By Deborah Yaffe, May 28 2020 01:00PM
Fifty-fifth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.
I recently finished reading my eighth biography of Jane Austen, and I’ve barely scratched the surface. By my count, which may well be incomplete, Austen has been the subject of at least two dozen book-length biographies aimed at adult readers, plus another five intended for children.
What’s especially odd about this rabbit-like multiplication of life studies is the slimness of the record on which they all must draw. Six completed novels, a few hundred pages more of shorter writings, about one hundred and sixty surviving letters, some short, affectionate family reminiscences—it’s not a lot to go on, really, and most of this material has been well-known and easily available to scholars for decades. No one is writing a new Jane Austen biography to take advantage of the expiration of a university library’s embargo on a huge cache of previously unmined letters and manuscripts.
Because the record is so slim, every item in it has value, even when it’s an item that comes to us in incomplete, even bowdlerized, condition. One such problematic item is the letter Jane Austen probably wrote exactly 203 years ago today [#161(C) in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition] – out of all of Austen's voluminous correspondence, the last letter of hers that we have.
Or sort-of have. Unlike most of Austen’s letters, the original manuscript of this one has never been found; we know of its existence only because Austen’s brother Henry quotes from it in a postscript to the “Biographical Notice of the Author” that he wrote for inclusion in the first edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, which were published together five months after Austen’s death in July 1817.
Henry dates the letter only to “a few weeks before [Jane’s] death” and does not give the name of its recipient, but Le Faye’s plausible detective works narrows the date to May 28 or 29 and suggests the recipient was Frances Tilson, the wife of Henry’s one-time business partner James Tilson.
The letter offers a poignant portrait of Jane Austen’s life with her sister, Cassandra, in the rented quarters in Winchester to which they had repaired in search of medical help. Severely weakened by the illness that would kill her in just seven weeks, Austen nevertheless seems to have been clinging to hope.
“My attendant is encouraging, and talks of making me quite well,” she writes. “I live chiefly on the sofa, but am allowed to walk from one room to the other. I have been out once in a sedan-chair, and am to repeat it, and be promoted to a wheel-chair as the weather serves.”
In his rendition of the letter, Henry quotes extensively from his sister’s expressions of gratitude for family help and statements of religious faith—the kind of thing that, as a newly minted Church of England minister, he approved of and thought his audience would find congenial.
He stops quoting before reaching her “just and gentle animadversion on a subject of domestic disappointment” – presumably the then-simmering intrafamilial controversy over her uncle’s will – but resumes quoting in time to underline “her characteristic sweetness and resignation” and “the facility with which she could correct every impatient thought, and turn from complaint to cheerfulness.”
Reading this account by Henry of his sister’s personality, it’s hard not to be reminded of one of the best lines in an earlier letter of hers: “Pictures of perfection as you know make me sick & wicked.” Jane Austen may well have been sweet, cheerful, and self-abnegating . . . some of the time . . . but it’s impossible to believe that the woman who wrote those novels had no edges sharper than that.
Henry’s eagerness to plane away those edges inevitably makes us wonder what else he’s omitted from his account of his dying sister’s letter. Maybe nothing: She was writing to a cordial but not close acquaintance, and so perhaps she stuck to the socially acceptable niceties; she was ill and dependent, and so perhaps she couldn’t summon the energy for snark.
But even if we harbor a sneaking suspicion of Henry’s veracity, we have no choice but to take what he’s given us. Beggars can’t be choosers.