Deborah Yaffe

Blog

By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 15 2020 01:00PM

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


“Only think of Mrs Holder’s being dead!” Jane Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, in the letter Austen finished exactly 207 years ago today (#92 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence.) “Poor woman, she has done the only thing in the World she could possibly do, to make one cease to abuse her.”


It’s hardly news to any reader of Jane Austen’s letters that the great author could sometimes be a Mean Girl—catty about other people’s looks, brains, personalities, and conversation. And this letter from Godmersham, the stately home in Kent where Austen was staying with her widowed brother Edward’s large family and an array of other houseguests, seems to have brought out her mean streak in spades.


The deceased Mrs. Holder (what was wrong with her? We’ll never know) is the least of it, although it is delicious to hear Austen skewering the “poor woman” in the very act of proclaiming her beyond skewering,


Elsewhere, Austen cuttingly sums up Lady Fagg and her five daughters (“I never saw so plain a family, five sisters so very plain!”), a new acquaintance named Mr. Wigram (“They say his name is Henry. A proof how unequally the gifts of Fortune are bestowed.—I have seen many a John & Thomas much more agreable”), and even her own niece Cassy -- the daughter of the youngest Austen brother, Charles, and his wife, Fanny Palmer Austen -- who was all of four years old (“Poor little Love.—I wish she were not so very Palmery—but it seems stronger than ever.—I never knew a Wife’s family-features have such undue influence”).


Even when Austen claims to be pleased with the company, she puts a sting in the tail of her praise: “I like him very much. I am sure he is clever & a Man of Taste,” she writes of a fellow guest, Stephen Lushington, who at the time was representing Canterbury in Parliament. “He is quite an M.P.—very smiling, with an exceeding good address, & readiness of Language.—I am rather in love with him.--I dare say he is ambitious and Insincere.”


It’s enough to make you agree with one of Austen’s most unsympathetic biographers, John Halperin, that “one does have the feeling, reading Jane Austen’s letters, that the milk of human kindness was often kept in the larder, and the tea served with lemon.”


To be fair -- fairer than Halperin is -- Austen's little digs seem to have been kept between herself and Cassandra; as far as we know, she never taunted the Fagg sisters with their plainness or told Mr. Wigram how unfavorably he compared with the Johns and Thomases she knew. Her letters to Cassandra were safe places for Austen to vent her frustration and fatigue about the weeks she spent as a guest, mandated to gratitude and required to make small talk with dullards instead of investing her time in those she truly valued. Perhaps, like the embattled Jane Fairfax in Emma, Austen found herself longing for "the comfort of being sometimes alone!" (ch. 42)


“The Comfort of the Billiard Table here is very great,” Jane confided to Cassandra, in a throwaway remark that illuminates, and perhaps mitigates, the unkindness on display elsewhere. “It draws all the Gentlemen to it whenever they are within, especially after dinner, so that my Br[other] Fanny & I have the Library to ourselves in delightful quiet.”


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, Dec 9 2019 02:00PM

As the holidays approach, you may be bracing for the arrival of that winter perennial, the fruitcake -- baked months earlier, soaked in alcohol, and stashed in a cupboard until gift-giving time.


Here in my little corner of the Janeite universe, I’ve got a few well-preserved morsels of my own: incidental Austen mentions that I’ve been saving up all fall, waiting for the right moment to unwrap the cheesecloth and present them to you. Feel free to sip from a snifter of aromatic brandy as you read.


* Back in September, a Bangladeshi soap opera based on Pride and Prejudice aired its two hundredth (!) episode. The show, Man Obhiman, tells the story of two sisters whose “quest for love creates a series of complications in their lives.” (Doesn’t it always?)


The show airs six nights a week and has been running since January, so for all I know, it may well have passed its three hundredth episode by now. Meanwhile, Google’s Bengali translator isn’t up to the job of figuring out what the title means, so I welcome reader input.


* A young Missouri woman with a Pride and Prejudice obsession and an Austen tattoo – “most ardently,” inked on her right arm – hopes to earn a doctorate and teach literature in college. It’s news because the woman, Abigail Morrall, has a genetic illness called spinal muscular atrophy that seemed likely to kill her in childhood.


Recently, however, a new drug gave her renewed hope for the future, and now she looks forward to a full life. “My favorite place to be in this entire world is in a literature classroom at a university,” she told the University of Missouri’s crack PR team, which fed the story to a local TV station. Here’s hoping -- most ardently! -- that she gets to have the life she wants.


* From time to time, an obituary makes you bitterly regret the passing of a fabulous character you never had the chance to meet. Such was my reaction to the death earlier this year, at age 91, of Elizabeth Burchfield (née Elizabeth Austen Knight), a retired publicist for Oxford University Press and a descendant of Jane Austen’s older brother Edward.


Burchfield, a New Zealander who spent most of her long life in England, was a green-eyed, auburn-haired book-lover who married, in middle age, Robert Burchfield, described in the London Times’ obituary as a “renowned lexicographer and the chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.”


“At a home in Oxfordshire filled with thousands of books, including their fine collection of works from New Zealand. . . . Bob and Elizabeth jousted with guests over words, their provenance and their pronunciation,” the article goes on to say.


Elizabeth gave her eight step-grandchildren books as gifts, employing a careful record-keeping system to ensure no one ever got a duplicate. Included with each gift was a Post-It note describing the book’s virtues.


And in old age “she wrote crisp letters to the press, invariably involving the usage of English,” the obituary notes. “In The Spectator in 2013, for instance, Elizabeth observed: ‘Sir: Dot Wordsworth writes about blazers and jackets. I was always led to believe that gentlemen wore coats; potatoes had jackets.’ ”


OK, they had me at “home filled with thousands of books,” but really – doesn’t she sound irresistible?



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, Jul 25 2019 01:00PM

The fascinating Reading with Austen project, a digital recreation of Edward Austen Knight’s library at Godmersham Park in Kent, got some further publicity last week via an article in the literary/historical journal Lapham’s Quarterly.


As blog readers will recall, Reading with Austen, which went live last fall, features publication information and, where available, digital images of the more than twelve hundred books listed in an 1818 catalogue of the Knight family library. We know Jane Austen spent time in the library during her visits to the family of her brother, who took the name Knight in honor of the wealthy relatives who adopted him.


Recreating the library’s holdings – more than a third of the books are currently on loan to Chawton House, the research library located in the Knight family’s second home, in Hampshire -- offers a window into the literary context that shaped Austen’s work.


“I think it gives us a picture of someone who has the capacity to be much more than this kind of closeted spinster in a bonnet,” Gillian Dow, Chawton House’s former executive director, told Lapham’s writer Rebecca Rego Barry.


Barry’s article situates the Reading with Austen project in the context of similar efforts to recreate, physically or digitally, the book collections of Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, and Edith Wharton. Meanwhile, efforts continue to find, digitize, and perhaps acquire the Knight library’s long-scattered volumes, the better to reconstruct the intellectual milieu that nurtured Jane Austen’s genius.


Quill pen -- transparent BookTheWriter transparent facebook twitter