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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.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 20 2019 01:00PM

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


It’s hardly news to dedicated Janeites that the Jane Austen we encounter in her letters – personal correspondence never intended for strangers’ eyes -- wasn’t always nice, at least in the sweet, simpering, derided-by-Henry-Tilney sense of the word. (See under: dead baby joke.)


So it shouldn’t be a shock to encounter Austen cold-bloodedly discussing the recent sad fate of a Southampton acquaintance.


“Mr Waller is dead, I see,” the thirty-two-year-old Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, in a letter begun exactly 211 years ago today (#53 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence). “I cannot greive about it, nor perhaps can his Widow very much.”


Ouch! Not for Austen those conventional pieties in which every departed relative is a beloved husband and revered father. Not for her the dictum to speak no ill of the dead. She didn't like the man, and she won't pretend otherwise just because he's recently deceased.


And what a novelist! Just eighteen words, and yet we know there’s a story in there somewhere: Was Mr. Waller abusive? Was Mrs. Waller unfaithful? Were they a Bennet-style mismatch, or a coldly pragmatic financial alliance, or a May-December love story gone sour? We’ll never know, but in a not-very-nice throwaway line, Jane Austen makes us wish we could.


By Deborah Yaffe, May 27 2019 01:00PM

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


In May of 1817, the gravely ill Jane Austen left her home at Chawton for the last time and traveled to the nearby city of Winchester, where she hoped (vainly, as it turned out) that a new doctor could finally cure the illness that had plagued her for at least a year.


Although Austen survived for another eight weeks, only two letters written from Winchester have come down to us, and one of those only via extracts quoted in the Biographical Notice that her brother Henry appended to the first edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.


Appropriately, the last Austen letter we have in full, written exactly 202 years ago today, was sent to her eighteen-year-old nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh, then a student at Oxford’s Exeter College, who would go on to publish the first full-length biography of his famous aunt, the 1870 Memoir of Jane Austen.


In that final letter (#160 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence), Austen bravely, or wishfully, insists that she is “gaining strength very fast.” With a flash of the playfulness she often brought to her correspondence with nieces and nephews, she vows to complain to the dean and chapter of Winchester Cathedral if her doctor fails to cure her.


But the letter concludes in a subdued and self-lacerating tone more reminiscent of Austen’s grave and soulful prayers than of her witty, self-assured novelistic voice.


“God bless you my dear Edward,” Austen writes. “If ever you are ill, may you be as tenderly nursed as I have been, may the same Blessed alleviations of anxious, simpathizing friends be Yours, & may you possess—as I dare say you will—the greatest blessing of all, in the consciousness of not being unworthy of their Love.—I could not feel this.”


Was this just hyperbole, or the conventional religious sentiments that Austen thought would appeal to her nephew, the future clergyman? Or, as she faced death, did a writer whose works have enriched the lives of two centuries of readers truly feel unworthy of her family’s love? It’s a heartbreaking thought.


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