Deborah Yaffe

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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.


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 29 2018 02:00PM

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


Talk about burying the lead.


The letter that Jane Austen began writing to her friend Martha Lloyd exactly 206 years ago today (#77 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) covers a multitude of topics: Martha’s ongoing visit to a dying friend, the purchase of a grey cloak and some calico, the comings and goings of assorted relatives and acquaintances.


And then, more than halfway through, we arrive at this passage: “P. & P. is sold.—Egerton gives £110 for it.—I would rather have had £150, but we could not both be pleased, & I am not at all surprised that he should not chuse to hazard so much.”


Yes, thus it is that Jane Austen announces the impending publication of one of the world’s most popular and enduring works of fiction – for which the author received only a single modest payment from publisher Thomas Egerton.


In the notoriously imprecise game of historical currency conversions, her take was the equivalent of somewhere between $6,500 and $8,500 today, depending on which online calculator you use. (Three can be found here, here, and here.) Today, it’s estimated that the novel has sold more than twenty million copies. No wonder that when novelist Michael Thomas Ford turned Austen into a vampire running a bookshop in upstate New York, he imagined her undead ruminations returning repeatedly to the theme of uncollectable royalties.


In retrospect, of course, the Pride and Prejudice deal looks like a financial mistake, but at the time it made sense. In the early nineteenth century, much book-publishing operated on a vanity press model: Authors paid the costs of publication and collected the majority of the profits – or absorbed the losses.


Although Sense and Sensibility, published on these terms in 1811, eventually sold out its first edition and made Austen a modest profit, that outcome was not yet certain in late 1812, when Austen was deciding what to do about P&P. By selling Egerton the copyright of her second novel outright, Austen ensured that her financially strapped family would lose no money.


Further, the deal ensured that Egerton would handle the printing and advertising, which Austen's brother and de facto literary agent Henry would otherwise have had to manage. “Its’ being sold will I hope be a great saving of Trouble to Henry, & therefore must be most welcome to me,” Austen explains in her letter to Martha Lloyd.


If the gender expectations of 1812 had not left Austen apologetically dependent on male relatives to manage her business affairs, would she have felt empowered to hold out for a better deal? It’s impossible to say. No sooner has she passed on the publication news than she’s on to other matters: the purchase of a shawl for their impoverished spinster friend Miss Benn, the allocation of charitable donations at Christmas, the rain. The event that would still seem newsworthy two centuries later is just one more miscellaneous piece of information.


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


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