that, despite prospects not much better than Charlotte's, Elizabeth is not tempted to marry without love. She is not attracted by the idea of settling as a clergyman's wife, even to secure her father's estate.

Another of Elizabeth's admirable qualities is her tenderness towards her sister. The selfless love of sensitive, intelligent young women for their sisters is evident in the mutual devotion of Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra. It was a sustaining force in Jane's life and work. Lizzy empathises with her sister's joy in falling in love with Bingley. There is no jealousy. When alone, the sisters share confidences, though Elizabeth is careful never to reveal information that may cause pain: she is considerate in being economical with the truth she has learned about Bingley's failure to call on Jane in London. Even when her own emotions are in turmoil, she shows deep concern for Jane: 'Elizabeth instantly read her feelings; and at that moment solicitude for Wickham, resentment against his enemies, and everything else, gave way before the hope of Jane's being in the fairest way for happiness.' Jane is the only person Elizabeth takes into her confidence concerning Darcy's proposal. 

Elizabeth is human enough to know it would gratify 'whatever of her own vanity she had not yet been able to reason away' if she made Darcy's proposal known. Yet, unlike her mother, she can keep matters to herself. 

Apart from Jane, Charlotte is the only intimate friend with whom Elizabeth sometimes talks about private matters. With her, Elizabeth discusses Jane's 'preference' for Bingley. Wrongly, as it proves, Elizabeth thinks Bingley must be aware of Jane's feelings. Elizabeth is showing her characteristic prejudice in too readily drawing conclusions. She fails to recognize that Jane's self-composure can leave observers thinking her indifferent. Charlotte readily gives her view that a woman attracted by a man should give him signals to that effect. 

Thinking continually about marriage, Elizabeth is no different from other young women in her situation. Her interest in courtship is part of her general interest in human behaviour. When Jane tells her that women fancy admiration means more than it does, she replies: 'And men take care that they should'. She recognises symptoms in other girls. She tells Jane that if Caroline Bingley had seen as many signs of love for herself in Darcy as Bingley has shown towards Jane, she 'would have ordered her wedding clothes'. And she detects that Caroline wants to get her brother married to Miss Darcy in the hope that it will precipitate her own marriage to Darcy himself. 

It is interesting that Caroline’s snobbery (and jealousy of Elizabeth) soon make us suspicious of anything she says. Consequently, when does speak the truth – in her warning to Elizabeth about Wickham – we, like Elizabeth, are prone not to believe her. It is a clever irony set up by the narrator to prejudice the reader as well as the heroine. 

Elizabeth's wit is everywhere a joy. When her mother prattles embarrassingly, Elizabeth can provide escape and relief with a joke. Jane's first admirer gave her up after writing poetry about her. Elizabeth says: 'I wonder who first discovered the efficacy of poetry in driving away love!' Then she stands up to Darcy's defence of poetry as the food of love, thereby making him smile. 

Interestingly, she does not oppose her mother's scheme in deliberately sending Jane in the rain on horseback to Netherfield. It is impossible to tell whether she approves of the plan or is merely being satirical when she gets her father to acknowledge that he needs the horse and is therefore unable to let Jane have the carriage. (There was a carriage horse tax of 54 shillings in 1797, trebled in the budget of 1798. Mr. Bennet seems to have succeeded in getting his horses assessed as animals kept for husbandry. Possibly he went in for a little legitimate tax avoidance!) 

Elizabeth is an energetic girl. She runs a great deal. Unlike her sister Jane, she is 'no horsewoman' and readily walks (through the mud) to Netherfield. 

Regarding relationships with the opposite sex, she has a proper sense of decorum. When Lizzy returns from Kent, Lydia wants to rush her off to Meryton in the hope of meeting men. Elizabeth thinks: 'It should not be said that the Miss Bennets could not be at home half a day before they were in pursuit of the officers'. And when her mother boasts that Jane will soon become engaged to Bingley, Lizzy blushes 'with shame and vexation' because Darcy can overhear. The way she handles the news of Charlotte's engagement demonstrates her notion of correct behaviour. Whereas Mrs. Bennet would have shrieked it all over the village, Elizabeth sits with her mother and sisters 'doubting whether she were authorized to mention it’.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017


When she was 17, Jane wrote (for her six-week-old niece!) A beautiful description of the different effects of Sensibility on different Minds and The generous Curate. They are intended to 'inculcate the practise of Virtue' – another little joke.

In the first, the story-teller has just come from the bedside of the dying Melissa and of course 'never saw so affecting an object'. The dying woman is surrounded by family and friends adopting exaggeratedly emotional poses or behaving in other ridiculous ways: 'Sir William is constantly at her bedside. The only repose he takes is on the Sopha in the Drawing room, where for five minutes every fortnight he remains in an imperfect Slumber, starting up every Moment and exclaiming "Oh! Melissa, Ah! Melissa"...'.

And the doctor is no help - he does nothing but make puns!

The narrator herself is 'usually at the fire cooking some little delicacy for the unhappy invalid – Perhaps hashing up the remains of an old Duck, toasting some cheese or making a Curry...'.

The second piece, The generous Curate, is sub-titled 'a moral tale, setting forth the Advantages of being Generous and a Curate', but of course it is nothing of the kind. It is a deliberately inconsequential little tale with an abrupt end. A poor Warwickshire clergyman has six children. The eldest son joins the Navy and sends home from Newfoundland to his family 'a large Newfoundland Dog every month'! The second son is adopted by a curate who cannot afford to educate him. At the age of 18, the lad's greatest accomplishments are to throw stones at ducks or put bricks in the curate's bed, but the curate regards 'these innocent efforts at wit' as 'the effects of a lively imagination'.

Monday, 2 January 2017


In the final chapter of Sanditon, Tom Parker's brother Sidney arrives in town. We expect him to be a more balanced, whimsical sort of man, for Tom has confessed that Sidney teases him about his plans.

Indeed, Sidney is not taken in by his brother Arthur's and his sisters' illnesses. He proves to be about twenty-eight, good-looking, 'with a decided air of ease and fashion, and a lively countenance'. We may speculate that Jane Austen intended him to fall in love with Charlotte.

This novel is a testament to Jane Austen's courage. Written when she was dying, it jokes about illness. Jane often tried to make others believe she was better than she really felt. She would insist that her mother (who was to outlive Jane by ten years) should have the place on the sofa, in preference to herself, who really needed it. Jane Austen's mother was just a little of a hypochondriac. As Margaret Drabble says in her introduction (Penguin edition, 1974), Jane 'was too ill to moralize in fiction, and cheered herself up by seeing the world as a joke'.

Saturday, 31 December 2016


Characters in Emma are introduced with subtlety. The central trio of Emma, Mr. Woodhouse and Mr. Knightley are firmly established at the start. The introduction of Frank Churchill is postponed, deliberately allowing speculation about him. Mrs. Elton is withheld until surprisingly late (Chapter 32), preventing her from dominating earlier scenes. Jane Austen also deftly provides at appropriate moments succinct biographies. An example is a story in itself at the beginning of Chapter 2. A typical sentence states:

He had received a good education, but on succeeding in life to a small independence, had become indisposed for any of the more homely pursuits in which his brothers were engaged; and had satisfied an active, cheerful mind and social temper by entering into the militia of his county then embodied. 

There are many such sentences, and very little dialogue, in the first three chapters of the novel: such precise, sure-footed presentation and understanding of her characters leaves us feeling that we know what they have been saying (for example when Harriet pays her first visit to Hartfield), even though no spoken word is recorded. 

Mr. Weston is one of those warm-hearted characters who prefer company (not necessarily the best company) to solitude. Jane Austen found them useful (remember Bingley in Pride and Prejudice and Sir John Middleton in Sense and Sensibility).

Thursday, 29 December 2016


Jane Austen skilfully structured each story within the story of Emma. For example, the first quarter concerns the misunderstandings over Harriet and Elton. Each minor incident contributes - the portrait, the courtship riddle, the call at the vicarage, and Harriet's illness. Jane Austen does not distract us at this time with Jane Fairfax, the prattle of Miss Bates or the behaviour of the future Mrs. Elton, even though these are features which, by the end of the novel, will linger in the mind.

Each chapter is strategic. See how perfectly the first two chapters prepare the ground. In Chapter 1, we find Miss Taylor already labelled as 'poor Miss Taylor' by Mr. Woodhouse, and we have Knightley alone recognizing faults in Emma. We also discover Emma, crediting herself for getting Miss Taylor married, now planning to find a wife for Elton. Chapter 2 establishes Mr. Weston, gives the background to his first marriage and the adoption of Frank, and tells us Frank is expected to honour his new step-mother with a visit.

Within individual chapters, the structure is equally deliberate. Most focus on one incident or one conversation, developing the themes of the novel. The beginnings and ends (as everywhere in Jane Austen) are especially neat and often ironic. Chapter 2 ends: 

There was a strange rumour in Highbury of all the little Perrys being seen with a slice of Mrs. Weston's wedding-cake in their hands; but Mr. Woodhouse would never believe it.

(Another good example of the way Jane Austen loved to end chapters with pithy, ironic paragraphs occurs in Chapter 21 of Mansfield Park, where – after all the fuss following the theatricals – we learn that Mrs. Norris quietly steals the stage curtains for her own private use.)

Chapter 5 consists of nothing but a brief conversation between Mr. Knightley and Mrs. Weston. We do not need to know when or where the conversation takes place. It is a most economical device for making us take stock of the friendship between Emma and Harriet. Chapter 11 (the visit of Isabella, her husband John Knightley and their five children) is similar: there is no action to speak of but it is important.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016


What has survived of Jane Austen's private letters is the text from 160 of them. Jane's sister Cassandra bequeathed only a judicious selection to their niece Fanny. Another niece – Caroline – said that Cassandra had destroyed many of the letters after Jane's death. These she must have considered too personal. All letters written by Jane between May 1801 and September 1804 were destroyed, possibly because they contained references to Jane's supposed romance with the gentleman met at the seaside, who died.

Fanny's son Lord Brabourne in 1884 published the letters, censoring them, however, with Victorian propriety: he deleted references to bowels, fleas, bad breath and pregnancy! He softened Jane's criticisms of people. Refurbishment took place in R. W. Chapman’s first edition of Jane's collected letters in 1932.

The best edition now available is Jane Austen's Letters collected and edited by Deirdre Le Faye (1996). This revision of Chapman's work incorporates the fruits of continual research. It is well annotated and has superb biographical and topographical indexes.

A few of the original letters are today in private hands but most have been acquired by institutions throughout the world. The Pierpoint Morgan Library, New York, has the most - over fifty. The British Library, with twelve, has the next largest collection and St. John's College, Oxford, has five. Unfortunately, fourteen letters have not been seen since the 1880s when they were bought by unknown purchasers. This happened at sales held by Sotheby's on 14 April 1886 and 11 May 1891, and at Puttick and Simpson's on 26 June 1893.

Letter 83 is a mere scrap supplied by Jane's brother Frank to an autograph hunter: the text is missing. A small number of other letters suffered from damage or mutilation before their contents were first published.

Very rarely, an original letter comes up for sale. At Christie's, New York, in a sale held on 7 June 1990, the letter written at Christmas 1798 and sent from Steventon to Cassandra at Godmersham was sold for $19800.

The letter of 26 February 1817 from Jane to her niece Caroline was sold at Sotheby's on 13 December 1994 for the remarkably modest price of £4400.

In 2000, Letter No. 10 was offered for private sale at £32,000.

Jane Austen could not bear to be long without a pen in her hand, either progressing quietly with a novel or keeping in touch with her friends and relatives. She was a prolific letter writer. Letters sent to Cassandra whenever they were apart during the 1790s and 1800s show she constantly added jottings to the letter in progress and, after posting it, almost immediately started another. They took turns visiting friends and relatives, frequently their married brothers in London or Kent, and on such occasions the exchange of letters was constant.

When not writing to her sister, Jane was answering letters from other correspondents. Most of these letters have not survived. She mentions her 'political correspondents' with whom she must have discussed topical issues.

A close observer of events, conversations, appearances and moods, Jane mentally catalogued anything that might entertain her sister.

‘Our party last night supplied me with no new ideas for my Letter,' was a sentence squeezed in at the end of Letter 37 (in Deirdre Le Faye's Edition). She expected everything to supply her with ideas. Trivialities appealed: 'You know how interesting the purchase of a sponge-cake is to me’. She is writing from Godmersham in June 1808 (Letter 52).

Cassandra herself may well have set the tone for the intimate, witty and detailed content. There seems to have been a competitive element in their exchanges. Cassandra replied as readily as she received. Like Jane, she appears to have seen life as full of jokes. In only the fourth of Jane's surviving letters (written when she was twenty), she tells Cassandra: 'The letter which I have this moment received from you has diverted me beyond moderation. I could die of laughter at it, as they used to say at school. You are indeed the finest comic writer of the present age'. Two years later, Jane was telling Cassandra: 'You must read your letters over five times in future before you send them, and then perhaps you may find them as entertaining as I do. – I laughed at several parts of the one which I am now answering' (Letter 17).

Jane likes to tease inventively. She reports that Frank and Mary will be so cross if Cassandra is unavailable to help them with their purchases that 'they shall be as spiteful as possible & chuse everything in the stile most likely to vex you, Knives that will not cut, glasses that will not hold, a sofa without a seat, & a Bookcase without shelves' (Letter 50); and a few lines later, she refers to 'Mr Husket Lord Lansdown's Painter, – domestic painter I should call him, for he lives in the Castle – Domestic Chaplains have given way to this more necessary office, & I suppose whenever the Walls want no touching up, he is employed about my Lady's face' (Letter 50).

When writing in July 1816 to her seventeen-year-old nephew James-Edward Austen, whose letter to her from Steventon must have superfluously told her that as well as going to Winchester he had 'come home' again, she commented: 'I am glad you recollected to mention your being come home. My heart began to sink within me when I had got so far through your Letter without its being mentioned. I was dreadfully afraid that you might be detained at Winchester by severe illness, confined to your Bed perhaps & quite unable to hold a pen, & only dating from Steventon in order, with a mistaken sort of Tenderness, to deceive me. – But now, I have no doubt of your being at home, I am sure you would not say it so seriously unless it actually were so' (Letter 142). Later in the same letter, she has fun imagining the nephew's future life – she hopes his 'Physicians' will order him 'to the Sea, or to a house by the side of a very considerable pond'. (There was a pond outside her cottage.)

A few months later (Letter 146), when the nephew had just left Winchester School (and was attempting to write a novel before going up to Oxford), she wished him well and invited him to confess how miserable he had been at school: 'it will gradually all come out – your Crimes & your Miseries – how often you went up by the Mail to London & threw away Fifty Guineas at a Tavern, & how often you were on the point of hanging yourself – restrained only, as some illnatured aspersion upon poor old Winton has it, by the want of a Tree within some miles of the City'. She adds: 'Uncle Henry writes very superior Sermons. – You & I must try to get hold of one or two, & put them into our Novels; – it would be a fine help to a volume; & we could make our Heroine read it aloud of a Sunday Evening'.

To Cassandra, there are mock-rebukes: 'I shall not tell you anything more of William Digweed's China, as your Silence on the subject makes you unworthy of it'; 'I expected to have heard from you this morning, but no letter is come. I shall not take the trouble of announcing to you any more of Mary's children, if, instead of thanking me for the intelligence, you always sit down and write to James.' (Letter 12). 'You used me scandalously by not mentioning Edward Cooper's Sermons; – I tell you everything, & it is unknown the Mysteries you conceal from me' (Letter 66).

Much of the fun is in the comments about people. 'Mrs John Lyford is so much pleased with the state of widowhood as to be going to put in for being a widow again; – she is to marry a Mr Fendall, a banker in Gloucester, a man of very good fortune, but considerably older than herself & with three little children' (Letter 30); 'She appeared exactly as she did in September, with the same broad face, diamond bandeau, white shoes, pink husband, & fat neck' (Letter 27); 'Lizzie Bond is just apprenticed to Miss Small, so we may hope to see her able to spoil gowns in a few years' (Letter 13); 'Charles Powlett has been very ill, but is getting well again; – his wife is discovered to be everything that the Neighbourhood could wish her, silly & cross as well as extravagant' (Letter 14); 'Miss Blachford is married, but I have never seen it in the Papers. And one may as well be single if the Wedding is not to be in print' (Letter 118).

Notorious is the line 'Mrs Hall of Sherbourn 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' (Letter 10). It was in letters to Cassandra only that she made such outrageous jokes, confident that they would not be repeated. They were for private giggles. Frivolous, cruel humour is typical of the eighteenth-century literature on which Jane was nourished. Pope had given her the example of such ironies as 'Puffs, Powders, Patches, Bibles, Billet-doux' - the contents of Belinda's dressing-table - and the young girl's fear of losing 'her heart, or necklace, at a ball', or, even (about the young woman losing a lock of her hair):

Not louder shrieks to pitying heaven are cast, 
When husbands, or when lap-dogs, breathe their last.

Lady Sneerwell in The School for Scandal says 'There's no possibility of being witty - without a little ill nature: the malice of a good thing is the barb that makes it stick'. Jane Austen, particularly in her juvenilia and in her private letters (and in the behaviour of Emma Woodhouse) acknowledges the force of this.

When their acquaintance Lady Sondes was to marry again – her husband had died two years earlier – Jane wrote: 'Lady Sondes' match surprises, but does not offend me; – had her first marriage been of affection, or had there been a grown-up single daughter, I should not have forgiven her – but I consider everybody as having a right to marry once in their Lives for Love, if they can – & provided she will now leave off having bad head-aches & being pathetic, I can allow her, I can wish her to be happy' (Letter 63). (Lady Sondes' second husband was to be General Montresor. Later in the same letter, Jane adds, enjoying the comedy of stereotyping, 'I like his rank very much – & always affix the ideas of strong sense, & highly elegant Manners, to a General').

There is often cynical wisdom in the humour. 'Miss Blachford is agreeable enough; I do not want People to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal' (Letter 15). About her nephew little Georgy ('itty Dordy'), she writes: '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 & smiling Countenance & interesting Manners, till a few years have turned him into an ungovernable, ungracious fellow' (Letter 10). Even when affectionate, Jane was always free from illusions. Possibly this is why she never married!

Sometimes the jokes are of the nonsensical kind she enjoyed in her juvenile writings: 'You express so little anxiety about my being murdered under Ashe Park Copse by Mrs Hulbert's servant, that I have a great mind not to tell you whether I was or not' (Letter 17); 'Mr Richard Harvey's match is put off, till he has got a Better Christian name, of which he has great Hopes. Mr Children's two Sons are both going to be married, John and George – . They are to have one wife between them; a Miss Holwell, who belongs to the Black Hole at Calcutta' (Letter 6); 'There are two Traits in her Character which are pleasing; namely, she admires Camilla, and drinks no cream in her Tea' (Letter 6); 'The Tables are come, & give general contentment. ... They are both covered with green baize and send their best love' (Letter 25); 'we met a Gentleman in a Buggy, who on a minute examination turned out to be Dr Hall – & Dr Hall in such very deep mourning that either his Mother, his Wife, or himself must be dead' (Letter 19); 'We found only Mrs Lance at home, and whether she boasts any offspring besides a grand pianoforte did not appear' (Letter 49).

Sunday, 25 December 2016


Persuasion opens by telling us how Sir William loved to study the 'Baronetage'. With him, we learn about his family (for he has entered dates of marriages and births) and we infer that he is conceited and foolish.

The skill with which Anne Elliot's past is explained was well described by Dr. C.V. Wedgwood (in the 1966 Annual Lecture of the Jane Austen Society): 'Jane Austen moves in towards Anne slowly, starting with the revealingly funny account of her father.... It is only after we have had Sir Walter, his life, his interests, and his intention of letting his house, fully set down for our interest and amusement, that Jane Austen breaks off the narrative to explain the predicament of Anne in a straightforward, economical, deliberately low-toned chapter, which, as much by its position in the book as by any direct statement, establishes the fine character of Anne and the nature of her tragedy, her broken engagement to Captain Wentworth, in almost austere contrast to the false values with which she is surrounded.'

It is typical of the way Jane Austen interweaves comedy with sadness. (A similar effect is achieved when Fanny Price, aged ten, arrives at Mansfield Park. She is distressed, shy, lonely, made to feel inferior and guilty; yet the scene has all the outward appearance of comedy.)