Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, May 28 2020 01:00PM

Fifty-fifth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


I recently finished reading my eighth biography of Jane Austen, and I’ve barely scratched the surface. By my count, which may well be incomplete, Austen has been the subject of at least two dozen book-length biographies aimed at adult readers, plus another five intended for children.


What’s especially odd about this rabbit-like multiplication of life studies is the slimness of the record on which they all must draw. Six completed novels, a few hundred pages more of shorter writings, about one hundred and sixty surviving letters, some short, affectionate family reminiscences—it’s not a lot to go on, really, and most of this material has been well-known and easily available to scholars for decades. No one is writing a new Jane Austen biography to take advantage of the expiration of a university library’s embargo on a huge cache of previously unmined letters and manuscripts.


Because the record is so slim, every item in it has value, even when it’s an item that comes to us in incomplete, even bowdlerized, condition. One such problematic item is the letter Jane Austen probably wrote exactly 203 years ago today [#161(C) in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition] – out of all of Austen's voluminous correspondence, the last letter of hers that we have.


Or sort-of have. Unlike most of Austen’s letters, the original manuscript of this one has never been found; we know of its existence only because Austen’s brother Henry quotes from it in a postscript to the “Biographical Notice of the Author” that he wrote for inclusion in the first edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, which were published together five months after Austen’s death in July 1817.


Henry dates the letter only to “a few weeks before [Jane’s] death” and does not give the name of its recipient, but Le Faye’s plausible detective works narrows the date to May 28 or 29 and suggests the recipient was Frances Tilson, the wife of Henry’s one-time business partner James Tilson.


The letter offers a poignant portrait of Jane Austen’s life with her sister, Cassandra, in the rented quarters in Winchester to which they had repaired in search of medical help. Severely weakened by the illness that would kill her in just seven weeks, Austen nevertheless seems to have been clinging to hope.


“My attendant is encouraging, and talks of making me quite well,” she writes. “I live chiefly on the sofa, but am allowed to walk from one room to the other. I have been out once in a sedan-chair, and am to repeat it, and be promoted to a wheel-chair as the weather serves.”


In his rendition of the letter, Henry quotes extensively from his sister’s expressions of gratitude for family help and statements of religious faith—the kind of thing that, as a newly minted Church of England minister, he approved of and thought his audience would find congenial.


He stops quoting before reaching her “just and gentle animadversion on a subject of domestic disappointment” – presumably the then-simmering intrafamilial controversy over her uncle’s will – but resumes quoting in time to underline “her characteristic sweetness and resignation” and “the facility with which she could correct every impatient thought, and turn from complaint to cheerfulness.”


Reading this account by Henry of his sister’s personality, it’s hard not to be reminded of one of the best lines in an earlier letter of hers: “Pictures of perfection as you know make me sick & wicked.” Jane Austen may well have been sweet, cheerful, and self-abnegating . . . some of the time . . . but it’s impossible to believe that the woman who wrote those novels had no edges sharper than that.


Henry’s eagerness to plane away those edges inevitably makes us wonder what else he’s omitted from his account of his dying sister’s letter. Maybe nothing: She was writing to a cordial but not close acquaintance, and so perhaps she stuck to the socially acceptable niceties; she was ill and dependent, and so perhaps she couldn’t summon the energy for snark.


But even if we harbor a sneaking suspicion of Henry’s veracity, we have no choice but to take what he’s given us. Beggars can’t be choosers.


By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 12 2019 01:00PM

Jane Austen, her brother Henry would have us believe, didn’t care about making money. “She became an authoress entirely from taste and inclination,” Henry Austen wrote in 1817, in the biographical note appended to the posthumously published first edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. “Neither the hope of fame nor profit mixed with her early motives.”


Austen herself was franker about her financial ambitions. “People are more ready to borrow & praise than to buy—which I cannot wonder at,” she wrote to her niece Fanny Knight four months after the publication of Mansfield Park. “But tho’ I like praise as well as anybody, I like what Edward calls Pewter too.” (Letter #114 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence)


Conventional wisdom holds that poor Jane Austen earned barely a pittance from her work (Egad! She sold the copyright of perennial bestseller Pride and Prejudice for a mere £110!), and sometimes it does seem as if everyone has made money off her work except Austen herself. What Janeite – after perusing the groaning shelves of Austen paperbacks, streaming yet another filmed Austen adaptation, or buying the latest Austen-themed tote bag, fridge magnet, or coloring book -- hasn’t sighed over the unfairness of it all?


New research using Bank of England archives shows that the picture is a bit more complicated, however. In a piece published online earlier this month, independent scholar John Avery Jones, a retired judge, concluded that Austen earned a lifetime total of £631 pounds before tax, or £575 after tax, which he calculates is the equivalent of £45,000 (about $54,600) in today’s money.


Jones’ ingenious research draws on indexes of stock sales and prices, as well as contemporary income tax rates. Unlike earlier scholars, who based their calculations of Austen’s earnings on estimates of her proceeds from book sales, Jones looks at how much she was able to invest in “the Navy Fives” -- government securities sold to the Regency public at a discount, rather like today’s savings bonds.


Jane Austen’s career as a published writer lasted only six years, from the 1811 appearance of Sense and Sensibility until her death in 1817, and Jones’ calculations seem to cover the income only from the four books published during that span. Pro-rated across six years, Jones’ number works out to a yearly income of $9,100. It’s not a lot, certainly – and, as Jones notes, some of her contemporaries earned more from their writing.


But it’s enough to be proud of – and we know that Austen was. “You will be glad to hear that every Copy of S.&S. is sold,” she wrote to her brother Frank in September 1813 (Letter #86). “I have now therefore written myself into £250.—which only makes me long for more.”


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.


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