Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, May 22 2017 01:00PM

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


By May 1817, Jane Austen was gravely ill, just surfacing from an attack that had kept her mostly bedridden for more than a month. But in the letter she wrote exactly two centuries ago today – the last surviving letter she sent from her beloved home in Chawton -- she speaks more of her gratitude than of her suffering.


“How to do justice to the kindness of all my family during this illness, is quite beyond me!—Every dear Brother so affectionate & so anxious!—And as for my Sister!—Words must fail me in any attempt to describe what a Nurse she has been to me,” Austen writes to her friend Anne Sharp, in letter #159 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence. “In short, if I live to be an old Woman I must expect to wish I had died now, blessed in the tenderness of such a Family, & before I had survived either them or their affection.”


Lest we worry that on her deathbed, our adored, acerbic Jane Austen morphed into one of those Pollyannaish “pictures of perfection” that, as she had told her niece Fanny two months earlier, made her “sick and wicked,” the ailing Austen still manages a waspish remark or two.


Her less-than-adored sister-in-law, Mary Lloyd Austen, the wife of the oldest Austen brother, James, was lending the family carriage to transport Jane and her sister, Cassandra, to Winchester for medical treatment, and Austen appreciates the favor – up to a point.


“Now, that’s a sort of thing which Mrs J. Austen does in the kindest manner!” Austen writes. “But still she is in the main not a liberal-minded Woman.” Nor does Austen expect Mary’s recent good fortune – the news that James would inherit the property of his wealthy, lately deceased uncle upon the death of his widowed aunt – to improve her character.


“Expect it not my dear Anne;--too late, too late in the day,” Austen writes. “--& besides, the Property may not be theirs these ten years. My Aunt is very stout.” (Indeed, James did not live to inherit – he survived only two more years, while his aunt lived for another nineteen; the property passed to his son. People always live forever when there is any annuity to be paid them, as Fanny Dashwood noted.)


Two days after sending her letter to Anne Sharp, Jane Austen left Chawton for the last time. Eight weeks later, she died in Winchester.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 23 2016 01:00PM

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


Jane Austen’s circle of real friends seems to have been relatively small: her siblings -- especially her older sister, Cassandra -- and a handful of other intelligent, strong-minded daughters of the middle and gentry classes. Perhaps the most intriguing of the group was Anne Sharp, whose welfare Austen discusses in a letter she wrote to Cassandra exactly 202 years ago today (#102 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


From 1804 to 1806, Le Faye’s notes tell us, Sharp worked for Austen’s older brother Edward at his Godmersham estate in Kent, serving as governess to Fanny, the oldest Austen niece. Sharp left that job because of ill-health but later worked as a governess, a lady’s companion and eventually the proprietress of a girls’ boarding school in Liverpool, before dying in 1853.


Some twenty-something clergy daughters might have turned up their noses at fraternizing with the help, but Jane Austen’s friendship with Sharp was clearly a close one. In 1816, Austen gave her one of the twelve presentation copies of the newly published Emma (in 2008, the inscribed first edition drew a whopping £180,000 at auction, setting a record for sales of Austen’s work), and eight weeks before her death, in one of the last letters she ever wrote (Le Faye’s #159), Austen addressed Sharp as “my dearest Anne.”


Cassandra clearly knew how much the relationship meant to both women: After Jane’s death, addressing her sister’s friend as “my dear Miss Sharp,” Cassandra complied with her request for a lock of Jane’s hair and added “a pair of clasps which she sometimes wore & a small bodkin which she has had in constant use for more than twenty years” (Le Faye’s CEA/2).


Three years earlier, Austen had just heard from Sharp, by then working as governess to the dowager Lady Pilkington’s four daughters. “Poor thing! She has been suffering indeed! But is now in a comparative state of comfort,” Jane reported to Cassandra. “She is at Sir W[illiam] P[ilkington]’s, in Yorkshire, with the Children, & there is no appearance of her quitting them.”


Thanks to the indefatigable sleuthing of AustenProse’s Laurel Ann Nattress, we know that Sir William, who had inherited the title upon the death of his older brother, was exactly Jane Austen’s age – thirty-eight or thirty-nine at the time of the letter. And apparently the novelist couldn’t help envisioning a scenario worthy of, well, a novel. Anne Sharp “writes highly of Sir Wm – I do so want him to marry her!” Austen told Cassandra. “Oh! Sir Wm--Sir Wm—how I will love you, if you will love Miss Sharp!”


Alas, this irresistible Jane Eyre scenario never came to pass. The intelligent, penniless governess continued to make her own way in the world, and predictably, the eligible Sir William, showing a distinct lack of imagination, went on to marry an heiress. Even novelists can't make real-life stories turn out the way they'd like.



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