Deborah Yaffe


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.

By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 3 2016 02:00PM

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

Henry Austen, the fourth-oldest of Jane Austen’s seven siblings, is often described as her favorite brother. (For a helpful account, see this 1984 article by J. David Grey, one of the founders of the Jane Austen Society of North America.)

Four and a half years older than Jane, Henry was handsome, funny, charming and clever. As an Oxford undergraduate, he contributed to The Loiterer, the weekly publication founded by the oldest Austen brother, James, and after receiving his degree, Henry joined the Oxfordshire militia, adopting the dashing profession that so dazzled the youngest Bennet sisters.

But although Henry seems to have been blessed with infinite reserves of optimism, the arc of his life suggests that, despite all his talents, he never quite lived up to his early promise. By the time of Jane’s death, Henry, then age 46, was on his third profession: after rising to the rank of captain, he left the militia, failed as a banker and finally joined the church, briefly taking over his father’s old job as rector of Steventon. Although he married twice, once to his glamorous first cousin, Eliza de Feuillide, he fathered no children.

Whatever Henry’s professional failings, however, Janeites owe him an immense debt of gratitude, for he gave his brilliant younger sister valuable help in the publication of her books, often acting as her de facto literary agent. He was also a reader whose opinion she valued, as we can see in the letter Austen finished exactly 202 years ago today (#97 in Deirdre LeFaye’s standard edition of her correspondence).

With the publication of Mansfield Park just two months away, Henry is escorting Jane to London and reading the manuscript on the way, apparently for the first time. “Henry’s approbation hitherto is even equal to my wishes; he says it is very different from the other two, but does not appear to think it at all inferior,” Jane writes to their sister, Cassandra, back home in Chawton, betraying some of the anxiety that writers always feel when someone new reads their work. “He has only married Mrs. R. I am afraid he has gone through the most entertaining part.---He took to Lady B. & Mrs. N. most kindly, & gives great praise to the drawing of the Characters. He understands them all, likes Fanny & I think foresees how it will all be. . . . he admires H. Crawford—I mean properly—as a clever, pleasant Man.”

At least as reported by his eager writer-sister, Henry’s comments suggest a shrewd appreciation for her work. He seems to have sensed the new depth and complexity that she achieved in MP, still her most controversial book, and Lady Bertram, Mrs. Norris and Henry Crawford are, indeed, among her greatest creations.

I’d love to know what, exactly, Austen meant by “proper” admiration for Henry Crawford, though. Was Henry Austen commenting on the undoubted brilliance of the characterization, or was he saying that Crawford would make an entertaining dinner companion? If the latter, did he change his mind when Crawford set out to make a hole in Fanny Price’s heart? And did Henry Austen wonder, even for a moment, whether his sister had meant anything in giving her most equivocal male character the name of her brilliant, helpful, unsteady older brother? Alas, we’ll never know.

By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 27 2015 01:00PM

Fourth in a series of excerpts from Jane Austen’s letters

The letter-like document that Jane Austen addressed to her sister, Cassandra, on April 27 of 1817 – exactly 198 years ago today – is especially poignant. Ailing for months, Austen must have known that her death was imminent, and so she penned a brief “last Will & Testament” (#158 in Deirde Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s letters).

The will bears witness to the paucity of Jane Austen’s material wealth. Only three people are named as legatees.

Fifty pounds apiece go to Austen’s fourth-oldest brother, Henry, her sometime literary agent, whose banking business had failed a year earlier, taking his fortune with it; and to Françoise Bigeon, a Frenchwoman who, according to Claire Tomalin’s Austen biography, worked for Austen’s cousin, Eliza de Feuillide, both before and after Eliza’s marriage to Henry and then continued in Henry’s employ after Eliza’s death.

To Cassandra, “my dearest Sister,” Austen left the rest of her worldly goods: “every thing of which I may die possessed, or which may be hereafter due to me.”

At the time of Austen’s death, this amounted to a modest sum, and the long-ago expiration of her copywrights ensures that no surviving descendants of the Austen clan can profit from her posthumous celebrity.

Still, it’s an evocative phrase, “every thing. . . which may be hereafter due to me.” Take it metaphorically, as encompassing a fair return for all the joy, insight and wisdom that Jane Austen has given those of us who love her works, and it amounts to quite a lot.

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