In the Spring issue of JASNA News (the Jane Austen Society of North America Newsletter), there’s a lovely piece by Marsha Huff, President of JASNA, who encourages Austen’s readers to become “fluent” in the letters. She describes how affecting it was to read the original letters on display earlier this year at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York: “the events described by Austen seemed contemporaneous and vital, as though they had just happened and I was the first to hear her account of them.”
I didn’t get to the Morgan exhibit, but I used to take my students to Harvard’s Houghton Library so we could read the Austen letters in their collection, and I know what Marsha means about how close you feel to the author when the letter is in your (white-gloved) hands, or on the table in front of you. It’s true, as Marsha says, that it can be hard to read the letters when you don’t recognize all the names of the people Jane Austen mentions, but I think she’s right that consulting the biographical and topographical notes in Deirdre Le Faye’s edition of the Letters, it’s possible to reach a kind of “fluency.” The work of flipping back and forth to the notes is well worth it.
One of the letters at the Houghton Library that I enjoyed most was one Jane wrote to her sister Cassandra when she was staying with her brother Edward in Godmersham in October 1813, in which she talks about being “rather in love with” Mr. Lushington, MP for Canterbury:
I like him very much. I am sure he is clever & a Man of Taste. He got a vol. of Milton last night & spoke of it with Warmth. —He is quite an M.P.—very smiling, with an exceeding good address, & readiness of Language. —I am rather in love with him. —I dare say he is ambitious & Insincere. (Thursday 14-Friday 15 October 1813)
I like the way she lists all the points in his favour as she leads up to the damning point about the politician. Here, she’s critical and suspicious about behaviour; earlier in the same letter, she makes some uncharitable remarks about looks. Of Lady Fagg “& all her five Daughters” she writes:
I never saw so plain a family, five sisters so very plain!—They are as plain as the Foresters or the Franfraddops or the Seagraves or the Rivers’ excluding Sophy.—Miss Sally Fagg has a pretty figure, & that comprises all the good Looks of the family. (October 14-15, 1813)
I’ve written before about the problem of charity in Jane Austen’s novels and letters, in an article on “Laughing at Our Neighbours” in Persuasions On-line. Of course, the letters were intended for Cassandra alone, not for any of us to read. I think one of the reasons Austen is so good in her novels at dramatizing the problem of how to speak and act in a charitable manner is that she knows all too well the very human temptation to speak ill of others. It’s tempting because it can be so funny. In this particular case, she’s mixing fact and fiction, as the Faggs are real, but the other families, according to Le Faye, are very likely fictional. I love the way she inserts the name “Franfraddop” into the list of otherwise ordinary, more believable names, heightening the silliness of the comparisons. Jane was not alone in her judgement of the Faggs—Le Faye notes that her niece Fanny Knight had commented several years earlier on the plainness of one of the daughters.