Sunday, 11 December 2016

JANE AUSTEN'S 'LESLEY CASTLE'

Lesley Castle was written when Jane Austen was sixteen. Jane's assured tone is apparent right from the start. It is an epistolary novel, proudly described as 'Unfinished'!

Lesley Castle comprises just ten letters from six correspondents. From the family castle in Scotland, Margaret Lesley exchanges letters with her old Sussex school-friend Charlotte. The humour owes much to the way they (especially Charlotte) are self-obsessed.

The letters from Charlotte reflect her obsession with cooking. She has spent five weeks preparing food for her sister's wedding and is angry because the wedding has been cancelled. She laments at great length all the 'roasted Beef, Broiled Mutton, and Stewed Soup' she has produced and wonders how it will ever be eaten, only to reveal casually much later the reason why the wedding is off: the groom has died.

When the bride howled hysterically, Charlotte could only assume it was because the wedding breakfast would be wasted. The humour is partly monty-pythonesque; and there is obviously black comedy ["'I dare say he'll die soon, and then his pain will be over and you will be easy, whereas my Trouble will last much longer for work as hard as I may, I am certain that the pantry cannot be cleared in less than a fortnight.' Thus I did all in my power to console her...".]

Margaret and her sister Matilda in their castle near Perth lead what Margaret describes as a sheltered life, 'for we visit no one but the M'Leods, The M'Kenzies, the M'Phersons, the M'Cartneys, the M'donalds, The M'Kinnons, the M'lellans, the M'Kays, the Macbeths and the Macduffs', but she claims they are happy, witty, 'agreable' and 'handsome'. She boasts that the greatest of their perfections is that they are 'entirely insensible of them' themselves.

Margaret's father, Sir George, is a fifty-seven-year-old playboy. He remarries; and there is jealousy between the new mother and her step-daughters. The step-mother is unusually short, the sisters unusually tall. (In several of her works, Jane Austen has fun with the notion that beauty requires a golden mean in height.) Margaret sends Charlotte a long account of her brother's courtship and marriage to his first wife, Louisa Burton. Charlotte replies that it 'has not the less entertained me for having often been repeated to me before.'

Charlotte insensitively writes to Margaret about the ways her new step-mother will be sure to usurp her place, deprive her of the family jewels and waste the family fortune. With equal insensitivity, Margaret describes Charlotte's appearance: 'How often have I wished that I possessed as little personal Beauty as you do; that my figure were as inelegant; my face as unlovely; and my Appearance as unpleasing as yours!' If that were the case, she says, she would not be pursued by so many pestering men!

The novel is preceded by a parody of a 'Dedication' - to Jane's brother Henry, a student at Oxford at the time. He appears to have collaborated in the joke. Acting as 'patron', he has written a note asking a spoof bank to pay one hundred guineas to 'Jane Austen Spinster'.

Among the literary conventions parodied are: the letter within a letter, the abandoned child, the naming of 'literary' characters (Eloisa for the bereaved fiancée; Fitzgerald for a potential over), possible love-matches always in the air, and the movement of characters around centres of romance and fashion - Scotland, London, (mentions of) Tunbridge, Bristol and Naples. 


Lady Lesley (she who marries the playboy widower who is Margaret's father) is a forerunner of Lady Susan. Even her first name is Susan. She is similarly spunky and sharply dismissive of persons she considers inferior to herself. She describes her new husband as 'horribly ugly' and 'a fright'!

Interestingly, William Fitzgerald finds Matilda's complexion made more attractive by exercise, just as Darcy was to observe of Lizzie some time later.

We know Jane Austen was eventually to drop the epistolary technique, presumably because she discovered its weaknesses. This little composition, however, shows how well aware she was also of its strengths. The letters (like many of Jane's own) reveal character, contain sharp observations one can share only with friends, and they ramble over a wide territory, advance the narrative in bounds and include lively reported dialogue. 

Sir George Lesley (a shadowy figure) - the father of Margaret - is perhaps modelled on Sir Thomas Grandison.