This is the third and final instalment of a most interesting letter written by Hans van Leeuwen, a lovely Jane Austen fan from the Netherlands. (Part one can be found here, and part two can be read here.)
Hans is hoping to receive remarks and tips for improvements from native speakers of English, preferably Jane Austen devotees, and the purpose of sharing the letter with us is so that some valuable feedback might be gained.
We hope you might enjoy reading it as much as we did, and that you might share your thoughts in our comments section below.
Being obliged to speak when not wanting to, is just the sort of thing one would give one’s right arm for to be relieved of, but there was no escaping. I dared not look at either of my parents, fixing my eyes instead on the fire or one of the dogs, whichever afforded most comfort. The first words came out hesitantly, but as I progressed my confidence grew and eloquence improved:
” Dear father, dear mother, it is with great sorrow that the books by Jane Austen, one of which you see here in my hands, prove to be a source of such discord between my dear mother and myself. On several occasions I have talked to her about them, extolled their virtues to her, but the mere fact of my always reading them seems to have made her immune to their charms. I do try to bring variety in what I read but will not be bludgeoned into valuing anything against my taste and will not subject myself to the torture of reading recommended books when I can be certain to be entertained by Miss Austen’s. To destroy one’s mind, moreover, with books firmly established in the canon of English literature, I struggle to deem possible. ”
Having finished and looking up to see what my words had occasioned, I found both my parents looking at me in such a way as seemed to invite me to continue if I had anything left to say, which I had not. My father’s reaction to my speech was as predictable as my mother’s was not. If he had not suddenly changed his mind, he could not but agree with me, but there was no knowing what, if anything, my mother would say or do. She had not given any hint as to her state of mind for a while, neither in word nor otherwise, and although the severity about her seemed less than before, I could not be certain of a fresh attack not being in preparation.
” Very well put, “ said my father with pride. ” Such a defence cannot be listened to without exciting the tenderest feelings in a parent’s heart, and even those not agreeing with you, to whom I do not belong, cannot deny its merits. Some books stand the test of re-perusal with flying colours; indeed, only gain in attraction rather than increase disgust when read a second or third time, or even oftener. Change for change’s sake is a modern disease. And to be expected to read what one’s taste would never induce one even to pick up, to have another’s taste forced upon one is a situation too embarrassing to contemplate. Only in exceptional circumstances, where a little incivility might have disastrous consequences, should one allow a book to be recommended to oneself. It is many years since I last made the mistake. The book was claimed to change my life! Nothing of the kind had ever flowed from a pen!, etc. etc. Ha! If I had been so unwise as to continue listening, I am sure I would have heard it being described as capable of ending all conflict and taking away all illness, but it proved to be one of the dullest I ever opened. Not one line in it deserving a moment’s reflection, and not one remark witty enough to be worth attempting to cheer up friends with. And so many commonplaces on every page as one would not believe possible. The experience quite cured me of feeling guilty about disappointing expectations of the kind. “
My mother had been listening with a suspicion of a smile around the lips, the meaning of which I would have conjectured about for a decade if she had not spoken now to make everything clear.
” Dear Marianne, “ began she. ” I must confess that I have not been completely fair with you, for I led you to believe what was not true. You described your favourite’s work in such high terms of praise as must make me want to acquaint myself with it, but I believed the ardour with which you spoke about Miss Austen to be bordering on the unhealthy, and therefore endeavoured to conceal that my curiosity had been piqued, lest I promote what I wished to curtail. Whenever I found myself at leisure, I tiptoed up the stairs to read a few chapters, and … “
” This cannot be! “ cried I, ” Mother, you are not being serious! “
” But I am, “ said my mother apologetically. ” Let me finish, my dear. The truth ought not to be left waiting any longer. “
” It would be a crime against honesty, “ continued she, “ if I were to claim that she does not have an able pen; her choice of words must be considered as above average, her metaphors as imaginative, and her general style as excellent. My sole objective has been to have your father’s mind working on the subject, to have him decide as to the best course of action. The little acting I have made myself guilty of, by pretending to be more vexed than I actually was, I believed to be useful to make arguments in favour or against more compelling, and the eventual verdict the more acceptable. “
An awkward silence fell, but the tension was soon dispelled when, after some grumbling back and forth, the three of us could not help breaking into a smile almost simultaneously, and apart from my receiving some significant glances from both my mother and my father suggesting, on her side, that she was sorry for having resorted to deception, and, on his, that her mother had been behaving sillily, nothing happened during the rest of the evening to prevent it from ending almost as peacefully as it began.
Dear Jane, you will be the first to acknowledge that writing often is its own goal, that what has been written need not be read to have served a purpose, and it was with this in mind that the little story above was penned. Initially, it was meant for my eyes only, but, at length, I did not think it so awful as not capable of seducing a couple of benevolent readers. I therefore sent it somewhere where people sharing an interest in your work and everything connected with it, come together, virtually that is, not physically (I will try to explain that some other time). The letter will be there for everyone to read, and if it draws a few smiles, I will be a happy man.
Poor Jane! How you must have suffered, wasting away in your bed, thinking what might have been. What was the last thing you enjoyed watching or hearing? Perhaps a blackbird turning over some leaves or a robin in autumn.