In 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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Elizabeth 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.
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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!