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Jane Austen: Her Life and Letters (thoughts)

July 9, 2008

In Their ShoesBy now I think we all now how I feel about Jane Austen. ;) I’ve already reviewed half of her books on the blog, and I’ve read two others that somehow I forgot to get around to reviewing (whoops!). That leaves Pride and Prejudice due for a reread soon: I’m saving it for the first week of grad school, when I’ll probably be stresed out of my mind and need some serious comfort reading!

That being said, I never had much interest in finding out about Jane Austen herself. I was worried that knowing about her life would somehow influence my readings of her novels too much; I’ve even always avoided looking at her unfinished stuff and juvenilia, because if she didn’t want it published, I didn’t want it affecting my opinion of her. But, I was at Barnes & Noble a long time ago, and Jane Austen: Her Life and Letters by William Austen-Leigh and Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh was on the bargain table for $2. I couldn’t pass that up!

I bought it, and then it languished on my shelves, while I worked up the courage to get to know my very favourite author in a whole new way. Fortunately, when I finally opened it, I was in for a treat! The book is mainly a collection of her unburned letters, arranged chronologically. Interspersed with these are comments from William and Richard, two great-nephews, who put the letters in context, share other people’s impressions of Jane, and indulge in mildly rambling reflections of their own. I found their tone-very old fashioned English gentlemen-quite charming. In the beginning, the nephew’s thoughts take up much more space than their aunt’s, but that change pretty soon. As you might expect, when the editors are family, there’s an absence of anything negative. Since I didn’t know anything about Austen’s life beforehand, I have no idea if it’s whitewashed or not.

Jane Austen

Jane Austen

My favourite part, obviously, are Jane’s letters. She was definitely very mischevious, and could be mean to people, but that just made things funnier. And it was so neat to see her write about her books; in fact, perhaps the best thing about the collection for me was how it made me want to run over to my shelves and reread all of her books right then. Even crazier, when I finished, I actually wanted to learn more about Austen’s life, so now I have that Tomalin biography that Ravenous Reader enjoyed on my radar. Who knows, by the end of that, I might be cracking open Lady Susan and The Watsons!

Right, I know by this time, what you’re really thinking is: of course you enjoyed them Eva, since you love Jane. But me, I’m not a huge fan, so would I enjoy them? I’m not sure I can answer that, except to direct you to my favourite passages. Unless I’ve marked it otherwise, the passages come from Jane’s letters. If you enjoy reading those snippets, you’ll probably enjoy reading the entire collection. If not, well, you might want to pass this one up.

Tell me: do you love to know more about your favourite authors, and seek out biographies and letter collections? Or are you more like me, worried to meet the man behind the curtain?

Favourite Passages
But the chief beauty of Steventon consisted in its hedgrows. A hedgrow in that country does not mean a thin formal line of quickset, but an irregular border of copse-wood and timber; often wide enough to contain within it a winding footpath, or a rough cart-track. Under its shelter the earliest primroses, anemones, and wild hyacinths were to be found; sometimes the first bird’s nest; and, now and then, the unwelcome adder. -Commentary

On the whole, she grew up with a good stock of such accomplishments as might be expected of a girl bred in one of the more intellectual clerical houses of that day. She read French easily, and knew a little of Italian; and she was well read in the English literature of the eigtheenth century. As a child, she had strong political opinions, especially on affairs of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. -Commentary

Later still-it was after she had gone to Winchester-she sent me a message to this effect, that if I would take her advice I should cease writing till I was sixteen; that she had herself often wished she had read more, and written less in the corresponding years of her own life. -From the memories of a niece

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.

Your account of Weymouth contains nothing which strikes me so forcibly as there being no ice in the town. For every other vexation I was in some measure prepared, and particularly for your disappointment in not seeing the Royal Family go on board on Tuesday, having already heard from Mr. Crawford that he had seen you in the very act of being too late. But for there being no ice, what could prepare me?

We found only Mrs. Lance at home, and whether she boasts any offspring besides a grand pianoforte did not appear.

On the whole, there is great merit in the book [Sense and Sensibility], and much amusement to be got from it; but it seems natural to look upon it as an experiment on the part of the author, before she put forth her full powers in Pride and Prejudice. We are glad, by the way, to hear from Jane herself that Miss Steele never caught the Doctor after all.

I want to tell you that I have got my own darling child from London. …Miss Benn dined with us on the very day of the book’s coming, and in the evening we set fairly at it, and read half the first vol. to her, prefacing that, having intelligence from Henry that such a work would soon appear, we had desired him to send it whenever it came out, and I believe it passed with her unsispected. She was amused, poor soul! That she could not help, you know, with two such people to lead the way, but she really does seem to admire Elizbaeth. I must confess that I think her as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print, and how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least I do not know.

My gown is to be trimmed everywhere with white ribbon plaited on somehow or other. She says it will look well. I am not sanguine. They trim with white very much.

Mr. W is about five- or six-and-twenty, not ill-looking, and not agreeable. He is certainly no addition. A sort of cool, gentlemanlike manner, but very silent. They say his name is Henry, a proof how unequally the gifts of fortune are bestowed. I have seen many a John and Thomas much more agreeable.

All through this year and the early part of the next, Emma (begun January 1814, finished March 29, 1815) was assiduously worked at. Although polished to the highest degree, it was more quickly composed than any other previous work and gave evidence of a practiced hand. It was also the most “Austenish” of all her novels, carrying out most completely her idea of what was fitted to her tastes and capacities. She enjoyed having a heroine “whom no one would like but herself,” and working on “three or four families in a country village.” …There are no stirring incidencets; there is no change of scenery. The heroine, whose society who enjoy throughout, never sleeps away from home, and even there sees only as much company as an invalid father can welcome. No character in the book is ill, no one is ruined, there is no villain, and no paragon. On the other hand, the plot is admirable contrived and never halts; while the mysteries-exclusively mysteries of courtship and love-are excellently maintained. -the Commentary

I am sorry my mother has been suffering, and am afraid this exquisite weather is too good to agree with her. I enjoy it all over me, from top to toe, from right to left, longitudinally, perpendicularly, diagonally; and I cannot but selfishly hope we are to have it last till Christmas-nice, unwholesome, unseasonable, relaxing, close, muggy weather.

A classical education, or at any rate a very extensive acquiantance with English literature, ancient and modern, appears to me quite indispensable for the person who would do any justice to your clergyman; and I think I may boast myself to be, with all possible vanity, the most unlearned and uninformed female who ever dared to be an authoress. (This was a response to the Royal Librarian, who wrote her a long letter suggesting what her next book should be about-a clergyman whose life remarkably resembled his own)

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17 Comments leave one →
  1. July 9, 2008 9:28 am

    Jane Austen wrote this wonderful history of the English Kings for her father when she was a child. I remember that there was a line in it about one queen whose reign was so short that “there wasn’t time to paint her portrait.”

    I’m ambivalent about learning about my favorite authors or artists of any kind. Too often I’m supposed to be more impressed by the work because of the person’s life. I think the work should stand or fall on its own; actually, I think it always does really. On the other hand, last summer I read this fascinating biography about the artis Judy Chicago and came to be realling interested in her work.

    I gues it can go either way.

  2. July 9, 2008 9:52 am

    I love to read books about a favorite author while I’m reading the author’s books. It makes me feel as if I really know them or have some kind of special inside information. :)

  3. July 9, 2008 10:07 am

    I love to know the writers in any means I can – letters, diaries, even movies. For me, it’s important to understand how they work – but then I want to work like them so maybe that’s it.

  4. July 9, 2008 12:52 pm

    I enjoy learning about authors because I think it helps me understand their work more, or at least appreciate it more. I especially love learning about Jane Austen’s life, because it was so fascinating! I will never, ever, ever, ever read Becoming Jane, though, because the movie version annoyed me to no end. I might have to check out Her Life and Thoughts, though. :)

  5. July 9, 2008 3:15 pm

    I love history, so yes, I am interested in learning about the author’s lives. I don’t care about “modern” authors as much.

  6. July 9, 2008 4:33 pm

    I’m going to read about Bulgakov’s life as well. I found a copy of Mikhail Bulgakov: Life of a Playwright at the used store. Just in time for Master and Margarita. :)

    I always feel so Austen-under-read! I need to catch up and read more of her.

  7. July 9, 2008 5:13 pm

    Do you have any idea how unbelievably adorable you are with all that overflowing enthusiasm?!! Seriously.

    I just saw your comment asking if I’d got your latest e-mail. I’m guessing the answer to that is “no” as I only ever got one. I apologize! I know our e-mail was really wonking out there for a while, but to the best of my knowledge it’s been okay the past couple of days. (Of course, you don’t always know when it’s behaving badly, do you?) Anyway, if you could resend it, that would be great.

  8. July 9, 2008 5:18 pm

    I used to think I didn’t want to know the man behind the curtain. Then, a couple of summers ago, I had this wonderful experience of reading Auntie Mame in a recent edition that referenced a biography of Patrick Tanner called Uncle Mame, which I then read, which led me to read other novels of his. I now refer to it as my “summer of Patrick Tanner,” and I plan to repeat the experience soon with a biography of Carson McCullers and some of her novels, which I’ve never read.

  9. July 9, 2008 9:57 pm

    C.B., that history sounds so cute! :) That’s a good point-sometimes it seems as if an author has such a neat life, they must be a great writer. I’m reading Flannery O’Connor’s letters, and I’ve never read any of her fiction…inevitably, I think it’ll influence how I react to her stories.

    Lisa, that’s interesting!

    Andi, if I wanted to be a writer, I think I’d be all about letters and diarties!

    Jessi, yeah-I avoided that movie because I knew it couldn’t be pretty, lol.

    Rebecca, that’s interesting! What do you define as modern?

    Matthew, ohhh-I bet the Bulgakov bio will be very interesting.

    Debi, awww: thanks! And I’ll totally resend that e-mail. :)

    Emily, I’ve only read one McCullers novella-I really liked it though. I hope you write about her bio-it seems like she had an interesting life! :)

  10. July 9, 2008 10:24 pm

    A adore Claire Tomalin’s Jane Austen: A Life! You have made an excellent choice. Enjoy!

    Cheers, Laurel Ann

  11. July 10, 2008 6:05 pm

    I’ve only read Emma by Jane Austen, but I’d like to read more at some point. I enjoyed watching the Masterpiece Theatre series, although I missed Miss Austen Regrets.

  12. July 11, 2008 8:33 am

    The Tomalin bio is teriffic – I really enjoyed it. I have a couple of books of Jane’s letters, but for some reason reading letters is just not my favorite reading material so I haven’t read much of them.

  13. July 13, 2008 12:32 pm

    I am mad about reading biographies of writer’s – love them! Sometimes I like the biographies more than the writer’s work. The Tomalin is a good one of Austen – you won’t be disillusioned in the slightest.

    Right now I’m reading a bio of Robert Frost by Parnini, and loving it!

  14. July 13, 2008 7:58 pm

    Yaay, a fabulous review about a book about Jane Austen that I haven’t read yet!!! :-) You made my day, Eva!!! I was against finding out too much about authors too, but one day I was just too curious about Jane – I loved the BBC movie versions of her work -so I tried Claire Tomalin’s book of her life, and I loved it. I so-o-o want a copy of your book now, it sounds so fascinating! There is a really cook cook book out too about recipes found in Austen’s books, but I can’t find it now (I didnt’ have enough money when it came out 10 years ago). It’s like the Bronte sisters, I’ve been avoiding biographies and their letters, and I know one day I want to find out more about them, having been now to their home in Haworth and walked through it. Thanks Eva, for giving us a great review!

  15. July 28, 2008 5:08 pm

    I’m going to have to put this book on my TBR list. I haven’t read anything by Austen yet. Which book do you think I should read first?

  16. Jillian permalink
    January 16, 2011 8:22 pm

    Did you ever read the Tomalin biography? It’s excellent!

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