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Austen-Curious Reader: “A Collection of Letters”

By Eden Iazeolla


Hello to all my Brilliant Jane Austen Juvenilia Enthusiasts!


This week, we got to read “A Collection of Letters,” which is... you guessed it: another work written by the brilliant young Jane Austen. This piece is unique in that it is introducing us to a new genre Austen is grappling with. Letter-writing guides had become quite popular during the 18th century, and Austen is clearly picking up on this trend. In addition, as we have seen in her last few pieces, she is also heavily influenced by some of her favorite authors. Samuel Richardson was considered one of these, and he completed a letter guide in 1741 called Letters Written to and for Particular friends. In addition to this new genre, Austen is also exploring some different themes in this text. One of the more obvious topics Austen dedicated more pen time to than usual is the social practice of “coming out” in the Regency era.



“Coming out” was when a 15-16-year-old young woman was introduced to and included in the wider society of adults in her community. This meant that these women got to wear their hair up, got to wear longer dresses, and got to attend balls. But, more importantly, “Coming out” also meant that these women were now eligible for marriage, and many families were focused on finding matches that would boost their financial standing. These letters give me Bridgerton vibes to the extreme. For instance, I could not help comparing Lady Greville in Letter the Third to Portia Featherington. This letter details the relationship between Miss Maria and Lady Greville, the young lady’s chaperone at a ball. Writing to her friend, Maria vents


She was determined to mortify me, and accordingly when we were sitting down

between the dances, she came to me with more than her usual insulting

importance attended by Miss Mason and said loud enough to be heard by half

the people in the room, ‘Pray miss Maria in what way of business was your

grandfather? For Miss Mason and I cannot agree whether he was a Grocer or a

Bookbinder.’


Being that these two professions are not considered a part of elite society, Lady Greville intends to denigrate Miss Maria in front of everyone. The exaggeration of her

character makes me laugh because even though Lady Greville is attacking Maria, it makes Lady G

look worse, almost pathetic. In a way, this picture of Lady Greville is a way for Austen to mock the competitive nature of the “coming out” culture. This trope is echoed later in Portia Featherington’s character in Bridgeton (IYKYK).


This repeated “coming out” theme in “A Collection of Letters” also has me thinking about how Austen’s age is being reflected throughout her Juvenilia. There is such an interesting contrast between the themes of her earlier juvenilia (12-14 years old), and her later juvenilia (15-17 years old). In her earliest piece, “The Beautifull Cassandra,” she wrote about a young girl running amok, stealing ices, and loving bonnets. These are pretty simple concepts and meet my expectations of what a twelve-year-old would be writing about. In the same sense, as a 16-year-old writing “A Collection of Letters,” it is only expected that we see Austen focus on topics that reflect this age and her current experiences, such as “coming out”.


On another note, we can see Austen experimenting with many of the characteristics owed to the letter-writing genre. One of these characteristics that she is seen putting her Austen flare to are the titles to the letters.



One of my favorites is Letter the Fifth’s title, “From a Young Lady very much in love to her friend.” At first glance, this title implies that the following letter will be a guide to love-letter writing. However, when you read the letter, Austen’s mockery of love comes shining through, changing the title into something even better. It becomes Austen’s voice dripping with farce. In the Letter the Fifth, Henrietta relays the correspondence she has had with the man she loves to a friend.


In the letter her love, Musgrove, sends her, he says


I do hope for the death of your villainous Uncle and Abandoned Wife, Since my fair

one, will not consent to be mine till their decease has placed her in affluence above

what my fortune can procure.

In response to that letter, Henrietta addresses her friend,


Matilda! Did you ever read such a masterpiece of Writing? Such Sense, Such

Sentiment, Such purity of Thought, Such Flow of Language and unfeigned Love in one

Sheet?


Musgrove's letter includes multiple switches in between third person and second person when talking about Henrietta. This is quite opposite of the “flow of language” that Henrietta praises in her remarks. His morals do not seem much better than his rhetoric; I would also not consider wishing for people to die so you can have their money “such purity of thought.” It makes it even more ironic that Musgrove implies that Henrietta also wishes for this death so she can procure the money. Rather than offering an actual guide for a woman in love, Austen’s irony exaggerates the blindness love can create, thus making fun of its ridiculousness. The title does not lead into a guide for what to do, but rather tricks the audience into this letter of mockery and dysfunction. It is giving the young Austen we know and love, I do not know why I would have expected anything different.



There is so much more I could dive into about this text, but I will leave the comments section open to all of you if you would like to chat further. I do want to know, if you could ask young Jane Austen to extend any of the letters into a novel, which would it be? Personally, I would like to see more of Miss Maria and Lady Greville. My imagination was running wild with ideas on Lady Greville’s karma and Miss Maria’s deserved win that I almost forgot to keep reading!


In two weeks, we will be ending the Juvenilia with “Evelyn” before we dive into Lady Susan. I will see you here on April 9th! If you are enjoying the blogs, consider registration for JASP this summer. You will not be disappointed!


We will be posting updates and reminders on the book club and all things JASP on here. You can find us on Instagram (@Janeaustensummer), twitter (@jaustensummer), and Facebook (@janeaustensummerprogram).


Ta-Ta!

Eden






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