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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, Mar 25 2019 01:00PM

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


Those of us who feel strongly about books sometimes subject new acquaintances or romantic prospects to a compatibility test: Recommend a favorite work and see how the newbie responds to it. It may be possible to love someone with bad taste in literature, but – well, let’s just say that I’ve never managed it.


Jane Austen’s oldest niece, Fanny Knight, was particularly ruthless about administering the Book Test -- or so we might infer from the letter Austen finished writing her exactly 202 years ago today (#155 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


In her previous letter, twenty-four-year-old Fanny had apparently described the reaction of a neighbor, Mr. Wildman, to one of Aunt Jane’s novels. Which she had carefully omitted to tell him was by her aunt, the better to elicit a brutally candid, inconveniently self-revealing response. ("I agree with your Papa, that it was not fair," Austen chided Fanny.)


Fair or not, brutal candor seems to be what Fanny got: Although it’s not clear which book Mr. Wildman read, Austen assures Fanny, “I had great amusement in reading [his opinion], & I hope I am not affronted & do not think the worse of him for having a Brain so very different from mine.”


What Mr. Wildman preferred in a novel can be deduced from Austen’s deathless statement of her own credo: “He & I should not in the least agree of course, in our ideas of Novels & Heroines;--pictures of perfection as you know make me sick & wicked.” *


Apparently Mr. Wildman had told Fanny that he “wish[ed] to think well of all young Ladies”: perhaps he’d been struggling to do so when confronted with, say, Lucy Steele or Caroline Bingley.


The Mr. Wildman in question was, according to Le Faye’s footnotes, twenty-eight-year-old bachelor James-Beckford Wildman, the master of an estate worth £20,000 a year -- twice as much as Mr. Darcy’s Pemberley. (Talk about a single man in possession of a good fortune!) It’s not hard to imagine poor Mr. Wildman harboring hopes of uniting his sizeable property with that of the heiress next door – until he utterly failed her tricky Book Test.



* Such a great line! Someone should put that on a mug or a totebag.


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, Jan 24 2019 02:00PM

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


Only hindsight makes anything remarkable out of the letter that Jane Austen wrote to her friend Alethea Bigg exactly 202 years ago today [#150(C) in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence].


It’s a commonplace account of commonplace matters: the weather is pleasant, various young relatives are turning out well, the Austens would like the Bigg family’s recipe for orange wine. Clearly, Austen’s relationship with Alethea Bigg has survived whatever damage it might have sustained more than fourteen years earlier, when Austen accepted and then rejected the marriage proposal of Alethea’s younger brother, Harris Bigg-Wither.


Amid all of the everyday news comes Austen’s account of her own health: “I have certainly gained strength through the Winter & am not far from being well; & I think I understand my own case now so much better than I did, as to be able by care to keep off any serious return of illness,” she writes. “I am more & more convinced that Bile is at the bottom of all I have suffered, which makes it easy to know how to treat myself.”


We can’t know what Bigg made of this account: whether she believed in Austen’s optimism, or ascribed it to wishful thinking, or detected, in the cautious hedging of that oh-so-Austenian phrase “not far from being well,” a suggestion that her self-deception was far from complete.


Whatever Jane Austen and her correspondent realized in January of 1817, within six months, Austen was dead. We know how it all turned out, and that makes Austen’s self-delusion – however successful it may have been -- unbearably poignant.


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 17 2018 02:00PM

Fortieth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


It’s not always easy to tell when Jane Austen, master of irony, wants you to take her words at face value. And perhaps that’s why we’re still arguing about the self-assessment contained in the letter she finished writing exactly 202 years ago today (#146 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence). That letter – begun a day earlier, on Austen's forty-first birthday, the last she would ever celebrate – was written to her eighteen-year-old nephew and future biographer James Edward Austen (later Austen-Leigh).


Edward, as the family called him, had just arrived home at Steventon -- where his father, James, the oldest Austen brother, served as rector -- after finishing his high school studies at Winchester College. Like his older half-sister, Anna Austen Lefroy, Edward was a would-be novelist, and apparently two and a half chapters of his manuscript-in-progress had recently gone missing.


“It is well that I have not been at Steventon lately, & therefore cannot be suspected of purloining them,” Austen writes in a letter welcoming him home. “Two strong twigs & a half towards a Nest of my own, would have been something.—I do not think however that any theft of that sort would be really very useful to me. What should I do with your strong, manly, spirited Sketches, full of Variety & Glow?—How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour?”


It’s clear that much of this passage – indeed, much of this whole letter -- is written tongue in cheek. Elsewhere, Austen teasingly encourages Edward to come clean at last about the dissipations of his high school life and, amid much news of the comings and goings of various Austen brothers, directs him not to “be tired of reading the word Uncle, for I have not done with it.”


Obviously, she didn’t really think anyone would suspect her of stealing Edward’s chapters, even if her rave review of his work was an honest critical appraisal and not merely the kindness of a doting aunt encouraging a boy she had known since birth.


So did her irony extend to the apparently self-deprecating two-inches-of -ivory assessment of her own work – perhaps the most famous passage in all of Austen’s correspondence? It’s impossible to know for sure, but I would guess the answer is both yes and no.


Austen surely didn’t long to write with the unpolished exuberance of a teenage boy, and it seems likely that she knew her labors produced the very opposite of “little effect.” Her performance of ladylike modesty is, at least partly, just that: a performance, whose insincerity she perhaps expected Edward to recognize and find amusing.


But there’s enough penetration in the two-inches-of-ivory passage to suggest that Austen wasn’t being entirely ironic. She wasn’t wrong to associate her method with the delicacy and precision of fine brushwork – and certainly she knew that fine brushwork requires great skill. Nor was she wrong to note that her canvas is restricted – though whether that restriction amounts to laser-focus or limitation is a never-ending debate.


Ironic yet serious, self-deprecating yet quietly confident: The very passage in which Austen seems to play down her own artistry bears witness to its inexhaustible subtlety.


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