Jane´s letters

I´ve been a bit off this last week, due to the winter fatigues, and perhaps an on-off nausea indicates some kind of virus. I don´t know. When I was younger, I would always retire to bed with a stack of old comic books. These days, however, I retire to bed with Jane Austen, whose books I am never too tired or indisposed to read (it seems).

You may get this cool stamp if you buy a book in Paris!

This time, I got my hands on "Jane Austen, Her Life and Letters" by William Austen-Leigh and Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh, who were relatives of Janes, though not contemporaries. The book was published in 1913, almost a hundred years after her death, and almost fifty years after her nephew´s memoir. I also had at my side Marghanita Lanski´s "Jane Austen" from 1969 (I bought it at the famous Shakespeare&Co bookstore in Paris) for quick reference to the family tree, and a few portraits of significant people. This is a limitation with the Reader, it´s not so quick just to flip a few pages back and forth to appendixes, footnotes, and such. No doubt that will improve in time.

Because I had the memoir fresh in my mind, the letters gave me the most pleasure. Jane writes a lot, as they seem to have done in those days, and most of the letters are adressed to her sister Cassandra. Unfortunately for us, they were seldom apart. And we never see Jane distressed or even particularly ernest, because all those, more private, letters were destroyed. In those days it was not regarded as very well bred to expose your friends and relations in all their flaws to the world, as it is today. Too bad for the scholars, perhaps, but as curious as I am about her, I acknowledge that I have no right to know everything about her, just because she has written a few of the best novels ever.

What is left of her is her irony and wit. And the thing with irony is, you´re not always, as a stranger, sure where the line is between wit and ernestness. Often, I have noticed, people inclined towards irony will confess their true opinions, half-guarded by the possibility of irony, just in case the recipient is of another view. Sometimes, they will even be mean, and if the other takes offence, they will just say "can´t you take a joke?". However, irony can be delightful, and what remain of Jane´s letters are also. Here is a sample:

"At Nackington we met Lady Sondes' picture over the mantelpiece in the dining-room, and the pictures of her three children in an ante-room, besides Mr. Scott, Miss Fletcher, Mr. Toke, Mr. J. Toke, and the Archdeacon Lynch. Miss Fletcher and I were very thick, but I am the thinnest of the two. She wore her purple muslin, which is pretty enough, though it does not become her complexion. There are two traits in her character which are pleasing—namely, she admires Camilla, and drinks no cream in her tea. If you should ever see Lucy, you may tell her that I scolded Miss Fletcher for her negligence in writing, as she desired me to do, but without being able to bring her to any proper sense of shame—that Miss Fletcher says in her defence, that as everybody whom Lucy knew when she was in Canterbury has now left it, she has nothing at all to write to her about. By everybody, I suppose Miss Fletcher means that a new set of officers have arrived there. But this is a note of my own."

And while everyone, both in her time and later, seem to think that she were interested only in what was before her, read this flattering (for us Swedes) piece, adressed to her brother Frank, the Sea Captain:

Jane, by her sister Cassandra
(from Lanski´s book).
"It must be a real enjoyment to you, since you are obliged to leave England, to be where you are, seeing something of a new country and one which has been so distinguished as Sweden. You must have great pleasure in it. I hope you may have gone to Carlscroon. Your profession has its douceurs to recompense for some of its privations; to an enquiring and observing mind like yours such douceurs must be considerable. Gustavus Vasa, and Charles XII., and Cristina and Linneus. Do their ghosts rise up before you? I have a great respect for former Sweden, so zealous as it was for Protestantism. And I have always fancied it more like England than other countries; and, according to the map, many of the names have a strong resemblance to the English."

She was wrong of course. It´s the English names that have a strong resemblance to the Swedish. She would have written her letter pretty much exactly 800 years after Sweyn Forkbeard, with Swedes and Norse to help him, made life hell for king Ethelread (who was always unready, even though he should have known they were always going to be coming back for more). It would have been fun to talk to her about that. Have a bit of conversation with Miss Austen.

You can have this book for free, here.

No comments:

Post a Comment