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By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 18 2019 02:00PM

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


For devotees of the Tom-Lefroy-was-the-love-of-Jane-Austen’s-life-and-the-inspiration-for-all-her-best-material school of thought – and blog readers will recall that I am not a member of this gushy clan -- the letter that Jane Austen finished writing exactly 221 years ago today is a crucial piece of evidence.


Almost three years earlier, Lefroy had spent a few weeks in the neighborhood, visiting his aunt Anne Lefroy, an older friend and mentor of Jane Austen’s. The two young people met, danced, talked, and enjoyed each other’s company – perhaps too much: The Lefroys, concerned that the not-rich Tom might contract a disadvantageous marriage with the not-rich Jane, seem to have rapidly hustled him out of town.


How deeply Austen cared for Tom Lefroy, and how much his departure hurt, are unresolvable questions whose very unresolvability has spawned rampant speculation, not to mention the biopic Becoming Jane. As an old man, Lefroy told a younger relative that he had felt a “boyish love” for Austen. So there’s that.


And there’s this: Letter #11 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence.


Writing to her sister, Cassandra, who is in Kent to help out after the recent birth of their brother Edward’s latest child, Austen reports on a recent visit from Anne Lefroy.


“Of her nephew she said nothing at all, and of her friend very little,” Austen tells Cassandra. “She did not once mention the name of the former to me, and I was too proud to make any enquiries; but on my father’s afterwards asking where he was, I learnt that he was gone back to London in his way to Ireland, where he is called to the Bar and means to practice.”


“Too proud to make any enquiries”: That smacks of wounded pride, at least, and a desire not to let even a close friend – perhaps the close friend Austen blamed for breaking up the budding romance – see how much she had cared. It suggests that even three years later, Austen felt vulnerable and self-protective when it came to Tom Lefroy. That’s not slam-dunk proof that she had loved him, let alone that she still did, but it’s evidence that the relationship was more than a casual flirtation.


On the other hand, she never mentioned him again in a single extant letter, and there is exactly zero evidence that she used him as a model for any of her characters. Could Cassandra have burned all the letters in which Austen despairingly confessed that she would never be able to love again, and that Tom was the man she imagined every time she sat down to create a hero? I suppose anything’s possible.


(**snort**)


Rather than indulge such speculations, however, I prefer to note that one person quietly acquits himself beautifully in the scene Austen sketches in this letter: Her kind father, who presumably knew or suspected that his daughter’s heart had been bruised, and who found a way to get her the information she was too proud to ask for.


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 28 2019 01:00PM

Jane Austen’s work is, of course, a priceless gift to world culture. But she also pays some more quantifiable dividends, as the latest auction news makes clear.


Last week, a September 1813 letter from Austen to her sister, Cassandra ((#88 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) sold at auction for more than $200,000 -- far above the predicted sale price of $80,000 to $120,000 -- and apparently set an auction record for an Austen letter.


No word yet on the identity of the lucky buyer, but at that price, odds are it was a private collector rather than a museum or library where the letter could go on display. As blog readers will recall, this was the second Austen letter to come on the market this year; the first was bought by Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton, for a far lower price negotiated directly with the seller.


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 24 2019 01:00PM

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


When Jane Austen sat down to write a letter to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 211 years ago today, her family was in the midst of transitions both tragic and auspicious.


Two weeks earlier, thirty-five-year-old Elizabeth Austen, the wife of the third-oldest Austen son, Edward, had died suddenly, twelve days after giving birth to her eleventh child. And soon after her death, Edward had offered his sisters and widowed mother the use of a cottage on his estate at Chawton in Hampshire – a secure home at last, after more than three years of journeying from one unsatisfactory temporary lodging to another.


Austen biographers have speculated that it was opposition from Elizabeth -- a gently-bred woman who, family lore suggests, was no fan of her husband’s less exalted relations -- that prevented Edward from offering the cottage sooner.


Whatever the truth – and it’s unobtainable at this distance – the Austen women’s move to Chawton cottage in the summer of 1809 was a boon for world literature. Finally granted peace and stability, Austen found the time and mental space to write or revise all six of her completed novels, publishing four of them before her own untimely death in 1817.


Both the tragic and the hopeful aspects of the family’s situation are on display in Austen’s letter (#60 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence), written from Southampton, where the Austen women were living with the family of another Austen brother, Francis.


Cassandra was staying at Edward’s home at Godmersham, in Kent, helping to care for his suddenly motherless children; meanwhile, the two oldest of Edward’s sons, ages fourteen and twelve, had recently arrived in Southampton for a visit with their grandmother and aunt.


Austen describes her efforts to entertain the two bereaved boys, distracting them from their grief with endless cup-and-ball games and a visit to a ship under construction. She promises that the tailor is at work on their mourning clothes, reports how moved her teenaged nephew was by the Sunday sermon, and passes along condolences from friends.


And, discreetly, she plans for a happier future. “Of Chawton I think I can have nothing more to say, but that everything you say about it in the letter now before me will, I am sure, as soon as I am able to read it to her, make my mother consider the plan with more and more pleasure,” Austen writes.


Her tone is sober and restrained, filled with genuine concern for her abruptly widowed brother and his young children. And yet, she cannot help her moments of optimism about that new home she glimpses on the horizon. “We are all quite familiarised to the idea ourselves,” she writes. “What sort of a kitchen garden is there?”


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.


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