Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 20 2020 02:00PM

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


It’s no secret that Jane Austen held a jaundiced view of the frequent childbearing that so often accompanied marriage in her era. But the letter she began writing to her niece Fanny Knight exactly 203 years ago today (#151 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) contains one of her few suggestions for how to solve this problem.


“Good Mrs Deedes!” Austen wrote, referring to Fanny’s maternal aunt, who had recently given birth to a daughter, her eighteenth child in twenty-four years. “I hope she will get the better of this Marianne, & then I wd recommend to her & Mr D. the simple regimen of separate rooms.”


Austen’s Regency contemporaries were far less sexually reticent than their Victorian successors, but it’s still a bit startling to eavesdrop on Austen discussing sex so openly in a letter to an unmarried female relative. (Although, as a twenty-four-year-old with ten younger siblings, Fanny was presumably already well aware of how babies are made.) More striking, however, is what Austen’s acerbic recommendation to the Deedes family tells us about herself.


Austen almost certainly died a virgin, and although some of the relationships in her novels carry a sexual charge, her stories end before the strong friendships and mutual attraction of her heroes and heroines move into the bedroom. As a writer and as a woman, she never wrestled with the question of what role sex should play in a mature and happy marriage, or with the cost of giving it up.


Married at nineteen, Sophia Deedes – the older sister of Elizabeth Bridges Austen, wife of Austen’s brother Edward – was forty-four when Austen prescribed her “simple regimen of separate rooms.” Were the Deedeses a happy couple whose prolific childbearing grew out of mutual passion? Or did Sophia count ceiling tiles while doing her conjugal duty for England? We’ll never know.


But surely Jane Austen must have realized that not every woman, no matter how exhausted by childbearing, would prefer the safety of sexual abstinence to the risks and rewards of a physical relationship with her husband. Perhaps the limitations of Austen’s own experience, or her characteristic preference for head over heart, or her understandable anxiety about the health of her female friends and relatives, made her less than sensitive to the true complexity of the issue.


In any case, the Deedeses apparently didn’t adopt Austen’s prescription: Their nineteenth and final child was born the following year.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 23 2020 02:00PM

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


It’s an occupational hazard of the writing life that once you’re known to be an author, everyone in your life will want you to read their stuff. This works great if you are, say, the historian and author Timothy Garton-Ash, and the friend who wants you to read his new novel is Ian McEwan.


If you are Jane Austen, however, the people who want you to read their stuff will be your unevenly talented nieces and nephews.


And so it was that in January 1817, one of the world’s greatest novelists spent her evening listening to her eighteen-year-old nephew and future biographer James Edward Austen -- who was known to his family as Edward and would later take the name Austen-Leigh -- as he read aloud from his novel in progress.


“He read his two Chapters to us the first Evening;--both good—but especially the last in our opinion,” Austen wrote to Edward's little sister, 11-year-old Caroline, exactly 203 years ago today (#149 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence). “We think it has more of the Spirit & Entertainment of the early part of his Work, the first 3 or 4 Chapters, than some of the subsequent.--Mr Reeves is charming--& Mr Mountain--& Mr Fairfax--& all their day’s sport.—And the introduction of Emma Gordon is very amusing.—I certainly do altogether like this set of People better than those at Culver Court.”


This wasn’t the first time Austen had mentioned Edward’s novel: six weeks earlier, in a letter to Edward himself, Austen had commiserated on the apparent disappearance of two and a half chapters of his manuscript – and, in perhaps the most famous passage in all her letters, described her own work as “the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour.”


Could those missing two and a half chapters, luckily rediscovered, have been the very two chapters that Edward read to his aunts at Steventon weeks later? Impossible to know: Austen-Leigh became a clergyman and apparently never finished his novel, with its familiar-sounding character names. (Le Faye reports that some pages survive in the Hampshire Record Office.) What is clear, however, is how generously Jane Austen nurtured her young relative’s literary aspirations.


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 26 2019 02:00PM

Fiftieth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


The holiday season can be difficult for those of us who find compulsory socializing to be hard work. Although Jane Austen’s letters are filled with accounts of balls, dinners, and visits, her occasional acerbic remarks about the company suggest that she too sometimes found herself longing for solitude.


Such a remark makes its way into the letter that the 23-year-old Austen finished writing exactly 221 years ago today. As she fills her sister, Cassandra, in on a recent visit to mutual friends, Austen mentions a new acquaintance apparently encountered during her stay.


“Miss Blachford is agreable enough,” she writes. “I do not want People to be very agreable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.”


No doubt Austen was teasing, but still, her much-quoted drollery expresses a sentiment that many an introvert could relate to, in this season of office parties: It’s just so. . . fatiguing. . . to expend emotional energy, even the positive kind, on all these strangers.


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.


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