Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 24 2017 01:00PM

Jane Austen was never squeamish about money-making. In a November 1814 letter to her niece Fanny Knight (#114 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence), Austen discussed the likelihood that the recently published Mansfield Park would merit a second edition.

“People are more ready to borrow & praise, than to buy—which I cannot wonder at,” Austen wrote. “But tho’ I like praise as well as anybody, I like what Edward calls Pewter too.”

And so I suspect Austen would have been delighted to hear that last month’s commemoration of the bicentenary of her death reaped financial dividends for Basingstoke, the largest town in the vicinity of her birthplace in Hampshire, England.

The Basingstoke Observer noted this week that the town’s tourist traffic was up 80 percent in July, amid the festivities surrounding the Austen anniversary on the eighteenth of that month. Among the likely tourist draws: the public art trail of book-shaped benches with Austen themes; an exhibit at the local museum about the balls the youthful Austen attended in Basingstoke; and the unveiling of a life-size Austen statue in the town center.

Not surprisingly, town officials hope to keep the magic going even after this Austen anniversary year is over. They’re already encouraging visitors to take pictures with the Austen statue and post them online. Their proposed hashtag: #SelfieWithJane. Although I think #PewterForBasingstoke works, too.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 3 2017 01:00PM

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

Jane Austen wrote for money.

Not only for money, of course – she began writing as an adolescent, long before she had a chance of getting published, and kept going despite rejection and disappointment that must have sometimes made her wonder if anyone besides her family would ever read a word of her books.

But make no mistake about it: She wanted to be paid for her work, and she liked it very, very much when she was. Although her relations, with their genteel squeamishness about women and work, sometimes tried to pretend she gave no thought to pecuniary considerations, her letters make clear that she did. And who can blame her? It’s satisfying to earn a small measure of independence and self-sufficiency through hard work well done.

That sense of satisfaction comes through loud and clear in the postscript to the letter that Jane Austen began writing to her older sailor brother, Frank, exactly 204 years ago today (#86 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).*

“You will be glad to hear that every copy of S.&S. is sold & that it has brought me £140—besides the Copyright, if that shd ever be of any value,” Jane writes to Frank. “I have now therefore written myself into £250.—which only makes me long for more.”

What would Austen have thought if she could have known how valuable the copyright of Sense and Sensibility would indeed become? On the strength of this letter, I’d guess she would have kicked herself for dying too soon to get a piece of that action.

* It’s one of only a handful of surviving letters to Frank: Although he kept his sister’s letters throughout his long life, preserving them even as he captained ships and participated in naval battles, his youngest daughter destroyed them soon after his death in 1865, at the age of ninety-one. So while we’re hating on Cassandra Austen for burning or censoring her letters from her sister, let’s spare a little vitriol for Frances Sophia Austen, who never even knew her Aunt Jane but nevertheless took it upon herself to destroy a priceless part of our cultural heritage.

By Deborah Yaffe, May 22 2017 01:00PM

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

By May 1817, Jane Austen was gravely ill, just surfacing from an attack that had kept her mostly bedridden for more than a month. But in the letter she wrote exactly two centuries ago today – the last surviving letter she sent from her beloved home in Chawton -- she speaks more of her gratitude than of her suffering.

“How to do justice to the kindness of all my family during this illness, is quite beyond me!—Every dear Brother so affectionate & so anxious!—And as for my Sister!—Words must fail me in any attempt to describe what a Nurse she has been to me,” Austen writes to her friend Anne Sharp, in letter #159 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence. “In short, if I live to be an old Woman I must expect to wish I had died now, blessed in the tenderness of such a Family, & before I had survived either them or their affection.”

Lest we worry that on her deathbed, our adored, acerbic Jane Austen morphed into one of those Pollyannaish “pictures of perfection” that, as she had told her niece Fanny two months earlier, made her “sick and wicked,” the ailing Austen still manages a waspish remark or two.

Her less-than-adored sister-in-law, Mary Lloyd Austen, the wife of the oldest Austen brother, James, was lending the family carriage to transport Jane and her sister, Cassandra, to Winchester for medical treatment, and Austen appreciates the favor – up to a point.

“Now, that’s a sort of thing which Mrs J. Austen does in the kindest manner!” Austen writes. “But still she is in the main not a liberal-minded Woman.” Nor does Austen expect Mary’s recent good fortune – the news that James would inherit the property of his wealthy, lately deceased uncle upon the death of his widowed aunt – to improve her character.

“Expect it not my dear Anne;--too late, too late in the day,” Austen writes. “--& besides, the Property may not be theirs these ten years. My Aunt is very stout.” (Indeed, James did not live to inherit – he survived only two more years, while his aunt lived for another nineteen; the property passed to his son. People always live forever when there is any annuity to be paid them, as Fanny Dashwood noted.)

Two days after sending her letter to Anne Sharp, Jane Austen left Chawton for the last time. Eight weeks later, she died in Winchester.

By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 6 2017 01:00PM

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

Devotees of the Victorian novel are familiar with the Will Subplot, wherein family members jockey for the favor of a rich, elderly relative with an unresolved estate plan. Think of Dickens’ Miss Havisham toying with her horrible relations, or George Eliot’s Peter Featherstone having deathbed second thoughts about the disposition of his property.

Jane Austen didn’t write Victorian novels, of course – she died nearly two years before the future Queen Victoria was born – but the last months of her life were shadowed by a real-life Will Subplot. That’s the context for the letter Austen sent her youngest brother, Charles, exactly two hundred years ago today (#157 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).

The Austens were a shabby-genteel family with more breeding and education than money, but one relative had indisputably made good: James Leigh-Perrot, the older brother of Jane Austen’s mother, had inherited a fortune (and a second surname – that’s the Perrot) from a childless relative. Since he and his wife, Jane Leigh-Perrot, had no children of their own, the Austens expected that his death would bring handsome bequests to his sister’s large family, most of whom needed the money badly.

But when Leigh-Perrot died in March 1817, his will “like almost every other will, gave as much disappointment as pleasure,” as Austen wrote presciently in the opening chapter of Sense and Sensibility. Leigh-Perrot left all his property to his wife for her lifetime, with a substantial fortune going to Jane Austen’s oldest brother, James, only after her death. The rest of the Austen siblings got £1,000 each – but they, too, had to wait for their money until after the death of disagreeable Aunt Jane. The disappointment was intense, and Jane Austen, already suffering from the illness that would kill her three months later, felt it keenly.

“A few days ago my complaint appeared removed, but I am ashamed to say that the shock of my Uncle’s Will brought on a relapse,” she wrote to Charles. “I am the only one of the Legatees who has been so silly, but a weak Body must excuse weak Nerves.”

We Janeites, who would do anything to read the novels that Jane Austen might have written if only she’d survived another twenty-five or thirty years, can’t help but resent the pain that Uncle James’ foolish uxoriousness caused Our Jane – even if it seems unlikely that disappointment over the will actually hastened her death, whether caused by Addison’s disease, cancer, typhoid, tuberculosis, arsenic poisoning or a still-unsuspected something else.

It’s poignant, though, to read the bibliographical information that Le Faye includes in her footnotes – information that perhaps explains why this is the only letter from Jane to Charles that has come down to us, even though she surely wrote him frequently all her life. Charles saved this one, labeling it “My last letter from Dearest Jane.”

By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 16 2017 01:00PM

When the whole world is gobbling down a giant ice cream sundae, it can be hard to come along and insist we all switch to spinach. But such is my task today, as I confront the latest Amazing! Austen! Revelation!

I speak of course of the news – I use that word advisedly – that Jane Austen’s eyeglasses show she died of arsenic poisoning.

This alleged new biographical fact came our way courtesy of last week’s blog post by British Library curator Sandra Tuppen, who was reporting on a new research project undertaken by library staff: the analysis of the prescription strength of three pairs of spectacles that the library owns and that may have belonged to Austen.

Optometrical analysis concluded that Austen was far-sighted (“long-sighted,” in British terminology) and that one of her glasses had a very strong prescription, much stronger than the other two. Cataracts can cause deteriorating eyesight; arsenic exposure can cause cataracts; Regency folk were routinely exposed to arsenic in medication, among other places; and at least one writer has speculated that the symptoms of Austen’s final illness suggest arsenic poisoning. Q.E.D.

Well, not quite Q.E.D: to be fair to Tuppen, she concludes only that the analysis of the eyeglasses “may indeed give further credence” to the arsenic-killed-Austen theory. Blame headline writers for cutting the qualifiers to get to the arsenic-sprinkled ice cream sundae of a good story.

By now – after all the real-Mr.-Darcy stories and the this-stately-home-was-the-model-for-Pemberley stories and the newly-discovered-love-of-Jane-Austen’s-life stories – it’s probably pointless to note the six degrees of plausible-to-wild speculation required to get from A to B on this one. But I’ll give it a try nonetheless. I’m a dedicated player of Janeite Whac-a-Mole.

This story requires us to assume that:

1. These eyeglasses belonged to Jane Austen (and not someone else in her family);

2. They were prescribed by a physician who accurately measured Austen’s eye strength (and weren’t off-the-shelf purchases that might have been too strong);

3. They represent deteriorating eyesight (and not a choice to use stronger lenses for close-up work);

4. The deteriorating eyesight was caused by cataracts (and not just normal aging);

5. The cataracts were caused by arsenic exposure (and not something else);

6. The arsenic exposure was severe enough to kill (and wasn’t superseded by some other cause of death).

It all might be true. But we have virtually no evidence for any point except the first. Personally, I like my biographical facts to be, you know, factual. Spinachy, if you will. But hey – have another scoop of ice cream, if you prefer.

As a side note: You also can’t blame Tuppen for a further embellishment of this story -- the claim, apparently first made by Austen scholar Deirdre Le Faye in the New York Times account of the brouhaha, that the British Library’s post says Austen “must have been almost blind by the end of her life,” a point Le Faye disputes by noting that Austen was handwriting letters until six weeks before her death.

In fact, Tuppen’s post makes no such claim – the word “blind” doesn’t even appear in it. Tuppen says only that Austen complained of “weak” eyes. Still, the blindness claim immediately struck me, because, as it happens, the very strong +5.0 prescription in the right-hand lens in one of the pairs of Austen eyeglasses is the same strength as the prescription in one of my eyes (the better one, believe it or not!) -- although, because I am nearsighted, my prescription is -5.0.

My vision is very bad: without my contact lenses, objects begin to look fuzzy to me at seven or eight inches away, and I can’t recognize even close friends at a distance of a couple of yards. Reading is impossible unless the book is practically glued to my nose, and God forbid that I should ever try to drive in that condition.

But I wouldn’t say I’m “almost blind” (or, as the Daily Mail describes Austen’s state, “almost totally blind.”) I can distinguish my surroundings. I don’t walk into walls. I don’t get lost on my way to the bathroom at night. And more to the point, I always wear my lenses, which correct my vision into reasonable adequacy. If Jane Austen’s eyes were anything like mine, I’d bet she, too, could manage just fine.* (And for the record: I don't have cataracts and no one is poisoning me with arsenic. At least as far as I know.)

So Jane Austen wasn't blind, or even close. But did she die of arsenic poisoning? We don’t know. We are no closer to knowing than we were before the glasses were tested. We have no direct evidence either way. Eat your spinach.

* Online vision simulators offer a rough sense of what the world looks like with various eye prescriptions. The near-sighted simulator is here and the far-sighted version is here.

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