Deirdre Le Faye's Jane Austen's Letters (Oxford University Press, 2011) is an invaluable addition to the bookshelves of Jane Austen fans and scholars of her life and times. The updated fourth edition includes a new preface, revamped biographical and topographical indexes (i.e. indexes of people and places mentioned in Jane's letters). The biographical index is particularly helpful if, like many of us, you find the complex network of Austen's family and friends confusing (and it is a very complicated family tree, especially if you include the remarriages of Jane's brothers). The new subject index is a 'must-have' if you are interested in the social history of Austen's day.
Victorian reviewers of the Brabourne edition of Jane Austen's letters
did not appear to find them particularly interesting compared with
those of, for example, Fanny Burney, who wrote her letters with a view
to their eventual publication, but this is to do Austen an injustice.
Her wit and charm shines out of her surviving letters, and I think they
are the closest thing we will ever have to a 'conversation' with Jane in which we
can hear her 'voice'.
The history of the letters' publication, and their provenance (explored in the preface and notes) are fascinating.
Jane's sister Cassandra burned many letters containing any very personal
information (precisely those which would interest us most today). Several letters have been lost since their first publication, and others
are known only in part, because they were cut up and distributed
amongst the family.
Le Faye has methodically documented the
provenance, current location (if known) and publication of each letter and put them in sequence. She clearly explains many seemingly puzzling references in the letters.
One phrase, however, she finds 'unexplained': in a letter to Cassandra (26 November 1815), Jane says that they have not had many visitors that week, but now she is 'in terror' because it is a 'fine bright Sunday, plenty of Mortar and nothing to do'. Le Faye suggests that 'mortar' might be slang for 'money', and that this is a reference to a popular song of the day.
A quick glance at Grose's Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1788 and later editions) doesn't support 'mortar' as a euphemism for money, however. At the risk of putting my head on the block, I humbly suggest that 'plenty of Mortar and nothing to do' sounds as if it's something a builder or stonemason might say if he'd mixed lots of mortar, but then had nothing to build, and was left twiddling his thumbs in the sunshine. Could this perhaps be something that a builder or workman had said when doing some work for the Austen family? I'd be very interested to hear what other readers think, anyway.