Deborah Yaffe


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.”

By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 29 2018 02:00PM

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

Two centuries ago, Jane Austen was brimming over with the joy that only an author can fully appreciate: the thrill of holding in her hands a book that she had written.

“I want to tell you that I have got my own darling Child from London,” Jane reported to her sister, Cassandra, in a letter written exactly 205 years ago today (#79 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence). Cassandra was away on a visit to their eldest brother, James, and during her absence the first copy of the newly published Pride and Prejudice had arrived in Chawton.

Already, Austen was anticipating and assessing the responses to her novel. A neighbor to whom the Austens had read the book aloud – without revealing who had written it -- “really does seem to admire Elizabeth,” Austen wrote. “I must confess that I think her as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print, & how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least, I do not know.”

(And who can blame her? If you can’t love Elizabeth Bennet – well, I won’t say that you’re incapable of literary appreciation, but some might.)

Like all writers, Austen also finds herself wishing she’d had one more pass at her manuscript: “There are a few Typical errors--& a ‘said he’ or a ‘said she’ would sometimes make the Dialogue more immediately clear,” she notes. “But ‘I do not write for such dull Elves’ ‘As have not a great deal of Ingenuity themselves.’ ”

In context, it’s clear that Austen’s paraphrase of Walter Scott’s poem Marmion is not a global comment on how her work should be read by discerning readers; it’s just a clever, throwaway self-reassurance that her occasional lapses won’t detract from her storytelling.

Still, that hasn’t stopped more than one critic from appropriating the “dull elves” remark as an all-purpose slur on those who purportedly fail to understand Austen’s true meaning, whatever the critic takes that meaning to be. Ingenuity, indeed.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 18 2018 02:00PM

The Jane Austen £10 note has been circulating for only four months, but already its most collectible iterations are fetching inflated prices on eBay.

Back in October, readers will recall, the Bank of England raised money for charity by auctioning off Austen tenners with some of the most desirable serial numbers. Now a slew of Austen notes with allegedly covetable characteristics – notes from early in the print run, notes with tiny printing errors, notes with serial numbers beginning with or ending with or incorporating the years of Austen’s birth (1775) and death (1817) – are available from sellers with presumably less altruistic motives.

My own personal Austen £10 note. Worth £10.

A few days ago, the UK’s Express newspaper reported that a seller on the British version of eBay had persuaded someone to pay £3,600 (nearly $5,000) for an Austen note with a serial number beginning with 1775. Don’t ask me how the super-valuable note differed appreciably from the Austen tenner with a 1775 serial number currently available on the site for £250 – and that one is a package deal with a note bearing an 1817 serial number. The psychology of collectors is a mystery to me, but hey -- everything is worth what somebody will pay for it, right?

Not to worry if £3,600 is too much for you: Right now, Austen tenners seem to be available on UK eBay at almost every price point. You can pay a semi-staggering £490 premium for a note from the first print run, or a modest £1 markup for. . . a note from the first print run. (Go figure. I can’t tell the difference.)

Or you can change a £20 note at your local pub and get two probably-perfectly-respectable Austen tenners for no premium at all. Up to you.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 3 2017 01:00PM

Twenty-fifth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.

Jane Austen wrote for money.

Not only for money, of course – she began writing as an adolescent, long before she had a chance of getting published, and kept going despite rejection and disappointment that must have sometimes made her wonder if anyone besides her family would ever read a word of her books.

But make no mistake about it: She wanted to be paid for her work, and she liked it very, very much when she was. Although her relations, with their genteel squeamishness about women and work, sometimes tried to pretend she gave no thought to pecuniary considerations, her letters make clear that she did. And who can blame her? It’s satisfying to earn a small measure of independence and self-sufficiency through hard work well done.

That sense of satisfaction comes through loud and clear in the postscript to the letter that Jane Austen began writing to her older sailor brother, Frank, exactly 204 years ago today (#86 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).*

“You will be glad to hear that every copy of S.&S. is sold & that it has brought me £140—besides the Copyright, if that shd ever be of any value,” Jane writes to Frank. “I have now therefore written myself into £250.—which only makes me long for more.”

What would Austen have thought if she could have known how valuable the copyright of Sense and Sensibility would indeed become? On the strength of this letter, I’d guess she would have kicked herself for dying too soon to get a piece of that action.

* It’s one of only a handful of surviving letters to Frank: Although he kept his sister’s letters throughout his long life, preserving them even as he captained ships and participated in naval battles, his youngest daughter destroyed them soon after his death in 1865, at the age of ninety-one. So while we’re hating on Cassandra Austen for burning or censoring her letters from her sister, let’s spare a little vitriol for Frances Sophia Austen, who never even knew her Aunt Jane but nevertheless took it upon herself to destroy a priceless part of our cultural heritage.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 15 2017 01:00PM

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

The letter Jane Austen began writing to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 209 years ago today contains nothing very remarkable, as Austen makes clear from its first line: “Where shall I begin?” she wonders. “Which of all my important nothings shall I tell you first?”

Jane and the family of her oldest brother, James, were on a visit to their brother Edward’s large family in Kent; Cassandra had stayed behind in Southampton, where the Austen sisters, their mother and their friend Martha Lloyd were living with the wife and baby of yet another Austen brother, sailor Frank.

The letter (#52 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) rattles on about the weather, the journey, the food at the inn, the doings of neighborhood acquaintances, and the welfare of a legion of nieces and nephews. And Jane encourages Cassandra to send back more of the same. “You know how interesting the purchase of a sponge-cake is to me,” she notes – possibly in jest, but possibly not.

Perhaps the most striking thing about this letter – and about the three successive letters that Jane wrote to Cassandra during the sixteen days between June 15 and July 1 of 1808 – is their sheer bulk. The shortest of the four letters runs to more than 1,500 words; together, all four total more than 6,800.

Publishers today suggest that a novel should comprise roughly 80,000 to 100,000 words; Austen’s own six range from nearly 78,000 words for Northanger Abbey to nearly 160,000 for Mansfield Park.

In other words, in a little over two weeks of correspondence with her sister, Austen wrote the equivalent of 4 to 9 percent of an entire book. By hand! With a quill pen! My wrist aches just thinking about it. And this doesn’t even count the other letters that Austen mentions along the way: Cassandra’s lengthy replies to Jane’s letters (“every page of yours has more lines than this, & every line more words than the average of mine” – letter # 53); their sister-in-law Mary Austen’s letter to her stepdaughter, Anna; Anna’s reply; and a letter from their brother Henry carrying news about Frank.

There are intimations that Austen chafed at all this letter-writing, perhaps because of the time it took away from her creative work: “As to Martha, she had not the least chance in the World of hearing from me again, & I wonder at her impudence in proposing it,” Jane writes to Cassandra in letter #55. “I assure you I am as tired of writing long letters as you can be. What a pity that one should still be so fond of receiving them!”

But what’s clear is that these women – with an occasional assist from their brothers and husbands – performed the time-consuming, labor-intensive and crucial job of sustaining connections of family and friendship across geographical distances that were far harder to surmount than they are today. It was tedious, unglamorous, unsung work, surely taken for granted by the men in their lives and perhaps by the women themselves. But it was work nonetheless.

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