Upon the reread of James Edward Austen Leigh's (JEAL's) 1870 Memoir of Jane Austen going on in Austen L and Janeites, even as we have only gotten through Chapter 3, the almost absurdly funny self-contradictions that repeatedly emerge as we look at one passage after another, almost makes me wonder whether, crazy as it sounds, JEAL was having a bit of fun with the reader, taking on the persona of the "self-satisfied, smug, pompous, controversy-phobic, prudish, Victorian fool", but actually undermining the message he appears to be harping on at every possible turn. He is just so over the top in his smarmy obfuscations and tortured rationalizations that it just cannot be real.
His choice of "The Mystery" as the bit of the Juvenilia to provide as an example of JA's "youthful effusions" is a perfect example. Yes, his choice could have been completely pragmatic and non-ideological, i.e., based solely on the extreme shortness of the piece, which allowed it to be reproduced in toto. And yet, as has been noted in our discussion, "The Mystery", while on a superficial level it can (and often has been) been taken as a silly girlish joke with no substance beneath it, is to a more perceptive reader anything but that. To me, it is almost a Rosetta Stone or template (or, to use a term more meaningful vis a vis JA's literary mysteriousness, a CHARADE) standing in for ALL of the Juvenilia. In a matter of a few pages, JA unmistakably conveys the message that there is some dark family mystery so awful that it can only be whispered about, it cannot even be named, whether in this short mini-play, or in any of the much longer juvenilia filled with absurdist sociopathy on every page.
And this business with the Eliza Brydges letter, however different it appears on the surface from "The Mystery", has the same effect. Not only do we have the absurd self-parody of criticizing the absurd Egerton Brydges and then immediately imitating him. But when you read the content of the letter, with its nauseating repetition of the necessity of a young lady keeping her expenses down so as not to cause alarm or distress to the powers that be, and then you step back and realize that the actual fate of poor Mary Brydges, when she became Mary Leigh, was to become a baby-making "Automat" for 14 years straight, until her premature death at about age 30 or thereabouts, you realize that perhaps her mother, off gallivanting in Turkey with her husband, might well have given her daughter some better advice--like, try to avoid getting married as long as possible!
Could JEAL (and any of his friends and advisors upon whom he relied for editorial assistance) possibly have been so clueless, so dumb as not to realize that he was repeatedly cracking open with one hand the very doors he was so pointedly slamming with his other hand?
He, like his father, had literary aspirations, we know that from JA's surviving correspondence with him. Was JEAL, unlike his father, perhaps more receptive to his aunt's love of shadow and mysterious Gothicism masked as everyday quaint realism? He was, after all, the younger half brother of the very literary Anna Austen Lefroy, to whom he remained close throughout their lives, the one member of the Austen family who clearly was JA's closest literary confidant--we know that she was an active participant in his research for the Memoir, and she did not die till two years after its publication.
While I have not made up my mind as of yet (and I hope this group reading will sharpen my thinking on this very point), my tentative opinion at the moment is that JEAL meant the Memoir to be readable both as a straight Victorian suppression of the shadow side of JA's life and writings, and also as a covert subversive celebration of the shadow side of her life and writings. If this was what he did, then there could be no greater tribute to her.
Streaming Jane Austen
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