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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, December 25, 2017

Such a Henry Austen! His surprisingly deep insight into the mystery of his sister Jane’s genius

Having slept on my last post in which I concluded that James Edward Austen Leigh, and not Henry Austen, was the author of the 1817 Biographical Notice, it occurs to me to add a bit more of the Big Picture I see, now that I've read, for the first time ever, Henry's 1832 revision (actually it's more of an expansion than a revision) of the 1817 Notice. Specifically, I feel much more kindly feelings toward Henry Austen as biographer of Jane than I have for the past decade.

First, I now see that Henry’s primary goal was NOT to damn Jane's writing by faint, condescending praise; nor, even more importantly, was Henry motivated by a desire to hide from the world the inconvenient truth of JEAL's side of the Austen family being the true target of Jane Austen's famous but unspecific May 1801 aphorism after James and Mary Austen virtually stole Steventon out from under Revd. & Mrs .Austen, Jane and Cassandra:
"The whole world is in a conspiracy to enrich one part of our family at the expence of the other." 

In stark contrast, now I see that those two sins are precisely the ones which were committed by JEAL in BOTH the 1817 Biographical Notice, and more egregiously still in his 1870 Memoir. In short, JEAL now stands alone as the perpetrator of the Myth of Jane Austen, and Henry is off the hook, in my estimation.


Second, even as Henry felt compelled to add his regrettably excessive special pleading about Jane as an orthodox Christian, he also added a section about her fiction which shows the deep insight Henry had into the secrets of his sister's genius, insight that went light years beyond nephew's JEAL's condescending, clueless, sexist assessment. Here's what Henry added that is a brilliant encapsulation of Jane as a true savant of human nature --- perhaps even more insightful than Sir Walter Scott's 1816 praise (in his famous "Bow Wow strain" review )

[Henry Austen, 1832]:
"The secret is, Miss Austen was a thorough mistress in the knowledge of human character; how it is acted upon by education and circumstance; and how, when once formed, it shows itself through every hour of every day, and in every speech to every person. Her conversations would be tiresome but for this; and her personages, the fellows to whom may be met in the streets, or drank tea with at half an hours’ notice, would excite no interest; but in Miss Austen’s hands we see into their hearts and hopes, their motives, their struggles within themselves; and a sympathy is induced, which, if extended to daily life, and the world at large, would make the reader a more amiable person; and we must think it that reader’s own fault who does not close her pages with more charity in his heart towards unpretending, if prosing, worth; with a higher estimation of simple kindness, and sincere good-will; with a quickened sense of the duty of
bearing and forbearing, in domestic intercourse, and of the pleasure of adding to the little comforts even of persons who are neither wits nor beauties,-who, in a word, does not feel more disposed to be benevolent.
In the last posthumous tale ('Persuasion') there is a strain of a higher mood; there is still the exquisite delineation of common life, such life as we hear, and see, and make part of, with the addition of a finer, more poetic, yet equally real tone of thought and actions in the principals. If Miss Austen was sparing in her introduction of nobler characters, it was because they are scattered sparingly in life...'

Isn't that lovely and brilliant at the same time? It shows that Henry Austen really loved reading and rereading Jane's novels very closely, and that he spent
time thinking about what he read. It also shows that he wished to particularly rebut the common complaint of dull elves about Jane's fiction: "Nothing happens in her stories, they're so boring". In effect, he provided a gloss on Elizabeth Bennet's brilliant and telling retort to Darcy about the never ending alterations of character even in a confined country neighborhood.

I particularly love that last line, about the rarity of nobler characters in her fiction, because of their rarity in real life -talk about a classic Austenian ironic aphorism - that's a line Jane herself would have been proud to write, and perhaps we also get a taste here of the kind of high-grade repartee that Jane and Henry must have enjoyed with each other. Just as Fanny Price cannot help but smile at Henry Crawford’s witty brilliance, so too, I believe Henry could hold his own with Jane in witty exchanges, something they had a great deal of opportunity to engage in during the crucial extended visits she paid to him (both when cousin Eliza was still alive, and afterwards as well).

Most valuably of all, Henry hammers home that Jane Austen was, at the deepest level, all about the realest of real life, and so now I must now echo Jane who fondly wrote "Such a Henry!"

Happy holidays to all.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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