• Deborah Yaffe

On this day in 1814. . .

Seventieth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


The author of Pride and Prejudice may have been an anonymous figure to much of the world, but her nieces and nephews knew that Jane Austen was the person to consult if you aspired to write fiction.


Her helpful, encouraging letters to her brother James’ children, Anna and James Edward, are famous for the insights they offer into Austen’s own literary philosophy and writing process. (See here, here, and here.) And Austen was just as kind and enthusiastic when dealing with an even younger literary aspirant – James’ littlest, nine-year-old Caroline, to whom Austen wrote exactly 207 years ago today (Letter #115 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


Austen’s famous critiques of Anna’s novel-in-progress were written less than three months earlier; perhaps Caroline had noticed with some jealousy the attention going to her half-sister, who was twelve years older. In any case, the little girl seems to have sent along a tale of her own, featuring -- in the best Gothic tradition -- an embattled heroine and a nefarious patriarch.


“I wish I could finish Stories as fast as you can,” Austen, who had published Mansfield Park a few months earlier and was working on Emma, tells Caroline. “I am much obliged to you for the sight of Olivia, & think you have done for her very well; but the good for nothing Father, who was the real author of all her Faults & Sufferings, should not escape unpunished.—I hope he hung himself, or took the sur-name of Bone or underwent some direful penance or other.”


We’ll never know why the surname of Bone should have seemed so penitential to the Austens, any more than we know why the author of Northanger Abbey thinks the name Richard is typically incompatible with respectability. But it’s delightful to get this glimpse of a warm, funny Jane Austen doing her best to make a little girl feel heard.

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