• Deborah Yaffe

On this day in 1814. . .

Sixty-fourth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen’s letters.


No author – not even Jane Austen -- is immune to the charm of hearing her works praised. Or so we might conclude from the letter she wrote to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 207 years ago today (#101 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


Austen is detailing her plans for a visit to Cassandra Leigh Cooke, a first cousin and namesake of the Austens’ mother, and her husband, the Rev. Samuel Cooke, who was Austen’s godfather. “In addition to their standing claims on me, they admire Mansfield Park exceedingly,” Austen wrote. “Mr Cooke says ‘it is the most sensible Novel he ever read’ – and the manner in which I treat the Clergy, delights them very much.”


I’m desperately curious about the Cookes’ delight in Austen’s portrayal of the clergy: Did they miss the satire implicit in her gluttonous Dr. Grant and vacillating Edmund Bertram? Or is it that very satire that delighted them, perhaps by reminding them of clergy friends and frenemies? And why did Rev. Cooke find the novel “sensible”? Do I detect that rarest of readers – a fan of virtuous, much-maligned Fanny Price?


It’s hard to know how much stock Austen put in the Cookes’ good opinion. Cassandra Cooke was herself an author: In 1799, she had published Battleridge: An Historical Tale, Founded on Facts, under a pseudonym. (The book is attributed to “A Lady of Quality,” a formulation that recalls the more modest “By A Lady” pseudonym that Austen used twelve years later, for Sense and Sensibility.)


I haven’t read Battleridge, reportedly a Gothic novel set largely in seventeenth-century England and Scotland, with a long, interpolated tale that takes place eight centuries earlier. The Austen scholar Susan Allen Ford concurs with a contemporary review that judged the novel “not very amusing; and in point of composition, . . . despicable,” and a perusal of the opening pages doesn’t appear to refute Ford’s verdict. Cooke’s characters seem to have a weakness for self-consciously Olde Tyme words like “troth” and “vouchment” and for lengthy passages of exposition couched as dialogue. And I don’t think I could take too many sentences like “Having cleared away the perplexity of brambles which impeded the passage of the draw-bridge, our friend assailed the impervious and massy portal.”


Still, Austen took the time to report the Cookes’ admiration for Mansfield Park in some detail. Praise is manna, no matter where it comes from.

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