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Archive for May 2nd, 2012


A photo of an autograph; Jane Austen’s “When stretched out …,” her poem about a mirgraine headache she endured just as Sense and Sensibility was published for the first time. She had self-published using money she could ill afford to save up and now pay, and with Henry Austen, her brother’s help

Dear friends and readers,

I’m suspending my project for going through Austen’s letter chronologically; I will try to finish all the letters in the sense of reading and accounting for them, but not in the same way. I did what I did partly because it fit my schedule of interstices of time; as a teacher I often did not have enough stretches of time to get into a book or project which demanded many hours in a row. Now with summer here and my going down to one section a term for the coming fall and spring, now I’ll have more hours in a row. I also feel I’ve gotten somewhere and need to read more of the background letters by others at the same time and books and articles on her family members and era than I’ve been doing. I’m going to read some of the books she comments on too — which I’ve not done before because I’ve not had the time.

Time and again whether directly or indirectly I’ve been challenged on Austen-l by people who persist in assuming it’s a waste of time to go through Austen’s letters because 1) they are just a remnant; 2) they are not to be taken seriously — they are jokes, nonsense; and 3) the most serious charge, she herself is not articulate about her art and is hidden about her life (or her sister on her behalf). My response: the remnant combined with her novels and the relevant contemporary and near- contemporary documents (her nephew’s memoir of her) tell a great deal; 2) many a truth said in jest, and often Austen is not jesting: irony is nowadays used as a way of dismissing what she says’ and 3) if she’s not an artist who can reach or articulate clearly the complexity of her vision of life, some articulation is there and paying alert attention to these tidbits helps to enable us to see what she saw consciously — and sub- or unconsciously too. Especially when she gets anxious or feel resentful or upset about a book, when she is filled with rare enthusiasms (Crabbe) we have suggestive utterances to work with.

I have been confirmed in older beliefs I had, dismissed some wrong-headed assumptions or conclusions I had; and 3) learned some totally new things about her unexpectedly. I will be writing about some of these in the next days and weeks.

A different perspective helps. Such as looking at her letters to a specific correspondent. That’s what I was thinking. Looking at her letters just to Anna taught me something. It’s true most of her letters are to Cassandra, but there are other correspondents. There are two to Frank extant and the two verse letters and one text recorded (though the text resolutely gotten rid of but for the salutations). Looking at them from the standpoint of the other documents of the other relatives. Reading more of the biographies now.

And reviewing the later manuscripts has helped enormously.

So I’ll keep up this study but in a different way, more consonant with my new freer schedule. I think there are none to Charles, none to Henry, none to James, none to Edward. That does say something; she never wrote as much to any of these and so proportionately nothing survived.

I do not mean to give up :). I feel I have gotten behind the biographies up to 1811. Now when I read them I have something for real by which I can judge them — my knowledge of their major central source. Letters by the subject are the lifeblood of biography (as Austen knew in a comment she makes in MP about Fanny getting a letter). And in her case as in so many authors, the novels, the memoirs. Austen’s novels are what make her letters speak to us and a little vice versa. I will probably return and go through the later letters more thematically so as to judge the later parts of Austen’s life, for its own sake and for reading the biographies and criticism.

Beyond any and all Austen matters, I’ll also try to post every three or four days on “long” 18th century matters, authors, art, women writers, women artists, and women poets. I’ll try for women writers whose purview and art seems 20th and 21st century versions of Austen’s ironic domestic novels. As I say I’ll be reading books on Austen which are nowadays defined so generously that anything and everything having to be with the 18th century is my home landscape.

I did send off my review of The Later Manuscripts of Jane Austen for the Cambridge edition by Janet Todd and Linda Bree for ECCB. If anyone is interested, I’m willing to send a copy … Just ask.

Ellen

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