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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

On this day in 1796. . .

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

The record of Jane Austen’s thoughts, feelings, and opinions is so slender that it’s always tempting to invest even her throwaway comments with weighty significance. Such is arguably the trap that awaits the unwary reader of the letter that Jane Austen began writing to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 225 years ago today (#2 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).

For a change, I’m not referring to the gossipy bits – the four sentences in which the twenty-year-old Austen talks about her flirtation with visitor Tom Lefroy, whose brief romance with Austen has given rise to a tsunami of speculation, not to mention one very bad biopic.

No, I’m talking instead about a remark that Austen inserts in the midst of the tidbits of news concerning relatives and family friends that she is relaying to Cassandra, who was away from home visiting the family of her fiancé, Tom Fowle.

“I am very much flattered by your commendation of my last Letter,” Austen tells Cassandra, “for I write only for Fame, and without any view to pecuniary Emolument.”

In context, it seems clear that this line is a joke. No one expects payment for even the cleverest of letters, and praise from a doting sister hardly constitutes fame, so surely Austen intended to mock high literary pretensions. But this sentence is not infrequently (for example, here, here and here) cited as evidence that even the very young Austen understood her own genius and craved the world’s notice.

Maybe she did: A psychologist might argue that her remark to Cassandra, though couched as a joke, reveals a deeply held (if possibly unconscious) wish. Perhaps Austen was protecting herself from the sting of rejection by turning her ambitions into a joke. As usual, Austenian irony defeats our attempts to impose a single interpretation. Still, her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh must surely have overstated the case when he wrote in his 1870 memoir, “I do not think that she was herself much mortified by the want of early success. She wrote for her own amusement.” If that were true, she would never have published.

Still, for the non-Freudians among us, the temptation to read dramatic literary self-assertion into a private joke between sisters probably says more about us than it does about Jane Austen. We crave a definitive statement of her hopes, fears, and desires. Lacking that, we’ll read all we can between her lines.

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