For the most part, I try to stick to the books – I don’t think Jane Austen is my friend and to be honest I think I would have found her really intimidating had we ever met in person. However, the passing snippets of her personal correspondence which I have heard over the years has intrigued me. With the vast majority of her letters destroyed by her sister Cassandra after her death, Jane Austen’s image has been reduced to the cow-eyed dead stare which is shortly to grace our ten pound notes. That lady has no thoughts or opinions at all, let alone wit or good humour. Yet the words within the surviving letters are full of all of these and do not match the portrait at all. As the Cult of Jane continues to rise, it’s nice to remember the real words of the woman herself – she wasn’t as prim and proper as her family would have had us believe.
Jane Austen on Fashion:
As with so much of Jane Austen’s humour, she is joking about something which she probably was taking seriously. This does make it difficult to know when she actually cared about something or was feigning indifference to protect her own feelings.
Jane Austen on Mourning:
All of Austen’s novels at some point or other poke fun at characters who are far keener on the performance of emotion rather than sincere feeling. Whether it’s Marianne making it a point of having sleepless nights over Willoughby or Isabella Thorpe weeping over Catherine’s inconstancy as a friend, Austen took a dim view of exaggerated sensibility. There is a difference between genuine grieving and melodramatic mourning.
Jane Austen on Men:
As with the two above quotes, this one is from a letter to her sister Cassandra. While the above is a bracing sum-up of the dreadful Mr Digweed, it also reminds me of how Mr Darcy’s character spun during his first attendance at a Meryton assembly. Until he actually spoke to anyone, people were inclined to think him a fine figure of a man. Unfortunately his lack of manners were enough to convince them otherwise and he became quite ill-favoured.
Jane Austen on Matrimony:
The above quote comes from a letter Austen wrote to her niece Fanny Knight. While many readers (mostly of the male variety) have accused Jane Austen’s novels of having a mercenary motivation, here Austen recognises the uncomfortable truth of the society she lived in. Making your way in the world as a single woman was not for sissies and Austen’s mock detachment on the subject shows that it was not a state that she was ready to recommend for her beloved niece.
Jane Austen on Writing:
This quotation is taken from a letter Austen wrote to her other niece, Anna Austen, later Anna Lefroy. Anna also tried her hand at writing a novel and asked her author aunt for advice. People often accuse of Austen of being artless or effortless yet this quote shows that she cared keenly about keeping her writing free of cliche and ‘novel slang’ – whether her family would admit it or not, she did not produce that many masterpieces without effort.
Jane Austen on London:
I love how this quotation echoes the one above, with Austen calling on cliche to describe London. Contrary to what certain readers of Mansfield Park would have us believe, Jane Austen actually seems to have enjoyed visiting the theatre and her letters are full of excitement over seeing this or that play along with commentary on the performances of the celebrated actors of the day. I like how this quote makes it sound like she knows she’s being naughty.
Jane Austen on Cake:
I picked this one because it’s nice to know that both Austen and I felt rather similarly on the subject of cake. As with the quote on her hat, we can never quite tell when she was being serious.
Jane Austen on Parties:
I love the snippets of letters which reveal Austen’s grumpy side – as someone dragged about to other people’s houses and forced into the society of people who were not of her choice, it is hardly surprising that sometimes it grated having to be pleasant. As a poor relation and unmarried woman, she would have been under pressure to please. But still, with the Myth of Divine Jane who was sweet to all, it’s nice to realise that she was only human and like the rest of us, sometimes just wanted to come home, have a glass of wine and do the Regency equivalent of getting into her pyjamas and watching Netflix.
Jane Austen on Family:
Another letter to Cassandra here. Despite the humour behind this, it does reveal the undeniable alliance between the two sisters as they soldiered on into spinsterhood together. The very fact that we have a mere 160 or so of Austen’s letters as opposed to the thousands and thousands which she wrote during her life is proof that Cassandra Austen would leave no material in existence which would allow others to abuse her sister, let alone do the dirty work herself.
Jane Austen on Romance:
This quotation comes from Austen’s correspondence with Mr Clarke, librarian to the Prince Regent (later George IV). Having been invited, much to her reluctance, to dedicate Emma to the Prince, Austen was also granted access to his library, which drew her into contact with Mr Clarke, who then took it upon himself to Offer Austen Advice. According to him, Austen should write a book with a clergyman hero, with this character rather strangely resembling Mr Clarke himself. Further letters had more recommendations, particularly that Austen should write a romance. In her response though, Austen confirms in her own words what I had always suspected – no matter how often publishers try to promote them, no matter how much cooing over Mr Darcy, Jane Austen Is Not A Romantic Novelist.