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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.


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 18 2019 02:00PM

Forty-ninth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


For devotees of the Tom-Lefroy-was-the-love-of-Jane-Austen’s-life-and-the-inspiration-for-all-her-best-material school of thought – and blog readers will recall that I am not a member of this gushy clan -- the letter that Jane Austen finished writing exactly 221 years ago today is a crucial piece of evidence.


Almost three years earlier, Lefroy had spent a few weeks in the neighborhood, visiting his aunt Anne Lefroy, an older friend and mentor of Jane Austen’s. The two young people met, danced, talked, and enjoyed each other’s company – perhaps too much: The Lefroys, concerned that the not-rich Tom might contract a disadvantageous marriage with the not-rich Jane, seem to have rapidly hustled him out of town.


How deeply Austen cared for Tom Lefroy, and how much his departure hurt, are unresolvable questions whose very unresolvability has spawned rampant speculation, not to mention the biopic Becoming Jane. As an old man, Lefroy told a younger relative that he had felt a “boyish love” for Austen. So there’s that.


And there’s this: Letter #11 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence.


Writing to her sister, Cassandra, who is in Kent to help out after the recent birth of their brother Edward’s latest child, Austen reports on a recent visit from Anne Lefroy.


“Of her nephew she said nothing at all, and of her friend very little,” Austen tells Cassandra. “She did not once mention the name of the former to me, and I was too proud to make any enquiries; but on my father’s afterwards asking where he was, I learnt that he was gone back to London in his way to Ireland, where he is called to the Bar and means to practice.”


“Too proud to make any enquiries”: That smacks of wounded pride, at least, and a desire not to let even a close friend – perhaps the close friend Austen blamed for breaking up the budding romance – see how much she had cared. It suggests that even three years later, Austen felt vulnerable and self-protective when it came to Tom Lefroy. That’s not slam-dunk proof that she had loved him, let alone that she still did, but it’s evidence that the relationship was more than a casual flirtation.


On the other hand, she never mentioned him again in a single extant letter, and there is exactly zero evidence that she used him as a model for any of her characters. Could Cassandra have burned all the letters in which Austen despairingly confessed that she would never be able to love again, and that Tom was the man she imagined every time she sat down to create a hero? I suppose anything’s possible.


(**snort**)


Rather than indulge such speculations, however, I prefer to note that one person quietly acquits himself beautifully in the scene Austen sketches in this letter: Her kind father, who presumably knew or suspected that his daughter’s heart had been bruised, and who found a way to get her the information she was too proud to ask for.


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 28 2019 01:00PM

Jane Austen’s work is, of course, a priceless gift to world culture. But she also pays some more quantifiable dividends, as the latest auction news makes clear.


Last week, a September 1813 letter from Austen to her sister, Cassandra ((#88 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) sold at auction for more than $200,000 -- far above the predicted sale price of $80,000 to $120,000 -- and apparently set an auction record for an Austen letter.


No word yet on the identity of the lucky buyer, but at that price, odds are it was a private collector rather than a museum or library where the letter could go on display. As blog readers will recall, this was the second Austen letter to come on the market this year; the first was bought by Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton, for a far lower price negotiated directly with the seller.


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