Magazine article The Spectator

A Gimlet Eye

Magazine article The Spectator

A Gimlet Eye

Article excerpt

Jane Austen's Letters edited by Deirdre Le Faye OUP

, £25, pp. 667, ISBN 9780199567807

We should be grateful to families which encourage the culture of writing letters, and equally vital, the keeping of them. Leopold Mozart, for instance, taught his son not only music but correspondence, and as a result we have 1,500 pages of letters which tell us everything we know of interest about the genius.

His younger contemporary Jane Austen also came from a postman's knock background. We have 164 of her letters, from January 1796, when she was 21, to the eve of her death in 1817. Some have been cut by the anxious family, and some suppressed altogether, but the remainder are pure gold.

As in her novels, she never wasted a word. These are not exercises in epistolary elegance but crammed with personal news and comment. Most are to her sister Cassandra and, as she said, she aimed to write as if they were having an intimate conversation. That is exactly what we want.

I would not swap them for anyone else's letters, not even Byron's - his are better, to be sure, but only because there are more of them (2,900 in Marchand's edition).

The f irs t two scho lar ly ed i t ions of Austen's letters were by the great R.W. Chapman. Deirdre Le Faye did the third in 1995, and this is the fourth. No new letters have come to light, but Le Faye is the greatest living Austen expert, and she has greatly improved the apparatus.

There are 280 pages of notes, biographical, topographical and subject indices, and my only complaint is that the print is too small and faint - hard on my tired old eyes and not good enough from the world's leading university press.

Le Faye, like her subject, knows the virtues of silence. If she cannot explain something, she does not write a note of learned waffle but says nothing. Austen ends the letter to her sister of 9 March 1814: 'If Cassandra has filled my Bed with fleas, I am sure they must bite herself.' What does this mean? Le Faye does not know so keeps mum. Austen then adds: 'I have written to Mrs Hill and care for nobody.' Again nothing is said in the notes: not necessary, one knows what Jane feels.

The letters are notable for sharp observation of dress, features and behaviour, chiefly focused on dances and 'visits'. There is the famous one of 1801 when she detects an adultress: 'She is not so pretty as I expected; her face has the same effect of baldness as her sister's . …

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