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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

On this day in 1806. . .

Eighty-seventh in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.

I’ve noted before that, as a poet, Jane Austen was a great novelist. And presumably she knew her own limitations, since she mostly reserved her poetry for light-hearted family occasions, with their built-in audience of the fond and undiscriminating.

Witness the five stanzas of doggerel that Austen seems to have sent to her thirteen-year-old niece, Fanny Austen, exactly 217 years ago today–seems, because no extant version of this letter survives, and its contents is known only from a copy made later by another niece, Anna Lefroy. (The letter is #48C in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence.)

Austen’s brother Frank had just married Mary Gibson, and the couple was en route to Godmersham, in Kent, to visit the family of the third-oldest Austen brother, Edward. In her verses, Austen apparently imagines the impending arrival of the newlyweds, ventriloquizing Fanny herself, the oldest of Edward’s many children:

"See they come, post haste from Thanet, Lovely couple, side by side; They’ve left behind them Richard Kennet [a Godmersham groom] With the parents of the Bride!"

It goes on like that for another sixteen lines, as Austen-cum-Fanny imagines Frank and Mary’s chaise traveling through villages and across Godmersham’s grounds to arrive at the house and be welcomed by Fanny and her little brothers (“How d’ye do, my Uncle Francis?/How does do your Lady dear?”)

Lefroy’s headnote calls the verses “Lines written by Jane Austen for the amusement of a Niece,” and as such, they succeed admirably. But just as well that Austen stuck to novel-writing.


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