Letters from England

Letters from England

Maps of Old England very smallIn 1807, Longman’s published a work presented as a traveller’s description of England, in the form of letters from a Spanish visitor, Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella, written to his mentor and confessor. Yet this person never existed. The letters were in fact written by an Englishman, Robert Southey, he of the later fame of Lake Poet and Poet Laureate.

His little ruse paid off and his book was well received, for Robert Southey had skilfully banked on a very human trait: we all want to know what other people think of us!

Having travelled extensively in Spain, Robert Southey had an intimate knowledge of the country and its people, along with their beliefs and prejudices, therefore his disguise proved quite successful. He was only betrayed by the quality of his prose and the ease of his style. His readers soon came to ascertain that it was the work of an Englishman, for no translation could run so flawlessly and smoothly.

By the time Jane Austen read it in 1808, the game was largely up. She knew well enough who the author was – and did not much approve of him!

“We have got the second volume of Espriella’s letters,” she wrote to her sister, “and I read it aloud by candlelight. The man describes well, but is horribly anti-English. He deserves to be the character he assumes,” she added, with a profound love of England and even a mild touch of xenophobia, perhaps excusable given her life and times.

In that light, same as Maggie Lane in ‘Jane Austen’s England’, I found this quote rather endearing. So much so that I’ve taken the liberty of using it in a conversation between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, in my latest novel, ‘The Falmouth Connection’:

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Falmouth Connection iconElizabeth rummaged in her satchel for a moment, until she found what she was seeking. If pointedly staring out of the window did not persuade Mr. Darcy to leave her to her own devices, then perhaps feigning interest in her own book would! She opened it at random and fixed her eyes upon it. And yet, over the top of her volume, she could still see, without purposely looking, that his own remained closed in his lap. She pursed her lips again and her eyes narrowed, willing him into silence. Just as the thought occurred, she all but laughed.

That she should be scheming to avoid Mr. Darcy’s chatter, of all people!

She did not laugh but – to her utter shock – he did, or rather chuckled softly, and Elizabeth involuntarily looked up, half suspecting that the rumbling of the carriage wheels must have been playing tricks on her; must have tampered with her hearing. Surely Mr. Darcy was far above something as plebeian as chuckling, she inwardly scoffed – then all but gaped at the contrary evidence before her. There he was now, his gaze fixed upon her, a half-smile playing on his lips, his proud patrician features softened into barely suppressed amusement.

She positively stared, quite certain she had never seen him thus. Devoid of stern reserve, he seemed almost human – and in truth, more than a little handsome, a fleeting, errant thought intruded. In response to both the errant thought and the disconcerting countenance before her, Elizabeth arched a brow.

“May I inquire into the source of your amusement?” she asked despite herself and the infuriating man this time smiled in earnest.

“But of course. I was merely entertained, Miss Bennet, to note that despite firm opinions to the contrary, we do seem to be reading the same books after all,” he observed, turning his own volume upright so that she could see the title.

She cast her eyes upon it, only to concede that he was in the right. Apparently, they were both reading the second volume of Mr. Southey’s ‘Letters from England’ which, for some reason of the author’s, were presented as though written not by the Englishman he was, but by a Spanish traveller to his confessor. Elizabeth still failed to see the diverting side of the coincidence however, until all of a sudden she remembered the conversation – or rather verbal fencing – that they had engaged in, during their dance at Netherfield last autumn. Her companion must have seen her comprehension dawning, for he resumed with the same half-smile:

“All that remains to ascertain is whether we read them with the same sentiments, is it not, Miss Bennet? So may I ask, what is your opinion of this fictitious Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella?”

Her brows arched again – both of them this time. Whatever had possessed him to discard the habitual hauteur in favour of this disconcerting jesting manner? She all but shrugged – unladylike as it might have been. It was his own affair, and she refused to ponder for another moment over Mr. Darcy and his whimsies.

“I cannot deny that he describes well, with keenness of eye and vivacity of spirit,” she owned at last. “Yet, while I cannot fault him for his style, I am singularly unimpressed with the way he approached his subject matter.”

“Indeed. He does write well, but he is horribly anti-English!”

“I daresay he deserves to be – ”

“…the very man he is impersonating.”

“… precisely whom he claims to be,” they both said at once, and for a moment Elizabeth vacillated between laughter and vexation.

For some unknown reason, she succumbed to the first – only to veer towards the second once Mr. Darcy chose to overstate the matter:

“I take it then that our responses are not so different either, in this case at least. Dare I ask about another, Miss Bennet, or would I be stretching my beginner’s luck?”

“We are not gambling, Mr. Darcy,” she observed, tilting her chin, and the gentleman promptly retorted with another crooked smile.

“I should hope not, Miss Bennet, seeing as gambling is such a hazardous and objectionable pastime.”

She stared again. Had it been any other man, she would have concluded he was flirting. Either that, or he was in his cups! But as it was Mr. Darcy, she would have more readily believed the latter, rather than imagine he would choose to flirt with her.

* * * * * * *

Even if Jane Austen disapproved of Robert Southey’s book and the subterfuge behind it, his skilful depiction of a vanished world provides us with priceless information, 200 years on.

Along with many others, I’ve been looking for Jane Austen’s England everywhere. Sometimes it’s easier to find in libraries than in real life. Still, I did manage to find a few gems over the years and, like most pleasures in life, this is another one that tastes much better shared. So, if Don Manuel and his real creator would be so kind to excuse my attempts at imitation (it is, after all, the sincerest form of flattery!) I’d like to post my own Letters from England’ here, with scenes, events and people whom Jane Austen might have recognised.

I hope you’ll enjoy them. All the best and see you soon!

35 Responses to Letters from England

  1. As you know, Joana, The Falmouth Connection is one of my Desert Island Five and I remember the above scene very well. I had no idea that the dialogue was taken from one of Jane Austen’s own letters.

    I’m really looking forward to your next works. Yes, of course, you’re allowed to torture Darcy as long as we get a lovely pay-off at the end and more scenes like “the garden scene” (gooey puddle time again!).

    Are you planning on getting Sophie to record any, or all, of your books?

    • Thanks so much, Anji, it made me so happy to read your post at Austenesque Reviews and find out that TFC has made it into your Desert Island Five!! (It WAS in that post, wasn’t it?)

      I came across that Jane Austen quote when I was in Keswick, quite close to Greta House where Robert Southey used to live (talk about serendipity!!) and it just seemed so right that two of her favourite characters (maybe even her most favourite ones; I know Elizabeth was, at least) should share her views on a contemporary book. And I just liked the thought of them reading the same book, especially after Elizabeth was so dismissive at the ball about the very idea.

      So glad you liked the gooey puddle scene too – I’ll try to come up with a match 😉 As for torturing Darcy, not sure why it comes up so often in the plot, but it does. Maybe because he does brooding so well. Or maybe because he deserves it, for having been such a pompous twit to begin with. Or maybe because I can’t quite bring myself to give Elizabeth the ‘unrequited love’ part. She is bright and sparkling and should remain so. She has enough to contend with (embarrassing family, lower social status, other people’s snobbery) without adding insult to injury and making her pine over a Darcy who’s engaged to some bright socialite or another.

      As for the happy ending – that’s a must to me! No matter how bad the original outlook, I can never write a book that doesn’t finish with those two living their happy-ever-after! Thanks so much for the lovely comment and see you soon!

  2. I loved that scene in the book, Joana. Interesting to note that you used the actual feelings of the day for their conversation. Thank you and I will try up find the book ‘Jane Austen’s Enhland’.

    • Debbie, I’d be delighted to find it for you! It’s an absolute must-read, informative, warm, full of the love of Jane. And one of the best quotes from it, IMO is: ‘Jane Austen had the good fortune to live in an age when England was at the peak of its physical beauty, improved but not yet desecrated by human activity’. So true 🙂

      So glad you liked the scene! Thanks and come back soon xx

  3. Oh, you have hooked me, Joana. I bought the book but confess that I have not had time to begin it. This little snippet did the trick! Fascinating look at a piece of history and wonderful how you worked it into the scene.

    • Thanks so much for the kind words, Brenda! I’m so pleased you liked their little conversation! It’s so nice to imagine Darcy at his best, relaxed enough to make a good impression, rather than solemn, silent and ready to make Elizabeth hate the very sight of him. So kind of you to get the book! I hope you’ll like the rest of the trip to Cornwall too 😉

  4. What a fascinating glimpse you gave us, both of your writing and the little hoax perpetrated by Southey on his English readers! I am personally fascinated by the psychology of the hoax – what leads us to believe (or want to believe) something that smells fishy in the first place, what leads us to suspect that it’s “off”, what drives us to investigate further once that suspicion begins and why we are compelled to expose it once we’ve figured it out. Then there are the hangers-on, who persist in believing even when the case has been made, those who would deliberately embarrass those who were fooled so that they can appear to possess the superior mind and so on. It’s all quite delicious that you’ve managed to work this tidbit into your book! You’ve avoided the pitfall of one or the other falling for it in favor of the shared joke. I love it!

    It was a great post to begin my day with! Thanks!

    • Thanks so much, Diana, for this wonderful comment. I’m thrilled you liked the excerpt and the little story behind it! I wonder if Jane Austen and her family would have sniffed the truth anyway, even if ‘Don Manuel’s real identity didn’t become public knowledge. They were pretty astute, so I suppose they would have.

      So glad you liked the ‘shared joke’ scenario too 🙂 I though it would be fun to surprise Elizabeth with some proof that she and Mr Darcy were more alike than she had ever imagined. And you’re so right about the psychology of the hoax, people’s reactions to it can be so complex and surprising! Thanks for your kind words, and I’m so glad this post was a good start to your day!

  5. I have often wondered if the books referenced in Jane Austen and in JAFF are available. This one “reviewed” by Darcy and Elizabeth in The Falmouth Connection, intrigued me. However, I think its availability in a rural Southeastern Louisiana library will be chancy, at best. 🙂 i hope you have better luck.

    • It’s a great read, Kathy! Maybe a bit ponderous in places but I was fascinated because it pretended to describe Regency England to someone who wanted to learn about it and didn’t get the opportunity to see any of it – and hey, that’s us!! And the link with Jane Austen was just icing on the cake!

      I was very lucky with the availability, I love second hand book shops and I found some great stuff over the years, but you’d be surprised what can be found on ebay 😉

  6. Well that was informative, Joana! I didn’t know about Robert Southey’s letters. Interesting ploy and a bit of a gamble in ways. Neat that you could work it into your book. I look forward to your own Letters From England.

    • Thanks, Sophia Rose! yes, it was a bit of a gamble, and pretty sneaky too. There was something in the intro about how he enjoyed listening to people talk about it at dinners and other gatherings, and thus get to hear their true opinion about the book. I wonder how he managed to keep calm and seem disinterested if they started to tear it apart!

  7. Joana, I recently looked up some information about the lake poets so this little extra about Southey was perfect. Being an American with some English descent, I am always fascinated by more history of my distant cousins. Thanks so much for sharing. Jen Red

    • My pleasure, Jen, and I’m so happy you liked it! Do message me if you think I might be able to help with more info on the lake poets! Or if no useful info, then at least some juicy gossip 🙂

  8. I loved this part of the book! It was so fun to begin to have Elizabeth see Darcy’s changed opinion, no matter how much it confused her. You write so well! You have the ability to capture the emotion without ever telling the reader what they should be feeling. You show them and gently lead them right into the furnace where the perfect storm is brewing. I can’t wait to see more from you. Anything in the works??? Please say yes!
    Cheers!

    • 😀 😀 😀 ‘and gently lead them right into the furnace where the perfect storm is brewing’ 😀 😀 😀 Thanks, Jeanna, I loved that!!!!

      You’re so kind, thanks so much for the lovely words!

      I do have something in the works and it begins with fun and promise and no embarrassing Bennets (and then of course moves on right into the furnace, where else 😉 ???). But for some weird Freudian reason, I’m also very drawn towards another idea that tortures Darcy WAY above the legal limit! Can you put up with that if I promise it ends well?

      I so wish I could be as organised and as prolific as you, and then I might get cracking on both! Best of luck with yours and I can’t wait to listen to Sophie’s lovely voice reading ‘Pride and Persistence’!!!

Your thoughts are precious!