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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.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 22 2015 02:00PM

From time to time – or whenever the spate of weird, annoying or delightful Jane Austen news slows to a trickle – I’ll be offering an excerpt from a letter Austen wrote on the day of my post, give or take two centuries. Herewith, the first of these:


Two hundred and ten years ago, on January 22, 1805 – letter #41, in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition -- Jane Austen had the sad duty of informing her brother Frank of the sudden death a day earlier of their beloved father, the Rev. George Austen, age seventy-three.


“We have lost an Excellent Father,” Austen wrote, before giving Frank an account of Rev. Austen's brief final illness. “His tenderness as a Father, who can do justice to?. . . . The Serenity of the Corpse is most delightful!–It preserves the sweet, benevolent smile which always distinguished him.”


I’ve always had a soft spot for Jane Austen’s father, who gave his talented teenage scribbler a writing desk and who so enjoyed an early version of Pride and Prejudice that he offered it to a publisher too short-sighted to accept it. Alas, Rev. Austen did not live long enough to see the blossoming of his daughter’s career: his death came six years before the publication of Sense and Sensibility, the first of the novels to appear in print.


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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