• Deborah Yaffe

On this day in 1814. . .

Seventy-eighth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


“Write what you know,” aspiring authors are counseled in MFA workshops the world over. Apparently, that advice is centuries old.


Or so we might conclude after reading the letter that Jane Austen finished writing to her niece Anna Austen Lefroy exactly 208 years ago today (#104 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


Anna, then twenty-one, was at work on a novel titled Which is the Heroine?, and her aunts Jane and Cassandra had been reading the latest chapters aloud, seemingly with great enjoyment. “We are all very amused, & like the work quite as well as ever,” Aunt Jane writes to Anna, in the second of five surviving letters of literary advice (for three of the others, see here, here, and here).


In the final chapter, however, the aunts detected a misstep – or perhaps an omen of impending danger in chapters as yet unwritten. “We think you had better not leave England. Let the Portmans go to Ireland, but as you know nothing of the Manners there, you had better not go with them. You will be in danger of giving false representations,” Austen advises Anna. “Stick to Bath & the Foresters. There you will be quite at home.”


But in the same letter, Austen also warns Anna against sticking too closely to what she knows. “I have scratched out Sir Tho: from walking with the other Men to the Stables &c the very day after his breaking his arm,” Austen says, “for though I find your Papa did walk out immediately after his arm was set, I think it can be so little usual as to appear unnatural in a book.”


It’s a subtle lesson: that facts can sometimes appear implausibly fictitious when too literally rendered, that even the most naturalistic of fictions owe their effects to disciplined selection and arrangement. It’s a lesson with something to teach those readers who sneer at Austen for her supposed narrowness, for writing “only” what she knew: Creating believable fiction involves far more than merely transcribing lived experience.

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