Friday 11 March 2011

Somerset Maugham on Jane Austen's Letters

Aw, shame that Irene didn't seem to tempt any of you. But I suspect more people will be intrigued by today's post - about Jane Austen. Susan in TX very kindly and sweetly sent me A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen last year, and I'm reading it slowly, savouring it. I'll write a proper review of it when I'm all done, which could be a while, but it's the sort of book I'll want to share bits from now and then. And today I'm quoting from W. Somerset Maugham about Jane Austen's letters, because I entirely agree with him. I don't understand the critics who are disappointed by her letters - they're wonderful. Also, all of the famous bits you'll have heard quoted (two inches of ivory; three or four families, etc.) are written so very tongue-in-cheek that they should never be taken as Austen's genuine opinion of herself. Just sayin'. Anyway, over to Maugham:
Many of Jane Austen's warmest admirers have found her letters disappointing, and have thought they showed that she was cold and unfeeling and that her interests were trivial. I am surprised. They are very natural. Jane Austen never imagined that anyone but Cassandra would read them, and she told her exactly the sort of things she knew would interest her. She told her what people were wearing and how much she had paid for the flowered muslin she had bought, what acquaintances she had made, what old friends she had met and the gossip she had heard

Of late years several collections of letters by eminent authors have been published, and for my part, when I read them, I am now ans then disposed to suspect that the writers had at the back of their minds the notion that one day they might find their way into print. They give me not seldom the impression that they might have been used just as they were in the columns of a literary journal. In order not to annoy the devotees of the recently deceased I will not mention their names, but Dickens has been dead a long time and it is possible to say what one likes of him without offense. Whenever he went on a journey he wrote long letters to his friends in which he described eloquently the sights he had seen and which, as his biographer justly observes, might well have been printed without the alteration of a single word. People were more patient in those days; still one would have thought it a disappointment to receive a letter from a friend who gave you word pictures of mountains and monuments when you wanted to know whether he had come across anyone interesting, what parties he had been to and whether he had been able to get you the books or ties or handkerchiefs you had asked him to bring back.


  1. I'm with you & WSM. I think Austen's letters are fascinating, especially those to Cassandra - though they're also frustrating, with all the family in-jokes, the shorthand between the sisters, and all the names. But such a rich sense of daily life!

  2. I think people were upset when JA's letters were first published because in those days (was it around the 1920s?) people had her on a pedestal and thought her to be some kind of saint. Of course the letters revealed her to be delightfully human, full of fun, willing to make silly jokes and say less than kind things about people, interested in clothes, etc etc. Nowadays I think this makes us love her even more! This sounds like a great book. Do tell us more about it as you go on.

  3. So glad you are enjoying the book. I do like to read old letters/diaries - esp. if they were not ever intended to be read by others. I agree with Maugham's thoughts about more modern writings tending to seem "written to be read" - they sort of lose their intrigue.

  4. BTW, I had never heard of Irene prior to your previous post. :)

  5. I was particularly impressed with the Somerset Maugham essay, too. I think he's right when he suggests that some very well known writers wrote letters with one eye on posterity whereas Jane's were really personal letters only meant for the eyes of family. Look forward to your further revies of this book - I loved it.

  6. I haven't read Austen's letters, but I love W. Somerset Maugham, and he might just inspire me to read them. I've had her letters here for years.

    so thanks for this post!

  7. Lisa May - that's exactly what it is, isn't it - daily life, and intimacy, and in-jokes. Her letters feel so real.

    Harriet - true! Hence *everyone* quoting that "perhaps she happened unawares to glance at her husband" bit. Of course we love that about her, but I can see how it would have affronted people. And I'll keep posting bits from it as I go! I do have one major bugbear with it, which will be revealed in good time... ;)

    Susan - of course I am, how could I not! I always feel a bit guilty reading private letters and diaries.. but I always do it anyway!

    Nicola - I think WSM's might be my favourite of the collection so far. Which makes me think I should read something of his... have a few unread.

    Kat - JA's letters are great for dipping into, or keeping in the smallest room in the house (!) - which Maugham would you recommend? I have some short stories, and Theatre.