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.  


Geranium Cat said...

I'm so glad you enjoyed it! Don't you find yourself wondering, in the middle of the night, what was in the letters Cassandra destroyed?

Alex said...

I love books of letters. They are my constant bedtime reading because it so easy to read as many as you have energy for and not worry about trying to get to the end of a chapter. And these sound perfect because I also love Austen. I shall definitely be looking out for a copy.

Stefanie said...

This sounds like a wonderful collections especially with all the additional material. What fun!

Debi said...

I have to admit I'm not a huge fan of letter collections, and I'm a bit Austen-phobic (though I did fall in love with Northanger Abbey), and yet still you made this book sound delightful to me. I'm impressed. :)

Arabella said...

I read a collection of letters a few years ago, I don't think it was this edition, it was a library book so I am not sure, but I was struck by how biting she could be and I actually loved the letters more than the novels although I do love Northanger Abbey. I need to seek out another edition of the letters and read it, another trip to the library I think.

JaneGS said...

This is a lovely book--I have had a copy for years and while it isn't a complete set of letters, it does a good job of painting a portrait of a relationship, the most important of Austen's life.

Great review--really enjoyed your comments and insights.

Cath said...

I have Jane Austen: Selected Letters to read for my postal challenge. I've never read any of her letters so am really looking forward to sampling those, having read this post.

Have you read any of the Dido Kent series by Miss Anna Dean, Susan? Regency crime with the herione an unmarried female, Jane Austen type. I've just read the first book and rather enjoyed it. Enough to grab the second and third book from the library today.

Susan Bybee said...

I really want to read this book!

Care said...

Truly sounds lovely. I need to try a book in letters. I love biographies but have never really attempted one of these books that explores a life through the letters they wrote. I'm glad you enjoyed this.

Susan said...

Geranium Cat: I've always wondered what Cassandra didn't want anyone to know about Jane. Was she more critical in the letters she destroyed? more snappish, even cranky? Or worried? I'm so happy we have the ones that did survive.

Alex: I had to get mine from The Book Depository, so it should be fairly easy for you to get it there! No overseas shipping! lol I am delighted that you are going to try these. They were so charming and the pictures and bits of life in Regency England enhanced the letters so much. I really hope you enjoy them.

I love your idea of reading books of letters at night, Alex. I'm having problems with what to read before sleep - for the past year or so, I've been reading poetry, which works the same way, usually short, and it relaxes me from the day. I think I am going to try a book of letters too, and see how that goes. Thanks :-)

Stefanie: They are so delightful!

Debi: I am thrilled I could make this book sound so good to you!!! Especially since you don't like Austen very much! NOrthanger Abbey is a fun book by her. I reread it every few years. I'm glad you could enjoy that one.

Arabella: was it Deirdre LeFaye's collection that you had out? I have that one, it's the collected letters of Jane Austen. There have been a couple of different editors of Jane's letters over the years. Even in this one I reviewed here, sometimes that biting tone comes through.

Interesting that you liked the letters better than the novels. Do you think it's because of that biting tone? Or do you find the novels are too sweet?

Jane: thanks so much! I was so delighted by this book, so happy I was able to get a copy and feel immersed in Jane's world for a little while. It felt very civilizing somehow.

You are so right, this collection does show how Cassandra was so important to Jane. I love how there is that sense that the letters continue a conversation between them, a conversation that lasts their lifetime. It's like we are party to that discussion. I am so glad these letters weren't destroyed, though like Geranium Cat, I have wondered what was in the ones Cassandra destroyed. Is that something you sometimes wonder about too?

Susan said...

Cath: I hope you enjoy the Selected Letters. As some of the commentators here have said, Jane is more biting in her letters than she in her novels.

I am not sure if I have the first book in this series you mention, though I have heard of it. I'm happy to hear you are enjoying it so much. If I don't own it, then I will certainly check our library for a copy. Thanks so much for the rec!

Bybee: Is it available on Kindle? I hope so....I also got it by Book Depository, if that helps (I don't know what the shipping costs are from the UK to you there in Japan). I'm happy I made you want to read this!

Care: Do you enjoy epistolary novels, like I Capture the Castle, or Daddy Long Legs? Or the Literary and Guernsey Potato Pie Society? Or 84 Charing Cross Road? If so, then a book of letters is much like that. You get the letters the person wrote, and in this case with Jane, any names are explained in footnotes. It really is like a conversation with the writer, and you get to see how their mind works. I quite like them, almost more than biographies.