Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 23 2020 02:00PM

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


Although Jane Austen was a professional writer who spent six years working with two different publishers, little of her surviving correspondence concerns business affairs; she left most such matters to her brother Henry.


Among the handful of exceptions, however, is the letter Austen wrote to publisher John Murray exactly 205 years ago today (#126 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) – and that letter exists precisely because Henry, several weeks into a serious illness, was still too compromised to act on his sister's behalf.


Austen had been visiting Henry in London that autumn when he fell ill; as Janeites will recall, it was Henry’s doctor who facilitated Austen’s introduction to the Prince Regent’s librarian, James Stanier Clarke, who passed along to Austen the offer-she-couldn’t-refuse: permission to dedicate her forthcoming novel, Emma, to her most powerful fan, the future George IV.


By late November, more than a month into her London stay, Austen, like so many writers before and since, was dismayed at what seemed to be unaccountable delays in publishing her latest book. In an effort to speed along the process – and at Henry’s suggestion, as she explained a few days later in a letter to her sister, Cassandra -- she decided to pull the only string at her disposal.


“Is it likely that the Printers will be influenced to greater Dispatch & Punctuality by knowing that the Work is to be dedicated, by Permission, to the Prince Regent?” Austen asked Murray. “If you can make that circumstance operate, I shall be very glad.”


It seems unlikely that this royal news alert had much effect – as Austen told Cassandra soon after, the delay was apparently attributable not to dilatory printers but to a delayed paper delivery – but in any case, the story had a happy ending. On December 23, 1815, exactly one month after Austen’s letter to Murray, the novel finally appeared, and it was – well, it was Emma.


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 15 2020 01:00PM

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


“Only think of Mrs Holder’s being dead!” Jane Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, in the letter Austen finished exactly 207 years ago today (#92 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence.) “Poor woman, she has done the only thing in the World she could possibly do, to make one cease to abuse her.”


It’s hardly news to any reader of Jane Austen’s letters that the great author could sometimes be a Mean Girl—catty about other people’s looks, brains, personalities, and conversation. And this letter from Godmersham, the stately home in Kent where Austen was staying with her widowed brother Edward’s large family and an array of other houseguests, seems to have brought out her mean streak in spades.


The deceased Mrs. Holder (what was wrong with her? We’ll never know) is the least of it, although it is delicious to hear Austen skewering the “poor woman” in the very act of proclaiming her beyond skewering,


Elsewhere, Austen cuttingly sums up Lady Fagg and her five daughters (“I never saw so plain a family, five sisters so very plain!”), a new acquaintance named Mr. Wigram (“They say his name is Henry. A proof how unequally the gifts of Fortune are bestowed.—I have seen many a John & Thomas much more agreable”), and even her own niece Cassy -- the daughter of the youngest Austen brother, Charles, and his wife, Fanny Palmer Austen -- who was all of four years old (“Poor little Love.—I wish she were not so very Palmery—but it seems stronger than ever.—I never knew a Wife’s family-features have such undue influence”).


Even when Austen claims to be pleased with the company, she puts a sting in the tail of her praise: “I like him very much. I am sure he is clever & a Man of Taste,” she writes of a fellow guest, Stephen Lushington, who at the time was representing Canterbury in Parliament. “He is quite an M.P.—very smiling, with an exceeding good address, & readiness of Language.—I am rather in love with him.--I dare say he is ambitious and Insincere.”


It’s enough to make you agree with one of Austen’s most unsympathetic biographers, John Halperin, that “one does have the feeling, reading Jane Austen’s letters, that the milk of human kindness was often kept in the larder, and the tea served with lemon.”


To be fair -- fairer than Halperin is -- Austen's little digs seem to have been kept between herself and Cassandra; as far as we know, she never taunted the Fagg sisters with their plainness or told Mr. Wigram how unfavorably he compared with the Johns and Thomases she knew. Her letters to Cassandra were safe places for Austen to vent her frustration and fatigue about the weeks she spent as a guest, mandated to gratitude and required to make small talk with dullards instead of investing her time in those she truly valued. Perhaps, like the embattled Jane Fairfax in Emma, Austen found herself longing for "the comfort of being sometimes alone!" (ch. 42)


“The Comfort of the Billiard Table here is very great,” Jane confided to Cassandra, in a throwaway remark that illuminates, and perhaps mitigates, the unkindness on display elsewhere. “It draws all the Gentlemen to it whenever they are within, especially after dinner, so that my Br[other] Fanny & I have the Library to ourselves in delightful quiet.”


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 14 2020 01:00PM

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


The letter that the 28-year-old Jane Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 216 years ago today (#39 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) is dated from Lyme, where the Austen family was spending a late-summer holiday.


For fans of Austen’s novels, that dateline, and the echoes of Persuasion that it summons, may be the most notable thing about this letter: Although we know that the Austens spent two holidays in the seaside village, in 1803 and 1804, this is the only letter that survives from either visit.


The letter provides a kaleidoscopic, slightly mordant glimpse of the social scene that Cassandra had recently left behind, as she journeyed to spend time with family friend Martha Lloyd and her ailing mother.


Miss Bonham, Austen writes, is recovering from an illness but “tho’ she is now well enough to walk abroad, she is still very tall & does not come to the Rooms.” The relations of an Irish viscount are “bold, queerlooking people, just fit to be Quality at Lyme.” (Ouch!) A throwaway mention of a tradesman called Anning—Richard Anning, cabinetmaker and carpenter? Austen doesn’t say--conjures up tantalizing visions of an unrecorded meeting between two great nineteenth-century women: Jane Austen unwittingly crossing paths with Anning’s then-five-year-old daughter, Mary, the future paleontologist.


But my favorite passage in the letter describes a morning visit to a Miss Armstrong, which had revealed that “[l]ike other young Ladies she is considerably genteeler then her Parents; Mrs Armstrong sat darning a p[ai]r of Stockings the whole of my visit,” Jane tells Cassandra. “But I do not mention this at home, lest a warning should act as an example.”


Given that the Austens' own mother was not only a clever woman seeking to marry her daughters off advantageously but also a distant relation of a duke, it seems unlikely that Jane seriously worried that she would take up stocking-mending in company. No, to me this reads like a private joke between sisters: Parents! Aren’t they embarrassing?


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.


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