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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, December 25, 2017

The mystery of the 1817 Biographical Notice of Jane Austen, its 1832 revision, & the 1870 Memoir

A week ago, after reading Juliette Wells’ recent Persuasions Online article about authorship of the 1817 Biographical Notice of Jane Austen, which served as preface to the 1818 first edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, I wrote a blog post… [“On Jane Austen’s 242nd birthday, a vindication of her passionate “Scarlets Letter” complaint” ] which I was the first to ever speculate that the author of the 1817 Notice was not brother Henry Austen, as has long been universally believed, but instead was nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh. In that post, I argued that JEAL wished to exculpate Mr. and Mrs. Leigh-Perrot from blame for hastening Jane Austen’s death via the shock of disinheritance only a few months earlier. Instead, JEAL seized the moment, and deliberately left the cause of his aunt’s complaint unstated and therefore unknown to strangers unaware of the true cause.

Three days ago, another essay appeared online…  …in which Peter Sabor disagreed with Wells, and claimed that Henry Austen was indeed the sole author of the 1817 Notice, based on what Henry wrote to Bentley in a letter dated October 4, 1832 letter which is currently held by the British Library, but the text of it was shown in full in Deirdre Le Faye’s “Jane Austen: New Biographical Comments,” Notes and Queries 39.2 (1992), 162-63). Sabor wrote: “The letter clearly reveals Henry’s authorship of both the Biographical Notice and the revised memoir.” However, when Peter, at my request earlier today, graciously found time during this holiday to shoot me back a pdf of Le Faye’s article, I read Henry’s very short 1832 letter to Bentley, and the only excerpt which was relevant to the question of authorship of the 1817 version was this description of Henry’s 1832 version: "A biographical sketch of the Authoress, which is to supersede that already publishd." It does not say, “already publishd by myself”.

This seems to me to be Henry Austen playing very coy indeed with Bentley about who wrote the 1817 version which Henry was superseding. This ambiguity seems intentional on Henry's part, so that Bentley would assume it was Henry who also wrote the 1817 version. Why? So that Bentley wouldn’t contact JEAL and get his input before publishing Henry’s revision! However, Henry also would’ve wished to avoid an outright lie to Bentley, which might’ve been embarrassing not long after, when JEAL read Henry’s published revision. If JEAL ever contacted Bentley-- especially given that Henry had both coopted and edited down JEAL’s original, without JEAL’s even being told by his uncle – at least Bentley could plead ignorance, as Henry could plead inadvertent unclarity on his own part. As I said, very coy.

But that is all background to my main point today. Sabor’s post had also reminded me that I had left a big loose end dangling from my first post, because I hadn’t checked the 1832 revision of the 1817 Notice. What specifically had been altered, I wondered, from the 1817 Notice, and for what possible reason?

That led me to the 1997 print Persuasions article, “Henry Austen's Memoir of Miss Austen”, by David Gilson, which is readable online here:   Gilson very helpfully provided the full text of the 1832 revision, and I urge you to read it when you have a chance, although you don’t need to, in order to follow the rest of my argument.

First, Gilson reconfirmed what both Wells and Sabor agree on, which is that it is 100% certain (from that October 1832 cover letter that Henry Austen wrote to Bentley) that Henry was indeed the author of the 1832 revision. Which would make it all the more interesting if the 1817 Notice had not been written by Henry, but by his and Jane’s young nephew, JEAL. Then we’d potentially have a case of “dueling biographers”, with Henry having waited 15 years to supersede his nephew’s version of Jane’s life, and then JEAL waiting nearly 40 years after that, when none of Jane Austen’s siblings remained alive, to reclaim, on a permanent basis, the role of definitive family biographer of Jane Austen.

But was there anything in the changes made by the 1832 revision by Henry, and then by the 1870 Memoir by JEAL, that fingers JEAL as the original 1817 author? After comparing the 1817 and 1832 versions, there are various changes and additions which are worthy of notice, such as the insertion of a great deal of special pleading in the 1832 revision about Jane Austen’s Christianity (which surely can be explained by the protean Henry’s having by then fully morphed from the worldly London banker/socialite married to his and Jane’s enigmatic cousin Eliza, into a zealous Evangelical clergyman during the reign of George IV). As Sabor aptly put it: “Like all biographers, Henry Austen had an agenda…he devotes the final paragraph of his piece entirely to spiritual matters and is evidently writing as a parson here. Jane Austen was ‘thoroughly religious and devout; fearful of giving offence to God, and incapable of feeling it towards any fellow creature.’ Although everything we know of Austen’s acerbic wit from her novels and letters belies these words, Henry presses on to a strange conclusion: “her opinions,” he declares, “accorded strictly with those of our Established Church.” The word “strictly” is especially jarring: Austen’s opinions, of course, were her own.”

However, I soon discerned something else of even greater significance to the authorship enigma: two  excerpts from the 1817 Notice were omitted in the 1832 revision, but then, both intriguingly popped up again in slightly altered form….in JEAL’s 1870 Memoir! That on-off-on pattern, I suggest, constitutes persuasive circumstantial evidence that JEAL was the anonymous author of the 1817 Notice!

Here is the first such excerpt as it appears in the 1817 Notice:  “[Jane Austen’s] favourite moral writers were Johnson in prose, and Cowper in verse. It is difficult to say at what age she was not intimately acquainted with the merits and defects of the best essays and novels in the English language. Richardson's power of creating, and preserving the consistency of his characters, as particularly exemplified in Sir Charles Grandison, gratified the natural discrimination of her mind, whilst her taste secured her from the errors of his prolix style and tedious narrative. She did not rank any work of Fielding quite so high.”

Other than the swipe at Fielding (which, as I suggested in my post last weekend, was clearly false – Tom Jones, Joseph Andrews, and Shamela were, collectively, notable allusive sources for Pride and Prejudice and Emma, at a minimum), these are hardly controversial claims of Jane Austen’s particular interest in Richardson, Cowper, and Johnson. Nonetheless, in the 1832 revision, there is no reference whatsoever to Johnson, Cowper, Richardson, or Fielding! This omission is all the more striking, because the 1832 revision otherwise includes, mostly verbatim, substantially all of the other verbiage from the 1817 Notice; and, it also includes Henry’s addition of that completely new, long and final passage which frantically asserts that sister Jane was the epitome of an orthodoxly Christian writer (a claim which, by the way, I took issue with at some length yesterday here:

However --- and here’s the key---in the 1870 Memoir, which indubitably was written by JEAL, we read what is essentially an expansion of the above quoted passage from the 1817 Notice about Richardson, Cowper, and Johnson as touchstones for Jane Austen, a passage which (it bears repeating) was omitted entirely by Henry Austen in 1832!:  “Her knowledge of Richardson's works was such as no one is likely again to acquire, now that the multitude and the merits of our light literature have called off the attention of readers from that great master. Every circumstance narrated in Sir Charles Grandison, all that was ever said or done in the cedar parlour, was familiar to her; and the wedding days of Lady L. and Lady G. were as well remembered as if they had been living friends. Amongst her favourite writers, Johnson in prose, Crabbe in verse, and Cowper in both, stood high.  It is well that the native good taste of herself and of those with whom she lived, saved her from the snare into which a sister novelist had fallen, of imitating the grandiloquent style of Johnson.”

To those who would argue that Henry Austen was the author of the 1817 Notice, how do you explain why he would decide in 1832 to single out for deletion his own summary of his sister’s most important literary influences? It makes no sense, especially in light of his nephew’s reinstating, substantially, those very same claims of literary influence. But if JEAL wrote the 1817 Notice, there’d be no strangeness at all about Henry’s amending JEAL’s original, but then JEAL, in 1870, reinstating his own original version.

The same pattern applies to the other on-off-on excerpt, which appears as follows in the 1817 version:
“From this place [Chawton Cottage] she sent into the world those novels, which by many have been placed on the same shelf as the works of a D'Arblay and an Edgeworth.”

In the 1832 revision, there is not a word about either Burney or Edgeworth, but then, again, in the 1870 Memoir, we find that same idea reinserted in so many words: “Sometimes a friend or neighbour, who chanced to know of our connection with the author, would condescend to speak with moderate approbation of Sense and Sensibility, or Pride and Prejudice; but if they had known that we, in our secret thoughts, classed her with Madame D'Arblay or Miss Edgeworth, or even with some other novel writers of the day whose names are now scarcely remembered, they would have considered it an amusing instance of family conceit.” 

In the totally ambiguous circumstance established by the actual words of Henry’s letter to Bentley, the preponderance of this circumstantial evidence favors my claim that JEAL, at the precocious age of 19, was the actual author of the 1817 Notice. It avoids having to twist the on-off-on pattern into a pretzel in order to try to come up with an equally plausible explanation for why Henry Austen would, on a point of the highest importance in a literary biographical notice--- the identity of the author’s most significant literary influences and favorites --- delete his own crucial report in that regard provided within months after his sister’s death, in a revision 14 years later; only to have his nephew, 40 years still further on, reinsert the substance of claims which his uncle seemingly deemed unworthy of reiteration?

No, the simplest, most direct explanation is what I’ve written above, which I see as both a validation of Juliette Wells’s scholarly thoroughness in checking to verify Henry’s authorship of the 1817 Notice, and also of the right direction of her hunch that another Austen family hand, Cassandra’s, had held the pen, at least some of the time, in 1817. I am merely walking through the door Wells cracked open, by comparing the 1832 revision with both the 1817 Notice and the 1870 Memoir, and thereby revealing the telltale pattern I’ve outlined above.

In fairness to prior scholars (such as Bharat Tandon, who in his 2004 book about Austen briefly noted that the 1817 Notice and the 1870 Memoir contain similar references to Johnson, Richardson, and Cowper), there was no reason for anybody to even think about authorship, when the entire Janeite world, including myself, believed Henry’s authorship of the 1817 Notice a settled fact. Not until Wells’s diligent show-me fact-checking did this first become a plausible line of inquiry.

And if I’m right, then at least two important questions occur to me.

First, what exactly was going on in late 1817 that resulted in the 19 year old JEAL being tasked with writing the first version of the Biographical Notice? Henry, after all, was Jane’s literary executor, as well as a mature adult who’d had a much longer and closer relationship with her than JEAL, and who surely  knew her novels much better as well. Perhaps this was an early recognition of a profound shift that had just occurred in Austen family politics, due to the event which, as I claimed in my post last weekend, had motivated JEAL to quote from his aunt’s letter about being “too complaining” – the death of James Leigh-Perrot. At that transitional moment, the eldest Austen sibling, James Austen was (as I recall) already too ill to attend his sister’s funeral, and died only a year or so later. Therefore, pursuant to the Leigh-Perrot Will, it was clear to all that JEAL would one day be The One; upon great-aunt Leigh-Perrot’s death, he would inherit Scarlets and all their other wealth. As we all know Jane Austen knew better than anyone, money talks.

So perhaps the honor of writing the 1817 Notice, even anonymously, was a plum that Jane’s mother, sister, and two eldest brothers agreed should be awarded to the literarily ambitious JEAL, with whom they all wished to curry favor. In particular, remember Jane’s 1817 “two inches of ivory” letter, which is filled with what I believe is totally insincere flattery of JEAL, for that exact same reason. Money talks.

If that all is so, then it seems plausible that Henry Austen could have jealous and resentful of this family decision; and therefore, when opportunity knocked in the form of Bentley’s reaching out to him, after 14 long years, Henry let opportunity in, and chose to pick up the pen and reshape the world’s opinion about his writing sister as he saw her; primarily to conform to his own religious agenda, but also perhaps to find something –anything--in his usurping nephew’s 1817 version to undo. We’ve all seen this happen in American politics in 2017. The politics of undoing on a national scale, but maybe also on the micro scale in the Austen family as well.

This could account for why Henry chose to delete both of JEAL’s most literarily significant claims –the authors Jane loved most, and the authors with whose writing Jane’s was most worthy of favorable comparison. It’s just improbable that Henry really disagreed with JEAL’s original literary judgments; nor can these deletions have been the result of a shortage of writing space—because, as already noted, Henry inserted a much longer paragraph about Jane’s Christianity.

We’ll probably never know for sure what motivated this strange on-off-on pattern, but I want to close this post by setting the stage for a third post of mine on this rich vein of ore opened up by Wells’s article. To wit: it was while writing this post that I realized that Jane Austen, who was the sharpest elf of all, actually laid a trap for JEAL in the lines she wrote that appear in the 1817 Notice, the 1832 revision, and the 1870 Memoir:  “'But I am getting too near complaint. It has been the appointment of God, however secondary causes may have operated.”

I’ve already suggested that JEAL chose that quote from her late letter, because his aunt’s words seemed to give the Leigh-Perrots, as well as JEAL and his parents, a “Get out of jail free” card from guilt and blame for having accelerated Jane Austen’s decline. But can you spot the “virus” that she hid in plain sight in those seemingly exculpatory words, which actually points a finger of blame right at that same group, but most of all at JEAL’s mother, Mary Lloyd Austen?

I’ll be back by the end of tomorrow with that third installment, in which I’ll make that case, till then, I’ll call John Knightley over to the keyboard, so he can add his two pence:

Cheers, ARNIE

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