Jane Austen, On Sabbatical

“Solitary elegance”—the phrase, invoked in an 1813 letter to her sister Cassandra, is quintessentially Jane Austen’s, but I’ve adopted it as my own. How better to capture the luxurious state of a sabbatical, when I found myself detached from the sound and fury of a college campus and quietly alone at home, free to read and write all day long. Judging from the cache of letters that she left behind, Jane Austen rarely experienced such complete solitude. The houses where she lived (and managed to write her novels) were filled with family members, young and old, and in near-constant states of flux, with relatives coming and going for extended stays and friends and neighbors making daily or weekly visits. Writing to Cassandra from her home in the village of Steventon in 1800, Jane Austen, then just 25, observed that “to sit in idleness over a good fire in a well proportioned room is a luxurious sensation,” an assurance that even amidst the regular bustle of her daily life, she enjoyed the rare pocket of quiet time.

However luxurious its allotment of unencumbered time, sabbaticals are not designed for idleness, no matter how well proportioned or warm our rooms. They come with considerable pressures to be productive: to make good—and tangible—use of one’s time. I began to worry about whether I would squander my sabbatical long before it began, and I crafted unrealistic lists of all that I wanted to accomplish: books to read, research and writing projects large and small to get off the ground or see to completion, syllabi to design, grant proposals to submit. In between, I foolishly imagined, I’d exercise, play piano, and even take my elderly dog for the long, slow walks he deserved.

Once my sabbatical officially arrived, I quickly discovered how easy it was to embark on some of my tasks (the reading) and how difficult to get going on others (the writing). In the age of Twitter, not a few of us have found company in the misery of trying to write. Using hashtags like #writingtips, #writingcommunity, and the especially popular #amwriting, we take to the internet in search of sympathy, understanding, and those all-important ingredients equally essential to the writing process: motivation and inspiration. At this very moment, for example, Twitter tells me that there have been 260 tweets in the last hour with the hashtag #amwriting and 120 today under its cousin hashtag, #amwritingfiction. One finds tweet-sized chunks of wisdom and advice such as, “If the characters are compelling, readers will follow them everywhere” or “RT @AdviceToWriters: Don’t get it right, just get it written,” the bromide attributed to the famous writer James Thurber.

With a publicly-pronounced sabbatical commitment to reduce my social media time, tuning in with any regularity to the #amwriting community for help was not an option. I found it elsewhere, thankfully, while reading, and in an unexpected source—Jane Austen’s correspondence. Although I’ve taught seminars on Austen for decades, I had only passing familiarity with the bits and pieces of her letters so often mined for dust-jacket copy or sprinkled into introductions to editions of her novels. Reading her letters from start to finish was on my sabbatical “to do” list, though relegated to the late-afternoon when I assumed my energy for the more official sabbatical work of producing prose would be depleted and I could indulge in some pleasure reading.

The edition of Jane Austen’s Letters collected and edited by Deirdre Le Faye includes all 161 of the surviving letters of Austen. (Le Faye says a “conservative” estimate of the number of letters that Austen probably wrote is 3000.) Le Faye’s volume of Austen’s correspondence encompasses a period from 1796, when Austen was 20 years old, to 1817, when she died. The vast majority are long and chatty epistles to Cassandra, and they offer an absorbing picture of her daily life: interactions with family and friends, and concerns large and small—the cost of sugar, the safe arrival of a package, the fashion for ribbon trim on dresses, and of course the weather. “My all important nothings” is the memorable phrase Austen invoked when beginning one of her many letters to Cassandra.

A devoted reader could chart her way through the mass of haphazardly rendered detail in the correspondence via any of a dozen seemingly quotidian topics that consistently recur—money, for example, or health concerns (usually of others), opportunities for entertainment, or arrangements for travel. One of the earliest letters in the volume caught my attention precisely because it referenced a moment that had excited real alarm in its account of an otherwise uneventful short journey that Austen was making with her parents. Writing to Cassandra from a coaching inn called the “Bull and George,” Austen described “a little adventure” that had caused her to get a late start on the letter. Her writing box, it seems, had accidentally been put on a chaise headed to the coastal town of Gravesend (from there to be shipped to the West Indies!) rather than brought into the inn with their other belongings when she and her parents were arriving. As Austen describes it, “No part of my property could have been such a prize before, for in my writing-box was all my worldly wealth, 7l., and my dear Harry’s deputation,” a reference to a document she was ferrying for one of her brother Edward’s tenants.

The very fact of Austen having a “writing-box” struck me. Unlike tables or desks used for writing, writing boxes were personal, portable possessions—the late eighteenth-century version of a laptop. They made it possible to write in transit, from many locations. In The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things the biographer Paula Byrne indicates that this writing desk was likely a gift to Austen from her father on her nineteenth birthday, a sign, we assume, of his approval of her writing abilities and aspirations. What else might have been in that writing box, I wondered, for by 1798 she had begun work on the manuscripts that would become Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. She undoubtedly carried with her the paper and pens needed to dispatch letters, but did she keep all of her writing with her at all times? Whatever the case, a man and horse were swiftly sent after the chaise, and her treasured writing box was back where it belonged, and her equanimity restored, within the hour.

Coming as early as it does in the volume of Jane Austen’s correspondence, the episode signals that Austen didn’t wait until her works had seen the light of day (in 1811, when Sense and Sensibility was published) to assume the identity of a writer. She thought of herself as one long before, even as a young woman beginning to practice her craft. The Jane Austen scholar Jan Fergus has written that “being a professional writer was, apart from her family, more important to her than anything else in her life.”

The image of that writing box, a symbol of Austen’s early aspirations and enduring commitment, stayed with me as I read each of the letters that followed. Unlike most of the letters (or emails) we write today, Jane Austen’s were typically composed over the course of several days. She might begin one in the morning, say, and then continue on in the evening, bringing her sister in on what had transpired during the day. The following day or two might see a continuance, often incorporating information that Austen had received from letters that had arrived from friends or family members in the meantime. Austen’s letters suggest that she took eager advantage of opportunities to write whenever they presented themselves. “I find a little time before breakfast for writing,” she reports in one letter, and in another writes, “We are home in such good time that I can finish my Letter to night.” A letter to her brother Frank written in 1813 ends 4 days after it was begun: in it she writes, “Now my dearest Frank I will finish my Letter. I have kept it open on the chance of what a Tuesday’s post might furnish in addition.” Jane Austen also necessarily factored in how and when she might get the letter carried to its destination and recipient. In one of her last surviving letters, drafted over the course of three days in March of 1817 and sent to her beloved niece Fanny Knight, she writes “Tuesday. I have had various plans as to this Letter, but at last I have determined that [Uncle] Henry shall forward it from London.”

On the days when Austen wasn’t writing about writing in her correspondence, she was of course preparing for it and working on it—the way we all do when we are thinking while occupied with our daily business about what we want to write, should be but, alas, aren’t writing, or what we are, in fact, working on. Leonard Woolf long ago mined his wife’s diaries for the passages that helped to document the progress and process of her composition, and his compilation became the work now known as A Writer’s Diary, by Virginia Woolf.  References to the act and practice of writing appear far more scattershot in Jane Austen’s letters than in Woolf’s more private diaries, perhaps because in Austen’s letters they are embedded within a mass of other commentary and muted by a steady stream of what we might think of as “tittle-tattle.” But a nascent Writer’s Diary, by Jane Austen lurks nonetheless in the pages of her correspondence, and the remarks about writing (rather than the ones about health, or weather, or travel) became the signposts I used to navigate my way through the letters as well as my motivation to begin writing myself.

In the earliest days of my sabbatical, keen to read and loathe to write, I found myself especially alert to Jane Austen’s commentary about the difficulty of getting started with her writing. Even the composition of letters required some inspiration, as Austen admitted at the beginning of a letter to Cassandra in November of 1800: “Having just finished the first volume of les Veillees du Chateau, I think it is a good opportunity for beginning a letter to you while my mind is stored with Ideas worth transmitting.” (—“Ideas worth transmitting”—now there is an idea!). Recognizing the challenge of finding the right ideas and language for her fiction, Austen described herself in a letter of 1809 as “looking about for a sentiment, an illustration or a metaphor in every corner of the room,” her language implying the futility of such desperate searches. “Could my ideas flow as fast as the rain in the store-closet, it would be charming,” she wryly concluded. We all know the feeling of staring at the blank page, or endlessly revising one paragraph because the words for transitioning to the next won’t come. Somehow it made me feel better to know that Jane Austen—even Jane Austen!—confronted and conquered those impasses.

Like most of us, Jane Austen sometimes struggled to stay focused even after she had begun. “Composition seems to me Impossible, with a head full of Joints of Mutton & doses of rhubarb,” she wrote when trying to return to her writing while simultaneously keeping on top of pressing domestic duties and the business of managing meals and guests. Even when household cares receded, her moods might interfere, as moods tend to do, making it difficult to write. “The day seems to improve. I wish my pen would too,” she wrote to Cassandra in November of 1813. On another occasion she admitted to her sister that she was “not at all in a humor for writing,” but swiftly concluded, “I must write on till I am.” The discipline needed by all writers must be, as Jane Austen knew, self-imposed.

Not all of the wisdom about the writing process to be gleaned from Austen’s letters is rendered as explicitly as in these examples. In some letters, for example, she offers opinions on what she has been reading that we can easily assume applied to her writing (the often-quoted “pictures of perfection as you know make me sick and wicked” for example, or, “Nothing will please all the world, you know,” a comment made about her family’s reading of and varied responses to Robert Southey’s “Poet’s Pilgrimage to Waterloo”). In still others she inadvertently shares stylistic advice, such as her penchant for exactitude in word choice: “… but the Buttons seem expensive; are expensive I might have said – for the fact is plain enough,” comments that summon up the moment in Northanger Abbey when novels are described as works “in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed … in the best chosen language.” She was sensitive to the repetition of material, even in her correspondence: “I treat you to a dead Baronet in every letter,” she remarked to Cassandra in 1816, with sarcastic chagrin. To her nephew James Edward Austen she joked, “You must not be tired of reading the word Uncle, for I have not done with it.”

Not surprisingly, Jane Austen was a model reader when responding to the manuscripts of fiction that her aspiring-writer nieces and nephews shared with her—always encouraging, but equally unsparing in her critiques. A letter to Anna Austen in 1814 begins, “We have been very much amused by your 3 books, but I have a good many criticisms to make—more than you will like.” At another point in the same letter she observes, “your descriptions are often more minute than will be liked. You give too many particulars of right hand & left.— ”

To my mind, Austen proffers her most valuable advice about writing when defending her thinking about her own subject matter and approach. As Austen scholars and biographers well know, she resisted entreaties from the obsequious and obtuse James Stanier Clarke, then librarian to the Prince Regent, to produce a historical novel. Politely declining to take up his suggestions, she wrote:

… I am fully sensible than 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…

Penned on 1 April 1816, this letter ends with what might be the single most satisfying bit of wisdom on writing to be found in anything Jane Austen wrote: “I must keep to my own style & 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.”

It’s Jane Austen’s distinctive take on the ancient Greek maxim to “Know Thyself,” applied specifically to authorship. Perhaps this response so satisfies because it blends arch confidence with modest circumspection. By this point in 1816, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma were all in print. Austen decidedly “knew herself” as a writer—her own style, her own way, and her trademark formula (“three or four families in a Country Village” the well-known topos that she told an aspiring writer niece was “the very thing” to work on). Yet, like all authors, she didn’t have complete confidence that she would succeed again. (She would, of course, though she wouldn’t live to finish Sanditon, or to see Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, by then  completed, published.) We can admire her for eschewing “Profit or Popularity,” as she does in her response to James Stanier Clarke, but she wasn’t above admitting to family members the pleasure she took in the money she made. She reports to her brother Frank in 1813 that she has “written myself into £250,” observing that it “only makes me long for more.” In one of her last letters, to a niece named Caroline, she attributes her “fine flow of Literary Ardour” to having received “nearly twenty pounds” for the second edition of Sense and Sensibility.

To another young family member aspiring to write novels, her nephew James Edward Austen, Jane Austen once described her writing process and output in mock disparaging language. Joking with him about the temptation to steal his prose from a manuscript he had lost or left behind, she writes “I do not think however that any theft of that sort would be really very useful to me. What should I do with your strong, manly, spirited Sketches, full of variety & Glow—How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour?” It’s just the kind of phrase and metaphor—a “little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory” —that publishers have found useful to display on their dust jackets; the phrasing works well to draw our attention to Austen’s command of scale, but understanding the context for her remarks is vital. She sought not just to encourage her nephew (by praising his writing at the expense of her own) but also to steel him for the trials and tribulations of writing. Her remarks underscore the importance of knowing and embracing one’s authentic style and proper niche and of accepting, even welcoming, the intense and often invisible (to others) work involved in writing.

Devotees of Jane Austen and her novels flock with great regularity to her several homes and haunts, and especially to Chawton Cottage. Austen moved there in 1809 and visitors today can see among other artifacts and objects from Jane Austen’s life the small table where she was known to have worked. The treasured writing desk, long ago saved from that chaise en route to Gravesend, can be viewed at the British Library (when it is not on loan elsewhere). Something there is that loves not just an author and her finished products, but an idea, however imaginary or facile, of that writer at work on her craft.

Jane Austen was right: “to sit in idleness” is a “luxurious sensation,” so rarely do we (whether on sabbatical or not) allow ourselves to sit still and let our thoughts go where they will. I relished each and every minute that it took to work my way through Jane Austen’s Letters, and although not one told me what to write while on my sabbatical, they did collectively and somewhat ineffably inspire me to begin anew, to abandon planned and promised writing projects that felt obligatory and unnatural. To write in “my own style,” to go on “in my own way,” as the letters collectively seemed to tell me Jane Austen would have advised me to do, I needed only to sit in a room of my own. Whether by basking in the feeling of idleness, or seizing a moment of found time or unexpected inspiration, the luxury of that solitary elegance would lead me to my topics.

Maria Frawley is a professor and chair of the Department of English at the George Washington University, where she teaches courses in nineteenth-century literature. She is currently co-editing with Cheryl Wilson a Companion to Jane Austen, forthcoming from Routledge Press and is at work on a book tentatively titled Keywords of Jane Austen’s Fiction. Other projects include a multi-volume collection of primary sources in the history of disability in the nineteenth century.

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