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|The letters--some thoughts (Longish)
Written by BarbaraB
(8/24/2011 2:44 p.m.)
As I was skimming through the chapter on JA’s letters in the Cambridge Companion, I was reminded that originally her letters were not well thought of/received for the most part. Her niece, Caroline, who was helping her brother James by recalling memories as he was writing his Memoir of Jane Austen, felt “There is nothing in those letters which I have seen that would be acceptable to the public---They were very well expressed, and they must have been very interesting to those who received them---but they detailed chiefly home and family events: and she seldom committed herself even to an opinion---they would not feel that they knew her any better for having read them---”
The author (Carol Houlihan Flynn) says that “her [Caroline’s] concern reveals the investment that readers looking for a transparent relationship between ‘mind’ and ‘art’ bring to the letters, an investment her brother seems to share. Like Caroline, he is disappointed by his aunt’s epistolary productions, and he warns the reader of his Memoirs ‘not to expect too much’ from his aunt’s letters. Their ‘materials’ he explains, ‘may be thought inferior’ treating only ‘the details of domestic life...’ It is only recently that the domestic nature of the letters has been freed such a condescending interpretation.
I found myself going ‘hunh’? Why couldn’t they see the significance of the letters and it occurred to me that they were living in the moment, the time, and didn’t have to have a desire to educate themselves with the era because they were living it. Nor did they need letters to try to get to know JA because they knew her personally already from the time were babies until her death. Obviously, they had no way of knowing that we’d still be reading her work two centuries later eager for all we could get to learn more about her, her work and the life and times of them. To us, these seemingly chatty letters on even small matters provide a window into JA's and the gentry society's life, giving us also some invaluable clues to her thoughts and personality.
Flynn continues: “Jo Modert suggests that the very banal domestic surface of the letters offers us a tool for understanding the foundations of Austen’s creative production, while Deborah Kapoan and Susan Whealler read Austen’s depictions of self-denial and housewifery as subtle productions emerging from a feminine culture which supports the self-expression of women who are conscious of dual allegiances to claims of social class and gender. We are learning to look for their painfully calibrated understanding of disappointments and adjustments which mark the feminine experience. It is Austen’s awareness of the texture of domestic life that generates her densely realized novels.”
I remember during the last group read of the letters, or maybe it was the one (or more) before, what an impact one of JA’s letters had for me. Yes, we can read that women were not allowed to travel alone, or see for ourselves within fiction what a scoundrel General Tilney was to boot Catherine out of the Abbey making her travel home on her own but it was JA’s real life words and experience that brought clarity to me of what women had to go through during her era. She wrote how she had to have a meeting with, I believe it was her brother, to work out how to convey her from his home to her destination (don’t remember for sure if it was back to her home or someone else’s). Wait a minute...okay, I have stopped being lazy and looked it up: (Letter 52, Le Faye), “Since breakfast I have had a tete-a-tete with Edward in his room; he wanted to know James’s plans and mine, and from what his own now are I think it already nearly certain that I shall return when they do, though not with them. Edward will be going about the same time to Alton, where he has business with Mr. Trimmer, and where he means his son should join him, and I shall probably be his companion to that place, and get on afterwards somehow or other. I should have preferred a rather longer stay here certainly, but there is no prospect of any later conveyance for me, as he does not mean to accompany Edward on his return to Winchester, from a natural unwillingness to leave Elizabeth at that time. I shall at any rate be glad not to be obliged to be an incumbrance on those who have brought me here, for, as James has no horse, I must feel in their carriage that I am taking his place.” I found this incidence very eye-opening about the dependence of women particularly those of little means restricted by the rules and mores of the day. I really felt for our dear Jane.
Fans lament the destruction of letters and parts of letters but even as I lament the loss myself, I understand Casandra’s desire to protect a beloved sister. Still, if only, if only---I feel certain they could have shed a deeper understanding of JA but I feel I must be grateful for what we do have. They could have all been destroyed or gone astray along the way if they hadn’t been published when they were. There might have been nothing.
I, personally, find them very helpful and appreciate all the input here in helping to get the most out of them.
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