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Watercolor, James Stanier Clarke. Portrait of Jane Austen?, 1816

For those who mistakenly think that Jane Austen wrote frothy romances, let her words speak for her. Jane had been invited to view the Prince’s library in Carlton House just before the publication of Emma and had been “encouraged” to dedicate her book to the Prince, which she did reluctantly, for she was no great admirer of his. She had written about the Prince’s long-suffering wife, Caroline: “Poor woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman and because I hate her Husband.”

While visiting Carlton House, she was escorted by Rev. James Stanier Clarke, the Prince’s librarian, who was so struck by her that he painted her watercolor image from memory and kept up a correspondence afterwards. Eventually, Rev. Clarke had the audacity to suggest how Jane might proceed in her next novel. In March 1816, he wrote: “Perhaps when you again appear in print … chuse to dedicate your Volumes to Prince Leopold: any Historical Romance illustrative of the History of the august house of Cobourg, would just now be very interesting.”

Jane penned this terse reply 195 years ago on April 1st:

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.

Chawton, near Alton, April 1, 1816.

It is so very telling (is it not?), that Jane did not characterize her own novels as serious romance. To whit, I must agree with her self-assessment.

Gentle reader: My April Fool’s joke is subtle. Those who came over after reading my tweet and compared it to the date of the letter will see that I made the announcement five years off.

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