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.
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.