Eighty-third in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.
Janeites take the lives of Jane Austen’s characters very, very seriously. Not for nothing did the Republic of Pemberley invent a special acronym–ENASUTH, short for Edmund Needs A Slap Upside The Head--to facilitate conversations about the problematic behavior of one particular Austen hero. The fact that Edmund Bertram is not, in fact, a real person seemed entirely beside the point.
This way of thinking about the off-the-page lives of people who live only in books–speculating about their sexual tastes, judging their conduct, imagining what they would post on social media–tends to drive literary critics crazy. Professional readers prefer to keep in mind that fiction is, well, fictional.
So it’s satisfying for us non-professional readers to discover that Jane Austen herself may well have thought the way we do. Or so we might conclude from the letter Austen wrote to her 10-year-old niece, Caroline Austen, 207 years ago today (#137 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).
“You seem to be quite my own Neice in your feelings towards Mde de Genlis,” Austen writes to Caroline, who has apparently been slogging her way through the lengthy Tales of the Castle; or, Stories of Instruction and Delight, written in 1784 by the prolific French novelist and educational theorist Caroline-Stéphanie-Félicité, Madame de Genlis.
“I do not think I could even now, at my sedate time of Life, read Olimpe et Theophile without being in a rage,” Austen goes on. “It really is too bad!—Not allowing them to be happy together, when they are married.—Don’t talk of it, pray.”
Unlike Caroline, I have not read Olympe et Theophile, but luckily, the scholar and translator Ellen Moody offers a plot summary on her blog (scroll down): The two young lovers, kept apart by the scheming of his greedy father, endure numerous plot twists while staying virtuous and faithful until, eventually, they reunite. “They flee and marry and live in Scotland but they do not have much happiness. They are so poor and she dies,” says Moody. Then de Genlis draws a lengthy moral about the necessity of keeping promises to parents, no matter what. (“It’s really a dreadful story,” Moody notes.)
Olympe et Theophile does indeed sound intolerable, and it is delightful to happen across a Jane Austen who enters into that Janeite spirit of overidentification with fictional characters. Given time, perhaps we could even have persuaded her that ENASUTH.