AN AUSTEN LETTER WITH RARE LITERARY CONTENT, IN WHICH SHE ENGAGES WITH ANOTHER WRITER'S WORK. The book that is the subject of this letter, Mrs Hunter's Lady Maclairn, was described by Fanny-Caroline Lefroy as "a voluminous and most tiresome & prosy novel that Aunt and Niece had been reading & laughing over, together. It was in eight volumes [recte four] and the tears of the heroine were for ever flowing." Anna herself recalled that "there was no harm in it whatsoever only in a most unaccountable way the same story about the same people [was] represented at least three times over". The letter brims with the shared pleasure the two women had taken in this over-plotted melodrama, relishing its clichés and absurdities; Mrs Hunter's novel cannot, of course, survive the mock-enthusiasm of perhaps the wittiest pen in the language, but it is at least clear that Austen had found the novel to be enjoyable nonsense.
Anna explained that her aunt wrote "in reply to a note & some thread papers (one of the trumpery fancy works of the day) purporting to be sent by Mrs Hunter of Norwich". The “spirited sketches” in threadpaper, which Jane claims to believe must be the work of one of England's most celebrated landscape artists, were thus presumably scenes in needlework or cut paper which Anna had jokingly identified as locations from Lady Maclairn.
Beyond allowing a glimpse of Jane Austen indulging in popular literature with a favourite niece (for whom see next two lots), this letter also provides a rare insight into how Austen thought about fiction. Austen often wrote of her own literary creations as if they had lives beyond the page and here she invites herself as a guest of the good-hearted farmer's wife, Mrs Wilson, who provides a homely base from which Austen imagines herself visiting, tourist-like, some of the key melancholy locations in which the action of Mrs Hunter's novel takes place, including the ancestral home of the Flint family, who are at the centre of the novel, and the tomb of a beautiful and virtuous heroine. As every reader of Northanger Abbey knows, the true heroine's portion is "a pillow strewed with thorns and wet with tears", and Jane assures her niece that she has had the appropriate lachrymose reaction to the sketches.
Lady Maclairn connects to several of Austen's own works. Most obviously, this letter shows that she had lost none of the pleasure in exposing the clichés of the gothic novel that she had taken in Northanger Abbey, whilst her juvenilia had elements of the exuberant and outrageous plotting that characterises Hunter's novels. It has been pointed out that West Indian plantation slavery was an important theme in Lady Maclairn and that, when this letter was written, Austen was writing Mansfield Park, in which the Bertram family fortune similarly rests on estates in Antigua. However so many British fortunes of the period were made from slavery that this may be no more than coincidence. One of Austen's comments about Lady Maclairn reflects particularly strongly on her own mature work. Her plea for “at least 4 vols more about the Flint family” complains in particular that the courtship of two of the characters was “handled too briefly”. It is certainly not hard to imagine that Austen could have made much of an episode that turns upon the impact made upon two daughters of a local gentry family by the arrival of a handsome young curate, summarised thus by Mrs Hunter:
“...A new curate, of the name of Howard, appeared at Tarefield. Miss Lucretia made love to him; and he made love to the beautiful Mary Flint. Here again I could fill volumes with the praises and blessings still given to the matchless pair! After many trials, and the utmost cruelty from the jealous sister, the lovers married....”
This letter was written after the publication of Sense and Sensibility and around the time that the manuscript of Pride and Prejudice was taken to Egerton for publication. The lack of any postal markings confirms Le Faye's suggestion that the letter was carried by Anna's father James back to Steventon after a visit to Chawton on 29-31 October 1812 (see A Family Record, pp.191-92).
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