On this day in 1817. . .
Forty-second in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.
Those of us who feel strongly about books sometimes subject new acquaintances or romantic prospects to a compatibility test: Recommend a favorite work and see how the newbie responds to it. It may be possible to love someone with bad taste in literature, but – well, let’s just say that I’ve never managed it.
Jane Austen’s oldest niece, Fanny Knight, was particularly ruthless about administering the Book Test -- or so we might infer from the letter Austen finished writing her exactly 202 years ago today (#155 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).
In her previous letter, twenty-four-year-old Fanny had apparently described the reaction of a neighbor, Mr. Wildman, to one of Aunt Jane’s novels. Which she had carefully omitted to tell him was by her aunt, the better to elicit a brutally candid, inconveniently self-revealing response. ("I agree with your Papa, that it was not fair," Austen chided Fanny.)
Fair or not, brutal candor seems to be what Fanny got: Although it’s not clear which book Mr. Wildman read, Austen assures Fanny, “I had great amusement in reading [his opinion], & I hope I am not affronted & do not think the worse of him for having a Brain so very different from mine.”
What Mr. Wildman preferred in a novel can be deduced from Austen’s deathless statement of her own credo: “He & I should not in the least agree of course, in our ideas of Novels & Heroines;--pictures of perfection as you know make me sick & wicked.” *
Apparently Mr. Wildman had told Fanny that he “wish[ed] to think well of all young Ladies”: perhaps he’d been struggling to do so when confronted with, say, Lucy Steele or Caroline Bingley.
The Mr. Wildman in question was, according to Le Faye’s footnotes, twenty-eight-year-old bachelor James-Beckford Wildman, the master of an estate worth £20,000 a year -- twice as much as Mr. Darcy’s Pemberley. (Talk about a single man in possession of a good fortune!) It’s not hard to imagine poor Mr. Wildman harboring hopes of uniting his sizeable property with that of the heiress next door – until he utterly failed her tricky Book Test.