Jane Austen: A Family Record, 2nd edition
By Deirdre Le Faye.
Cambridge University Press, 2003. 408
Hardcover, $70; Softcover, $25.99.
Reviewed by Jon Spence.
sources for a life of Jane Austen fall into three categories. First:
parish records, wills, bank accounts, and other more or less “public”
documents. Secondly: personal letters, diaries, journals, and other
“private” papers written during Jane Austen’s own lifetime. Thirdly:
the memoirs, family histories, and life-and-letters biographies written
by members of Jane Austen’s family, most of whom were one or even two
generations subsequent to Austen herself.
It is these in
the third group that create special difficulties for the Austen
biographer. The accuracy of the family writers depends not only on the
infallibility of their own memories but on that of their informants’
memories. So far removed in time and first-hand knowledge from the
actual events, it is reasonable to assume that lapses of memory
occurred and even that there was, perhaps unconsciously, speculation
family material be considered “primary sources” of information on an
equal footing with the documents that make up the first two categories?
Kathryn Sutherland’s introduction to her recent edition of James Edward
Austen-Leigh’s A Memoir of Jane
Austen (and including some of the other family recollections)
shows how unreliable these family sources can be. Sutherland’s
carefully argued essay sounds a long overdue note of warning to
material is tempting because it often seems to offer answers to some of
the questions that arise from the material in the first two categories.
And because we are hungry for fact and certainty about Jane Austen’s
life and because there are so many places where we do not know and
probably will not ever know for sure what happened and why, biographers
have tended to confer on the family material the status of “primary
sources,” the status of “fact”: This is true even of Deirdre Le Faye’s Jane Austen: A Family Record, which
since its publication in 1989 has become known as “the factual
biography” of Jane Austen.
Jane Austen: A Family Record has
now been brought out in a second edition, and Deirdre Le Faye has
corrected the factual errors (comparatively few but important) that
have come to light during the fifteen years since its first publication
and has stylistically revised some passages. Other improvements include
the breaking of very long paragraphs into shorter units and the setting
off of long quotations from the author’s own exposition, improvements
that make the book more readable and easier to consult. Le Faye’s
acceptance of much of the material emanating from the family as
unimpeachable “fact,” however, remains. The reader should be aware
of—and wary of—this.
In her account
of Jane Austen’s relationship with Tom Lefroy, for example, Le Faye
There is no further
information as to what happened at Ashe on the evening of 15 January
, and it is highly unlikely that Tom proposed or that Jane ever
really believed [as she joked in a letter] he would do so. However, Mr.
and Mrs. Lefroy [his aunt and uncle whom he was visiting] had seen
enough of the mutual attraction to take fright at the idea of an
engagement between so youthful and penniless a pair, and Tom was sent
off rapidly to London to live under the watchful eye of his uncle
Benjamin while he studied at Lincoln’s Inn.
Le Faye makes clear
that in the first sentence she is speculating that Tom did not propose
at the Ashe ball and that Jane had not really expected him to. But the
second sentence, presented as fact, comes from the family material and
cannot be proved or disproved. The only thing here that we can be
certain is “fact” (and then only if we believe Jane Austen’s own
letter) is that Tom did leave soon after the Ashe ball. Jane says
nothing to hint that his departure was hastened. The reader of Le
Faye’s account, though, is left with the impression that all of the
rather precise details of the statement—the Lefroys taking fright,
their reasons for doing so, and their action to prevent an
Deirdre Le Faye
also sometimes presents her own inferences as fact. For instance,
Chapter 6 of her book begins: “According to Jane’s own memories, 1787
was the year in which she started to devote her spare time to writing.”
Two sources are given for this statement: one from Austen-Leigh’s Memoir; the other from his sister
Caroline Austen’s My Aunt Jane Austen.
Nothing in the former implies the year 1787. The latter recounts that
when Caroline was twelve Jane Austen sent her a message saying she
wished that when she was Caroline’s age she had “read more and written
less.” Jane Austen herself turned twelve in December 1787, which is
apparently the basis for Le Faye’s inference. But according to
Caroline, Jane Austen did not say she started writing at twelve, only
that she was writing by that age. Le Faye, as the biographer, is of
course entitled to her own inferences, but to present them as bald
fact, as she does here as well as in other places, is misleading.
I do not mean
to undermine or diminish the value of Le Faye’s work as an exposition
of factual information. Where her information is strictly factual, we
can be almost certain that she is right. But when she presents
information from family memoirs and recollections as “fact” we have to
be as wary as we are when reading the family sources or conventional
(to distinguish them from “factual”) biographies.
when we want the “facts” in the strictest sense, it is to Deirdre Le
Faye’s book that we turn. As a work of biographical reference Jane Austen: A Family Record could
hardly be bettered. It provides more fully and accurately than any
other book the factual details of Jane Austen’s life. It is unlikely
that it will ever be superseded, and it will certainly continue to be,
as it has since its first publication, the foundation of all
biographical work on Jane Austen.
Jon Spence is the author of Becoming
Jane Austen (2003) and will be a
plenary speaker at the 2006 Tucson AGM.
v.21, no. 2, Summer 2005, p. 17
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