Deborah Yaffe

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On this day in 1814. . .

By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 28 2015 01:00PM

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


For those of us fascinated by Jane Austen’s novels, it’s a source of deep frustration that we have so little evidence about her writing process, her sources of inspiration, or her attitude towards her own work.


Accordingly, the letter that Jane Austen wrote to her 21-year-old niece, Anna Austen, exactly 201 years ago today -- #108 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence – is a special treasure. Anna was an aspiring novelist, and this letter, in which Austen critiques her niece’s work in progress, which we know from other sources was entitled Which is the Heroine?, is as close as we get to hearing Austen talk directly about how to write fiction.


The letter skillfully blends encouragement and criticism, praising Anna’s characters and dialogue while gently suggesting improvements aimed at making her fictional world more realistic and less clichéd -- in other words, more like a novel by Jane Austen, by then the author of three published masterpieces. “Henry Mellish I am afraid will be too much in the common Novel style—a handsome, amiable, unexceptionable Young Man (such as do not much abound in real Life),” Austen writes to Anna. Another character, Anna's aunts have concluded, “is too formal & solemn, we think, in her advice to her Brother not to fall in love; & it is hardly like a sensible Woman; it is putting it into his head. – We should like a few hints from her better.”


Austen also pays attention to Anna’s prose. “Devereux Forester’s being ruined by his Vanity is extremely good; but I wish you would not let him plunge into a ‘vortex of Dissipation,’ ” she writes. “I do not object to the Thing, but I cannot bear the expression; -- it is such thorough novel slang—and so old, that I dare say Adam met with it in the first novel he opened.”


As I’ve written elsewhere, Anna’s literary dreams remained mostly thwarted: years after Jane Austen’s death, Anna burned the manuscript of Which is the Heroine? in a moment of depression. Did Austen think Anna a genuinely promising writer, or was she just indulging a beloved niece she had known since babyhood? In true Austenian style, the letter could be read either way.


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