Almost two centuries after Jane Austen’s death in 1817, a characteristically witty letter written by the author to her favourite niece, Anna Lefroy, will come to auction at Sotheby’s London in the English Literature, History, Children’s Books and Illustrations sale on 11 July. The celebrated novelist, whose own literature has remained the subject of critique for over two centuries, is here seen exercising her own critical opinion of another writer’s work, which exudes not only Austen’s supreme intellect, but also her comic charm. Written in 1812 – a critical time in Austen’s career, between the publication of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice – this unique document provides a rare insight into the author’s own opinions of contemporary fiction.
ENGLISH AUTHOR JANE AUSTEN CIRCA 1790. PHOTO BY STOCK MONTAGE/STOCK MONTAGE/GETTY IMAGES
The object of her criticism is Lady Maclairn, the Victim of Villainy, a “most tiresome and prosy” Gothic novel written by Rachel Hunter, to whom the letter is addressed. Austen and Lefroy, the eldest daughter of Jane’s eldest brother James, had enjoyed reading the novel together, and this letter brims with the shared pleasure the two women had taken in the melodramatic and clichéd work, from the relentless tears of the eponymous heroine to the rambling repetitions of character and plot. Unsurprisingly, Hunter’s novel does survive the mock-enthusiasm of perhaps the wittiest pen of the time, but it is at least clear that Austen found the novel to be enjoyable nonsense.
JANE AUSTEN, AUTOGRAPH LETTER, WRITTEN IN THE THIRD PERSON, TO HER NIECE ANNA AUSTEN (LATER LEFROY). ESTIMATE £80,000–100,000.
This satirical exposure of the clichés of the Gothic novel brings to mind Austen’s earlier novel Northanger Abbey, in which Austen gleefully parodied the conventions of the genre. The link to Austen’s own oeuvre is expanded when the novelist turns her attention to her own style of writing. She pleads for ‘at least 4 vols more about the Flint family’ and demands a more extensive examination of the lover’s courtship, which Hunter ‘handled too briefly’. Her comments allude to the lengthy passages of characterisation and courtship prevalent in her own work. The significance of this letter therefore, lies not only in the delightfully and light-hearted irony shared between close family members, but also in the remarkable relationship it reveals between the author, her novels, and the novels of her contemporaries, at the very peak of her literary career.
JANE AUSTEN, FRAGMENT OF AN AUTOGRAPH LETTER, TO HER NIECE ANNA LEFROY (NÉE AUSTEN). ESTIMATE £8,000–12,000.
The sale will also include two other fragments of letters from Austen to Lefroy, which reveal details of Austen’s family life and leisure. Both were written during Austen’s visit to London in November 1814, and recount the lively family gossip circulating in the weeks following Anna’s marriage to Benjamin Lefroy, including a family trip to the theatre to see David Garrick’s popular production of Isabella, or the Fatal Marriage. All three of the fragments in the sale demonstrate the emphasis which Austen placed on a close-knit extended network of family, a theme that bears out in many of her most-loved novels.
JANE AUSTEN, SUBSTANTIAL FRAGMENT OF AN AUTOGRAPH LETTER, TO HER NIECE ANNA LEFROY (NÉE AUSTEN). ESTIMATE £30,000–50,000.
Dr Gabriel Heaton, Sotheby’s Specialist in Books and Manuscripts said: "These letters have never been offered for sale before. To have any Jane Austen letters on the open market is a very special thing, and it’s a real pleasure and privilege to handle them. They give a strong sense of what it would have been like to be Jane Austen’s friend, of the types of conversations she had with those closest to her. The vast majority of her surviving letters talk about her day-to-day life, so to have a letter like we do here, that talks specifically about writing and shows her engaging with the popular literature of the day, is hugely significant."