Deborah Yaffe

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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.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 22 2019 01:00PM


Seventy years ago this week, the premier Janeite pilgrimage site welcomed its first pilgrims.


On July 23, 1949, Chawton cottage, the house in the southern English county of Hampshire where Jane Austen spent the last eight years of her life, opened to the public. Admission cost £1/6d, the equivalent of £2.34 (about $2.91) today.


Chawton cottage, now known as Jane Austen’s House Museum, is more than an Austen residence. It is the place where, after four years of unhappiness in Bath, followed by four more of stress and financial insecurity – eight years in which her literary output seems to have slowed to a trickle – Austen, at thirty-three, finally found the psychological breathing-space to write again.


Chawton cottage was in the gift of the third-oldest Austen brother, Edward, who inherited Chawton House, the nearby Elizabethan manor, and its accompanying estate from the Knights, the rich relatives who adopted him when he was a teenager. By the time Edward handed over the cottage, it was four years since his father’s death, and his mother and sisters, along with their old friend Martha Lloyd, had spent that time moving repeatedly in search of an affordable situation.


Whether Edward’s generosity was restrained by his wife, Elizabeth Bridges Austen, who was reportedly not a member of Jane Austen’s fan club (“A little talent went a long way with the Goodneston Bridgeses of that period; & much must have gone a long way too far,” Austen’s niece Anna Lefroy wrote decades later), remains speculation. It’s a fact, however, that Edward came through with his offer of housing within months of Elizabeth’s sudden death.


The move to Chawton cottage on July 7, 1809 – almost exactly 140 years before the opening of the museum – inaugurated an extraordinary burst of creativity. During her Chawton years, Austen revised the three novels she had drafted in her twenties (Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice) and wrote three new masterpieces (Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion), at last finding publishers, and a reading public, for her life’s work.


To modern eyes, the “cottage,” with its amply proportioned rooms and spacious garden, seems rather too large for that sobriquet, if not quite as large as the palatial dwelling imagined by Robert Ferrars, on the occasion when Elinor Dashwood decided not to pay him “the compliment of rational opposition.” Indeed, by the time it came to the notice of the Austen enthusiasts who preserved it, Chawton cottage had spent a century divided into three apartments for employees of the Chawton estate.


In the 1940s, as England valiantly fought the Nazis, a small group of home-front Janeites fought to save Chawton cottage for the nation, founding the UK Jane Austen Society – the world’s first – to raise money for the purchase. Ultimately, the house was bought by a grieving father in memory of the son he had lost in the war.


This week, the museum will celebrate its anniversary in style: Tomorrow, the first seventy visitors will be admitted at the 1949 price, and on Saturday, a joyous birthday party will feature Regency dancing, Pimm’s cups, picnics in the garden, and, almost certainly, plenty of costumed Janeites.


More or less simultaneously, the museum will be wrapping up its successful appeal for £10,000 in donations toward the purchase of a once-lost fragment of an Austen letter – a reminder that today the museum is not just a Janeite tourist attraction but also an important scholarly resource.


I first visited Chawton cottage in 1982, at sixteen, more than a decade before Colin-Firth-in-a-wet-shirt inaugurated contemporary Janemania, and I found the place magical, one of those rare literary shrines in which a beloved author’s presence seems palpable. My next visit, twenty-nine years later, during my research for Among the Janeites, felt less satisfactory: too much Firthian kitsch in the gift shop, too many tourists crowded into too small a place. (Myself among them, of course – but naturally I didn’t think of myself as just another tourist. One never does.)


Still, whatever the drawbacks of Austen’s modern, movie-driven celebrity, Chawton cottage deserves its self-declared status as “the most treasured Austen site in the world,” even if that extravagant boast does sound like the kind of thing Lady Catherine de Bourgh would say. Wandering through its rooms, a Janeite tuned to the right emotional frequency can still feel Austen's presence everywhere: in the tiny writing table on which she composed her novels, in the elegant quilt she helped to stitch, in the turquoise ring and topaz cross she wore.


Ultimately, Chawton cottage is the place that is most quintessentially Austen, where her life and her work came together and made her, if not the person she was, then at least the writer we know her to be. Seventy years on, it remains the one indispensable Austen shrine.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 31 2019 02:00PM

As regular blog readers know, I find few pursuits more enjoyable than the ogling of Jane Austen-related real estate. This week’s wallowing is brought to us courtesy of Country Life, that venerable catalog of How the Other Half – or, really, the Other One Percent – Lives.


It seems that a house is for sale in the fair village of Chawton, Hampshire -- known to Janeites as the site of Jane Austen’s House Museum, aka Chawton Cottage, where Austen spent the last eight years of her life and wrote or revised all six of her completed novels.


This house, Chawton’s former rectory, is a seven-bedroom, three-bath affair totaling more than 6,800 square feet of living space situated on seven acres of land. There are gardens! Paddocks! A Coach House for stabling the horses!


The house was first built in the fifteenth century – original beams remain visible – but fortunately has been renovated a time or four since then. After serving as the village rectory, it was bought in the late nineteenth century by Montagu George Knight, a grandson of Austen’s older brother Edward Austen Knight and the inheritor of the Chawton estate.


According to Country Life, the home has come to be known as the Dower House because Montagu bought it for “the then-dowager,” although it’s not clear to me who this was: Montagu’s mother died before he acceded to the estate. (And while we’re on the subject of family: Does anyone know why Montagu inherited Chawton when his father had three surviving older sons?)


The Dower House has a further Austen-ish connection, since, beginning in1802, it was the home of Chawton rector John Papillon, whom Edward’s adoptive mother apparently once suggested as a perfect husband for the eternally unmarried Jane. “I am very much obliged to Mrs Knight for such a proof of the interest she takes in me--& she may depend upon it, that I will marry Mr Papillon, whatever may be his reluctance or my own,” Jane Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, in a December 1808 letter (#62 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence). “I owe her much more than such a trifling sacrifice.”


Alas for property values, Austen never did become mistress of the Chawton rectory: Mr. Papillon’s impending, yet never materializing, proposal seems to have become a running joke in the Austen family. (The Austens' Papillon connections are helpfully summarized on the website of the UK Jane Austen Society.)


Whatever its Austen associations, judging from the online photos, the Dower House looks delightful: spacious yet homey and filled with natural light. The price is a bit steep for most of us -- £1.9 million, or $2.6 million – but probably a bargain for the kind of people who read Country Life with more than ogling in mind.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 17 2019 02:00PM

The Janeite world is a-twitter (and a-Twitter) this week over the serendipitous discovery of a Victorian photo album filled with pictures of Austen descendants – the children and grandchildren of her brother Edward, who was adopted by wealthy relatives and took their name, Knight.


It’s an irresistible story: Last November, a history buff in Ireland paid $1,000 for an eBay offering -- and discovered that she’d stumbled across previously unseen documentation tangentially related to the world’s trendiest classic novelist. *


Too bad that, inevitably, press coverage has swept right past the tangential nature of the discovery in order to wallow in the usual silly speculation and inaccuracy.


To wit:

--The Daily Mail: “Austen . . . has never been pictured herself** but the remarkable discovery gives historians an unprecedented insight into the inspirations for her most famous characters . . . . the photo album shows the family and places which are said to have influenced her writing.”


Guys, this is a stretch.


Austen loved her nieces – and her relationship with the eldest, Fanny, whose picture appears in the album, was important enough that it’s plausible to speculate about influences – but most of the people pictured here were children, if that, when Austen died in 1817. A family wedding from 1865 does not give historians insight into Austen’s influences fifty years earlier, no matter how gee-whiz it is that the groom lost his arm in a tiger attack in India.


As for the places that influenced her, only Chawton House, the Knight family manse in Hampshire, seems to be pictured here, and it’s not exactly “unprecedented” news that Austen spent lots of time there. Nearby Chawton cottage, where Austen wrote or revised all six of her finished novels, is now known as Jane Austen’s House Museum, for crying out loud.


For Janeites, it’s ultra-cool to put faces to the names we’ve seen on Austen family trees, but “unprecedented insight” into Austen’s fiction? I don’t think so.


--Jezebel: “Am I the only one who thought Jane Austen’s family was at least Pride and Prejudice-level poor? According to the pictures of her fancy-ass relatives in The Daily Mail, it turns out they were Emma rich. Look at that manor house!”


Sigh. Where to begin?


1. The Bennets of Pride and Prejudice are not poor, whatever Joe Wright’s 2005 movie may have implied to the contrary. They are landed gentry. Mr. Bennet does not have to work. His daughters move in the best circles of their small-pond country world. The Bennet family's problem is not immediate poverty; it’s a lack of security for the future.


2. Jane Austen’s family of origin was also not poor. The Austens were respectably middle class. Unlike the Bennets, however, they were not landed gentry. The Rev. George Austen did have to work, as a teacher and a minister. This is well-documented in roughly a gazillion Austen biographies.


3. But one of Jane Austen’s brothers – the one whose descendants are pictured here – was rich, possibly even Emma rich. (See above.) Again, this is not news.


4. In any case, however, the people pictured here lived long, long after Jane Austen, in a social world far different from her own. Their economic circumstances, while interesting in themselves, don’t tell us much about Austen’s own life.


Still, if you want to ransack the attic again in hopes of finding a previously unsuspected Austen family relic, be my guest. It doesn’t have to offer unprecedented! insights! to be intriguing.



* Novelist and academic Sophia Hillan, the author of a non-fiction account of three Austen nieces who settled in Ireland, mentioned the album in passing in a piece she published last month in the Irish Times. (I mentioned it here.) But the press doesn't seem to have registered the importance of the discovery until a few days ago.


** No big surprise, that, since she died two decades before the invention of photography. (Details!)


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