Friday, 20 May 2016

There's not much about books in Jane Austen's Letters

We might expect Jane Austen's surviving private letters (mostly to her sister Cassandra) to be full of observations of writing. But Jane is generally too busy gossiping to saddle Cassandra with literary criticism. Her comments on books are perceptive but sweeping.

Jane and her father were interested to peruse Arthur Fitz-Albini: a Novel (1798) by Samuel Egerton Brydges, based closely on the author, his friends and acquaintances. Egerton Brydges, a brother of Jane's friend Mrs. Lefroy, was known to the Austens. We have got "Fitz-Albini"; my father has bought it against my private wishes, for it does not quite satisfy my feelings that we should purchase the only one of Egerton's works of which his family are ashamed. That these scruples, however, do not at all interfere with my reading it, you will easily believe. We have neither of us yet finished the first volume. My father is disappointed – I am not, for I expected nothing better. Never did any book carry more internal evidence of its author. Every sentiment is completely Egerton's. There is very little story, and what there is told in a strange, unconnected way. There are many characters introduced, apparently merely to be delineated. We have not been able to recognize any of them hitherto, except Dr and Mrs Hey and Mr Oxenden, who is not very tenderly treated (Letter 12). The comments from the twenty-two-year-old show how well she understood the writer’s craft and how perceptively she thought about pitfalls in writing fiction.

In Letter 25, Jane says she has just read the first volume of Tales of the Castle by Madame de Genlis but adds only I think it a good opportunity for beginning a letter to you while my mind is stored with Ideas worth transmitting.

Even after the death of the Revd. Austen, the Austen ladies continued his habit of reading aloud in the evenings. In Letter 49 (from Southampton), Jane says they found Madame de Genlis' Alphonsine, or Maternal Affection unsatisfactory. We were disgusted in twenty pages, as, independent of a bad translation, it has indelicacies which disgrace a pen hitherto so pure. They have switched to Charlotte Lennox's The Female Quixote, or, the Adventures of Arabella ('which now makes our evening amusement; to me a very high one, as I find the work quite equal to what I remembered it). (The novel had first appeared in 1752.)

Referring to Sir Walter Scott's Marmion, she writes, Ought I to be very much pleased with Marmion? – as yet I am not. – James reads it aloud in the Eveng – the short Eveng – beginning at about 10, & broken by supper (Letter 53).

When writing - in Letter 108 - to her niece Anna in 1814, Jane joked about Scott: Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones. – It is not fair. – He has Fame & Profit enough as a Poet, and should not be taking the bread out of other people's mouths. – I do not like him, & do not mean to like Waverley if I can help it – but I fear I must.

The Austen ladies read continually during the Southampton years. In February 1807, Jane mentions Clarentine, a Novel written in 1798 by Sarah Harriet Burney. They were surprised to find how foolish it is. I remember liking it much less on a 2nd reading than at the 1st & it does not bear a 3rd at all. It is full of unnatural conduct & forced difficulties (Letter 50).

In January 1809 she was reading Margiana, or Widdrington Tower by Mrs. S. Sykes: We ... like it very well indeed. – We are just going to set off for Northumberland to be shut up in Widdrington Tower, where there must be two or three sets of Victims already immured under a very fine Villain (Letter 64).

A few days later she was on to the newly-published Woman, or Ida of Athens by Lady Morgan, who had earlier written The Wild Irish Girl: the latest novel must be very clever, because it was written as the Authoress says, in three months. – We have only read the Preface yet; but her Irish Girl does not make me expect much. – If the warmth of her Language could affect the Body, it might be worth reading in this weather (Letter 65).

In August 1805, Jane in Kent writes to thank Cassandra for recommending Thomas Gisborne's An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex (1797), for having begun, I am pleased with it, and I had quite determined not to read it (Letter 47).

But Jane loved good talk as much as books. In Letter 26 (to Martha Lloyd, whom she is about to visit), Jane says, You distress me cruelly by your request about Books; I cannot think of any to bring with me, nor have I any idea of wanting them. I come to you to be talked to, not to read or hear reading. I can do that at home; & indeed I am now laying in a stock of intelligence to pour out on you as my share of conversation. – I am reading Henry's 'History of England', which I will repeat to you in any manner you may prefer, either in a loose, disultary, unconnected strain, or dividing my recital as the Historian divides it himself, into seven parts. The final volume of Robert Henry's History of Great Britain had been published in 1793.

Similarly, Jane enjoyed looking at real people as much as she enjoyed looking at works of art. In London on 16 April 1811, she went to the British Gallery in Pall Mall and also to an exhibition of natural history in Piccadilly but she commented: I had some amusement at each, tho' my preference for Men and Women, always inclines me to attend more to the company than the sight (Letter 70).

Occasionally, there is verse. Jane admitted in a letter to Martha Lloyd on 29 November 1812 that she was the writer of a poem on Miss W. ... but James afterwards suggested what I thought a great improvement. The little punning poem concerned Miss Wallop who had become engaged to an elderly curate, the Revd. Henry Wake. We do not know how her brother James' suggestion affected the poem, but it was passed down through the Austen family in this form:

Camilla good humoured and merry and small
For a Husband it happen'd was at her last stake;
& having in vain danced at many a ball
Is now very happy to Jump at a Wake.

In July 1806, (Letter 48C), to celebrate the marriage of her brother Frank and his subsequent honeymoon at Edward's estate in Godmersham, Jane sent the following verse to Fanny, who was then thirteen. This poem first became public in The Times Literary Supplement as recently as 1987. A copy of it, made by Anna Lefroy in about 1855, had remained in the family:

See they come, post haste from Thanet,
Lovely couple, side by side;
They've left behind them Richard Kennet
With the Parents of the Bride!
Canterbury they have passed through;
Next succeeded Stamford-bridge;
Chilham village they came fast through;
Now they've mounted yonder ridge.
Down the hill they're swift proceeding
Now they skirt the Park around;
Lo! The Cattle sweetly feeding
Scamper, startled at the sound!
Run, my Brothers, to the Pier gate!
Throw it open, very wide!
Let it not be said that we're late
In welcoming my Uncle's Bride!
To the house the chaise advances;
Now it stops – They're here, they're here!
How d'ye do, my Uncle Francis?
How does do your Lady dear? 

Incidentally, in Southampton Public Library there is a manuscript in Jane Austen's handwriting in which she has copied out a poem by Byron (it is a Farewell to France in the voice of Napoleon). But, in copying it, she has made a few changes, such as replacing 'gloom' with 'bloom' and reversing Byron's rhymes of 'fame' and 'name'. These may be seen as 'improvements' to the poem.