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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, June 13, 2014

James Edward Austen Leigh's Editing of Jane Austen's Letter 157: Fact and fiction

The following are two posts I've written during the past day in Janeites & Austen-L in response to Christy Somer's attempts to defend James Edward Austen Leigh against my charges of deliberate editorial deception: 


Christy wrote: “And JEAL may have made some familial & personally discreet decisions regarding what to include in his memoir, but none of it even hints at any level of fraud.”

Christy, before I recommend that you apply immediately for a position as a political press secretary, let me be sure I understand your confident assertion that the way JEAL presented Letter 157 in the Memoir did not in any way “even hint at any level of fraud”.  As always in such situations, it is wise to refer to the actual textual evidence. (And if you decide to respond, I would hope this time you will actually refer to the specifics of the relevant texts, or else your response will be no more convincing than your naked assertion, quoted above).

JEAL took this passage from Letter 157 [caps added by me, of course]….

I have been suffering' from a Bilious attack, attended with a good deal of fever.-A few days ago my complaint appeared removed, but I am ashamed to say that THE SHOCK OF MY UNCLE’s WILL BROUGHT ON A RELAPSE, & I was so ill on friday & thought myself so likely to be worse that I could not but press for Cassandra's returning with Frank after the Funeral last night, which she of course did, & either her return, or my having seen M' Curtis, or my Disorder's chusing to go away, have made me better this morning. I live upstairs however for the present & am coddled. I am the only one of the LEGATEES who has been so silly, but a weak Body must excuse weak Nerves. My Mother has borne the forgetfulness of her extremely well;-her expectations for herself were never beyond the extreme of moderation, & she thinks with you that my Uncle always looked forward to surviving her.-She desires her best Love & many thanks for your kind feelings; and heartily wishes that her younger Children had more, & all her Children something immediately…”

…and, instead of simply quoting it verbatim (it is remarkably self-explanatory), he chose to present this long winded tortuous pile of evasive unctuousness:

Early in the year 1816 SOME FAMILY TROUBLES disturbed the USUALLY TRANQUIL course of Jane Austen's life; and it is probable that the inward malady, which was to prove ultimately fatal, was ALREADY FELT BY HER; for some distant friends whom she visited in the spring of that year, thought that her health was somewhat impaired, and observed that she went about her old haunts, and recalled old recollections connected with them in a particular manner, as if she did not expect ever to see them again. It is not surprising that, UNDER THESE CIRCUMSTANCES, some of her letters were of A GRAVER TONE than had been customary with her, and expressed resignation rather than cheerfulness. In reference to these troubles IN A LETTER TO HER BROTHER CHARLES, after mentioning that she had been laid up with an attack of bilious fever, she says: 'I live upstairs for the present and am coddled. I am the only one of the PARTY who has been so silly, but a weak body must excuse weak nerves.' "

And as a result of the above evisceration of the true meaning of JA’s actual words, it appeared to all the world that JA was already very ill anyway, and the “family troubles” that everyone knew about already was Henry’s bankruptcy, so there you had all the cause you needed to explain JA’s death a few months later.

But that pesky word “legatees” was a challenge. JEAL liked JA’s tone of self-blame a lot in that sentence, it fit with his idea of his aunt as a cheerful, willing, stoic martyr----what to do about that word that could only refer to a Will? No way to make that square peg fit with the round hole of Henry’s bankruptcy. So, JEAL, being a decisive editor, just changed it to a word so vague that it meant nothing, and so would not interfere with his bogus cover story!

Now, since YOU brought Christianity into it, my understanding from the Gospels is that Jesus was not exactly a big fan of hypocrites, of liars, and of greedy heirs, especially when all those charming traits were combined in a man who (now we’re getting into Paul’s territory, too) pretended to be a man of god, who pretended to represent Jesus on earth, but who was really in it for the money.

So, is JEAL supposed to be a good candidate to present an honest portrait of his aunt’s spiritual stance? Christy, my final question to you is, is there in fact any fraud that JEAL FAILED to deploy in his editing of that passage in Letter 157? All I see is lies, lies, and lies, all the way down.  And again, if you respond, please refer to the above two texts  and show me how these are not massive self serving frauds on JEAL’s part.


Christy, it is remarkable-- and revealing--that you continue to NOT specifically state the actual words that JEAL altered in ANY way. I.e., anyone reading your posts, without also reading mine, would have absolutely no idea at all about the verbiage in JA’s Letter 157 that JEAL changed and misrepresented—i.e., that he changed the word “legatees” to “party” for the patently sole purpose of hiding the true meaning of JA’s quoted words, a meaning that, by the only fair reading of the context, made JEAL and his father look like the grasping, toadyish, gold-diggers they clearly were—real life Mr. Collinses and Mr. Eltons successfully sucking up to real life de Burghs

It is therefore impossible to escape the conclusion that you are no dull elf, that you recognize full well how damning that specific textual alteration is as to JEAL’s motivations. And so, like a good defense lawyer trying to make a jury forget about the specific evidence against her client, instead you speak only in the vaguest generalities and rhetorical, jocular flights of fancy, without ever addressing the actual evidence:

“it remains impossible to convince me of such a plot; for me,  'you know it is not sound'. ~~~~-:-)…. Reading the very same words you do: I can never pick-up the evil deceptions & maniacal suppression’s which seem to fill your own inner perceptions -& give you such a feeling of certainty….if a Christian man, or woman, is not acting within that perfection of precepts which you've chosen from the New Testament  -& have deemed worthy of representing a true Christian, they must be living hypocritical lives; & deserve to be disdained & insulted. “

Let’s speak in plain English. Lying is lying. I’m not cherry-picking moral precepts from the Gospels when I claim that it is extraordinarily UN-Christian to tell self serving hypocritical lies about important matters. JEAL’s deleting JA’s clear, unambiguous statement that her relapse was caused by the Leigh-Perrot disinheritance, and his replacing it with elaborate, fuzzy double speak that implies a very different cause, and then claiming it is all irrelevant because she was supposedly dying anyway, is LYING on a grand scale.

And as to your also writing “JEAL responded in a most natural & Christian way belonging to his nature -& given his upbringing & later Victorian aesthetics. And like so many of the Austen's, I sense he was also naturally stoical, discreet, & reticent  -as most of the Austen's were when dealing with the outside world.”

Were Richard Nixon and his underlings “stoical, discreet, and reticent”, and behaving “in a most natural & Christian way belonging to their nature”, when they lied and lied and lied and lied, in their attempts to cover up the Watergate break-in? What exactly was it that JEAL was “stoically enduring” by altering JA’s words? Your logic is Orwellian, Christy, you speak as if it were obvious that black really is white after all.

No moral creed worthy of the name, whether Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist or Islamic, justifies self-serving lying, especially when it is not about something trivial, but actually was part of JEAL’s larger gameplan (which I’ve been documenting over the past 4 years, piece by piece) to systematically distort the portrait of Jane Austen’s character, a subject of great interest to a large number of people who love her novels, including everyone reading our current exchange.

I have been attacking JEAL’s actions as an editor, and condemning him for those actions. He betrayed the trust that his readers placed in him, and the evidence I’ve adduced repeatedly shows that he did this in part in order to make himself and his father look better in the eyes of history. And the historical fact is that his flim-flame scheme was wildly successful, and even today governs the perceptions of JA held by most Janeites.  

So we’re not talking about JEAL failing to achieve perfection as a biographer—the evidence shows he is at the other end of the spectrum from perfection. As Knightley would have said, “Badly done, James-Edward, badly done.”

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: As I was following up last night on my research on John-Charles Middleton, tenant of Chawton Manor and former associate of Warren Hastings in India, I came across the following descriptions of JA in letters written by one of JC Middleton’s daughters after reading JEAL’s Memoir, which actually, by coincidence, bear on the question of JEAL’s deceitfulness in his portrayal of his Aunt Jane (I quote from one of Tucker’s well-researched bios of JA:

“In her first letter to a friend who had lent her a copy of the Memoir, Mrs. Beckford commented on the well-known engraving of JA that served as a frontispiece to the volume:
“Jane’s likeness is hardly what I remember there is a look & that is all—I remember her as a tall thin spare person, with very high cheekbones great colour—sparkling Eyes not large but joyous & intelligent. The face by no means so broad and plump as represented; perhaps  it was taken when very young, but the Cap looks womanly—her keen sense of humour I quite remember, it oozed out very much in Mr. Bennett’s style—Althogether I remember we liked her greatly as children from her entering into all Games &c.”
[Then after a second reading]: ‘We saw her often. She was a most kind & enjoyable person to Children but somewhat stiff & cold to strangers. She used to sit at Table at Dinner parties without uttering much probably collecting matter for her charming novels which in those days we knew nothing about-her sister Cassandra was very lady-like but very prim, but my remembrance of Jane is that of her entering into all Children's Games and liking her extremely ..."

 As I read the above, Mrs Beckford (she apparently married a cousin) seems to me to be an honest, insightful and therefore credible reporter about JA’s appearance and behavior, with no axe to grind. Note that she refers to the famous Bowdlerized alteration of CEA’s original sketch of JA that JEAL used in the Memoir as hardly a likeness at all, and note also that her description of JA’s appearance sounds a LOT like CEA’s original!

Just one more example of how systematic and calculated JEAL’s deceptive portraiture of JA was.

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