Deborah Yaffe

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On this day in 1811. . .

By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 25 2016 01:00PM

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


In the spring of 1811, Jane Austen stood on the cusp of great change. She had spent her first thirty-five years as the younger daughter of a country clergyman, but finally she was about to become something more: a published novelist. Amid the social whirl of a London visit to her brother Henry and his elegant wife, Eliza, Austen was correcting the proofs of her first book, Sense and Sensibility.


The letter Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, exactly two hundred and five years ago today (#71 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) makes clear that this momentous development was much in Austen’s thoughts. She was obviously having a great time in London – she tells Cassandra about plays she’s seen, an art exhibition she’s planning to visit, and Eliza’s recent musical soiree for sixty-six (!) guests – and in an earlier letter, Cassandra seems to have asked whether all these distractions had left no time to think of the book.


“No indeed, I am never too busy to think of S&S,” Austen replies. “I can no more forget it, than a mother can forget her sucking child.”


Critics obsessed with Austen’s childlessness leap upon this line, and a similar statement two years later about the newly published Pride and Prejudice, as evidence that Austen saw her books as replacements for the babies she never had. Well, maybe, but all the writers I know, even those who, like myself, are in secure possession of actual flesh-and-blood children, think of their books as babies.


And no wonder: You devote countless hours of time and thought to your books; nurture, protect and argue with them; watch them grow from tiny ideas into full-fledged manuscripts; and then send them out into the world, hoping that others will love them as much as you do. As a parent, you can’t know if your beloved child will become a Nobel Prize-winning scientist or a deadbeat loser, and as an author, you can’t know if you’ve produced a tour de force destined to win a Pulitzer or a beach read fated to migrate rapidly to the remainder bin. But it doesn’t matter: you love them just the same.


As we know, Jane Austen’s metaphorical “sucking child” grew up to be a deathless masterpiece, and its creator never produced any non-metaphorical children of her own. But I think even a Jane Austen with a brood of real-life babies to nurse would have loved her little S&S just the same.


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