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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Searching for (the real) Henry Austen (and, thereby, the real Jane Austen, too)

In Janeites, in reaction to a recent review of Emma Clery's biography of Jane Austen's brother, Henry, Ellen Moody just posted links to two 2012 blog posts of hers about Henry Austen. I replied as follows:


Thank you for reopening the topic of the mystery of the personality of Henry Austen. I happen to be in general agreement with you that Henry’s reputation has in some ways gotten a raw deal, but I strongly disagree with you as to how and why this came about.

I will show how, via my disagreement with two assertions in your second blog post:


First, you wrote: “Henry’s letters, as his nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh bravely avers to his vengeful resentful aunt (whose legacy he desperately needed), show a man of “feeling” (“he does feel” says JEAL, risking all).”

I’m pretty sure you are mistakenly attributing a defense of Henry to JEAL instead of to the actual averrer, JEAL’s father, James. I base my argument on the following letter (in the Austen Papers) from Aunt Leigh Perrot to James Austen dated Jan. 31, 1819 (i.e., not long before James passed away):

“My dear Nephew,
Your letter to-day the less surprised me as I had heard from Mr. Fonnereau that the sale of the Hawkhurst  Farm was postponed…I am grieved you should have so much vexation, nor would I have Henry’s feelings (if he does feel) for more than he has occasioned us to lose by his imprudence- pray do not let this business hang on your mind! Better think of everything as quite lost, & feel no more about it…
Thank you, my dear Nephew, for your anxiety on my account—I should certainly have wished everything had turned out differently on both your account & my own….I am thankful it is no worse. Where would my pretty Scarlets have gone then? I wish you thought as fondly of this place as I must ever do…”

It is clear that in James’s letter to which she replies, he must have complained about his own financial “vexation” in the aftermath of Henry’s bank fiasco four years earlier. I read between the lines, and I infer that James’s defense of Henry (in which he expressed sympathy for Henry’s feelings, as well as his own) damned Henry, so to speak, with faint sympathy --- precisely so as to elicit from his mean-spirited aunt the desired condemnation of Henry (and he succeeds, because she replies “if he does feel”).

Now, the reason why James would stab his own brother in the back in this way is clear. It’s because this was a desperate zero-sum game, and Henry’s loss would be James’s (or JEAL’s) gain.

We know full well that both James and James Edward harbored no illusions about that game; they knew exactly what sort of ogre they were dealing with in Aunt Leigh-Perrot. This is not a matter of mere inference – read the opening of JEAL’s letter to his father written sometime in 1818 (i.e., about a year before that 1819 letter):

“My dear Father…
I am very sorry and certainly surprised at this last motion of Mrs. L. Perrot, but I have long thought too meanly of her, to be much astonished at any fresh instance of want of feeling or of hypocrisy. So much for your reduction of income: now for the effects it is to have…”

So both James and James Edward understood that Aunt Leigh-Perrot took sadistic delight in dangling largesse in front of her financially desperate nephews (James, Frank, and Henry), the better to make them bow and scrape for her favor. And that shows what a consummate, patient suck-up and family politician JEAL was, because in the end, in 1833, it was he who took home the grand prize, beating out both Henry and Frank: Scarlets and the accompanying personal property and wealth left by Aunt Leigh-Perrot.

So, no – nothing I’ve seen suggests that JEAL was ever “brave” in dealing with his Aunt, to defend Henry or otherwise. All I’ve seen shows he was only cynically self-interested, in knowing exactly how to deal with her (just as Lucy Steele knows how to deal with Mrs. Ferrars), and the proof is in the financial pudding, so to speak. If you read all his letters (also in the Austen Papers) to her in the years leading up to her (long-awaited) demise, you almost have to admire the cynical master suck-up he is. He plays her like a violin.

And, apropos JEAL’s attitude toward Henry, and the idea that he would have defended Henry, it is particularly offbase from another motivation besides greed. I’ve argued repeatedly in the past few years that JEAL’s Memoir actually contains a deliberate rewriting of Austen family history in regard to the Leigh Perrot inheritance. JEAL took great pains to conceal that Jane Austen (in her own words!) became sicker because of being disinherited by Uncle Leigh-Perrot, not due to Henry’s earlier bankruptcy. For example, read this:

“Reviving the 1817 news that made Jane Austen sicker, that nephew JEAL tried to submerge”

Embedded within my above-linked 2015 post is an earlier post I wrote in 2014, in which I present the details of JEAL’s deliberate and self-serving editorial deceit, that essentially and falsely places the blame for Jane Austen’s getting sicker in 1816 on Henry’s 1815 bankruptcy:
JEAL made sure that history would (mistakenly) record that (after his father’s death) his ultimate inheritance of Scarlets was a wonderful thing which was in no way connected to the premature death of  Jane Austen, instead of the outrageous, injurious property grab that it actually was.


Which brings me to the second thing you wrote with which I disagree:
“One of Henry’s most remarkable and revealing (about him) texts is his life of his sister. Yes it’s hagiographic, absurdly so. She never had a hard thought in her life, never uttered a cruel statement….”

You must not have read the two posts I wrote a few months ago after reading Juliette Wells’s Persuasions article, in which she for the first time in Austen scholarly history raised excellent questions about the true authorship of the 1818 Biographical Notice.

In essence, I went beyond Wells’s modest suggestion that Cassandra contributed to the writing of that 1818 Notice, and instead I made the more radical argument that it was JEAL, not Henry, who wrote that entire 1818 hagiography. It was only in 1833, I suggest, that Henry Austen got involved, and made that Biographical Notice much less hagiographic in his revision thereof for the Bentley edition. But then, in the 1870 Memoir, JEAL, once again, as with the Austen family inheritance story, had the final word:

But calling it “hagiography” puts a far rosier tint on it than it deserves. This was not about JEAL having an unrealistically positive memory of Aunt Jane. One of JEAL’s absurd claims was the one about JA never uttering a cruel statement about anyone else, and he thereby got the sweetest revenge of all for his late parents. How so?

Because he knew that Aunt Jane had, in her very first published words, in 1811, thoroughly skewered his parents James and Mary Austen in Chapter 2 of S&S. JA had made it clear to all who knew the actual Austen family history and had any “ingenuity” at all, that the vile John and Fanny Dashwood were thinly veiled portraits of James and Mary, and their avaricious grab of the lion’s share of the Steventon assets in 1801. It is only a century and a half after JEAL’s Memoir that I and a few other Austen scholars (like Emily Auerbach) have finally been able to scrape off his “veneer” and revealed those ugly portraits once again!

But there’s even more personal nastiness behind JEAL’s seeming “hagiography”. While he was at it, JEAL also made sure that history would (mistakenly) record that his Aunt Jane was the conservative, pious, unambitious, conformist milquetoast depicted in his Bowdlerized image of her for the 1870 Memoir -- instead of the fiercely nonconformist, non-heterosexual feminist Cassandra actually sketched in 1810, and whom his mother Mary Lloyd Austen fiercely hated. Sweet revenge, indeed!

If you have any disagreement with any of my claims, I welcome your pointing it out to me.


Nancy: "I still see no proof that JEAL wrote the biographical  note in 1818"

And if you read Juliette Wells's recent article here... know that (to quote Wells) "The first hint [that Henry Austen wrote the 1818 version] appeared in 1892, when Reginald Brimley Johnson, editor of a ten-volume edition of Austen’s novels, stated that the “Biographical Notice” was “probably written by Miss Austen’s brother, the Rev. Henry Austen”.

As Wells goes on to say, it was only AFTER that passing, unsubstantiated comment by Reginald Brimley Johnson (who, I will also point out, was born in 1867, and therefore couldn't have spoken to any Austen family member who was old enough to have personal knowledge of who wrote the 1818 Bio Notice) that subsequent 20th & 21st century Austen scholars treated Henry Austen as definitely having written the 1818 version. That's not proof, that's not even close to proof--- it's sloppy scholarship being repeated over and over again till people assume it is true.

So, NOBODY has anything resembling definitive proof about the actual author of the 1818 version; and I've previously made my case that it was JEAL, based not on my "gut feeling", but on demonstrable, striking similarities between the 1818 version and JEAL's 1870 Memoir, similarities which are ABSENT in the one version we DO know (from correspondence written by him to Bentley) that Henry wrote, which is the 1832 revision! As I asked in my Dec. 2017 post, why in the world would Henry delete significant claims in 1832 that he had made in 1818, only for JEAL to restore those very same claims in 1870? Common sense and Occam's Razor suggests instead that JEAL was the author in 1818 and 1870, who did not like that his Uncle had deleted some of his pet claims, and so restored them when Henry's hand was long mouldering in the grave.

Based on all that, I'd say that my argument is the stronger one on the table.

Nancy: "...or that Austen  was a  "fiercely non-conformist, non-heterosexual"."

And we know you and I are never going to agree on that one, but I claim that my position is more plausible than yours, and in any event, JEAL's editorial fraud does not depend on my larger claims also being true.

Nancy: "The description of Jane in the bio was most likely the true feelings of a brother. Just because he was an intelligent  didn't mean that he was aware of irony. Though JEAL was chosen to help carry the coffin, I do not think he would have been chosen to write the biography when a brother was around to do so."

You're guessing, just as I am guessing, but I base my argument on a consistent pattern of distortion on JEAL's part, a pattern that, even when it was previously noted, no Austen scholar before me (except, to some extent, Emily Auerbach) has called it for what it is -- even (as I also blogged back in 2010) DW Harding, way back when, and Kathryn Sutherland, much more recently, stopped short of crossing the proverbial "t" by calling out fraud as fraud on JEAL's part. 

Think I'm exaggerating? Look at what Sutherland wrote in 2000, in her footnotes to JEAL's "severely edited" version of JA's last surviving letter to brother Charles (rather than in Sutherland's Introduction to JEAL's Memoir, where it would've been much more prominent and likely to be noticed by a reader):

“"...some family troubles..."”: apparently a discreet reference to HA’s bankruptcy, which occurred in March 1816. But the letters from which JEAL goes on to quote date from April and May 1817 and refer to the disappointment felt in the Austen family at the will of James Leigh Perrot, Mrs. Austen’s brother, who had died on 28 March 1817….As chief beneficiary on Mrs Leigh Perrot’s death in 1836, JEAL would obviously be discreet in recording this disappointment as he was earlier in his omission from the Memoir of Mrs. Leigh Perrot’s prosecution for theft. But family tradition, as well as her own correspondence, suggest that the terms of the will were a considerable shock to JA and even exacerbated her illness. (Fam. Rec. 221-3).
“...a letter…to Charles...”: JEAL prints a severely edited extract. JA wrote: “…I am ashamed to say that the shock of my Uncle’s Will brought on a relapse…I am the only one of the legatees [JEAL alters this to ‘party’] who has been so silly….”

I.e., Sutherland tries to explain JEAL's editorial fraud as merely "discreet", just a case of "a severely edited extract" as if the reason for the alteration was to save space?; and Sutherland draws an analogy to JEAL's omission of mention of Mrs. Leigh Perrot's prosecution for theft. But that is an utterly invalid analogy, because neither JEAL nor either of his parents, were at all culpable in Aunt Leigh-Perrot's purloining of lace in Bath --that was all her "bad".  Whereas, changing "legatees" to "party" is, prima facie, a total smoking gun that reveals JEAL's intent to conceal the true cause of what Sutherland correctly calls "a considerable shock to JA and even exacerbated her illness." There is NO other rational explanation, JEAL's personal conflict of interest is overwhelmingly probative.

But such is the enduring power of the Myth of Austen which you so persistently seem to defend, Nancy, and in particular, in this case, the desire of many present-day descendants of James Austen to keep a lid on such an odorous bit of dirty family laundry that reflects badly on their ancestor (JEAL, that is). Even scholars like Harding and Sutherland, who have not shunned controversy about Jane Austen, were not free to straight-out say that JEAL was a self interested, untrustworthy liar.

Nancy: "As for the inheritance of the Perrott Leigh money and property. Who had the prevailing vote on that? Mr. Leigh Perrott or his wife? Both of them probably subscribed to the idea that money and property was best handled by a male who would need it to support a family and aged aunts."

Balderdash! (I just checked--that colorful term was indeed in use in JA's lifetime, even though she herself never used it, at least in print). Your suggestion implodes from within, ignited by the fact that Mr. Leigh Perrot actually left his estate completely in his wife's control-- and I think we can at least agree on that point, which is that Aunt Leigh Perrot was indeed a woman! So it was apparently perfectly okay for that woman to decide who would receive the remainder of his estate after her death, when he had all those same male family members at his disposal, whom he could have named as trustees. 

No, what we had in 1817 was nothing less than a dreadfully ironic repetition of what happens in Chapter 2 of S&S -- once again, a weak minded dying man puts a predatory female relative in charge of dispensing much-needed largesse to impecunious relatives. It turns out that JA's 1811 expose of what happened in 1801 and 1805, turned out to be a prophecy of what happened in 1817 -- and in all these cases, the finger of guilt is pointed at James & Mary Austen, and their "knight" and son, James Edward.

Nancy: "Though Austen and her mother were disappointed about the way the property and money was left, most of those who heard about  the legacy would agree that giving it to the oldest son of the oldest nephew was proper. The mind set was different. Though females could and did rail against such thinking, it was the prevailing attitude of the day."

Again, balderdash! This was not an all or none scenario. Nothing, absolutely nothing, prevented Uncle Leigh Perrot from carving out a portion (say, a quarter) of his estate, and thereby easing the precarious financial status of his impecunious sister, and several of her impecunious children. Unlike Mr. Dashwood in S&S, he had full power to divide his estate any way he chose-- but he didn't.

Nancy: "I don't believe that Austen would allow herself to be made ill by such a thing. Unfortunately, her illness worsened at this time  and probably increased her disappointment."

So now, as your piece de resistance, you now say that JA did not mean what she actually wrote in her letter to Charles! She is so obviously doing her best to soft-pedal the shock that she suffered from the disinheritance news, and keep the tone low-key, that we may safely infer that it was much much worse -- and factually, we know that JA died only a few months later. 

No wonder JEAL, a half century later, made it a point to distort the written evidence, so as to get him and his parents off the hook. ]  

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

1 comment:

Collins Hemingway said...

Jane's health setbacks weren't either/or. Henry's collapse wiped out pretty much everyone's savings, which put the Austen women in dire straits indeed, as about half their income came from the brothers, now unable to help them (except Edw). That must have increased Jane's suffering. How could it not? Soon thereafter, the lack of any inheritance from their uncle compounded that disaster. It was a double whammy. Henry's bank failure, which cost the L-Ps at least 10,000 pounds, would have been reason enough for them not to provide anything to the Austens.
As the eldest son, the bulk of the inheritance would have gone to James, unless he blew it, which explains his mincing letters to Aunt P. The inheritance was his to lose. It's doubtful that they would have left Henry anything, so J didn't have to work hard to elbow H out of the way. Since James was in poor health then, too, I'm sure he was hoping to ensure the estate went down to JEAL rather than sideways to one of his other poor siblings. You're right, but that doesn’t make James vicious.

I don't buy at all that JEAL wrote the bio notice. Henry had handled all of Jane's books; there's no evidence that James or his son was ever involved in any way. Jane even remarks in one of her letters that James had been dumbed down by marrying Mary. Hard to see their 19-year-old son swooping in and writing a notice that naturally would have fallen to Henry. Hard to see Henry blithely agreeing: I've known her for 41 years, you've gotten interested in her as a writer in the last two--sure, I'll concede that duty to you. Henry handles all the books before her death, handles the two afterward, handles the copyright sale and the bio update to the bio in 1832, but he lets a kid write the first bio that will describe his sister to posterity? After she had nursed him through a near-fatal illness of his own the previous year?

It's plausible that Cass would have been involved, of course. There are just too many phrases that sound like what a brother and sister would write, not a nephew. Like the paragraph of description of Jane (her "personal attractions"). How would JEAL know to discuss her skills vs. Richardson's? Use a 20-year context for her musical ability; i.e., back to when James had not been born? Or know that J had an "invincible distrust of her own judgment" in the quality of her books? Only someone around her since the 1790s. JEAL could have written the conventional boilerplate, but nothing else.
Naturally, JEAL's comments in 1870 would sound like those of the bio notice in 1817--he's following the earlier text! Just as the portions of the Memoir he took from Caroline's notes (much more interesting than his own comments) sound like Caroline.