Deborah Yaffe

Blog

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.


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 28 2019 01:00PM

Jane Austen’s work is, of course, a priceless gift to world culture. But she also pays some more quantifiable dividends, as the latest auction news makes clear.


Last week, a September 1813 letter from Austen to her sister, Cassandra ((#88 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) sold at auction for more than $200,000 -- far above the predicted sale price of $80,000 to $120,000 -- and apparently set an auction record for an Austen letter.


No word yet on the identity of the lucky buyer, but at that price, odds are it was a private collector rather than a museum or library where the letter could go on display. As blog readers will recall, this was the second Austen letter to come on the market this year; the first was bought by Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton, for a far lower price negotiated directly with the seller.


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 9 2019 01:00PM

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


Jane Austen’s letters, with their unpolished emphasis on the minutiae of daily life, don’t offer the reader as many gems as her novels do. Still, a few sentences here and there have earned deserved immortality among Janeites, and one of those memorable passages comes in the letter Austen began writing exactly 205 years ago today (#107 in Deirdre LeFaye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


Written to her twenty-one-year-old niece Anna, the letter is one of several in which Austen offers kind and helpful critiques of Anna’s novel-in-progress, which we know from other sources bore the working title Which is the Heroine? Poor Anna’s writing career largely fizzled out, so it’s the insight these letters offer into Austen’s own writing process that makes them interesting to us today.


Amid tidbits of advice that writers in any century would do well to follow (avoid overly detailed descriptions; ensure that characters behave consistently from scene to scene) comes Austen’s most famous delineation of her own preferred field of action.


“You are now collecting your People delightfully, getting them exactly into such a spot as is the delight of my life,” Austen writes to Anna. “3 or 4 Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on.”


In part, of course, we love this famous passage because it immediately conjures up Austen’s novels (three or four families. . . let’s count. . . Bennet, Bingley, Darcy, Lucas. . . ) and the way she finds a universe of meaning in the tiny worlds she creates.


For me, though, what’s loveliest here is that apparently unconscious verbal repetition: delightfully/delight. If she had been revising the sentence for publication, Austen would surely have avoided the echo by substituting a synonym in one place or the other. But speaking spontaneously about the work that gave her life meaning, her first thought -- and her second -- was pure joy.


Because Jane Austen died too young, leaving too many great books unwritten, it’s easy to slip into the habit of thinking of her with melancholy. It’s worth remembering that she loved what she did.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 20 2019 01:00PM

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


It’s hardly news to dedicated Janeites that the Jane Austen we encounter in her letters – personal correspondence never intended for strangers’ eyes -- wasn’t always nice, at least in the sweet, simpering, derided-by-Henry-Tilney sense of the word. (See under: dead baby joke.)


So it shouldn’t be a shock to encounter Austen cold-bloodedly discussing the recent sad fate of a Southampton acquaintance.


“Mr Waller is dead, I see,” the thirty-two-year-old Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, in a letter begun exactly 211 years ago today (#53 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence). “I cannot greive about it, nor perhaps can his Widow very much.”


Ouch! Not for Austen those conventional pieties in which every departed relative is a beloved husband and revered father. Not for her the dictum to speak no ill of the dead. She didn't like the man, and she won't pretend otherwise just because he's recently deceased.


And what a novelist! Just eighteen words, and yet we know there’s a story in there somewhere: Was Mr. Waller abusive? Was Mrs. Waller unfaithful? Were they a Bennet-style mismatch, or a coldly pragmatic financial alliance, or a May-December love story gone sour? We’ll never know, but in a not-very-nice throwaway line, Jane Austen makes us wish we could.


Quill pen -- transparent BookTheWriter transparent facebook twitter