Austen-Curious Reader - "Lesley Castle"
By Eden Iazeolla
Hello to all my Brilliant Jane Austen Juvenilia Enthusiasts!
We are well on our way into volume two of Jane Austen’s Juvenilia. This week our focus is on “Lesley Castle” and within it, we can really start to see Austen’s growing maturity as a writer. The irony and laughter that characterize the juvenilia are still there; however, there was something different about this piece and I'm eager to discuss it!
In one of our previous “Austen-Curious” posts, I discussed how I thought Austen was mocking the traditional conventions of the epistolary genre in “Amelia Webster”. However, my reading of “Lesley Castle” made me question my own interpretation. Could it be that “Amelia Webster” was a product of Austen’s youthful age and inexperience, rather than an early mastery of the art? After contemplating this question, I do suspect that it is her older age and more experience with letter writing that sets “Lesley Castle” apart from “Amelia Webster.”
According to Deirdre La Faye (whom Peter Sabor, the editor of my edition, quotes in the notes), “Amelia Webster” is one of the oldest surviving stories from Austen’s Juvenilia, dating back to 1787. This would mean that Austen would have been approximately 12 years
old when she produced this piece. In comparison, “Lesley Castle” is thought to have been written when Jane Austen was 16 years old. I am no historian or Jane Austen expert, and a lot of these numbers are just estimations, but I cannot ignore the jump in sophistication from “Amelia Webster” to “Lesley Castle.”
When I was doing some initial research on the epistolary genre and Jane Austen’s relationship to it, I ran across Juliet McMaster’s brilliant essay called, “Your Sincere Freind, The Author.” It is a great read, and I would highly recommend it to any JASP 2023 participants. (Coincidentally, Juliet McMaster will also be one of our presenters at JASP this summer!) In this essay, McMaster outlines the major elements of a letter: materials, composition, content, transmission, and reception. In “Ameilia Webster,” Austen did not include many of these elements in her three-letter memorable piece. However, she did manage to hit the "materials" element, which is the acknowledgement of the materials used to create a letter (paper, pen, etc.). In comparison, in “Lesley Castle,” Austen does make sure to hit almost every element.
In “Lesley Castle,” Austen uses the second element, composition, to paint a clearer picture of each of her characters. In the end, this made each character unique. In this piece, Austen bases most of her letters off the correspondence between two women, Miss Margaret Lesley and Miss Charolette Lutterell. In Charolette Lutterell’s beginning letters, the content is focused on her explaining how much food is left over after her sister’s wedding was cancelled, and how ALL of it must be eaten. The exaggeration and obsessiveness of this event tells us that Charolette is a bit food-obsessed. However, as the story progresses and Charolette moves away from this concern, her writing is still riddled with a “culinary” style – so to speak?
In one scene, Charolette is expressing to Margaret how angry she is with her sister, Eloise, about a certain situation. In explaining how she handled it, Charolette writes to Margaret:
“I was as cool as a cream-cheese.”
This simile is hilarious to me in many ways and reminds me of Austen's relentless mockery.
On one hand, Austen is alluding to the British poet, John Gay’s poem, “New Song New Similes.” In this poem, we get the famous phrase, “cool as a cucumber,” which I am sure you are all familiar with and laughed when you read “cool as a cream-cheese" instead. In this mis-quotation, Austen possibly portrays Charolette to be someone who does not like cucumbers, so much so that she changes the saying to reflect this fact. This would be another great exampleof her obsession with food; or Austen is attempting to paint
Charolette as a “ding-dong” in her messing up the famous saying; or she has created a correspondent capable of playing with clichés to create her own vernacular. I also found Austen’s comparison of Charolette being “cool” or relaxed ironic, because she so clearly is not. As we can see, in Austen giving Charolette a unique style and composition of her letters, she elevates her own skills in character-building, a tangible sign that her writing is beginning to mature.
Another aspect that made me think about Austen’s sophistication in “Lesley Castle” ties into McMaster’s point on content. McMaster explains content to be “the facts and opinions being communicated” in letters. When I applied this to my understanding of the epistolary genre, I would expect that a mastery of the genre would mean that the author would have to be able to weave the content of separate letters within one another seamlessly. I would not define Austen’s work in “Lesley Castle” as seamless, but her juggling of various letter-writers and her creation of a spiderweb of gossip is advanced, especially compared to her earlier stories. With many of the women’s letters being made up of gossip about one another, it creates the opportunity for the reader to get to know them better and see them through other characters’ eyes. I wonder if Austen wrote “Lesley Castle” because of her love for gossip (as I have heard through the JA grapevine), or if she was making fun of those women who did use their time (and expensive paper) to write each other about such things?
One of these gossip webs that I am referring to is when Austen relates how each woman speculates about the others' appearance. I say “speculates” because everyone has a different opinion. For instance, Charolette describes Susan Lesley (the stepmother) as being “short and extremely well-made” Then, quickly following, Margaret (the stepdaughter) describes Susan Lesley as being “an insignificant dwarf.” AND THEN, following that, Susan Lesley responds with “nay, I know nothing of that,” when quizzed on her height. I love the interpersonal dynamics that Austen has developed through “Lesley Castle.” In her consideration of content, she ties the characters together and develops relationships (like the stepmother versus stepdaughter) more explicitly, and shows her ability to laugh at the correspondents' self-flattering delusions.
The final difference I was seeing in “Lesly Castle” versus “Amelia Webster” was the transmission and reception of letters. These two elements define the logistics behind letters, like how much time the letters took to get from point a to point b, or the circumstances behind the travelling of the letter. In Austen’s piece, she recognizes these logistics, pointing to her growing maturity and perhaps increased experience with letter-writing.
In one of the letters, Margaret Lesley establishes that letters do not just magically fall into one’s lap. She says to Charolette: “we left Lesley-Castle on the 28th of Last Month, and arrived safety in London after a Journey of seven Days; I had the pleasure of finding your Letter here waiting for my arrival.” In this, Austen is seen doing two very important things. The first is giving context to the letter by recognizing that time has passed. And the second is accurately framing Margaret’s travels, which has been something she has rarely done throughout Juvenilia. You can look at “Memoirs of Mr Clifford” as a great example of where Austen ignored these logistics and mocked travel time.