• Deborah Yaffe

On this day in 1801. . .

Seventy-fifth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


How autobiographical is Jane Austen’s writing? Impossible to say for sure, given how fragmentary is our knowledge of both Austen’s life and Austen’s writing process.


The question comes into sharp relief, however, when we consider the letter that the 25-year-old Austen began writing to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 221 years ago today (#36 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


Just a few months earlier, the Austen parents had dropped a bombshell: The Rev. George Austen would hand off his church appointment, and the house that went with it, to his oldest son, James, and James’ difficult wife, Mary -- and the unmarried Austen daughters would have to leave rural Steventon and move with their parents to bustling Bath.


Family tradition has it that Jane Austen fainted when she heard the news.


By the time she wrote her letter, while house-hunting with her mother in Bath, Austen was apparently resigned to the move. Still, practically her first order of business was to send Cassandra word about the recent fire sale of the family’s possessions.


“Sixty one Guineas & a half for the three Cows gives one some support under the blow of only Eleven Guineas for the Tables,” Austen reports. “Eight for my Pianoforte, is about what I really expected to get; I am more anxious to know the amount of my books, especially as they are said to have sold well.”


For two more pages, Jane regales Cassandra with stories about her (largely dreary) new Bath acquaintances. But then -- despite noting that Cassandra, staying with the family of their sister-in-law Mary, might well have heard the news already – Jane returns, almost compulsively, to the breaking-up of her old home.


“I fancy you know many more particulars of our Sale than we do,” Austen writes. “We have heard the price of nothing but the Cows, Bacon, Hay, Hops, Tables, & my father’s Chest of Drawers & Study Table.”


Beneath her forced cheeriness, Austen seems deeply sad at the sale of her music and her books, at the trauma of leaving everything familiar behind. But how did this experience of displacement show up in her novels?


Some readers incline to the literal, arguing that one of Austen’s bitterest (and funniest) passages -- the second chapter of Sense and Sensibility, in which John Dashwood and his wife, Fanny, talk themselves out of providing for the bereaved stepmother and younger half-sisters whom they have displaced from the family estate – is a barely disguised version of the 1801 move. Armed with this assumption, these readers conclude that selfish, grasping John and Fanny represent Austen’s verdict on James and Mary Austen.


I’m skeptical of such literal interpretations. To me, it seems clear that, although fiction writers necessarily draw on the raw materials of experience to craft their stories, real-world events often bear the same resemblance to the fictionalized versions as a grain of sand in an oyster-shell bears to the pearl built around it. I read this letter less as a template for any particular incident in the published novels than as an inspiration for elements of their atmosphere – for that sense of sadness and displacement that haunts so many Austen characters.


But like I said – we’ll never know for sure.

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