Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 8 2018 02:00PM

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


Two centuries ago, Jane Austen had spent her day productively.


“Do not be angry with me for beginning another Letter to you,” Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, in a letter finished exactly 204 years ago today (#98 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence). “I have read the Corsair, mended my petticoat, & have nothing else to do.”


To put myself in the correct frame of mind for this blog, I have read The Corsair and mended a pillowcase, since there’s little call for petticoats in my house. (Unlike Austen, I still have a long to-do list, but I did try.)


Byron is a great poet, but The Corsair -- which was published in February 1814, a month before Austen read it -- is not my cup of tea. Yes, the verse is miraculously supple and natural, but you can’t say the same of the story, what with its obscurely-tortured-yet-devastatingly-attractive pirate-hero, its selflessly virtuous heroine, and its homicidal anti-heroine-cum-harem-slave. Apparently, men too can write bad romance-novel plots.


Nevertheless, reading The Corsair – for the first time! My education has been sadly neglected – points up the comedy in Austen’s sentence. It’s hard to imagine a stronger contrast to Byron’s swashbuckling saga than the domestic chore of mending underwear. Coupling the two has the salutary effect of puncturing Byron’s pretensions, though Austen may also be poking fun at the lack of drama in her own life.


Meanwhile, as I plied my needle, like so many centuries of women before me, I found myself reflecting -- as perhaps Austen did, too -- on the bankruptcy of the madonna-whore dichotomy into which Byron so neatly fits his female characters.


Of course, Austen’s books contain their fair share of flawed men and good, or not-so-good, women. In case we need reminding that she took a subtler approach than The Corsair, later in the letter Austen reports on her brother’s response to her soon-to-be-published new novel, the story of a virtuous woman who withstands the blandishments of a plausible but problematic suitor.


“Henry has this moment said that he likes my M.P. better & better,” she tells Cassandra. “He is in the 3d vol.—I beleive now he has changed his mind as to foreseeing the end;--he said yesterday at least, that he defied anybody to say whether H.C. would be reformed, or would forget Fanny in a fortnight.”


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