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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The News that Really Made Jane Austen Sicker PART THREE

As soon as I sent my second message on this subject, I started to wonder if it was possible that I was the first person to catch James Edward Austen Leigh (JEAL) red-handed, and, if so, how that could be, given that Jane Austen's (JA’s) April 1817 letter to Charles Austen was first published in toto as early as Chapman’s first edition of JA’s letters, which was a VERY long time ago! Well, it turns out that I am not the first, D.W. Harding spotted the issue in 1965, as I just found out via Google Books. But...the story of the trajectory of this meme is, as with everything else about JEAL's deceptions, very interesting to trace and analyze, as I have so enjoyed doing the past hour:

So, Ron, when you wrote, in Austen L, "Arnie, to my mind this reasoning is a stroke of genius. ", you are very very kind, and I deeply appreciate your praise, but as this message will demonstrate, I cannot claim priority on this point. But, as must be evident from my messages today, I LOVE this stuff, and I am glad you enjoyed reading the fruits of my labors! ;)

Anyway, back to business. First, here is what D.W. Harding wrote as a footnote in his 1965 edition of Persuasion and The Memoir:

“Henry’s bankruptcy occurred in March 1816, but the letters that Austen-Leigh goes on to quote date from 1817 and refer to the disappointment the family felt at the will of James Leigh Perrot, Mrs. Austen’s brother. Although he made large bequests to members of the family, all were subject to his widow’s life interest. They were none of them well off, except Edward [Austen Knight], and had hoped for immediate benefit. Where Austen-Leigh quotes her as saying ‘I am the only one of the party who has been so silly’, she actually wrote ‘I am the only one of the legatees who…’

Note that Harding (who of course is famous for coining the term “regulated hatred” to describe JA’s literary state of mind), zeroed in on the same two key points that I did, being the change of “legatees” to “party” and the conflation of letters from 1816 with the April 1817 letter to Charles Austen. But Harding, after deploying the key evidence of JEAL’s guilt, abruptly stops and leaves the unseemly conclusion about JEAL's shenanigans COMPLETELY unspoken! Wuzzup with that????

I checked further, and, as far as I can tell from the Internet, Harding's footnote about this has only been noticed once, by Kathryn Sutherland, at P. 251 of HER 2002 edition of the Memoir. But...I cannot read that whole page 251 on Google Books, and I don't have the print copy of her edition in my house, and so if anyone reading here DOES have that edition, PLEASE post any comments that Sutherland may have made, beyond what I know she did, which was to point out JEAL's change of "legatees' to "party". It seems as though Sutherland did not make any comment beyond that, or even make any comment about Harding's footnote, so perhaps Sutherland independently rediscovered the change on her own, as I did, but, unlike myself, did not realize the significance?

But back to Harding for now, pending more info about Sutherland's take on this question.

As I said, above, I wondered why Harding would have failed to explicitly state such an explosive and important conclusion? First, Harding was not exactly shy or avoidant of controversy in the world of Janeites, and, even in other footnotes to the Memoir, he did not hesitate to point out a couple of other distortions and bowdlerizations by JEAL. So, why did he fail to explicitly “land the plane” in this most egregious instance of all? After all, this deception by JEAL goes to the heart of the Memoir as a reliable source of information about JA. JEAL's willingness to go to such lengths to obfuscate this point dramatically illustrates what an unreliable memoirist he really was. Not only was he prepared to keep general Austen family secrets, he was prepared to keep secrets that mattered only to him personally!

So why would Harding drop the ball in this way, and, by not giving prominence to his discovery, give aid and comfort in the perpetuation of such a serious lie in the Memoir? One possibility is that Harding did not know about JEAL inheriting Scarlets from the Leigh Perrots, and so did not realize that JEAL had a very personal motive for twisting the reality of the effect of the disinheritance on JA’s health. If Harding was not aware of that crucial fact, then he might plausibly have interpreted JEAL’s outrageous deception of his readers as just another Austen family attempt to keep unseemly family skeletons in the closet, and therefore not really worthy of explicit exposure. But, had Harding realized that JEAL not only had committed this literary “crime”, but also had personal motivation that was not shared by all the Austen descendants, but was uniquely JEAL’s, then perhaps Harding would have wished to more aggressively and prominently present his point.

My guess is that Harding, being a very sharp and a very skeptical guy, wondered why JEAL would make up this lie and go to the trouble of carefully concealing it, And then Harding would have readily learned that JEAL inheriting Scarlets.

So…I think the culprit behind Harding’s partial abetting of JEAL’s deception was not Harding, but Harding’s publisher, which, in 1965, in what seems to me to be an excess of editorial squeamishness (and perhaps a desire not to offend the many living descendants of JEAL), did not permit Harding to explicitly draw the obvious conclusion, but compromised by letting him put out the evidence standing alone.

Supporting this inference by me is the very curious fact that Harding’s discovery of JEAL’s deception is relegated to a footnote at the very end of the volume (P. 399 out of 399!), instead of being mentioned in his Introduction to the Memoir in that same edition. Obviously a whole lot more people were going to read the Introduction than were ever going to read the buried footnote!

And what makes that omission of same from the Introduction even more curious is that Harding Introduction DID echo another one of his footnotes, the one about JEAL referring to Edward Austen Knight as the second eldest brother with the following comment regarding same in his Introduction: “[JEAL] followed the family practice of completely ignoring the existence of her defective or handicapped brother…”

It makes sense, doesn’t it? Harding, writing in 1965, and NOT being the one “breaking the story” about the collective Austen family attempt to hide the existence of JA’s brother George Austen, explicitly mentions the hiding of George Austen the younger in both his Introduction and a footnote. But Harding’s detection of JEAL’s outright lying, being a genuine news story in the burgeoning world of modern Austen studies, is relegated to a footnote only, and one that only implies, but does not make explicit, JEAL’s wrongdoing.

“Very interesting….”, as Arte Johnson used to say, “…but deceitful!”


P.S.: By the way, it just occurs to me that the principal reason why Letter 157 survived to be read by the world is precisely that it was written to Charles Austen, not to Cassandra, who surely would have reduced it to ashes as being far too revealing of dirty Austen family secrets of a particularly explosive kind. But I suspect CEA did not even know of the letter’s existence, and fortunately it passed down to Charles’s granddaughters who eventually sold it during the 1920s to Chapmans, who published it.

And….taking this line of thinking one step further, now I understand better why JEAL quoted from Charles’s letter, and chose to grapple with this issue head on, as opposed to simply ignoring it. It was precisely because he became aware at some point of its existence and the explosive material it contained (perhaps from correspondence between him and Charles’s daughter, Cassandra-Esten, JEAL’s first cousin), and he was attempting a preemptive strike to neutralize it if Letter 157 were to be published, which it eventually was. By just changing a single word, “party”, etc., his clever stratagem did apparently work for nearly a century, and even after that, has remained universally unnoticed until 01/20/2010.

Why I love this stuff so much is that the world of Jane Austen is such a seamless web of biography, reading of fiction, and literary criticism, and questions like Diane's can lead those so inclined, like myself, on an endless ride, to and fro, along the various strands of that web. I feel a little like Jake in Avatar, flying around Pandora, soaking up its endless wonders! ;)

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