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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, Jul 22 2019 01:00PM


Seventy years ago this week, the premier Janeite pilgrimage site welcomed its first pilgrims.


On July 23, 1949, Chawton cottage, the house in the southern English county of Hampshire where Jane Austen spent the last eight years of her life, opened to the public. Admission cost £1/6d, the equivalent of £2.34 (about $2.91) today.


Chawton cottage, now known as Jane Austen’s House Museum, is more than an Austen residence. It is the place where, after four years of unhappiness in Bath, followed by four more of stress and financial insecurity – eight years in which her literary output seems to have slowed to a trickle – Austen, at thirty-three, finally found the psychological breathing-space to write again.


Chawton cottage was in the gift of the third-oldest Austen brother, Edward, who inherited Chawton House, the nearby Elizabethan manor, and its accompanying estate from the Knights, the rich relatives who adopted him when he was a teenager. By the time Edward handed over the cottage, it was four years since his father’s death, and his mother and sisters, along with their old friend Martha Lloyd, had spent that time moving repeatedly in search of an affordable situation.


Whether Edward’s generosity was restrained by his wife, Elizabeth Bridges Austen, who was reportedly not a member of Jane Austen’s fan club (“A little talent went a long way with the Goodneston Bridgeses of that period; & much must have gone a long way too far,” Austen’s niece Anna Lefroy wrote decades later), remains speculation. It’s a fact, however, that Edward came through with his offer of housing within months of Elizabeth’s sudden death.


The move to Chawton cottage on July 7, 1809 – almost exactly 140 years before the opening of the museum – inaugurated an extraordinary burst of creativity. During her Chawton years, Austen revised the three novels she had drafted in her twenties (Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice) and wrote three new masterpieces (Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion), at last finding publishers, and a reading public, for her life’s work.


To modern eyes, the “cottage,” with its amply proportioned rooms and spacious garden, seems rather too large for that sobriquet, if not quite as large as the palatial dwelling imagined by Robert Ferrars, on the occasion when Elinor Dashwood decided not to pay him “the compliment of rational opposition.” Indeed, by the time it came to the notice of the Austen enthusiasts who preserved it, Chawton cottage had spent a century divided into three apartments for employees of the Chawton estate.


In the 1940s, as England valiantly fought the Nazis, a small group of home-front Janeites fought to save Chawton cottage for the nation, founding the UK Jane Austen Society – the world’s first – to raise money for the purchase. Ultimately, the house was bought by a grieving father in memory of the son he had lost in the war.


This week, the museum will celebrate its anniversary in style: Tomorrow, the first seventy visitors will be admitted at the 1949 price, and on Saturday, a joyous birthday party will feature Regency dancing, Pimm’s cups, picnics in the garden, and, almost certainly, plenty of costumed Janeites.


More or less simultaneously, the museum will be wrapping up its successful appeal for £10,000 in donations toward the purchase of a once-lost fragment of an Austen letter – a reminder that today the museum is not just a Janeite tourist attraction but also an important scholarly resource.


I first visited Chawton cottage in 1982, at sixteen, more than a decade before Colin-Firth-in-a-wet-shirt inaugurated contemporary Janemania, and I found the place magical, one of those rare literary shrines in which a beloved author’s presence seems palpable. My next visit, twenty-nine years later, during my research for Among the Janeites, felt less satisfactory: too much Firthian kitsch in the gift shop, too many tourists crowded into too small a place. (Myself among them, of course – but naturally I didn’t think of myself as just another tourist. One never does.)


Still, whatever the drawbacks of Austen’s modern, movie-driven celebrity, Chawton cottage deserves its self-declared status as “the most treasured Austen site in the world,” even if that extravagant boast does sound like the kind of thing Lady Catherine de Bourgh would say. Wandering through its rooms, a Janeite tuned to the right emotional frequency can still feel Austen's presence everywhere: in the tiny writing table on which she composed her novels, in the elegant quilt she helped to stitch, in the turquoise ring and topaz cross she wore.


Ultimately, Chawton cottage is the place that is most quintessentially Austen, where her life and her work came together and made her, if not the person she was, then at least the writer we know her to be. Seventy years on, it remains the one indispensable Austen shrine.


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.


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