I have wanted to dip into a (or a few) Jane Austen biographies, but when I was facing the shelf of books on Austen at the library I hardly knew where to start. The odd rectangular shape of The Illustrated Letters of Jane Austen edited by Penelope Hughes-Hallett certainly jumped out at me, and after I flipped through a few of the pages filled with brilliant period illustrations, paintings, and silhouettes I knew I had to take this book home.
The Illustrated Letters are snippets of Austen’s letters, Austen’s novels, biographical information, and of course illustrations. While my collection of Austen’s novels and the critical essays that I read all explored aspects of Austen’s life, The Illustrated Letters fills more gaps and begs more questions. A few points that stood out for me:
Jane Austen’s brother and the second son in the family George “suffered from some disability and never lived with the family” (16).
Austen’s comments on the “shame” of aging, which she says at least twice in this collection. Also, I enjoyed her comment on “two ugly naked shoulders” (71).
That the author describes herself as a shy child and perhaps most interestingly her relationship with the younger generations in her own family and her novels. Austen speaks so tenderly and with such feeling and conviction about her novels like they are children of her own.
And perhaps most interestingly, that Austen did proceed to give additional snippets of her characters after her novels were published. For example, that Mr. Woodhouse died two years after Emma was married (81).
The Illustrated Letters also briefly commented on the more technical and legal side of Austen’s life as an author and I would really love to read more about this. Austen’s first two books were published anonymously with Sense & Sensibility signed By a Lady and Pride & Prejudice signed as from the author of Sense & Sensibility. Even Austen’s letters to her publisher John Murray were under a pseudonym and it seems at least some of the legal matters were done through Austen’s brother Henry.
However, what makes The Illustrated Letters a splendid book is not really the information per say. The quotes from the novels are not anything sensational nor are the selected letters for the most part that fascinating. (Not that Austen’s letters are not fascinating in and of themselves, but I found the selection odd and was uncomfortable where certain parts were left out.) I now, however, am more interested than ever in picking up a collection of Austen’s correspondence and reading them. What really makes The Illustrated Letters of Austen terrific are the illustrations. They are gorgeous and give an intimate look into a life and period that I am only becoming more familiar with.