August 2014 Meeting: Jane Austen’s Letters, 1815-1817

Our August meeting numbers were once again depleted by the number of members travelling in warmer climes but those present enjoyed a discussion of Jane Austen’s letters written in the years 1815 until her death in 1817. This group of letters included some by other hands but in the words of Marsha Huff who reviewed the fourth edition of Deirdre Le Faye’s Jane Austen’s Letters we are ‘allow[ed] to read over Austen’s shoulder as she shares everyday news and frank opinions with family and friends.’

Among the early letters in this period were ones Jane Austen wrote when she took over negotiations with her publisher when Henry became seriously ill; they show her to be well equipped in handling her own business affairs. We were delighted to note that she was forthright in her requests for some action in hastening the publication of Emma and curtly suggested a visit from publisher Murray would achieve more than writing letters. She also showed acute commercial sense in suggesting that the fact that the novel was to be dedicated to the Prince Regent might carry some weight with the printers who were proving somewhat dilatory – not quite the ‘treat[ing] only of the details of domestic life’ quoted by Huff from a review of the Letters in The Times.

We were also amused by the exchange of letters with the Prince’s Librarian, the Rev. J.S. Clarke, who, one member suggested, may have been romantically interested in Jane; however, she did not give him any encouragement as we detected amusement in her polite replies to his suggestions for future novels. We had quite a long discussion about the details of the actual production and physical appearance of the novels as produced by the printer/publisher. What were ‘boards’; were the pages sewn or glued; in what form were the 12 volumes to which Austen was entitled as author; who arranged the leather bindings for the complimentary volumes sent to the Prince Regent? We found interesting information and illustrations on the internet on this topic.

There was always a lot of humour in Austen’s letters though one member noted that there was less during the period of worries over the publication of Emma and Henry’s illness but the lighter tone reappeared once these problems were overcome. Letter 129 was particularly amusing with, among other entertaining items, its description of Henry’s medical adviser, Mr Haden’s professional status – pure satire! Although it was not until nine months before her death that she made any comment (and that only in reply to an enquiry) about her health, it would seem that she had been suffering for some time but this did not stifle her humour, her interest in her friends, neighbours and life generally, and particularly her love for her family. Her letters to some of her nieces and nephews were full of fun and love and interest in their lives and activities. One member also pointed out that three days before her very painful death she wrote the humorous six stanza poem, ‘When Winchester races’.

The nature of her illness has, for Austenites, been a matter of interest for many years. Both Addison’s disease and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma have been suggested. Apart from pain she mentioned the east wind as affecting her skin and, indeed, as the illness progressed she occasionally mentioned the state of her skin and face – her feminine interest in her appearance was slow to disappear. As she became progressively weaker and in pain she apparently could not even tolerate the donkey cart she had been driving so a special donkey saddle was made so she could ride for outings and a little exercise, lovingly attended by her dear Cassandra and Edward.

As we have progressed through reading all of her preserved correspondence Jane’s sisterly love for Cassandra has been strongly evident; the final letter in this volume, written by Cassandra, shows it was just as strongly reciprocated and one member admitted to shedding tears. I am sure very few of us can read this last section without at least feeling a lump in the throat. How sad to think what might have been! But her six completed novels, the two incomplete ones and her juvenilia and other miscellaneous writings will always stand as an indication of her genius and be treasured, we confidently expect, for many generations to come.

Business:

Our next meeting will be on 20th September when we will discuss the Military in Jane Austen’s Novels.

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