Deborah Yaffe

Blog

By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 11 2017 02:00PM

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.


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 20 2017 02:00PM

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


Only six of Jane Austen’s letters to her oldest niece, Fanny Knight, survive, but for Janeites mining for links between Austen’s work and Austen’s life, that tiny correspondence is chock-full of golden nuggets.


Scarcely seventeen years separated aunt from niece, and Fanny seems to have enjoyed parsing her romantic dilemmas with this sympathetic and interested older confidante, in a pre-telephonic version of “And then he said. . . . And then I said. . . . And then he said. . . .”


Austen’s letters to Fanny fall into two groups: two letters written in November 1814, when Fanny was twenty-one and Austen thirty-eight; and three more written some two and a half years later, in early 1817, when Fanny was twenty-four and the forty-one-year-old Austen had only months to live. (The sixth letter, which contains a few verses of doggerel, was written years earlier, when Fanny was a child.)


The letter Austen finished writing exactly 203 years ago today -- #109 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence -- is the first of two in which Aunt Jane addresses Fanny’s fluctuating feelings for the young clergyman John Plumptre. (I blogged about the second of these letters here.)


To me, what’s most interesting about Letter #109 is the way that Austen’s reactions to Fanny resonate with incidents or dialogue in her work. Apparently, Fanny has visited Plumptre’s home, hoping to stimulate her waning passion by a view of his things. Austen can’t help giggling at the idea. “The dirty Shaving Rag was exquisite!--Such a circumstance ought to be in print,” she writes. And little more than a year later, with the publication of Emma, the world was introduced to Harriet Smith’s “Most precious treasures” – a worn-out pencil stub and an extra bit of court plaister, saved as stimuli to romantic nostalgia. Was Fanny’s dirty shaving rag an inspiration for Harriet’s treasure trove? Impossible to say – but tempting to speculate.


The letter contains an even more explicit echo of Austen’s fiction. After cataloguing the worthy Mr. Plumptre’s many merits, Austen nevertheless advises Fanny to consult her own feelings: “Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection,” Austen writes.


Was Jane Austen channeling, consciously or unconsciously, the gentle, optimistic Jane Bennet -- in chapter 59 of Pride and Prejudice, published the year before -- who, confronted with the news of Elizabeth’s engagement to Mr. Darcy, cries, “Oh, Lizzy! do anything rather than marry without affection”? Impossible to know – but tempting to speculate.


In their insistence on marital love, both Janes are speaking to young women for whom the prudential and the romantic need not conflict: for the fictional Lizzy, because she has fallen in love with a wealthy man, and for the real-life Fanny, because she is herself an heiress. But Austen’s advice also echoes a far darker passage in her work – a snippet of dialogue in the early pages of her fragment The Watsons, in which the idealistic Emma Watson and her older, less naïve sister Elizabeth discuss the search for a husband.


“I would rather be a teacher at a school (and I can think of nothing worse) than marry a man I did not like,” exclaims Emma, who has grown up with a wealthy aunt and only recently returned to her struggling birth family.


“I would rather do anything than be a teacher at a school,” Elizabeth replies. “I have been at school, Emma, and know what a life they lead you; you never have.”


Austen undoubtedly took Fanny’s romantic woes seriously, but she must have realized that the stakes were far lower for a young woman who, even if she stayed single, would never have to face the hard work and genteel poverty of teacher or governess. And perhaps that is why, amid her genuine concern for the feelings of Fanny and the unfortunate Mr. Plumptre, Austen’s wry, unromantic common sense cannot help but assert itself.


Fanny has encouraged her suitor, and therefore pain awaits him if she changes her mind, Austen acknowledges. But not that much pain. “I have no doubt of his suffering a good deal for a time, a great deal, when he feels that he must give you up,” she writes, “but it is no creed of mine, as you must be well aware, that such sort of Disappointments kill anybody.”


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, Sep 25 2017 01:00PM

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


Janeites often wonder how Jane Austen would feel about her phenomenal posthumous fame. We’d like to believe that she would be thrilled to know her books are still read and loved after two centuries. But it’s hard to avoid the sneaking suspicion that she might find our enthusiasm excessive, embarrassing—perhaps even a bit grubby.


Support for that suspicion comes in the letter Jane Austen wrote to her older brother Francis exactly 204 years ago today (#90 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence). Writing to her sailor brother aboard his ship, the HMS Elephant, Austen sent along the latest family news and then mentioned that, two years after the anonymous publication of her first novel, it was becoming increasingly difficult to discreetly screen her authorship.


“Henry heard P. & P. warmly praised in Scotland. . . & what does he do in the warmth of his Brotherly vanity & Love, but immediately tell them who wrote it!” Austen writes Frank, in fond but real exasperation. “A Thing once set going in that way—one knows how it spreads!–and he, dear Creature, has set it going so much more than once. I know it is all done from affection & partiality—but at the same time, let me here again express to you & Mary my sense of the superior kindness which you have shewn on the occasion, in doing what I wished.”


It’s clear from this passage that Austen sincerely hoped to preserve her anonymity – her barbed reference to Henry’s “vanity” and her gratitude for the “superior” discretion of Frank and his wife make it obvious that this was no little-old-me affectation. Less clear is why she cared so much.


Did she think it was something less than respectable for a clergyman’s daughter to write in the often-disparaged genre of the novel? Did she fear that, if her authorship became known, her neighbors would look for portraits of themselves in her books and begin wondering whether she was taking mental notes as they talked? Although she couldn’t have anticipated the coming avalanche of Colin Firth tote bags, did she perhaps worry that publicity could attract autograph seekers who would disturb the peace of her Chawton refuge? Or perhaps she simply felt the introvert’s horror at exposing the products of her private self to the scrutiny of the insensitive.


Impossible to know: On the few occasions she mentions her anonymity, she seems to take it for granted that the recipient of her letter needs no explanation of her reasons.


In any case, this letter seems to give us an Austen preparing to shed her already threadbare disguise. When her third book is published, she tells Frank, “I shall rather try to make all the Money than all the Mystery I can of it.--People shall pay for their Knowledge if I can make them.”


So perhaps she saw the tote bags coming after all.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 3 2017 01:00PM

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


Jane Austen wrote for money.


Not only for money, of course – she began writing as an adolescent, long before she had a chance of getting published, and kept going despite rejection and disappointment that must have sometimes made her wonder if anyone besides her family would ever read a word of her books.


But make no mistake about it: She wanted to be paid for her work, and she liked it very, very much when she was. Although her relations, with their genteel squeamishness about women and work, sometimes tried to pretend she gave no thought to pecuniary considerations, her letters make clear that she did. And who can blame her? It’s satisfying to earn a small measure of independence and self-sufficiency through hard work well done.


That sense of satisfaction comes through loud and clear in the postscript to the letter that Jane Austen began writing to her older sailor brother, Frank, exactly 204 years ago today (#86 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).*


“You will be glad to hear that every copy of S.&S. is sold & that it has brought me £140—besides the Copyright, if that shd ever be of any value,” Jane writes to Frank. “I have now therefore written myself into £250.—which only makes me long for more.”


What would Austen have thought if she could have known how valuable the copyright of Sense and Sensibility would indeed become? On the strength of this letter, I’d guess she would have kicked herself for dying too soon to get a piece of that action.



* It’s one of only a handful of surviving letters to Frank: Although he kept his sister’s letters throughout his long life, preserving them even as he captained ships and participated in naval battles, his youngest daughter destroyed them soon after his death in 1865, at the age of ninety-one. So while we’re hating on Cassandra Austen for burning or censoring her letters from her sister, let’s spare a little vitriol for Frances Sophia Austen, who never even knew her Aunt Jane but nevertheless took it upon herself to destroy a priceless part of our cultural heritage.


Quill pen -- transparent BookTheWriter transparent facebook twitter