Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 24 2019 02:00PM

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


Only hindsight makes anything remarkable out of the letter that Jane Austen wrote to her friend Alethea Bigg exactly 202 years ago today [#150(C) in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence].


It’s a commonplace account of commonplace matters: the weather is pleasant, various young relatives are turning out well, the Austens would like the Bigg family’s recipe for orange wine. Clearly, Austen’s relationship with Alethea Bigg has survived whatever damage it might have sustained more than fourteen years earlier, when Austen accepted and then rejected the marriage proposal of Alethea’s younger brother, Harris Bigg-Wither.


Amid all of the everyday news comes Austen’s account of her own health: “I have certainly gained strength through the Winter & am not far from being well; & I think I understand my own case now so much better than I did, as to be able by care to keep off any serious return of illness,” she writes. “I am more & more convinced that Bile is at the bottom of all I have suffered, which makes it easy to know how to treat myself.”


We can’t know what Bigg made of this account: whether she believed in Austen’s optimism, or ascribed it to wishful thinking, or detected, in the cautious hedging of that oh-so-Austenian phrase “not far from being well,” a suggestion that her self-deception was far from complete.


Whatever Jane Austen and her correspondent realized in January of 1817, within six months, Austen was dead. We know how it all turned out, and that makes Austen’s self-delusion – however successful it may have been -- unbearably poignant.


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 29 2018 02:00PM

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


Talk about burying the lead.


The letter that Jane Austen began writing to her friend Martha Lloyd exactly 206 years ago today (#77 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) covers a multitude of topics: Martha’s ongoing visit to a dying friend, the purchase of a grey cloak and some calico, the comings and goings of assorted relatives and acquaintances.


And then, more than halfway through, we arrive at this passage: “P. & P. is sold.—Egerton gives £110 for it.—I would rather have had £150, but we could not both be pleased, & I am not at all surprised that he should not chuse to hazard so much.”


Yes, thus it is that Jane Austen announces the impending publication of one of the world’s most popular and enduring works of fiction – for which the author received only a single modest payment from publisher Thomas Egerton.


In the notoriously imprecise game of historical currency conversions, her take was the equivalent of somewhere between $6,500 and $8,500 today, depending on which online calculator you use. (Three can be found here, here, and here.) Today, it’s estimated that the novel has sold more than twenty million copies. No wonder that when novelist Michael Thomas Ford turned Austen into a vampire running a bookshop in upstate New York, he imagined her undead ruminations returning repeatedly to the theme of uncollectable royalties.


In retrospect, of course, the Pride and Prejudice deal looks like a financial mistake, but at the time it made sense. In the early nineteenth century, much book-publishing operated on a vanity press model: Authors paid the costs of publication and collected the majority of the profits – or absorbed the losses.


Although Sense and Sensibility, published on these terms in 1811, eventually sold out its first edition and made Austen a modest profit, that outcome was not yet certain in late 1812, when Austen was deciding what to do about P&P. By selling Egerton the copyright of her second novel outright, Austen ensured that her financially strapped family would lose no money.


Further, the deal ensured that Egerton would handle the printing and advertising, which Austen's brother and de facto literary agent Henry would otherwise have had to manage. “Its’ being sold will I hope be a great saving of Trouble to Henry, & therefore must be most welcome to me,” Austen explains in her letter to Martha Lloyd.


If the gender expectations of 1812 had not left Austen apologetically dependent on male relatives to manage her business affairs, would she have felt empowered to hold out for a better deal? It’s impossible to say. No sooner has she passed on the publication news than she’s on to other matters: the purchase of a shawl for their impoverished spinster friend Miss Benn, the allocation of charitable donations at Christmas, the rain. The event that would still seem newsworthy two centuries later is just one more miscellaneous piece of information.


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 15 2018 02:00PM

From time to time, you happen across a story that makes clear how entirely some people miss the point of Jane Austen.


For instance, when you learn that an effort to commemorate her ethically rigorous work with a dozen brass paving-stone plaques has been temporarily thwarted because a thief walked off with two of the plaques, literally before the glue had dried.


Such was last weekend’s sad (but, let’s face it, also kind of hilarious -- at least that part is Austenian) story from Basingstoke, England. Last month, it seems, local officials and heritage organizations set out to install a Jane Austen trail in Basingstoke, the big town nearest to the Hampshire village of Chawton, where Austen spent the last eight years of her life.


The trail is meant to include twelve plaques, each containing a few words from one of two Austen quotes. To reconstruct the quotes in their entirety, you must follow the trail, which ends at the Austen statue erected last year in the town center.


Somewhat oddly, this particular Austen commemoration was apparently inspired by a far sadder and more serious piece of public art: the Stolperstein (stumbling stone) project, originated in Germany in 1992, in which commemorative paving stones mark the last homes in which Holocaust victims lived before they emigrated, died, or were deported to concentration camps.


The launch of the more light-hearted Austen project was planned for October 28, but as local tour operator Phil Howe was installing the plaques, an enterprising thief apparently moved in right behind him. “Whoever stole them must have acted pretty quickly,” Howe told the local paper, “as the product I used to put them in place is pretty stern stuff once it sets.”


I'm still trying to figure out what value two brass plaques etched with a few random words could possibly have. Can you melt them down for scrap? Search me.


Just to add an extra touch of irony, however, one of the quotes rendered less than comprehensible by the plundering expressed the twenty-four-year-old Jane Austen’s unflattering evaluation of the available pickings at a local ball: “There was a scarcity of men in general, and a still greater scarcity of any that were good for much” (Letter #24 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


The other quote – the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice – is so familiar to Janeites that we could recite it even if a thief stole all its plaques.


Nevertheless, the local Austen boosters plan to replace the stolen items -- assuming the thief fails to behave as Jane Austen would certainly require, and return them at once.


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


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