Deborah Yaffe

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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.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 15 2017 01:00PM

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


The letter Jane Austen began writing to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 209 years ago today contains nothing very remarkable, as Austen makes clear from its first line: “Where shall I begin?” she wonders. “Which of all my important nothings shall I tell you first?”


Jane and the family of her oldest brother, James, were on a visit to their brother Edward’s large family in Kent; Cassandra had stayed behind in Southampton, where the Austen sisters, their mother and their friend Martha Lloyd were living with the wife and baby of yet another Austen brother, sailor Frank.


The letter (#52 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) rattles on about the weather, the journey, the food at the inn, the doings of neighborhood acquaintances, and the welfare of a legion of nieces and nephews. And Jane encourages Cassandra to send back more of the same. “You know how interesting the purchase of a sponge-cake is to me,” she notes – possibly in jest, but possibly not.


Perhaps the most striking thing about this letter – and about the three successive letters that Jane wrote to Cassandra during the sixteen days between June 15 and July 1 of 1808 – is their sheer bulk. The shortest of the four letters runs to more than 1,500 words; together, all four total more than 6,800.


Publishers today suggest that a novel should comprise roughly 80,000 to 100,000 words; Austen’s own six range from nearly 78,000 words for Northanger Abbey to nearly 160,000 for Mansfield Park.


In other words, in a little over two weeks of correspondence with her sister, Austen wrote the equivalent of 4 to 9 percent of an entire book. By hand! With a quill pen! My wrist aches just thinking about it. And this doesn’t even count the other letters that Austen mentions along the way: Cassandra’s lengthy replies to Jane’s letters (“every page of yours has more lines than this, & every line more words than the average of mine” – letter # 53); their sister-in-law Mary Austen’s letter to her stepdaughter, Anna; Anna’s reply; and a letter from their brother Henry carrying news about Frank.


There are intimations that Austen chafed at all this letter-writing, perhaps because of the time it took away from her creative work: “As to Martha, she had not the least chance in the World of hearing from me again, & I wonder at her impudence in proposing it,” Jane writes to Cassandra in letter #55. “I assure you I am as tired of writing long letters as you can be. What a pity that one should still be so fond of receiving them!”


But what’s clear is that these women – with an occasional assist from their brothers and husbands – performed the time-consuming, labor-intensive and crucial job of sustaining connections of family and friendship across geographical distances that were far harder to surmount than they are today. It was tedious, unglamorous, unsung work, surely taken for granted by the men in their lives and perhaps by the women themselves. But it was work nonetheless.


By Deborah Yaffe, May 22 2017 01:00PM

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


By May 1817, Jane Austen was gravely ill, just surfacing from an attack that had kept her mostly bedridden for more than a month. But in the letter she wrote exactly two centuries ago today – the last surviving letter she sent from her beloved home in Chawton -- she speaks more of her gratitude than of her suffering.


“How to do justice to the kindness of all my family during this illness, is quite beyond me!—Every dear Brother so affectionate & so anxious!—And as for my Sister!—Words must fail me in any attempt to describe what a Nurse she has been to me,” Austen writes to her friend Anne Sharp, in letter #159 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence. “In short, if I live to be an old Woman I must expect to wish I had died now, blessed in the tenderness of such a Family, & before I had survived either them or their affection.”


Lest we worry that on her deathbed, our adored, acerbic Jane Austen morphed into one of those Pollyannaish “pictures of perfection” that, as she had told her niece Fanny two months earlier, made her “sick and wicked,” the ailing Austen still manages a waspish remark or two.


Her less-than-adored sister-in-law, Mary Lloyd Austen, the wife of the oldest Austen brother, James, was lending the family carriage to transport Jane and her sister, Cassandra, to Winchester for medical treatment, and Austen appreciates the favor – up to a point.


“Now, that’s a sort of thing which Mrs J. Austen does in the kindest manner!” Austen writes. “But still she is in the main not a liberal-minded Woman.” Nor does Austen expect Mary’s recent good fortune – the news that James would inherit the property of his wealthy, lately deceased uncle upon the death of his widowed aunt – to improve her character.


“Expect it not my dear Anne;--too late, too late in the day,” Austen writes. “--& besides, the Property may not be theirs these ten years. My Aunt is very stout.” (Indeed, James did not live to inherit – he survived only two more years, while his aunt lived for another nineteen; the property passed to his son. People always live forever when there is any annuity to be paid them, as Fanny Dashwood noted.)


Two days after sending her letter to Anne Sharp, Jane Austen left Chawton for the last time. Eight weeks later, she died in Winchester.


By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 6 2017 01:00PM

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


Devotees of the Victorian novel are familiar with the Will Subplot, wherein family members jockey for the favor of a rich, elderly relative with an unresolved estate plan. Think of Dickens’ Miss Havisham toying with her horrible relations, or George Eliot’s Peter Featherstone having deathbed second thoughts about the disposition of his property.


Jane Austen didn’t write Victorian novels, of course – she died nearly two years before the future Queen Victoria was born – but the last months of her life were shadowed by a real-life Will Subplot. That’s the context for the letter Austen sent her youngest brother, Charles, exactly two hundred years ago today (#157 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


The Austens were a shabby-genteel family with more breeding and education than money, but one relative had indisputably made good: James Leigh-Perrot, the older brother of Jane Austen’s mother, had inherited a fortune (and a second surname – that’s the Perrot) from a childless relative. Since he and his wife, Jane Leigh-Perrot, had no children of their own, the Austens expected that his death would bring handsome bequests to his sister’s large family, most of whom needed the money badly.


But when Leigh-Perrot died in March 1817, his will “like almost every other will, gave as much disappointment as pleasure,” as Austen wrote presciently in the opening chapter of Sense and Sensibility. Leigh-Perrot left all his property to his wife for her lifetime, with a substantial fortune going to Jane Austen’s oldest brother, James, only after her death. The rest of the Austen siblings got £1,000 each – but they, too, had to wait for their money until after the death of disagreeable Aunt Jane. The disappointment was intense, and Jane Austen, already suffering from the illness that would kill her three months later, felt it keenly.


“A few days ago my complaint appeared removed, but I am ashamed to say that the shock of my Uncle’s Will brought on a relapse,” she wrote to Charles. “I am the only one of the Legatees who has been so silly, but a weak Body must excuse weak Nerves.”


We Janeites, who would do anything to read the novels that Jane Austen might have written if only she’d survived another twenty-five or thirty years, can’t help but resent the pain that Uncle James’ foolish uxoriousness caused Our Jane – even if it seems unlikely that disappointment over the will actually hastened her death, whether caused by Addison’s disease, cancer, typhoid, tuberculosis, arsenic poisoning or a still-unsuspected something else.


It’s poignant, though, to read the bibliographical information that Le Faye includes in her footnotes – information that perhaps explains why this is the only letter from Jane to Charles that has come down to us, even though she surely wrote him frequently all her life. Charles saved this one, labeling it “My last letter from Dearest Jane.”


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