While discussing Jane Austen's Letter #92, Diana Birchall wrote the following in AustenL and Janeites about Jane Austen's observations of other people she was meeting while visiting rich brother Edward at his great estate in Kent:
"....she proceeds to describe the social events in a truly
sour manner. The visit to Mystole is "stupidish." No one is at home at
Chilham Castle or the vicarage. Edward Bridges' new friend arrives, Mr.
Wigram, and she carps about the pair of them. Edward Bridges persuaded
Wigram to take him to Lenham, "probably thinking a few days of
G[odmersha]m would be the cheapest & pleasantest way of entertaining his
friend & himself....Wigram is not agreable. - He is certainly no
addition. - A sort of cool, gentlemanlike manner, but very silent." And
she makes another family joke about names: "They say his name is Henry.
A proof how unequally the gifts of Fortune are bestowed. - I have seen
many a John & Thomas much more agreable." She doesn't even draw breath
from trashing Mr. Wigram, to turning to Mr. Mascall. "We have got rid of
Mr. R. Mascall however; - I did not like him either. He talks too much &
is conceited - besides having a vulgarly shaped mouth." This sniping
criticism of physical appearance, which nowadays at least we are
generally pretty strictly taught is very rude, is frequent with Jane
Austen. Interesting, then, that she is so sparing of physical
descriptions of her characters in her novels, isn't it?"
Fantastic observation there, Diana! indeed, that is a striking contrast
between the novels and the letters, although it would be a very
interesting study to locate the relatively small number of instances in
the novels when such descriptions are given, to see if a pattern
emerges as to when JA broke her general rule of sparse descriptions in
I think that one possible explanation is that when writing a letter to a
trusted reader such as CEA or Martha, JA could be absolutely honest in
reporting the results of her extraordinarily acute judgment of
character, which included as a significant component the observation of
character through facial features and expressions. But in writing her
novels, she had a whole different purpose, she was deliberately fuzzing
up the characters so that many different opinions about them could be
entertained by readers, leaving things ambiguous deliberately.
As I have previously mentioned, my wife and I have been working our way
steadily through the first four seasons of The Mentalist on DVD (we are
1/4 through the fourth season right now), and the kind of description JA
provides in the above quoted passage is exactly the sort of snap
judgment that Patrick Jane (I wonder about that last name!) routinely
renders on the show, when he, like Sherlock Holmes, delivers a capsule
description of many characters he encounters, including within his
descriptions descriptions of facial features and expressions in exactly
that same way!
Now, I believe JA was a kind of mentalist, meaning an extraordinarily
acute observer and analyst of human character and personality, and so
when she gives these descriptions, I believe she is painting, in a few
words, an accurate portrait of these people. I trust JA's judgment.
So I don't see her as sour, I see her as relentlessly honest when she
could safely afford to be, as she could in Letter 92.
I just read ahead to Letter 93 by mistake, and I found there a perfect
example of JA's integrity and willingness to adapt her judgments on
other people, as additional evidence came in. Just like Patrick Jane the
[What follows is Part Two, written within an hour of this Part One]
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Collecting Jane Austen: Regency London
2 months ago