Twenty-ninth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.
It’s an occupational hazard of the writing life that people will not infrequently approach you to suggest you take their dictation. “You’re a writer?” new acquaintances used to say to my father, a published novelist. “I have a great idea for a story! Could I tell it to you, and then you’d just write it up?”
How delightful to discover that even the great Jane Austen encountered this form of condescension cloaked in admiration.
In November of 1815, as Janeites will recall, James Stanier Clarke, librarian to the Prince Regent, learned of Austen’s presence in London from a doctor treating her brother Henry. Clarke and the Prince were both Austen fans, and Clarke invited her to tour Carlton House, the Prince’s London residence, and to dedicate her forthcoming novel, Emma, to the royal personage.
A few days later, Austen followed up with a question about the dedication, and in his reply Clarke took the opportunity to gift her with his own fabulous idea for a novel -- the story of a clergyman “who should pass his time between the metropolis & the Country. . . Fond of, & entirely engaged in Literature—no man’s Enemy but his own.” [Letter #125(A) in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence]. A clergyman, in other words, rather like Clarke himself.
Poor Jane Austen. Here’s a kind, well-meaning doofus with connections to a powerful potential patron, and he wants her to write up his earnest, didactic, tedious little idea. Obviously, she’s not going to oblige him. But how to put him off without causing offense?
In the letter she wrote to Clarke exactly 202 years ago today [#132(D)], Austen walks this tightrope with aplomb, combining a generous helping of flattery with a slice of half-serious self-deprecation and leavening the mixture with a pinch of sly wit.
“I am quite honoured by your thinking me capable of drawing such a Clergyman as you gave the sketch of in your note,” Austen explains. “But I assure you I am not. The comic part of the Character I might be equal to, but not the Good, the Enthusiastic, the Literary. Such a Man’s Conversation must at times be on subjects of Science & Philosophy of which I know nothing—or at least be occasionally abundant in quotations & allusions which a Woman, who like me, knows only her own Mother-tongue & has read very little in that, would be totally without the power of giving.—A Classical Education, or at any rate, a very extensive acquaintance with English Literature, Ancient & Modern, appears to me quite Indispensable for the person who wd do any justice to your Clergyman—And I think I may boast myself to be, with all possible Vanity, the most unlearned, & uninformed Female who ever dared to be an Authoress.”
It’s a little hard to buy the idea that the woman who had already created Henry Tilney, Mr. Collins, Dr. Grant, Edmund Bertram, and Mr. Elton felt herself unequal to portraying a clergyman, or that the writer of some of the best dialogue in English longed to stud her books with learned quotations from science, philosophy, and literature. To a contemporary reader – or, indeed, to anyone familiar with the management of the fragile male ego – it’s pretty obvious what Austen’s up to here.
Clarke, however, apparently didn’t notice: In his reply, he offered a few more plot suggestions and urged her to “continue to write, & make all your friends send Sketches to help you.” [#132(A)] Perish the thought.