Deborah Yaffe

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On this day in 1801. . .

By Deborah Yaffe, May 26 2016 01:00PM

Thirteenth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen’s letters.


Finding biographical resonances in Jane Austen’s writing is a cottage industry, and one which regular blog readers know I regard with suspicion. As I often note, we know little about Austen’s life, and many of the supposedly unassailable echoes of real events that others find in her work seem highly speculative to me.


Sometimes, however, an element of Austen’s biography resonates so unmistakably with a detail in the novels that even I cannot remain unconvinced. And so it is with the letter Austen began writing to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 215 years ago today (#38 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


Jane writes from Bath, where the Austen daughters and their aging parents have just relocated following decades in the tiny rural village of Steventon. After gossip about new acquaintances and details of house-hunting, Austen describes the letter she’s just received from twenty-one-year-old Charles Austen, the baby among the eight Austen siblings. His career in the Royal Navy is going well – he’s in line for a chunk of prize money, the bonus sailors got when their ships intercepted valuable enemy vessels – but his big sister is fondly exasperated at the way he’s spending his windfall:


“Of what avail is it to take prizes if he lays out the produce in presents to his Sisters,” she asks Cassandra. “He has been buying Gold chains & Topaz Crosses for us;--he must be well scolded. . . . I shall write again by this post to thank & reproach him.—We shall be unbearably fine.”




(Here are the topaz crosses, on display at Jane Austen's House Museum in Chawton, where I photographed them -- badly -- in the summer of 2011.)



This sailor brother’s gift of topaz crosses and gold chains cannot fail to remind the Mansfield Park reader of the amber cross that Fanny Price receives from her sailor brother William. Clearly, Jane Austen – who asked her other naval brother, Frank, for permission to use the names of his ships in the Portsmouth section of the novel – drew this detail, too, from life.


But it’s worth noting that, even here, she transformed her raw materials. The real-life Charles’ gift of topaz, an inorganic mineral, becomes the fictional William’s gift of amber, a fossilized, organic substance. (Did Austen understand the difference? If so, was she trying to say something about the open-hearted, natural quality of the Price siblings’ relationship?) And, of course, she tweaked reality in a way that advanced her plot: William, unlike Charles, can’t afford a gold chain for his cross, and that omission provides an opening for both Henry Crawford and Edmund Bertram, those unacknowledged rivals for Fanny’s love.


Perhaps this unusually well-documented example of Austen’s art imitating Austen’s life gives us a clue to her method. Yes, Austen drew this detail from life – but she had no hesitation about tucking and trimming to make it fit her artistic design. William’s gift mirrors Charles’, but not precisely, and the differences may matter as much as the similarities. That’s a fitting reminder to tread carefully before embarking upon overly literal biographical interpretation.


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