Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Review: Jane Austen's Letters, ed. by Deirdre Le Faye


Pages: 667
Original date of publication: 2011
My copy:  2011 (Oxford University Press)
Why I decided to read:
How I acquired my copy: Amazon.com, April 2013

This is a compilation of many of Jane Austen’s letters, most of them sent to her sister Cassandra between 1796 and 1817, the year of her death. Although many of Austen’s letters were destroyed by her sister in order to preserve the family reputation, the collection contains over 160 letters in which Austen gives her sister details about her life in Chawton—as well as giving us a tantalizing glimpse of what was going through her mind as she was writing her novels (especially the novel that was to become Pride and Prejudice, First Impressions). There are other letters here, too, giving advice to her niece and professional correspondence to publishers—as well as a couple of letters that were written by Cassandra Austen after Jane’s death.

To the sisters, the letters acted in the way that phone calls do today; Austen’s news is all about people who lived in her neighborhood, the balls she went to, who wore what, etc. So you really get a sense that she was honing her observations skills in order to write her novels. Austen’s wit is sometimes caustic; she doesn’t always have the nicest things to say about people; but she had an eye for detail that would serve her well later on. It’s clear from Austen’s letters that she was nervous about putting her work out in the world, but she tried to cover it up by being self-deprecating. One of the things I like about people is the ability to laugh at themselves, and Austen does it here well.

About half the book is letters; the other half is notes on the letters (including information about postmarks), a glossary of the people mentioned in them and the places that Austen went to, and so on. There’s so much information packed into the back of the book about the letters that I had to keep flipping back to the end of it in order to get context (for that reason, I wish that the notes on the letters had been placed within the letters so that they could have been more easily referenced). Despite my minor problem with the way this collection is laid out, I really enjoyed reading it; it gives the reader, especially the Jane Austen aficionado, a glimpse into the life and mind of one of the English language’s greatest writers.


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