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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

On this day(ish) in 1814. . .

Seventy-seventh in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.

The letter-writing culture of Jane Austen’s day was frequently communal: An epistle to a friend might be read aloud to the entire family circle, or filled out with news and good wishes from correspondents other than the official signatory.

On a date that probably* fell in mid-July of 1814, almost exactly 208 years ago today, Jane Austen’s niece Anna Austen received just such a communal product, an affectionate letter from her grandmother complaining of eyestrain and noting the progress of the gooseberry crop at Chawton (#103 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence). Only half the letter survives—the first page, which presumably was dated, is missing--but luckily for us, the surviving second half includes a postscript added not by Anna’s grandmother but by Jane Austen herself.

Even better, the postscript is the first in a series of five surviving letters (see here and here), written between July and November 1814, in which Austen offers friendly criticism of Anna’s novel-in-progress, Which is the Heroine?

Austen’s letters to Anna--virtually the only evidence we have for Austen’s views on the craft of writing--are notable for their fine blend of encouragement, honest criticism, and respect for Anna’s own authorial voice.

In the latest chapters of Which is the Heroine?, “The Spirit does not droop at all,” Austen reassures Anna in the postcript. Then, previewing the markups she has made to the manuscript, Austen adds a few critiques of both substance and style. “I do not like a Lover’s speaking in the 3d person;--it is too much like the formal part of [Frances Burney’s] Lord Orville, & I think is not natural,” she writes. “If you think differently however, you need not mind me.”

Long after Jane Austen’s death, Anna, worn out by the demands of family life and missing her aunt’s encouragement, would despairingly toss the manuscript on the fire, destroying another communal product--that tantalizing, imagined marriage of her own words with Jane Austen’s emendations.

“In later years when I expressed my sorrow that she had destroyed it she said she could never have borne to finish it,” Anna’s daughter Fanny Caroline Lefroy later wrote in a family history, “but incomplete as it was Jane Austen’s criticisms would have made it valuable.”

* Le Faye relied on evidence, including the likely ripening schedule for gooseberries and the known locations of members of the Austen family that summer, to fix on mid-July of 1814 as the probable date of the letter.


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