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By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 25 2019 01:00PM

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


Those of us who feel strongly about books sometimes subject new acquaintances or romantic prospects to a compatibility test: Recommend a favorite work and see how the newbie responds to it. It may be possible to love someone with bad taste in literature, but – well, let’s just say that I’ve never managed it.


Jane Austen’s oldest niece, Fanny Knight, was particularly ruthless about administering the Book Test -- or so we might infer from the letter Austen finished writing her exactly 202 years ago today (#155 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


In her previous letter, twenty-four-year-old Fanny had apparently described the reaction of a neighbor, Mr. Wildman, to one of Aunt Jane’s novels. Which she had carefully omitted to tell him was by her aunt, the better to elicit a brutally candid, inconveniently self-revealing response. ("I agree with your Papa, that it was not fair," Austen chided Fanny.)


Fair or not, brutal candor seems to be what Fanny got: Although it’s not clear which book Mr. Wildman read, Austen assures Fanny, “I had great amusement in reading [his opinion], & I hope I am not affronted & do not think the worse of him for having a Brain so very different from mine.”


What Mr. Wildman preferred in a novel can be deduced from Austen’s deathless statement of her own credo: “He & I should not in the least agree of course, in our ideas of Novels & Heroines;--pictures of perfection as you know make me sick & wicked.” *


Apparently Mr. Wildman had told Fanny that he “wish[ed] to think well of all young Ladies”: perhaps he’d been struggling to do so when confronted with, say, Lucy Steele or Caroline Bingley.


The Mr. Wildman in question was, according to Le Faye’s footnotes, twenty-eight-year-old bachelor James-Beckford Wildman, the master of an estate worth £20,000 a year -- twice as much as Mr. Darcy’s Pemberley. (Talk about a single man in possession of a good fortune!) It’s not hard to imagine poor Mr. Wildman harboring hopes of uniting his sizeable property with that of the heiress next door – until he utterly failed her tricky Book Test.



* Such a great line! Someone should put that on a mug or a totebag.


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!)


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 30 2017 02:00PM

Pity the poor aristocrat. Your stately home is decaying, your heating bill is through the (leaky) roof, and you lack the millions required to refurbish it all. If only your family hadn’t sold off the jeweled icons to keep themselves in Malvern spring water!


Blog readers will recall that I’m a sucker for stories about cash-strapped heirs to once-great fortunes struggling to live amid the ruins of former glory. (See under: 12th Earl of Shaftesbury.) The renovating-the-dilapidated-manor plot appeals to my childhood dollhouse fixation; the caught-between-rungs-on-the-class-ladder element speaks to my inner Evelyn Waugh fan. And when there’s a Jane Austen connection, no matter how distant? Catnip. (See under: Caroline Knight.)


So naturally I ate up this story (available here, here and here) about a descendant of the Russian royal family who lives in an underheated thirty-room mansion in Kent once inhabited by Jane Austen’s niece Fanny. You’ve got to love someone who can legitimately call herself “Princess Olga,” especially if her father played with the tsar’s children before their gruesome murders and her mother was a “Scots-Scandinavian flour-mill heiress.” (Seriously: Edith Wharton wants her plot back. Right now.)


Provender House, the half-decrepit, half-renovated pile in question, looks like an interesting place, although you wouldn’t catch me spending my days somewhere so freezing that its owner “seems to live in a blue ski jacket to stave off the biting cold in the many unheated rooms.” (Shades of Fanny Price in the East Room with no fire. . .)


As a pedantic Janeite purist, however, I was displeased to find Provender’s website describing a previous owner -- Edward Knatchbull-Hugessen, the husband of Fanny Knight – as “9th Baronet and first Lord Brabourne.” The most cursory reader of Wikipedia, let alone any die-hard Janeite, knows that the first Lord Brabourne was in fact Edward and Fanny’s son, best known as an early editor of Austen’s letters. Such sloppiness doesn't bode well for the factual accuracy of the princess' recently published memoir, Princess Olga: A Wild and Barefoot Romanov.


Speaking of wild, I was also excessively diverted by this journalistic speculation, from coverage of Provender in the online magazine Faversham Life: “There is no record of Jane Austen visiting but it is surely extremely likely.” Not so much, actually, since Fanny married her baronet three years after Aunt Jane’s death. But hey – every decaying estate in search of tourist dollars needs its Jane-Austen-slept-here cachet. You can’t blame a strapped aristocrat for trying.


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 20 2017 02:00PM

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


Only six of Jane Austen’s letters to her oldest niece, Fanny Knight, survive, but for Janeites mining for links between Austen’s work and Austen’s life, that tiny correspondence is chock-full of golden nuggets.


Scarcely seventeen years separated aunt from niece, and Fanny seems to have enjoyed parsing her romantic dilemmas with this sympathetic and interested older confidante, in a pre-telephonic version of “And then he said. . . . And then I said. . . . And then he said. . . .”


Austen’s letters to Fanny fall into two groups: two letters written in November 1814, when Fanny was twenty-one and Austen thirty-eight; and three more written some two and a half years later, in early 1817, when Fanny was twenty-four and the forty-one-year-old Austen had only months to live. (The sixth letter, which contains a few verses of doggerel, was written years earlier, when Fanny was a child.)


The letter Austen finished writing exactly 203 years ago today -- #109 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence -- is the first of two in which Aunt Jane addresses Fanny’s fluctuating feelings for the young clergyman John Plumptre. (I blogged about the second of these letters here.)


To me, what’s most interesting about Letter #109 is the way that Austen’s reactions to Fanny resonate with incidents or dialogue in her work. Apparently, Fanny has visited Plumptre’s home, hoping to stimulate her waning passion by a view of his things. Austen can’t help giggling at the idea. “The dirty Shaving Rag was exquisite!--Such a circumstance ought to be in print,” she writes. And little more than a year later, with the publication of Emma, the world was introduced to Harriet Smith’s “Most precious treasures” – a worn-out pencil stub and an extra bit of court plaister, saved as stimuli to romantic nostalgia. Was Fanny’s dirty shaving rag an inspiration for Harriet’s treasure trove? Impossible to say – but tempting to speculate.


The letter contains an even more explicit echo of Austen’s fiction. After cataloguing the worthy Mr. Plumptre’s many merits, Austen nevertheless advises Fanny to consult her own feelings: “Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection,” Austen writes.


Was Jane Austen channeling, consciously or unconsciously, the gentle, optimistic Jane Bennet -- in chapter 59 of Pride and Prejudice, published the year before -- who, confronted with the news of Elizabeth’s engagement to Mr. Darcy, cries, “Oh, Lizzy! do anything rather than marry without affection”? Impossible to know – but tempting to speculate.


In their insistence on marital love, both Janes are speaking to young women for whom the prudential and the romantic need not conflict: for the fictional Lizzy, because she has fallen in love with a wealthy man, and for the real-life Fanny, because she is herself an heiress. But Austen’s advice also echoes a far darker passage in her work – a snippet of dialogue in the early pages of her fragment The Watsons, in which the idealistic Emma Watson and her older, less naïve sister Elizabeth discuss the search for a husband.


“I would rather be a teacher at a school (and I can think of nothing worse) than marry a man I did not like,” exclaims Emma, who has grown up with a wealthy aunt and only recently returned to her struggling birth family.


“I would rather do anything than be a teacher at a school,” Elizabeth replies. “I have been at school, Emma, and know what a life they lead you; you never have.”


Austen undoubtedly took Fanny’s romantic woes seriously, but she must have realized that the stakes were far lower for a young woman who, even if she stayed single, would never have to face the hard work and genteel poverty of teacher or governess. And perhaps that is why, amid her genuine concern for the feelings of Fanny and the unfortunate Mr. Plumptre, Austen’s wry, unromantic common sense cannot help but assert itself.


Fanny has encouraged her suitor, and therefore pain awaits him if she changes her mind, Austen acknowledges. But not that much pain. “I have no doubt of his suffering a good deal for a time, a great deal, when he feels that he must give you up,” she writes, “but it is no creed of mine, as you must be well aware, that such sort of Disappointments kill anybody.”


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 13 2017 01:00PM

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


Jane Austen: realist or romantic? Cynic or softie? You’ll find Janeites on both sides of that argument.


And maybe you’d even find Austen herself on both sides – or so we might conclude from the letter she wrote to her eldest niece, twenty-four-year-old Fanny Knight, exactly two hundred years ago today (#153 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


In all five surviving letters to Fanny, Aunt Jane offers some kind of commentary on Fanny’s affairs of the heart. More than two years earlier, as I wrote here, Fanny had sought advice about her fluctuating feelings for a young clergyman named John Plumptre, and in this letter, Austen is responding to Fanny’s account of the hot-and-cold attentions of a wealthy landowner named James Wildman.


Austen dispatches Mr. Wildman quickly – “By your description he cannot be in love with you, however he may try at it, & I could not wish the match unless there were a great deal of Love on his side,” she writes. Briefly, she digresses to discuss other acquaintances Fanny had apparently mentioned in her previous letter, including one whose recent death might have left her unmarried daughter in financial straits.


And then, as if by an irresistible association, Austen is back to the marriage question. “Single Women have a dreadful propensity for being poor—which is one very strong argument in favour of Matrimony,” she writes. For a Janeite, the line immediately evokes the many struggling single women of Austen’s fiction: the Dashwood family, in Sense and Sensibility, left unprovided for upon the patriarch’s death; Mrs. and Miss Bates of Emma, making ends meet on the charity of their neighbors; Anne Elliot’s widowed friend Mrs. Smith, in Persuasion, ill and alone in downmarket lodgings in Bath.


The prudential message seems clear: For women, marriage is less a romantic culmination than an insurance policy – or, as Pride and Prejudice’s Charlotte Lucas might put it, “the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness. . . their pleasantest preservative from want.”


But perhaps Austen hesitated to convey quite so harsh a message to her beloved niece, who was, after all, a well-educated young woman with a substantial fortune, thanks to her father’s adoption by the wealthy Knight family. For Austen immediately follows her ultra-pragmatic recommendation of marriage with a kinder, gentler bit of reassurance: “Do not be in a hurry; depend upon it, the right Man will come at last; you will in the course of the next two or three years, meet with somebody more generally unexceptionable than anyone you have yet known, who will love you as warmly as ever He [Plumptre] did, & who will so completely attach you that you will feel you never really loved before.”


Perhaps Austen could tell that Fanny – by our standards still young, but by the standards of her own time aging rapidly through her marriageable years – was getting anxious about her prospects. And surely it couldn’t have escaped Fanny’s notice that the reassurances her aunt was offering were hardly supported by the evidence of that aunt’s own perpetual spinsterhood.


Austen knew from experience that not every woman has the luck to find both love and financial security in a single package. But though she was too much of a realist to overlook the necessary economic rationale for marriage, she was too much of a romantic to consider that rationale sufficient.


Still, as it happens, Aunt Jane’s reassuring advice was right: Three and a half years after this letter, Fanny married a baronet.


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