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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

James Edward Austen-Leigh's Editing of Letter 157 & the April Fool's Letter to Murray: Fact and fiction

On Sunday, Rita Lamb wrote the following in Janeites re my claims that JEAL engaged in editorial fraud in his 1870 Memoir of Jane Austen, in particular re the effect of the Leigh-Perrot disinheritance in early 1817: 
"...Lets review our positions. If I understand yours, you base your accusations against JEAL (in this instance) on the single word-change of ‘legatees’ to ‘party’, plus your personal interpretation of the surrounding passage in the Memoir where he quotes from Letter 157? The first part, we have to grant you. He definitely, deliberately altered a word. And it’s reasonable to suppose he did so to avoid publicly detailing what he describes only vaguely as ‘family troubles’. "

First and most important….is that the royal we?  (just teasing, I know you were including Christy with yourself)

Rita also wrote: "But when we come to why he did that, we come to personal interpretation. Christy and I both think he was influenced by Victorian reticence on private family financial matters.  You think he did it out of a sense of personal guilt and a conscious, habitual wish to deceive. You describe his behaviour in forceful terms:
' there any fraud that JEAL FAILED to deploy in his editing of that passage in Letter 157? All I see is lies, lies, and more lies, all the way down.'
This is an exaggerated condemnation of a single-word edit. Then you wrote (#50574):
‘And as a result of the...evisceration of the true meaning of JA’s actual words, it appeared to all the world that JA was already very ill anyway, and the family troubles that everyone knew about already was Henry’s bankruptcy, so there you had all the cause you needed to explain JA’s death a few months later.’
This implies, in very strong terms, that JEAL not only downplayed the will’s impact but deflected suspicion on the bankruptcy.  Well if he did that, of course, then the contention that he avoided writing in detail about family financial woes out of a sense of Victorian reticence falls down. 
So does JEAL’s memoir deal with Henry’s bankruptcy, and if so, how?  If he avoids all mention, then I count that as support for Christy’s view, and mine: he covered up private family financial woes."

Rita, I was away from my desktop till today, and so could not respond efficiently to your latest skeptical comments till now. And again I repeat my mantra---ye of little faith, did you really think I had done my research so carelessly as to not have looked at all of that carefully before making my claims? As I have told you many times in similar situations, I rarely post all of my findings, because I feel a constant tug of war between giving everything I’ve got, and causing most readers to refuse to wade through my full argument, versus giving highlights, and then having the stuff I left out questioned.

So, here’s the part I left out, why I concluded that JEAL had subtly pointing the finger of blame at Henry Austen and not Uncle Leigh-Perrot. Let’s start with the verbiage with which JEAL began the Letter 157 passage, verbiage which I have repeatedly characterized as misleading and obfuscatory:

“Early in the year 1816 some family troubles disturbed the usually tranquil course of Jane Austen’s life; and it is probable that the inward malady, which was to prove ultimately fatal, was already felt by her…”

Rita, I bet you see it now….do I have to point out that Uncle Leigh Perrot died in early 1817, i.e. a year later than “early in the year 1816”? So right there, you have an out and out lie by JEAL, because he knows better than anyone in the world when he is writing those words, that the date of Letter 156 is in March 1817, not 1816, and that is the very letter he doctored to change its meaning! Now, if he thought he had successfully hidden all traces of the true nature of the “ family troubles”, why change the year, if not to point the reader to “family trouble” that happened in “ early 1816”?

But that’s only the tip of the iceberg of JEAL’s carefully staged misdirection on this point. Take a peek at what a reader of the Memoir would have read only 30 pages earlier than the Letter 157 passage:

[In the April Fool’s letter to Murray]
‘Chawton, April 1, 1816
Dear Sir,—I return you the “Quarterly Review” with many thanks….‘In consequence of the late event in Henrietta Street, I must request that if you should at any time have anything to communicate by letter, you will be so good as to write by the post, directing to me (Miss J. Austen), Chawton, near Alton; and that for anything of a larger bulk, you will add to the same direction, by Collier’s Southampton coach.”

Now do you see the next section of the iceberg? JEAL has obliquely slipped Henry’s bankruptcy into the Memoir by the backdoor, as if by accident! How? Because a diligent reader will say, “Hmm.. What “late event in Henrietta Street” could this be? It must be something bad that happened to or involving Henry Austen—it was, I am sure, widely known among Janeites in 1870 that JA’s London brother was Henry---which has caused JA to leave London and return to Chawton. But what could it be?”

And by the way, for any reader who was unaware that Henry was JA’s London brother, look at what that reader would have seen only twenty pages before the April Fool’s letter:

“The next letter, written in the following year, contains an account of another journey to London, with her brother Henry, and reading with him the manuscript of ‘Mansfield Park’:—
‘Henrietta Street, Wednesday, March 2 (1814).”

Hmm…so that alert reader, upon reading of the “late event in Henrietta Street”, would easily and readily infer that the trouble involved Henry.

And so then, 30 pages after the April Fool’s letter, when that same reader gets to JEAL’s doctored sentence from Letter 157, our alert reader says to herself, “Hmm.. these “family troubles” occurred “early in the year 1816”—I wonder if they are the same as the “late event in Henrietta Street”. Sounds like they are. I will see if I can ascertain what happened with Henry Austen that was so bad that it forced Henry Austen to move from his residence at Henrietta Street, and then made his sister Jane very sick to boot.” 

And that would all be enough to indict JEAL on charges of gross editorial fraud. But here’s the best (or worst) part, which is so easy to overlook. Please note that, like the dog that DOESN’T bark in The Odyssey and in the famous Sherlock Holmes story “Silver Blaze”, JEAL does NOT alter or delete the reference to “the late event in Henrietta Street”---when, upon examination, it is readily seen that JEAL could have easily deleted that entire second paragraph in the April Fool’s letter to Murray, without the slightest diminution of valuable content vis a vis the interesting parts of JA’s correspondence with Murray. In fact, the only fact worth noting in that entire paragraph is “ the late event in Henrietta Street”. What reader of the Memoir cares about JA’s giving her forwarding address to Murray, let alone the details of same?

So, Rita, why didn’t the dog bark? JEAL, had he really been so Victorian, so concerned about revealing Austen family secrets, should have “barked” away that entire paragraph! Hell, he should have swallowed it whole, like a good dog! But again, he didn’t want to delete that paragraph, precisely because it served his deeper purpose.

And by the way, I just found another editorial game that JEAL played in his transcription of the April Fool’s letter to Murray. He deleted the word “sad”! I.e., JA originally wrote to Murray “‘In consequence of the late SAD event in Henrietta Street…”!

Now, you might try to argue that such deletion was of a piece with the change of “legatees” to “party” in Letter 156, but I say to you that JEAL was very Machiavellian, because these two passages, separated by 30 pages, were intended by him to work together, and to lay a trap for the diligent reader, by creating a small textual mystery that close careful readers would uncover.

So why delete the word “sad”? I think he did it so that later, if challenged about any of his alterations and deletions from JA’s letters, he could claim that he had tried to hide unpleasant facts of all kinds, and not merely the ones that made him, his father, and his benefactors look bad!

But back to our alert reader for the last link in the chain of my argument--whether or not such a reader would have been able, in 1870, to actually find out that Henry went bankrupt in March 1816, is besides the point entirely. What was important to JEAL was that such reader, even if (s)he never went outside the Memoir itself for information about JA’s life, would be convinced that something happened with Henry Austen in early 1816 that was not good, and which made JA very ill. The goal of deflecting blame away from the Leigh-Perrots would have been achieved.

And today, as I was following up re the above, I just found at least one such curious, close reader, who DID read JEAL’s doctored version of reality as if it was indeed Henry’s bankruptcy that triggered JA’s worst attack of her soon to be fatal disease!

Sir Zachary Cope, in his famous article in the British Medical Journal of 18 July 1964, p. 140, entitled  “Jane Austen’s End”, in which Cope asserted that JA died of Addison’s Disease, wrote as follows, clearly after reading JEAL’s Memoir very UN-suspiciously (i.e., had he read the 1911 Family Record and not the 1870 Memoir, he’d have known that JA’s relapse had nothing to do with Henry’s bankruptcy):

“One further fact must be mentioned.  Henry Austen, Jane's favourite brother, whom she had nursed through a serious illness in 1815, who greatly encouraged her writing and helped to get her novels published, and who seemed to be very prosperous, went bankrupt in March 1816.  This was a terrible mental shock to Jane, and might well have precipitated any disease susceptible of being influenced by mental shock.
    Here then we have the story of an illness coming on soon after a severe mental shock…”

And here then we here in 2014 have the story of a readerly misunderstanding coming on 94 years after severe editorial shenanigans by JEAL!

I conclude by quoting another passage near the end of JEAL’s Memoir, in which he inadvertently reveals, to the reader who has a firm grasp of all of JEAL’s editorial frauds, including most of all his complete deflection of blame away from the Leigh-Perrot disinheritance and onto to the HTA bankruptcy, how guilty JEAL really felt about inheriting Scarlets, but not guilty enough to be honest about his windfall at JA’s expense. Look at how hard he works to convince himself as well as his readers that JA did not know how serious her malady was, and did not suffer too much:

“I cannot tell how soon she was aware of the serious nature of her malady.  By God’s mercy it was not attended with much suffering; so that she was able to tell her friends as in the foregoing letter, and perhaps sometimes to persuade herself that, excepting want of strength, she was ‘otherwise very well;’ but the progress of the disease became more and more manifest as the year advanced.” 

I am just thankful that his descendants understood that true Christian charity and truthfulness required them to tell the whole, undistorted truth in 1911.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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