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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, April 15, 2013

James Edward Austen-Leigh’s Hyper-Hypocrisy: “…I have long thought too meanly of her, to be much astonished at any fresh instance of want of feeling or of hypocrisy…”

More than three years ago, I wrote at length about the profound hypocrisy of (the 75 year old) James Edward Austen-Leigh (aka JEAL),  in his engaging in a variety of rather outrageous authorial deceits and misrepresentations in his 1870 Memoir of Jane Austen.

Not a few of his shenanigans involved his working overtime to make his own financial benefactor, Aunt Leigh-Perrot, and her husband, James Leigh-Perrot, look like the wonderfully generous people they most definitely were not.

Hard to say which is more noteworthy in this regard: JEAL’s “selective editing” of letters, his complete silence about the trial of Mrs. Leigh-Perrot in Bath for shoplifting, or his masterpiece, twisting himself into a pretzel to rationalize the disinheritance of Mrs. Austen by her brother, Mr. Leigh-Perrot.

Here are all those gory details about JEAL’s Leigh-Perrot-related misrepresentations in the Memoir that I was aware of when I last addressed this issue in January 2010:

 Well, now I have a short but telling footnote to add to what I blogged back then, which I might just call  the Hyper-Hypocrisy edition of JEAL’s Memoir. To wit:

On April 28, 1818, less than a year after Jane Austen's death, and about a year prior to James Austen's own sad demise, James wrote the following to his son, JEAL:

"I must now tell you some news at which you will surely be surprised, for I was. My Aunt [Leigh-Perrot] has withdrawn the Annuity of L100 a year which she and my Uncle had allowed me for these eight or nine years past. The ostensible reasons are her poverty & my having L200 a year to support T. Leigh—of which I certainly clear more than half, but who is very unlikely to live long. The real reasons I leave you to guess….”

I am unaware of what “real reasons” James Austen was so sarcastically hinting at (was James’s sin one of omission or commission, that so irked his capricious rich aunt?); and I am also not quite sure whether  James was taking self-serving advantage of funds he received to support T. Leigh (does anyone know who T. Leigh was, and what that care involved?)—and can you also hear the echo of Fanny Dashwood in James’s complaint that poor T. Leigh would not live long enough to provide James a satisfactorily long-lasting income stream?:

“My mother was quite sick of it. Her income was not her own, she said, with such perpetual claims on it; and it was the more unkind in my father, because, otherwise, the money would have been entirely at my mother's disposal, without any restriction whatever. It has given me such an abhorrence of annuities, that I am sure I would not pin myself down to the payment of one for all the world."

But the hypocrisy of Aunt Leigh-Perrot and James Austen is small potatoes, compared to what I will now show you, i.e., JEAL’s response to his father, written 3 days later on May 1, 1818.

“My dear Father…
I am very sorry and certainly surprised at this last motion of Mrs. L. Perrot, but I have long thought too  meanly of her, to be much astonished at any fresh instance of want of feeling or of hypocrisy…”

So let’s see---Aunt Leigh Perrot was a heartless hypocrite in 1818, when he was 23. Funny how she improved so much by the time he was 75, after JEAL inherited Scarlets from her decades earlier!

Two cynical dialogs come to mind, inspired by P&P:

 “…I dare not hope that Aunt Leigh-Perrot is improved in essentials."
"Oh, no!" said JEAL. "In essentials, I believe, she is very much what she ever was."


“Will you tell me how long you have admired your Aunt Leigh-Perrot?"
"It has been coming on so gradually over the past thirty years, that I hardly know when it began. But I believe I must date it from my first inheriting her beautiful grounds at Scarlets."

Now, if the above were just a personal family matter, and had no impact outside the circle of the Austen family, that would be none of my or anyone else’s business. But we have here in JEAL the author of the highly influential Memoir which set the tone for Austen scholarship which still widely echoes today, 143 years later. And the kinds of misrepresentations he wrote about the Leigh-Perrots helped to preserve the central myth launched by Henry Austen, i.e, that JA did not write about real people in her novels.

It becomes clear that at the top of the list of those real people Henry Austen was thinking about in 1818  (at practically the same instant in history when JEAL was referring to Mrs. Leigh-Perrot  as a heartless hypocrite) were the Leigh-Perrots! Just imagine what generations of Austen readers familiar with actual Austen family history might have discerned, beginning more than a century ago, in JA’s novels, had JEAL and his ilk not led them all down a garden path in a fairyland of Austen family harmony.

Badly done, JEAL.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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