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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Better the false positives of Paula Byrne about Jane Austen, than the false negatives of Delrdre Le Faye

 In Janeites and Austen L today, Diana Birchall wrote as follows:
"My reading group has just finished The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things by Paula Byrne. I was prepared to dislike it, because of all the publicity Byrne whipped up about that questionable
portrait, and her general way of proceeding; however, I have to concede that the book is actually an excellent companion when reading the Letters. At our meeting we went through all the errors and misreadings she makes (and there is quite a list), but we all liked the book's approach, which was interesting, provocative, and more fruitful than reading another straight biography. Importantly, she does make many really good connections about things in the letters that Deirdre [Le Faye] does not address. It's worth reading. "

I then responded as follows:

“…that's exactly what I have said about Byrne's biography on a couple of occasions during the past six months, including the following post I wrote about 2 months ago about Jane Austen’s Letter 105, which illustrates the good work that Byrne has done, which makes up for her sloppiness on other points---it's easy for an informed reader to correct a false positive, but there's no easy cure for a reader to correct a false negative (as to which there must be more than a hundred in Le Faye’s editions of the Letters, and in her Family Record)! :

"Here is what Paula Byrne has to say about the Hampson family in her very recent bio of JA:

“[Jane] Austen was intimately connected with the slave trade and plantation owners. In her own family, there were the Hampson and the Walter cousins on her father’s side…Her closest connection to a plantation family was through her father’s family...The Hampson family had a plantation in Jamaica, and two of William’s sons were sent there.  It was their sister Philadelphia Walter (named after their aunt) who preserved Eliza de Feuillide’s letter...In one of her few surviving letters, Mrs. Austen wrote to Phila Walter, whom she considered her ‘third niece’, complaining that “You might as well have been in Jamaica keeping your Brother’s house, for anything that we see or are likely to see of you.” In 1773 Mrs. Austen wrote to Susannah Walter to say that she was sorry to hear about Sir George Hampson’s accident and that she hoped he would still be able to take Susannah’s son George back to Jamaica with him the following spring. Sir George, the sixth Baronet of Taplow, was Rebecca Hampson’s nephew. He married Mary Pinnock of Jamaica and was succeeded by his son, Sir Thomas Hampson. In other words, Jane Austen had a cousin twice removed who was called Sir Thomas and who owned a plantation in Jamaica.” END QUOTE

That “Sir Thomas” is the very fellow who, per Le Faye, wanted to be called “Mr.” , which of course is not how Sir Thomas Bertram felt about such things. Isn’t it very curious, though, that Le Faye referred to him as a republican, but completed omitted any mention whatsoever (even in the detailed Biographical Index entry for the Hampson family) that he was a plantation owner?

It’s hard (no, impossible) to believe that Le Faye was unaware of the Jamaica connection, and yet, Byrne appears to be the first JA biographer to present this crucial fact to the Janeite world. By emphasizing Thomas-Philip’s republican leanings (and I still would very much like to see the actual evidence for same), it’s almost as though Le Faye has chosen a fact about him that would be the furthest thing away from his having owned a plantation in Jamaica. And why might she have done this? It seems clear to me why she would. A reader of Letter 105 who wondered why JA would have wished to avoid seeing her cousin Hampson, and who then read Le Faye's footnote to that passage in Letter 105, would reasonably infer that what JA disliked about the 7th baronet were his republican leanings! Whereas, a reader of Letter 105 who could instead have been informed by a footnote that he owned a slave plantation in Jamaica, would reasonably speculate that what JA disliked about the 7th baronet was his owning a slave plantation--and that would especially be the case if he also was alerted that JA was right in the midst of writing Mansfield Park as she wrote Letter 105!

If all of that doesn't make you wonder about Le Faye's extreme editorial bias in favor of a (fake) conservative image of Jane Austen--someone who would look the other way about slave-owning in her own extended family (remember, this man was one of Henry Austen's major banking guarantors),
but who disliked a man born to privilege who did not wish to be known to the world as such, I don't know what would.

I've always maintained that JA's portrait of Sir Thomas Bertram was most of all that of a hypocrite who talked the talk of a higher morality, but who walked the walk of a greedy mercenary amoral monster. Perhaps Sir Thomas Bertram was a strong representation of Sir (or Mr.) Thomas-Philip Hampson, a portraiture which Henry Austen of all people would have wished never to come to light, given that Henry tried to benefit from the largesse of his slave-owning cousin.

And even today, two centuries later, Le Faye seems to be continuing Henry's project of hiding who JA really was.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: In case anyone was wondering, Le Faye's 4th edition is identical to her 3rd edition of the Letters in terms of the information presented about the Hampson family.

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