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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

What Deirdre Le Faye and James Edward Austen-Leigh didn’t want Janeites to know about Jane Austen’s Satire of Austen Family History, Part 37: Old Francis Austen’s rags to riches story

In Janeites & Austen L,  Diane  Reynolds wrote:  “Henry [Austen]'s letter [at the end of Chapter 1 of Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh’s  Austen Papers] fascinated me because it has all the dry wit we associate with Jane, revealing this mode of discourse was not unique to her but a family trait…”

Diane, I agree that there are flashes of Jane-like dry wit in Henry’s summary of the life of Old Francis Austen. I just reread one of the 18-year old Henry’s contributions to the Loiterer in 1789, …     …and confirmed my recall that Henry already was fairly adept in his irony back then; although less subtle and sly than what we see in this mature letter to JEAL, which Henry clearly took a great deal of care and time in composing.

One of Henry’s slyest zingers in his letter to JEAL is this:
“It is better to be lucky than wise; it is no scandal to say that my aforesaid relations of West Kent never raised any alarming fears of their setting even the Medway on fire; and certainly the Rev. John Austen will bring no such disgrace on his family.”
Henry is clearly winking at Admiral Croft’s sarcastic backhanded compliment to Sir Walter Elliot in Persuasion:  “The Baronet will never set the Thames on fire, but there seems to be no harm in him."
Indeed, in Sir Walter’s case, it is better to be lucky (i.e., to be born into wealth, like John Austen VI) than wise! And note also that Sir Walter, like Elizabeth Weller’s husband, John Austen V, caused a heap of family trouble by getting deeply into debt—so maybe Henry was hinting that Sir Walter Elliot was himself in part JA’s representation of her own great-grandfather John Austen V, and Anne Elliot’s nostalgia for the lost glory of Kellynch reflected an Austen family nostalgia for its real life squandered Kentish estate?

Diane also wrote: “We open with the image of Francis, Jane's great uncle, setting off in life "with 800 pounds and a bundle of pens," a vivid and comic juxtaposition, to become an attorney. (Where did he get the 800 pounds?)…a picture of his great uncle Francis amassing his fortune, by living "hospitably" (networking), "buying up all the valuable and around the Town" and "marrying two wealthy wives" (Plus ca change ...) --and, Henry drops dryly, by persuading his eldest son's godmother "to leave said Godson a small [!]  legacy of 100,000 pounds." (So there really were fairy godmothers.) Henry goes on to note his uncle's not inconsequential kindness in leaving his nephew, Henry and Jane's father, 500 pounds, despite having three sons of his own and 12 grandchildren and buying him the living at Deane….”

Diane, I’m so glad you’ve focused on these details of the rags-to-riches story of Old Uncle Francis Austen that Henry Austen shared with his nephew JEAL in a letter which I guess would have been written sometime between the death of CEA in 1845 (when various of JA’s manuscripts and letters passed into the hands of the next Austen generation) and (obviously) Henry’s own death in 1850. As my Subject Line indicates, this letter turns out to be a key clue to yet another damning example of how:

JEAL, in his 1870 Memoir, intentionally and deceptively suppressed evidence of JA’s satire of dark chapters in Austen family history; then

RAAL, in both his 1911 JA’s Life & Letters and his later Austen Papers, sought to atone for his grandfather JEAL’s editorial sins by revealing what JEAL had concealed or obfuscated; then

Deirdre Le Faye, in her 1989 expansion of RAAL’s Life & Letters, sought (and has largely succeeded, to this day) to put the genie back in the bottle which RAAL had released eight decades earlier.

Let me walk you through this Gothic tale of repeated editorial fraud.

To begin, I strongly recommend that you all read, and then reread, the following introductory portion of Henry’s letter to JEAL, to get a real sense of what a great bit of writing it really is, and of the high interest level it holds for Janeites eager to better understand the shadows of the Austen family saga which gave rise to JA’s fiction, in particular her (as Auden put it) utterly clear vision of the economic basis of family life:

“There (at Sevenoaks) my Father’s Uncle, old Francis Austen set out in life with £800 and a bundle of pens, as Attorney, & contrived to amass a very large fortune, living most hospitably, and yet buying up all the valuable land round the Town --marrying two wealthy wives & persuading the Godmother of his eldest son, Motley Austen, to leave to her said Godson a small legacy of £100,000 — He was a kind uncle too, for he bought the presentations of Ashe & Deane, that your Grandfather might have which ever fell vacant first — it chanced to be Deane. He left your Grandfather a legacy of £500, though at that time he had 3 sons married & at least a dozen grandchildren. All that I remember of him is, that he wore a wig like a Bishop, & a suit of light gray, ditto, coat, vest & hose. In this picture over the chimney the coat & vest had a narrow gold lace edging, about half an inch broad, but in my day he had laid aside the gold edging, though he retained a perfect identity of colour, texture make to his life’s end — I think he was born in Anne’s reign, and was of course a smart man of George the First’s. It is a sort of privilege to have seen and conversed with such a model of a hundred years. Of his 8 sons one died childless, another has left a son who distinguished himself at St. John’s Cambridge, and is settled in the valuable living of Aldworth near Pangbourne & has children.
My great Uncle’s eldest son, Motley, completed his Father’s various purchases of land about Sevenoaks by buying Kippington House & demesnes a short mile from the Town — and so forming an extensive Park….”

As RAAL describes in Ch. 1 of The Austen Papers, Francis was the second eldest of the sons of Elizabeth Weller, the very same matriarch whose extraordinary maternal valor and determination RAAL foregrounded so effectively at the start of his book. Francis Austen, like his mother and his younger siblings, got screwed out of any share in his grandfather’s large estate, because his eldest brother, John Austen VI, inherited EVERYTHING from granddaddy John Austen IV, thereby providing one of the allusive sources for the horrible inheritance injustice we read about in Chapter 1 of S&S. I explained all of that in 2011…
…only to learn a few months ago that this veiled allusion in S&S to that dark Austen family history had actually first been detected and flagged by RAAL (and his uncle WAL) a century ago, as I explained here:

So, here in Chapter 1 of The Austen Papers, we see RAAL once again as a diligent Austen family biographer, who, as you so aptly pointed out, Diane, doggedly dug up this letter from Henry to JEAL (RAAL’s grandfather). What’s crucial to realize is that this is a letter which, revealingly, JEAL himself chose NOT to include in the 1870 Memoir, but instead chose to summarize in a very unsatisfactory and obfuscatory way!

It’s easy to prove this claim. Here’s the grossly abbreviated summary of Henry’s letter that JEAL instead chose to write as his sole description of Old Uncle Francis Austen. It’s clear to me that JEAL found Henry’s letter too revealing of actual Austen family history, and also too suggestive of even darker unspecified misdeeds, via its broadly winking, ironic tone that you so alertly picked up on, Diane:

[JEAL’s Memoir] “Mr. George Austen had lost both his parents before he was nine years old.  He inherited no property from them; but was happy in having a kind uncle, Mr. Francis Austen, a successful lawyer at Tunbridge, the ancestor of the Austens of Kippington, who, though he had children of his own, yet made liberal provision for his orphan nephew. The boy received a good education at Tunbridge School, whence he obtained a scholarship, and subsequently a fellowship, at St. John’s College, Oxford.  In 1764 he came into possession of the two adjoining Rectories of Deane and Steventon in Hampshire; the former purchased for him by his generous uncle Francis, the latter given by his cousin Mr. Knight.  This was no very gross case of plurality, according to the ideas of that time, for the two villages were little more than a mile apart, and their united populations scarcely amounted to three hundred.”

Now reread Henry’s letter at the end of this post, and you see that JEAL has done a ham-handed hatchet job on Henry’s letter, exactly like the hatchet jobs JEAL did on a number of JA’s own letters! JEAL has in effect lobotomized Henry’s letter! Nothing about Elizabeth Weller, nothing about the disinheritance of her and her younger children, including Francis Austen. Nothing, nothing, and more nothing.

And lest someone suggest that JEAL had to edit down and summarize letters in the interest of keeping his narrative moving along, recall that JEAL at several points in his Memoir devoted several pages of the Memoir to totally extraneous crap--such as his long excursus about hunting during JA’s lifetime. And yet, when JEAL indisputably had in his hands a letter like Henry’s--- written to JEAL himself!--overflowing with razor-sharp wit and juicy information about one of the key figures in Austen family history, the colorfully grey Old Uncle Francis Austen, yet JEAL chose instead to write a paragraph of boring, mostly extraneous misinformation and trivia.

And worst of all, and surely a key motivating factor for him in his deletions, he omitted the most important part of Old Uncle Francis’s rags-to-riches story, which was that Francis was in “rags” in the first place, because he, his mother, and all his younger siblings were all completely shut out of their fair share of their grandfather’s great wealth. JEAL had read S&S, he already knew that John and Fanny Dashwood were representations of his own parents, and so he surely could not allow into his Memoir  a foundational part of Austen family history, which would strike any alert Janeite, as it did RAAL, as being yet another embarrassing source for the tale of disinheritance woe of the Dashwood women in S&S.

But that still leaves the role of Deirdre Le Faye in all of this. As I outlined in that 2011 post of mine that I linked to, above, Le Faye’s expanded 1989 version of RAAL’s 1911 Life & Letters omitted the most interesting part of RAAL’s comments about the disinheritance of Elizabeth Weller and all her younger children by their grandfather:

“This almost exclusive care of the old man for his eldest grandson may possibly have been the model for the action of old Mr. Dashwood at the beginning of Sense and Sensibility.”

Le Faye, just like her role model, JEAL, added various additional trivia about that crucial episode in Austen family, but deliberately omitted that single sentence---the very one that might actually have caused Janeites to think very differently about Jane Austen’s agenda as a writer of fiction—i.e., to realize that JA used her novels, in part, as a way of writing veiled Austen family history that could not be written explicitly by JA, for fear of reprisal and censorship from the rest of JA’s family!

So in this one example, we see, in stark vividness, the unholy alliance over time of the two most influentially deceitful Austen family biographers of all time, Deirdre Le Faye and James Edward Austen-Leigh—and, in a chronological sandwich, squeezed in between them, we see poor Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh, who sought to rectify his grandfather’s deceptions, but whose noble efforts have mostly been ignored even till today in2014.

Which is  why this group read of The Austen Papers is so worthy an effort, to reclaim as much deep-sixed Austen family history as we can, by (as Lydia Bennet put it) reading “the lines under the words” .  

In my next post, I will discuss what Henry Austen neglected to mention about old Uncle Francis, and that RAAL, dogged researcher that he was, nonetheless did not know about—it has to do with how Francis gathered his great wealth, and also how old Francis’s son and junior legal partner Francis-Motley came to have 100,000 pounds of fairy dust sprinkled on him by his fairy god-mother!  ;)

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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