Saturday, February 14, 2009

My Dear Cassandra - The Letters of Jane Austen

Selected and introduced by Penelope Hughes-Hallett

"I have now attained the true art of letter-writing," wrote Jane Austen. "To express on paper exactly what one would say to the same person by word of mouth."

Jane Austen wasn't just witty in her books, she was witty in life, in her dialog, in her correspondence to her sister Cassandra, and other members of the Austen family. Her letters were her sounding board, the practice for her later writing achievements. They are all cataloged here in this book; her direct manner; her ability to read even the slightest detail of things, "important nothings", she called them.

Trimming bonnets and making gowns; keeping the house and gardens; tending to the poor; visiting friends and going to balls; births and deaths of family: these are but the quilting blocks sewn to together to create her novels. To create Elizabeth, "her own darling child...I think her as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print".

In this book her personal letters are separated into six periods ranging from 1796, when she was twenty until 1817, the year of her early death. Hughes-Hallett provides commentary in between each period and each letter, and also included some of the most beautiful artwork from Regency England I have ever seen. Scenes that Jane herself described and would have observed in real life. They added another dimension to the book and really sucked me into Austen's writing.

I loved it. This book brought out a side of the author I never thought possible. She came to life within these pages, and from them I could see how she created some of the greatest heroines in English literature. Heroines that were almost a mirror image of her own personality.

"It as if I had lost a part of myself," Cassandra Austen wrote to her favorite niece Fanny Knight, on the eve of the death of her sister, Jane.

Indeed, we all lost something, but what a treasure chest of ink and paper remains. 5 stars. A++


hamilcar barca said...

when i was a kid, i read a book of selected letters by Groucho Marx. to his agent, to the studio, to his relatives, etc. the man was every bit as witty in his letters as on his television show, You Bet Your Life. i came away with a deep appreciation of him - he was much more than a Hollywood stiff mouthing bon mots that some scriptwriter penned.

L said...

Reading this gave me a greater appreciation for what I consider to be a dying art, being able to communicate through writing letters. I know we have email, the phone, etc, but it's not the same as it was, say twenty years ago. Nobody writes letters anymore.

And unless you save every email or record every conversation, what has been exchanged is lost. Jane Austen has so many quotes attributed to her writing, and I've always assumed they're from all of her books. But I found alot of famous ones in her letters. Perfect sarcasm. The woman was amazing.

L said...

That book on Groucho Marx sounds like a good one. Did you ever try on Two for the Dough, Evanovich's second?

hamilcar barca said...

i wish i could find that Groucho Marx book again. unfortunately, i don't even remember its title, which makes trying to find it on Amazon a real challenge.

Stephanie Plum 2 is on my TBR list. alas, that's not the same as my TBR shelf, where about 25-30 books presently repose. and my wife keeps asking me embarrassing questions like - why do I spend good money purchading them if i'm not going to read them anytime soon. she's not OCD, so it's hard to ecxplain it to her.