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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.


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 26 2018 01:00PM

The delightful Jane Austen Quilt project culminated earlier this month with the unveiling at Jane Austen’s House Museum of two beautiful quilts made from blocks contributed by Janeites across the globe.


As blog readers will recall, the museum – aka Chawton Cottage, the house where Austen wrote or revised all six of her completed novels – launched the quilt project last year to mark the bicentenary of Austen’s death. The design was inspired by one of the treasures of the museum’s collection, the Austen family coverlet stitched by Jane, Cassandra, and their mother.


Combining creativity and traditionally female needlecraft, the quilt project strikes me as a charming and appropriate way of paying homage to Austen, a creative artist embedded in a female-run household. (Plus she was an excellent needlewoman, at least according to her nephew's 1870 Memoir of Jane Austen.)


The main quilt, known as the Jane Austen Community Story Quilt, measures more than eight feet by five feet and consists of fifty-seven blocks, most of which illustrate some aspect of Austen’s life or work. The second, smaller quilt, known as the Admirals’ Quilt, is composed of abstract geometrical blocks left over from the making of the main quilt.


Unfortunately, the museum blog doesn’t include closeups of every block in the Story Quilt, but from what I can see via blurry on-line zooms, among the designs are blocks featuring the Steventon church where Austen’s father was the minister, the turquoise ring she wore, and the spines of the novels she wrote. A large central panel, created by students from the local elementary school, highlights the community of Chawton, complete with houses, trees, and a friendly horse. (You can get a better look at portions of the quilt here, on the blog of quilter Katrina Hadjimichael, who created one of the blocks.)


Both quilts will be on display at the museum for the rest of this year, and the project has been memorialized in a book, Stories in Stitches: Reimagining Jane Austen’s Quilt.


By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 1 2018 02:00PM

The most beloved Austen site in England -- Jane Austen’s House Museum, aka Chawton Cottage, the Hampshire home where Austen wrote or revised all six of her completed novels – was closed last month. But it’s reopening today with some exciting programming for 2018, which marks the bicentennial of the publication of both Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.


For the next seven months, Chawton’s exhibits will “explore the themes of family and friendship in both Northanger Abbey and in the lives of the Austen family,” on the premise that the Morlands’ big, noisy clergy family might be partly inspired by the Austens’ big, noisy clergy family.


Then, in the last four months of 2018, a year that also marks the one hundredth anniversary of the end of World War I, the museum will launch an exhibit linked to Persuasion, set during the last months of the Napoleonic Wars. The exhibit will look at “the impact of war on Jane Austen's novels, the life of the Austen family, and on the country at large.”


Interesting stuff! Once again, it’s a good year to visit Chawton cottage. But, then, every year is a good year to visit Chawton cottage. . .


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 8 2018 02:00PM

Among the commemorations planned during last year’s bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death, one of the most delightful was the Chawton quilt project – an ambitious effort by the staff of Jane Austen’s House Museum to create a quilt whose individual panels would tell the story of Austen’s life.


The museum – aka Chawton cottage, the place where Austen wrote or revised all six of her finished novels – solicited volunteer quilters, held workshops for local participants, and helped the children from Chawton’s elementary school design and create a central panel.


And last week, the museum blog dedicated to the project reported that the quilt squares created by Janeite stitchers across the globe are now being assembled into the final product – indeed, two final products, to accommodate the unexpectedly numerous contributions. Contributors included representatives of Jane Austen societies, professional quilters, and even prison inmates involved in a program of rehabilitation through needlework.


The squares glimpsed on the blog so far (here, for instance) look quite lovely. I’m eagerly awaiting a shot of the completed quilts. They will join one of the gems of Chawton’s collection, the famous coverlet co-created by Austen herself.


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 13 2017 02:00PM

Over the nearly five years I’ve been blogging about Jane Austen, Jane Austen’s House Museum -- aka Chawton cottage, the beloved pilgrimage site in Hampshire, England, where Austen wrote or revised all six of her completed novels -- has created more than one Janeite Dream Job.


There was the recruiting of trustees, the search for unpaid weekend help to deal with the crush of tourists – even the (non-cottage-related, but still) sale of Cassandra’s Cup, the teashop across the street.


The latest example: The museum is seeking volunteers to catalogue the various items uncovered in the cottage’s gardens over the past twenty years. No word on what these items include, but the job announcement is illustrated with a photo of decorative ceramic shards.


Although the work may have only a tangential relationship to Austen – Chawton Cottage was inhabited for more than a century after her death – you never know what may have turned up. “We hope the objects found will provide a greater insight into the history of the site as well as assisting with any future interpretation and dressing of the house itself,” the museum’s announcement explains.


The job is unpaid, but it has its perks: A 25 percent discount on Mr. Darcy tote bags and the rest of the merchandise in the museum shop, and “tea, coffee and biscuits during your shift.” Not to mention the truly priceless part of the experience: the chance to spend some hours hanging around Jane Austen’s last home.


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