Jane Austen’s Letter Coolly Dissing Another Novelist Fetches Over $200,000 at Sotheby’s

In the letter, Jane Austen delights in ridiculing a cheesy novel.

English author Jane Austen. Courtesy of Stock Montage/Stock Montage/Getty Images.
English author Jane Austen. Courtesy of Stock Montage/Stock Montage/Getty Images.

Let it be known: Acclaimed author Jane Austen was not afraid to trash the work of lesser authors. An 1812 letter penned by the celebrated novelist, skewering a book by one of her contemporaries, sold for £162,500 ($209,300) at Sotheby’s London on July 11.

The missive was addressed to Austen’s niece, Anna Lefroy. In it, Austen writes unsparingly of Rachel Hunter’s gothic novel Lady Maclairn, the Victim of Villainy, calling it “most tiresome and prosy.” Despite the volume’s shortcomings, aunt and niece took great pleasure in reading the melodramatic, sensationalist, clichéd text. Apparently, so-bad-it’s-good is not a modern phenomenon.

“Austen hugely enjoyed ridiculing other women writers and their improbable, sentimental and gothic plots,” Janet Todd, editor of Cambridge University Press’s edition of Austen’s complete works, told the Guardian. “She knew well her own literary powers—and probably learned a good deal of what not to do by reading the interminable romances and effusions of contemporary authors.”

Jane Austen’s letter about <em>Lady Maclairn, the Victim of Villany</em>. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Jane Austen’s letter about Lady Maclairn, the Victim of Villany. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

“This satirical exposure of the clichés of the Gothic novel brings to mind Austen’s 1803 novel Northanger Abbey, published posthumously, in which Austen gleefully parodied the conventions of the genre,” wrote Sotheby’s in the auction catalogue, adding that the letter is notable for “the remarkable relationship it reveals between the author, her novels, and the novels of her contemporaries, at the very peak of her literary career.”

Ahead of the sale, Austen’s letter was expected to fetch £80,000–100,000 ($103,000–128,800). It had never been offered at auction before, and had remained in the author’s family.

“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,” added Gabriel Heaton, Sotheby’s specialist in books and manuscripts, in a statement.

A fragment of a Jane Austen’s letter to her niece, Anna Lefroy. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

A fragment of a Jane Austen’s letter to her niece, Anna Lefroy. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Two additional fragments from letters from Austen to Lefroy also hit the auction block, one selling for £17,000 ($22,500), the other, estimated at £30,000–50,000 ($38,600–64,400), failing to find a buyer.

Sotheby’s sold the letters in its English Literature, History, Children’s Books and Illustrations sale, where it was the second most expensive lot on the day, tying with a first edition of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. A 1975 autograph manuscript about classical Chinese literature by Chinese dictator Mao Zedong was the top sale, bringing in £704,750 ($907,900).


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