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By Deborah Yaffe, May 27 2019 01:00PM

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


In May of 1817, the gravely ill Jane Austen left her home at Chawton for the last time and traveled to the nearby city of Winchester, where she hoped (vainly, as it turned out) that a new doctor could finally cure the illness that had plagued her for at least a year.


Although Austen survived for another eight weeks, only two letters written from Winchester have come down to us, and one of those only via extracts quoted in the Biographical Notice that her brother Henry appended to the first edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.


Appropriately, the last Austen letter we have in full, written exactly 202 years ago today, was sent to her eighteen-year-old nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh, then a student at Oxford’s Exeter College, who would go on to publish the first full-length biography of his famous aunt, the 1870 Memoir of Jane Austen.


In that final letter (#160 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence), Austen bravely, or wishfully, insists that she is “gaining strength very fast.” With a flash of the playfulness she often brought to her correspondence with nieces and nephews, she vows to complain to the dean and chapter of Winchester Cathedral if her doctor fails to cure her.


But the letter concludes in a subdued and self-lacerating tone more reminiscent of Austen’s grave and soulful prayers than of her witty, self-assured novelistic voice.


“God bless you my dear Edward,” Austen writes. “If ever you are ill, may you be as tenderly nursed as I have been, may the same Blessed alleviations of anxious, simpathizing friends be Yours, & may you possess—as I dare say you will—the greatest blessing of all, in the consciousness of not being unworthy of their Love.—I could not feel this.”


Was this just hyperbole, or the conventional religious sentiments that Austen thought would appeal to her nephew, the future clergyman? Or, as she faced death, did a writer whose works have enriched the lives of two centuries of readers truly feel unworthy of her family’s love? It’s a heartbreaking thought.


By Deborah Yaffe, May 9 2019 01:00PM

Among London’s many delights are the blue plaques that mark buildings associated with historical personages both famous and obscure. Spotting these plaques, with their mini-history lessons, enlivens the walk through neighborhoods across the city.


Sadly, if unsurprisingly, women are grossly underrepresented on blue plaques, featuring on only 14 percent of the more than 900 placed since the program began 153 years ago.


In 2016, English Heritage launched a campaign to encourage the public to nominate female candidates for plaque-immortality, but results have been mixed: Although more than half the subsequent plaques have featured women, two-thirds of the public nominations are still going to men.


“If we are to see a significant increase in the number of blue plaques for women, we will need more female suggestions,” English Heritage explains on its website.


Among the 117 women currently featured on the blue plaques, and listed in an article last week on the MyLondon website, are actors, artists, educators, scientists, social reformers, and many writers, from Frances Burney to Sylvia Plath, George Eliot to Agatha Christie.


Jane Austen, however, is missing—probably, I would guess, because the London addresses on Sloane Street, Henrietta Street, and Hans Place where she stayed with her brother Henry during visits in 1811, 1813, 1814, and 1815 no longer “survive in a form that the commemorated person would have recognised,” as English Heritage’s selection criteria require. (Even Carlton House, where Austen visited the Prince Regent's librarian in 1815, was torn down in 1826.)


Still, that shouldn’t deter historically minded Janeites from nominating other likely choices—Jane Austen isn’t the only woman worth a plaque.


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 29 2018 02:00PM

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


Talk about burying the lead.


The letter that Jane Austen began writing to her friend Martha Lloyd exactly 206 years ago today (#77 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) covers a multitude of topics: Martha’s ongoing visit to a dying friend, the purchase of a grey cloak and some calico, the comings and goings of assorted relatives and acquaintances.


And then, more than halfway through, we arrive at this passage: “P. & P. is sold.—Egerton gives £110 for it.—I would rather have had £150, but we could not both be pleased, & I am not at all surprised that he should not chuse to hazard so much.”


Yes, thus it is that Jane Austen announces the impending publication of one of the world’s most popular and enduring works of fiction – for which the author received only a single modest payment from publisher Thomas Egerton.


In the notoriously imprecise game of historical currency conversions, her take was the equivalent of somewhere between $6,500 and $8,500 today, depending on which online calculator you use. (Three can be found here, here, and here.) Today, it’s estimated that the novel has sold more than twenty million copies. No wonder that when novelist Michael Thomas Ford turned Austen into a vampire running a bookshop in upstate New York, he imagined her undead ruminations returning repeatedly to the theme of uncollectable royalties.


In retrospect, of course, the Pride and Prejudice deal looks like a financial mistake, but at the time it made sense. In the early nineteenth century, much book-publishing operated on a vanity press model: Authors paid the costs of publication and collected the majority of the profits – or absorbed the losses.


Although Sense and Sensibility, published on these terms in 1811, eventually sold out its first edition and made Austen a modest profit, that outcome was not yet certain in late 1812, when Austen was deciding what to do about P&P. By selling Egerton the copyright of her second novel outright, Austen ensured that her financially strapped family would lose no money.


Further, the deal ensured that Egerton would handle the printing and advertising, which Austen's brother and de facto literary agent Henry would otherwise have had to manage. “Its’ being sold will I hope be a great saving of Trouble to Henry, & therefore must be most welcome to me,” Austen explains in her letter to Martha Lloyd.


If the gender expectations of 1812 had not left Austen apologetically dependent on male relatives to manage her business affairs, would she have felt empowered to hold out for a better deal? It’s impossible to say. No sooner has she passed on the publication news than she’s on to other matters: the purchase of a shawl for their impoverished spinster friend Miss Benn, the allocation of charitable donations at Christmas, the rain. The event that would still seem newsworthy two centuries later is just one more miscellaneous piece of information.


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, Apr 25 2016 01:00PM

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


In the spring of 1811, Jane Austen stood on the cusp of great change. She had spent her first thirty-five years as the younger daughter of a country clergyman, but finally she was about to become something more: a published novelist. Amid the social whirl of a London visit to her brother Henry and his elegant wife, Eliza, Austen was correcting the proofs of her first book, Sense and Sensibility.


The letter Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, exactly two hundred and five years ago today (#71 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) makes clear that this momentous development was much in Austen’s thoughts. She was obviously having a great time in London – she tells Cassandra about plays she’s seen, an art exhibition she’s planning to visit, and Eliza’s recent musical soiree for sixty-six (!) guests – and in an earlier letter, Cassandra seems to have asked whether all these distractions had left no time to think of the book.


“No indeed, I am never too busy to think of S&S,” Austen replies. “I can no more forget it, than a mother can forget her sucking child.”


Critics obsessed with Austen’s childlessness leap upon this line, and a similar statement two years later about the newly published Pride and Prejudice, as evidence that Austen saw her books as replacements for the babies she never had. Well, maybe, but all the writers I know, even those who, like myself, are in secure possession of actual flesh-and-blood children, think of their books as babies.


And no wonder: You devote countless hours of time and thought to your books; nurture, protect and argue with them; watch them grow from tiny ideas into full-fledged manuscripts; and then send them out into the world, hoping that others will love them as much as you do. As a parent, you can’t know if your beloved child will become a Nobel Prize-winning scientist or a deadbeat loser, and as an author, you can’t know if you’ve produced a tour de force destined to win a Pulitzer or a beach read fated to migrate rapidly to the remainder bin. But it doesn’t matter: you love them just the same.


As we know, Jane Austen’s metaphorical “sucking child” grew up to be a deathless masterpiece, and its creator never produced any non-metaphorical children of her own. But I think even a Jane Austen with a brood of real-life babies to nurse would have loved her little S&S just the same.


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