Well it has finally happened. Whilst I can’t say I have read a full Jane Austen novel, I have finished a Jane Austen book, as ‘Lesley Castle’ is actually made up of two novella’s and essays, for want of a better word. Many people have been shocked that I have missed some of the ‘literary greats’. Dickens, Hardy, Trollope and Austen, until now of course, are four prime examples. So when I came up with the idea of ‘Taking Little Novel(la) Risks’ a few weeks ago it was ‘Lesley Castle’ by Jane Austen that really sparked it off. It is not, of course, a prerequisite that every lover of books must love the greats, in fact I know Susan Hill has said she doesn’t think much of Austen herself, but guess what… I loved this collection! I think I finally get what I have been missing.
In ‘Lesley Castle’, a collection by Hesperus Press who have lead me to some great short novels in the past, we have three pieces of Jane Austen’s (I don’t think I can get away with calling her just Jane really) earliest works. There are two stories in the form of ‘Lesley Castle’ and ‘Catherine, or The Bower’ along side ‘The History of England’ which is a parody of a piece of non fiction at the time called ‘The History of England in a Series of Letters From a Noble Man to his Sons’ and is written by ‘a partial, prejudiced and ignorant historian’ which made me smile. Jane Austen it seems had more wit than I gave her credit for.
It is this middle piece of work, or early essays, on the reigns of kings and queens of the UK that I will quickly mention as we are all taught this at school, well if we are in the UK that is as I know lots of readers of this blog are not. Jane Austen was definitely a fan of the Stewarts and so this is a very biased account, again which makes it all the funnier, as she describes Elizabeth I ‘that pest of society’. It’s just an enjoyable read and one illustrated by her sister Cassandra. See that is the effect this book has had on me, I am now talking like I know the whole family, in fact the title story ‘Lesley Castle’ was itself was dedicated to Jane’s favourite brother.
I don’t think ‘Lesley Castle’ could have been a more perfect introduction, for it starts the book, for me to Jane Austen. This novella of letters initially between two friends, Margaret Lesley and Charlotte Lutterell, is incredibly witty and full of gossip and delightful expressions such as when Charlotte compares Margaret’s unfortunate abandoned brother ‘as tender as a whipped syllabub’. Both women are in the throws of drama’s, Charlotte’s sister has lost her fiancé to death, which Charlotte seems to find most unbecomingly dramatic because of all the wedding arrangements Charlotte had made and her sister Eloise most miserable company since. Margaret’s brother has been abandoned by his wife, indeed a divorce is forthcoming, Louise who as Margaret describes her ‘was naturally ill tempered and cunning; nust she had been taught to disguise her real disposition, under the appearance of insinuating sweetness’. There is also the mystery of Margaret’s fathers new wife, who it soon becomes clear is a friend, or foe the two merge often , of Charlottes and as the tale goes on all the characters being gossiped about start writing to the two women. It is a wonderful read and executed brilliantly.
The final of the three works is ‘Catherine, or The Bower’ and this is apparently, for I wouldn’t know as yet, like a test for the novels to come. Catherine is an orphan living with her aunt and with no prospects. In fact she fears she may end up like her best friends Cecilia Wynne, who has been sent to Bengal to marry an old man she had never met and doesn’t like, or Mary Wynne who is now a ‘lady’s companion’ and rather bored and miserable. One day however Mr and Mrs Stanley and their daughter Camilla arrive to stay. Catherine, or Kitty, is thrilled at the prospect of a new best friend, only to find this isn’t going to be quite the case as Camilla it seems is one of those girls who simply likes what she is told is becoming and has no mind of her own. There are several of these what I can only describe as feminist aspects in this collection actually.
“You have read Mrs Smiths novels, I suppose?’ said she to her companion.
‘Oh! Yes’ replied the other, ‘and I am quite delighted with them. They are the sweetest things in the world –‘
‘And which do you prefer of them?’
‘Oh! dear, I think there is no comparison between them – Emmeline is so much better than any of the others –‘
‘Many people think so, I know; but there does not appear so great a disproportion in their merits to me. Do you think it is better written?’
Oh! I do not know anything about that – but it is better in everything -. Besides Ethelinde is so long’
‘That is a very common objection, I believe’ said Kitty, but for my part, if a book is well written, I always find it too short.’
‘So do I, only I get tired of it before it is finished.’
‘But did you not find the story of Ethelinde very interesting? And the descriptions of Grasmere, are they not beautiful?’
‘Oh! I missed them all, because I was in such a hurry to know the end of it.’ Then, from an easy transition, she added, ‘we are going to the Lakes this autumn, and I am quite mad with joy; Sir Henry Devereux has promised to go with us, and that will make it so pleasant, you know.’
There is a twist or two in the tale as a stranger arrives on the night of a ball, one which Catherine looks as though she will miss due to an awful toothache, and then Jane Austen twists the tale a few times so you are never quite sure how it is going to end. I did keep thinking of the story of Cinderella when I was reading this, I wonder if that was her intent?
As I mentioned at the start I loved the collection that makes ‘Lesley Castle’ and think if there is anyone out there who hasn’t read Jane Austen yet, unlikely I know, but who wants to then this would be a wonderful place to start. I had tried and failed with her before, I had been promised so much wit and simply got endless descriptions. Now I have seen the wit distilled in these tales I think it might be time to pick up one of her novels and persevere. I am quite excited at the prospect.