Deborah Yaffe


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.

By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 28 2015 01:00PM

Eighth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen’s letters.

For those of us fascinated by Jane Austen’s novels, it’s a source of deep frustration that we have so little evidence about her writing process, her sources of inspiration, or her attitude towards her own work.

Accordingly, the letter that Jane Austen wrote to her 21-year-old niece, Anna Austen, exactly 201 years ago today -- #108 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence – is a special treasure. Anna was an aspiring novelist, and this letter, in which Austen critiques her niece’s work in progress, which we know from other sources was entitled Which is the Heroine?, is as close as we get to hearing Austen talk directly about how to write fiction.

The letter skillfully blends encouragement and criticism, praising Anna’s characters and dialogue while gently suggesting improvements aimed at making her fictional world more realistic and less clichéd -- in other words, more like a novel by Jane Austen, by then the author of three published masterpieces. “Henry Mellish I am afraid will be too much in the common Novel style—a handsome, amiable, unexceptionable Young Man (such as do not much abound in real Life),” Austen writes to Anna. Another character, Anna's aunts have concluded, “is too formal & solemn, we think, in her advice to her Brother not to fall in love; & it is hardly like a sensible Woman; it is putting it into his head. – We should like a few hints from her better.”

Austen also pays attention to Anna’s prose. “Devereux Forester’s being ruined by his Vanity is extremely good; but I wish you would not let him plunge into a ‘vortex of Dissipation,’ ” she writes. “I do not object to the Thing, but I cannot bear the expression; -- it is such thorough novel slang—and so old, that I dare say Adam met with it in the first novel he opened.”

As I’ve written elsewhere, Anna’s literary dreams remained mostly thwarted: years after Jane Austen’s death, Anna burned the manuscript of Which is the Heroine? in a moment of depression. Did Austen think Anna a genuinely promising writer, or was she just indulging a beloved niece she had known since babyhood? In true Austenian style, the letter could be read either way.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 20 2013 01:00PM

Anna Austen Lefroy, the second-oldest of Jane Austen’s nieces, inherited the manuscript of Austen’s unfinished Sanditon and was the first writer to try her hand at completing it, as well as the first whose work I'll cover during this Sanditon Summer blog series. From a distance of nearly two centuries, Anna Lefroy’s life has a frustrated, unachieved quality; it seems sadly appropriate that her continuation of the fragment is itself only a fragment.

Jane Anna Elizabeth Austen (1793-1872) – clever, vivacious, perhaps flighty and unstable -- was the oldest child of Jane Austen’s oldest brother, James. She lost her mother as a toddler and spent the next two years living with her grandparents and her doting aunts, Jane and Cassandra, until her father remarried. But Anna and her stepmother, Mary Lloyd Austen, apparently did not get along, and, at twenty-one, Anna escaped into a marriage with Benjamin Lefroy, the son of Jane Austen’s beloved mentor, Madame Anne Lefroy.

The marriage seems to have been happy, but Ben died, at thirty-eight, in 1829, leaving Anna with seven children under the age of fourteen. Her prodigious rate of child-bearing – hardly unusual for the era – had worried Jane Austen. “Poor Animal, she will be worn out before she is thirty,” Austen wrote to another niece in March 1817, by which time Anna had already borne two children in two years and suspected she might be pregnant again. “I am very sorry for her.” Indeed, Anna’s long years of widowhood were spent struggling with ill health and straitened finances.

For Janeites, Anna Lefroy’s most substantial claim to fame is as the recipient of letters containing the only sustained literary criticism that survives from Jane Austen’s pen: in the months before and after her 1814 marriage, Anna asked her aunt to read a novel-in-progress titled Which Is the Heroine? Austen’s constructive criticism – about avoiding cliche, ensuring the accuracy of incidental details and taking care to maintain the consistency of characters – needs no updating to be useful to writers today.

By Deborah Yaffe, May 20 2013 01:00PM

Two weeks ago, I pointed out that, despite the Emporia Gazette's claims to the contrary, none of Jane Austen’s characters ever eats a scone.

Recently, I’ve been reading some of the continuations of Jane Austen’s unfinished last novel, Sanditon, including the one (itself unfinished) that Austen’s niece Anna Lefroy began in the 1830s or 1840s, about twenty or twenty-five years after Austen's death.

Imagine my surprise when I came across the following passage: “. . .on arriving, they found Mrs. Parker already seated behind the skone & tea & Bread & Butter handing about in an unusually business-like way.” The editor’s note confirms that “skone” is an alternate spelling for “scone.”

So it’s not quite true that none of Jane Austen’s characters ate scones: they just waited to dig in until Austen herself was out of the way.

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