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By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 23 2018 01:00PM

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


The young Jane Austen was a voracious reader. We know this because her earliest works, the Juvenilia, are clever satires of everything she read – the overwrought melodramas with their impossibly handsome heroes and swooning heroines, the partisan histories masquerading as objective fact, the plays stuffed with prosy, circuitous dialogue.


Even the short letter the 20-year-old Austen wrote exactly 222 years ago today (#3 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) shows traces of this parodic impulse. Austen and two of her brothers had left the family home in Steventon the day before, and Jane’s brief note served to inform their sister, Cassandra, that they had arrived safely in London.


“Here I am once more in this Scene of Dissipation & vice, and I begin already to find my Morals corrupted,” Austen writes. “Edward & Frank are both gone out to seek their fortunes; the latter is to return soon & help us seek ours. The former we shall never see again.”


In Austen’s comic formulation, she isn’t a beloved younger sister carefully chaperoned by respectable male relatives. She’s the heroine of a sentimental melodrama, abandoned to her own devices in a threatening city where a young woman’s virtue is easily lost.


In reality, the Austens’ London trip was only a brief stopover en route to Edward Austen’s family home in Kent. A visit to Astley’s, the famous Regency equestrian circus, was about as dissipated as it got.


Or was it? Enthusiasts of the Tom-Lefroy-love-of-Jane-Austen’s-life theory find it intriguing that while in London, the Austen siblings seem to have stayed with the former MP Benjamin Langlois, Tom’s mentor and great-uncle. Indeed, Austen scholar Jon Spence, author of the book that inspired the biopic Becoming Jane, argues that Austen and Lefroy saw each other there, just seven months after the day on which, Austen wrote, “I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy.”


If so, Austen’s letter contains no hint of such an exciting, not to say melodramatic-novel-worthy, development, which Cassandra would surely have been eager to hear about. Perhaps all the good stuff was in the following week’s letters, which Le Faye informs us are missing. Or perhaps all the drama of the visit took place in Austen’s playful imagination.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 11 2018 01:00PM

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


The story of Jane Austen fandom has been told more than once, in books by Claire Harman, Claudia L. Johnson, Devoney Looser, Deidre Lynch (as editor), and (ahem!) myself. Austen devotees have been located among those who read her novels soon after their publication in 1813-17, among those who first devoured her nephew’s hagiographic 1869 memoir, and among those who swooned over Colin-Firth-in-a-wet-shirt in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.


Arguably, however, the first mention of a Jane Austen fan outside Austen’s own family – a Janeite Patient Zero, as it were -- comes in the letter Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 219 years ago today (#21 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


The twenty-three-year-old Austen is staying with relatives in Bath while Cassandra remains behind in Steventon. Amid a bubbly account of what she’s done, who she’s met, and what she’s bought, Jane mentions the Austen sisters’ great friend Martha Lloyd, who has apparently asked Cassandra if she can see the manuscript of First Impressions, the early Austen work that we believe eventually became Pride and Prejudice.


“I would not let Martha read First Impressions again upon any account, & am very glad that I did not leave it in your power,” Jane writes jokingly to Cassandra. “She is very cunning, but I see through her design;—she means to publish it from Memory, & one more perusal must enable her to do it.”


And there you have it: Martha Lloyd, the friend who a decade later set up housekeeping with the Austen sisters and their mother at Chawton cottage, is the first obsessive Austen re-reader for whom we have documentary evidence – the prototype of those people who read all the novels every year, recite dialogue by heart, and mentally file everyone they meet under headings like “Lady Catherine” and “Mr. Collins.”


Welcome to the club, Martha.


By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 9 2018 01:00PM

Few are the places with genuine Jane Austen connections. Austen’s birthplace, Steventon Rectory, was razed in the nineteenth century; though some of her temporary homes in Bath survive, her long-term residence in Southampton is gone, replaced by a pub. Jane Austen’s House Museum, aka Chawton cottage, is a treasure, of course, and Austen’s grave in Winchester Cathedral is worth a pilgrimage, but many of the sites that Janeite tourists visit are movie locations where Austen herself probably never set foot.


So it’s exciting to learn that the newly restored Reading Abbey Gateway will open to the public later this week (see accounts here and here). As Janeites will recall, the Gateway once housed the Reading Ladies’ Boarding School, where the ten-year-old Austen and her older sister, Cassandra, were pupils in 1785-6, the final year of their brief formal education.


Although news accounts imply that visitors will see the very classroom where Austen studied, I doubt this is actually the case. Instead, it seems that in September, the local museum plans to move an already existing Victorian classroom exhibit into the Gateway. Since, as we Janeites are so often called on to point out, Austen was a Regency writer, not a Victorian one, it’s not clear how much relevance this exhibit will have to her own schooldays.


But when it comes to genuine Austen sites, we beggars can’t be choosers. Any readers who get a chance to visit Reading, please let us know what you think of the restored Abbey Gateway!


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 26 2018 01:00PM

The delightful Jane Austen Quilt project culminated earlier this month with the unveiling at Jane Austen’s House Museum of two beautiful quilts made from blocks contributed by Janeites across the globe.


As blog readers will recall, the museum – aka Chawton Cottage, the house where Austen wrote or revised all six of her completed novels – launched the quilt project last year to mark the bicentenary of Austen’s death. The design was inspired by one of the treasures of the museum’s collection, the Austen family coverlet stitched by Jane, Cassandra, and their mother.


Combining creativity and traditionally female needlecraft, the quilt project strikes me as a charming and appropriate way of paying homage to Austen, a creative artist embedded in a female-run household. (Plus she was an excellent needlewoman, at least according to her nephew's 1870 Memoir of Jane Austen.)


The main quilt, known as the Jane Austen Community Story Quilt, measures more than eight feet by five feet and consists of fifty-seven blocks, most of which illustrate some aspect of Austen’s life or work. The second, smaller quilt, known as the Admirals’ Quilt, is composed of abstract geometrical blocks left over from the making of the main quilt.


Unfortunately, the museum blog doesn’t include closeups of every block in the Story Quilt, but from what I can see via blurry on-line zooms, among the designs are blocks featuring the Steventon church where Austen’s father was the minister, the turquoise ring she wore, and the spines of the novels she wrote. A large central panel, created by students from the local elementary school, highlights the community of Chawton, complete with houses, trees, and a friendly horse. (You can get a better look at portions of the quilt here, on the blog of quilter Katrina Hadjimichael, who created one of the blocks.)


Both quilts will be on display at the museum for the rest of this year, and the project has been memorialized in a book, Stories in Stitches: Reimagining Jane Austen’s Quilt.


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 8 2018 02:00PM

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


Two centuries ago, Jane Austen had spent her day productively.


“Do not be angry with me for beginning another Letter to you,” Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, in a letter finished exactly 204 years ago today (#98 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence). “I have read the Corsair, mended my petticoat, & have nothing else to do.”


To put myself in the correct frame of mind for this blog, I have read The Corsair and mended a pillowcase, since there’s little call for petticoats in my house. (Unlike Austen, I still have a long to-do list, but I did try.)


Byron is a great poet, but The Corsair -- which was published in February 1814, a month before Austen read it -- is not my cup of tea. Yes, the verse is miraculously supple and natural, but you can’t say the same of the story, what with its obscurely-tortured-yet-devastatingly-attractive pirate-hero, its selflessly virtuous heroine, and its homicidal anti-heroine-cum-harem-slave. Apparently, men too can write bad romance-novel plots.


Nevertheless, reading The Corsair – for the first time! My education has been sadly neglected – points up the comedy in Austen’s sentence. It’s hard to imagine a stronger contrast to Byron’s swashbuckling saga than the domestic chore of mending underwear. Coupling the two has the salutary effect of puncturing Byron’s pretensions, though Austen may also be poking fun at the lack of drama in her own life.


Meanwhile, as I plied my needle, like so many centuries of women before me, I found myself reflecting -- as perhaps Austen did, too -- on the bankruptcy of the madonna-whore dichotomy into which Byron so neatly fits his female characters.


Of course, Austen’s books contain their fair share of flawed men and good, or not-so-good, women. In case we need reminding that she took a subtler approach than The Corsair, later in the letter Austen reports on her brother’s response to her soon-to-be-published new novel, the story of a virtuous woman who withstands the blandishments of a plausible but problematic suitor.


“Henry has this moment said that he likes my M.P. better & better,” she tells Cassandra. “He is in the 3d vol.—I beleive now he has changed his mind as to foreseeing the end;--he said yesterday at least, that he defied anybody to say whether H.C. would be reformed, or would forget Fanny in a fortnight.”


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