Deborah Yaffe


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, Jan 6 2020 02:00PM

If only the Austens had invested in Steventon real estate.

Back in 1801, as Janeites will recall, the Rev. George Austen moved out of the rectory in the rural village of Steventon, turned the house and the minister’s job over to his son James, and retired to Bath, taking along his wife and his daughters, Cassandra and Jane. James Austen kept the Steventon living until his death in 1819; the rectory itself was torn down some years later.

That teardown looks like a grievous mistake now that an exceedingly modest cottage in this tiny village is on the market for £350,000 (about $464,000). In the not-inexpensive New Jersey suburb where I live, a comparable price will typically get you about two thousand square feet comprising three bedrooms and two baths. In Steventon, it gets you just over six hundred square feet with two bedrooms and one bath.

It’s hard to believe that even that astute judge of real estate Robert Ferrars would find room for eighteen couples to stand up in this dining room. And with two hundred and fifty residents, Steventon is truly tiny. Even the shop, the school, and the two pubs are located in the next town over.

Still, Myrtle Cottage does look cute, if small – I believe “cozy” is the approved real estate term – plus the Jane Austen association probably adds something to the price. And hey – it’s called Myrtle Cottage. How many American suburbs have houses with names? Really, if people do but know how to set about it, every comfort may be as well enjoyed in a cottage as in the most spacious dwelling. (To quote that real estate expert again.)

OK, Robert, you’ve talked me into it. Anyone have a spare £350,000?

By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 15 2019 01:00PM

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

Jane Austen’s brothers were a reproductively prolific lot, at least the four who reproduced at all. With the help of six wives, three of whom perished in the process, they produced thirty-three sons and daughters, most of whom survived to adulthood.

Twenty-five of those little girls and boys arrived during Jane Austen’s lifetime, and three dozen of her surviving letters -- more than twenty percent of the total -- were written to five of them. On the evidence of those letters, and of their recipients’ later reminiscences, Austen seems to have been an excellent aunt, proficient at both friendly teasing and kind encouragement and happily devoid of condescension or sentimentality.

The letter that Austen wrote to her 11-year-old niece, Caroline, exactly 203 years ago today (#143 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) is a case in point. Apparently, Caroline, like her older siblings Anna and James Edward, had recently turned her hand to fiction and wanted to know the reaction of the family’s published author.

“I have been very much entertained by your story of Carolina & her aged Father, it made me laugh heartily, & I am particularly glad to find you so much alive upon any topic of such absurdity, as the usual description of a Heroine’s father,” Austen writes. “You have done it full justice—or if anything be wanting, it is the information of the venerable old Man’s having married when only Twenty one, & being a father at Twenty two.”

At this distance, it’s impossible to know what Caroline’s story was about, although the telltale name of the heroine suggests it must have been autobiographical. (Except better! Because what eleven-year-old Caroline wouldn’t prefer to be known as Carolina?) And surely Austen was indirectly teasing her own oldest brother, Caroline’s father James, with her references to Carolina’s “aged” and “venerable” father: In 1816, James was a not-precisely-ancient fifty-one.

Still, teasingly or not, advancing age seems to be on Austen’s mind in this letter: Reporting on the recent visit of Caroline’s big brother, James Edward, Austen describes him as “only altered in being improved by being some months older than when we saw him last. He is getting very near our own age, for we do not grow older of course.”

It’s a commonplace middle-aged joke, rueful but light-hearted. But for us, it’s made poignant by hindsight: We know that Jane Austen would grow only one year older before her untimely death. And Caroline’s father, the venerable James, outlived his sister by only two and a half years, leaving Caroline fatherless at fourteen.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 29 2018 02:00PM

Thirtieth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.

Two centuries ago, Jane Austen was brimming over with the joy that only an author can fully appreciate: the thrill of holding in her hands a book that she had written.

“I want to tell you that I have got my own darling Child from London,” Jane reported to her sister, Cassandra, in a letter written exactly 205 years ago today (#79 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence). Cassandra was away on a visit to their eldest brother, James, and during her absence the first copy of the newly published Pride and Prejudice had arrived in Chawton.

Already, Austen was anticipating and assessing the responses to her novel. A neighbor to whom the Austens had read the book aloud – without revealing who had written it -- “really does seem to admire Elizabeth,” Austen wrote. “I must confess that I think her as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print, & how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least, I do not know.”

(And who can blame her? If you can’t love Elizabeth Bennet – well, I won’t say that you’re incapable of literary appreciation, but some might.)

Like all writers, Austen also finds herself wishing she’d had one more pass at her manuscript: “There are a few Typical errors--& a ‘said he’ or a ‘said she’ would sometimes make the Dialogue more immediately clear,” she notes. “But ‘I do not write for such dull Elves’ ‘As have not a great deal of Ingenuity themselves.’ ”

In context, it’s clear that Austen’s paraphrase of Walter Scott’s poem Marmion is not a global comment on how her work should be read by discerning readers; it’s just a clever, throwaway self-reassurance that her occasional lapses won’t detract from her storytelling.

Still, that hasn’t stopped more than one critic from appropriating the “dull elves” remark as an all-purpose slur on those who purportedly fail to understand Austen’s true meaning, whatever the critic takes that meaning to be. Ingenuity, indeed.

By Deborah Yaffe, May 22 2017 01:00PM

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

By May 1817, Jane Austen was gravely ill, just surfacing from an attack that had kept her mostly bedridden for more than a month. But in the letter she wrote exactly two centuries ago today – the last surviving letter she sent from her beloved home in Chawton -- she speaks more of her gratitude than of her suffering.

“How to do justice to the kindness of all my family during this illness, is quite beyond me!—Every dear Brother so affectionate & so anxious!—And as for my Sister!—Words must fail me in any attempt to describe what a Nurse she has been to me,” Austen writes to her friend Anne Sharp, in letter #159 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence. “In short, if I live to be an old Woman I must expect to wish I had died now, blessed in the tenderness of such a Family, & before I had survived either them or their affection.”

Lest we worry that on her deathbed, our adored, acerbic Jane Austen morphed into one of those Pollyannaish “pictures of perfection” that, as she had told her niece Fanny two months earlier, made her “sick and wicked,” the ailing Austen still manages a waspish remark or two.

Her less-than-adored sister-in-law, Mary Lloyd Austen, the wife of the oldest Austen brother, James, was lending the family carriage to transport Jane and her sister, Cassandra, to Winchester for medical treatment, and Austen appreciates the favor – up to a point.

“Now, that’s a sort of thing which Mrs J. Austen does in the kindest manner!” Austen writes. “But still she is in the main not a liberal-minded Woman.” Nor does Austen expect Mary’s recent good fortune – the news that James would inherit the property of his wealthy, lately deceased uncle upon the death of his widowed aunt – to improve her character.

“Expect it not my dear Anne;--too late, too late in the day,” Austen writes. “--& besides, the Property may not be theirs these ten years. My Aunt is very stout.” (Indeed, James did not live to inherit – he survived only two more years, while his aunt lived for another nineteen; the property passed to his son. People always live forever when there is any annuity to be paid them, as Fanny Dashwood noted.)

Two days after sending her letter to Anne Sharp, Jane Austen left Chawton for the last time. Eight weeks later, she died in Winchester.

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