Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Country Gentry

Last week we assumed the life of country gentry: Staying in the gracious home of wealthier relatives, paying visits, attending concerts, taking long walks in the woods with the dog. And, of course, not working, because otherwise how do you have the time to do all that, and really enjoy it? Now, alas, it is back to reality. I found myself thinking about what a broad margin Jane Austen had to her life, for all her worries about money and her relative lack of autonomy, for all the social restrictions that hedged her in.

Now I am reading another Austen-inspired fiction. Actually it is not entirely fictional: In Cassandra & Jane the author is writing from the perspective of Jane's sister, Cassandra, more than 20 years after Jane's death and nearing her own end, looking back at life with Jane and sorting her letters into two piles: those to be burned and those that can survive.

That destruction, of course, is a major sore point with Austen enthusiasts everywhere, and it's a brilliant idea to attempt to fictionally restore them. As she retells the story of Jane Austen's life, in a clearly well researched way, made-up excerpts from letters, filling in the tantalizing biographical gaps, mingle with excerpts from real ones.

The two major challenges this author poses for herself: to immerse herself in the mind and worldview of Cassandra Austen, a person living nearly 200 years ago, and to write letters (or fragments of letters) that Jane Austen might plausibly have written. Both are hard, but the second is much harder.

I haven't written about Jane Austen's letters here, though I think about them all the time. They are the main source of information about her personal and emotional life, and if you read enough biographies you see the same fragments quoted over and over. The trouble is that Jane Austen, a master of irony in her novels, is an even more ironic and unreliable narrator in her letters, particularly the ones to Cassandra, which are probably the bulk of those that exist. You can vividly see the quicksilver play of her mind at work, riffing on the trivialities of daily life with deadpan humor. But is she actually joking, sometimes?