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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.


By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 30 2020 01:00PM

Fifty-fourth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


Some years ago, as I was finishing up Among the Janeites, I decided to include an appendix summarizing the plots of Jane Austen’s novels, so that readers who were rusty on the details wouldn’t be lost when I referred to specifics.


As I boiled Austen’s brilliant creations down to their bare bones -- meetings, flirtations, dances, proposals, marriages – I came to a realization: It’s not about the plots. Austen’s genius lies not in what happens but in how it happens, and who it happens to.


It’s an obvious point, but one that seems lost on those readers who complain that nothing happens in Austen’s novels -- or at least nothing important, like war and politics and economic change. For these readers, novels are all about plot, and plot is all about incident.


Curiously enough, it seems that Austen herself was sometimes susceptible to this misunderstanding. Or so we might conclude from the letter she wrote to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 209 years ago today (#72 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence), in which Austen discusses her efforts to obtain a copy of the hot novel du jour: Mary Brunton’s Self-Control, whose first edition had sold out soon after publication two months earlier.


“We have tried to get Self-controul, but in vain,” Austen wrote from London, where she was staying with her older brother Henry. “I should like to know what her Estimate is—but am always half afraid of finding a clever novel too clever--& of finding my own story & my own people all forestalled.”


To us, it’s unthinkable that Austen could ever have feared being eclipsed by a writer as obscure as Brunton is today – especially since we know that it’s Austen’s unforgettable characters and incomparable prose, not some easily cribbed storyline, that make her so extraordinary. Still, there’s something appealing, and perhaps a little bit sad, about this glimpse of Austen’s insecurity. Even the Immortal Jane suffered from the self-doubt that is every writer’s portion! The genius was human after all!


Two years later, by contrast, Austen no longer felt intimidated by Brunton’s success: in an October 1813 letter, Austen describes Self-Control – whose plot is a luridly melodramatic affair climaxing in a desperate escape via Indian canoe -- as “an excellently-meant, elegantly-written Work, without anything of Nature or Probability in it.”


Why the new self-confidence? Austen’s work was just as brilliant as it had been two years earlier, but everything else had changed in the meantime. In April of 1811, Austen was an unpublished scribbler who wouldn’t see her first book into print for another six months. By October of 1813, she had sent two successful novels out into the world and was finishing up a third. By then, she must have known that it wasn’t about the plots.


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 9 2020 01:00PM

Fifty-third in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


It’s no secret that Jane Austen’s relatives, while immensely proud of her achievements, sometimes felt that her rough edges could use a bit of smoothing.


Thus it was that her brother Henry, in the biographical notice appended to the first edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, insisted that none of her unpleasant characters were drawn from life. Thus it was that her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh, in his 1869 Memoir of Jane Austen, portrayed the acid satirist as a kindly and domestic spinster aunt.


And thus it was that earlier generations were treated to an absurdly bowdlerized version of the letter that Jane Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 206 years ago today (#99 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


In 1884, Austen’s great-nephew, Edward, Lord Brabourne, published a collection of Austen letters – including this one -- discovered among his mother’s effects after her death. Brabourne’s mother, Fanny Knatchbull, was the eldest Austen niece, and she and her Aunt Jane were remarkably close: “I found her . . . almost another Sister, & could not have supposed that a niece would ever have been so much to me,” Austen wrote in 1808, when Fanny was fifteen and Jane thirty-two.


Brabourne was a sensitive reader of Austen’s work: “She describes men and women exactly as men and women really are, and tells her tale of ordinary, everyday life with such truthful delineation, such bewitching simplicity, and, moreover, with such purity of style and language, as have rarely been equalled, and perhaps never surpassed,” he wrote in an introduction to the letters. Nevertheless, in her real-life persona, Austen’s earthy straightforwardness made him squeamish.


In Letter #99, Austen, visiting her brother Henry in London, sends an account of her doings back home to Cassandra, who has been hosting their five-year-old niece, Cassandra Esten, at Chawton Cottage.

Apparently, little Cassy had slept in Aunt Jane’s bed, for in her valediction, Austen writes, “Love to all. If Cassandra has filled my Bed with fleas, I am sure they must bite herself.”


This joke, which hardly seems scandalous to modern eyes, was too much for Brabourne’s Victorian sensibilities: Cassy’s fleas are silently omitted from his transcription of the letter. And so Jane Austen’s perhaps undeserved reputation for ladylike unconcern with indecorous physical matters survived for another day – or another forty-eight years, until R.W. Chapman’s edition of Austen’s letters restored the missing fleas.

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By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 10 2020 02:00PM

Another day, another Jane Austen event I wish I could attend.


Tomorrow, Gill Hornby, whose new novel Miss Austen explores the relationship between Jane Austen and her older sister, Cassandra, will discuss the book with Helena Kelly, the author of 2016’s controversial Jane Austen, the Secret Radical.


The event will take place in Hungerford, a town in the south-central English county of Berkshire. Hornby -- who is also the author of an Austen biography aimed at tweens, Jane Austen: The Girl with the Golden Pen -- lives in Kintbury, a nearby village the Austen sisters visited. The Kintbury vicarage was the childhood home of Tom Fowle, who was engaged to Cassandra before his tragic death.


Miss Austen sends Cassandra on a visit to the Fowles’ vicarage decades after Jane’s death to hunt down – and possibly destroy -- a trove of her sister’s revealing lost letters. (Don’t we already know how that turned out? Well, I’ll have to read the book to be sure, I guess.)


Perhaps Kelly, whose own book suggests that Austen was a closet subversive who smuggled her incendiary political beliefs into her novels, imagines that the letters Cassandra consigned to the flames contained irrefutable proof of her own thesis.


Personally, I’ve always suspected that there was less to Jane Austen’s burned letters than we’d like to think. Much as we enjoy imagining hidden romances, explosive family scandals, or problematic political opinions, it’s likely that all they contained were some uncharitable remarks that Cassandra feared would hurt the feelings of surviving friends and relatives.


Since we’ll never know for sure, though, it’s fun to conjure up a more exciting explanation, and I’m looking forward to reading Hornby’s book when it’s published here in April.


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 26 2019 02:00PM

Fiftieth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


The holiday season can be difficult for those of us who find compulsory socializing to be hard work. Although Jane Austen’s letters are filled with accounts of balls, dinners, and visits, her occasional acerbic remarks about the company suggest that she too sometimes found herself longing for solitude.


Such a remark makes its way into the letter that the 23-year-old Austen finished writing exactly 221 years ago today. As she fills her sister, Cassandra, in on a recent visit to mutual friends, Austen mentions a new acquaintance apparently encountered during her stay.


“Miss Blachford is agreable enough,” she writes. “I do not want People to be very agreable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.”


No doubt Austen was teasing, but still, her much-quoted drollery expresses a sentiment that many an introvert could relate to, in this season of office parties: It’s just so. . . fatiguing. . . to expend emotional energy, even the positive kind, on all these strangers.


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