Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 11 2018 01:00PM

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


Some writers fill their letters with detailed responses to the works they read, providing a fascinating record of their literary tastes and influences.


Alas, Jane Austen was not such a writer. Her surviving letters offer only occasional tidbits about the books she has read, allowing us to deduce her love of, say, Richardson, Crabbe, and the anti-slavery activist Thomas Clarkson, but offering few details about what she found compelling in their work.


That makes the letter Austen began writing to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 205 years ago today (#91 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) an especially valuable artifact. Austen is on an extended visit with their brother Edward’s family at Godmersham Park in Kent while Cassandra remains home in Chawton; amid news of the comings and goings of relatives and visitors, Austen reports that she has been rereading a well-known contemporary novel, Mary Brunton’s 1811 Self-Control.


I must confess that I have never read Self-Control. For details of its plot -- which features sustained sexual harassment, adultery, a duel, an international kidnapping, and the heroine’s desperate flight from a would-be rapist via Indian canoe – I turned to Wikipedia, ever the lazy student’s friend.


Though little-known today, in its time the novel made a big enough splash that two years earlier Austen had confessed to some trepidation about reading it: “am always half afraid of finding a clever novel too clever--& of finding my own story & my own people all forestalled,” she told Cassandra (Letter #72).


By 1813, however, those fears were past. “I am looking over Self Control again, & my opinion is confirmed of its’ being an excellently-meant, elegantly-written Work, without anything of Nature or Probability in it,” Austen writes. “I declare I do not know whether Laura’s passage down the American River, is not the most natural, possible, every-day thing she ever does.”


It’s not that Austen entirely eschews the melodramatic elements of Brunton’s plot. Adultery, sexual harassment, and dueling do make their way into Austen’s novels, but she is at pains to confine them within the bounds of the everyday -- because, as she makes clear here, her bottom-line commitment is to the realistic and the natural, which she privileges above the artistically pleasing (“elegantly-written”) and the morally praiseworthy (“excellently-meant”).


It’s not much, I admit, but for those of us starved for any sense of Austen’s literary-critical outlook, it’s something.


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 24 2018 01:00PM

Thirty-seventh in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


Jane Austen never lived alone. From her earliest days, she was surrounded by parents and siblings; on visits away from home, she stayed with friends and extended family. Her writing time was snatched in shared living spaces rendered temporarily quiet enough to facilitate mental concentration. Surely she must sometimes have been frustrated by the enforced companionship.


Perhaps that’s why I like to imagine her as she describes herself in the letter she finished writing to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 205 years ago today (#89 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


Austen was on a long visit to Godmersham Park, her wealthy brother Edward’s stately home in Kent, and most of the letter recounts the doings of Edward’s family, friends, and visitors. “We live in the Library except at Meals & have a fire every Even[in]g,” Austen wote.


By the time she finished the letter, however, the others had apparently scattered: “I am now alone in the Library, Mistress of all I survey,” Austen wrote, “—at least I may say so & repeat the whole poem if I like it, without offence to anybody.”


The poem in question is Cowper’s “The Solitude of Alexander Selkirk,” published in 1782, which famously begins, “I am monarch of all I survey.” Selkirk was the marooned sailor whose story helped inspire Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and Cowper imagines him lonely and despairing, pining for human contact.


Austen’s ironic self-description – as she well knew, she was mistress of nothing, least of all Edward’s many expensive books -- suggests more satisfaction than despair: a moment of breathing-room snatched amid the doings of a busy household.


But not for long: by the time Austen finished the letter, a few paragraphs later, she had a message for the people back home in Chawton, courtesy of her eight-year-old niece: “Louisa’s best Love & a Hundred Thousand Million Kisses.”


Louisa was the ninth of Edward’s eleven children. She sounds adorable, and probably also exhausting. No wonder Austen found her moment of solitude in the library worth memorializing in print


By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 23 2018 01:00PM

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


The young Jane Austen was a voracious reader. We know this because her earliest works, the Juvenilia, are clever satires of everything she read – the overwrought melodramas with their impossibly handsome heroes and swooning heroines, the partisan histories masquerading as objective fact, the plays stuffed with prosy, circuitous dialogue.


Even the short letter the 20-year-old Austen wrote exactly 222 years ago today (#3 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) shows traces of this parodic impulse. Austen and two of her brothers had left the family home in Steventon the day before, and Jane’s brief note served to inform their sister, Cassandra, that they had arrived safely in London.


“Here I am once more in this Scene of Dissipation & vice, and I begin already to find my Morals corrupted,” Austen writes. “Edward & Frank are both gone out to seek their fortunes; the latter is to return soon & help us seek ours. The former we shall never see again.”


In Austen’s comic formulation, she isn’t a beloved younger sister carefully chaperoned by respectable male relatives. She’s the heroine of a sentimental melodrama, abandoned to her own devices in a threatening city where a young woman’s virtue is easily lost.


In reality, the Austens’ London trip was only a brief stopover en route to Edward Austen’s family home in Kent. A visit to Astley’s, the famous Regency equestrian circus, was about as dissipated as it got.


Or was it? Enthusiasts of the Tom-Lefroy-love-of-Jane-Austen’s-life theory find it intriguing that while in London, the Austen siblings seem to have stayed with the former MP Benjamin Langlois, Tom’s mentor and great-uncle. Indeed, Austen scholar Jon Spence, author of the book that inspired the biopic Becoming Jane, argues that Austen and Lefroy saw each other there, just seven months after the day on which, Austen wrote, “I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy.”


If so, Austen’s letter contains no hint of such an exciting, not to say melodramatic-novel-worthy, development, which Cassandra would surely have been eager to hear about. Perhaps all the good stuff was in the following week’s letters, which Le Faye informs us are missing. Or perhaps all the drama of the visit took place in Austen’s playful imagination.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 26 2018 01:00PM

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


As a novelist, Jane Austen was one of the greatest writers who ever put pen to paper. As a poet? Not so much.


The Austens were a literary family – reportedly, Austen’s mother was a dab hand at humorous verse, and as Oxford students, two of her brothers founded a magazine – so it isn’t surprising that Austen sometimes took a holiday from her true vocation and tried her hand at poetry.


Only a few of the results have survived, and although all are interesting to those of us for whom every scrap of Austen’s writing is a sacred talisman, as poetry – well, frankly, they aren’t very good.


The letter/poem that Austen wrote to her naval brother Frank, then in China, exactly 209 years ago today (#69 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) is a perfect example: as poetry, doggerel; as biography, delightful.


Austen writes the letter (which consists entirely of fifty-two lines of verse) to congratulate Frank on the recent birth of his second child and first son, who she hopes will turn out just like his father: a high-spirited boy who will grow into a kind and responsible man. She indulges in some jokey references to Frank’s childhood and then concludes with a glowing report on Chawton cottage, which the Austen women had moved into just three weeks earlier:


“Our Chawton home, how much we find

Already in it, to our mind;

And how convinced, that when complete

It will all other Houses beat

That ever have been made or mended,

With rooms concise or rooms distended.”


Today we know, as she could not, how important that “Chawton home” would become over the last eight years of Austen’s life. Chawton cottage -- now officially called Jane Austen’s House Museum -- was the place where she established the peaceful routines that enabled her to write or revise all six of her completed novels and send them out into the world.


It’s thrilling to glimpse her at the beginning of that fruitful journey – even if that glimpse comes by way of some pretty clunky verse.



By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 11 2018 01:00PM

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


The story of Jane Austen fandom has been told more than once, in books by Claire Harman, Claudia L. Johnson, Devoney Looser, Deidre Lynch (as editor), and (ahem!) myself. Austen devotees have been located among those who read her novels soon after their publication in 1813-17, among those who first devoured her nephew’s hagiographic 1869 memoir, and among those who swooned over Colin-Firth-in-a-wet-shirt in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.


Arguably, however, the first mention of a Jane Austen fan outside Austen’s own family – a Janeite Patient Zero, as it were -- comes in the letter Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 219 years ago today (#21 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


The twenty-three-year-old Austen is staying with relatives in Bath while Cassandra remains behind in Steventon. Amid a bubbly account of what she’s done, who she’s met, and what she’s bought, Jane mentions the Austen sisters’ great friend Martha Lloyd, who has apparently asked Cassandra if she can see the manuscript of First Impressions, the early Austen work that we believe eventually became Pride and Prejudice.


“I would not let Martha read First Impressions again upon any account, & am very glad that I did not leave it in your power,” Jane writes jokingly to Cassandra. “She is very cunning, but I see through her design;—she means to publish it from Memory, & one more perusal must enable her to do it.”


And there you have it: Martha Lloyd, the friend who a decade later set up housekeeping with the Austen sisters and their mother at Chawton cottage, is the first obsessive Austen re-reader for whom we have documentary evidence – the prototype of those people who read all the novels every year, recite dialogue by heart, and mentally file everyone they meet under headings like “Lady Catherine” and “Mr. Collins.”


Welcome to the club, Martha.


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