Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 15 2019 01:00PM

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


Jane Austen’s brothers were a reproductively prolific lot, at least the four who reproduced at all. With the help of six wives, three of whom perished in the process, they produced thirty-three sons and daughters, most of whom survived to adulthood.


Twenty-five of those little girls and boys arrived during Jane Austen’s lifetime, and three dozen of her surviving letters -- more than twenty percent of the total -- were written to five of them. On the evidence of those letters, and of their recipients’ later reminiscences, Austen seems to have been an excellent aunt, proficient at both friendly teasing and kind encouragement and happily devoid of condescension or sentimentality.


The letter that Austen wrote to her 11-year-old niece, Caroline, exactly 203 years ago today (#143 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) is a case in point. Apparently, Caroline, like her older siblings Anna and James Edward, had recently turned her hand to fiction and wanted to know the reaction of the family’s published author.


“I have been very much entertained by your story of Carolina & her aged Father, it made me laugh heartily, & I am particularly glad to find you so much alive upon any topic of such absurdity, as the usual description of a Heroine’s father,” Austen writes. “You have done it full justice—or if anything be wanting, it is the information of the venerable old Man’s having married when only Twenty one, & being a father at Twenty two.”


At this distance, it’s impossible to know what Caroline’s story was about, although the telltale name of the heroine suggests it must have been autobiographical. (Except better! Because what eleven-year-old Caroline wouldn’t prefer to be known as Carolina?) And surely Austen was indirectly teasing her own oldest brother, Caroline’s father James, with her references to Carolina’s “aged” and “venerable” father: In 1816, James was a not-precisely-ancient fifty-one.


Still, teasingly or not, advancing age seems to be on Austen’s mind in this letter: Reporting on the recent visit of Caroline’s big brother, James Edward, Austen describes him as “only altered in being improved by being some months older than when we saw him last. He is getting very near our own age, for we do not grow older of course.”


It’s a commonplace middle-aged joke, rueful but light-hearted. But for us, it’s made poignant by hindsight: We know that Jane Austen would grow only one year older before her untimely death. And Caroline’s father, the venerable James, outlived his sister by only two and a half years, leaving Caroline fatherless at fourteen.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 24 2019 01:00PM

Six years ago, the singer Kelly Clarkson was forced to part with a charming little piece of jewelry she had just picked up at auction in England: a turquoise ring that had once belonged to Jane Austen.


Upon hearing that a precious bit of the nation’s cultural heritage was about to depart for America – oh, the horror! – the UK government slapped an export ban on Clarkson’s ring. Jane Austen’s House Museum, aka Chawton cottage, launched a public appeal that collected the $250,000 necessary to buy the ring back and put it on permanent display.


Apparently, it’s time again for public-spirited Janeites to dig into their wallets and help the museum preserve a treasured piece of Austeniana. A fragment of an 1814 Austen letter is for sale, and although the museum has already raised most of the £35,000 (about $44,500) purchase price, it must come up with the remaining £10,000 ($12,700) by July 31.


If the fundraising succeeds, the letter-fragment will go on display this year at the museum, which also owns another dozen Austen letters. But if the appeal fails, the fragment will likely disappear into a private collection.


The letter in question -- #112 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence – is dated November 29, 1814. While staying in London with her brother Henry, Austen wrote to her niece Anna Lefroy, discussing some family comings and goings and describing her underwhelmed reaction to a theatrical production of an eighteenth-century tragedy (“I took two Pocket handkerchiefs, but had very little occasion for either”). As Austen letters go, it’s fairly routine: interesting because we are interested in everything about Our Author, but not all that exciting in itself.


The text of the letter has been known from family and scholarly sources since the nineteenth century, but sometime after the 1869 publication of the Memoir of Jane Austen, written by Anna Lefroy’s half-brother, James Edward Austen-Leigh, the physical letter was cut up into at least five pieces.


One of these five pieces is in the British Library, and one is in private hands. Two are apparently lost, and as recently as eight years ago, when Le Faye published the fourth edition of her collection of Austen correspondence, the fifth section, which comprises about three-quarters of the text, was also believed lost.


But sometime since then, this lost section apparently resurfaced, and the museum is eager to get it. Signs look pretty good, I’d say: As of this morning, an online appeal had raised £2,871, nearly 29 percent of the required total.


But just in case things still look dodgy a month from now, the museum is hosting a July 23 benefit party featuring a talk by Austen scholar Kathryn Sutherland at an antiquarian bookstore in London. Tickets are going for £48 (about $61), with proceeds supporting the fundraising appeal.


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 17 2018 02:00PM

Fortieth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


It’s not always easy to tell when Jane Austen, master of irony, wants you to take her words at face value. And perhaps that’s why we’re still arguing about the self-assessment contained in the letter she finished writing exactly 202 years ago today (#146 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence). That letter – begun a day earlier, on Austen's forty-first birthday, the last she would ever celebrate – was written to her eighteen-year-old nephew and future biographer James Edward Austen (later Austen-Leigh).


Edward, as the family called him, had just arrived home at Steventon -- where his father, James, the oldest Austen brother, served as rector -- after finishing his high school studies at Winchester College. Like his older half-sister, Anna Austen Lefroy, Edward was a would-be novelist, and apparently two and a half chapters of his manuscript-in-progress had recently gone missing.


“It is well that I have not been at Steventon lately, & therefore cannot be suspected of purloining them,” Austen writes in a letter welcoming him home. “Two strong twigs & a half towards a Nest of my own, would have been something.—I do not think however that any theft of that sort would be really very useful to me. What should I do with your strong, manly, spirited Sketches, full of Variety & Glow?—How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour?”


It’s clear that much of this passage – indeed, much of this whole letter -- is written tongue in cheek. Elsewhere, Austen teasingly encourages Edward to come clean at last about the dissipations of his high school life and, amid much news of the comings and goings of various Austen brothers, directs him not to “be tired of reading the word Uncle, for I have not done with it.”


Obviously, she didn’t really think anyone would suspect her of stealing Edward’s chapters, even if her rave review of his work was an honest critical appraisal and not merely the kindness of a doting aunt encouraging a boy she had known since birth.


So did her irony extend to the apparently self-deprecating two-inches-of -ivory assessment of her own work – perhaps the most famous passage in all of Austen’s correspondence? It’s impossible to know for sure, but I would guess the answer is both yes and no.


Austen surely didn’t long to write with the unpolished exuberance of a teenage boy, and it seems likely that she knew her labors produced the very opposite of “little effect.” Her performance of ladylike modesty is, at least partly, just that: a performance, whose insincerity she perhaps expected Edward to recognize and find amusing.


But there’s enough penetration in the two-inches-of-ivory passage to suggest that Austen wasn’t being entirely ironic. She wasn’t wrong to associate her method with the delicacy and precision of fine brushwork – and certainly she knew that fine brushwork requires great skill. Nor was she wrong to note that her canvas is restricted – though whether that restriction amounts to laser-focus or limitation is a never-ending debate.


Ironic yet serious, self-deprecating yet quietly confident: The very passage in which Austen seems to play down her own artistry bears witness to its inexhaustible subtlety.


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 19 2018 01:00PM

Jane Austen, writing instructor.


Intimidated much? I wouid be. Although Austen gave kind and useful novel-writing advice to her scribbling niece Anna Austen Lefroy, it’s hard to imagine what she would have made of a classroom full of first-year American college students raised on a diet of five-paragraph essays, text-speak abbreviations, and emoji-studded Snapchats.


And, indeed, learning to write from Jane Austen is “challenging,” reports Dartmouth College first-year student Alexandra Rossillo. “You feel like you have to do her justice in your papers.”


OK, I admit that Jane Austen isn’t actually in the room with Rossillo and her fellow students in the first-year writing seminar currently underway at Dartmouth. (Now that would be news.) Instead, the course is an intensive look at Austen’s work, coupled with a demanding schedule of essay-writing and -revising.


It’s often noted that great writers tend to be omnivorous readers of others’ work; transplanted to the classroom, the operative pedagogical theory seems to be that intensive focus on one great stylist will permit the extraction of generalizable writing pointers.


As a rule, I hate the reductive and nuance-flattening self-help approach to Austen – all those on-line lists of “Ten Lessons Jane Austen Teaches Us About Love/Life/Friendship/Self-Realization/[Insert Desired Noun Here]” make me sick and wicked. But I’d make an exception for the use of Austen as a template for aspiring writers. She’s a great stylist (duh) -- but try nailing down exactly what she does that makes her great and you can’t help learning something about how good writing works.


So what can writing students learn from reading Austen carefully? My list is long, but at the top is the importance of economy. When it comes to words, compression equals power. (N.B.: that doesn’t mean that all great writers necessarily write short; it means that every one of their words counts.)


Consider one of my favorite Austenian sentences (or, actually, half-sentences), from chapter 34 of Sense and Sensibility: “She [Mrs. Ferrars] was not a woman of many words: for, unlike people in general, she proportioned them to the number of her ideas.” Come for the biting description of one vapid individual, stay for the whiplash sting of the insult to the rest of us – all in a mere twenty-two words, each one deployed with the precision of a sniper’s bullet, and the whole proving that, unlike people in general, Austen has ideas enough to outnumber her words.


Yep. It’s a master class.


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 30 2017 01:00PM

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


Jane Austen’s books contain few young children, and those few are often disagreeable. While Isabella Knightley’s family in Emma and Charles Blake in The Watsons are rather endearing, only a mother could love the spoiled little Middletons in Sense and Sensibility, the excessively rambunctious junior Musgroves in Persuasion, or the noisy and quarrelsome Price siblings in Mansfield Park.


What all these portraits of children have in common is their unsentimental realism: Although Jane Austen was childless, she knew how children look and sound when they are demanding attention, insisting on staying up late, or asking for a favorite story. And she came by this knowledge honestly, via her relationships with the twenty-five nieces and nephews born in her lifetime.


Her rapport with those real-life children comes through vividly in the few surviving letters that she wrote to them, including the letter she wrote exactly 202 years ago today to her 10-year-old niece, Caroline Austen, the youngest child of Austen’s oldest brother, James.


Jane was in London to correct the proofs of Emma (and, soon after, to nurse her brother Henry through a sudden dangerous illness), and the family were celebrating the recent arrival of the first baby born to Caroline’s older half-sister, Anna Austen Lefroy.


“Now that you are become an Aunt, you are a person of some consequence & must excite great Interest whatever You do,” Austen wrote the little girl with mock solemnity. “I have always maintained the importance of Aunts as much as possible, & I am sure of your doing the same now.” She keeps the joke going as she signs off, “Beleive me my dear Sister-Aunt, Yours affect[tionate]ly, J. Austen.”


The letter is charming because of the way that Austen simultaneously honors and gently mocks the self-centeredness of childhood – for Caroline, the most important thing about Anna’s baby is naturally the aunt-ly status its existence confers – while companionably implicating herself in the same self-centeredness. In the voice of that all-important aunt, it’s not hard to hear an echo of the wry, ironic outlook on human folly that we know so well from Austen’s novels.


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