By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 9 2020 01:00PM
Fifty-third in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.
It’s no secret that Jane Austen’s relatives, while immensely proud of her achievements, sometimes felt that her rough edges could use a bit of smoothing.
Thus it was that her brother Henry, in the biographical notice appended to the first edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, insisted that none of her unpleasant characters were drawn from life. Thus it was that her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh, in his 1869 Memoir of Jane Austen, portrayed the acid satirist as a kindly and domestic spinster aunt.
And thus it was that earlier generations were treated to an absurdly bowdlerized version of the letter that Jane Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 206 years ago today (#99 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).
In 1884, Austen’s great-nephew, Edward, Lord Brabourne, published a collection of Austen letters – including this one -- discovered among his mother’s effects after her death. Brabourne’s mother, Fanny Knatchbull, was the eldest Austen niece, and she and her Aunt Jane were remarkably close: “I found her . . . almost another Sister, & could not have supposed that a niece would ever have been so much to me,” Austen wrote in 1808, when Fanny was fifteen and Jane thirty-two.
Brabourne was a sensitive reader of Austen’s work: “She describes men and women exactly as men and women really are, and tells her tale of ordinary, everyday life with such truthful delineation, such bewitching simplicity, and, moreover, with such purity of style and language, as have rarely been equalled, and perhaps never surpassed,” he wrote in an introduction to the letters. Nevertheless, in her real-life persona, Austen’s earthy straightforwardness made him squeamish.
In Letter #99, Austen, visiting her brother Henry in London, sends an account of her doings back home to Cassandra, who has been hosting their five-year-old niece, Cassandra Esten, at Chawton Cottage.
Apparently, little Cassy had slept in Aunt Jane’s bed, for in her valediction, Austen writes, “Love to all. If Cassandra has filled my Bed with fleas, I am sure they must bite herself.”
This joke, which hardly seems scandalous to modern eyes, was too much for Brabourne’s Victorian sensibilities: Cassy’s fleas are silently omitted from his transcription of the letter. And so Jane Austen’s perhaps undeserved reputation for ladylike unconcern with indecorous physical matters survived for another day – or another forty-eight years, until R.W. Chapman’s edition of Austen’s letters restored the missing fleas.