Paul Johnson

A gimlet eye

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Jane Austen’s Letters

edited by Deirdre Le Faye

OUP, pp. 667, £

We should be grateful to families which encourage the culture of writing letters, and equally vital, the keeping of them. Leopold Mozart, for instance, taught his son not only music but correspondence, and as a result we have 1,500 pages of letters which tell us everything we know of interest about the genius.

His younger contemporary Jane Austen also came from a postman’s knock background. We have 164 of her letters, from January 1796, when she was 21, to the eve of her death in 1817. Some have been cut by the anxious family, and some suppressed altogether, but the remainder are pure gold.

As in her novels, she never wasted a word. These are not exercises in epistolary elegance but crammed with personal news and comment. Most are to her sister Cassandra and, as she said, she aimed to write as if they were having an intimate conversation. That is exactly what we want. I would not swap them for anyone else’s letters, not even Byron’s — his are better, to be sure, but only because there are more of them (2,900 in Marchand’s edition).

The first two scholarly editions of Austen’s letters were by the great R.W. Chapman. Deirdre Le Faye did the third in 1995, and this is the fourth. No new letters have come to light, but Le Faye is the greatest living Austen expert, and she has greatly improved the apparatus. There are 280 pages of notes, biographical, topographical and subject indices, and my only complaint is that the print is too small and faint — hard on my tired old eyes and not good enough from the world’s leading university press.

Le Faye, like her subject, knows the virtues of silence. If she cannot explain something, she does not write a note of learned waffle but says nothing. Austen ends the letter to her sister of 9 March 1814:‘If Cassandra has filled my Bed with fleas, I am sure they must bite herself.’ What does this mean? Le Faye does not know so keeps mum. Austen then adds: ‘I have written to Mrs Hill and care for nobody.’ Again nothing is said in the notes: not necessary, one knows what Jane feels.

The letters are notable for sharp observation of dress, features and behaviour, chiefly focused on dances and ‘visits’. There is the famous one of 1801 when she detects an adultress: ‘She is not so pretty as I expected; her face has the same effect of baldness as her sister’s … she was highly rouged and looked rather quietly and contentedly silly than anything else.’ This is a good letter, which has Mrs Badcock, ‘running round the room after her drunken husband’, Admiral Stanhope, ‘a gentlemanlike Man, but then his legs are too short & his tail too long’, Miss Langley, ‘like any other short girl with a broad nose & wide mouth, fashionable dress and exposed bosom’, and some gents described as ‘the three old toughs’.  

Austen is a great one for noticing necks. Miss Blount is ‘much admired, but appeared exactly as she did in September, with the same broad face, diamond bandeau, white shoes, pink husband & fat neck’. Sir Thomas Champney’s daughter is ‘a queer animal with a white neck’. Others have ‘rather large noses’ or ‘a prominent nose’. She is certainly critical: ‘Poor Mrs Stent. It is her lot to be always in the way.’ But then she adds: ‘We must be merciful … we may come to be Mrs Stent ourselves, unequal to anything and unwelcome to everybody.’

In her letter of 24 January 1813, Jane tells Cassandra she has found ‘delightfully written and highly entertaining’ Captain Pasley’s book about the military policy of the British Empire — so much for those who say she took no interest in the Napoleonic War — and Le Faye dutifully tells us he rose to be Sir Charles William Pasley RE (1780-1861). But we do not hear that he became great chums with Coleridge in Malta, and then surfaced during the Crimean War having a tête-a-tête dinner with Dickens, who portrays him as a comic, choleric, red-faced general, denouncing any criticism of Lord Raglan’s leadership. Austen calls him ‘the first soldier I ever sighed for’.

Jane Austen never writes a dull letter. Some of her best are to her niece Fanny about writing novels: good advice, worth heeding today. She is all woman, and quite rightly, after people, her chief interest is clothes. She follows Balenciaga’s maxim, ‘Always give all the details’. One precise description of an outfit takes a whole half page of print — lively too.

Her spirits are always high, or she makes them seem so. She must have been a

wonderful woman to have around. But in the spring of 1817, stricken with Addison’s Disease (easily treatable today), her great heart begins to give way: ‘I am a poor Honey at present’, she writes, her only complaint. Her last recorded words were that she was hoping for ‘rather longer petticoats than last year’.