Persuasions #10, 1988 Pages 65-69
The “Family Influence” on Jane Austen’s Juvenilia
Department of English, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA 22030
Who encouraged Jane Austen to write? Who stimulated her imagination and introduced her to the habit of composition? The answer that prevails in the Austen biography tradition is her family – especially her scholarly father and her Oxford-educated, literary brothers, James and Henry. My purpose is not to deny their role in getting the young writer started but to suggest that we situate them in a larger context of encouragement.
Family pride and a strong belief in progress led Jane Austen’s influential Victorian biographer, her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh, to look back on late eighteenth-and early nineteenth-century Hampshire and see a shining cluster of talented Austens surrounded by the dull and uneducated. In the world in which his aunt was born, Austen-Leigh tells his readers, “[i]gnorance and coarseness of language … were still lingering even upon higher levels of society than might have been expected to retain such mists. About this time, a neighbouring squire, a man of many acres, referred the following difficulty to Mr. Austen’s decision: ‘You know all about these sort of things. Do tell us. Is Paris in France, or France in Paris? for my wife has been disputing with me about it.’ ”1
In fact, Jane Austen’s genteel Hampshire neighbours – the landed and professional families with whom hers socialized – were highly literate. I am tempted to say based on the writings they left behind that they were hyper literate. Their habits of reading and writing – and I will be concentrating on literacy not as part of professional life or formal schooling but as leisure activity – created a supportive environment for Austen’s early reading and literary productions. Although some of my evidence postdates Austen’s juvenilia, it serves, I believe, because Austen’s neighbours’ interests in reading and their penchants for many forms of writing appear to have remained constant during Austen’s lifetime.2
Brief but intriguing references to their wide and varied tastes in books appear in their letters and diaries. Mary Bramston of Oakley Hall, for example, had strikingly broad preferences, recommending in her letters to a close friend histories, Gothic novels, the works of William Wilberforce, and of Lord Byron. Elizabeth Chute, married to the Member of Parliament at the Vyne, had a particular interest in French literature, and, although she may not have read it, was curious about what people were saying of radical William Godwin’s novel Caleb Williams. “In morals, in religion & politics, everyone allows it to be very faulty,” she wrote to a friend. As one of Austen’s own letters informs us, her friends at Manydown, Elizabeth Heathcote and Alethea Bigg, liked “enormous great stupid thick quarto volumes.”3
Austen’s neighbours’ letters and diaries, of course, testify not only to their reading but to their writing habits. They were enthusiastic, highly prolific writers. Women in particular often participated in numerous correspondences, and both sexes kept diaries. These diaries, however, did not only contain private and personal matters. Some people recorded their travels or their daily and monthly expenditures. Men enjoyed keeping hunting diaries. And women especially used diaries as social calendars, noting down those whom they visited, their own guests, the balls and dinners they attended, and letters received and sent.
Austen’s neighbours were capable of a formal and pious prose as well. In a society in which there were numerous clergymen, Austen was sure to encounter sermon writers at most social gatherings. But non-professionals devoted their pens to religious concerns too. Lady Frances Heathcote, wife of the third baronet of Hursley and mother-in-law of Austen’s friend Elizabeth Heathcote, wrote at least one long sermon in verse, probably for her own private instruction; others wrote prayers.
They also penned considerably more lighthearted, secular compositions. In a world without Hallmark greeting cards they responded to one another’s birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, and childbearing with their own homemade, cheerful doggerel. J.H. George Lefroy, oldest son of Jane Austen’s friend Anne Lefroy, sent poems to a younger brother on his birthday, incorporating in a section of one a fairly realistic assessment of his poetic talents:
Again, Dear Boy, November’s blast
Bids me my tribute pay
And joyous I resume my task
And greet thy natal day.
What tho’ in me no vivid rays
Hath Genius bade to glow
Despise not thou these simple lays
Affection bids them flow.
Austen’s neighbours broke into verse even when not marking the key events of personal life. Wither Bramston of Oakley Hall once wrote ten stanzas for his aunt, describing his efforts to buy her some oranges. Stephen Terry of Dummer wrote poetry about his hunting escapades. And even a commonplace scene – boys playing outdoors – could put Anne Lefroy into a rhyming mood.
They also wrote song verses. Charles Powlett, Rector of Itchen Abbas (and uncle to the Charles Powlett who, according to Jane Austen’s letters, once tried to kiss her), achieved a local reputation as “the Laureate of the Hunt” with songs that were sung at the Hampshire Hunt dinners. This excerpt from one written in 1786 expresses a dislike of the French – or at least of French manners – that was typical of the period:
See from France yon Petit Maitre;
Thus exclaims the puny creature –
“comment sortir avant l'aurore
Sans dejeuner? ‘Tis a great bore!”
No trifling fops can ever know
From the brisk chase what pleasures flow;
Joys above those of power and wealth –
Vigour of mind and rosy health!4
Perhaps because she believed that there was “nothing more useful in exciting & keeping up the spirit of a nation than popular songs,” Anne Lefroy supplied new patriotic words to a Robert Burns poem sung to the tune of “Hey Tittie Tattie.” She adapted it to suit a corps of Newport Volunteers, formed in the Isle of Wight to defend the inhabitants in case of an invasion by the French. Austen’s neighbours also produced numerous charades very like the one Emma’s Mr. Elton contributes to Harriet Smith’s lavishly ornamented album.
A playful spirit also found its way into more extended endeavours. Jane Austen was not the only member of her community to try parody. Elizabeth Heathcote’s son, for example, created The Mirror, a mock newspaper filled with parodies of international and local events, the loss of Bonaparte’s nose, for example, and the marriage of Miss Blachford (one of Heathcote’s young cousins) to a seventy-year-old man.
None of this work, of course, approaches the brilliance of Jane Austen’s early writings, Love and Freindship, in particular, but these widespread, albeit unremarkable, literary undertakings form the broad context for Austen’s juvenilia. Indeed, they provide the context for many of the other compositions Austen produced over the course of her life. I am thinking of the numerous poems, charades, and the prayers that have been collected in Volume Six of the Chapman edition of Austen’s work. To be sure, Austen family members – most notably perhaps James, Cassandra, and Mrs. Austen – produced many such works, especially poems and charades. But my point is that Jane Austen and her family were part of a larger literate community and assimilated and contributed to its patterns of reading and writing.
Although some of the writings Austen family members and their neighbours composed were kept utterly private (some personal diaries for instance) and some, such as sermons, may have been public, offered to a churchgoing community, many of these works, letters and poems, for example, were neither very private nor very public. They were instead the products of domesticity and kinship, written by one family member for others. If these family writings were like today’s greeting cards, they were also gifts, offered for the pleasure and sometimes the entertainment of loved ones. The dedications appended to the majority of Austen’s childhood parodies make their domestic and familial identity especially clear and closely associate them with other genteel home productions such as poems marking birthdays and anniversaries.
Indeed, it is because many of these works were expressions of family feeling that they were sometimes preserved. Some of the extant letters of Austen’s friends and neighbours have notations on the outside, added by the letter recipient several years after they were received. These notations constitute, in effect, a practical and emotional index, a listing of the family member who wrote the particular letter, sometimes its date, and its especially meaningful topics. After their author had died, letters and other domestic writings, were also handed down, given to surviving family members as mementoes of the deceased. Cassandra Austen’s treatment of her sister’s letters was typical. Although she burned many of Jane Austen’s letters, she withheld some from the fireplace probably not because she thought their charm and wit ought to be saved for posterity but because she wanted to give her relatives tokens – not unlike a lock of hair – of the dead. She treated the juvenilia as tokens too, giving one volume of these writings to Frank Austen, one to Charles Austen, and one to nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh.
If the domestic and familial writing generated by Jane Austen’s genteel neighbours served as an encouraging context for her first literary productions and for some of her later brief works, that writing did not serve as a springboard for Austen’s mature novels. Indeed, it is startling to see those six long and brilliant works situated among the brief poems, songs, charades, prayers, and mock newspapers of her community. Although the question of influences on the production of Jane Austen’s novels falls outside the scope of my topic, I want to say a few, brief words about it.
Austen biographers generally assume that the influence of the novelist’s family got her started as a writer and that its members continued through her life to stimulate and encourage her talent. But just as “family influence” means something broader in Austen’s childhood, so “family influence” means something a bit narrower for Austen’s adulthood. A careful reading of Austen’s letters reveals that only a subset of her family members were deeply involved in her novel writing, and those family members were women: Cassandra, first and foremost, but also roommate (and later, an Austen wife) Martha Lloyd, and nieces Anna Austen Lefroy, Fanny Knight, and possibly Lizzie Knight.
As feminist critics have shown, women of Jane Austen’s status group and time were discouraged from serious, extended, professional writing.5 Many of Austen’s neighbours may have loved novels, but they were not comfortable with the idea of genteel ladies writing them. Hence, when Austen began writing fiction for publication, she was breaking with the cultural attitudes and practices of her community. Within that context, she was not offending her own family, but, let us say, creating the possibility of tension in some of her family relationships. She was careful, consequently, not to let her work as a novelist intrude on her duties as a daughter and sister.
Certainly, Jane Austen’s father tried to help her to publish “First Impressions” in 1797, and Henry Austen negotiated with her publishers most of the time after her father died. But while Austen’s father and brothers read her novels, they were not likely to have witnessed the time-consuming, self-absorbing labour that produced them. The adult Austen kept the act of composition out of sight and out of the way of her feminine, household responsibilities. In the novel writing she did at Chawton starting in 1809, she wrote only in front of her mother, Martha, her sister, and possibly some of her nieces. While she had works in progress, she read them only to and considered the criticisms only of these women. We know that Cassandra Austen tried to persuade her sister to change the ending of Mansfield Park by allowing Mr. Crawford to marry Fanny Price. One of Austen’s letters to Fanny Knight suggests that they too debated literary matters, such as the traits desirable for heroines.
Male relatives seem to have been told about her novels only after they were completed. Jane Austen’s allusion to a scene in Mansfield Park in a January 1813, letter she wrote her sister indicates that Cassandra was already very familiar with that still unfinished manuscript. By contrast, Austen mentioned it to Frank in July of 1813, only when she had already completed the manuscript, telling him then simply that a novel was “in hand.”6 And Henry embarked on his first reading of the completed novel in March 1814, without any prior information of its plot or characters. In a letter to Fanny Knight, written in 1817, we find more evidence that despite his help with the business of publishing, Henry was – perhaps because he was not discrete enough to suit his sister – generally one of the last to learn of Jane Austen’s manuscripts. She told him reluctantly and only because she couldn’t bring herself to lie when he asked her directly. “Do not be surprised at finding Uncle Henry acquainted with my having another ready for publication,” Austen wrote to Fanny. “I could not say No when he asked me, but he knows nothing more of it.”7
If Jane Austen’s family, then, helped her to write, that family influence meant different things at different stages of the novelist’s life. It was not a fixed force affecting Austen’s writing in the same way at all times. But we should also keep in mind that influence – whether of a family’s broader culture or of specific and varying family members – did not make Jane Austen’s career. She was a very great talent in part because she was sensitive to the various supports and supporters of writing surrounding her and because she knew how to make use of these resources.
1 J.E. Austen-Leigh, Memoir of Jane Austen, ed. R.W. Chapman, 2nd ed. (1870; rpt. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1926), p. 9.
2 My thanks to descendants of Jane Austen’s neighbours for allowing me to quote from their family papers. I am also grateful to the Hampshire Record Office for help in researching Jane Austen’s social milieu. A more extended discussion of the writings of her neighbours and relatives will appear in my forthcoming book on Jane Austen in her social and cultural contexts.
3 “To Cassandra Austen,” 9 Feb. 1813, Letter 78, Jane Austen’s Letters to her sister Cassandra and others, ed. R.W. Chapman, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952), p. 304. [Hereafter cited as JAL]
4 A.M.W. Stirling, ed., The diaries of Dummer: reminiscences of an old sportsman, Stephen Terry of Dummer (London: Unicorn Press, 1934), p. 78.
5 See, for example, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979); Elaine Showalter, A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Bronte to Lessing (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977); and Mary Poovey, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984).