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By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 23 2018 01:00PM

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


The young Jane Austen was a voracious reader. We know this because her earliest works, the Juvenilia, are clever satires of everything she read – the overwrought melodramas with their impossibly handsome heroes and swooning heroines, the partisan histories masquerading as objective fact, the plays stuffed with prosy, circuitous dialogue.


Even the short letter the 20-year-old Austen wrote exactly 222 years ago today (#3 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) shows traces of this parodic impulse. Austen and two of her brothers had left the family home in Steventon the day before, and Jane’s brief note served to inform their sister, Cassandra, that they had arrived safely in London.


“Here I am once more in this Scene of Dissipation & vice, and I begin already to find my Morals corrupted,” Austen writes. “Edward & Frank are both gone out to seek their fortunes; the latter is to return soon & help us seek ours. The former we shall never see again.”


In Austen’s comic formulation, she isn’t a beloved younger sister carefully chaperoned by respectable male relatives. She’s the heroine of a sentimental melodrama, abandoned to her own devices in a threatening city where a young woman’s virtue is easily lost.


In reality, the Austens’ London trip was only a brief stopover en route to Edward Austen’s family home in Kent. A visit to Astley’s, the famous Regency equestrian circus, was about as dissipated as it got.


Or was it? Enthusiasts of the Tom-Lefroy-love-of-Jane-Austen’s-life theory find it intriguing that while in London, the Austen siblings seem to have stayed with the former MP Benjamin Langlois, Tom’s mentor and great-uncle. Indeed, Austen scholar Jon Spence, author of the book that inspired the biopic Becoming Jane, argues that Austen and Lefroy saw each other there, just seven months after the day on which, Austen wrote, “I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy.”


If so, Austen’s letter contains no hint of such an exciting, not to say melodramatic-novel-worthy, development, which Cassandra would surely have been eager to hear about. Perhaps all the good stuff was in the following week’s letters, which Le Faye informs us are missing. Or perhaps all the drama of the visit took place in Austen’s playful imagination.


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 21 2017 02:00PM

People who do not write fiction often have trouble believing that novelists just, you know, make stuff up. These readers seize upon every real or apparent parallel between events in the author’s life and events in her stories and use these supposed connections to “explain” the work, or the life, or both.


As blog readers will recall, I’ve always found this approach to literary criticism a condescending diminishment of the creative process -- and, when it comes to a genius of Jane Austen’s caliber, downright insulting. But it’s a tendency that has persisted for centuries. Why, it was just last week that I was remarking upon how adeptly Austen handled the delicate problem of an overenthusiastic fan volunteering to give her real-life material for her stories, as if she needed the help.


And now the Twitterverse agrees with me.


Last week, the Washington Post had the misfortune to mark Jane Austen’s birthday with an article that was, to put it charitably, a tired retread of well-worn tales about Jane Austen’s limited romantic history. “Husband-hunting butterfly”? Check. Tom Lefroy? Check. Harris Bigg-Withers? Check.


Then the WaPo headlined the story “Jane Austen was the master of the marriage plot. But she remained single.” Then they tweeted out the headline. Then the Twitterverse ridiculed them (see accounts of the brouhaha, along with some diverting comments, here, here, here, here and here) for suggesting a) that writers can only write out of personal experience; b) that Austen should be thought of primarily as a writer about romance; and c) that marriage is the ultimate goal for women and anything else – say, enduring worldwide literary fame -- is a mere consolation prize.


As these tweetstorms so often are, this one was a little bit unfair -- the WaPo story was pointless and dull, but it didn’t really make the silly claims Twitter attributed to it. (Instead, it made other silly claims. I direct your Janeite attention to the extraordinarily misleading sentence, “Austen’s six novels burnish the institution of marriage.”)


Nonetheless, the exchange was a bracing and entertaining reminder that We Do Not Like It when you mess with Jane Austen. Altogether delightful. Call it an early Christmas present.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 9 2017 02:00PM

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


If Cassandra Austen had known how much speculation would be spawned by the letter her sister Jane wrote her exactly 221 years ago today, she would surely have consigned it to the flames, along with the uncounted others she burned before her death.


Instead, however, Cassandra preserved it, and as a result it became the earliest Jane Austen letter that has come down to us -- #1 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence. I’ve always wondered if the outsize attention this letter has received owes something to that accidental position of prominence: The very first time we encounter the joyful, chatty voice of the twenty-year-old Jane Austen, she’s talking about her crush on a young man named Tom Lefroy.


“I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved,” Austen writes to Cassandra, away in Berkshire visiting the family of her fiancé, Tom Fowle. “Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together. . . . He is a very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man, I assure you. But as to our having ever met, except at the three last balls, I cannot say much, for he is so excessively laughed at about me at Ashe, that he is ashamed of coming to Steventon, and ran away when we called on Mrs Lefroy a few days ago. . . . After I had written the above, we received a visit from Mr Tom Lefroy. . . . he has but one fault, which time will, I trust, entirely remove – it is that his morning coat is a great deal too light. He is a very great admirer of Tom Jones, and therefore wears the same coloured clothes, I imagine, which he did when he was wounded.”


Obviously, she liked him. Apparently, he liked her back. A few days later they parted, never to meet again. And largely on the basis of this letter, plus references to Lefroy in two others, a cottage industry has arisen devoted to the proposition that Tom Lefroy, the Irish nephew of Austen’s friend and mentor Anne Lefroy, was the love of Austen’s life, the real-life model for Mr. Darcy, the reason she never married, the muse who inspired her greatest work. . . you name it.


In his 2003 book Becoming Jane Austen, the scholar Jon Spence claimed that Austen and Lefroy had a longer-lasting and more serious relationship than the few references in her letters suggest. The 2007 film Becoming Jane, inspired by Spence’s work, took that thesis and ran with it, positing a romance, a first kiss, a thwarted engagement, an abortive elopement, a selfless renunciation and a poignant late-life reunion.


Since I haven’t read Spence’s book, I can’t say how convincing his scholarship is, but there’s no question that the movie encouraged a generation of filmgoers to conclude that Jane Austen wrote those books of hers (“They’re romance novels, right?”) in wistful tribute to the first love she never got over. Loyal blog readers will recall that I am, shall we say, not charitably inclined toward this thesis, which rests largely on thinly documented speculation about the psychological state of someone who died two centuries ago.


I won’t go so far as to say that I wish Cassandra had tossed the Lefroy letter onto her bonfire. No, I treasure every scrap of Austen’s prose too much for that. But I wish the rest of us could stop speculating about Austen’s love life and go back to reading her books.


By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 20 2015 01:00PM

“Jane Austen fans rejoice,” commands the Hollywood business website The Tracking Board. “Voltage Pictures is moving forward with a new romantic comedy based on the life of the prolific author.”


Well, I’m a Jane Austen fan, and I’m not rejoicing. And not merely because I’m still trying to figure out how Austen, who completed only six novels, could be called prolific.


No, that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach is occasioned by the news that "Jane by the Sea" is going to intercut scenes from Austen’s life “with developing scenes from her in-progress novels as she writes them, to better dramatize what influenced them and how they came to be.” Special emphasis, natch, on “the loves of the author’s life, and how those experiences shaped her writing.”


The movie is apparently based on a recently published Austen spinoff novel of the same title, by Carolyn V. Murray. I haven’t read it. It may be fabulous.


But my heart always sinks when I read about efforts to link Austen’s life to specific scenes in her work, or to trace her inspiration back to Tragic Unhappiness in Love.


I’m inherently suspicious of biographical explanations, because the inconvenient truth is that we don’t know all that much about a) Austen’s life, or b) Austen’s writing process. It’s fine to speculate about whether this or that Austen friend or relative was the model for this or that (usually unpleasant) character. I enjoy literary parlor games as much as the next book nerd. But I like my speculation to be clearly labeled as such, not dressed up as biographical fact.


And I’m deeply irritated by the assumption that we can attribute Austen’s artistic genius to romantic disappointment. Need I point out that male authors, even those with notoriously troubled love lives, never get this Poor Little Spinster treatment? We seem to have no difficulty understanding, and respecting, a compulsion to create when it emanates from a male imagination. But when it comes to Jane Austen, it’s all about the guy she had a crush on in 1795. (By which time she had been writing furiously for about eight years. But never mind.)


What harm can one little movie do, you may ask? Well, let us turn to this recent Huffington Post story, which claims that “Jane Austen fell for a man named Tom Lefroy but when his family prevented the match she channelled her heartbreak into writing the book that became Pride and Prejudice.” You’d never guess from this breezy statement of alleged fact that the intensity of the original crush, the extent of the heartbreak and the validity of the literary inspiration are all hotly contested, and that in any case the whole story is extrapolated from little more than a few sentences in Jane Austen’s letters.


Since the author of the HuffPo piece seems to be under the impression that Austen was a Victorian, it’s a fair guess that she’s no Janeite, and probably hasn’t read Jon Spence’s Becoming Jane Austen, the scholarly book that posited the debatable Lefroy thesis. It seems far more likely that her information comes from 2007's "Becoming Jane," the truly terrible Anne Hathaway movie based on Spence’s theory.


I detest this movie, and not only because of its overwrought portrayal of the love affair (“Jane. . . I cannot live this lie!”). What really annoys me are the scenes in which Austen’s acquaintances spout famous Austen lines -- while, presumably, young Jane surreptitiously presses the Record button on her Regency cellphone. See, it’s easy to write dialogue like Jane Austen’s! Just take dictation!


The danger is that these silly Austen biopics will persuade the Austen-ignorant public of something deeply false: that Jane Austen was nothing special -- just a heartbroken young girl who started writing stories with gel pen in her spiral notebook after her boyfriend dumped her. Sorry, all you heartbroken young girls out there. It takes a lot more than that to be Jane Austen.


By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 30 2015 01:00PM

Another day, another Mr. Darcy.


Over the years, various ambitious authors and breathless journalists have informed us of their amazing discoveries! based on virtually incontrovertible evidence! that Jane Austen didn’t do anything so mundane as imagine the hero of Pride and Prejudice.


No, no! Mr. Darcy – the character who, post-Colin Firth, has become the icon of romantic wish-fulfillment, heterosexual female division – was modeled on someone. Perhaps Tom Lefroy, Austen’s youthful flirtation; or Samuel Blackall, a clergyman acquaintance; or William Wentworth-Fitzwilliam, the fabulously wealthy 4th Earl Fitzwilliam, whose palatial Yorkshire home, Wentworth Woodhouse, must have been the original of Pemberley – unless that was actually the Duke of Devonshire’s palatial Derbyshire home, Chatsworth.


The latest candidate for Real-Life Mr. Darcy is John Parker, 1st Earl of Morley, or so says British writer Susan Law. As reported in the Daily Mail, Law’s evidence sounds less than iron-clad. She notes that the earl was tall, dark, handsome and brooding (puh-leeze); says that he knew Austen’s brother Henry; and asserts that Jane Austen and the Countess of Morley were close friends.


If true, this last point would be news, since, as far as I know, the only evidence of contact between the two women is a single exchange in late 1815: a short fan letter from the countess to Jane Austen, thanking her for a presentation copy of the newly published Emma; and a short reply from Austen to the countess [134(A), 134(D) and 134 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of the letters].


Nothing about these two brief and rather formal letters suggests a personal relationship between the correspondents, though of course that doesn’t prove there wasn’t one. (Later, Austen also recorded the countess’ opinion of Emma on the list she kept of reactions to the novel, but I am not aware of a second exchange of letters.)


Law also notes that some of Austen’s early readers suspected that Frances Parker, Lady Boringdon, later to become the Countess of Morley, had herself written the anonymously published P&P, partly because they saw in Mr. Darcy a portrait of Frances’ husband, the future earl. But so what? Even today, we recognize our friends and relatives in Austen’s characters. That’s testimony to her powers of psychological insight, not proof that she had our acquaintances in mind while she wrote.


To me, all these efforts to find The Model For Mr. Darcy, or for any of Austen’s other characters, seem unduly literal-minded. As she built her stories, Austen no doubt pilfered, magpie-like, from the lives of those she saw around her. News flash: that’s what writers do.


Sure, it can be fun to speculate about which tidbits she wove into her ultimate design and how close the published version was to her raw materials. (Key word: speculate. Absent an undiscovered Austen letter spelling out her creative process, we’re never going to know for sure.)


Too often, however, these speculations come dangerously close to suggesting that, rather than exercising her considerable imaginative powers, Austen took dictation from a universe that helpfully threw Austen-like people into her path.


Guess what? She didn’t need to do that. It was all in her head.


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