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Austen Power

An earlier version of this column was published in the Sunday Times in 2013.

Jane Austen died 200 years ago, but she wrote some groovy letters, baby. By Sue de Groot

JANE Austen lived from 1775 to 1817 and was a writer of prolific output. Apart from her six published novels and a trunk full of unpublished work, she sent friends, family and assorted others an astonishing number of letters, all written in the same spirit of playful irony that infuses her novels.

What joy these missives must have given their recipients. They probably read them over and over and entertained their visitors by quoting bits from them.

Austen had the ability to make the most mundane subject sound riveting, a rare skill. She never took anything too seriously, another rare skill, yet her gentle sending-up of human silliness never descended to outright bitchiness, nor was she flippant.

We know her correspondence was prized because many of her letters were kept and preserved. One of the sad things about e-mail communication is that most of it – unless your surname is Gupta – disappears into the cloud once read, denying future generations the opportunity to enjoy intimate letters from long ago.

There are unquestionable advantages to electronic communication. I’m not going to climb on that dreary Luddite bandwagon and start bemoaning the loss of quills, ink and postmen, or get all choked up about the sentimental smell of parchment. One thing we have lost that pains me, however, is the art of letter writing.

You can’t blame it all on the keyboard. It’s the message that counts, not the medium. If we wanted to, we could type thoughtful, grammatical letters and e-mail them, yet hardly anyone does. Perhaps a resurgence of interest in Austen will inspire us.

If she had owned a smartphone, perhaps Jane would have written a thousand more letters, but I suspect that such a device would have dulled her sparkle and stunted her compositions. Nor would they have been saved. And how much poorer our lives would be without observations like these:

On weather

“We have been exceedingly busy ever since you went away. In the first place we have had to rejoice two or three times every day at your having such very delightful weather for the whole of your journey…” (October 25 1800)

“How do you like this cold weather? I hope you have all been earnestly praying for it as a salutary relief from the dreadful mild and unhealthy season preceding it, fancying yourself half putrefied from the want of it, and that now you all draw into the fire, complain that you never felt such bitterness of cold before, that you are half starved, quite frozen, and wish the mild weather back again with all your hearts.” (January 25 1801)

On fashion

“I cannot help thinking that it is more natural to have flowers grow out of the head than fruit.” (June 11 1799)

On children

“Poor woman! How can she honestly be breeding again?” (October 1 1808)

“I give you joy of our new nephew, and hope if he ever comes to be hanged it will not be till we are too old to care about it.” (April 25 1811)

“I would recommend to her and Mr D the simple regimen of separate rooms.” (February 20 1817)

On having a good time

“I believe I drank too much wine last night at Hurstbourne; I know not how else to account for the shaking of my hand today.” (November 20 1800)

“Mrs B thought herself obliged to leave them to run round the room after her drunken husband. His avoidance, and her pursuit, with the probable intoxication of both, was an amusing scene.” (May 12 1801)

“As I must leave off being young, I find many douceurs [today this means a bribe, in the 1800s it was a more innocent “sweetener”] in being a sort of chaperon, for I am put on the sofa near the fire and can drink as much wine as I like.” (November 6 1813)

 

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