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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

On this day in 1814. . .

Ninety-second in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


Those of us who spend a lot of time thinking about Jane Austen can sometimes forget just how fragmentary is the surviving evidence about how she lived and worked. A salutary reminder comes in the letter she wrote to . . . somebody or other, exactly 210 years ago today.

 

The document now known as #100 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence was “found in a scrapbook with no related material and no sign of previous ownership,” according to Le Faye’s notes. It’s a seven-inch-by-one-inch strip of paper dated from Henrietta Street, the London home of Austen’s brother Henry. Most of the text is missing: All that remains are one sentence and two half-sentences from the second page, plus a postscript signed “J. Austen.”

 

But what a postscript! “Perhaps before the end of April, Mansfield Park by the author of S & S.—P. & P. may be in the World,” Austen writes. “Keep the name to yourself. I sh[oul]d not like to have it known beforehand.” *

 

Le Faye speculates that Austen was likely writing to one of her sailor brothers—perhaps Francis, with whom she had previously discussed some details of her new novel. But what about the mysterious message? Why did Austen want to keep the title of that new book confidential?

 

Here’s the truth: No one knows. All we can do is speculate—and the content of your speculation will owe more to your own vision of Jane Austen than to any verifiable facts.

 

Is your Jane Austen a modest, retiring spinster lady? Then she wants to keep the title quiet to avoid too much publicity. Is she a forthright professional woman? Then she wants to save the big title reveal for the marketing campaign. Or is she, perhaps, a secret radical whose title points to the anti-slavery message she has smuggled into a novel masquerading as a comedy of manners? In that case, the request for confidentiality may be “a sensible precaution in an age in which pressure was often brought to bear on publishers to prevent politically or personally damaging material from ever seeing the light of day.”

 

Which is it? No idea. Like this letter itself, our understanding of Austen is incomplete and elliptical, cobbled together from bits and scraps.



* Like so many authors, Austen was unduly optimistic about her publication date: In the end, Mansfield Park didn’t appear until July.

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