Deborah Yaffe

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On this day in 1813. . .

By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 29 2018 02:00PM

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


Two centuries ago, Jane Austen was brimming over with the joy that only an author can fully appreciate: the thrill of holding in her hands a book that she had written.


“I want to tell you that I have got my own darling Child from London,” Jane reported to her sister, Cassandra, in a letter written exactly 205 years ago today (#79 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence). Cassandra was away on a visit to their eldest brother, James, and during her absence the first copy of the newly published Pride and Prejudice had arrived in Chawton.


Already, Austen was anticipating and assessing the responses to her novel. A neighbor to whom the Austens had read the book aloud – without revealing who had written it -- “really does seem to admire Elizabeth,” Austen wrote. “I must confess that I think her as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print, & how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least, I do not know.”


(And who can blame her? If you can’t love Elizabeth Bennet – well, I won’t say that you’re incapable of literary appreciation, but some might.)


Like all writers, Austen also finds herself wishing she’d had one more pass at her manuscript: “There are a few Typical errors--& a ‘said he’ or a ‘said she’ would sometimes make the Dialogue more immediately clear,” she notes. “But ‘I do not write for such dull Elves’ ‘As have not a great deal of Ingenuity themselves.’ ”


In context, it’s clear that Austen’s paraphrase of Walter Scott’s poem Marmion is not a global comment on how her work should be read by discerning readers; it’s just a clever, throwaway self-reassurance that her occasional lapses won’t detract from her storytelling.


Still, that hasn’t stopped more than one critic from appropriating the “dull elves” remark as an all-purpose slur on those who purportedly fail to understand Austen’s true meaning, whatever the critic takes that meaning to be. Ingenuity, indeed.


2 comments
Feb 13 2018 01:14AM by Anthony

Good post, and I agree that only a complete moron could fail to admire Elizabeth today, but I think it's often overlooked that she was quite a daring creation at the time.
Her forthright and spirited behaviour and manners were almost the polar opposite of those recommended for young ladies by the very influential conduct book writers - in particular because they would be quite certain to repel potential husbands. So to my mind, Darcy, in his own tasteful way, is just as much one in the eye for Hannah More et al as Elizabeth.
I wonder whether you'd agree that another person who would have thoroughly disapproved of Elizabeth's lively manners is Fanny Price?

Feb 13 2018 01:21AM by dyaffe

You're quite right about Elizabeth's unconventionality by the standards of her time; IIRC, one of the earliest reviewers (and a woman, at that) was quite appalled by her pertness to her elders and betters.

Interesting question about Fanny: I've often felt that JA wrote Mansfield Park the way she did because she perhaps felt she'd stacked the deck a little with Elizabeth, who is beautiful, funny, smart, kind and virtuous. So in MP, she gives all Elizabeth's surface charms to Mary Crawford and all her genuine moral worth to Fanny, as if to test both her characters and her readers to fight the distractions of the attractive exterior and discern where the real treasure lies. That said, I'm not entirely convinced that Fanny would dislike Elizabeth; she doesn't, after all, dislike Mary all that much -- she's jealous of her and appalled by things like the "rears and vices" remark, but she also finds Mary fun to be around. I can imagine Fanny being rather startled at Elizabeth's self-assurance but ultimately appreciating her moral goodness.

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