|A Gift of
Life in the Country: With Quotations by Jane Austen and Silhouettes by her Nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh
Edited by Freydis Jane Welland and Eileen Sutherland.
A Room of One’s Own Press, 2005. 104pp. Fully Illustrated. Hardcover.
Handbound with cream endpapers. $145.
Available from Jane Austen Books and through Coutts Library Services in Canada.
Reviewed by George Justice.
Freydis Jane Welland and Eileen Sutherland have given us a work of art— a book it is difficult to categorize but a deep pleasure to peruse. Life in the Country pairs silhouettes by James Edward Austen- Leigh with aptly chosen quotations from his aunt, Jane Austen. The silhouettes, we are told in the editors’ Preface, were created in the 1830s for the amusement of Austen- Leigh’s children and were passed down to subsequent generations in their original leather volume. Welland, the daughter of JASNA founder Joan Austen- Leigh and a direct descendant of Austen- Leigh, has taken great care to reproduce the silhouettes on fine paper in a beautifully printed and handbound book. The quotations from Austen— short sentences and brief excerpts from Juvenilia, letters, and novels—comment amusingly on the finely detailed silhouettes, evoking both an era gone by and a modern sense of irony.
The silhouettes themselves are remarkably detailed. Edward (as he was called) Austen-Leigh apparently cut them freehand, eschewing making tracings that could be revised before taking scissors to paper. In an informative essay preceding the reproductions, Joan Klingel Ray describes the history of the art form and its early nineteenth-century popularity. Austen-Leigh developed his skill in the 1830s when illness forced him to take a sabbatical from the duties of a clergyman and the pleasures of a sportsman.
Many of the silhouettes reflect the country pleasures of hunting and fishing, and the quotations chosen from the human- focused writings of Jane Austen create witty combinations that make us reflect on the integration of social and natural life in the country in nineteenth-century England. In this volume, “text” and “illustration” are reversed, for it seems to be the quotations from Jane Austen that add interpretive gloss to the primary “text” of the art. For example, a silhouette of three deer (depicted skillfully from three different angles) receives this quotation:
But Elizabeth, who had not the least inclination to remain with them, laughingly answered, “No, no; stay where you are. You are charmingly group’d, and appear to uncommon advantage. The picturesque would be spoilt by admitting a fourth.”
Nearly every page brings a smile to my face, even after having gone through this volume a number of times. The silhouettes possess a meditative quality, and Austen’s prose? We all know about Austen’s prose, which shines even when the quotation consists of three words.
The book includes just the right amount of information. In addition to Welland and Sutherland’s Preface, and Ray’s essay on silhouettes, Life in the Country includes a brief essay on “Jane Austen and her family” by Maggie Lane and an afterword on James Edward Austen-Leigh by Joan Austen-Leigh. As well as the silhouettes and a drawing of Stoneleigh Abbey from James Edward Austen-Leigh’s notebook, the book contains a reproduction of the watercolor of Chawton College said to be painted by Anna Lefroy and portraits of Jane Austen, James Edward Austen-Leigh, and Mary Augusta Austen-Leigh, Edward’s daughter. The book includes a bibliography and a colophon. I learn from my cherished copy that mine was No. 10 of the initial printing of 150 copies. The printer, Robert Reid, signed my copy. The beautiful marbled end papers and cloth binding complete the effect.
I understand that Freydis Welland’s family imprint, A Room of One’s Own Press, has published a Chawton edition of Life in the Country, handbound with cream endpapers. National Trust Houses and National Libraries in Great Britain have purchased copies of the first edition for their archives. Other institutions frequented by Janeites, including the National Portrait Gallery, are planning to sell the book. This is not the kind of book for which a reviewer should say “Rush out and buy a copy!” since our modern, nervous concept of rushing makes no sense for a book so contemplative as well as lively. But I would urge readers to consider Life in the Country as a potential gift for Austen-loving friends—and as a rare treat if one wishes to indulge oneself. JASNA owes a lot to Freydis Welland; presenting work created and preserved by generations before her, she has given us something else for which to be thankful.
George Justice is
former book review editor of JASNA News and, with Devoney Looser,
presented a plenary address at the 2005 Milwaukee AGM.
News v.22, no. 3, Winter 2006, p. 26
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