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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.”


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 13 2017 01:00PM

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


Jane Austen: realist or romantic? Cynic or softie? You’ll find Janeites on both sides of that argument.


And maybe you’d even find Austen herself on both sides – or so we might conclude from the letter she wrote to her eldest niece, twenty-four-year-old Fanny Knight, exactly two hundred years ago today (#153 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


In all five surviving letters to Fanny, Aunt Jane offers some kind of commentary on Fanny’s affairs of the heart. More than two years earlier, as I wrote here, Fanny had sought advice about her fluctuating feelings for a young clergyman named John Plumptre, and in this letter, Austen is responding to Fanny’s account of the hot-and-cold attentions of a wealthy landowner named James Wildman.


Austen dispatches Mr. Wildman quickly – “By your description he cannot be in love with you, however he may try at it, & I could not wish the match unless there were a great deal of Love on his side,” she writes. Briefly, she digresses to discuss other acquaintances Fanny had apparently mentioned in her previous letter, including one whose recent death might have left her unmarried daughter in financial straits.


And then, as if by an irresistible association, Austen is back to the marriage question. “Single Women have a dreadful propensity for being poor—which is one very strong argument in favour of Matrimony,” she writes. For a Janeite, the line immediately evokes the many struggling single women of Austen’s fiction: the Dashwood family, in Sense and Sensibility, left unprovided for upon the patriarch’s death; Mrs. and Miss Bates of Emma, making ends meet on the charity of their neighbors; Anne Elliot’s widowed friend Mrs. Smith, in Persuasion, ill and alone in downmarket lodgings in Bath.


The prudential message seems clear: For women, marriage is less a romantic culmination than an insurance policy – or, as Pride and Prejudice’s Charlotte Lucas might put it, “the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness. . . their pleasantest preservative from want.”


But perhaps Austen hesitated to convey quite so harsh a message to her beloved niece, who was, after all, a well-educated young woman with a substantial fortune, thanks to her father’s adoption by the wealthy Knight family. For Austen immediately follows her ultra-pragmatic recommendation of marriage with a kinder, gentler bit of reassurance: “Do not be in a hurry; depend upon it, the right Man will come at last; you will in the course of the next two or three years, meet with somebody more generally unexceptionable than anyone you have yet known, who will love you as warmly as ever He [Plumptre] did, & who will so completely attach you that you will feel you never really loved before.”


Perhaps Austen could tell that Fanny – by our standards still young, but by the standards of her own time aging rapidly through her marriageable years – was getting anxious about her prospects. And surely it couldn’t have escaped Fanny’s notice that the reassurances her aunt was offering were hardly supported by the evidence of that aunt’s own perpetual spinsterhood.


Austen knew from experience that not every woman has the luck to find both love and financial security in a single package. But though she was too much of a realist to overlook the necessary economic rationale for marriage, she was too much of a romantic to consider that rationale sufficient.


Still, as it happens, Aunt Jane’s reassuring advice was right: Three and a half years after this letter, Fanny married a baronet.


By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 9 2017 02:00PM

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


Jane Austen came from a large and close-knit tribe of siblings who remained intimately engaged with each other all their lives.* So Austen’s uncharitable description of her oldest brother, contained in a letter to their sister, Cassandra, finished exactly 210 years ago today, has intrigued biographers.


“I should not be surprised if we were to be visited by James again this week,” Jane wrote to Cassandra, then staying with their brother Edward in Kent. “I am sorry & angry that his Visits should not give one more pleasure; the company of so good & so clever a Man ought to be gratifying in itself;--but his Chat seems all forced, his Opinions on many points too much copied from his Wife’s, & his time here is spent I think in walking about the House & banging the Doors, or ringing the Bell for a glass of Water.” (Letter #50 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence)


In “Brothers of the More Famous Jane,” a fascinating paper delivered at the 2009 Annual General Meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America, Maggie Lane calls this passage “the most negative thing that Jane Austen ever wrote about any of her family—or at least, that Cassandra allowed to stand when she cut up the letters” and argues that “it has colored all subsequent portraits of James.”


Noting his support for his sister’s writing and his deep affection for his children, Lane convincingly mitigates posterity’s harsh verdict on James Austen (1765-1819). More than a decade older than Jane, James followed in their father’s footsteps by becoming a clergyman and eventually taking over the living at Steventon in 1800, when the elder Austens retired to Bath. He was his mother’s favorite, an Oxford graduate and a lifelong writer of unpublished poetry – indeed, something of a literary man manqué.


His toughest critics believe that the biting Chapter 2 of Sense and Sensibility, in which a man allows his wife to talk him out of acting generously toward his widowed stepmother and younger half-sisters, is Jane Austen’s barely veiled account of how James and his second wife, Mary Lloyd Austen, behaved over the move to Steventon.


I’ve always been leery of this conclusion, as I so often am of biographical readings of Austen’s fiction, given the dearth of our information about Austen’s life and writing process. Sure, it’s possible that John and Fanny Dashwood are precise portraits of James and Mary Austen and that the bitterness of those scenes in S&S reflects Austen’s own feelings over her displacement from her childhood home. But it’s equally possible that Austen observed, interrogated and reshaped events, drawing inspiration from real life but heightening the emotions and exaggerating the behavior in the service of her story. This is what writers do.


So what should we make of Austen’s unflattering portrait of the middle-aged James as a dull and inconsiderate houseguest? I’m inclined to be cautious in assuming that this passage represents Jane Austen’s definitive verdict on her brother. Who among us has never felt irritated by a sibling? Who among us has never confided such irritation to an injudicious email? Two centuries from now, would we want our future biographers to conclude that irritation was the sum total of what we felt?


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