Deborah Yaffe

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On this day in 1814. . .

By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 9 2019 01:00PM

Forty-seventh in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


Jane Austen’s letters, with their unpolished emphasis on the minutiae of daily life, don’t offer the reader as many gems as her novels do. Still, a few sentences here and there have earned deserved immortality among Janeites, and one of those memorable passages comes in the letter Austen began writing exactly 205 years ago today (#107 in Deirdre LeFaye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


Written to her twenty-one-year-old niece Anna, the letter is one of several in which Austen offers kind and helpful critiques of Anna’s novel-in-progress, which we know from other sources bore the working title Which is the Heroine? Poor Anna’s writing career largely fizzled out, so it’s the insight these letters offer into Austen’s own writing process that makes them interesting to us today.


Amid tidbits of advice that writers in any century would do well to follow (avoid overly detailed descriptions; ensure that characters behave consistently from scene to scene) comes Austen’s most famous delineation of her own preferred field of action.


“You are now collecting your People delightfully, getting them exactly into such a spot as is the delight of my life,” Austen writes to Anna. “3 or 4 Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on.”


In part, of course, we love this famous passage because it immediately conjures up Austen’s novels (three or four families. . . let’s count. . . Bennet, Bingley, Darcy, Lucas. . . ) and the way she finds a universe of meaning in the tiny worlds she creates.


For me, though, what’s loveliest here is that apparently unconscious verbal repetition: delightfully/delight. If she had been revising the sentence for publication, Austen would surely have avoided the echo by substituting a synonym in one place or the other. But speaking spontaneously about the work that gave her life meaning, her first thought -- and her second -- was pure joy.


Because Jane Austen died too young, leaving too many great books unwritten, it’s easy to slip into the habit of thinking of her with melancholy. It’s worth remembering that she loved what she did.


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