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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

On this day in 1813. . .

Tenth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen’s letters.

Today our world is awash in writers talking about their Intentions, their Process, their sense of What They Are Trying To Do. Jane Austen, however, lived in a more reticent, less media-saturated age, and little evidence of how she saw her own work has come down to us.

Perhaps that accounts for the fame accorded to the letter she wrote her sister, Cassandra, exactly 203 years ago today (#80 in Deirdre LeFaye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence). A week earlier, the first copy of the newly published Pride and Prejudice had been delivered to Chawton cottage, and Austen had been listening as her mother read it aloud to friends and family.

In the letter, Austen voices some dissatisfaction with her mother’s performance – apparently, Mrs. Austen wasn’t an Audible-quality reader – and then offers this famous discussion of what remains her most famous and popular novel:

“The work is rather too light & bright & sparkling;--it wants shade;--it wants to be stretched out here & there with a long Chapter—of sense if it could be had, if not of solemn specious nonsense—about something unconnected with the story; an Essay on writing, a critique on Walter Scott, or the history of Buonaparte—or anything that would form a contrast & bring the reader with increased delight to the playfulness & Epigrammatism of the general stile.”

From time to time, I’ve seen these lines quoted as proof that Austen felt her book wasn’t quite perfect. And perhaps there is a hint here of what every writer feels – that the book you realized on the page isn’t as good as the book you imagined in your head. (Sigh. It never is. Such is the human condition.) She’s wondering if her novel is too undifferentiated in its tone, if the symphony needed some passages in the minor key.

But how seriously should we take these expressed insecurities? It is, frankly, impossible that Jane Austen, the master of economical plotting and character development, actually thought Pride and Prejudice would have been better if it had included a historical or literary-critical chapter. She’s joking about that, for sure, as the next line makes clear: “I doubt your quite agreeing with me here,” Jane tells Cassandra. “I know your starched Notions.”

This is pure teasing: someone with “starched Notions” would presumably prefer the kind of self-conscious seriousness that Austen claims to find lacking in her book. I suspect they’d had this conversation before, with the self-doubting writer wondering if the book was too frivolous while her supportive sister assured her that it wasn’t.

Still, it’s possible that Austen was exaggerating, for comic effect, something that genuinely worried her about her book. And what’s interesting to me about this passage is the way it echoes later critics who claim – wrong-headedly, in my opinion – that Austen is a fluffy, escapist writer who falls short of true greatness because she doesn’t engage with the Big Questions: war, poverty, class struggle. (You know – boy stuff.) I’d hate to think that Austen had internalized those critical voices, even a little.

Did her self-critique, if that’s what this letter represents, change her work? Hard to say. The novels she wrote after P&PMansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion – include no chapters on Napoleonic history, and thank goodness for that. But arguably the later books do have an emotional depth, a half-suppressed melancholy, that P&P, for all its perfection, lacks. Perhaps Austen found her own way to add shadows to the sparkle.

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