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Fugitive Pieces: Trifles Light as Air: The Poems of James Edward Austen-Leigh
Edited (with Introduction and Notes) by David Selwyn.
Jane Austen Society, 2006. (www.janeaustensociety.org.uk)
viii + 138 pages. 38 B/W illustrations. Paperback. £7.50.
Reviewed by Susan Allen Ford.
In A Memoir of Jane Austen, her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh reproduces a letter written to Jane Austen’s great-grandmother Mary Brydges (later Mrs. Theophilus Leigh) in the late seventeenth century. “Any such authentic document, two hundred years old,” he writes, “dealing with domestic details, must possess some interest.” In this charming collection of James Edward Austen-Leigh’s poems and silhouettes, David Selwyn validates that insight. These poems and images provide a glimpse into the Austen family and their world—a view of family feeling, country pleasures, the delights of verbal play of interest to all those fascinated by the context out of which Jane Austen’s novels grew.
David Selwyn has collected these poems chiefly from two albums in JEAL’s handwriting, Fugitive Pieces and Fugitive Pieces 2nd: Trifles light as Air, and from another manuscript of riddles and charades in the possession of David Gilson. Edward, as his family called him, was born in 1798. Most of the poems were written in his youth (1824 and earlier): the earliest, an epigramon “The Neck of Veal,” he wrote, as a note following the poem says he thinks he remembers, at the age of six; the latest is a humorous 1851 prologue, written for his son to recite at a neighborhood theatrical.
In January 1817, Jane Austen wrote that “his Aunts...love [Edward] better& better, as they see the sweet temper & warm affections of the Boy confirmed in the young Man.” A few months earlier she described his developing novel as “extremely clever; written with great ease &spirit.” These traits are certainly characteristic of his poetry. One early poem begins, “My grateful thanks, my Mother dear, / Accept for each box in the Ear / Which you have given to me.” Affectionate poems are addressed to his sisters, Anna and Caroline, and his father’s poetry is often an acknowledged impetus to his own.
His poem “To Miss J Austen” marks his discovery that she is the author of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice in a manner that recalls her talent for burlesque (and her spelling): “No words can express my dear Aunt my surprise / Or make you concieve how I open’d my Eyes, / Like a pig Butcher Pile has just stuck with his knife.” He assures her that he’s “terrably glad,” singles out for praise Mrs. Jennings and Mr. Collins, and hopes that the Prince Regent might reward her: “And indeed if the Princess should lose her dear life, / You might have a good chance of becoming his wife.” It’s not every tributary poem that begins with a stuck pig and ends with the Prince Regent as a (newly) single man in want of a wife.
Other poems describe the pleasures of riding through the country, sing the praises of favorite dogs (“Epitaph on old Justice” is a particular delight), or, more seriously, condemn Buonaparte or celebrate the honor of the returning troops. In the final section of the volume, Selwyn has collected JEAL’s verbal games—the enigmas, charades, boutrimés, and noun verses—a real gift for those (unlike me) clever enough to play along. Although the poet defined his poems as fugitive (in the sense of fleeting), they evoke a local habitation and a name. Pages are decorated with a delightful selection of the intricate silhouettes JEAL cut from paper during a period of illness: a man chopping down a tree, children bathing, hunters chasing, a boy driving a pig across a stream, dogs, and more dogs.
David Selwyn’s introduction and notes are useful and engaging, providing biographical context, glossing local references and literary and historical allusions. The only defect is the large number of typographical errors and inconsistencies, which both distract and make the volume less valuable than it should be. I hope a second edition will correct these so that our pleasures in this book may be unmixed. In the Memoir, JEAL described the Austen family circle as “so...agreeable and attractive...that its members may be excused if they were inclined to live somewhat too exclusively within it. They might see in each other much to love and esteem, and something to admire.” This volume offers more proof of that sentiment.
JASNA News v.23, no. 2, Summer 2007, p. 23
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