Literary daybook, July 18

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

Published July 18, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

Today in fiction

On July 18, 1947, Jemima clears out the office.
-- "Casting Off" (1995)
by Elizabeth Jane Howard

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
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Today in literary history
On this day in 1817, Jane Austen died, at the age of 41. 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 this "Plan of a Novel":

"Often carried away by the anti-hero, [the heroine will be] 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 ..."

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

By the Salon Books Editors

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