Deborah Yaffe

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On this day in 1814. . .

By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 20 2017 02:00PM

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


Only six of Jane Austen’s letters to her oldest niece, Fanny Knight, survive, but for Janeites mining for links between Austen’s work and Austen’s life, that tiny correspondence is chock-full of golden nuggets.


Scarcely seventeen years separated aunt from niece, and Fanny seems to have enjoyed parsing her romantic dilemmas with this sympathetic and interested older confidante, in a pre-telephonic version of “And then he said. . . . And then I said. . . . And then he said. . . .”


Austen’s letters to Fanny fall into two groups: two letters written in November 1814, when Fanny was twenty-one and Austen thirty-eight; and three more written some two and a half years later, in early 1817, when Fanny was twenty-four and the forty-one-year-old Austen had only months to live. (The sixth letter, which contains a few verses of doggerel, was written years earlier, when Fanny was a child.)


The letter Austen finished writing exactly 203 years ago today -- #109 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence -- is the first of two in which Aunt Jane addresses Fanny’s fluctuating feelings for the young clergyman John Plumptre. (I blogged about the second of these letters here.)


To me, what’s most interesting about Letter #109 is the way that Austen’s reactions to Fanny resonate with incidents or dialogue in her work. Apparently, Fanny has visited Plumptre’s home, hoping to stimulate her waning passion by a view of his things. Austen can’t help giggling at the idea. “The dirty Shaving Rag was exquisite!--Such a circumstance ought to be in print,” she writes. And little more than a year later, with the publication of Emma, the world was introduced to Harriet Smith’s “Most precious treasures” – a worn-out pencil stub and an extra bit of court plaister, saved as stimuli to romantic nostalgia. Was Fanny’s dirty shaving rag an inspiration for Harriet’s treasure trove? Impossible to say – but tempting to speculate.


The letter contains an even more explicit echo of Austen’s fiction. After cataloguing the worthy Mr. Plumptre’s many merits, Austen nevertheless advises Fanny to consult her own feelings: “Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection,” Austen writes.


Was Jane Austen channeling, consciously or unconsciously, the gentle, optimistic Jane Bennet -- in chapter 59 of Pride and Prejudice, published the year before -- who, confronted with the news of Elizabeth’s engagement to Mr. Darcy, cries, “Oh, Lizzy! do anything rather than marry without affection”? Impossible to know – but tempting to speculate.


In their insistence on marital love, both Janes are speaking to young women for whom the prudential and the romantic need not conflict: for the fictional Lizzy, because she has fallen in love with a wealthy man, and for the real-life Fanny, because she is herself an heiress. But Austen’s advice also echoes a far darker passage in her work – a snippet of dialogue in the early pages of her fragment The Watsons, in which the idealistic Emma Watson and her older, less naïve sister Elizabeth discuss the search for a husband.


“I would rather be a teacher at a school (and I can think of nothing worse) than marry a man I did not like,” exclaims Emma, who has grown up with a wealthy aunt and only recently returned to her struggling birth family.


“I would rather do anything than be a teacher at a school,” Elizabeth replies. “I have been at school, Emma, and know what a life they lead you; you never have.”


Austen undoubtedly took Fanny’s romantic woes seriously, but she must have realized that the stakes were far lower for a young woman who, even if she stayed single, would never have to face the hard work and genteel poverty of teacher or governess. And perhaps that is why, amid her genuine concern for the feelings of Fanny and the unfortunate Mr. Plumptre, Austen’s wry, unromantic common sense cannot help but assert itself.


Fanny has encouraged her suitor, and therefore pain awaits him if she changes her mind, Austen acknowledges. But not that much pain. “I have no doubt of his suffering a good deal for a time, a great deal, when he feels that he must give you up,” she writes, “but it is no creed of mine, as you must be well aware, that such sort of Disappointments kill anybody.”


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