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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, June 8, 2014

J.E. Austen-Leigh's Memoir of Jane Austen & His Alteration of Her Letter 157: His FICTIONAL (auto)biography

4 years ago, during our Group Read in Janeites and Austen-L of James Edward Austen Leigh's 1870 Memoir of  his long-dead aunt Jane Austen, I wrote the following post that exposed for the first time JEAL's egregiously "creative" editing of JA's Letter 157 written not long before her death to her younger sailor brother Charles --when JEAL Iagoishly changed the word "legatees" to "party", in order to make it look like JA got sicker because of Henry Austen's bankruptcy, not---as JA actually and explicitly wrote--- because of the shocking disinheritance of his Austen sister and nieces by James Leigh-Perrot.

I stand by every word I wrote 4 years ago, even more so, so I reproduce them, below, as part of the end of our Group Read of Jane Austen’s Letters:

"...I had not reread the ENTIRE opening paragraph of Chapter XI of the Memoir, which reads as follows:

"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.' "

JEAL's audacious lying is positively breathtaking! It is now clear that JEAL DID read Letter 157 (that JA wrote to brother Charles), and it is especially clear because JEAL quotes from it! And not just quotes from it, but quotes from the most important line in that letter! Or should I say, MISquotes from that line in Letter 157. The smoking gun of JEAL's culpability is the word "party" in that last sentence.

In the original letter, that word was "legatees"!!!!

And of course it is apparent why JEAL made this change. He correctly judged that by changing that single word, and also using the phrase "under these circumstances" in his own sentence introducing that quotation, he could completely alter the context of that sentence. JA's bilious attack is presented as the ultimate effect of Henry Austen's bankruptcy (with the intervening passage of 13 months cleverly obscured). And, what's more, the exhilaration of JA's Spring 1816 letters is actively denied by referring to letters of "a graver tone". Really, this is the kind of lying you expect in modern political campaigns!

So it turns out that what could at least theoretically have been a coincidence is not a coincidence at all, it was a completely intentional deception, where JEAL's agenda of whitewashing the devastating effect of the Leigh Perrot disinheritance was accomplished by smearing the memory of Henry Austen.

And it now is also clear that my analogy of JEAL to Iago turns out to be incredibly apt, because Iago's technique was exactly the same, not merely misleading, but turning truth COMPLETELY upside down, by deploying the damning evidence against Leigh Perrot as evidence against Henry Austen, and leaving it to the reader (i.e., Othello) to connect the dots. JEAL may as well have purloined one of Henry Austen's handkerchiefs and dropped it in JA's sickroom!

What incredible chutzpah---you almost, as with Iago, have to admire the technique, even as you deplore the horrible immorality!

And don't forget what is perhaps the sharpest irony of all. JEAL was a CLERGYMAN, and, compared to this sort of wicked deception perpetrated on the world by a clergyman, Mr. Collins and James Stanier Clarke seem like holy saints. JEAL claimed that JA never represented real people in her novels, but he neglected to point out that HE did not always represent real people in his Memoir!"  END QUOTE from my 2010 post

My addition to the above, today, is my realizing that JEAL may well have gotten inspiration for his creative editing of Letter 157, and for justifying the morality of his receiving the legacy from Aunt Leigh-Perrot that should have, at least  partly, gone directly to the Austen women in 1817 from a famous source--i.e., I believe JEAL saw himself in 1869-70 as having earned that legacy by demonstrating to the Leigh-Perrots that he was most deserving, like a juvenile hero straight out of Horatio Alger, whose breakout literary success occurred in 1868!:

Wikipedia:  " Horatio Alger, Jr. (1832 –1899) was a prolific 19th-century American author, best known for his many juvenile novels about impoverished boys and their rise from humble backgrounds to lives of middle-class security and comfort through hard work, determination , courage and honesty. His writings were characterized by the "rags-to-riches" narrative, which had a formative effect on America during the Gilded Age.... Essentially, all of Alger's novels share the same theme: a young boy struggles through hard work to escape poverty. Critics, however, are quick to point out that it is not the hard work itself that rescues the boy from his fate, but rather some extraordinary act of bravery or honesty, which brings him into contact with a wealthy elder gentleman, who takes the boy in as a ward. The boy might return a large sum of money that was lost or rescue someone from an overturned carriage, bringing the boy and his plight to the attention of some wealthy individual. It has been suggested that this reflects Alger's own patronizing attitude to the boys he tried to help. Alger secured his literary niche in 1868 with the publication of his fourth book Ragged Dick, the story of a poor bootblack's rise to middle class respectability, which was a huge success. His many books that followed were essentially variations on Ragged Dick and featured a cast of stock characters: the valiant hard-working, honest youth (who knew more Latin than the villain), the noble, mysterious stranger (whom the poor boy rescued and by whom he got rewarded), the snobbish youth (cousin), and the evil squire (uncle)." END QUOTE FROM WIKIPEDIA

The analogy should be clear, I think.

PART TWO: Subsequent to my above comments, Ellen Moody wrote the following in Janeites: "JEAL is a different case altogether. He has real literary gifts, real talent -- as did his older sister. People here may disagree with his evaluation of his aunt, but the portrait is filled with useful information, and later especially scenes about the books. Seen as a fragment of his own autobiography (which many biographies are), it makes good sense."  I responded  as follows:

The tools and seeds for massively contradicting Ellen's points are right there in what she wrote:

1. JEAL 's Memoir is in fact very much a work of FICTION- this is NOT an accurate portrait of his aunt, it is a deliberately false one,  creating a fictional character known as "aunt Jane", the unassuming, modest spinster aunt who never existed.

And so, what incredible irony, then, that JEAL's real literary skills were deployed with the very specific purpose of obscuring his aunt's fictional achievements, but even more important, of obscuring her actual (in some ways tragic) life story- in particular, the thread of JA's life story that pertains to JEAL himself, that in fact points an accusing finger at him and his father for selfish wrongdoing!

2. I don't merely "disagree" with his evaluation of his aunt. That would be suggesting that he had a legitimate perspective that he argued for honestly, and where reasonable people could disagree.  No, what he wrote was propaganda.

His changing the word "legatees" to "party" is patently a bare-faced, red-handed, chutzpadik BIG LIE- a deliberate, very carefully chosen alteration of a single word, so as to completely change the meaning of what Jane Austen actually wrote to her brother Charles.

3. But why would he change only a single word? If his goal was to hide the devastating effect that the Leigh-Perrot disinheritance had on JA's physical condition, only months before her very premature death, why even include any quotation from JA's letter 157 to brother Charles? Why even mention the letter at all?

The answer is painfully obvious.  JA's letter to Charles was a real problem for him, because he couldn't just pretend it didn't exist at all. It was obviously a crucial letter because written practically at the end of her life. Charles's (and Frank's) many descendants would have been screaming bloody murder about the exclusion of a letter that connected Jane to Charles at the end of her life.

4. So JEAL had to deploy his most Machiavellian editing ingenuity. He didn't want anyone to suspect that he was altering the text of the letter, and the best chance of pulling that off was to change as few words as possible. And to rely on people not reading his Memoir too closely.

But what a terrible editorial dilemma it presented him with, because the whole flow of that section of Letter 157 seemed to scream the name Leigh- Perrot, and, like the loud beating of Poe's telltale heart, sounded the damning fact of the inheritance that made JEAL rich for life, but at the cost of JA's life.  Letter 157 was JA, IN HER OWN WORDS, speaking from her crypt beneath that shiny plaque on the floor of Winchester Cathedral, like the St Swithin of her last Winchester Races poem, and in effect, hurling a curse on JEAL's and his father's heads for worming the inheritance away from all the many other natural objects of Uncle Leigh Perrot's testamentary bounty.

5. But then, the most awful irony of all. I've spent 10 years collecting the myriad of examples from JA's novels, in which the double meaning of a single word provided her with the tool to write a single scene with two completely different interpretations.

On some level, we see from his change of that one word that JE AL understood that same principle. He realized that by changing "legatees" to "party", and then providing some alternative narrative explanation, he could completely change the meaning of that section of letter 157! I.e., it would be "obvious" that Henry Austen's bankruptcy was what caused JA's relapse.

So in the end, JEAL makes this change, so as to situate himself as if he were the young hero of a Horatio Alger novel. I, he could not tolerate the guilt or accusation of others that he didn't deserve to inherit Scarlet's, and that his great uncle's estate would have been better use to help keep Jane Austen alive to write more of her immortal models.

If any biographer and memoirist ever deserved bashing, it is JEAL.

Cheers,  Arnie
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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