Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 23 2018 01:00PM

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


The young Jane Austen was a voracious reader. We know this because her earliest works, the Juvenilia, are clever satires of everything she read – the overwrought melodramas with their impossibly handsome heroes and swooning heroines, the partisan histories masquerading as objective fact, the plays stuffed with prosy, circuitous dialogue.


Even the short letter the 20-year-old Austen wrote exactly 222 years ago today (#3 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) shows traces of this parodic impulse. Austen and two of her brothers had left the family home in Steventon the day before, and Jane’s brief note served to inform their sister, Cassandra, that they had arrived safely in London.


“Here I am once more in this Scene of Dissipation & vice, and I begin already to find my Morals corrupted,” Austen writes. “Edward & Frank are both gone out to seek their fortunes; the latter is to return soon & help us seek ours. The former we shall never see again.”


In Austen’s comic formulation, she isn’t a beloved younger sister carefully chaperoned by respectable male relatives. She’s the heroine of a sentimental melodrama, abandoned to her own devices in a threatening city where a young woman’s virtue is easily lost.


In reality, the Austens’ London trip was only a brief stopover en route to Edward Austen’s family home in Kent. A visit to Astley’s, the famous Regency equestrian circus, was about as dissipated as it got.


Or was it? Enthusiasts of the Tom-Lefroy-love-of-Jane-Austen’s-life theory find it intriguing that while in London, the Austen siblings seem to have stayed with the former MP Benjamin Langlois, Tom’s mentor and great-uncle. Indeed, Austen scholar Jon Spence, author of the book that inspired the biopic Becoming Jane, argues that Austen and Lefroy saw each other there, just seven months after the day on which, Austen wrote, “I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy.”


If so, Austen’s letter contains no hint of such an exciting, not to say melodramatic-novel-worthy, development, which Cassandra would surely have been eager to hear about. Perhaps all the good stuff was in the following week’s letters, which Le Faye informs us are missing. Or perhaps all the drama of the visit took place in Austen’s playful imagination.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 26 2018 01:00PM

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


As a novelist, Jane Austen was one of the greatest writers who ever put pen to paper. As a poet? Not so much.


The Austens were a literary family – reportedly, Austen’s mother was a dab hand at humorous verse, and as Oxford students, two of her brothers founded a magazine – so it isn’t surprising that Austen sometimes took a holiday from her true vocation and tried her hand at poetry.


Only a few of the results have survived, and although all are interesting to those of us for whom every scrap of Austen’s writing is a sacred talisman, as poetry – well, frankly, they aren’t very good.


The letter/poem that Austen wrote to her naval brother Frank, then in China, exactly 209 years ago today (#69 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) is a perfect example: as poetry, doggerel; as biography, delightful.


Austen writes the letter (which consists entirely of fifty-two lines of verse) to congratulate Frank on the recent birth of his second child and first son, who she hopes will turn out just like his father: a high-spirited boy who will grow into a kind and responsible man. She indulges in some jokey references to Frank’s childhood and then concludes with a glowing report on Chawton cottage, which the Austen women had moved into just three weeks earlier:


“Our Chawton home, how much we find

Already in it, to our mind;

And how convinced, that when complete

It will all other Houses beat

That ever have been made or mended,

With rooms concise or rooms distended.”


Today we know, as she could not, how important that “Chawton home” would become over the last eight years of Austen’s life. Chawton cottage -- now officially called Jane Austen’s House Museum -- was the place where she established the peaceful routines that enabled her to write or revise all six of her completed novels and send them out into the world.


It’s thrilling to glimpse her at the beginning of that fruitful journey – even if that glimpse comes by way of some pretty clunky verse.



By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 11 2018 01:00PM

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


The story of Jane Austen fandom has been told more than once, in books by Claire Harman, Claudia L. Johnson, Devoney Looser, Deidre Lynch (as editor), and (ahem!) myself. Austen devotees have been located among those who read her novels soon after their publication in 1813-17, among those who first devoured her nephew’s hagiographic 1869 memoir, and among those who swooned over Colin-Firth-in-a-wet-shirt in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.


Arguably, however, the first mention of a Jane Austen fan outside Austen’s own family – a Janeite Patient Zero, as it were -- comes in the letter Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 219 years ago today (#21 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


The twenty-three-year-old Austen is staying with relatives in Bath while Cassandra remains behind in Steventon. Amid a bubbly account of what she’s done, who she’s met, and what she’s bought, Jane mentions the Austen sisters’ great friend Martha Lloyd, who has apparently asked Cassandra if she can see the manuscript of First Impressions, the early Austen work that we believe eventually became Pride and Prejudice.


“I would not let Martha read First Impressions again upon any account, & am very glad that I did not leave it in your power,” Jane writes jokingly to Cassandra. “She is very cunning, but I see through her design;—she means to publish it from Memory, & one more perusal must enable her to do it.”


And there you have it: Martha Lloyd, the friend who a decade later set up housekeeping with the Austen sisters and their mother at Chawton cottage, is the first obsessive Austen re-reader for whom we have documentary evidence – the prototype of those people who read all the novels every year, recite dialogue by heart, and mentally file everyone they meet under headings like “Lady Catherine” and “Mr. Collins.”


Welcome to the club, Martha.


By Deborah Yaffe, May 24 2018 01:00PM

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


Although Jane Austen was, famously, not a big fan of Bath, London was a different story: Her trips to the metropolis to visit her worldly brother Henry seem to have been delightful whirls of shopping, parties, and culture – much like London tourism today.


The letter Jane Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 205 years ago today (#85 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) memorializes a London trip during which Austen entertained herself with a whimsical pastime: seeking likenesses of the eldest Bennet sisters -- Pride and Prejudice had been published four months earlier – among the paintings in exhibitions she visited.


At one relatively unheralded exhibit, “I was very well pleased—particularly. . . with a small portrait of Mrs Bingley, excessively like her. . . . exactly herself, size, shaped face, features & sweetness; there never was a greater likeness,” Austen writes. “She is dressed in a white gown, with green ornaments, which convinces me of what I had always supposed, that green was a favourite colour with her.”


(Scholars believe Austen was probably referring to this painting, Portrait of Mrs. Q (Mrs. Harriet Quentin), by the French portraitist Jean-François-Marie Huet-Villiers).




The following Monday, the day her letter was written, Austen attended a far more famous exhibition, the Sir Joshua Reynolds retrospective at the British Institution in Pall Mall, searching in vain for a portrait of “Mrs. D.,” aka Elizabeth Bennet Darcy. “I can only imagine that Mr D. prizes any Picture of her too much to like it should be exposed to the public eye,” Austen writes. “I can imagine he wd have that sort [of] feeling—that mixture of Love, Pride & Delicacy.”


The 1813 Reynolds exhibition is the subject of What Jane Saw, University of Texas English Prof. Janine Barchas’ fascinating online reconstruction of the paintings Austen viewed, displayed as they were two centuries ago. It’s a striking demonstration of the power that comes from marrying literary-historical scholarship to contemporary technology, and it brings to life the afternoon visit that Austen describes to Cassandra.


Scholarship aside, I find it charming to encounter the Austen of this letter -- another fond author, so wrapped up in her imagined people, with their favorite colors and happy marriages, that they seem to go on living once her story ends, becoming as real to her as the real-life sitters in the portraits she viewed. Devouring fanfic Austen sequels or comparing our co-workers to Austen characters, we Janeites can relate


By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 5 2018 01:00PM

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


Publishers jerk authors around.


This is not exactly news, least of all to authors who have argued over titles and cover art, watched publication dates come and go with no action, or pleaded in vain for increases to the publicity budget.*


Nor is this a modern phenomenon, as the letter Jane Austen wrote exactly 209 years ago today [#68(D) in Deirdre Le Faye's standard edition of Austen's correspondence] makes clear.


Six years earlier, in the spring of 1803, Austen – working anonymously through her brother Henry and his lawyer, William Seymour – had sold the manuscript of what eventually become Northanger Abbey to London publisher Benjamin Crosby & Co. for a respectable £10. The book, then titled Susan, was advertised for sale the same year.


And then – nothing. No book ever appeared. It’s hard to imagine a more infuriating and discouraging outcome for a hopeful first-time author.


By 1809, Austen was done waiting. She was about to move into a settled home at Chawton cottage; perhaps she wanted to gather all her unfinished work and get down to some serious revision.


And so she wrote to Crosby & Co. asking that it either publish Susan or dissolve the old contract. “Should no notice be taken of this Address, I shall feel myself at liberty to secure the publication of my work, by applying elsewhere,” she wrote. She signed the letter “MAD” – shorthand for her pseudonym du jour, “Mrs. Ashton Dennis,” but no doubt also a pointed commentary on her state of mind.


With an alacrity notably absent from the earlier handling of Austen’s work, Richard Crosby wrote back three days later. He denied that the firm had ever promised to publish at any particular time (or, indeed, at all), threatened legal action if Austen tried to publish elsewhere, and offered to return the manuscript in exchange for the £10 previously paid.


Austen may have been MAD before; she must have been enraged when she got this insulting reply. Frustrated, too: It took her another seven years – and the publication of four other novels – before she could find the money to buy back her own work. Which, of course, was finally published in 1818 -- exactly two hundred years ago.


(For a fascinating and detailed account of Northanger Abbey’s publication history, check out Deborah Barnum’s post in blogger Sarah Emsley’s ongoing series about Austen’s last two published novels.)


If this sorry episode demonstrates anything – beyond the fact that publishers have mistreated authors for centuries – it is how much persistence, determination, and commitment it took for Jane Austen to get her books into print. She needed a thick skin and deep reservoirs of MAD. Even for an Austen-caliber genius, talent wasn’t enough.



* #NotAllPublishers, of course. I have no complaints about Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which published Among the Janeites.


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