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: '...you 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–'!