Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 14 2019 01:00PM

The bitterest pill that Janeites must swallow is the knowledge that Cassandra Austen kept dozens – nay, perhaps hundreds! – of her sister Jane’s letters for decades after the novelist’s untimely death, only to burn them in 1843, two years before Cassandra herself died.


We cannot forgive her.


It doesn’t matter how often we remind ourselves that most of the Austen letters that have come down to us are extant only because Cassandra lovingly preserved them. It doesn’t matter that Austen must have written hundreds of letters to other relatives and friends who apparently used those precious documents to line their birdcages and light their fires within moments of reading them. It doesn’t even matter that the greater sin may well have been that of Austen’s officious niece Fanny-Sophia, who waited until the 1865 death of her father, Austen’s older brother Francis, to incinerate the letters from Jane that he had carefully preserved for half a century.


No, we can’t forgive Cassandra. We can’t forgive her because we value every scrap of information about Jane Austen, and because those scraps are so few. But we also can’t forgive her because we assume that she must have destroyed the good stuff – the revelations about love affairs and political opinions and family scandals that are markedly absent from most of Austen’s surviving correspondence. After all, Cassandra was Jane’s closest friend and confidante! If there was good stuff to be had, surely Cassandra must have been privy to it!


Last month, however, we got a salutary reminder that just because something is missing doesn’t mean that it’s incendiary. Six previously missing lines from an 1813 letter Jane wrote to Cassandra turned up in an autograph album auctioned two years ago – and they concern . . . sheets and towels.


"By the time you get this, I hope George & his party will have finished their Journey,” Austen wrote from London, at the end of what is now known as Letter #87 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence. “God bless you all. I have given Mde. B. my Inventory of the linen, & added 2 round towels to it by her desire. She has shewn me all her storeplaces, & will shew you & tell you all the same. Perhaps I may write again by Henry."


I am by no means the first to notice the life-imitates-art similarity of this whole episode to Catherine Morland’s realization that the mysterious manuscript she has discovered in the Northanger Abbey cabinet is nothing but a washing-bill. Like Catherine, we Janeites have to confront the sad fact that, most of the time, daily life includes more laundry than scandal.


So did Cassandra destroy the good stuff, or just a bunch of old laundry lists? We’ll never know – and for that we’ll never forgive her.


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 3 2018 02:00PM

At this point in Jane Austen’s career of pop-culture celebrity, it’s no surprise that every place with even a tangential connection to her life or work wants to publicize said linkage. And thus it is that two tidbits of news crossed my desk in recent weeks:


* The Vyne, a stately sixteenth-century home near Basingstoke, recently unveiled an exhibition about the life of the Victorian-era owner who devoted his entire fortune to saving the house from dereliction, thereby leaving his four daughters dowerless and unmarried.


Austen knew the Chute family, which owned the house for three centuries, until they turned it over to Britain’s National Trust in 1956. (And breathed a sigh of relief at avoiding the monstrous bills associated with its upkeep, according to the family’s current representative, seventy-one-year-old Robin Chute, who remembers sword-fighting with his brother in the Oak Gallery during Christmas visits to the ancestral manse.)


Austen mentions members of the Chute family in her letters, and she attended parties at The Vyne. But is it really the case, as a recent story in the Telegraph asserts, that “it’s thought that she may have based her Mansfield Park heroine Fanny Price on Caroline Wiggett, who came to live at The Vyne in 1803 aged three, having been plucked from a pool of poor distant relations and adopted by the childless couple who lived there”?


Could be – Austen biographer Claire Tomalin notes some parallels – but Austen had a closer-to-home model for Fanny in her brother Edward, adopted by the childless Knights in 1783, when Jane was about seven. My antennae always rise at squirrelly attributions like “it’s thought,” which always suggest to me wishful thinking by publicists eager to milk an Austen connection.


Still, judging from the photos accompanying the Telegraph story, the Vyne is a splendid and beautifully restored home. (That library: to die for.) The participants in last summer’s Jane Austen Society of North America tour of Austen’s England visited; alas, my own JASNA tour in 2011 did not.


* Southampton, England, where Austen lived from 1806 until 1809, has installed a bas-relief plaque in her honor in a theater building in the city’s cultural district. An earlier version of the plaque, which was installed in the public library in1917 to commemorate the centennial of Austen’s death, was destroyed by bombing during World War II.


The new plaque features a sculpted adaptation of an 1804 watercolor her sister, Cassandra, made of Austen: not the famous head-and-shoulders portrait of a seemingly irritated Austen in a frilly turban, but a lesser-known representation of a seated Austen, seen from the back. (See both images here.)


For a Janeite, there’s a certain oddity to the plaque’s very existence. Although the Austen sisters indubitably lived in Southampton, sharing a home with their mother, their brother Francis – often away at sea -- and his wife and baby, Austen’s residence there marked a low point in her literary career. She seems to have written nothing during the Southampton years; it was the move to Chawton cottage in 1809 that finally gave her the time, space, and mental breathing-room to write or revise all six of her completed novels.


But you wouldn’t know that from Southampton’s plaque, which features the first line of Pride and Prejudice and a list of Austen’s novels -- right above the name of the Southampton street where she lived when she wasn’t writing any of them.


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 22 2018 01:00PM

In September 1813, Jane Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, from their brother Edward’s library at Godmersham Park in Kent. As regular blog readers will recall from last month’s post, Austen seemed to be enjoying her momentary peace and quiet: “I am now alone in the Library, Mistress of all I survey,” she told Cassandra.


The Godmersham library, both the room and the book collection, were grand enough to suit a prosperous landowner like Edward Austen Knight: At a time when books were true luxury items, he owned more than twelve hundred – non-fiction on a broad range of topics, as well as a good number of novels -- and housed them in a long rectangular room with two fireplaces and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves on three walls.


Edward’s book collection was dispersed and the library itself in ruins by the early decades of the twentieth century. But thanks to the magic of the Internet, it’s now possible for Janeites and bibliophiles to hang out there with Jane Austen, at least in imagination: Reading With Austen, a website that reconstructs Godmersham’s library, went live earlier this month.


Like the similar What Jane Saw project, which recreated a famous art exhibition Austen visited in London in 1813, Reading with Austen relies on a combination of old-fashioned scholarly sleuthing and up-to-date digital technology.


Using an 1818 catalogue of the library’s holdings, a team headed by Austen scholar Peter Sabor, a professor of eighteenth-century studies at McGill University in Toronto, has situated a digital rendering of Edward’s holdings inside an artistic rendering of what his library may have looked like. Click on a book spine and you call up bibliographical information about the volume and, when available, an image of its title page, dedication, marginalia, and Knight family bookplate.


“When available”: There’s the rub. Only five hundred of the books listed in the 1818 catalogue, over a third of the total, are on loan to Chawton House, the rare-books library housed in Edward Austen Knight’s second home in Hampshire. Another fifty volumes are owned by libraries or museums; a few others have come on the market recently.


Locating, photographing, and, where possible, acquiring the rest is the job of the Godmersham Lost Sheep Society (GLOSS), the brainchild of Sabor; Janine Barchas, an English professor at the University of Texas at Austin; and Deborah Barnum, a rare book specialist who blogs at Jane Austen in Vermont.


The missing books include – oh, tragic irony! – all Edward’s first editions of Jane Austen’s novels. (You can find their locations in the center of the South Wall by browsing the website’s catalog.)


Absent a few miracles, scholarly and financial, it’s going to take a long, long time for all those lost sheep to find their way home. In the meantime, however, we can all spend a few hours at Reading with Austen, daydreaming in bibliophilic splendor alongside Jane Austen.


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 11 2018 01:00PM

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


Some writers fill their letters with detailed responses to the works they read, providing a fascinating record of their literary tastes and influences.


Alas, Jane Austen was not such a writer. Her surviving letters offer only occasional tidbits about the books she has read, allowing us to deduce her love of, say, Richardson, Crabbe, and the anti-slavery activist Thomas Clarkson, but offering few details about what she found compelling in their work.


That makes the letter Austen began writing to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 205 years ago today (#91 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) an especially valuable artifact. Austen is on an extended visit with their brother Edward’s family at Godmersham Park in Kent while Cassandra remains home in Chawton; amid news of the comings and goings of relatives and visitors, Austen reports that she has been rereading a well-known contemporary novel, Mary Brunton’s 1811 Self-Control.


I must confess that I have never read Self-Control. For details of its plot -- which features sustained sexual harassment, adultery, a duel, an international kidnapping, and the heroine’s desperate flight from a would-be rapist via Indian canoe – I turned to Wikipedia, ever the lazy student’s friend.


Though little-known today, in its time the novel made a big enough splash that two years earlier Austen had confessed to some trepidation about reading it: “am always half afraid of finding a clever novel too clever--& of finding my own story & my own people all forestalled,” she told Cassandra (Letter #72).


By 1813, however, those fears were past. “I am looking over Self Control again, & my opinion is confirmed of its’ being an excellently-meant, elegantly-written Work, without anything of Nature or Probability in it,” Austen writes. “I declare I do not know whether Laura’s passage down the American River, is not the most natural, possible, every-day thing she ever does.”


It’s not that Austen entirely eschews the melodramatic elements of Brunton’s plot. Adultery, sexual harassment, and dueling do make their way into Austen’s novels, but she is at pains to confine them within the bounds of the everyday -- because, as she makes clear here, her bottom-line commitment is to the realistic and the natural, which she privileges above the artistically pleasing (“elegantly-written”) and the morally praiseworthy (“excellently-meant”).


It’s not much, I admit, but for those of us starved for any sense of Austen’s literary-critical outlook, it’s something.


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 24 2018 01:00PM

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


Jane Austen never lived alone. From her earliest days, she was surrounded by parents and siblings; on visits away from home, she stayed with friends and extended family. Her writing time was snatched in shared living spaces rendered temporarily quiet enough to facilitate mental concentration. Surely she must sometimes have been frustrated by the enforced companionship.


Perhaps that’s why I like to imagine her as she describes herself in the letter she finished writing to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 205 years ago today (#89 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


Austen was on a long visit to Godmersham Park, her wealthy brother Edward’s stately home in Kent, and most of the letter recounts the doings of Edward’s family, friends, and visitors. “We live in the Library except at Meals & have a fire every Even[in]g,” Austen wote.


By the time she finished the letter, however, the others had apparently scattered: “I am now alone in the Library, Mistress of all I survey,” Austen wrote, “—at least I may say so & repeat the whole poem if I like it, without offence to anybody.”


The poem in question is Cowper’s “The Solitude of Alexander Selkirk,” published in 1782, which famously begins, “I am monarch of all I survey.” Selkirk was the marooned sailor whose story helped inspire Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and Cowper imagines him lonely and despairing, pining for human contact.


Austen’s ironic self-description – as she well knew, she was mistress of nothing, least of all Edward’s many expensive books -- suggests more satisfaction than despair: a moment of breathing-room snatched amid the doings of a busy household.


But not for long: by the time Austen finished the letter, a few paragraphs later, she had a message for the people back home in Chawton, courtesy of her eight-year-old niece: “Louisa’s best Love & a Hundred Thousand Million Kisses.”


Louisa was the ninth of Edward’s eleven children. She sounds adorable, and probably also exhausting. No wonder Austen found her moment of solitude in the library worth memorializing in print


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