Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 9 2017 02:00PM

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

If Cassandra Austen had known how much speculation would be spawned by the letter her sister Jane wrote her exactly 221 years ago today, she would surely have consigned it to the flames, along with the uncounted others she burned before her death.

Instead, however, Cassandra preserved it, and as a result it became the earliest Jane Austen letter that has come down to us -- #1 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence. I’ve always wondered if the outsize attention this letter has received owes something to that accidental position of prominence: The very first time we encounter the joyful, chatty voice of the twenty-year-old Jane Austen, she’s talking about her crush on a young man named Tom Lefroy.

“I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved,” Austen writes to Cassandra, away in Berkshire visiting the family of her fiancé, Tom Fowle. “Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together. . . . He is a very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man, I assure you. But as to our having ever met, except at the three last balls, I cannot say much, for he is so excessively laughed at about me at Ashe, that he is ashamed of coming to Steventon, and ran away when we called on Mrs Lefroy a few days ago. . . . After I had written the above, we received a visit from Mr Tom Lefroy. . . . he has but one fault, which time will, I trust, entirely remove – it is that his morning coat is a great deal too light. He is a very great admirer of Tom Jones, and therefore wears the same coloured clothes, I imagine, which he did when he was wounded.”

Obviously, she liked him. Apparently, he liked her back. A few days later they parted, never to meet again. And largely on the basis of this letter, plus references to Lefroy in two others, a cottage industry has arisen devoted to the proposition that Tom Lefroy, the Irish nephew of Austen’s friend and mentor Anne Lefroy, was the love of Austen’s life, the real-life model for Mr. Darcy, the reason she never married, the muse who inspired her greatest work. . . you name it.

In his 2003 book Becoming Jane Austen, the scholar Jon Spence claimed that Austen and Lefroy had a longer-lasting and more serious relationship than the few references in her letters suggest. The 2007 film Becoming Jane, inspired by Spence’s work, took that thesis and ran with it, positing a romance, a first kiss, a thwarted engagement, an abortive elopement, a selfless renunciation and a poignant late-life reunion.

Since I haven’t read Spence’s book, I can’t say how convincing his scholarship is, but there’s no question that the movie encouraged a generation of filmgoers to conclude that Jane Austen wrote those books of hers (“They’re romance novels, right?”) in wistful tribute to the first love she never got over. Loyal blog readers will recall that I am, shall we say, not charitably inclined toward this thesis, which rests largely on thinly documented speculation about the psychological state of someone who died two centuries ago.

I won’t go so far as to say that I wish Cassandra had tossed the Lefroy letter onto her bonfire. No, I treasure every scrap of Austen’s prose too much for that. But I wish the rest of us could stop speculating about Austen’s love life and go back to reading her books.

By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 19 2016 02:00PM

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

Reading has its hierarchies. We prefer acquaintances to catch us absorbed in, say, a collection of Plato’s dialogues or a paperback of Hamlet than deep into the second volume of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. (That’s the one with the mask on the cover. I mean -- so I’ve heard.)

And this privileging of certain kinds of literature over others goes back a long way – arguably, back to Plato (who famously banned poets from his ideal Republic), and certainly back to Jane Austen’s era. That’s obvious in a letter to her sister, Cassandra, that Austen sent exactly two hundred and eighteen years ago today (#14 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).

“I have received a very civil note from Mrs Martin requesting my name as Subscriber to her Library which opens the 14th of January,” the twenty-three-year-old Jane Austen wrote to Cassandra, who was on one of her frequent visits to the family of their older brother Edward, in Kent. “As an inducement to subscribe Mrs Martin tells us that her Collection is not to consist only of Novels, but of every kind of Literature &c &c—She might have spared this pretension to our family, who are great Novel-readers & not ashamed of being so;--but it was necessary I suppose to the self-consequence of half her Subscribers.”

In other words, the shamefaced attitude that many of us bring to our preferred form of trashy reading -- whether it be erotic romance, violent thriller, cheesy sci-fi or gossipy celebrity bio – was the attitude many readers in Austen’s time took toward novels of all kinds. The English novel was arguably barely a century old, and the genre’s status was low relative to that of more venerable literary forms like poetry, history or philosophy.

It didn’t help that middle-class women, confined at home, with long hours available for socializing and leisure activities, were often seen as the novel’s main audience. How good could those books be if only girls read them?

Raised in a family of voracious novel-readers, and acutely aware of the time and craft it took to write one, Austen, of course, thought this snobbery absurd. “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid,” she has Northanger Abbey’s hero, Henry Tilney, tell his heroine, Catherine Morland, after she assumes, “You never read novels, I dare say?. . . . gentlemen read better books.”

And of course it’s also in Northanger Abbey that Austen uncharacteristically lapses into lecture mode to describe the novel as “work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.”

OK, maybe not every novel. Jane Austen surely knew that not all novels are created equal: Henry Tilney lauds the good ones, after all. Fifty Shades hardly deserves Austen’s praise for wit, insight and linguistic virtuosity. (I mean -- so I’ve heard.) What annoyed her was the blanket generalization, the failure to distinguish between the work of Burney and Edgeworth, on the one hand, and the work of eighteenth-century E.L. Jameses, on the other.

Today it’s romance, more than any other fictional genre, that labors under an indiscriminate stigma like that suffered by the novel in Austen’s time. And it’s not accidental, I’d argue, that once again, most of the readers of the maligned genre are female. How good could those books be if only girls read them?

By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 27 2016 01:00PM

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

Two hundred and eighteen years ago today, on October 27, 1798, the twenty-two-year-old Jane Austen wrote perhaps the most controversial and reviled passage in all her work. In a chatty letter to her sister, Cassandra, then staying with their brother Edward’s family in Kent – Letter #10 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence -- Austen offered up this tidbit of news about the family of a local clergyman:

“Mrs Hall of Sherbourn was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, oweing to a fright.—I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband.”

From the reaction of readers over the years, you’d think Austen had confessed to smothering the baby herself. “Did Cassandra laugh?” asked E.M. Forster, a devout Janeite who was nonetheless appalled by the passage. “Probably, but all that we catch at this distance is the whinnying of harpies.”

“Malicious, nasty, and tasteless, certainly,” says John Halperin, one of the less sympathetic Austen biographers. “The sentence is an unfortunate one,” acknowledges Elizabeth Jenkins, one of the more sympathetic.

The shock waves apparently continue to reverberate. “I do not think I know of *any* woman whom I have ever met in over fifty years who would ever make such a frankly depraved statement -- and as a jest, no less -- about a dead newborn,” a first-time reader told the online Janeites discussion list during a 2011 group read-through of Austen’s letters. “It is a gravely immoral thing to say. And I simply cannot get around that. And so, I'll stop my reading of these letters here. I really do feel as though I've been expelled from Eden. . . . Why on earth would Cassandra not have consigned this one to the flames??”

I suppose I must be a bad person, because I think the dead baby line is hilarious.

Yes, of course, had Austen made that remark to Mrs. Hall – or to Mr. Hall, or to a close friend of the bereaved parents, or to anyone who might have repeated it to them – that would have been unforgivably callous. But she didn’t! She wrote it in a private, not-intended-for-publication letter to her closest confidante! Lighten up, people!

Black humor of this variety isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but nevertheless I find the outrage over Austen’s joke disproportionate. Infant death is very sad, but Jane Austen jokes about death in her novels (remember the late, unlamented Mrs. Churchill?) and we don’t recoil in horror. True, the Halls were real-life acquaintances of Austen’s, not fictional creations, but none of us knew them, and there is not a scintilla of evidence that Austen’s irreverent reaction to their tragedy caused them a moment’s distress.

In a perceptive look at Austen’s humor, Jan Fergus analyzes the widespread discomfort with Austen’s “very carnal, very irreverent” suggestion that some men are so hideous that it’s dangerous for pregnant women to get too close to them. For some readers, Fergus says, it’s hard “to accept that Jane Austen is so frank, so comfortable. . .with the connection between the mind and body, so easy about sexuality and birth and death that she can joke about them, apparently offhand.”

Why should it be so hard to accept this frankness? Because Janeites take their Austen very personally. It’s not enough that she should be a great writer; she must also be a great human being, and a particular kind of great human being.

Despite the oceans of ink spilled in analyzing the sexual, political or subversive sides of Austen’s work, some readers remain invested in a more familiar, less destabilizing picture of her – and, perhaps, of any woman writer. For these readers, Austen is invariably decorous, polite and high-minded – or, alternatively, forever kind, cuddly and warm-hearted. Sophisticated icon of good taste or literary BFF: either way, not a dead-baby-joke kind of person.

By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 8 2016 01:00PM

Fifteenth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen’s letters.

“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” Virginia Woolf famously declared, insisting on the material prerequisites of the imaginative life.

Did Jane Austen have access to what Woolf saw as the fundamental building blocks of literary achievement? I would say yes: though Austen never had much money or much privacy, during her most productive years, she had enough of both – the secure home provided by first her father and later her brother Edward; the dedicated work space in the Chawton Cottage sitting room. During the Bath and Southampton years, when money was stressfully tight and living arrangements were chaotic and insecure, Austen’s writing output slowed to a trickle.

Austen herself may have glimpsed Woolf’s insight, or so it seems from a letter to her sister that Austen began exactly two hundred years ago today (#145 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).

Updating Cassandra on the comings and goings of family houseguests, Austen admits to a craving for a few days of peace and quiet. “I often wonder how you can find time for what you do, in addition to the care of the House,” she writes. “And how good Mrs. West* cd have written such Books & collected so many hard words, with all her family cares, is still more a matter of astonishment! Composition seems to me Impossible, with a head full of Joints of Mutton & doses of rhubarb.”

As Austen notes, the great impediment to creation is distraction: when practical cares fill your head, they crowd out imaginative invention. The greatest gift that Cassandra and the Austens’ housemate Martha Lloyd gave to Jane Austen was their willingness to do most of the household chores, leaving her mind free of mutton and rhubarb. The most precious room of all lies between the ears.

* Jane West (1758-1852) was a prolific author of novels, poetry and conduct books, best known today for her 1796 novel A Gossip’s Story, which is seen as an inspiration for Sense and Sensibility. West was also a wife and the mother of three sons – hence Austen’s astonishment at her rate of literary production.

By Deborah Yaffe, May 26 2016 01:00PM

Thirteenth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen’s letters.

Finding biographical resonances in Jane Austen’s writing is a cottage industry, and one which regular blog readers know I regard with suspicion. As I often note, we know little about Austen’s life, and many of the supposedly unassailable echoes of real events that others find in her work seem highly speculative to me.

Sometimes, however, an element of Austen’s biography resonates so unmistakably with a detail in the novels that even I cannot remain unconvinced. And so it is with the letter Austen began writing to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 215 years ago today (#38 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).

Jane writes from Bath, where the Austen daughters and their aging parents have just relocated following decades in the tiny rural village of Steventon. After gossip about new acquaintances and details of house-hunting, Austen describes the letter she’s just received from twenty-one-year-old Charles Austen, the baby among the eight Austen siblings. His career in the Royal Navy is going well – he’s in line for a chunk of prize money, the bonus sailors got when their ships intercepted valuable enemy vessels – but his big sister is fondly exasperated at the way he’s spending his windfall:

“Of what avail is it to take prizes if he lays out the produce in presents to his Sisters,” she asks Cassandra. “He has been buying Gold chains & Topaz Crosses for us;--he must be well scolded. . . . I shall write again by this post to thank & reproach him.—We shall be unbearably fine.”

(Here are the topaz crosses, on display at Jane Austen's House Museum in Chawton, where I photographed them -- badly -- in the summer of 2011.)

This sailor brother’s gift of topaz crosses and gold chains cannot fail to remind the Mansfield Park reader of the amber cross that Fanny Price receives from her sailor brother William. Clearly, Jane Austen – who asked her other naval brother, Frank, for permission to use the names of his ships in the Portsmouth section of the novel – drew this detail, too, from life.

But it’s worth noting that, even here, she transformed her raw materials. The real-life Charles’ gift of topaz, an inorganic mineral, becomes the fictional William’s gift of amber, a fossilized, organic substance. (Did Austen understand the difference? If so, was she trying to say something about the open-hearted, natural quality of the Price siblings’ relationship?) And, of course, she tweaked reality in a way that advanced her plot: William, unlike Charles, can’t afford a gold chain for his cross, and that omission provides an opening for both Henry Crawford and Edmund Bertram, those unacknowledged rivals for Fanny’s love.

Perhaps this unusually well-documented example of Austen’s art imitating Austen’s life gives us a clue to her method. Yes, Austen drew this detail from life – but she had no hesitation about tucking and trimming to make it fit her artistic design. William’s gift mirrors Charles’, but not precisely, and the differences may matter as much as the similarities. That’s a fitting reminder to tread carefully before embarking upon overly literal biographical interpretation.

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