Jane Austen and ...

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Jane Austen and the Black Hole. Chapter 5.

Chapter 5

The editing of Jane Austen's life

“There were very few beauties, and such as there were were not very handsome. Miss Iremonger did not look well, and Miss Blount was the only one much admired. She appeared exactly as she did in September, with the same broad face, diamond bandeau, white shoes, pink husband, and fat neck. The two Miss Coxes were there: I traced in one the remains of the vulgar, broad-featured girl who danced at Enham eight years ago; the other is refined into a nice, composed-looking girl, like Catherine Bigg. I looked at Sir Thomas Champneys and thought of poor Rosalie; I looked at his daughter, and thought her a queer animal with a white neck. Mrs Warren, I was constrained to think a very fine young woman, which I much regret. She danced away with great activity. Her husband is ugly enough, uglier even than his cousin John, but he does not look so very old. The Miss Maitlands are both prettyish, very like Anne, with brown skins, large dark eyes, and a good deal of nose. The General has got the gout, and Mrs Maitland the jaundice. Miss Debary, Susan, and Sally, all in black, but without any statues, made their appearance, and I was as civil to them as circumstances would allow me.”

- Letter from Jane Austen to Cassandra (1800)1

“For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?”

- Mr. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice (1813)2

This book is not meant to be a detailed analysis of Jane Austen's life. Literature aside, Jane Austen’s life was very “ordinary” and I am not a Jane Austen scholar with the patience and resolution to devote an academic life to the mundane minutiae of another person's existence. I am concerned with social consequences of her writing and of the world vision and moral responsiveness of her class, a class that ended up conquering half the world and imposing their might and manners on their subjects. Her class still rules the roost, whether it is domiciled in London, New York, Bonn or Paris. These civilized, highly-educated, hygienic people of noble personal aspirations will nevertheless visit destruction on swathes of humble people in the world in the cause of their life-styles, investment portfolios and superannuation schemes just as their predecessors did in Jane Austen's day.

It is a rather strange aspect of Jane Austen's writing that while the annual income of her comfortably off to filthy rich characters is a crucial element in every plot, the actual basis for this wealth is not detailed in most cases. Rare, anonymous or near-anonymous characters appear as servants, teachers, governesses, sailors, soldiers, farmers, solicitors or apothecaries. Jane Austen presumably did not have to spell out for the perceptive or informed reader that the rural estates were food-producing operations and not simply extensive rural parks for the hunting, fishing, aesthetic appreciation and variously-motivated strolling of the gentry. In some cases the "pay" or "prizes" of naval captains is referred to, as is the importance of West Indian estates. The East Indies, so intimately connected with her family, is actually explicitly referred to in Sense and Sensibility, albeit briefly, in this the most patently “Indian” of her novels.

With these concerns in mind, let us now consider Jane Austen's life and how her biographers have done to her life what (for what I choose to regard as perfectly legitimate artistic reasons) she did to the life of her wider society. The reader may care to read Chapter 6 (dealing with her novels) before reading the present Chapter 5 (which deals with her life) or vice versa. The former course would allow the reader the unprejudiced, speculative amusement of linking the realities, and especially the characters, of Jane's familial world to the world of her creation. For much of what follows the reader is referred to Halperin (1984), Hodge (1972), Honan (1987) and Lane (1984, 1986, 1996) in particular. 3 Some particularly attractive books provide (in addition to historical and social detail), charming pictorial presentations of the houses, gardens and houses of Jane Austen’s life and her novels.4

Jane Austen's parents

George Austen (1735-1805) was educated at the Tonbridge School (thanks to the help of his uncle Francis Austen) and gained a scholarship that took him to Oxford. After a succession of employments and advances, namely as an assistant master at Tonbridge School, a deacon in 1754, taking priest’s orders in 1755 and a proctor at Oxford, he formally became the Rector of Steventon in Hampshire from 1761 (thanks to his distant relation Thomas Knight). He finally took up this latter position in a practical sense after marrying Cassandra Leigh (1739-1827) in 1764. Cassandra (named after her beautiful great-aunt Cassandra Brydges, Duchess of Chandos, who was both cousin and second wife of James Brydges, First Duke of Chandos) was the daughter of the Reverend Thomas Leigh who was Rector of Harpsden in Oxfordshire, Fellow of All Soul's College and a brother of Theophilus Leigh, Master of Balliol College, Oxford.

In addition to the "living" of Steventon in Hampshire, George Austen later gained the "living" of the nearby Deane parish in 1773 (thanks to his uncle Francis Austen). He supplemented his income by farming adjacent lands courtesy of Thomas Knight and tutored a number of boys (including George Hastings) who actually came to live with his family in the rectory. His finances were not great and his income amounted to about 600 pounds per year, payment of the expenses of a growing family being assisted on occasion by loans or gifts from kind relatives.

At the beginning of their life at Steventon the Austens cared for George Hastings, the son of Warren Hastings and his first wife Mary (who died 1759 in Kasimbazaar, Bengal). Mary was formerly Mary Elliott and had applied in 1751 for permission to go to Fort St. David at about the same time as Philadelphia (they were both young, unmarried and poor and may indeed have been friends). Mary married Captain Buchanan who died in the Black Hole of Calcutta in 1756 and she subsequently married Warren Hastings. (We have previously noted in Chapter 3 the pre-World War I versus post-World War I assignations of Hastings’ wife as the widow of Captain Campbell or of Captain Buchanan, respectively). George Hastings was sent to England in the care of Francis Sykes in 1760, a year after the death of his mother and presumably through the suggestion and good offices of Philadelphia Hancock (née Austen). We have already seen that George Austen's sister Philadelphia was an intimate friend of Warren Hastings. George Hastings was cared for in the Austen home but tragically died from diphtheria in the Steventon rectory in 1764.

Jane Austen at Steventon 1775-1801

Jane Austen was born at Steventon on 16th December 1775. Her godmothers were her paternal great-aunt Jane Austen (wife of Francis Austen) and Mrs Musgrave, the wife of the Reverend James Musgrave (a relative on the Perrot side). Her godfather was the Reverend Samuel Cooke, husband of Cassandra Leigh, Mrs Cassandra Austen's cousin, the daughter of Theophilus Leigh, and who was to publish an historical novel Battleridge in 1799. Jane Austen was kept swathed in a swaddling cloth and initially given to the care and subsequent weaning with an experienced woman in nearby Deane.

Her only sister Cassandra was 2 years older and thus began a close lifelong friendship. Indeed it is useful to remind ourselves at this point of the ages that her various siblings other than the youngest Charles (1779-1852) attained in the year of Jane's birth: James (1765-1819), 10 years; George (1766-1838), 9; Edward (1767-1852), 8; Henry (1771-1850), 4; Cassandra (1773-1845), 2; Francis (1774-1865), 1.

In 1782 Jane and Cassandra were sent away for board and schooling in reading, writing and arithmetic with Mrs Ann Cawley (née Cooper) at Oxford. Mrs Cawley was the widow of a Principal of Brasenose and was the sister of Jane's uncle the Reverend Edward Cooper whose daughter Jane Cooper was also with them at Oxford. At Southampton with Mrs Cawley in 1783 all 3 girls came down with "putrid throat" or typhus. Responding to a letter from Jane Cooper, Mrs Jane Cooper and her sister Mrs Cassandra Austen came down immediately to recover their children. The tragic aftermath of this affair was the subsequent death of Mrs Cooper from the infection.

Jane and Cassandra as well as Jane Cooper were subsequently sent to the Abbey School for girls, a sister school to an adjacent and well-regarded boys' school in Reading. At this establishment they had lessons in French, Italian, needlework, English and history. Jane finally left this school at the end of 1786, at the age of 11. Her subsequent education at home derived from a large library and her family and encompassed piano, drawing, dancing, sewing, embroidery, history and literature. Jane Austen read poetry, enjoyed Richardson's Sir Charles Grandison (which she later converted to a play) and other novels. Her brother James had founded a literary journal The Loiterer, for which Henry also wrote, and Charles and Cassandra also had a literary bent. Jane and her family performed plays in the barn behind the rectory including The Rivals by Richard Sheridan.

On her own part Jane Austen's first literary efforts included letter-based novels, plays, histories and poems, the collective body being now referred to as the Juvenilia. Her novels-in-letters included Love and Freindship (sic) (written in 1790 and dedicated to her cousin Eliza), Lesley Castle (written in 1791 and dedicated to Henry Austen, her favourite brother) and finally the mature and delicious Lady Susan (written in 1794 and having a delightfully naughty anti-heroine evidently based on Eliza Austen née Hancock). Other Juvenilia include the unfinished work Catherine or The Bower, The History of England (written in 1792) and numerous letters. 5

In addition to her immediate family, Jane had close friends in the vicinity of Steventon. Mrs Anne Lefroy (née Brydges) was the wife of the Rector of Ashe, the Reverend Isaac Peter Lefroy, and the sister of Sir Edgerton Brydges who wrote novels, published and was unsuccessful in his claims to the revival of the Chandos aristocratic position. Her brother-in-law Anthony Lefroy, who commanded the 9th Light Dragoons, was the father of Tom Lefroy, who was linked romantically in a fashion to Jane. Mrs Lefroy was a lively friend to Jane and one of her children Benjamin married Jane's niece Anna, the daughter of James Austen, in 1814 (thereby re-linking the Austens and the Brydges).

Mary Lloyd (1771-1843) and her elder sister Martha Lloyd (1765-1843) lived with their parents the Reverend Nowys Lloyd and Mrs Lloyd at the Rectory of Deane. After the death of Reverend Lloyd, the family moved to nearby Ibthorp when Reverend James Austen moved into the Deane rectory with his new wife Anne (née Matthew). Mary and Martha were good friends of Jane and her family and later were to marry (in both cases as second wives) James (1797) and Francis (1828), respectively. Cassandra was engaged to the Reverend Thomas Fowle (brother of Mrs Lloyd's brother-in-law and a former pupil of George Austen) but on tour of duty as a chaplain with Lord Craven's regiment, he sadly died of yellow fever in Hispaniola in 1797.

Elizabeth (Eliza) Hancock (1761-1813) stayed with her cousins at Steventon on a variety of occasions. She was a very pretty, lively woman who played the harp.6 She was flirtatious and interested in the Steventon amateur dramatics. Both Henry and James succumbed to Eliza's charms and Henry married Eliza in 1797. Eliza can be seen as a model for some of the less insipid and less constrained women in Jane Austen's novels such as Lady Susan in Lady Susan, Isabella in Northanger Abbey, Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park and Eliza, the daughter of Eliza in Sense and Sensibility.7

Other friends of Jane Austen included her cousin Jane Cooper who married Thomas Willliams (later Sir Thomas) under whom Charles had served in several ships. Lady Jane died tragically in a carriage accident in 1798. A friend and relation of both Eliza Hancock and Jane Austen was their cousin Philadelphia (Phylly) Walter (they all shared a common grandmother in Rebecca Austen). Jane and Cassandra attended local balls at the homes of the local gentry, of which the Bigg Withers at Manydown and the Bridges at Goodneston are particularly notable, and accordingly met many young men and women of the surrounding area. It is from this period that Mary Russell Mitford quotes her mother Mrs Mitford as saying of Jane that she was the "prettiest, silliest, most affected, husband-hunting butterfly". The validity of this notorious quotation has been questioned since Mrs. Mitford had moved away from Steventon when Jane was too young to have been observed in this respect. However she did not move away that far, indeed only about 15 miles away, and presumably would have maintained her connections. Miss Mitford’s gossip about the young Jane and description of the 40-year old Jane was made in 1815 and stands as interesting, necessarily anecdotal data:

“I have discovered that our great favourite Miss Austen is my countrywoman; that Mama knew all her family very intimately; and that she herself is an old maid (I beg her pardon - I mean young lady) with whom Mama before her marriage was acquainted. Mama says that she was then the prettiest, silliest, most affected husband-hunting butterfly she ever remembers and a friend of mine who visits her now says that she has stiffened into the most perpendicular, precise, taciturn piece of “single blessedness” that ever existed, and that till Pride and Prejudice showed what a precious gem was hidden in that unbending case, she was no more regarded in society than a poker or a fire screen or any other thin, upright piece of wood or iron that fills its corner with peace and quiet. The case is very different now; she is now a poker but a poker of whom everyone is afraid.” 8

As a young woman, Jane Austen evidently interacted with young men of whom 4 are of particular note, namely Tom Lefroy, Edward Bridges, Harris Bigg-Wither and an unknown young man at the seaside. We will briefly consider the first 2 of these these particular interactions at this point. Tom Lefroy was the nephew of Jane's neighbour and good friend Anne Lefroy. In Jane's own words in a letter to Cassandra:

"You scold me so much in the nice long letter which I have this moment received from you, that I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together. I can expose myself, however, only once more, because he leaves the country soon after next Friday, on which day we are to dance at Ashe after all. He is a very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man, I assure you. But as to our having ever met, except at the three last balls, I cannot say much; for he is so excessively laughed at about me at Ashe, that he is ashamed of coming to Steventon, and ran away when we called on Mrs Lefroy a few days ago.” 9

However Tom Lefroy was sent away to Ireland and quite possibly for the obvious financial, professional and class reasons that recur in Jane Austen novels. Tom Lefroy was young and from a highly-placed family and set to study law (indeed many years later he became Lord Chief Justice of Ireland). Jane's family was very respectable and no doubt she was a gifted, articulate, out-going and agreeable young woman but any financial contribution her father could have made to a marriage would have been very meagre. Jane writes sadly:

"At length the day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy and when you receive this it will be over. My tears flow as I write of the melancholy idea." 10

In old age Tom Lefroy confessed to a boyish love for Jane and one therefore could assume a warm mutual attraction. Some years later Jane reveals an evidently hurt and proud diffidence in relation to news of Tom Lefroy from her friend Mrs Lefroy:

"Mrs Lefroy did come last Wednesday ... I was enough alone to hear all that was interesting, which you will easily credit when I tell you that of her nephew she said nothing at all, and of her freind very little. She did not once mention the name of the former to me, and I was too proud to make any enquiries; but on my father's afterwards asking where he was, I learnt that he was gone back to London on his way to Ireland, where he is called to the Bar and means to practise." 11

Edward Bridges was the brother of Elizabeth Bridges who married Edward Austen (Knight) in about 1792. Edward was the fifth son of Sir Brook Bridges and Lady Bridges of Goodneston and had a dozen siblings. He was interested in Jane and indeed asked her, as guest of honour, to commence a ball at Goodneston as his partner. Edward may have made his interest clear to the point of actual proposition.

During this period Jane Austen visited the homes of various connections and in particular the Lefroys at Ashe, the Bridges at Goodnestone, the Bigg-Withers at Manydown, her brother Edward Austen and his wife Elizabeth (née Bridges) at Godmersham Park in Kent, the Lloyds at Ibthorpe, her brother James and his wife Mary (née Lloyd) at Deane and her Uncle James and Aunt Jane Leigh-Perrot in Bath. The arrest and remand of Mrs Leigh-Perrot occurred in August 1799, about 6 weeks after a visit by Jane Austen. In 1800 the Reverend George Austen - possibly for reasons connected with his age, his health, his son the Reverend James (who took over Steventon), the Leigh-Perrots and the prospects of more society for his daughters - abruptly decided to remove his family to Bath. Jane, returning from Ibthorpe with Martha Lloyd, supposedly fainted at the shock announcement.

In this period Jane Austen wrote Lady Susan, a novel in letter form that was not published in her life-time (1794/1795), Elinor and Marianne (the early version of Sense and Sensibility) (1795), First Impressions (the first version of Pride and Prejudice) (1796/1797), Sense and Sensibility (based on its predecessor) (1797) and Susan, that was to become Northanger Abbey (1798/1799).11

Jane Austen at Bath 1800-1806

The relocation to Bath was not without significant loss to Jane. 500 books from their library and Jane's pianoforte that could not be taken were ultimately sold. Jane no doubt keenly felt the loss of her beloved countryside. Jane and her mother went first to stay with the Leigh-Perrots in the Paragon and to look for a suitable place. They eventually settled on a house at Sydney Place that overlooked countryside. The beautiful city of Bath, famous for its mineral springs from Roman times, was not without a familial connection in addition to the Leigh Perrots. Some of the grand buildings owed their erection to Cassandra's great-uncle James Brydges, the first Duke of Chandos.

Jane Austen attended parties and functions at the Upper Rooms at Bath (immortalized in Northanger Abbey and Persuasion) and there observed her relative Mary Cassandra Twistleton and met her alleged married lover Mr. Evelyn. 13 While Jane did not evidently like Bath, the society and circumstances certainly well served her muse.

While on holiday at Teignmouth (the seat of Sir John Shore, who we will encounter as an observer of the horrendous Great Bengal Famine of 1769-1770), Jane Austen evidently met and fell in love with a young clergyman who was visiting his brother, a local doctor. The affection was returned and the young man was to rejoin them on their holiday. However the young man died and thus Jane in this sense suffered the same misfortune as her sister Cassandra. The happy ending allotted to every one of her heroines was not to be Jane's.

In the middle to late 1802 Jane successively visited James and Mary at Steventon, Edward and Elizabeth at Godmersham Park and then the Bigg-Withers at Manydown Park near Basingstoke. This was an ancient family that included the famous 18th century lawyer Sir William Blackstone and George Wither, the 17th century poet. Harris Bigg-Wither (he preferred Wither), his widowed sister Elizabeth and two further sisters Catherine and Alethea Bigg were in residence at the time of Jane's visit. Harris proposed to Jane (6 years his senior) and she accepted. However overnight Jane had second thoughts and by the morning her personal feelings (or lack thereof) had overcome the very considerable personal, social and financial advantages of the match. She withdrew her consent and her brother James took her back to Bath. Jane had done what perhaps Maria Bertram should have done in relation to the rich but not particularly attractive Mr Rushworth in Mansfield Park.

In 1803 Jane visited Ramsgate, where her brother Francis was quartered on account of his responsibility for defences in that part of the coast against a possible French landing. Frank had met his future wife Mary Gibson in Ramsgate. Jane was aware of the attractions of the seaside for the infirm and wrote rather sneeringly of the nervous indisposition of Edward Bridges’ wife Harriet (née Foote) who had visited Ramsgate. The health-giving aspects of the seaside resort reappears in the unfinished Sanditon and the south coast military presence is a key ingredient in the plot of Pride and Prejudice.14 Jane and her family visited the picturesque south coast town of Lyme Regis. Jane took walks along the Lyme Regis Cobb (or sea wall), made famous in Persuasion through the accidental fall from it of Louisa Musgrove in which she misses the arms of her erstwhile "lover" Captain Wentworth and is seriously hurt. At about this time (1803/1804) Jane Austen commenced writing The Watsons which she was not to finish given the upset of this period. Susan was offered for publication and sold to Crosby & Co. for 10 pounds. The conclusion of her first work, Lady Susan, was probably written in 1805. 15

The Austens moved to Green Park Buildings, a location closer to waters of the Pump Room for the ailing Reverend George Austen who eventually died in 1805. One supposes that the fragility of George Austen is reflected in the accounts of filial solicitude in Emma and the unfinished The Watsons.16 Jane Austen wrote thus of her father to her brother Francis:

"...Your affectionate heart will be greatly wounded, & I wish the shock could have been lessen’d by a better preparation; - but the Event has been sudden, & so must be the information of it. We have lost an Excellent Father ... His tenderness as a Father, who can do justice to?...The Serenity of the Corpse is most delightful! - It preserves the sweet, benevolent smile which always distinguished him." 17

George Austen's death left Mrs Austen in a difficult financial position with an annual income of 210 pounds that was regularized by various contributions from Henry (50 pounds pa), James (50 pounds pa), interest on the late Tom Fowle’s legacy of 1,000 pounds to Cassandra, 100 pounds pa from Edward and 50 pounds pa from Francis (this being the half accepted of what Francis had actually offered to the family in a secret deal released by Henry). The family moved again, in this instance to 25 Gay Street, and reduced their staff to only one maid by dismissing a man and another maid. When Mrs Lloyd died, her daughter Martha came from Ibthorpe to live with the Austens (she was to marry Francis as his second wife in 1828). In 1808 the family moved to Trim Street and then left Bath for good.

The Austens (and Martha) visited Clifton and then Adelstrop in Gloucester to visit Mrs Austen's cousin the Reverend Thomas Leigh whose nephew had inherited the magnificent and historic Stoneleigh Abbey on the death of his distant relative Mary Leigh in 1806, and the Austens accompanied him to this new estate. From this splendid environment, Thomas Leigh and Lady Saye and Sele, the Austens went to Hamstall-Ridware in Staffordshire to stay with the Reverend Edward Cooper, Jane Austen's cousin on her mother's side. Finally, after a visit to James and Mary at Steventon, the Austen family and Martha ended up in Southampton with Francis and his wife Mary.

Southampton (1806-1809)

Mrs Austen, Cassandra, Jane, Martha, Francis and his wife Mary shared lodgings until they found a suitable house to rent in Castle Square. The Austen women and Martha lived with Frank and his wife in Southampton for about 2 and a half years. Southampton was conveniently close to Portsmouth where Francis expected to resume a new naval command. Indeed only a few weeks after establishing themselves at Castle Square Francis took command of HMS St Albans and was thence abroad on active service, escorting East India Company ships to the Far East and participating in the war against France off Spain and Portugal. Francis was away when his first child Mary Jane was born in 1807.

The Castle Square house had a garden for their pleasure and entertainment through theatre, balls and parties. Jane and Cassandra made visits to Edward and his wife Elizabeth (née Bridges) at Godmersham and Henry and his wife Eliza in Brompton on the outskirts of London. Jane visited Edward's "foster mother" and generous benefactor Mrs Catherine Knight at her home White Friars at Canterbury and met George Moore, son of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who had married Elizabeth's sister Harriet (Harriot) Bridges. Jane Austen's opinion of George Moore is exquisitely put:

“ & another five minutes brought Mr Moore himself, just returned from his morn’g ride. Well! - & what do I think of Mr Moore? - I will not pretend in one meeting to dislike him, whatever Mary may say; but I can honestly assure her that I saw nothing in him to admire. - His manners, as you have always said, are gentlemanlike - but by no means winning.” 18

Two of the Bigg sisters, Alethea and Catherine, visited Jane and Cassandra at Southampton in 1808. Catherine was shortly to marry a much older man, the Reverend Herbert Hill, 2 dozen years her senior and the uncle of the poet Robert Southey. The "older man" as an acceptable husband for a heroine appears as Mr Knightley in Emma and as Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility.19

Tragedy struck the family in late 1808: Elizabeth Austen died some days after giving birth to her 11th child (Brook John). Cassandra, Edward and all but 2 of his children were at Godmersham Park at the time. The 2 eldest boys Edward and George were at Winchester School and returned home via Steventon and a short stay with Jane at Southampton. Subsequently Edward suggested Chawton Cottage, adjacent to Chawton Manor, in Hampshire as a suitable place for the Austen women. Chawton Cottage, a substantial 2-storey dwelling in Chawton village near Alton, was located near the junction of a road from Basingstoke with the road from Southampton to London via Winchester. Henry had a banking branch at nearby Alton, Edward was able to stay periodically at Chawton House (although it had been let to the Middletons until 1812) and Chawton was relatively close to James and his family at Steventon.

Shortly before the Austens finally left Southampton for Chawton in 1809, Jane Austen wrote to Crosby & Co. under the pseudonym Mrs. Ashton Dennis inquiring after her still unpublished novel Susan and offering another copy of the manuscript if needed. They replied that they held the publishing rights but she could re-purchase her manuscript at the original price of 10 pounds.

Chawton 1809-1817

The Chawton Cottage had 6 bedrooms and thus had plenty of room for visitors. Jane and her family interacted with the Rector of Chawton, Reverend Papillon, his niece Eleanor Papillon and with the Middletons who leased Chawton House until 1812. John Charles Middleton, a widower, had 6 children and a sister-in-law Maria Beckford assisted with their care. A niece of the latter, Charlotte-Maria Beckford provided, in old age, a description of Jane at this time at variance with the rather full-cheeked and somewhat combative person of the surviving sketch by Cassandra: tall, thin, spare, with high cheek bones, good colour and joyous, intelligent, sparkling eyes; good-humoured, great fun with children but perhaps rather reserved with strangers.20

Jane Austen’s nieces and nephews would variously stay at Chawton cottage or at Chawton House. Edward took possession of Chawton House in 1813 and his family returned to be there for the warmer months from 1813 onwards. Through such interactions and through correspondence, Jane took a keen interest in her nieces and nephews and had a particular critical and affectionate interest in the literary aspirations of James' daughter Anna and Edward's daughter Fanny. Henry's wife, his cousin Eliza, died in 1813 and Jane visited Henry at his place at Covent Garden, London and attended the theatre. Jane also visited Edward's family at Godmersham Park.

With four women to run the household, Jane Austen was able to devote a lot of time to her writing in this period. Jane would write in the company of her mother and of Cassandra and Martha, using ordinary sheets of paper that could be put away as social circumstances demanded and eventually collated, folded and combined. Sense and Sensibility was revised and prepared for publication (1809-1811) and finally published (1811). This was followed by Pride and Prejudice (finished 1812; published 1813), Mansfield Park (written 1811-1813; published 1814) and Emma (written 1814-1815; published 1816) and the writing of Persuasion (1815-1816). Susan was finally published posthumously as Northanger Abbey in 1817/1818 as was Persuasion but now, for the first time, under the name of the author in both cases. 21

In 1815 Henry was negotiating with a new publisher, John Murray, for his sister in relation to the newly-completed Emma, but fell ill. Jane came to care for him at Hans Place in London. Henry's physician Mr Hayden charmed Jane. One of his colleagues, who was a physician to the Prince Regent, passed on the intelligence that the Prince enjoyed her novels and kept a set in each of his residences. The Librarian of Carlton House, the Reverend James Clarke, invited her to a tour of the Prince's magnificent palace and she felt obliged to respond by dedicating Emma to the Prince in the most gracious of language.22

In 1816 Henry Austen's bank collapsed and he and his partners were declared bankrupt. The collapse cost Edward 2,000 pounds, James Leigh-Perrot 10,000 pounds and Jane Austen lost her banked literary earnings. Henry took Holy Orders and became a curate assisting the Reverend Papillon at Chawton. Brother Charles had difficulties at this time in addition to relatively modest losses in the banking collapse. His ship Phoenix was lost in a storm off Turkey and he was up for court martial. He was ultimately acquitted. This bad year also saw the worsening of Jane Austen's health. The transformation of the gay young thing of the 1790s to the apparently “most perpendicular, precise, taciturn” woman of 40 described anecdotally by Miss Mitford 23 may relate to the progress of her disease, surmised to be the adrenal cortical insufficiency of Addison’s Disease. Outward appearances can be very deceptive and a good-humoured personality can address the behavioural impact of corticosteroid insufficiency and indisposition [as I know from all too real personal experience]. Reproduced below is a lovely example of the delightful enthusiasm, warmth, love and witty good-humour of Jane Austen at the age of 41 writing to her niece Fanny Knight (daughter of Edward) (20 February 1817):

“My dearest Fanny,

You are inimitable, irresistable. You are the delight of my Life. Such Letters, such entertaining Letters as you have lately sent! - Such a description of your queer little heart! - Such a lovely display of what Imagination does. - You are worth your weight in Gold, or even in the new Silver Coinage. - I cannot express to you what I have felt in reading your history of yourself, how full of Pity & Concern & Admiration & Amusement I have been. You are the paragon of all that is Silly & Sensible, common-place and eccentric, Sad & Lively, Provoking and Interesting. - Who can keep pace with the fluctuations of your Fancy, the Capprizios of your Taste, the Contradictions of your Feelings? - You are so odd! - It is very, very gratifying to me to know you so intimately. You can hardly think what a pleasure it is to me, to have such thorough pictures of your Heart. - Oh! what a loss it will be when you are married. You are too agreeable in your single state, too agreeable as a Neice. I shall hate you when your delicious play of Mind is all settled down into conjugal & maternal affections.” 24

Jane Austen's health worsened in 1816 and one presumes that her condition was not improved by the surfeit of bad family news. She suffered back pains and Cassandra took her to Cheltenham for the spa waters in April. She visited Kintbury where, according to Mary Jane Fowle's account to Caroline Austen, she recalled old places with a particularity that had the prescience of mortality. She returned to Chawton via Steventon.

The final year - 1817

At the beginning of 1817 Jane Austen had begun her final, albeit unfinished, work Sanditon. She was only able to complete 12 chapters. She suffered backache, nausea and weakness that could prevent her from walking out. Cassandra and Edward took her out riding on a donkey, her siblings walking beside her. Her condition fluctuated and she was optimistic and cheerful to her loving family. The death of her uncle James Leigh-Perrot at the end of March and the revelation of his will brought on a relapse. In Jane's own account:

" but I am ashamed to say that the shock of my Uncle's Will brought on a relapse". 25

The will left 1,000 pounds to each of Mrs Austen's children who survived Mrs Leigh-Perrot. He left the property at Bath and Scarlets in Berkshire to his wife and left funds, subject to her disposition, for James Austen who had been so solicitous during their troubles. (James Austen was not to actually directly benefit but his son, James Austen - later Austen-Leigh - did inherit.)

Jane was finally confined to bed or to the sofa, suffering weakness, abdominal pains, nausea, vomiting and skin depigmentation. It has been suggested that she was suffering from the terminal stages of Addison's disease deriving from autoimmunity- , tuberculosis- or cancer-induced destruction of the adrenal glands. She made out a will, leaving the little she had to her dear sister Cassandra subject to 50 pounds to Henry and 50 pounds to his housekeeper Madame Bijion. She subsequently also left a gold chain to her niece and god-daughter Louisa Knight and a lock of hair for Fanny Knight. It was felt that she would be better off in nearby Winchester where expert medical care would be available. She was lodged at 8 College Street, the lodging having been arranged by Elizabeth Heathcote (née Bigg), one of Lovelace Bigg's daughters at Manydown now resident in Winchester. Dr Giles Lyford was in attendance and diagnosed a wasting disease but was unable to affect its course. Jane, good-humoured as ever, wrote to Edward:

"Mr. Lyford says he will cure me, & if he fails I shall draw up a Memorial and lay it before the Dean & Chapter, & have no doubt of redress from that Pious, Learned and Disinterested Body". 26

Elizabeth Heathcote and her sister Alethea visited Jane daily. On occasion she was taken out in a wheelchair. Her last day was one of pain and to inquiry as to her needs she replied: "Nothing but death". Her last words: "God grant me patience. Pray for me, oh pray for me!" 27 Dr. Lyford relieved her pain, probably by laudanum from Bengal, and she lapsed unconscious, dying early in the morning of 18th July 1817.

The editing of Jane Austen's life

We have already seen how the more interesting aspects of the lives of many of Jane Austen's family and connections have been variously found less than interesting by her biographers. The same treatment has been meted out to Jane Austen's own life, despite the really exemplary nature of her life in a personal, social, moral and creative sense. Of course one must appreciate that some of the books dealing with Jane Austen’s life are not primarily biographies and, as discussed in Chapter 1, people will apply different value judgements about the importance of particular historical events. However, given Jane Austen’s modest domestic life and her literary genre that was concerned with commonplace, everyday social interactions, any details of her social behaviour and in particular of any potentially “romantic” encounters with men can be seen to be very important. However analysis of a large number of books concerned with the life and work of Jane Austen reveals wide variation in the treatment given to such matters.

This is illustrated by the treatment by Jane Austen's biographers of her significant "suitors" or subjects of her serious affection. At one end of the spectrum we have the definitive Jane Austen. Her Life by Park Honan (1987) that deals with Tom Lefroy, Edward Bridges, Harris Bigg-Wither and the unknown young clergyman at the seaside as men linked romantically to Jane Austen. On the other hand we have A Memoir of Jane Austen by James Edward Austen-Leigh (1870) who discreetly refers only to the latter affair as a possible attachment. In between we have various combinations of reportage. 28

A further example is the rather Jane Austen-like comment about Jane Austen by Mrs Mitford reported by her daughter Mary Russell Mitford, namely that she was "the prettiest, silliest, most affected, husband-hunting butterfly". 29 Probably because this description represents a rare insight into Jane Austen’s character from a contemporary, this is quoted in 18 out of our sample of 30 biographies of Jane Austen surveyed, although various writers are concerned about the accuracy of the remarks. 30

We can extend the intrinsically rather arbitrary “quantitative” analysis we applied in Chapter 4 to Jane Austen’s siblings to consider a wider range of her connections. I have set up a set of 30 connections (including her siblings) and 30 corresponding newsworthy attributes associated with these people of the kind that one might find reported in a popular newspaper such as the News of the World. For each book in our set of 30 published accounts of Jane Austen’s life we determine whether the connection is named and whether the attribute is mentioned, while noting that some of these books are not primarily biographical. We can then sum the data for each connection and each corresponding attribute as shown in the following table:





Attribute mentioned

Austen, Cassandra

destruction of letters



Austen, Charles

court martial



Austen, Francis

East Indies adventures



Austen, George

disabled & fits



Austen, Henry




Austen, James

Leigh-Perrot inheritance



Bigg-Wither, Harris

rejected marriage proposal



Bridges, Edward

romantic interest



Brydges, Sir Edgerton

unsuccessful Chandos claim



Brydges, James

gigantic peculation



De Feuillade (Capote), Hastings

sickly, fits, early death



De Feuillade (Capote), Jean

guillotined, alleged conspiracy



Hancock, Elizabeth

fathered by Hastings



Hancock, Philadelphia

productive adultery with Hastings



Hancock, Tysoe Saul

cuckolded by friend Hastings



Hastings, Warren

real father of Eliza



Hastings, George

Hasting’s son, died in the Austens’ care



Knatchbull, Dorothea

married step-uncle Edward Knight Jr



Knight, Edward Jr

married step-niece Dorothea Knatchbull



Knight (Austen) Edward

litigation over Knight inheritance



Knight, Fanny

step-daughter’s sister-in-law & aunt



Lefroy, Thomas

Jane’s first romance



Leigh, Thomas

retarded brother of Cassandra & James Leigh



Leigh-Perrot, James

upsetting will with restricted benefits



Leigh-Perrot, Jane

capital trial for alleged theft of cloth



Matthew, General

forced repayment of unauthorised pay



Mitford, Mrs

Jane “butterfly” gossip



Russell Mitford, Mary

Jane “butterfly” gossip



Twistleton, Mary Cassandra

supposed Bath adulteress



Unknown clergyman

Jane’s romantic friend who died



The above simply provides an overall summary of the surprising absences in Jane Austen historiography that have been dealt with in the last few chapters. The Austenizing of Jane Austen simply shows that even something as relatively simple and straightforward as the life of a modest English country spinster is not immune from selective reportage. The above data is the more surprising because of the sustained, huge interest in this delightful writer and the consequently very large literature that exists concerning her life and work. We will now turn to a brief description of Jane Austen's finished and unfinished novels and document the extent to which the "real" world was permitted to intrude into the world of her Art.

2008 Postscript

Further relevant books on Jane Austen became available. 31


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