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By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 11 2018 01:00PM

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


Some writers fill their letters with detailed responses to the works they read, providing a fascinating record of their literary tastes and influences.


Alas, Jane Austen was not such a writer. Her surviving letters offer only occasional tidbits about the books she has read, allowing us to deduce her love of, say, Richardson, Crabbe, and the anti-slavery activist Thomas Clarkson, but offering few details about what she found compelling in their work.


That makes the letter Austen began writing to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 205 years ago today (#91 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) an especially valuable artifact. Austen is on an extended visit with their brother Edward’s family at Godmersham Park in Kent while Cassandra remains home in Chawton; amid news of the comings and goings of relatives and visitors, Austen reports that she has been rereading a well-known contemporary novel, Mary Brunton’s 1811 Self-Control.


I must confess that I have never read Self-Control. For details of its plot -- which features sustained sexual harassment, adultery, a duel, an international kidnapping, and the heroine’s desperate flight from a would-be rapist via Indian canoe – I turned to Wikipedia, ever the lazy student’s friend.


Though little-known today, in its time the novel made a big enough splash that two years earlier Austen had confessed to some trepidation about reading it: “am always half afraid of finding a clever novel too clever--& of finding my own story & my own people all forestalled,” she told Cassandra (Letter #72).


By 1813, however, those fears were past. “I am looking over Self Control again, & my opinion is confirmed of its’ being an excellently-meant, elegantly-written Work, without anything of Nature or Probability in it,” Austen writes. “I declare I do not know whether Laura’s passage down the American River, is not the most natural, possible, every-day thing she ever does.”


It’s not that Austen entirely eschews the melodramatic elements of Brunton’s plot. Adultery, sexual harassment, and dueling do make their way into Austen’s novels, but she is at pains to confine them within the bounds of the everyday -- because, as she makes clear here, her bottom-line commitment is to the realistic and the natural, which she privileges above the artistically pleasing (“elegantly-written”) and the morally praiseworthy (“excellently-meant”).


It’s not much, I admit, but for those of us starved for any sense of Austen’s literary-critical outlook, it’s something.


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 24 2018 01:00PM

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


Jane Austen never lived alone. From her earliest days, she was surrounded by parents and siblings; on visits away from home, she stayed with friends and extended family. Her writing time was snatched in shared living spaces rendered temporarily quiet enough to facilitate mental concentration. Surely she must sometimes have been frustrated by the enforced companionship.


Perhaps that’s why I like to imagine her as she describes herself in the letter she finished writing to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 205 years ago today (#89 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


Austen was on a long visit to Godmersham Park, her wealthy brother Edward’s stately home in Kent, and most of the letter recounts the doings of Edward’s family, friends, and visitors. “We live in the Library except at Meals & have a fire every Even[in]g,” Austen wote.


By the time she finished the letter, however, the others had apparently scattered: “I am now alone in the Library, Mistress of all I survey,” Austen wrote, “—at least I may say so & repeat the whole poem if I like it, without offence to anybody.”


The poem in question is Cowper’s “The Solitude of Alexander Selkirk,” published in 1782, which famously begins, “I am monarch of all I survey.” Selkirk was the marooned sailor whose story helped inspire Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and Cowper imagines him lonely and despairing, pining for human contact.


Austen’s ironic self-description – as she well knew, she was mistress of nothing, least of all Edward’s many expensive books -- suggests more satisfaction than despair: a moment of breathing-room snatched amid the doings of a busy household.


But not for long: by the time Austen finished the letter, a few paragraphs later, she had a message for the people back home in Chawton, courtesy of her eight-year-old niece: “Louisa’s best Love & a Hundred Thousand Million Kisses.”


Louisa was the ninth of Edward’s eleven children. She sounds adorable, and probably also exhausting. No wonder Austen found her moment of solitude in the library worth memorializing in print


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 26 2018 01:00PM

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


As a novelist, Jane Austen was one of the greatest writers who ever put pen to paper. As a poet? Not so much.


The Austens were a literary family – reportedly, Austen’s mother was a dab hand at humorous verse, and as Oxford students, two of her brothers founded a magazine – so it isn’t surprising that Austen sometimes took a holiday from her true vocation and tried her hand at poetry.


Only a few of the results have survived, and although all are interesting to those of us for whom every scrap of Austen’s writing is a sacred talisman, as poetry – well, frankly, they aren’t very good.


The letter/poem that Austen wrote to her naval brother Frank, then in China, exactly 209 years ago today (#69 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) is a perfect example: as poetry, doggerel; as biography, delightful.


Austen writes the letter (which consists entirely of fifty-two lines of verse) to congratulate Frank on the recent birth of his second child and first son, who she hopes will turn out just like his father: a high-spirited boy who will grow into a kind and responsible man. She indulges in some jokey references to Frank’s childhood and then concludes with a glowing report on Chawton cottage, which the Austen women had moved into just three weeks earlier:


“Our Chawton home, how much we find

Already in it, to our mind;

And how convinced, that when complete

It will all other Houses beat

That ever have been made or mended,

With rooms concise or rooms distended.”


Today we know, as she could not, how important that “Chawton home” would become over the last eight years of Austen’s life. Chawton cottage -- now officially called Jane Austen’s House Museum -- was the place where she established the peaceful routines that enabled her to write or revise all six of her completed novels and send them out into the world.


It’s thrilling to glimpse her at the beginning of that fruitful journey – even if that glimpse comes by way of some pretty clunky verse.



By Deborah Yaffe, May 24 2018 01:00PM

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


Although Jane Austen was, famously, not a big fan of Bath, London was a different story: Her trips to the metropolis to visit her worldly brother Henry seem to have been delightful whirls of shopping, parties, and culture – much like London tourism today.


The letter Jane Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 205 years ago today (#85 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) memorializes a London trip during which Austen entertained herself with a whimsical pastime: seeking likenesses of the eldest Bennet sisters -- Pride and Prejudice had been published four months earlier – among the paintings in exhibitions she visited.


At one relatively unheralded exhibit, “I was very well pleased—particularly. . . with a small portrait of Mrs Bingley, excessively like her. . . . exactly herself, size, shaped face, features & sweetness; there never was a greater likeness,” Austen writes. “She is dressed in a white gown, with green ornaments, which convinces me of what I had always supposed, that green was a favourite colour with her.”


(Scholars believe Austen was probably referring to this painting, Portrait of Mrs. Q (Mrs. Harriet Quentin), by the French portraitist Jean-François-Marie Huet-Villiers).




The following Monday, the day her letter was written, Austen attended a far more famous exhibition, the Sir Joshua Reynolds retrospective at the British Institution in Pall Mall, searching in vain for a portrait of “Mrs. D.,” aka Elizabeth Bennet Darcy. “I can only imagine that Mr D. prizes any Picture of her too much to like it should be exposed to the public eye,” Austen writes. “I can imagine he wd have that sort [of] feeling—that mixture of Love, Pride & Delicacy.”


The 1813 Reynolds exhibition is the subject of What Jane Saw, University of Texas English Prof. Janine Barchas’ fascinating online reconstruction of the paintings Austen viewed, displayed as they were two centuries ago. It’s a striking demonstration of the power that comes from marrying literary-historical scholarship to contemporary technology, and it brings to life the afternoon visit that Austen describes to Cassandra.


Scholarship aside, I find it charming to encounter the Austen of this letter -- another fond author, so wrapped up in her imagined people, with their favorite colors and happy marriages, that they seem to go on living once her story ends, becoming as real to her as the real-life sitters in the portraits she viewed. Devouring fanfic Austen sequels or comparing our co-workers to Austen characters, we Janeites can relate


By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 5 2018 01:00PM

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


Publishers jerk authors around.


This is not exactly news, least of all to authors who have argued over titles and cover art, watched publication dates come and go with no action, or pleaded in vain for increases to the publicity budget.*


Nor is this a modern phenomenon, as the letter Jane Austen wrote exactly 209 years ago today [#68(D) in Deirdre Le Faye's standard edition of Austen's correspondence] makes clear.


Six years earlier, in the spring of 1803, Austen – working anonymously through her brother Henry and his lawyer, William Seymour – had sold the manuscript of what eventually become Northanger Abbey to London publisher Benjamin Crosby & Co. for a respectable £10. The book, then titled Susan, was advertised for sale the same year.


And then – nothing. No book ever appeared. It’s hard to imagine a more infuriating and discouraging outcome for a hopeful first-time author.


By 1809, Austen was done waiting. She was about to move into a settled home at Chawton cottage; perhaps she wanted to gather all her unfinished work and get down to some serious revision.


And so she wrote to Crosby & Co. asking that it either publish Susan or dissolve the old contract. “Should no notice be taken of this Address, I shall feel myself at liberty to secure the publication of my work, by applying elsewhere,” she wrote. She signed the letter “MAD” – shorthand for her pseudonym du jour, “Mrs. Ashton Dennis,” but no doubt also a pointed commentary on her state of mind.


With an alacrity notably absent from the earlier handling of Austen’s work, Richard Crosby wrote back three days later. He denied that the firm had ever promised to publish at any particular time (or, indeed, at all), threatened legal action if Austen tried to publish elsewhere, and offered to return the manuscript in exchange for the £10 previously paid.


Austen may have been MAD before; she must have been enraged when she got this insulting reply. Frustrated, too: It took her another seven years – and the publication of four other novels – before she could find the money to buy back her own work. Which, of course, was finally published in 1818 -- exactly two hundred years ago.


(For a fascinating and detailed account of Northanger Abbey’s publication history, check out Deborah Barnum’s post in blogger Sarah Emsley’s ongoing series about Austen’s last two published novels.)


If this sorry episode demonstrates anything – beyond the fact that publishers have mistreated authors for centuries – it is how much persistence, determination, and commitment it took for Jane Austen to get her books into print. She needed a thick skin and deep reservoirs of MAD. Even for an Austen-caliber genius, talent wasn’t enough.



* #NotAllPublishers, of course. I have no complaints about Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which published Among the Janeites.


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