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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

On this day in 1816. . .

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


Just when you think it’s safe to go back in the water. . .


In December of 1815, Jane Austen diplomatically fended off an effort by the Prince Regent’s librarian, James Stanier Clarke, to pick the subject of her next book. Clarke had given her a tour of the Regent’s London residence and invited her to dedicate Emma to her royal fan, so she was eager not to offend him. When he proposed a novel centered on a clergyman much like himself, she protested that she was far too ignorant and uneducated to do justice to such a character. Although Clarke’s reply included yet more detail about the clergyman figure he hoped she would sketch, his tone was cordial and undemanding.


No doubt Austen breathed a sigh of relief. Mission accomplished.


But three months later, Clarke got back in touch to convey the Regent’s thanks for the copy of Emma with which Austen had presented him. The royal household was engrossed in planning for the marriage of the Regent’s heir, Princess Charlotte, to the Belgian Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, and consequently, Clarke had another literary suggestion for Austen.


“Perhaps when you again appear in print you may chuse to dedicate your Volumes to Prince Leopold,” he wrote. “Any Historical Romance illustrative of the History of the august house of Cobourg, would just now be very interesting.” [Letter #138(A) in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence.]


Poor Jane Austen. All that flattering and ego-cushioning she’d done back in December, and now it was all to do over again.


“You are very, very kind in your hints as to the sort of Composition which might recommend me at present, & I am fully sensible that an Historical Romance, founded on the House of Saxe Cobourg might be much more to the purpose of Profit or Popularity, than such pictures of domestic Life in Country Villages as I deal in,” she wrote to Clarke, in a letter dated exactly 208 years ago today [Le Faye’s #138(D)]. “But I could no more write a Romance than an Epic Poem.—I could not sit seriously down to write a serious Romance under any other motive than to save my Life, & if it were indispensable for me to keep it up & never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first Chapter.—No—I must keep to my own style & go on in my own Way; And though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other.”


Once again, Austen deploys strategic self-deprecation to explain her unwillingness to fall in with Clarke’s suggestion: It’s a great idea! Sure to be successful! Alas, she’s just not capable of pulling it off!


But in the midst of all this feminine self-abnegation, a different note can be detected: a note of firmness and self-assurance, signaled by that “No,” with its typographically distinct frame of dashes. It’s a tactful, understated form of resistance, but it’s resistance nonetheless. This is a woman who knows the value of her “own style” and “own Way,” and she’s not about to let this Regency mansplainer divert her from the path she’s chosen.


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