misssylviadrake (misssylviadrake) wrote,

Jane Austen's letters considered as life-writing (the genre)

Dear friends and readers,

A sort of debate on the two Austen lists has made me think a bit about these letters as forms of life-writing.

Jane to Anna Austen, 1815 -- now Anna all grown up and writing novels too

I was thinking yesterday (after I read about The Loiterer) that JEAL's memoir and his father's personal and autobiographical poems may be linked directly to Austen's letters and her life because they are forms of life-writing in ways novels can't be.  Letters and life-writing are not self-contained in the way of novels either.  There is ever this reference to concrete life directly outside the given text and other documents.

In my book on Trollope I have a chapter on life-writing versus fiction where I write about Trollope's Autobiography.  Among other things I show there are many demonstrable differences between say autobiography and letters and novels in general. Apart from the author's knowledge of conventions she uses as fiction (which Austen does), there are the forms they take (these letters are quite different from her novels); the way readers approach them, the questions asked about them.  In Austen's case we see her relatives were happy to publish her finished novels and eventually coughed up even the fragments. They destroyed the majority of her life-writing.

In the case of non-fiction which is life-writing (memoirs, autobiography, letters, to some extent biography, especially when written by a contemporary) the stories not in the documents at hand (which an autobiography and letters can be called) are not at all shadow stories, nor do they have to be inferred or made up or looked at as subtexts.  These stories come from other documents.  So although nowhere in her letters does Austen refer to her brother George; we know about him from other documents.  In these we are reading we know about James, Henry's marriages, the death of Fowles, Cassandra's never marrying from other documents. 

I wrote enigmatically about The Loiterer yesterday on three lists. People on the lists had read J. Walton Litz's article on it where he makes Henry the author of its witty papers and an equal presence with James.  Not so according to more recent research.

        "While I liked A. Walton Litz's essay on The Loiterer -- pleasant tone, informative and giving us a real feel of the tones of the The Loiterer, I felt it was 1) partly outdated as it was put into a kind of ivory tower of universal morality; 2) not necessarily accurate in the attributions.  While we can't know for sure, more has been found out since. So I'd just like to say Alfred Post's JA and the Loiterer: A Study of JA's Literary Heritage (a 1972 dissertation I own a blue paperback copy of) gives a different attribution range with James the dominant figure, Henry doing much less, and Jane writing Sophia Sentiment.

       The interest here is biographical -- which neither Litz nor Post makes much of. The early James Austen while he preferred tragedy to comedy and wrote melancholy prologues even when younger, was a much brighter happier man when he was young than when we meet him in later life, chained (I would put it) to Mary. I see him as marrying on the serious re-bound from his disappointment in not getting Eliza.  In later life in one of the letters Jane Austen says what a disappointment he has become: the family did believe in his gifts, which (like many people) he not only never developed but it seems from his life's choices as well as chances that did and did not befall him, he regressed from.

       He died not long after Austen.  JEAL in his book and his daughter in hers had the courage to talk openly about the horrors of the harridan aunt with the legacy they longed for until her death (and which she continually held over their heads), but he never did justice to his father.  Too painful.  Again I see this as the true context for his emotionalism in his biography of his aunt."

I would explain the above enigmatic comment on The Loiterer thus:  James Austen died 2 years after Jane Austen.  I do believe illnesses are  the result of psyche as well as soma and think he was a deeply unhappy man. The harridan aunt is Jane Perrot whose measly husband left her a fortune.  In one late letter Jane Austen is shattered over the thwarted expectations: he had led them to believe he would leave them something too.   That Mrs Norris is a portrait of this woman is confirmed byJEAL's portrait of her in one of his other writings -- or maybe it was his daughters.  She was like a character in Thackeray ever threatening to withdraw the huge inheritance if they displeased her. JEAL never wrote about his father, nor did Anna.  They found it easier to idealize the aunt than tell the truth about the father's life. Nonetheless, it was very brave of him to write and publish his memoir of his aunt because quite a number of the other relatives were very again this.  That they were tells us not necessarily something was wrong anywhere but their intense determination to be respectable and conventional in public (to protect themselves as they would see it).

In the case of fiction, the world of the fiction is understood to be self-contained except when the specific volume is part of a say a series of novels about the same characters by the same author.  Then the author tells this is say a Barsetshire novel or a Poldark one so we can find out more about the characters in this novel by reading the others.

What happen in memoirs is a person writing one may chose not to tell  X because he or she wants to protect someone; that's in his or her right, but we may read about this other person connected to X by what the other person or other people write in other life-writing about them.

Life-writing is a fascinating complicated literary phenomena made up  of subgenres or kind which have  their own characteristic features..

Austen's desk at Chawton and (perhaps partly mythically) the whole of her work space

Tags: jane austen criticism, jane austens letters, literary biography, women's art

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