Fifteenth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen’s letters.
“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” Virginia Woolf famously declared, insisting on the material prerequisites of the imaginative life.
Did Jane Austen have access to what Woolf saw as the fundamental building blocks of literary achievement? I would say yes: though Austen never had much money or much privacy, during her most productive years, she had enough of both – the secure home provided by first her father and later her brother Edward; the dedicated work space in the Chawton Cottage sitting room. During the Bath and Southampton years, when money was stressfully tight and living arrangements were chaotic and insecure, Austen’s writing output slowed to a trickle.
Austen herself may have glimpsed Woolf’s insight, or so it seems from a letter to her sister that Austen began exactly two hundred years ago today (#145 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).
Updating Cassandra on the comings and goings of family houseguests, Austen admits to a craving for a few days of peace and quiet. “I often wonder how you can find time for what you do, in addition to the care of the House,” she writes. “And how good Mrs. West* cd have written such Books & collected so many hard words, with all her family cares, is still more a matter of astonishment! Composition seems to me Impossible, with a head full of Joints of Mutton & doses of rhubarb.”
As Austen notes, the great impediment to creation is distraction: when practical cares fill your head, they crowd out imaginative invention. The greatest gift that Cassandra and the Austens’ housemate Martha Lloyd gave to Jane Austen was their willingness to do most of the household chores, leaving her mind free of mutton and rhubarb. The most precious room of all lies between the ears.
* Jane West (1758-1852) was a prolific author of novels, poetry and conduct books, best known today for her 1796 novel A Gossip’s Story, which is seen as an inspiration for Sense and Sensibility. West was also a wife and the mother of three sons – hence Austen’s astonishment at her rate of literary production.
Sep 9 2016 10:32AM by Ali Thurm
Yes, I can't imagine how anyone can write with so many distractions. I guess it's the level of control over the distractions... if you can say Now I'm busy but later we can do this, it's much easier. When my three children were small it was impossible to write (apart from perhaps short stories and poems) but now that they're older it's so much easier. On the other hand, when I took myself off for a solitary fortnight in a rented cottage to escape, I missed the availability of noise and distractions! I guess we all need a balance. Austen was lucky to have such obliging friends and family!
Sep 9 2016 01:27PM by Deborah Yaffe
In JA's day, of course, these problems were compounded by the fact that married women had little control over their fertility, either: Jane West's three children made for a pretty small family, and her sons were spaced quite far apart. By contrast, JA's mother had eight children in 14 years; JA's sister-in-law Elizabeth had 11 children in 15 years. Mind-boggling.