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By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 26 2018 01:00PM

Thirty-fifth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters


As a novelist, Jane Austen was one of the greatest writers who ever put pen to paper. As a poet? Not so much.


The Austens were a literary family – reportedly, Austen’s mother was a dab hand at humorous verse, and as Oxford students, two of her brothers founded a magazine – so it isn’t surprising that Austen sometimes took a holiday from her true vocation and tried her hand at poetry.


Only a few of the results have survived, and although all are interesting to those of us for whom every scrap of Austen’s writing is a sacred talisman, as poetry – well, frankly, they aren’t very good.


The letter/poem that Austen wrote to her naval brother Frank, then in China, exactly 209 years ago today (#69 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) is a perfect example: as poetry, doggerel; as biography, delightful.


Austen writes the letter (which consists entirely of fifty-two lines of verse) to congratulate Frank on the recent birth of his second child and first son, who she hopes will turn out just like his father: a high-spirited boy who will grow into a kind and responsible man. She indulges in some jokey references to Frank’s childhood and then concludes with a glowing report on Chawton cottage, which the Austen women had moved into just three weeks earlier:


“Our Chawton home, how much we find

Already in it, to our mind;

And how convinced, that when complete

It will all other Houses beat

That ever have been made or mended,

With rooms concise or rooms distended.”


Today we know, as she could not, how important that “Chawton home” would become over the last eight years of Austen’s life. Chawton cottage -- now officially called Jane Austen’s House Museum -- was the place where she established the peaceful routines that enabled her to write or revise all six of her completed novels and send them out into the world.


It’s thrilling to glimpse her at the beginning of that fruitful journey – even if that glimpse comes by way of some pretty clunky verse.



By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 21 2018 01:00PM

The Hampshire village of Chawton is the mecca of the Janeite faith: the community where Austen spent the last eight years of her life, the secure home where she wrote or revised all six of her completed novels, the place from which “all her works were sent into the world,” to quote the plaque outside her cottage.


So it’s understandable that at least one villager found himself a tad miffed when the world’s first statue of Austen was unveiled last summer in . . . the nearby market town of Basingstoke, where Austen probably shopped, danced and walked, but where she indubitably did not live.


“Basingstoke has the statue, and Winchester has the grave and features on the Austen £10 note, but Chawton has been left out,” Michael Sanders, retiring chairman of the Friends of Chawton Church, told a local newspaper. “And it was here she did all the work on her books.”


So Sanders and his committee raised the money necessary to get Chawton a consolation prize of sorts: not the life-size bronze of Austen on permanent display in Basingstoke, but a smaller version, known as a maquette, which sculptor Adam Roud made as a preliminary template.


The Basingstoke Austen statue was installed in the central marketplace at street level, as if Bronze Jane were just another passerby on her way to the shops. By contrast, the smaller Chawton version stands atop a pedestal in the churchyard of St. Nicholas, not far from the graves of Austen’s mother and sister and a short distance from Chawton House, the home of Austen’s brother Edward Knight. The statue gazes across the meadows toward the cottage, now known as Jane Austen’s House Museum, where Austen lived from 1809 to 1817.


Among the participants in last Friday’s unveiling ceremony were Richard Knight, one of Edward’s descendants; the Lord Lieutenant of Hampshire; the Bishop of Basingstoke; and the novelist Joanna Trollope, a patron of Chawton House and the author of a deeply mediocre Sense and Sensibility update, as well as children from the local school and the chair of Chawton House’s board.


As blog readers will recall, Chawton House itself has had a rocky year or two as it tries to raise enough money to replace the contribution of Sandy Lerner, the Silicon Valley gazillionaire who renovated the property and turned it into a research library for the study of early English writing by women. Most recently, the organization dropped "Library" from Chawton House's name, in the hopes of encouraging non-scholarly tourists to make themselves welcome.


With luck, the statue will provide yet another reason for Janeites to make their very own pilgrimage to Hampshire.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 18 2018 01:00PM

A couple of months ago, when Jane Austen’s House Museum unveiled the results of the collaborative quilting project it organized to commemorate the 2017 bicentennial of Austen’s death, I bemoaned the lack of close-up photos for those of us who couldn’t journey to England to view the quilt squares in person.


I’m happy to say that omission has now been rectified: All fifty-three panels in the Jane Austen Community Story Quilt are now viewable in three online galleries, along with information about the theme and creator of each panel.


The panels, which cover aspects of Austen’s life and work, vary widely: Some are abstract, some are representational; some are specific, some more suggestive. Panels portray the church in Steventon, where Austen spent her first twenty-five years; Winchester Cathedral, where she is buried; and the museum itself, aka Chawton cottage, where she wrote or revised all six of her finished novels. Each novel gets a panel of its own, as do the Juvenilia and the unfinished Sanditon. Some panels also tackle themes in Austen’s work, such as elopement, self-control, and women’s precarious legal status.


Of course, a two-dimensional representation of needlework can’t substitute for an in-person viewing – texture and materials come across only imperfectly on screen – but for those of us whose international travel budgets are not what we might wish, this is a serviceable way to experience one of the most delightful Austen bicentenary projects.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 11 2018 01:00PM

Thirty-fourth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


The story of Jane Austen fandom has been told more than once, in books by Claire Harman, Claudia L. Johnson, Devoney Looser, Deidre Lynch (as editor), and (ahem!) myself. Austen devotees have been located among those who read her novels soon after their publication in 1813-17, among those who first devoured her nephew’s hagiographic 1869 memoir, and among those who swooned over Colin-Firth-in-a-wet-shirt in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.


Arguably, however, the first mention of a Jane Austen fan outside Austen’s own family – a Janeite Patient Zero, as it were -- comes in the letter Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 219 years ago today (#21 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


The twenty-three-year-old Austen is staying with relatives in Bath while Cassandra remains behind in Steventon. Amid a bubbly account of what she’s done, who she’s met, and what she’s bought, Jane mentions the Austen sisters’ great friend Martha Lloyd, who has apparently asked Cassandra if she can see the manuscript of First Impressions, the early Austen work that we believe eventually became Pride and Prejudice.


“I would not let Martha read First Impressions again upon any account, & am very glad that I did not leave it in your power,” Jane writes jokingly to Cassandra. “She is very cunning, but I see through her design;—she means to publish it from Memory, & one more perusal must enable her to do it.”


And there you have it: Martha Lloyd, the friend who a decade later set up housekeeping with the Austen sisters and their mother at Chawton cottage, is the first obsessive Austen re-reader for whom we have documentary evidence – the prototype of those people who read all the novels every year, recite dialogue by heart, and mentally file everyone they meet under headings like “Lady Catherine” and “Mr. Collins.”


Welcome to the club, Martha.


By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 5 2018 01:00PM

Thirty-second in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


Publishers jerk authors around.


This is not exactly news, least of all to authors who have argued over titles and cover art, watched publication dates come and go with no action, or pleaded in vain for increases to the publicity budget.*


Nor is this a modern phenomenon, as the letter Jane Austen wrote exactly 209 years ago today [#68(D) in Deirdre Le Faye's standard edition of Austen's correspondence] makes clear.


Six years earlier, in the spring of 1803, Austen – working anonymously through her brother Henry and his lawyer, William Seymour – had sold the manuscript of what eventually become Northanger Abbey to London publisher Benjamin Crosby & Co. for a respectable £10. The book, then titled Susan, was advertised for sale the same year.


And then – nothing. No book ever appeared. It’s hard to imagine a more infuriating and discouraging outcome for a hopeful first-time author.


By 1809, Austen was done waiting. She was about to move into a settled home at Chawton cottage; perhaps she wanted to gather all her unfinished work and get down to some serious revision.


And so she wrote to Crosby & Co. asking that it either publish Susan or dissolve the old contract. “Should no notice be taken of this Address, I shall feel myself at liberty to secure the publication of my work, by applying elsewhere,” she wrote. She signed the letter “MAD” – shorthand for her pseudonym du jour, “Mrs. Ashton Dennis,” but no doubt also a pointed commentary on her state of mind.


With an alacrity notably absent from the earlier handling of Austen’s work, Richard Crosby wrote back three days later. He denied that the firm had ever promised to publish at any particular time (or, indeed, at all), threatened legal action if Austen tried to publish elsewhere, and offered to return the manuscript in exchange for the £10 previously paid.


Austen may have been MAD before; she must have been enraged when she got this insulting reply. Frustrated, too: It took her another seven years – and the publication of four other novels – before she could find the money to buy back her own work. Which, of course, was finally published in 1818 -- exactly two hundred years ago.


(For a fascinating and detailed account of Northanger Abbey’s publication history, check out Deborah Barnum’s post in blogger Sarah Emsley’s ongoing series about Austen’s last two published novels.)


If this sorry episode demonstrates anything – beyond the fact that publishers have mistreated authors for centuries – it is how much persistence, determination, and commitment it took for Jane Austen to get her books into print. She needed a thick skin and deep reservoirs of MAD. Even for an Austen-caliber genius, talent wasn’t enough.



* #NotAllPublishers, of course. I have no complaints about Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which published Among the Janeites.


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