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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Reviving the 1817 news that made Jane Austen sicker… that nephew JEAL tried to submerge

Last week, I received the quarterly issue of JASNA News in the snail mail, and one of the articles---which are always short and are usually written in a breezy non-academic style--was entitled "In the Shadow of James Edward Austen" written by Kelly McDonald. The article provoked in me that same disappointment I feel every time I read an article about Austen, and see that (in)famous Bowdlerized pseudo-portrait of her (the one that’ll be MISrepresenting her looks to millions of Brits in 2 years when it becomes the face of the new 10-pound note) staring bovinely into space. That twinge never fails to remind me that James Edward Austen Leigh (JEAL), in his 1869 Memoir of his aunt Jane Austen, succeeded (beyond his own wildest dreams, I’m sure) in his intentionally deceptive campaign to sanitize away most of Jane Austen's rough, iconoclastic, feminist edginess, leaving in her place a literary as well as a visual portrait of a placid, humble, pious, unthreatening Aunt Jane. And the worst part about JEAL misrepresentation of his famous aunt had to do with himself, as I will explain, below.

The article by McDonald does not have any portrait in it, so why am I complaining about it? Well, right off the bat, the article title refers to “James Edward Austen”, and gives absolutely no indication that he changed his surname to Austen-Leigh. Nor does it mention the most important aspect of that name change ---i.e., that he changed it in order to inherit the estate Scarlets (sounds reddish, like Rosings, also owned by a certain fictional imperious aunt!) and the rest of the substantial estate of his elderly great-aunt Jane Leigh-Perrot in 1836. So that choice of naming in the article title is already presenting a picture of JEAL that is out of focus from historical reality.

But, you may ask, why should McDonald give these facts to her readers who might be unfamiliar with JEAL's biography? After all, that isn't the point of her article, which, as I quickly found out via Google, arose out of her longtime research interest. I.e., McDonald is working on what sounds like an ambitious mutivolume history of the Smith family, which included the young Emma Smith who married JEAL In 1828. So, since the Leigh was not added till 8 years later, McDonald focused on those early years of his marriage to Emma nee Smith, when he was still called "James Edward Austen".

As McDonald writes: "it's easy to overlook the young husband who joined the predominantly female Smith household on December 16, 1828. The wedding ceremony took place in the parish church of Tring, where Edward was to serve as curate. "The place must have a curate," wrote Emma's sister Fanny Smith, "as there are three churches to serve."

Okay, so McDonald is being forthright in asserting that she’s paying what she sees as long overdue attention to the neglected young adulthood of James Edward, when he was just Austen. And perhaps that would have been a good enough reason for omitting any mention of his changing his surname in order to inherit from Aunt Leigh-Perrot, even in a publication devoted to all things relating to Jane Austen, if the rest of the article had not thrown the picture of JEAL even more out of focus from historical reality, as you will see from the following passage by McDonald:

"With an income of L850 a year (not counting the stipend, earmarked for Edward's own substitute when he had to be away), the couple had the opportunity to build a nest egg by living with Emma's large family at Tring Park, a substantial estate [the photo included in the article shows a two story building with about 30 windows on the front side, which would have made Lady Catherine proud!].....Edward looked back on the Tring years, during which the Austens welcomed their first three children, with great fondness."

And then there’s this touching detail about his curacy: "We ventured to the small church where Edward Austen 'did the duty'...It was in the 'damp and cold little church' at Wigginton that chills caught while preaching affected Edward's throat to such an extent that his voice grew weak and was never again the same...During months of inactivity, Edward Austen cut keenly observed silhouettes..."

And then the article goes on in another direction, and is done.

So….for that significant portion of the 5,000 Janeites who receive JASNA News, but who are not particularly knowledgeable about JEAL's own life, it would seem logical to infer from the above article that James Edward Austen (even if they recall that he somehow became Austen-Leigh) led a financially modest life in which the largesse of his wife's wealthy family played a significant ongoing role.

But that in fact is the furthest thing from the reality. As McDonald knows better than almost anyone on the planet, when JEAL and wife Emma moved out of her family's estate in early 1837, they moved into Scarlets, the very same significant estate he inherited from great aunt Leigh-Perrot. And, instead of the modest income they’d been using to warm that slowly developing nest-egg, they then had his great aunt’s entire residuary estate at hand to help pay all the bills. And there’s the first part of my beef: those few significant and well-established facts could have quickly and easily been inserted into the article, in order to prevent a very misleading impression of JEAL’s financial history from being created by the financial data that McDonald chose to include.

But that’s not all--what is most upsetting is not that a bunch of Janeites will walk away from reading that article mistakenly thinking that JEAL lived a financially modest life, but that the silence about how he benefited so much from his great-aunt’s estate is actually a continuation of JEAL’s own shameful editorial malfeasance in his 1869 Memoir of Jane Austen on that very same point, as I have written about numerous times, such as here:  

I.e., JEAL actively cut and pasted from epistolary sources, including JA’s own letters, in order to conceal the shameful fact that Jane Austen's sickness during her last year of life was greatly exacerbated by the shock from the deliberate failure of Uncle Leigh Perrot, on his death in early 1817, to leave any significant amount of money to his sister (Jane Austen's mother) or his nieces (Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra). And who wound up getting all that money and property instead? JEAL!

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that McDonald was aware of those last facts, she probably has never read any of my online posts, so I believe she wasn’t. But that’s really my point—the perpetuation of the lies about his aunt Jane that JEAL spread throughout the world happens most of the time by carelessness or genuine unawareness. And so, if a curmudgeon like me doesn’t speak up and point out the clear facts, then the Myth of Jane Austen gets reinforced yet again.  

So, now I hope I’ve made clear why I felt it was important to challenge the misleadingly sympathetic portrait of JEAL in McDonald’s little article in the JASNA News---because it disrespects the memory of the person whom Janeites care about most—Jane Austen herself. The McDonald article may only be seen by a small fraction of those who will wind up seeing that phony phiz of Jane Austen on the coming 10 pound note, but the misleading version of Austen family history is cut from the same cloth, and it needs to be challenged and corrected whenever and whatever form it appears.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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