Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 11 2018 01:00PM

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

The story of Jane Austen fandom has been told more than once, in books by Claire Harman, Claudia L. Johnson, Devoney Looser, Deidre Lynch (as editor), and (ahem!) myself. Austen devotees have been located among those who read her novels soon after their publication in 1813-17, among those who first devoured her nephew’s hagiographic 1869 memoir, and among those who swooned over Colin-Firth-in-a-wet-shirt in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

Arguably, however, the first mention of a Jane Austen fan outside Austen’s own family – a Janeite Patient Zero, as it were -- comes in the letter Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 219 years ago today (#21 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).

The twenty-three-year-old Austen is staying with relatives in Bath while Cassandra remains behind in Steventon. Amid a bubbly account of what she’s done, who she’s met, and what she’s bought, Jane mentions the Austen sisters’ great friend Martha Lloyd, who has apparently asked Cassandra if she can see the manuscript of First Impressions, the early Austen work that we believe eventually became Pride and Prejudice.

“I would not let Martha read First Impressions again upon any account, & am very glad that I did not leave it in your power,” Jane writes jokingly to Cassandra. “She is very cunning, but I see through her design;—she means to publish it from Memory, & one more perusal must enable her to do it.”

And there you have it: Martha Lloyd, the friend who a decade later set up housekeeping with the Austen sisters and their mother at Chawton cottage, is the first obsessive Austen re-reader for whom we have documentary evidence – the prototype of those people who read all the novels every year, recite dialogue by heart, and mentally file everyone they meet under headings like “Lady Catherine” and “Mr. Collins.”

Welcome to the club, Martha.

By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 16 2015 02:00PM

Second in a series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters:

Two hundred and two years ago today, on February 16, 1813, Jane Austen wrote one of her best-known letters (#82 in Deirdre LeFaye's standard edition). It was written to Austen's friend Martha Lloyd, who lived with Jane; her sister, Cassandra; and their mother in the cottage at Chawton, but who was away visiting a married sister in Berkshire.

The letter is famous because it contains one of Austen’s relatively rare comments on current events: the estrangement between the dissolute Prince Regent, later George IV, and his wife, Caroline of Brunswick. A week before Austen wrote to Martha Lloyd, a letter from Caroline to her husband had been published in the newspaper.

“I suppose all the World is sitting in Judgement upon the Princess of Wales’s Letter,” Austen wrote. “Poor Woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman, & because I hate her Husband--but I can hardly forgive her for calling herself ‘attached & affectionate’ to a Man whom she must detest--& the intimacy said to subsist between her & Lady Oxford* is bad.--I do not know what to do about it; --but if I must give up the Princess, I am resolved at least always to think that she would have been respectable if the Prince had behaved only tolerably by her at first.”

It is pleasant to think of Austen as a proto-feminist, taking the side of a woman whose man had done her wrong. All that’s lacking is a “Team Caroline” T-shirt.

*Lady Oxford, a famously libertine noblewoman, was one of Lord Byron’s many lovers.

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