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By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 30 2017 02:00PM

Pity the poor aristocrat. Your stately home is decaying, your heating bill is through the (leaky) roof, and you lack the millions required to refurbish it all. If only your family hadn’t sold off the jeweled icons to keep themselves in Malvern spring water!


Blog readers will recall that I’m a sucker for stories about cash-strapped heirs to once-great fortunes struggling to live amid the ruins of former glory. (See under: 12th Earl of Shaftesbury.) The renovating-the-dilapidated-manor plot appeals to my childhood dollhouse fixation; the caught-between-rungs-on-the-class-ladder element speaks to my inner Evelyn Waugh fan. And when there’s a Jane Austen connection, no matter how distant? Catnip. (See under: Caroline Knight.)


So naturally I ate up this story (available here, here and here) about a descendant of the Russian royal family who lives in an underheated thirty-room mansion in Kent once inhabited by Jane Austen’s niece Fanny. You’ve got to love someone who can legitimately call herself “Princess Olga,” especially if her father played with the tsar’s children before their gruesome murders and her mother was a “Scots-Scandinavian flour-mill heiress.” (Seriously: Edith Wharton wants her plot back. Right now.)


Provender House, the half-decrepit, half-renovated pile in question, looks like an interesting place, although you wouldn’t catch me spending my days somewhere so freezing that its owner “seems to live in a blue ski jacket to stave off the biting cold in the many unheated rooms.” (Shades of Fanny Price in the East Room with no fire. . .)


As a pedantic Janeite purist, however, I was displeased to find Provender’s website describing a previous owner -- Edward Knatchbull-Hugessen, the husband of Fanny Knight – as “9th Baronet and first Lord Brabourne.” The most cursory reader of Wikipedia, let alone any die-hard Janeite, knows that the first Lord Brabourne was in fact Edward and Fanny’s son, best known as an early editor of Austen’s letters. Such sloppiness doesn't bode well for the factual accuracy of the princess' recently published memoir, Princess Olga: A Wild and Barefoot Romanov.


Speaking of wild, I was also excessively diverted by this journalistic speculation, from coverage of Provender in the online magazine Faversham Life: “There is no record of Jane Austen visiting but it is surely extremely likely.” Not so much, actually, since Fanny married her baronet three years after Aunt Jane’s death. But hey – every decaying estate in search of tourist dollars needs its Jane-Austen-slept-here cachet. You can’t blame a strapped aristocrat for trying.


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 20 2017 02:00PM

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


Only six of Jane Austen’s letters to her oldest niece, Fanny Knight, survive, but for Janeites mining for links between Austen’s work and Austen’s life, that tiny correspondence is chock-full of golden nuggets.


Scarcely seventeen years separated aunt from niece, and Fanny seems to have enjoyed parsing her romantic dilemmas with this sympathetic and interested older confidante, in a pre-telephonic version of “And then he said. . . . And then I said. . . . And then he said. . . .”


Austen’s letters to Fanny fall into two groups: two letters written in November 1814, when Fanny was twenty-one and Austen thirty-eight; and three more written some two and a half years later, in early 1817, when Fanny was twenty-four and the forty-one-year-old Austen had only months to live. (The sixth letter, which contains a few verses of doggerel, was written years earlier, when Fanny was a child.)


The letter Austen finished writing exactly 203 years ago today -- #109 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence -- is the first of two in which Aunt Jane addresses Fanny’s fluctuating feelings for the young clergyman John Plumptre. (I blogged about the second of these letters here.)


To me, what’s most interesting about Letter #109 is the way that Austen’s reactions to Fanny resonate with incidents or dialogue in her work. Apparently, Fanny has visited Plumptre’s home, hoping to stimulate her waning passion by a view of his things. Austen can’t help giggling at the idea. “The dirty Shaving Rag was exquisite!--Such a circumstance ought to be in print,” she writes. And little more than a year later, with the publication of Emma, the world was introduced to Harriet Smith’s “Most precious treasures” – a worn-out pencil stub and an extra bit of court plaister, saved as stimuli to romantic nostalgia. Was Fanny’s dirty shaving rag an inspiration for Harriet’s treasure trove? Impossible to say – but tempting to speculate.


The letter contains an even more explicit echo of Austen’s fiction. After cataloguing the worthy Mr. Plumptre’s many merits, Austen nevertheless advises Fanny to consult her own feelings: “Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection,” Austen writes.


Was Jane Austen channeling, consciously or unconsciously, the gentle, optimistic Jane Bennet -- in chapter 59 of Pride and Prejudice, published the year before -- who, confronted with the news of Elizabeth’s engagement to Mr. Darcy, cries, “Oh, Lizzy! do anything rather than marry without affection”? Impossible to know – but tempting to speculate.


In their insistence on marital love, both Janes are speaking to young women for whom the prudential and the romantic need not conflict: for the fictional Lizzy, because she has fallen in love with a wealthy man, and for the real-life Fanny, because she is herself an heiress. But Austen’s advice also echoes a far darker passage in her work – a snippet of dialogue in the early pages of her fragment The Watsons, in which the idealistic Emma Watson and her older, less naïve sister Elizabeth discuss the search for a husband.


“I would rather be a teacher at a school (and I can think of nothing worse) than marry a man I did not like,” exclaims Emma, who has grown up with a wealthy aunt and only recently returned to her struggling birth family.


“I would rather do anything than be a teacher at a school,” Elizabeth replies. “I have been at school, Emma, and know what a life they lead you; you never have.”


Austen undoubtedly took Fanny’s romantic woes seriously, but she must have realized that the stakes were far lower for a young woman who, even if she stayed single, would never have to face the hard work and genteel poverty of teacher or governess. And perhaps that is why, amid her genuine concern for the feelings of Fanny and the unfortunate Mr. Plumptre, Austen’s wry, unromantic common sense cannot help but assert itself.


Fanny has encouraged her suitor, and therefore pain awaits him if she changes her mind, Austen acknowledges. But not that much pain. “I have no doubt of his suffering a good deal for a time, a great deal, when he feels that he must give you up,” she writes, “but it is no creed of mine, as you must be well aware, that such sort of Disappointments kill anybody.”


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, Nov 21 2016 02:00PM

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


In 1884, when Jane Austen’s great-nephew Lord Brabourne published an edition of her letters, he made some judicious edits. The publication fourteen years earlier of James Edward Austen-Leigh’s Memoir of Jane Austen had sparked interest in the writer’s life, but Brabourne apparently worried that some of her observations might seem a tad too. . . candid for Victorian sensibilities.


One of the most famous examples of his bowdlerizing red pen can be seen in a letter to her sister, Cassandra, that the twenty-four-year-old Jane Austen finished writing exactly two hundred and sixteen years ago today, on November 21, 1800 (Letter #27 in Deirdre LeFaye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


Cassandra was staying in Kent with the family of the third-oldest Austen brother, Edward, whose daughter Fanny would one day be Brabourne’s mother.* Back home at Steventon, Jane had attended a ball and, with an eye for detail and an ear for a phrase that will seem familiar to any reader of her novels, she described the company:


“There were very few Beauties, & such as there were, were not very handsome. Miss Iremonger did not look well, & Mrs Blount was the only one much admired. She appeared exactly as she did in September, with the same broad face, diamond bandeau, white shoes, pink husband, & fat neck. . . . Miss Debary, Susan & Sally all in black, but without any Statues**, made their appearance, & I was as civil to them as their bad breath would allow me.”


In his edition, Brabourne silently substitutes “circumstances” for “their bad breath.” Brabourne, the son of a baronet, had been elevated to the peerage only four years earlier, and although he was proud of his author-aunt, he also had a social position to maintain – a position that he apparently thought would not be enhanced by the publication of Austen’s commentary on unpleasant bodily odors. The Victorians, it seems, were easy to shock.




* Fanny seems to have shared Brabourne’s concern over Austen’s supposed coarseness: she has outraged generations of Janeites by writing, in an 1869 letter to one of her sisters, that Austen “was not so refined as she ought to have been from her talent” and would have been “very much below par as to good society and its ways” had she not benefited from her relationship with the wealthy and well-bred Knight family, who adopted Fanny's father.


** My thanks to anyone who can explain to me what this reference to “statues” is all about. Who brings statues to a ball? I’m stumped.


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 30 2015 02:00PM

Ninth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen’s letters.


We know so little of Jane Austen’s views on nearly everything that it’s tempting to mine her novels for raw material and map the results back onto her life. But this extrapolation from made-up stories to real-life opinions is a risky business, as any writer who has ever invented people quite different from herself will tell you.


Hence the avidity with which we read the letter Jane Austen wrote to her eldest niece, 21-year-old Fanny Knight, on November 30, 1814, exactly 201 years ago today (#114 in Deirdre LeFaye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence). At last! Some hint of Austen’s unfiltered attitudes toward love, romance and marriage!


The letter forms just one chapter in a continuing saga. Earlier in November 1814, Fanny had consulted thirty-nine-year-old Aunt Jane about an affair of the heart: Fanny’s fluctuating feelings for John Plumptre, an eligible clergyman who seemed eager to marry her. Austen had pointed out the young man’s merits, and in her reply, Fanny apparently seemed persuaded that, whatever her own doubts, she should let her aunt’s views sway her.


But in today’s letter, Austen retreats, terrified “out of my Wits” that Fanny will disregard the less-than-passionate nature of her own attachment. Like Mrs. Croft and Mrs. Musgrove in the climactic scene of Persuasion, Austen notes the dangers of a long engagement. “Years may pass before he is Independent,” she writes. “You like him well enough to marry, but not well enough to wait.” (That’s a line whose clear-eyed understanding of human irrationality and frailty earns it a place in the Austen canon.)


Though Austen admits that Fanny has led Plumptre on and will seem fickle if she drops him now, this is the lesser of two evils, she insists, for “nothing can be compared to the misery of being bound without Love, bound to one, & preferring another.”


That sentence could be read as romantic – Jane Austen, novelist of courtship, speaking out for love! – and certainly Austen is urging Fanny to take the temperature of her own feelings and marry only if they are warm enough.


But Austen is not endorsing a swoony belief in a passion that is Meant To Be. Austen recognizes that much in life is contingent on circumstance. Marry now, and the relationship may flourish; wait too long, and fledgling feelings may wither. She acknowledges the importance – indeed, the essential importance – of romantic love, but she’s realistic about its limitations. She’s still the Jane Austen we know, even when she isn’t writing for publication.


By the way, Fanny didn’t marry John Plumptre.


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