Elegant Extracts

Text by Marilyn Francus, Professor, Department of English at West Virginia University and Chair of JASNA’s International Visitor Programme

Elegant Extracts is a collection of passages from 18th-century sermons, histories, literature, and style guides, for the moral and intellectual benefit of its readers. This popular work is mentioned in Austen’s Emma, as Robert Martin reads Elegant Extracts at night to his mother and sisters, a sign of his efforts for self-improvement.

This copy was owned by Jane Austen, who gave it to her niece Anna Austen (later Lefroy) in 1801. Anna, who turned eight years old that year, spent much of her childhood with her aunts and grandparents. According to family legend, young Anna heard Austen read Pride and Prejudice aloud when it was still a work in progress. As an adult, Anna sent Austen drafts of her own novel. Austen advised Anna that “3 or 4 Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on,” and encouraged Anna to create probable plots with realistic characters.

Giving Elegant Extracts to Anna may reflect Austen’s desire to educate her young niece. This copy has some comments by Austen on passages from Hume’s History of England and Robertson’s History of Scotland. Austen was a fan of the Stuarts, and she agreed with Robertson’s praise of Mary, Queen of Scots, while disapproving of Hume’s praise of Elizabeth I (“A lie—an entire lie from beginning to end.”) There are ink Xs next to passages from Hugh Blair’s Sermons on piety, sincerity, truth, and good conduct that may have been written by Austen as well. The text has many pencil marks on passages about literary style, which suggests that someone was studying the conventions of writing and literature with care. While it is not possible to know who made those markings—Austen, Anna, or Anna’s daughter Jemima, who was given Elegant Extracts next—this volume was well used in the education of several Austen generations.