Deborah Yaffe

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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.


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