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Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Review of Deirdre Le Faye's Jane Austen's Letters

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.


Tony Grant said...

Hi Sue. I often refer to Deirdre Le Fayes third edition of Janes letters.

It is interesting this word ,"Mortar." Jane was staying with her brother Henry in Hans Place at the time.She does refer to not having many visitors that week, but on Sunday 26th November is ,"a fine bright Sunday."maybe she is thinking some will visit.
This perhaps infers that the weather had not been good during the week and so people had not visited because of the weather.
I can imagine Jane becoming bored at home with nothing to do, her fertile mind working on the character assassination of all those who did not come. She could often be quite waspish.
The word, mortar, has it's well known meanings, a weapon, cement, and a bowl for grinding. However I have also discovered that it has another derivation. It was a Middle English word meaning, to trample on.It is interesting to note that Middle English derived from an amalgam of the Norman French dialect mixing with the Anglo Saxon language. Hampshire was a Norman stronghold with William's capital being Winchester for a while. Hampshire would have been a place where Middle English might have first spread. Jane, being a Hampshire lass, could have used some locally remaining Middle English words in her everyday conversation. She may have meant, in this letter to Cassandra, that she was mentally ,"trampling on," all the people who did not visit her. But of course this is mere speculation!!!!!!

Sue Wilkes said...

Hi Tony,
Thanks very much for this info! It is a puzzler - but it just goes to show that there's plenty more to discover about Jane Austen's world!