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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

A pen dipped in vitriol

New this week: The latest entry in the annals of Jane Austen Bizarro World (or, to be honest, Jane Austen-Adjacent Bizarro World).

Three years ago, it seems, a high-powered literary couple – prominent Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate, provost of Oxford University’s Worcester College; and his wife, Paula Byrne, author of the well-regarded 2013 biography The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things – received the first of an eventual seventeen very nasty anonymous letters.

The missives, reminiscent of the poison-pen letters in Gaudy Night, Dorothy L. Sayers’ wonderful Oxford mystery novel, were addressed to Bate. But they mostly concerned Byrne, whom the letter-writer described as fat, ugly, vain, semi-literate, poorly educated, self-promoting, widely hated, a bad mother, and – oh, unkindest cut! – a vulgar Tweeter. Ouch! (See the story here and here.)

(Inevitably, the over-the-top nature of these insults invites giggles. But I don’t mean to scoff at Byrne’s hurt feelings; nothing can sap your confidence more than wondering who out there secretly hates you.)

The couple reported the matter to the police, who say the letters could constitute harassment. No arrests, apparently, though Bate and Byrne – no doubt deploying their well-practiced powers of literary exegesis – are persuaded the writer is a woman. (They suspect “a former colleague of his,” according to the account in the London Sunday Times. Ah, academia!)

Meanwhile, as befits a story with literary overtones, the Sunday Times’ online comments seem evenly divided between speculation over the identity of the letter-writer and discussion of whether his/her use of the locution “bored of” is a grammatical crime or not. (I say yes. But I’m a pedant.)

Why are we hearing of this kerfuffle only now, more than three years after the first letter arrived, you may wonder? Perhaps it is not coincidental that Byrne is about to publish a novel, Look To Your Wife, wherein the second wife of a famous man receives nasty anonymous letters after she begins letting her hair down on Twitter. Self-promoting? Well, yes – but aren’t we all?

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