Tuesday, 25 February 2014
"My Dear Cassandra" Jane Austen, Letters to her sister
My Dear Cassandra by Jane Austen , Letters to her sister, edited by Penelope Hughes-Hallett. This book came to my attention because of Geranium Cat's post back in December, here. As soon as I read up on the book and saw that it included illustrations, paintings, little facts about the time in which Austen lived, I was hooked. I had to have this book. And I am happy to report that it doesn't disappoint.
On the contrary, the letters that Penelope Hughes-Hallett selected show off Jane's wit, her kindness, her love for her family, her joy in simple things. The book starts slowly as Jane only started writing letters when her sister Cassandra left the family home when Jane was 20. Cassandra was the elder, and went to live with various people over the course of her life, seldom returning home except for visits. In 1796, then, is Jane's first letter to her sister. She was 20 years old. The letters then follow Jane from Steventon Rectory, to Bath, to Portsmouth, to the final years back near Chawton where her elder brother had his family home. We see Jane mature through her own eyes, in the lightness of the first letters, then the seriousness as her father's ill health and death changes her family circumstances, to the eventual home they find in Chawton, back in the countryside she loved. The novels she was writing make little appearances, in comments she makes, or dialogues between letters about the progress of such. Her family were very involved in her writing, supporting her, and participating when she read them allowed to her family as they progressed.
Interspersed are paintings from artists and sketches of the day, that show the areas in which Jane lived, clothing, transportation, social expectations, food. It is a delightful way of recreating the world in which Jane lived, and a glimpse of how she as a writer took what was around her and created her books from.
I came to feel as if I had a glimpse of Jane herself - just a tiny glimpse, a trace of her, in her letters. When I would take a break from reading it, so I could savour what I was learning in the periods of letters about her relationships with the people around her, I felt - civilized. There is so much gentleness in these letters. She could be very cutting, and if she had been a different kind of person, very cruel, but she wasn't. Jane Austen was - or chose to be - overall, kind. There is a gentleness to this book that made me realize that it is a tone that is lost for the most part in our world today. Jane doesn't gloss over death, or sadness, nor does she dwell on it. Most of her letters were like conversations she was continuing with people she had just spent time with, or that were from letters she had just received. It would seem all one-sided if not for the fact that Jane doesn't dwell on herself,either. She is interested in the world around her, in the life and running of her home, in how her relatives are doing, and in her writing, her novels. We get to see how she made fun of many things, turning what could be serious or pedantic thoughts, to wit and humour, to make her point. She enjoyed outings, but began to find social gatherings tiring as she got older. She offers advise to her nieces on marriage, and likes to go shopping for cloth for dresses. She takes lots of walks when she can, which in those days was the main form of exercise for women.
There are a few letters from other people at the end, when Jane dies. I didn't think I was so deeply involved in the letters and following them, and seeing the glimpse of Jane in them, until I read Cassandra's letter to her niece Fanny Knight, telling her of the day Jane died. I ended up crying at my kitchen table, in the middle of the afternoon, feeling the loss of Jane Austen from 200 years ago.
These letters give a poignant glimpse of her and her family. This book is like a window opening into Jane and the world in which she lived, and it is a treasure. I loved this book and I highly recommend it. A must read for Jane fans, definitely.