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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.


By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 6 2017 01:00PM

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


Devotees of the Victorian novel are familiar with the Will Subplot, wherein family members jockey for the favor of a rich, elderly relative with an unresolved estate plan. Think of Dickens’ Miss Havisham toying with her horrible relations, or George Eliot’s Peter Featherstone having deathbed second thoughts about the disposition of his property.


Jane Austen didn’t write Victorian novels, of course – she died nearly two years before the future Queen Victoria was born – but the last months of her life were shadowed by a real-life Will Subplot. That’s the context for the letter Austen sent her youngest brother, Charles, exactly two hundred years ago today (#157 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


The Austens were a shabby-genteel family with more breeding and education than money, but one relative had indisputably made good: James Leigh-Perrot, the older brother of Jane Austen’s mother, had inherited a fortune (and a second surname – that’s the Perrot) from a childless relative. Since he and his wife, Jane Leigh-Perrot, had no children of their own, the Austens expected that his death would bring handsome bequests to his sister’s large family, most of whom needed the money badly.


But when Leigh-Perrot died in March 1817, his will “like almost every other will, gave as much disappointment as pleasure,” as Austen wrote presciently in the opening chapter of Sense and Sensibility. Leigh-Perrot left all his property to his wife for her lifetime, with a substantial fortune going to Jane Austen’s oldest brother, James, only after her death. The rest of the Austen siblings got £1,000 each – but they, too, had to wait for their money until after the death of disagreeable Aunt Jane. The disappointment was intense, and Jane Austen, already suffering from the illness that would kill her three months later, felt it keenly.


“A few days ago my complaint appeared removed, but I am ashamed to say that the shock of my Uncle’s Will brought on a relapse,” she wrote to Charles. “I am the only one of the Legatees who has been so silly, but a weak Body must excuse weak Nerves.”


We Janeites, who would do anything to read the novels that Jane Austen might have written if only she’d survived another twenty-five or thirty years, can’t help but resent the pain that Uncle James’ foolish uxoriousness caused Our Jane – even if it seems unlikely that disappointment over the will actually hastened her death, whether caused by Addison’s disease, cancer, typhoid, tuberculosis, arsenic poisoning or a still-unsuspected something else.


It’s poignant, though, to read the bibliographical information that Le Faye includes in her footnotes – information that perhaps explains why this is the only letter from Jane to Charles that has come down to us, even though she surely wrote him frequently all her life. Charles saved this one, labeling it “My last letter from Dearest Jane.”


By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 9 2017 02:00PM

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


Jane Austen came from a large and close-knit tribe of siblings who remained intimately engaged with each other all their lives.* So Austen’s uncharitable description of her oldest brother, contained in a letter to their sister, Cassandra, finished exactly 210 years ago today, has intrigued biographers.


“I should not be surprised if we were to be visited by James again this week,” Jane wrote to Cassandra, then staying with their brother Edward in Kent. “I am sorry & angry that his Visits should not give one more pleasure; the company of so good & so clever a Man ought to be gratifying in itself;--but his Chat seems all forced, his Opinions on many points too much copied from his Wife’s, & his time here is spent I think in walking about the House & banging the Doors, or ringing the Bell for a glass of Water.” (Letter #50 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence)


In “Brothers of the More Famous Jane,” a fascinating paper delivered at the 2009 Annual General Meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America, Maggie Lane calls this passage “the most negative thing that Jane Austen ever wrote about any of her family—or at least, that Cassandra allowed to stand when she cut up the letters” and argues that “it has colored all subsequent portraits of James.”


Noting his support for his sister’s writing and his deep affection for his children, Lane convincingly mitigates posterity’s harsh verdict on James Austen (1765-1819). More than a decade older than Jane, James followed in their father’s footsteps by becoming a clergyman and eventually taking over the living at Steventon in 1800, when the elder Austens retired to Bath. He was his mother’s favorite, an Oxford graduate and a lifelong writer of unpublished poetry – indeed, something of a literary man manqué.


His toughest critics believe that the biting Chapter 2 of Sense and Sensibility, in which a man allows his wife to talk him out of acting generously toward his widowed stepmother and younger half-sisters, is Jane Austen’s barely veiled account of how James and his second wife, Mary Lloyd Austen, behaved over the move to Steventon.


I’ve always been leery of this conclusion, as I so often am of biographical readings of Austen’s fiction, given the dearth of our information about Austen’s life and writing process. Sure, it’s possible that John and Fanny Dashwood are precise portraits of James and Mary Austen and that the bitterness of those scenes in S&S reflects Austen’s own feelings over her displacement from her childhood home. But it’s equally possible that Austen observed, interrogated and reshaped events, drawing inspiration from real life but heightening the emotions and exaggerating the behavior in the service of her story. This is what writers do.


So what should we make of Austen’s unflattering portrait of the middle-aged James as a dull and inconsiderate houseguest? I’m inclined to be cautious in assuming that this passage represents Jane Austen’s definitive verdict on her brother. Who among us has never felt irritated by a sibling? Who among us has never confided such irritation to an injudicious email? Two centuries from now, would we want our future biographers to conclude that irritation was the sum total of what we felt?


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 9 2015 01:00PM

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


By all accounts, Jane Austen was an exceptional aunt, and she had a broad field on which to exercise her powers: in her lifetime, four of her brothers produced a total of twenty-five nieces and nephews. (Another eight were born after her death, and all but five of the thirty-three survived into adulthood).


The most famous of these Austen offspring is James Edward Austen, whom his family called Edward, the only son of Jane’s oldest brother, James. In 1870, Edward – by then using the surname Austen-Leigh, in honor of the rich great-uncle and -aunt who had left him a tidy fortune – published his Memoir of Jane Austen, the first biography of the author and still a key source for anyone interested in her life.


The letter Austen wrote to the 17-year-old Edward exactly 199 years ago today (#142 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) makes clear why her nieces and nephews adored her: she addresses him as an adult, sending along tidbits of news about family and friends, but she also indulges in the affectionate teasing and silliness that so often make her letters entertaining even at a remove of two centuries.


She complains about the rain – in order, she says, to get rid of it, “for I have often observed that if one writes about the Weather, it is generally completely changed before the Letter is read.” She jokes about his needing a change of scene for his health: “Your Physicians I hope will order you to the Sea, or to a house by the side of a very considerable pond.”


And she teases him for, apparently, dating the letter she is answering from Steventon, his parents’ house, and then redundantly mentioning that he is back from school at Winchester. “I am so glad you recollected to mention your being come home,” Austen jokes. “My heart began to sink within me when I had got so far through your Letter without its being mentioned. I was dreadfully afraid that you might be detained at Winchester by severe illness, confined to your Bed perhaps & quite unable to hold a pen, & only dating from Steventon in order, with a mistaken sort of Tenderness, to deceive me. – But now, I have no doubt of your being at home, I am sure you would not say it so seriously unless it actually were so.”


Now who could resist an aunt like that?


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