Such a Henry Austen! His surprisingly deep insight into the mystery of his sister Jane’s genius
Having slept on my last post in which I concluded that James
Edward Austen Leigh, and not Henry Austen, was the author of the 1817
Biographical Notice, it occurs to me to add a bit more of the Big Picture I see,
now that I've read, for the first time ever, Henry's 1832 revision(actually
it's more of an expansion than a revision) of the 1817 Notice. Specifically, Ifeel much more kindly feelings toward Henry
Austen as biographer of Janethan
I have for the past decade.
First, I now see that Henry’s primary goal was NOT to damn
Jane's writing byfaint,
condescending praise; nor, even more importantly, was Henrymotivated by a desire to hide from the world the
inconvenient truth ofJEAL's side
of the Austen family being the true target of Jane Austen'sfamous but unspecific May 1801 aphorism after James
and Mary Austenvirtually stole
Steventon out from under Revd. & Mrs .Austen, Jane andCassandra:
"The whole world is in a conspiracy to enrich one part
of ourfamily at the expence of the other."
In stark contrast, now I see thatthose
two sins are precisely the ones which were committed by JEAL in BOTHthe 1817 Biographical Notice, and more
egregiously still in his 1870Memoir.In short, JEAL now stands alone as the
perpetrator of the Myth of JaneAusten,
and Henry is off the hook, in my estimation.
[ADDED 12/27/18: THE BELOW, BRILLIANT ANALYSIS OF JA'S WRITING WAS ACTUALLY WRITTEN BY MARIA JANE JEWSBURY, AND QUOTED, ALAS, WITHOUT ATTRIBUTION, BY HENRY AUSTEN]
Second, even as Henry felt compelled to add his regrettably
excessivespecial pleading about
Jane as an orthodox Christian, he also added asection about her fiction which shows the deep insight
Henry had into thesecrets of his
sister's genius, insight that went light years beyond nephew's JEAL's
condescending, clueless, sexist assessment. Here's whatHenry added that is a brilliant encapsulation of Jane
as a true savant ofhuman nature
--- perhaps even more insightful than Sir Walter Scott's 1816praise (in his famous "Bow Wow strain"
[Henry Austen, 1832]:
"The secret is, Miss Austen was a thorough mistress in
the knowledge ofhuman character; how it is acted upon by
education and circumstance; andhow,
when once formed, it shows itself through every hour of every day, andin every speech to every person. Her
conversations would be tiresome butfor
this; and her personages, the fellows to whom may be met in thestreets, or drank tea with at half an hours’ notice,
would excite nointerest; but in
Miss Austen’s hands we see into their hearts and hopes,their motives, their struggles within themselves; and
a sympathy isinduced, which, if
extended to daily life, and the world at large, wouldmake the reader a more amiable person; and we must
think it that reader’sown fault
who does not close her pages with more charity in his hearttowards unpretending, if prosing, worth; with a higher
estimation of simplekindness, and
sincere good-will; with a quickened sense of the duty of bearing and forbearing, in domestic intercourse, and of the
pleasure ofadding to the little
comforts even of persons who are neither wits norbeauties,-who, in a word, does not feel more disposed
to be benevolent. In the last posthumous tale ('Persuasion') there is a strain
of a highermood; there is still
the exquisite delineation of common life, such life aswe hear, and see, and make part of, with the addition
of a finer, morepoetic, yet
equally real tone of thought and actions in the principals. IfMiss Austen was sparing in her introduction of nobler
characters, it wasbecause they
are scattered sparingly in life...'”
Isn't that lovely and brilliant at the same time? It shows
that Henry Austen reallyloved
reading and rereading Jane's novels very closely, and that he spenttime thinking about what he read. It also shows
that he wished toparticularly
rebut the common complaint of dull elves about Jane's fiction:"Nothing happens in her stories, they're so
boring". In effect, he provideda gloss on Elizabeth Bennet's brilliant and telling retort to Darcy aboutthe never ending alterations of character even
in a confined country neighborhood.
I particularly love that last line, about the rarity of
nobler charactersin her fiction,
because of their rarity in real life -talk about a classic Austenian ironic aphorism - that's a line Jane herself
would havebeen proud to write,
and perhaps we also get a taste here of the kind ofhigh-grade repartee that Jane and Henry must have
enjoyed with each other. Just as Fanny Price cannot help but smile at
Henry Crawford’s witty brilliance, so too, I believe Henry could hold his own
with Jane in witty exchanges, something they had a great deal of opportunity to
engage in during the crucial extended visits she paid to him (both when cousin
Eliza was still alive, and afterwards as well).
Most valuably of all, Henry hammers home that Jane Austen was,
at the deepest level, all about the realest of real life, and so now I must now echo Jane who
fondly wrote"Such a Henry!"
A lovely bit of praise from my youngest (at heart) supporter in Seattle:
[The 80-ish Mary Watson of the Puget Sound chapter commenting on the 2010 JASNA AGM]
"...Two sessions were outstanding: Juliet McMasters on the more subtle, deeper meanings of "Northanger Abbey" and a Darcy-like young lawyer, Arnie Perlstein, who revealed his very plausible theory that the "shadow story" behind much of Jane Austen's work is the horror of multiple childbirth and women's deaths. I am a Jane-Austen-as-feminist person and this really resonated with me!"
Thank you, Mary!
"Arnie's theories [about Austen and Shakespeare] may strain credulity, but so much the greater his triumph if they turn out to have persuasive force after they are properly presented and maturely considered. That is what publication is all about"
"When great or unexpected events fall out upon the stage of this sublunary world—the mind of man, which is an inquisitive kind of a substance, naturally takes a flight behind the scenes to see what is the cause and first spring of them."--Tristram Shandy
I'm a 65 year old independent scholar (still) working on a book project about the SHADOW STORIES of Jane Austen's novels (and Shakespeare's plays). I first read Austen in 1995, an American male real estate lawyer, i.e., a Janeite outsider. I therefore never "learned" that there was no secret subtext in her novels. All I did was to closely read and reread her novels, while participating in stimulating online group readings. Then, in 2002, I whimsically wondered whether Willoughby stalked Marianne Dashwood and staged their “accidental” meeting. I retraced his steps, followed the textual “bread crumbs”, and verified my hunch. I've since made numerous similar discoveries about offstage scheming by various characters. In hindsight, it was my luck not only to be a lawyer, but also a lifelong solver of NY Times and other difficult American crossword puzzles. These both trained me to spot complex patterns based on fragmentary data, to interpret cryptic clues of all kinds, and, above all, not to give up until I’ve completed the puzzle--and literary sleuthing Jane Austen's novels (and Shakespeare's plays) is, bar none, the best puzzle solving in the world!