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December 10, 2017

Jane Austen Remaindered

On this day in 1817, Jane Austen died, at the age of forty-one. She had been increasingly ill over the previous year and a half, probably from a hormonal disorder like Addison's Disease. Austen's devoted older sister, Cassandra, inherited all the author's papers, and she immediately began to edit and polish. Austen's gravestone referred to "the benevolence of her heart" and "the sweetness of her temper" -- though it did not identify her as being the author of her anonymously-published novels -- and Cassandra began to expurgate the letters accordingly.

Nonetheless, some of the Austen of the novels can be read in the letters, in those tiptoe-in-stomp-out sentences of hers. Captain so-and-so, reports one of the last letters, is "a very respectable and well-meaning man, without much manner, his wife and sisters all good humour and obligingness, and I hope (since the fashion allows it) with rather longer petticoats than last year." A sampler from the others:
  • I give you joy of our new nephew, and hope if he ever comes to be hanged it will not be till we are too old to care about it.

  • At the bottom of Kingsdown Hill we met a gentleman in a buggy, who, on minute examination, turned out to be Dr. Hall -- and Dr. Hall in such very deep mourning that either his mother, his wife, or himself must be dead.

  • I cannot anyhow continue to find people agreeable; I respect Mrs. Chamberlayne for doing her hair well, but cannot feel a more tender sentiment. Miss Langley is like any other short girl, with a broad nose and wide mouth, fashionable dress and exposed bosom. Adm. Stanhope is a gentleman-like man, but then his legs are too short and his tail too long.

  • I will not say that your mulberry-trees are dead, but I am afraid they are not alive.
Family and friends were always encouraging Austen to give up her fine brush and sharp scalpel for Romance. Her letters seem to have given answer -- "Pictures of perfection, as you know, make me sick and wicked" -- but just in case, she left behind a "Plan of a Novel according to Hints from Various Quarters." This begins with the introduction of the two main characters, a father who is "the most excellent Man that can be imagined, perfect in Character, Temper, and Manners," and a daughter who is "a faultless Character herself -- perfectly good, with much tenderness and sentiment, and not the least Wit." Although Father would die, all would be happily-ever-after at the end:
    Often carried away by the anti-hero, but rescued either by her Father or by the Hero--often reduced to support herself and her Father by her Talents and work for her Bread; continually cheated and defrauded of her hire, worn down to a Skeleton, and now and then starved to death.--At last, hunted out of civilized Society, denied the poor Shelter of the humblest Cottage, they are compelled to retreat into Kamschatka where the poor Father, quite worn down, finding his end approaching, throws himself on the Ground, and after 4 or 5 hours of tender advice and parental Admonition to his miserable Child, expires in a fine burst of Literary Enthusiasm, intermingled with Invectives against holders of Tithes.--Heroine inconsolable for some time--but afterwards crawls back towards her former Country--having at least 20 narrow escapes from falling into the hands of the Anti-hero -- and at last in the very nick of time, turning a corner to avoid him, runs into the arms of the Hero himself, who having just shaken off the scruples which fetter'd him before, was at the very moment setting off in pursuit of her.--The Tenderest and completest Eclaircissement takes place, and they are happily united.

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