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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The earliest published FEMALE response to Austen’s fiction hidden in plain sight in Henry Austen’s 1832 Revision of the 1817 Biographical Notice

Several weeks ago, I wrote the following in one of my posts in the thread I started on the above topic, about one particular section that was added by Henry Austen’s 1832 revision of what I claim to have been James Edward Austen (JEAL)’s (not Henry’s) 1817 Biographical Notice:

“…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 ):

"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!" “  END QUOTE FROM MY EARLIER POST

I can’t recall if I mentioned in one of my followup posts that I subsequently realized that the above quoted passage had actually not been written by Henry Austen at all, it was an extract from a longer, anonymous 1831 article in The Athenaeum literary periodical.

What I learned only a couple of days ago was that my Googling last month had failed to detect what has been known to a couple of Austen scholars for several years, but which has not reached the attention of the mainstream -- which is that the author of that anonymous Athenaeum article about Jane Austen was actually a woman! And, what’s more, not just any woman, but a woman who died tragically young in her early thirties, but who had already made a name for herself by then --- the author and critic Maria Jane Jewsbury!

And, what’s also been known only to those few Austen scholars, is that the next new, short section of the 1832 revision, which I also praised last month….

“Miss Austen has the merit (in our judgment most essential) of being evidently a Christian writer: a merit which is much enhanced, both on the score of good taste and of practical utility, by her religion being not at all obtrusive. She might defy the most fastidious critic to call any of her novels (as Coelebs was designated) a dramatic sermon. The subject is rather alluded to, and that incidentally, than studiously brought forward and dwelt upon. In fact, she is more sparing of it than would be thought desirable by some persons; perhaps even by herself, had she consulted merely her own sentiments, but she probably introduced it as far as she thought would be generally profitable; for when the purpose of inculcating a religious principle is made too palpably prominent, many readers, if they do not throw aside the book with disgust, are apt to fortify themselves with that respectful kind of apathy with which they undergo a regular sermon, and prepare themselves as they do to swallow a dose of medicine, endeavouring to get it down in large gulps, without tasting it more than is necessary."

…was actually drawn by Henry Austen from Bishop Whatley’s very famous 1821 article about Jane Austen!

And…Bishop Whately, in referring to Hannah More’s Coelebs in Search of a Wife turns out (as yet some other scholars have noted) also took, without explicit acknowledgment, that phrase “dramatic sermon” from Sydney Smith’s 1809 widely noted deprecation of More’s novel, a review which Jane Austen surely read at the time she wrote to Cassandra her witty bon mot about Coelebs:  “You have by no means raised my curiosity after Caleb; – My disinclination for it before was affected, but now it is real; I do not like the Evangelicals. – Of course I shall be delighted, when I read it, like other people, but till I do I dislike it.”

There’s much much more to this intricately tangled web of unacknowledged quotations over decades in the 19th century than I have outlined, above--- including Henry Lewes’s very famous 1859 paean to Jane Austen, which picks up on several of these earlier sources in a very confusing way--than has ever been succinctly and clearly explained in one summary, which I will write up at a future time.

However, at the very least, in the interim, I wanted to get this clarification of my earlier posts out there, because it illustrates so vividly the sad irony, that the most insightful early reaction to Jane Austen’s fiction (which was published anonymously during JA’s lifetime), in terms of the psychological verisimilitude of her characterizations, and her subtle approach to moral education, was written (anonymously) by another woman! – It speaks volumes about why Jane Austen was misunderstood for so long – because not enough women held the pen during those first crucial decades when the public persona of the late Jane Austen was being set in stone.

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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