Deborah Yaffe

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On this day in 1800. . .

By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 21 2016 02:00PM

Seventeenth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


In 1884, when Jane Austen’s great-nephew Lord Brabourne published an edition of her letters, he made some judicious edits. The publication fourteen years earlier of James Edward Austen-Leigh’s Memoir of Jane Austen had sparked interest in the writer’s life, but Brabourne apparently worried that some of her observations might seem a tad too. . . candid for Victorian sensibilities.


One of the most famous examples of his bowdlerizing red pen can be seen in a letter to her sister, Cassandra, that the twenty-four-year-old Jane Austen finished writing exactly two hundred and sixteen years ago today, on November 21, 1800 (Letter #27 in Deirdre LeFaye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


Cassandra was staying in Kent with the family of the third-oldest Austen brother, Edward, whose daughter Fanny would one day be Brabourne’s mother.* Back home at Steventon, Jane had attended a ball and, with an eye for detail and an ear for a phrase that will seem familiar to any reader of her novels, she described the company:


“There were very few Beauties, & such as there were, were not very handsome. Miss Iremonger did not look well, & Mrs Blount was the only one much admired. She appeared exactly as she did in September, with the same broad face, diamond bandeau, white shoes, pink husband, & fat neck. . . . Miss Debary, Susan & Sally all in black, but without any Statues**, made their appearance, & I was as civil to them as their bad breath would allow me.”


In his edition, Brabourne silently substitutes “circumstances” for “their bad breath.” Brabourne, the son of a baronet, had been elevated to the peerage only four years earlier, and although he was proud of his author-aunt, he also had a social position to maintain – a position that he apparently thought would not be enhanced by the publication of Austen’s commentary on unpleasant bodily odors. The Victorians, it seems, were easy to shock.




* Fanny seems to have shared Brabourne’s concern over Austen’s supposed coarseness: she has outraged generations of Janeites by writing, in an 1869 letter to one of her sisters, that Austen “was not so refined as she ought to have been from her talent” and would have been “very much below par as to good society and its ways” had she not benefited from her relationship with the wealthy and well-bred Knight family, who adopted Fanny's father.


** My thanks to anyone who can explain to me what this reference to “statues” is all about. Who brings statues to a ball? I’m stumped.


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