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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, 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.


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