Fortieth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.
It’s not always easy to tell when Jane Austen, master of irony, wants you to take her words at face value. And perhaps that’s why we’re still arguing about the self-assessment contained in the letter she finished writing exactly 202 years ago today (#146 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence). That letter – begun a day earlier, on Austen's forty-first birthday, the last she would ever celebrate – was written to her eighteen-year-old nephew and future biographer James Edward Austen (later Austen-Leigh).
Edward, as the family called him, had just arrived home at Steventon -- where his father, James, the oldest Austen brother, served as rector -- after finishing his high school studies at Winchester College. Like his older half-sister, Anna Austen Lefroy, Edward was a would-be novelist, and apparently two and a half chapters of his manuscript-in-progress had recently gone missing.
“It is well that I have not been at Steventon lately, & therefore cannot be suspected of purloining them,” Austen writes in a letter welcoming him home. “Two strong twigs & a half towards a Nest of my own, would have been something.—I do not think however that any theft of that sort would be really very useful to me. What should I do with your strong, manly, spirited Sketches, full of Variety & Glow?—How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour?”
It’s clear that much of this passage – indeed, much of this whole letter -- is written tongue in cheek. Elsewhere, Austen teasingly encourages Edward to come clean at last about the dissipations of his high school life and, amid much news of the comings and goings of various Austen brothers, directs him not to “be tired of reading the word Uncle, for I have not done with it.”
Obviously, she didn’t really think anyone would suspect her of stealing Edward’s chapters, even if her rave review of his work was an honest critical appraisal and not merely the kindness of a doting aunt encouraging a boy she had known since birth.
So did her irony extend to the apparently self-deprecating two-inches-of -ivory assessment of her own work – perhaps the most famous passage in all of Austen’s correspondence? It’s impossible to know for sure, but I would guess the answer is both yes and no.
Austen surely didn’t long to write with the unpolished exuberance of a teenage boy, and it seems likely that she knew her labors produced the very opposite of “little effect.” Her performance of ladylike modesty is, at least partly, just that: a performance, whose insincerity she perhaps expected Edward to recognize and find amusing.
But there’s enough penetration in the two-inches-of-ivory passage to suggest that Austen wasn’t being entirely ironic. She wasn’t wrong to associate her method with the delicacy and precision of fine brushwork – and certainly she knew that fine brushwork requires great skill. Nor was she wrong to note that her canvas is restricted – though whether that restriction amounts to laser-focus or limitation is a never-ending debate.
Ironic yet serious, self-deprecating yet quietly confident: The very passage in which Austen seems to play down her own artistry bears witness to its inexhaustible subtlety.