Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Consigned to the Flames V: Jane Austen

From Claire Tomalin's Jane Austen: A Life (1997)
During the late 1790s the Austen children went through major upheavals. Some can be glimpsed through Jane's letters, most not at all. Only twenty-eight letters exist for the five years 1796 to 1801, and none at all for the very important year of 1797, because [Jane's sister] Cassandra took particular care to destroy personal family material. . . . Cassandra's culling, made for her own good reasons, leaves the impression that her sister was dedicated to trivia. The letters rattle on, sometimes almost like a comedian's patter. Not much feeling, warmth or sorrow has been allowed through. They never pause or meditate but hurry, as though she is moving her mind as fast as possible from one subject to the next. You have to keep reminding yourself how little they represent of her real life, how much they are an edited and contrived version.
Only 140 letters remain from Jane Austen's nearly forty-two years of life. Compare that to the more than 12,000 extant letters from Mark Twain, and--even once you discount for Twain's being a public figure, a world traveler, and a dedicated correspondent--you begin to get a sense of what we've lost.

In Out of Sheer Rage, Geoff Dyer describes out a moment that happens to most dedicated readers at some point in a life of reading and rereading favorite writers:
As time goes by we drift away from the great texts, the finished works on which an author's reputation is built, towards the journals, diaries, letters, manuscripts, jottings. . . . [B]ecause we want to get nearer to the man or woman who wrote these books, to his or her being. We crave an increasingly intimate relationship with the author, unmediated, in so far as possible, by the contrivances of art.
In the case of Jane Austen, that desire is all the more powerful because of the limited extent of her work: having read and reread the small stack of pages that comprise her literary output, we can't help but contemplate the phantom stack of her missing letters, diaries, and journals.

As Tomalin makes clear, however, we can't put a lot of blame on Cassandra. Her sister was a reasonably successful novelist, but Cassandra had no real reason to think that Jane's modest fame would last beyond her lifetime. Unlike, for example, the destroyers of Byron's autobiography, she had no reason to even consider asking the question of whether posterity's interest might outweigh a proper reticence regarding family matters. In many cases, Cassandra may have just been following her sister's orders. After writing a particularly pointed description of a family friend, Jane urged her sister,
Seize upon the Scissors as soon as you possibly can on the receipt of this.
{Side note: I do love Georgian and Regency orthography! I remember in Emma somewhere, Austen spells scissors "scissurs."}

What we should probably focus on instead is what we do have from Austen: the novels themselves, which, carried around in manuscript form for years--even decades in some cases--could easily have been lost. Tomalin explains:
When Jane Austen wrote the first draft of Pride and Prejudice, she was twenty, the same age as Elizabeth Bennet. By the time it was published in 1813, she was thirty-seven: almost old enough to be Elizabeth's mother. Seventeen years must be one of the longest delays between composition and publication. Sense and Sensibility went through the same long, drawn-out process, with a sixteen-year gap between first draft and publication. Northanger Abbey took twenty years to find a publisher, and did not appear in print until its author was dead. It is sobering to think how easily any of them might have been lost.
Austen never lost her manuscripts, despite several moves of house. We should be grateful for that, as well as for her determination and confidence, which prevented her, despite years of rejection, from despairing of those novels' value--or at least not to the point of putting them to the match. Remembering how easily it could have been otherwise makes the loss of her letters easier to stomach.

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