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By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 14 2020 01:00PM

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


The letter that the 28-year-old Jane Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 216 years ago today (#39 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) is dated from Lyme, where the Austen family was spending a late-summer holiday.


For fans of Austen’s novels, that dateline, and the echoes of Persuasion that it summons, may be the most notable thing about this letter: Although we know that the Austens spent two holidays in the seaside village, in 1803 and 1804, this is the only letter that survives from either visit.


The letter provides a kaleidoscopic, slightly mordant glimpse of the social scene that Cassandra had recently left behind, as she journeyed to spend time with family friend Martha Lloyd and her ailing mother.


Miss Bonham, Austen writes, is recovering from an illness but “tho’ she is now well enough to walk abroad, she is still very tall & does not come to the Rooms.” The relations of an Irish viscount are “bold, queerlooking people, just fit to be Quality at Lyme.” (Ouch!) A throwaway mention of a tradesman called Anning—Richard Anning, cabinetmaker and carpenter? Austen doesn’t say--conjures up tantalizing visions of an unrecorded meeting between two great nineteenth-century women: Jane Austen unwittingly crossing paths with Anning’s then-five-year-old daughter, Mary, the future paleontologist.


But my favorite passage in the letter describes a morning visit to a Miss Armstrong, which had revealed that “[l]ike other young Ladies she is considerably genteeler then her Parents; Mrs Armstrong sat darning a p[ai]r of Stockings the whole of my visit,” Jane tells Cassandra. “But I do not mention this at home, lest a warning should act as an example.”


Given that the Austens' own mother was not only a clever woman seeking to marry her daughters off advantageously but also a distant relation of a duke, it seems unlikely that Jane seriously worried that she would take up stocking-mending in company. No, to me this reads like a private joke between sisters: Parents! Aren’t they embarrassing?


By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 30 2020 01:00PM

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


Some years ago, as I was finishing up Among the Janeites, I decided to include an appendix summarizing the plots of Jane Austen’s novels, so that readers who were rusty on the details wouldn’t be lost when I referred to specifics.


As I boiled Austen’s brilliant creations down to their bare bones -- meetings, flirtations, dances, proposals, marriages – I came to a realization: It’s not about the plots. Austen’s genius lies not in what happens but in how it happens, and who it happens to.


It’s an obvious point, but one that seems lost on those readers who complain that nothing happens in Austen’s novels -- or at least nothing important, like war and politics and economic change. For these readers, novels are all about plot, and plot is all about incident.


Curiously enough, it seems that Austen herself was sometimes susceptible to this misunderstanding. Or so we might conclude from the letter she wrote to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 209 years ago today (#72 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence), in which Austen discusses her efforts to obtain a copy of the hot novel du jour: Mary Brunton’s Self-Control, whose first edition had sold out soon after publication two months earlier.


“We have tried to get Self-controul, but in vain,” Austen wrote from London, where she was staying with her older brother Henry. “I should like to know what her Estimate is—but am always half afraid of finding a clever novel too clever--& of finding my own story & my own people all forestalled.”


To us, it’s unthinkable that Austen could ever have feared being eclipsed by a writer as obscure as Brunton is today – especially since we know that it’s Austen’s unforgettable characters and incomparable prose, not some easily cribbed storyline, that make her so extraordinary. Still, there’s something appealing, and perhaps a little bit sad, about this glimpse of Austen’s insecurity. Even the Immortal Jane suffered from the self-doubt that is every writer’s portion! The genius was human after all!


Two years later, by contrast, Austen no longer felt intimidated by Brunton’s success: in an October 1813 letter, Austen describes Self-Control – whose plot is a luridly melodramatic affair climaxing in a desperate escape via Indian canoe -- as “an excellently-meant, elegantly-written Work, without anything of Nature or Probability in it.”


Why the new self-confidence? Austen’s work was just as brilliant as it had been two years earlier, but everything else had changed in the meantime. In April of 1811, Austen was an unpublished scribbler who wouldn’t see her first book into print for another six months. By October of 1813, she had sent two successful novels out into the world and was finishing up a third. By then, she must have known that it wasn’t about the plots.


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 9 2020 01:00PM

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


It’s no secret that Jane Austen’s relatives, while immensely proud of her achievements, sometimes felt that her rough edges could use a bit of smoothing.


Thus it was that her brother Henry, in the biographical notice appended to the first edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, insisted that none of her unpleasant characters were drawn from life. Thus it was that her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh, in his 1869 Memoir of Jane Austen, portrayed the acid satirist as a kindly and domestic spinster aunt.


And thus it was that earlier generations were treated to an absurdly bowdlerized version of the letter that Jane Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 206 years ago today (#99 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


In 1884, Austen’s great-nephew, Edward, Lord Brabourne, published a collection of Austen letters – including this one -- discovered among his mother’s effects after her death. Brabourne’s mother, Fanny Knatchbull, was the eldest Austen niece, and she and her Aunt Jane were remarkably close: “I found her . . . almost another Sister, & could not have supposed that a niece would ever have been so much to me,” Austen wrote in 1808, when Fanny was fifteen and Jane thirty-two.


Brabourne was a sensitive reader of Austen’s work: “She describes men and women exactly as men and women really are, and tells her tale of ordinary, everyday life with such truthful delineation, such bewitching simplicity, and, moreover, with such purity of style and language, as have rarely been equalled, and perhaps never surpassed,” he wrote in an introduction to the letters. Nevertheless, in her real-life persona, Austen’s earthy straightforwardness made him squeamish.


In Letter #99, Austen, visiting her brother Henry in London, sends an account of her doings back home to Cassandra, who has been hosting their five-year-old niece, Cassandra Esten, at Chawton Cottage.

Apparently, little Cassy had slept in Aunt Jane’s bed, for in her valediction, Austen writes, “Love to all. If Cassandra has filled my Bed with fleas, I am sure they must bite herself.”


This joke, which hardly seems scandalous to modern eyes, was too much for Brabourne’s Victorian sensibilities: Cassy’s fleas are silently omitted from his transcription of the letter. And so Jane Austen’s perhaps undeserved reputation for ladylike unconcern with indecorous physical matters survived for another day – or another forty-eight years, until R.W. Chapman’s edition of Austen’s letters restored the missing fleas.

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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, 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.


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