Deborah Yaffe

Blog

By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 21 2019 01:00PM

Once again, it’s time to cue a chorus of “If I Were A Rich Janeite”: another Austen artifact is on the market, set to be auctioned on Wednesday in New York.


This time, it’s a September 1813 letter (#88 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) that Jane wrote to her sister Cassandra at Chawton while visiting their brother Henry in London.


In the letter, Austen reports on her nieces’ hair-raising visit to the dentist -- Regency dental care: another reason to be glad we don’t live in Austen’s world -- and describes the purchase of a china dinner service that is still on display at Jane Austen’s House Museum, aka Chawton cottage.


Along the way, there are minute discussions of London shopping expeditions and some tidbits of news about family and friends. If it’s not quite the “Incredible, Intimate Austen Letter” promised in one news headline, it is certainly a more substantial missive than the 1814 letter-fragment that the museum bought over the summer, with the help of a successful crowdfunding campaign.


With so few Austen letters extant, it's rather a fluke to have two changing hands in the same year. Alas, however, the latest letter seems unlikely to make it into the museum’s collection.


Bonhams, the firm handling the auction, is projecting a sale price of £63,000 to £94,000, or $80,000 to $120,000, roughly two or three times the £35,000 negotiated price of the previous letter. “If the present owners had consulted privately with us, of course we would have been happy to try to reach a mutually fair accommodation,” Austen scholar Kathryn Sutherland, a museum trustee, told the Guardian newspaper, “but auction house prices do not sit well with what public institutions can in most cases afford to offer.”


A quixotic GoFundMe effort launched by the moderator of Facebook’s Jane Austen Fan Club page had raised only $785 as of this morning. “It's so important to keep these pieces of history in their home country,” one contributor to the GoFundMe effort opines.


Laudable as that sentiment may be, however, the fact remains that this particular letter hasn’t lived in its home country for well over a century. Jane Austen’s great-nephew, Lord Brabourne, sold it at auction in 1891 to New York businessman and literary collector Louis J. Haber; in 1909, Haber sold it at auction to another New Yorker, Cleveland H. Dodge, a copper baron and philanthropist. It’s the Dodge family who are now auctioning the letter for the third time – likely to yet another rich Janeite with a substantial private collection.




By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 9 2019 01:00PM

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


Jane Austen’s letters, with their unpolished emphasis on the minutiae of daily life, don’t offer the reader as many gems as her novels do. Still, a few sentences here and there have earned deserved immortality among Janeites, and one of those memorable passages comes in the letter Austen began writing exactly 205 years ago today (#107 in Deirdre LeFaye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


Written to her twenty-one-year-old niece Anna, the letter is one of several in which Austen offers kind and helpful critiques of Anna’s novel-in-progress, which we know from other sources bore the working title Which is the Heroine? Poor Anna’s writing career largely fizzled out, so it’s the insight these letters offer into Austen’s own writing process that makes them interesting to us today.


Amid tidbits of advice that writers in any century would do well to follow (avoid overly detailed descriptions; ensure that characters behave consistently from scene to scene) comes Austen’s most famous delineation of her own preferred field of action.


“You are now collecting your People delightfully, getting them exactly into such a spot as is the delight of my life,” Austen writes to Anna. “3 or 4 Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on.”


In part, of course, we love this famous passage because it immediately conjures up Austen’s novels (three or four families. . . let’s count. . . Bennet, Bingley, Darcy, Lucas. . . ) and the way she finds a universe of meaning in the tiny worlds she creates.


For me, though, what’s loveliest here is that apparently unconscious verbal repetition: delightfully/delight. If she had been revising the sentence for publication, Austen would surely have avoided the echo by substituting a synonym in one place or the other. But speaking spontaneously about the work that gave her life meaning, her first thought -- and her second -- was pure joy.


Because Jane Austen died too young, leaving too many great books unwritten, it’s easy to slip into the habit of thinking of her with melancholy. It’s worth remembering that she loved what she did.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 15 2019 01:00PM

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


Jane Austen’s brothers were a reproductively prolific lot, at least the four who reproduced at all. With the help of six wives, three of whom perished in the process, they produced thirty-three sons and daughters, most of whom survived to adulthood.


Twenty-five of those little girls and boys arrived during Jane Austen’s lifetime, and three dozen of her surviving letters -- more than twenty percent of the total -- were written to five of them. On the evidence of those letters, and of their recipients’ later reminiscences, Austen seems to have been an excellent aunt, proficient at both friendly teasing and kind encouragement and happily devoid of condescension or sentimentality.


The letter that Austen wrote to her 11-year-old niece, Caroline, exactly 203 years ago today (#143 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) is a case in point. Apparently, Caroline, like her older siblings Anna and James Edward, had recently turned her hand to fiction and wanted to know the reaction of the family’s published author.


“I have been very much entertained by your story of Carolina & her aged Father, it made me laugh heartily, & I am particularly glad to find you so much alive upon any topic of such absurdity, as the usual description of a Heroine’s father,” Austen writes. “You have done it full justice—or if anything be wanting, it is the information of the venerable old Man’s having married when only Twenty one, & being a father at Twenty two.”


At this distance, it’s impossible to know what Caroline’s story was about, although the telltale name of the heroine suggests it must have been autobiographical. (Except better! Because what eleven-year-old Caroline wouldn’t prefer to be known as Carolina?) And surely Austen was indirectly teasing her own oldest brother, Caroline’s father James, with her references to Carolina’s “aged” and “venerable” father: In 1816, James was a not-precisely-ancient fifty-one.


Still, teasingly or not, advancing age seems to be on Austen’s mind in this letter: Reporting on the recent visit of Caroline’s big brother, James Edward, Austen describes him as “only altered in being improved by being some months older than when we saw him last. He is getting very near our own age, for we do not grow older of course.”


It’s a commonplace middle-aged joke, rueful but light-hearted. But for us, it’s made poignant by hindsight: We know that Jane Austen would grow only one year older before her untimely death. And Caroline’s father, the venerable James, outlived his sister by only two and a half years, leaving Caroline fatherless at fourteen.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 27 2019 01:00PM

The Janeite word of the moment, it would appear, is “fragment.”


* Last week, Jane Austen’s House Museum launched an urgent appeal for donations to fund the purchase of a recently rediscovered portion of an 1814 Austen letter.


* A few days later, the British broadcaster ITV released tantalizing on-set photos from its shoot of Sanditon, the upcoming eight-part television mini-series based on the novel Austen left incomplete upon her death in 1817.


* And yesterday it was announced that playwright Laura Wade’s much-praised theatrical version of The Watsons, an unfinished novel that Austen abandoned around 1805, will have a London premiere this fall.


Among these three fragments, the Austen letter is the least mysterious, since it comprises the lion’s share of a text that was published in full before its physical pieces were dispersed. By contrast, no one knows how Austen planned to finish The Watsons and Sanditon (although I’ve reviewed later efforts at completions here and here).


Given this built-in uncertainty, it’s no surprise that the current adapters felt free to take some liberties. Sanditon screenwriter Andrew Davies is apparently bringing us a rollicking melodrama that, judging from the photos, will feature the gorgeous production values and even more gorgeous actors we’ve come to expect from the company that brought us Downton Abbey. The British air date is sometime this fall; Masterpiece, which will air the show in the U.S., has not yet announced a schedule.


Wade’s theatrical version of The Watsons, which was produced last year at a theater festival in southeast England, takes a different tack, making post-modern hay out of the Pirandello-esque concept of literary characters left stranded in an unfinished work. Wade herself – or, at any rate, a writer named Laura -- shows up to debate matters with her heroine. The reviews were great, and if I had any chance of being in London between September 20 and November 16, I’d be first in line when tickets go on sale next week. Since that, alas, cannot be, I'll rely on blog readers to report back.



By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 24 2019 01:00PM

Six years ago, the singer Kelly Clarkson was forced to part with a charming little piece of jewelry she had just picked up at auction in England: a turquoise ring that had once belonged to Jane Austen.


Upon hearing that a precious bit of the nation’s cultural heritage was about to depart for America – oh, the horror! – the UK government slapped an export ban on Clarkson’s ring. Jane Austen’s House Museum, aka Chawton cottage, launched a public appeal that collected the $250,000 necessary to buy the ring back and put it on permanent display.


Apparently, it’s time again for public-spirited Janeites to dig into their wallets and help the museum preserve a treasured piece of Austeniana. A fragment of an 1814 Austen letter is for sale, and although the museum has already raised most of the £35,000 (about $44,500) purchase price, it must come up with the remaining £10,000 ($12,700) by July 31.


If the fundraising succeeds, the letter-fragment will go on display this year at the museum, which also owns another dozen Austen letters. But if the appeal fails, the fragment will likely disappear into a private collection.


The letter in question -- #112 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence – is dated November 29, 1814. While staying in London with her brother Henry, Austen wrote to her niece Anna Lefroy, discussing some family comings and goings and describing her underwhelmed reaction to a theatrical production of an eighteenth-century tragedy (“I took two Pocket handkerchiefs, but had very little occasion for either”). As Austen letters go, it’s fairly routine: interesting because we are interested in everything about Our Author, but not all that exciting in itself.


The text of the letter has been known from family and scholarly sources since the nineteenth century, but sometime after the 1869 publication of the Memoir of Jane Austen, written by Anna Lefroy’s half-brother, James Edward Austen-Leigh, the physical letter was cut up into at least five pieces.


One of these five pieces is in the British Library, and one is in private hands. Two are apparently lost, and as recently as eight years ago, when Le Faye published the fourth edition of her collection of Austen correspondence, the fifth section, which comprises about three-quarters of the text, was also believed lost.


But sometime since then, this lost section apparently resurfaced, and the museum is eager to get it. Signs look pretty good, I’d say: As of this morning, an online appeal had raised £2,871, nearly 29 percent of the required total.


But just in case things still look dodgy a month from now, the museum is hosting a July 23 benefit party featuring a talk by Austen scholar Kathryn Sutherland at an antiquarian bookstore in London. Tickets are going for £48 (about $61), with proceeds supporting the fundraising appeal.


Quill pen -- transparent BookTheWriter transparent facebook twitter