Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 24 2019 02:00PM

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

Only hindsight makes anything remarkable out of the letter that Jane Austen wrote to her friend Alethea Bigg exactly 202 years ago today [#150(C) in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence].

It’s a commonplace account of commonplace matters: the weather is pleasant, various young relatives are turning out well, the Austens would like the Bigg family’s recipe for orange wine. Clearly, Austen’s relationship with Alethea Bigg has survived whatever damage it might have sustained more than fourteen years earlier, when Austen accepted and then rejected the marriage proposal of Alethea’s younger brother, Harris Bigg-Wither.

Amid all of the everyday news comes Austen’s account of her own health: “I have certainly gained strength through the Winter & am not far from being well; & I think I understand my own case now so much better than I did, as to be able by care to keep off any serious return of illness,” she writes. “I am more & more convinced that Bile is at the bottom of all I have suffered, which makes it easy to know how to treat myself.”

We can’t know what Bigg made of this account: whether she believed in Austen’s optimism, or ascribed it to wishful thinking, or detected, in the cautious hedging of that oh-so-Austenian phrase “not far from being well,” a suggestion that her self-deception was far from complete.

Whatever Jane Austen and her correspondent realized in January of 1817, within six months, Austen was dead. We know how it all turned out, and that makes Austen’s self-delusion – however successful it may have been -- unbearably poignant.

By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 21 2017 02:00PM

People who do not write fiction often have trouble believing that novelists just, you know, make stuff up. These readers seize upon every real or apparent parallel between events in the author’s life and events in her stories and use these supposed connections to “explain” the work, or the life, or both.

As blog readers will recall, I’ve always found this approach to literary criticism a condescending diminishment of the creative process -- and, when it comes to a genius of Jane Austen’s caliber, downright insulting. But it’s a tendency that has persisted for centuries. Why, it was just last week that I was remarking upon how adeptly Austen handled the delicate problem of an overenthusiastic fan volunteering to give her real-life material for her stories, as if she needed the help.

And now the Twitterverse agrees with me.

Last week, the Washington Post had the misfortune to mark Jane Austen’s birthday with an article that was, to put it charitably, a tired retread of well-worn tales about Jane Austen’s limited romantic history. “Husband-hunting butterfly”? Check. Tom Lefroy? Check. Harris Bigg-Withers? Check.

Then the WaPo headlined the story “Jane Austen was the master of the marriage plot. But she remained single.” Then they tweeted out the headline. Then the Twitterverse ridiculed them (see accounts of the brouhaha, along with some diverting comments, here, here, here, here and here) for suggesting a) that writers can only write out of personal experience; b) that Austen should be thought of primarily as a writer about romance; and c) that marriage is the ultimate goal for women and anything else – say, enduring worldwide literary fame -- is a mere consolation prize.

As these tweetstorms so often are, this one was a little bit unfair -- the WaPo story was pointless and dull, but it didn’t really make the silly claims Twitter attributed to it. (Instead, it made other silly claims. I direct your Janeite attention to the extraordinarily misleading sentence, “Austen’s six novels burnish the institution of marriage.”)

Nonetheless, the exchange was a bracing and entertaining reminder that We Do Not Like It when you mess with Jane Austen. Altogether delightful. Call it an early Christmas present.

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