Deborah Yaffe

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On this day in 1813. . .

By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 25 2017 01:00PM

Twenty-sixth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


Janeites often wonder how Jane Austen would feel about her phenomenal posthumous fame. We’d like to believe that she would be thrilled to know her books are still read and loved after two centuries. But it’s hard to avoid the sneaking suspicion that she might find our enthusiasm excessive, embarrassing—perhaps even a bit grubby.


Support for that suspicion comes in the letter Jane Austen wrote to her older brother Francis exactly 204 years ago today (#90 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence). Writing to her sailor brother aboard his ship, the HMS Elephant, Austen sent along the latest family news and then mentioned that, two years after the anonymous publication of her first novel, it was becoming increasingly difficult to discreetly screen her authorship.


“Henry heard P. & P. warmly praised in Scotland. . . & what does he do in the warmth of his Brotherly vanity & Love, but immediately tell them who wrote it!” Austen writes Frank, in fond but real exasperation. “A Thing once set going in that way—one knows how it spreads!–and he, dear Creature, has set it going so much more than once. I know it is all done from affection & partiality—but at the same time, let me here again express to you & Mary my sense of the superior kindness which you have shewn on the occasion, in doing what I wished.”


It’s clear from this passage that Austen sincerely hoped to preserve her anonymity – her barbed reference to Henry’s “vanity” and her gratitude for the “superior” discretion of Frank and his wife make it obvious that this was no little-old-me affectation. Less clear is why she cared so much.


Did she think it was something less than respectable for a clergyman’s daughter to write in the often-disparaged genre of the novel? Did she fear that, if her authorship became known, her neighbors would look for portraits of themselves in her books and begin wondering whether she was taking mental notes as they talked? Although she couldn’t have anticipated the coming avalanche of Colin Firth tote bags, did she perhaps worry that publicity could attract autograph seekers who would disturb the peace of her Chawton refuge? Or perhaps she simply felt the introvert’s horror at exposing the products of her private self to the scrutiny of the insensitive.


Impossible to know: On the few occasions she mentions her anonymity, she seems to take it for granted that the recipient of her letter needs no explanation of her reasons.


In any case, this letter seems to give us an Austen preparing to shed her already threadbare disguise. When her third book is published, she tells Frank, “I shall rather try to make all the Money than all the Mystery I can of it.--People shall pay for their Knowledge if I can make them.”


So perhaps she saw the tote bags coming after all.


2 comments
Sep 25 2017 04:57PM by Maggie Sullivan

I think if Austen had lived and finished and published Sanditon (or whatever she chose to call it), that would have been the end of any remaining anonymity she had, because I think it would have been brilliant and a big hit. But the advantage would have been that she would be a brand and her novels could be sold as "Miss Austens," and I think Jane, who was a good businesswoman, would have taken full advantage of the financial aspect of it, as she said in her letter, though I think it was a little bit of a joke as well. Ann Radcliffe and Fanny Burney both started out publishing anonymously and their identities were eventually revealed, and they became brands. But Jane likely would have deplored the necessary loss of privacy that went with the financial gains. Fangirls (and boys) would make pilgrimages to Chawton to knock on her door while she was trying to write. There would have been more demands on her time from the public. So it's a double-edged sword and one can't blame her for being leery of it. And I think in her day writing for money would have been looked down on by some people.

Sep 25 2017 05:48PM by dyaffe

Yeah, I guess any writer who gets some amount of prominence has to balance the time demands that brings against the financial advantages. It's hard to know if JA would ever have become the kind of mega-brand that, say, Walter Scott and Dickens were: I wonder if she might have stayed a somewhat niche taste. Alas, we can't know, because she died too soon. . .

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