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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Truth Will Out: Shining a Light on Some More Revisionist Austen Family History by James Edward Austen Leigh in his 1870 Memoir of Jane Austen

I have previously written on several occasions about James Edward Austen Leigh (JEAL)’s outrageous presumption in “creatively” editing some of Jane Austen’s letters, and other comparable distortions he (intentionally) introduced into his Memoir. For the most part, he apparently did this in order to bolster his preconceived portrait of Jane Austen as sweet unthreatening Aunt Jane. The quintessential example is JEAL’s Byzantine dishonest maneuverings trying to conceal JA’s hostility toward his own benefactress Aunt Leigh Perrot, which I addressed over a year ago in the following series of posts:




Well, guess what, I just found _another_ one! And it was in the usual serendipitous way that seems to occur for me so often, because I don’t accept anything at face value, and I always wonder what other people have thought about the discoveries I make. Plus Google, if used creatively, opens long closed windows that, when opened, shine bright light onto startling new insights. Now for the details.

After my posts last week about Jane Austen’s 1808 eulogy-poem to Madam Lefroy, which I (and Anielka, at least halfway) claim to be parodic rather than sincere…..

….I became curious to know who else might ever have weighed in on JA’s 1808 eulogy-poem, and I found a citation to an article which I just read yesterday:

"Jane Austen--The Lefroys" by Margaret Usborne (a Lefroy family descendant), in The Spectator, Vol. 188 (Feb. 29, 1952), ppg. 257-8

In the article, Usborne made the (to me) startling and completely unexpected claim that JEAL’s Memoir did _not_ contain a complete version of JA’s 1808 poem, but instead that it omitted two of the verses, which _were_ however included in what Usborne referred to as “the Lefroy Book”!

After reading my earlier posts, can you guess which two verses were included in “the Lefroy Book” but were excluded from JEAL’s Memoir? Hint—they are the very verses you would expect a Bowdlerizing concealer like JEAL to omit---the ones that, to the knowing reader, make the interpretation of the eulogy-poem as satire a hundred times more likely!

If you’ve read my earlier messages, you know that these two omitted verses are the ones which refer to Samuel Johnson and Hamlet, respectively, and which also connect to JA’s sexual innuendo on “chasms” being “filled” in MP:

At Johnson's death by Hamilton t'was said,
'Seek we a substitute--Ah! vain the plan,
No second best remains to Johnson dead--
None can remind us even of the Man.'

So we of thee--unequall'd in thy race
Unequall'd thou, as he the first of Men.
Vainly we search around the vacant place,
We ne'er may look upon thy like again.

And recall also that Egerton Brydges’s 1804 newspaper paean to his recently dead sister makes that same connection—twice--to the eulogizing of Samuel Johnson by Hamilton.

So it looks, prima facie, that JEAL has omitted these two verses precisely so as to erase all footprints that would lead an alert reader of the Memoir to wonder why JA would be making a sexually-tinged satire about Samuel Johnson, Madam Lefroy and Egerton Brydges—each of them a no-no, but together—to JEAL’s mind---a massively embarrassing fiasco!

But you may well respond, what if there were two surviving manuscript versions of the poem, one that JEAL saw and _another_ later version that the author of “the Lefroy Book” worked from, a later version to which JA had added those two verses sometime later, when they occurred to her?

Not an unreasonable suggestion, until you also know the identity of “the Lefroy Book”. Here it is, it has been available for viewing on the Internet for years:

This is the 1868 Lefroy Family history written by a descendant of Madam Lefroy, John Henry Lefroy. And note the date, 1868, which is two years _before_ publication of JEAL’s Memoir in 1870! Which means that JEAL—having relied on his elder half-sister Anna for assistance in writing his Memoir-- was surely aware of JH Lefroy’s book. And it seems very likely to me, given that dating, and given that I am presently unaware of the existence of any actual surviving manuscript of JA’s 1808 eulogy-poem-- that JH Lefroy’s book was JEAL’s _only_ source for the 1808 eulogy-poem, a source he chose not to even acknowledge because (obviously, when you think about it) he did not want anyone to notice his deletion of those two verses!

And by the way, note that this Lefroy Book, right before quoting JA’s poem, also quotes that entire 1804 newspaper obituary that Brydges wrote, and also Brydges’s own over the top eulogy-poem, both of which Anielka had brought forward last week.

All of which makes JEAL’s _unacknowledged_ deletion of those two crucial verses---the only ones that show even a spark of literary knowledge---all the more damning. This sort of deceptive sleight of hand in a book published today would bring fatal opprobrium upon a biographer as a completely unreliable reporter of a truthful account of the subject of the memoir. What a disgrace to the memory of Jane Austen, that her nephew would feel he had the moral right to do such a thing!

And it is, to me, this is the icing on the cake of my claim that JA did indeed intend a sexually-tinged satire on Madam Lefroy, and on Egerton Brydges’s buffoonish overblown eulogizing of his sister. It is precisely because JEAL was a liar, but he was no fool, and he understood exactly what we was doing. He just went ahead and quietly deleted the offending verses, smiled, and took another sip of tea, perhaps smiling smugly to think that he had put the kibosh on the truth about his aunt Jane, but not anticipating that 141 years later, as Shakespeare told us, the truth would out.

Cheers, ARNIE

1 comment:

Arnie Perlstein said...

I just reread this post for the first time since I wrote it in March of this year, and see that I was unsuccessful in providing the link for the Lefroy Book.

Here it is now, hopefully it will work this time: