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Jane Austen: A Literary Anecdote

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One of my personal favourite new releases this season in the UK is the paperback edition of The New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes by John Gross. I could have chosen any one of hundreds of great anecdotes from and about authors I love, but in the end I decided to share with you this excerpt from the book about Jane Austen. In a series of letters, she deals with some uninvited ideas for her writing from a correspondent.

In the autumn of 1815 Jane Austen was in London, helping nurse her brother Henry through a dangerous illness. He was attended by one of the Prince Regent’s doctors, who told her ‘that the Prince was a great admirer of her novels; that he read them often, and kept a set in every one of his residences; that he himself had thought it right to inform his Royal Highness that Miss Austen was staying in London, and that the Prince had desired Mr Clarke, the librarian of Carlton House, to wait upon her’. The next day Clarke made his appearance and invited her to Carlton House, ‘saying that he had the Prince’s instructions to show her the library and other apartments’.
During the visit which followed Clarke told her that he had also been commissioned to say that if she had ‘any other novel forthcoming she was at liberty to dedicate it to the Prince’. She arranged for a dedication to be prefixed to Emma, which was about to be printed, but before she went ahead with it she wrote to Clarke asking him whether he could confirm that she was doing the right thing. He assured her that she was, and added an unexpected suggestion of his own:

Accept my best thanks for the pleasure your volumes have given me. In the perusal of them I felt a great inclination to write and say so. And I also, dear Madam, wished to be allowed to ask you to delineate in some future work the habits of life, and character, and enthusiasm of a clergyman, who should pass his time between the metropolis and the country, who should be something like Beattie’s Minstrel––

Silent when glad, affectionate tho’ shy,
And in his looks was most demurely sad;
And now he laughed aloud, yet none knew why.

Neither Goldsmith, nor La Fontaine in his ‘Tableau de Famille,’ have in my mind quite delineated an English clergyman, at least of the present day, fond of and entirely engaged in literature, no man’s enemy but his own. Pray, dear Madam, think of these things. Believe me at all times with sincerity and respect,
your faithful and obliged servant,
J. S. Clarke, Librarian.

Jane Austen replied that she was honoured by his thinking her capable of drawing a clergyman such as the one he had sketched––‘but I assure you I am not’:

The comic part of the character I might be equal to, but not the good, the enthusiastic, the literary. Such a man’s conversation must at times be on subjects of science and philosophy, of which I know nothing; or at least be occasionally abundant in quotations and allusions which a woman who, like me, knows only her own mother tongue, and has read little in that, would be totally without the power of giving. A classical education, or at any rate a very extensive acquaintance with English literature, ancient and modern, appears to me quite indispensable for the person who would do any justice to your clergyman; and I think I may boast myself to be, with all possible vanity, the most unlearned and uninformed female who ever dared to be an authoress.

Clarke was ready with another proposal, however. He had recently been appointed chaplain and English secretary to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, who was about to marry Princess Charlotte, and when he wrote to Jane Austen conveying the Prince Regent’s thanks for the dedication to Emma, he added that ‘an historical romance illustrative of the august House of Cobourg would just now be very interesting’, and might very properly be dedicated to Prince Leopold. This time she replied to him with what her nephew, J. E. Austen Leigh, called ‘a grave civility’:

My dear sir,––I am honoured by the Prince’s thanks and very much obliged to yourself for the kind manner in which you mention the work. I have also to acknowledge a former letter forwarded to me from Hans Place. I assure you I felt very grateful for the friendly tenor of it, and hope my silence will have been considered, as it was truly meant, to proceed only from an unwillingness to tax your time with idle thanks. Under every interesting circumstance which your own talents and literary labours have placed you in, or the favour of the Regent bestowed, you have my best wishes. Your recent appointments I hope are a step to something still better. In my opinion, the service of a court can hardly be too well paid, for immense must be the sacrifice of time and feeling required by it.

You are very kind in your hints as to the sort of composition which might recommend me at present, and I am fully sensible that an historical romance, founded on the House of Saxe Cobourg, might be much more to the purpose of profit or popularity than such pictures of domestic life in country villages as I deal in. But I could no more write a romance than an epic poem. I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life; and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or at other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter. No, I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way; and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other.

I remain, my dear Sir,
Your very much obliged, and sincere friend,
J. Austen.

J. E. Austen Leigh, A Memoir of Jane Austen, 1870

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Recent Comments

  1. [...] Oxford University Press blog has a post on the New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, which includes the episode in which Jane Austen exchanged letters with James Stanier Clarke, the [...]

  2. Sulabha

    Dear Madam :
    I am a great fan of Jane Austen. She has inspired many a writers and I am also a sort of well,writer.It is always delightful to come acrss some facta and comments on her life and writings. I think she started thinking of liberated life of woman in future and that is why she wrote so much about marriages.Her glance at human life has a detachment of a renounced self, yet she has all the knwledge of it.My students find Pride and Prejudice a bit irritating. Well, a writer’s buisiness is not to please everyone and alltime. Good Luck.
    -Sincerely,
    Sulabha

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