A prisoner of love

BY CLAIRE TOMALIN JANE AUSTEN'S LETTERS Third edition, collected and edited by Deirdre Le Faye, Oxford £30
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The Independent Culture
THESE are the letters of our greatest novelist, or at least the 161 letters at present known. They do not entirely tell her story, but they give glances and hints at her life from the age of 20 to her death at 41, the years in which she wrote her six imperishable books. Each of those novels bears its hallmark of dancing good spirits and moral poise; they inhabit the sunny high ground of art, where Mozart also worked, born 20 years before Jane Austen and doomed to a similar short life span. You need to be young, perhaps, as well as absolutely clear about your intentions and methods, to work at those heights.

The letters speak very little of the work. What they mostly represent is the great weight of everything that stood in Jane Austen's way as a writer, the weight of distracting duty and affection. Not that she expressed resentment. I rather doubt if she felt much. Her family was loved; it was a support group; but we can see that it was also a permanent drain on her energy.

The shape of her life was that she was the sixth child and the second daughter of loving, brisk, clever parents in a Hampshire parsonage, and grew up adoring the four big brothers and her sister Cassandra. There was one little brother, and one brother put away, speechless and subject to fits. All the other boys were energetic, capable, good-looking, ambitious; all five naturally married. Nephews and nieces demanded care from their aunts, especially when sisters-in-law died young. Cass's intended husband perished on a voyage, and Jane had no luck in love and would not marry without: the sisters formed a unit, mutually dependent, but often apart when one or the other was sent for to help out in some domestic crisis.

The letters between them, writes their present editor, were the equivalent of telephone calls; and they were first edited by Cassandra, who seems to have removed any that spoke of frustration or anger. There are some missing, for instance, at the time when the Austen parents decided in 1801 to give up the family home and move to Bath without any consultation with their adult daughters. The letters that survive shown Jane adjusting to a decision she found deeply painful, and turning it into a joke as best she could. Her piano and her books were sold. She hated Bath; but "We have lived long enough in this Neighbourhood, the Basing-stoke Balls are certainly on the decline." The joke is a little strained, but she was not free: all her life she lacked the freedom to choose anything herself except what went on inside her head.

When she travelled, it had to be with a brother, and this meant fitting in with the brother's wishes, which often sorted badly with hers: "till I have a travelling purse of my own, I must submit to such things," she wrote when she was 32, still resolutely not minding giving up what she wanted.

As for her writing: "Composition seems to me impossible, with a head full of Joints of Mutton & doses of rhubarb." An eminent Austen scholar has described this remark as a joke, but I don't believe it was. In the same letter she wrote, "I wanted a few days quiet, & exemption from the Thought & contrivances which any sort of company gives." Still she was always ready to look after her brothers and entertain and comfort their troops of children with games, Conundrums, Charades, reading aloud, dancing and verse-making.

In her late thirties she began to earn from her novels, and even to feel rich. You can sense her expanding, like a tree coming into leaf and blossom. She has readers; people buy her books and enter the world she has imagined. Her family is intensely proud, the younger members begin to write novels in emulation. Then she falls ill. In moments of remission she jokes about being a "portable invalid" and how she will live to regret not dying now, when everyone is being so nice to her. But she dies, the first of the seven Austen children to do so.

The letters were first edited by the great R W Chapman in 1932, in two volumes set in large type, with many illustrations and 64 pages of notes. Chapman heroically compiled eight separate indexes. His layout does not make for entirely easy reading, but they are volumes to cherish, and I have made steady use of my set. A second edition, with a few extra letters, appeared after the war, and a reprint in 1979. Deirdre Le Faye's new edition is necessary and very welcome; no one was better qualified, no one could have done it so well. The few new letters are of no great significance, but the number of pages of notes is almost doubled and the biographical material greatly extended.

Reasonably enough, the indexes are reduced to three; the sadness is that the type is smaller, the illustrations and maps have entirely disappeared and everything is now crammed into one volume. The result is more compact but actually harder to handle than Chapman. Even if you are reasonably well informed about the Austens and their circle, you cannot read the letters without constant reference to the notes and the biographical index. I was driven nearly mad trying to keep my place at a letter while seeking information in different sections at the back of the book. Could Oxford not at the very least bind in the double ribbons found in Pleiade editions, to mark one place in the text and another in the notes? Deirdre Le Faye and Jane Austen both deserve the best.