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By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 28 2020 02:00PM

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


When Jane Austen sat down to write a letter to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 222 years ago today, she wasted no time on preliminaries before communicating a momentous bit of family news.


“Frank is made,” Jane began her letter (#16 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence). “He was yesterday raised to the Rank of Commander, & appointed to the Petterel Sloop, now at Gibraltar.—A Letter from [George] Daysh [a clerk in the Navy Office] has just announced this, & as it is confirmed by a very friendly one from Mr Mathew to the same effect transcribing one from Admiral Gambier to the General, We have no reason to suspect the truth of it.”


A world of Austen family social history is contained in these brief lines.


Twenty-four-year-old Frank Austen, the brother who fell between Cassandra and Jane in age, had joined the Royal Navy at barely twelve years old. His promotion to commander – a commissioned officer rank one step below captain -- was a promising sign for his future naval career. Indeed, after distinguishing himself in the naval battles of the Napoleonic Wars, the middle-aged Frank would eventually win promotion to admiral, although his doting sister Jane would not live long enough to enjoy that milestone.


Frank was by all accounts an able officer, but his promotion was not due to merit alone, as Austen’s letter makes clear. “Mr Mathew,” “Admiral Gambier,” and “the General” were all relations of Anne Mathew, the by-then-deceased first wife of the oldest Austen brother, James: Her father was General Edward Mathew, his brother was Mr. Daniel Mathew, and Daniel Mathew’s daughter Louisa was married to Admiral James Gambier, later to be made a baron. By the time Jane informed Cassandra of Frank’s promotion, the Austen family had been expecting the news for weeks, because this in-law patronage network had assured them that wheels were turning on his behalf.


For a genteel but not-rich clan like the Austens, cultivating and deploying such useful bonds of kinship played a necessary part in ensuring each family member’s future – a strategy so completely expected that Jane felt no need to comment on it to Cassandra, let alone to deplore the way this second-hand nepotism tarnished the Navy’s supposed meritocracy. No wonder Lady Russell, in Persuasion, disapproves of Captain Wentworth, a man with no private fortune who is seeking advancement in a dangerous profession while possessing “no connexions to secure even his farther rise in that profession.”


Cassandra Austen undoubtedly shared her sister’s joy in Frank’s good news. Why wasn’t Cassandra home to join in the celebrations? Because she was in Kent, on one of her frequent visits to the third-oldest Austen brother, Edward, at the stately home he had inherited from the childless cousins who adopted him. In Jane Austen’s era, for women and men alike, cultivating kinship networks was a never-ending job – but a potentially profitable one.


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 3 2018 02:00PM

At this point in Jane Austen’s career of pop-culture celebrity, it’s no surprise that every place with even a tangential connection to her life or work wants to publicize said linkage. And thus it is that two tidbits of news crossed my desk in recent weeks:


* The Vyne, a stately sixteenth-century home near Basingstoke, recently unveiled an exhibition about the life of the Victorian-era owner who devoted his entire fortune to saving the house from dereliction, thereby leaving his four daughters dowerless and unmarried.


Austen knew the Chute family, which owned the house for three centuries, until they turned it over to Britain’s National Trust in 1956. (And breathed a sigh of relief at avoiding the monstrous bills associated with its upkeep, according to the family’s current representative, seventy-one-year-old Robin Chute, who remembers sword-fighting with his brother in the Oak Gallery during Christmas visits to the ancestral manse.)


Austen mentions members of the Chute family in her letters, and she attended parties at The Vyne. But is it really the case, as a recent story in the Telegraph asserts, that “it’s thought that she may have based her Mansfield Park heroine Fanny Price on Caroline Wiggett, who came to live at The Vyne in 1803 aged three, having been plucked from a pool of poor distant relations and adopted by the childless couple who lived there”?


Could be – Austen biographer Claire Tomalin notes some parallels – but Austen had a closer-to-home model for Fanny in her brother Edward, adopted by the childless Knights in 1783, when Jane was about seven. My antennae always rise at squirrelly attributions like “it’s thought,” which always suggest to me wishful thinking by publicists eager to milk an Austen connection.


Still, judging from the photos accompanying the Telegraph story, the Vyne is a splendid and beautifully restored home. (That library: to die for.) The participants in last summer’s Jane Austen Society of North America tour of Austen’s England visited; alas, my own JASNA tour in 2011 did not.


* Southampton, England, where Austen lived from 1806 until 1809, has installed a bas-relief plaque in her honor in a theater building in the city’s cultural district. An earlier version of the plaque, which was installed in the public library in1917 to commemorate the centennial of Austen’s death, was destroyed by bombing during World War II.


The new plaque features a sculpted adaptation of an 1804 watercolor her sister, Cassandra, made of Austen: not the famous head-and-shoulders portrait of a seemingly irritated Austen in a frilly turban, but a lesser-known representation of a seated Austen, seen from the back. (See both images here.)


For a Janeite, there’s a certain oddity to the plaque’s very existence. Although the Austen sisters indubitably lived in Southampton, sharing a home with their mother, their brother Francis – often away at sea -- and his wife and baby, Austen’s residence there marked a low point in her literary career. She seems to have written nothing during the Southampton years; it was the move to Chawton cottage in 1809 that finally gave her the time, space, and mental breathing-room to write or revise all six of her completed novels.


But you wouldn’t know that from Southampton’s plaque, which features the first line of Pride and Prejudice and a list of Austen’s novels -- right above the name of the Southampton street where she lived when she wasn’t writing any of them.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 26 2018 01:00PM

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


As a novelist, Jane Austen was one of the greatest writers who ever put pen to paper. As a poet? Not so much.


The Austens were a literary family – reportedly, Austen’s mother was a dab hand at humorous verse, and as Oxford students, two of her brothers founded a magazine – so it isn’t surprising that Austen sometimes took a holiday from her true vocation and tried her hand at poetry.


Only a few of the results have survived, and although all are interesting to those of us for whom every scrap of Austen’s writing is a sacred talisman, as poetry – well, frankly, they aren’t very good.


The letter/poem that Austen wrote to her naval brother Frank, then in China, exactly 209 years ago today (#69 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) is a perfect example: as poetry, doggerel; as biography, delightful.


Austen writes the letter (which consists entirely of fifty-two lines of verse) to congratulate Frank on the recent birth of his second child and first son, who she hopes will turn out just like his father: a high-spirited boy who will grow into a kind and responsible man. She indulges in some jokey references to Frank’s childhood and then concludes with a glowing report on Chawton cottage, which the Austen women had moved into just three weeks earlier:


“Our Chawton home, how much we find

Already in it, to our mind;

And how convinced, that when complete

It will all other Houses beat

That ever have been made or mended,

With rooms concise or rooms distended.”


Today we know, as she could not, how important that “Chawton home” would become over the last eight years of Austen’s life. Chawton cottage -- now officially called Jane Austen’s House Museum -- was the place where she established the peaceful routines that enabled her to write or revise all six of her completed novels and send them out into the world.


It’s thrilling to glimpse her at the beginning of that fruitful journey – even if that glimpse comes by way of some pretty clunky verse.



By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 25 2017 01:00PM

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


Janeites often wonder how Jane Austen would feel about her phenomenal posthumous fame. We’d like to believe that she would be thrilled to know her books are still read and loved after two centuries. But it’s hard to avoid the sneaking suspicion that she might find our enthusiasm excessive, embarrassing—perhaps even a bit grubby.


Support for that suspicion comes in the letter Jane Austen wrote to her older brother Francis exactly 204 years ago today (#90 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence). Writing to her sailor brother aboard his ship, the HMS Elephant, Austen sent along the latest family news and then mentioned that, two years after the anonymous publication of her first novel, it was becoming increasingly difficult to discreetly screen her authorship.


“Henry heard P. & P. warmly praised in Scotland. . . & what does he do in the warmth of his Brotherly vanity & Love, but immediately tell them who wrote it!” Austen writes Frank, in fond but real exasperation. “A Thing once set going in that way—one knows how it spreads!–and he, dear Creature, has set it going so much more than once. I know it is all done from affection & partiality—but at the same time, let me here again express to you & Mary my sense of the superior kindness which you have shewn on the occasion, in doing what I wished.”


It’s clear from this passage that Austen sincerely hoped to preserve her anonymity – her barbed reference to Henry’s “vanity” and her gratitude for the “superior” discretion of Frank and his wife make it obvious that this was no little-old-me affectation. Less clear is why she cared so much.


Did she think it was something less than respectable for a clergyman’s daughter to write in the often-disparaged genre of the novel? Did she fear that, if her authorship became known, her neighbors would look for portraits of themselves in her books and begin wondering whether she was taking mental notes as they talked? Although she couldn’t have anticipated the coming avalanche of Colin Firth tote bags, did she perhaps worry that publicity could attract autograph seekers who would disturb the peace of her Chawton refuge? Or perhaps she simply felt the introvert’s horror at exposing the products of her private self to the scrutiny of the insensitive.


Impossible to know: On the few occasions she mentions her anonymity, she seems to take it for granted that the recipient of her letter needs no explanation of her reasons.


In any case, this letter seems to give us an Austen preparing to shed her already threadbare disguise. When her third book is published, she tells Frank, “I shall rather try to make all the Money than all the Mystery I can of it.--People shall pay for their Knowledge if I can make them.”


So perhaps she saw the tote bags coming after all.


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.


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