Ninth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen’s letters.
We know so little of Jane Austen’s views on nearly everything that it’s tempting to mine her novels for raw material and map the results back onto her life. But this extrapolation from made-up stories to real-life opinions is a risky business, as any writer who has ever invented people quite different from herself will tell you.
Hence the avidity with which we read the letter Jane Austen wrote to her eldest niece, 21-year-old Fanny Knight, on November 30, 1814, exactly 201 years ago today (#114 in Deirdre LeFaye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence). At last! Some hint of Austen’s unfiltered attitudes toward love, romance and marriage!
The letter forms just one chapter in a continuing saga. Earlier in November 1814, Fanny had consulted thirty-nine-year-old Aunt Jane about an affair of the heart: Fanny’s fluctuating feelings for John Plumptre, an eligible clergyman who seemed eager to marry her. Austen had pointed out the young man’s merits, and in her reply, Fanny apparently seemed persuaded that, whatever her own doubts, she should let her aunt’s views sway her.
But in today’s letter, Austen retreats, terrified “out of my Wits” that Fanny will disregard the less-than-passionate nature of her own attachment. Like Mrs. Croft and Mrs. Musgrove in the climactic scene of Persuasion, Austen notes the dangers of a long engagement. “Years may pass before he is Independent,” she writes. “You like him well enough to marry, but not well enough to wait.” (That’s a line whose clear-eyed understanding of human irrationality and frailty earns it a place in the Austen canon.)
Though Austen admits that Fanny has led Plumptre on and will seem fickle if she drops him now, this is the lesser of two evils, she insists, for “nothing can be compared to the misery of being bound without Love, bound to one, & preferring another.”
That sentence could be read as romantic – Jane Austen, novelist of courtship, speaking out for love! – and certainly Austen is urging Fanny to take the temperature of her own feelings and marry only if they are warm enough.
But Austen is not endorsing a swoony belief in a passion that is Meant To Be. Austen recognizes that much in life is contingent on circumstance. Marry now, and the relationship may flourish; wait too long, and fledgling feelings may wither. She acknowledges the importance – indeed, the essential importance – of romantic love, but she’s realistic about its limitations. She’s still the Jane Austen we know, even when she isn’t writing for publication.
By the way, Fanny didn’t marry John Plumptre.