How precious are Your thoughts to me, O LORD ... how vast is the sum of them!

Friday, January 11, 2013

Jane Austen's Letters

                                                    Jane Austen's Letters

I am reading a delightful volume of the collected Jane Austen letters. It’s enlightening to hear from the artist as her real self, which she always was to her dear sister Cassandra, who is the recipient of most of these letters. It makes me shiver to know I’m privy to the sharpest, clearest revelation of Jane Austen’s person that anyone has today. I enjoy (mostly!) her wit, which is more acrid than in her novels. I enjoy her descriptions of people she’s met; the process is identical to the way she characterizes in her novels, proving that she made her characters as real as she perceived living people to be. I hunt for references to her stories, but so far I’ve only found two:

“I do not wonder at your wanting to read first impressions again, so seldom as you have gone through it, & that so long ago.” (Jane Austen’s Letters, Deirdre Le Faye; Letter 18, Jan 1799, to Cassandra. First Impressions was the working title of Pride and Prejudice.)

“I would not let Martha [Lloyd] read First Impressions again upon any account, & am very glad that I did not leave it in your power. -- She is very cunning, but I see through her design; -- she means to publish it from Memory, & one more perusal must enable her to do it.” (Letter 21, Jun 1799, to Cassandra.)

Maybe the references will pick up once I reach 1811, the publication year of Sense and Sensibility.

I also like taking note of what she says about the books she’s read. Her literary opinions reveal her own masterful mind: she was a critic and beeps at flaws like a metal detector.

I’m anticipating the letters to one of her nieces that contain novel-writing advice.

Jane Austen’s letters are excellent Regency research. Expressions, idioms, prices, names, clothing, food, furniture, diseases, gardens … I get to learn these things myself from a primary source! For example, I discovered that “remedy” is a slang term from Winchester College for “holiday.” One of my own characters attends Winchester College, so that might very well pop up in one of his scenes. Jane Austen wasn’t all that descriptive in her letters … however, they tell me that I should try to find a volume of letters by someone else that do vividly depict the era. It’s fulfilling to write down what I learn in a notebook, and even better when I use that information in a scene. But the letters, and all period research, lavish on me more than tidbits of information; they immerse my mind in the culture and make me think like someone of that time, which is more valuable for historical fiction than an interesting “look what I know!” piece of trivia.

I may be referring to this substantial book of letters in another blog post. Till then, imagine me contentedly poring over the small print and thinking, Oh, Miss Jane, how I would have loved to have known you in person! (But, I also wonder, what would she say about me in one of her letters??)

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