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Thursday, April 1, 2010

Jane Austen knew how to celebrate April Fool's Day in style

Jane Austen wrote the following letter to the eminently foolish James Stanier Clarke on April 1, 1816, and I think that every single word in it should be taken in that satirical light. That is especially the case now that we are well aware (thanks to Colleen Sheehan's discovery of the "Prince of Whales" solution to the second charade in Chapter 9 of Emma, and also JA's letter to Martha Lloyd in which she candidly writes of her hatred for the Prince Regent) that the approbation of the Prince Regent was something that JA hardly considered to be an honor.

And the biggest joke of all is the outrageously false modesty in the second paragraph, because JA was writing this letter at the precise moment, after 30 years as a writer, when she knew she had published her greatest masterpiece, one which, among other things, was a covert historical (and very dark) romance, with a whole world of human life teeming beneath the masking surface of a small country village, and she also knew that Clarke had not the slightest clue that he was being "quizzed" in the most merciless manner possible.


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.

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