Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 30 2017 01:00PM

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


Jane Austen’s books contain few young children, and those few are often disagreeable. While Isabella Knightley’s family in Emma and Charles Blake in The Watsons are rather endearing, only a mother could love the spoiled little Middletons in Sense and Sensibility, the excessively rambunctious junior Musgroves in Persuasion, or the noisy and quarrelsome Price siblings in Mansfield Park.


What all these portraits of children have in common is their unsentimental realism: Although Jane Austen was childless, she knew how children look and sound when they are demanding attention, insisting on staying up late, or asking for a favorite story. And she came by this knowledge honestly, via her relationships with the twenty-five nieces and nephews born in her lifetime.


Her rapport with those real-life children comes through vividly in the few surviving letters that she wrote to them, including the letter she wrote exactly 202 years ago today to her 10-year-old niece, Caroline Austen, the youngest child of Austen’s oldest brother, James.


Jane was in London to correct the proofs of Emma (and, soon after, to nurse her brother Henry through a sudden dangerous illness), and the family were celebrating the recent arrival of the first baby born to Caroline’s older half-sister, Anna Austen Lefroy.


“Now that you are become an Aunt, you are a person of some consequence & must excite great Interest whatever You do,” Austen wrote the little girl with mock solemnity. “I have always maintained the importance of Aunts as much as possible, & I am sure of your doing the same now.” She keeps the joke going as she signs off, “Beleive me my dear Sister-Aunt, Yours affect[tionate]ly, J. Austen.”


The letter is charming because of the way that Austen simultaneously honors and gently mocks the self-centeredness of childhood – for Caroline, the most important thing about Anna’s baby is naturally the aunt-ly status its existence confers – while companionably implicating herself in the same self-centeredness. In the voice of that all-important aunt, it’s not hard to hear an echo of the wry, ironic outlook on human folly that we know so well from Austen’s novels.


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 31 2016 01:00PM

For someone who led such a short, uneventful life, and one about which comparatively little is known, Jane Austen has inspired a surprising number of biographies -- at least twenty-two, by my count, and that doesn’t even include the various books that use Austen’s life as a jumping-off-point for historical explorations of such topics as tea, houses, fashion or gardening.


Austen’s nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh launched the genre with his 1870 Memoir of Jane Austen, based on family reminiscences. But it’s the first modern biography by a non-family member -- Elizabeth Jenkins’ Jane Austen: A Biography, published in 1938 – that is the subject of this month’s entry in the Austen Catch-Up Project, wherein I try to plug some of the holes in my Austen education.


Jenkins (1905-2010) was a well-regarded British novelist and biographer: her subjects, in addition to Austen, included Elizabeth I, Henry Fielding and Lady Caroline Lamb. For Janeites, her most significant contribution is as a co-founder of the UK’s Jane Austen Society, which succeeded in buying Chawton cottage and turning it into a beloved museum of Austen’s life.


Jenkins’ Austen biography is a model of taste, decorum and restraint. With only one lapse, Jenkins is scrupulous about acknowledging the limits of the evidence available to her, and she resists – rightly, in my view – the temptation to read the events in Austen’s novels as evidence for the events in Austen’s life. “To try to deduce from her novels a personal history of Jane Austen, is completely to misunderstand the type of mind she represents,” Jenkins argues.

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