Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 11 2019 01:00PM

Forty-third in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


"It is a period, indeed!” Captain Wentworth exclaims to Anne Elliot, as their long estrangement begins to thaw in Chapter 22 of Persuasion. “Eight years and a half is a period!"


A similar spirit of mingled pain and nostalgia seems to have animated Jane Austen in the letter she finished writing to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 214 years ago today (#43 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


The preceding months had been difficult ones for the Austens. On Jane’s twenty-ninth birthday, in December 1804, her beloved friend and mentor Anne Lefroy, known as Madame Lefroy, was killed in a horseback riding accident at 55. Two weeks later, the Austen patriarch, the Rev. George Austen, died unexpectedly at 73. His death, with the loss of his clerical pension, inaugurated a financial slide that would eventually force the surviving Austen women to move repeatedly, as they sought ever-cheaper rented rooms in less and less desirable parts of Bath.


Some inkling of these troubles surely hangs over the letter Jane wrote to Cassandra, who was back in Hampshire, the county the Austen sisters had called home until four years earlier, when their parents uprooted them. While Cassandra helped nurse the dying Mrs. Lloyd, mother of their sister-in-law Mary Austen and their close friend Martha Lloyd, Jane reported the news from Bath.


“This morning we have been to see Miss Chamberlayne look hot on horseback,” Jane wrote to Cassandra. “Seven years & four months ago we went to the same Ridinghouse to see Miss Lefroy’s performance!—What a different set are we now moving in! But seven years I suppose are enough to change every pore of one’s skin, & every feeling of one’s mind.”


By our standards, Jane Austen was still young in 1805, and it would be another decade before she began Persuasion. But already, in this letter, we can glimpse the emotional raw materials of the novel: a melancholy sense of the inexorable passage of time.


By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 8 2019 01:00PM

For Janeites, it’s salt rubbed in a wound: the news that scholars will soon be able to inspect a fascinating trove of letters from an interesting and important Georgian-era woman. . . who isn’t Jane Austen, because her letters are still burnt to a crisp.


No, the letters in question were written by Henrietta, Countess of Bessborough – many of them to her lover, Lord Granville, an important nineteenth-century diplomat who served as British ambassador to Russia and France. The letters – stored in two tin trunks, reports the website inews -- form a small part of a huge Granville family archive, recently acquired by the British Library for £860,000 (about $1.1 million).


Lady Bessborough, usually known as Harriet, has no end of interesting family connections. Her father was the 1st Earl Spencer, originator of the line that leads to Princess Diana. Her sister was the writer, political activist, and socialite Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Her daughter was the scandalous Lady Caroline Lamb, who unforgettably summed up her own sometime lover, Lord Byron, as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” And Lady Bessborough eventually contrived to marry off Lord Granville – yes, the man she’d been sleeping with -- to her own niece, Georgiana’s daughter, who, in a stranger-than-fiction twist, was also named Harriet.


But enough of this gossip about the incestuously small world of the British aristocracy. For our purposes, what’s interesting is a book recommendation Harriet sent to her big sister Georgiana in November 1811. “God bless you dearest G. have you read Sense & Sensibility?” Harriet wrote, just weeks after the book’s publication. “It is a clever novel [,] they were full of it at Althrop – tho’ it ends stupidly I was much amus’d by it.”


As inews notes, this remark “is thought to be the first contemporary comment on a work by Jane Austen,” not to mention the first recorded instance of reader dissatisfaction with the ending of an Austen novel. (Did Lady Bessborough think Elinor should have married Colonel Brandon?)


The letter is not a new discovery – Lady Bessborough’s comments are mentioned in Brian Southam’s 1968 compilation of early responses to Austen’s works, and I don’t know if he was the first to find them. What’s new, apparently, is the chance for scholarly cataloging of – and, sometime next year, scholarly access to -- the full collection of letters.


Now if only Cassandra Austen had kept one of those tin trunks.


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 14 2019 01:00PM

The bitterest pill that Janeites must swallow is the knowledge that Cassandra Austen kept dozens – nay, perhaps hundreds! – of her sister Jane’s letters for decades after the novelist’s untimely death, only to burn them in 1843, two years before Cassandra herself died.


We cannot forgive her.


It doesn’t matter how often we remind ourselves that most of the Austen letters that have come down to us are extant only because Cassandra lovingly preserved them. It doesn’t matter that Austen must have written hundreds of letters to other relatives and friends who apparently used those precious documents to line their birdcages and light their fires within moments of reading them. It doesn’t even matter that the greater sin may well have been that of Austen’s officious niece Fanny-Sophia, who waited until the 1865 death of her father, Austen’s older brother Francis, to incinerate the letters from Jane that he had carefully preserved for half a century.


No, we can’t forgive Cassandra. We can’t forgive her because we value every scrap of information about Jane Austen, and because those scraps are so few. But we also can’t forgive her because we assume that she must have destroyed the good stuff – the revelations about love affairs and political opinions and family scandals that are markedly absent from most of Austen’s surviving correspondence. After all, Cassandra was Jane’s closest friend and confidante! If there was good stuff to be had, surely Cassandra must have been privy to it!


Last month, however, we got a salutary reminder that just because something is missing doesn’t mean that it’s incendiary. Six previously missing lines from an 1813 letter Jane wrote to Cassandra turned up in an autograph album auctioned two years ago – and they concern . . . sheets and towels.


"By the time you get this, I hope George & his party will have finished their Journey,” Austen wrote from London, at the end of what is now known as Letter #87 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence. “God bless you all. I have given Mde. B. my Inventory of the linen, & added 2 round towels to it by her desire. She has shewn me all her storeplaces, & will shew you & tell you all the same. Perhaps I may write again by Henry."


I am by no means the first to notice the life-imitates-art similarity of this whole episode to Catherine Morland’s realization that the mysterious manuscript she has discovered in the Northanger Abbey cabinet is nothing but a washing-bill. Like Catherine, we Janeites have to confront the sad fact that, most of the time, daily life includes more laundry than scandal.


So did Cassandra destroy the good stuff, or just a bunch of old laundry lists? We’ll never know – and for that we’ll never forgive her.


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 3 2018 02:00PM

At this point in Jane Austen’s career of pop-culture celebrity, it’s no surprise that every place with even a tangential connection to her life or work wants to publicize said linkage. And thus it is that two tidbits of news crossed my desk in recent weeks:


* The Vyne, a stately sixteenth-century home near Basingstoke, recently unveiled an exhibition about the life of the Victorian-era owner who devoted his entire fortune to saving the house from dereliction, thereby leaving his four daughters dowerless and unmarried.


Austen knew the Chute family, which owned the house for three centuries, until they turned it over to Britain’s National Trust in 1956. (And breathed a sigh of relief at avoiding the monstrous bills associated with its upkeep, according to the family’s current representative, seventy-one-year-old Robin Chute, who remembers sword-fighting with his brother in the Oak Gallery during Christmas visits to the ancestral manse.)


Austen mentions members of the Chute family in her letters, and she attended parties at The Vyne. But is it really the case, as a recent story in the Telegraph asserts, that “it’s thought that she may have based her Mansfield Park heroine Fanny Price on Caroline Wiggett, who came to live at The Vyne in 1803 aged three, having been plucked from a pool of poor distant relations and adopted by the childless couple who lived there”?


Could be – Austen biographer Claire Tomalin notes some parallels – but Austen had a closer-to-home model for Fanny in her brother Edward, adopted by the childless Knights in 1783, when Jane was about seven. My antennae always rise at squirrelly attributions like “it’s thought,” which always suggest to me wishful thinking by publicists eager to milk an Austen connection.


Still, judging from the photos accompanying the Telegraph story, the Vyne is a splendid and beautifully restored home. (That library: to die for.) The participants in last summer’s Jane Austen Society of North America tour of Austen’s England visited; alas, my own JASNA tour in 2011 did not.


* Southampton, England, where Austen lived from 1806 until 1809, has installed a bas-relief plaque in her honor in a theater building in the city’s cultural district. An earlier version of the plaque, which was installed in the public library in1917 to commemorate the centennial of Austen’s death, was destroyed by bombing during World War II.


The new plaque features a sculpted adaptation of an 1804 watercolor her sister, Cassandra, made of Austen: not the famous head-and-shoulders portrait of a seemingly irritated Austen in a frilly turban, but a lesser-known representation of a seated Austen, seen from the back. (See both images here.)


For a Janeite, there’s a certain oddity to the plaque’s very existence. Although the Austen sisters indubitably lived in Southampton, sharing a home with their mother, their brother Francis – often away at sea -- and his wife and baby, Austen’s residence there marked a low point in her literary career. She seems to have written nothing during the Southampton years; it was the move to Chawton cottage in 1809 that finally gave her the time, space, and mental breathing-room to write or revise all six of her completed novels.


But you wouldn’t know that from Southampton’s plaque, which features the first line of Pride and Prejudice and a list of Austen’s novels -- right above the name of the Southampton street where she lived when she wasn’t writing any of them.


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 22 2018 01:00PM

In September 1813, Jane Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, from their brother Edward’s library at Godmersham Park in Kent. As regular blog readers will recall from last month’s post, Austen seemed to be enjoying her momentary peace and quiet: “I am now alone in the Library, Mistress of all I survey,” she told Cassandra.


The Godmersham library, both the room and the book collection, were grand enough to suit a prosperous landowner like Edward Austen Knight: At a time when books were true luxury items, he owned more than twelve hundred – non-fiction on a broad range of topics, as well as a good number of novels -- and housed them in a long rectangular room with two fireplaces and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves on three walls.


Edward’s book collection was dispersed and the library itself in ruins by the early decades of the twentieth century. But thanks to the magic of the Internet, it’s now possible for Janeites and bibliophiles to hang out there with Jane Austen, at least in imagination: Reading With Austen, a website that reconstructs Godmersham’s library, went live earlier this month.


Like the similar What Jane Saw project, which recreated a famous art exhibition Austen visited in London in 1813, Reading with Austen relies on a combination of old-fashioned scholarly sleuthing and up-to-date digital technology.


Using an 1818 catalogue of the library’s holdings, a team headed by Austen scholar Peter Sabor, a professor of eighteenth-century studies at McGill University in Toronto, has situated a digital rendering of Edward’s holdings inside an artistic rendering of what his library may have looked like. Click on a book spine and you call up bibliographical information about the volume and, when available, an image of its title page, dedication, marginalia, and Knight family bookplate.


“When available”: There’s the rub. Only five hundred of the books listed in the 1818 catalogue, over a third of the total, are on loan to Chawton House, the rare-books library housed in Edward Austen Knight’s second home in Hampshire. Another fifty volumes are owned by libraries or museums; a few others have come on the market recently.


Locating, photographing, and, where possible, acquiring the rest is the job of the Godmersham Lost Sheep Society (GLOSS), the brainchild of Sabor; Janine Barchas, an English professor at the University of Texas at Austin; and Deborah Barnum, a rare book specialist who blogs at Jane Austen in Vermont.


The missing books include – oh, tragic irony! – all Edward’s first editions of Jane Austen’s novels. (You can find their locations in the center of the South Wall by browsing the website’s catalog.)


Absent a few miracles, scholarly and financial, it’s going to take a long, long time for all those lost sheep to find their way home. In the meantime, however, we can all spend a few hours at Reading with Austen, daydreaming in bibliophilic splendor alongside Jane Austen.


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