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By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 6 2017 01:00PM

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


Devotees of the Victorian novel are familiar with the Will Subplot, wherein family members jockey for the favor of a rich, elderly relative with an unresolved estate plan. Think of Dickens’ Miss Havisham toying with her horrible relations, or George Eliot’s Peter Featherstone having deathbed second thoughts about the disposition of his property.


Jane Austen didn’t write Victorian novels, of course – she died nearly two years before the future Queen Victoria was born – but the last months of her life were shadowed by a real-life Will Subplot. That’s the context for the letter Austen sent her youngest brother, Charles, exactly two hundred years ago today (#157 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


The Austens were a shabby-genteel family with more breeding and education than money, but one relative had indisputably made good: James Leigh-Perrot, the older brother of Jane Austen’s mother, had inherited a fortune (and a second surname – that’s the Perrot) from a childless relative. Since he and his wife, Jane Leigh-Perrot, had no children of their own, the Austens expected that his death would bring handsome bequests to his sister’s large family, most of whom needed the money badly.


But when Leigh-Perrot died in March 1817, his will “like almost every other will, gave as much disappointment as pleasure,” as Austen wrote presciently in the opening chapter of Sense and Sensibility. Leigh-Perrot left all his property to his wife for her lifetime, with a substantial fortune going to Jane Austen’s oldest brother, James, only after her death. The rest of the Austen siblings got £1,000 each – but they, too, had to wait for their money until after the death of disagreeable Aunt Jane. The disappointment was intense, and Jane Austen, already suffering from the illness that would kill her three months later, felt it keenly.


“A few days ago my complaint appeared removed, but I am ashamed to say that the shock of my Uncle’s Will brought on a relapse,” she wrote to Charles. “I am the only one of the Legatees who has been so silly, but a weak Body must excuse weak Nerves.”


We Janeites, who would do anything to read the novels that Jane Austen might have written if only she’d survived another twenty-five or thirty years, can’t help but resent the pain that Uncle James’ foolish uxoriousness caused Our Jane – even if it seems unlikely that disappointment over the will actually hastened her death, whether caused by Addison’s disease, cancer, typhoid, tuberculosis, arsenic poisoning or a still-unsuspected something else.


It’s poignant, though, to read the bibliographical information that Le Faye includes in her footnotes – information that perhaps explains why this is the only letter from Jane to Charles that has come down to us, even though she surely wrote him frequently all her life. Charles saved this one, labeling it “My last letter from Dearest Jane.”


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.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 16 2014 02:00PM

Less than two sentences into her preface, Edith Hubback Brown is already asserting her genetic right to complete Jane Austen’s fragment The Watsons. “I will not apologise. I like my great-aunt Jane, and she would have liked me,” Brown writes, with an absolute certainty that will sound familiar to other Janeites equally convinced that only an accident of history prevented them from becoming Austen’s closest confidant.


“She would have said, ‘I am pleased with your notion, and expect much entertainment,’ ” Brown continues. “Solemn people can say, if they like, that we should not do this, but I decline to be solemn about Aunt Jane. She was fun, much more than she was anything else, and this has been fun to do.”


I do not begrudge Edith Hubback Brown her harmless fun. Alas, however, her 1928 continuation, the subject of today’s post in my "Watsons in Winter" blog series, is not much of a book. Although in outline it closely tracks a previous Watsons continuation -- The Younger Sister, by Brown's grandmother, Catherine Hubback, the subject of an earlier "Watsons in Winter" blog post -- Brown drains Hubback's original of much of its charm. Brown's writing is adequate and even shows occasional flashes of wit, but her story is rushed and her characters one-dimensional. Novelistic talent may not be genetic after all.

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