Persuasions #11, 1989 Pages 28-36
Aunt, Jane Austen
The title of this talk is “My Aunt, Jane Austen.” Yet I feel a little possessive in designating her so. For one thing, in this room there are my two daughters and my sister, all of whom are equally entitled to say, “my Aunt, Jane Austen.” For another, don’t we all, especially those assembled here – with possibly one exception – feel that she belongs to each of us? Don’t we each feel that if not actually a family relation, she is at least a spiritual aunt, a person one would love to have known, a person wiser, and perhaps more sanctified than we are, ourselves. That at least is the view that has been held by many people for many years. Now, among modern critics and biographers – who knows from what motives of profit, publicity or academic advancement – it has become fashionable to besmirch and denigrate the character of our hitherto irreproachable Jane.
Katherine Mansfield, I think, has best described
the feelings of those who love Jane Austen.
She says, “For the truth is that every true admirer of the
cherishes the happy thought that he alone – reading between the lines –
become the secret friend of their author.”
In my opinion this exactly depicts the relationship between Jane
and her reader. It’s a special
relationship that I don’t believe subsists with any other writer.
I think this idea that one knows her intimately, as a person,
for the almost inexhaustible curiosity that has ever been felt about
aspect of her private life.
I am going to talk chiefly about the
the Austen-Leighs and their relationship, over the past century, with
“I have always maintained the
aunts,” wrote Jane in 1815 to her niece Caroline. Caroline,
aged ten, had just herself become an aunt on the
birth of a child to her sister, Anna Lefroy.
For us, in the Austen family, to
importance of our most important aunt, has been the pleasure of
generations. In fact one might
almost say that Aunt Jane has been to us what the Baronetage was to Sir
Elliot: “Occupation in an idle
hour and consolation in a distressed one.”
In fact the Austen-Leighs have been
call their houses by such names as Sanditon, or Hartfield.
Also certain traditions have been observed.
A letter of thanks, for example, has always been a “collins.”
Many years ago this custom annoyed a brash young Austen-Leigh
colonies, who, on being required to write such a letter, pettishly
whether the word was in the dictionary. It
Virginia Woolf wrote in one of her
In many ways Jane
Austen must be considered singularly
blessed. The manner in which from
generation to generation her descendants respect her memory is, we
precisely that which she would have chosen for herself…
like those words, “respect her memory.”
We who read her books and who delight in her finer characters,
integrity of Mr. Knightley, in the honesty of Elizabeth Bennet, in the
gentleness of Anne Elliot, do we not admit that only a superior human
understands these virtues, herself, would be capable of creating such
Could, for example, an author who describes Emma’s patience and
unselfishness towards Mr. Woodhouse, not in real life have shown the
forebearance in dealing with her own mother?
any of us were to appear as a character
in one of her novels, would our behaviour, our motives, and our
others be beyond reproach? It’s a
David Cecil in his 1935 Leslie Stephen
lecture has put these feelings delightfully:
were in doubt as to the wisdom of one of my actions, I should not
Flaubert or Dostoyevsky. The
(opinions) of Balzac or Dickens would carry little weight with me: were
to rebuke me, it would only convince me I had done right: even in the
of Tolstoy I should not put complete confidence. But I should be seriously upset, I should worry for weeks and
weeks if I
incurred the disapproval of Jane Austen.
For those who may not know it, I
elucidate my own exact connection with Aunt Jane.
Although the years are many, the
few. James Edward Austen-Leigh, son
of Jane’s eldest brother, James, is my great grand-father, which makes
three times great-aunt.
R.W. Chapman, the doyen
of all Austen scholars, speaking of trying to understand the family
The task is not easy: for the Austens
relations by marriage were numerous and prolific; and their historian,
to be lucid, is embarassed by their tendency to marry twice, and to
amplify their surnames.
He refers, of course, to James’s son,
Edward, always called Edward, who later in life became Austen-Leigh.
He was the favorite nephew of his aunt, and author of The
the only biography of Jane Austen by one who knew her.
Chapman also refers to Jane’s brother, another Edward Austen,
middle age, took the name of Knight (his eleven children, of course,
follow suit). Of this event, Jane
wrote, “I must learn to make a better ‘K’.”
Four of Jane’s brothers married twice.
And three of her sisters-in-law died in childbirth, two after
delivery of their eleventh child. So
much for family statistics. There’s
no doubt, with such prolific brothers, and so many descendants, that
multitudinous numbers of people in the world who are genuinely entitled
Jane Austen, “aunt.” Whether
they care to avail themselves of that distinction, I don’t know.
For example, one of the Knights, emigrated to New Zealand and
had twenty-one children. I wonder
if those distant people, farmers, perhaps, on some green mountain
aware of their heritage? Because
the fact remains that there are more people in the world who have never
Jane Austen than there are those who rejoice in her.
I’m sure that every member of this society has had the
experience, probably many times, of having to explain to some
not necessarily an uneducated philistine either, just who this woman is.
Although Jane had six brothers, four of whom between them produced over thirty nieces and nephews, it is to the descendants of James, the Austen-Leighs, that the maintenance of her importance has chiefly fallen. They were the scholars and the writers. The other brothers had various occupations and professions – sailor, banker, parson, country gentleman – none of them especially literary.
Two books only were contributed by
of the family. Lord Brabourne’s Letters
of Jane Austen – the first such volume to appear – was
published in 1884, fourteen years after the Memoir. Lord
Brabourne was the son of Jane’s niece, Fanny Knight, and the ancestor
present Lord Brabourne who married Patricia, daughter of Lord Louis
This present John Brabourne is the producer of many famous
including Passage to India and Murder on
Orient Express. He,
too, is entitled to call Jane Austen aunt, by how many greats, I
counted. The second book is Jane
Austen’s Sailor Brothers by J.H. and Edith Hubback.
This appeared in 1906. J.H.
Hubback was a grandson of Sir Francis Austen.
Aside from these, then, all the
biographical works have been written by Austen-Leighs.
And now perhaps I should say a word about James Edward, founder
Like his uncle Edward, he did not
change his name
until he was nearly forty. Furthermore,
as I have mentioned, he was always known as Edward, you can see how the
confusion arises. Our Edward had a
unique bond with his aunt: both had been born and lived the first
years of their lives at Steventon Rectory, for Edward’s father, James,
taken over the living when Mr. Austen retired to Bath.
Later, when Jane moved to Chawton, Steventon was still
Edward’s charm caused
him to be much loved in the family, and esteemed even by his headmaster.
Dr. Gabell of Winchester – over whose garden, you will remember,
could look from the room where she lay during her last illness.
But that is to anticipate. In
1814, when Edward was sixteen, Dr. Gabell wrote to James:
To the very favourable
reports which I have had the
pleasure of making to you from time to time on the conduct of your
son, I can add nothing.
It was while Edward was still at
school that he
was let in on the hitherto closely guarded secret – even from her own
and nieces – of Jane’s authorship. In
his surprise and delight he burst into verse:
can express, my dear Aunt, my surprise
you conceive how I opened my eyes,
pig Butcher Pile has just struck with his knife,
heard for the very first time in my life
have the honour to have a relation
works were dispersed through the whole of the
you, however, I’m terribly glad:
just to think (and the thought drives me mad)
dear Mrs. Jennings’s good-natured strain,
really the produce of your witty brain
That you made the
Middletons, Dashwoods and all,
you (not young Ferrars) found out that a ball
given in cottages never so small.
though Mr. Collins so grateful for all
Lady de Bourgh his dear patroness call,
your ingenuity really he owed
His living, his wife,
and his humble abode.
This news of their aunt’s success,
Edward and his sisters, Anna and Caroline, to attempt to write novels
to badger their ever-patient aunt for criticism and comment.
It is in a letter to Edward that the most famous description of
work exists. She had received news
that a portion of the story he was writing had been lost,
chapters & a half to be missing is monstrous! It
is well that I have not been at Steventon lately, &
therefore cannot be suspected of purloining them: – two strong twigs
half towards a Nest of my own, would have been something. – I do not
however that any theft of that sort would be really very useful to me.
What should I do with your strong, manly, spirited Sketches,
Variety and Glow? – How could I possibly join them on to the little bit
inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces
effect after much labour?
Edward left Winchester and went up to Oxford.
When he was home at Steventon he visited Chawton, and the
mutual affection and regard between nephew and aunt increased with
Jane wrote to a friend,
grows still, and still improves in appearance,
at least in the estimation of his aunts, who love him better and
better, as they
see the sweet temper and warm affections of the boy confirmed in the
And in another letter:
quite happy to see Edward, it was an unexpected
pleasure, & he makes himself as agreable as ever, sitting in such a
comfortable way making his delightful little Sketches…
How could the boy sitting in his aunt’s parlour have known that half a century later he would be called upon to compose her biography? Describing those distant days he wrote, “Though in the course of fifty years I have forgotten much, I have not forgotten that Aunt Jane was the delight of all her nephews and nieces. We did not think of her as being clever, still less as being famous: but we valued her as one always kind, sympathising and amusing.” He continues, “Her talents did not introduce her to the notice of other writers, or connect her with the literary world, or in any degree pierce through the obscurity of her domestic retirement.”
In fact Jane never met other authors; her publisher, John Murray, “a civil rogue” she called him, never offered to entertain her or to introduce her to society. Unlike Charlotte Brontë, Fanny Burney, and Mrs. Gaskell, she remained quite unknown in any smart London circles.
On 18 July 1817 Jane Austen died. She was followed soon after by Edward’s father, it is believed of the same disease (Addison’s). Edward took orders, much to the chagrin of his rich, childless great aunt, Jane Leigh Perrot, who had as powerful a dislike to the profession of clergyman as did Mary Crawford.
The aunt may have frowned, but fortune smiled, on the handsome, clever, talented young man. In 1828 he married Emma Smith, sister of Sir Charles Smith of Suttons, and niece of Mrs. Chute of the Vine. The Chutes were neighbours, and the Austens had often hunted with Mr. Chute’s Hounds.
Hearing of this good match, Mrs. Leigh
ever a snob, forgave Edward for being a clergyman and settled on him an
allowance during her lifetime.
Now we come to how he took the name of
Leigh was the maiden name of Mrs.
Jane’s mother. It was a
distinguished name. Ancestors had
included a Lord Mayor of London and a master of Balliol College, Oxford.
She was also connected with the Lords Leigh of Stoneleigh Abbey.
Mrs. Austen’s brother, James Leigh, had added the name Perrot on
inheriting an estate. He died,
leaving his redoubtable wife, “my aunt” to Jane and Cassandra, in sole
control of his fortune. It was a
great blow to the Austens. They
were poor and like Miss Bates must become poorer.
They had counted on this eventual inheritance.
Mrs. Leigh Perrot had always been quite the unfavourite person
Austen family. An example of their
opinion exists in a letter from Jane to Cassandra describing a letter
by Mrs. Austen:
of all my Mother’s long and intimate
knowledge of the writer, she was not up to the expectation of such a
this; the discontentedness of it shocked and surprised her – but I see
in it out of nature – tho’ a sad nature.
She may have had a sad nature – but
had been devoted to her and now, having left her his estate, she was
a very pretty property, Scarlets, near Hare Hatch in Berkshire.
Since the Leigh Perrots were childless, and since the money had
her husband, one might conclude that in all justice it should be
returned to his
family on her death. But this could
by no means be counted on. She was
capricious and difficult, and frequently changed her will, threatening
various times to leave Scarlets to this person or that.
There was a real danger she might leave the family estate to one
Chomeley relations. To forestall
such a possibility both Francis Austen and Edward prudently named sons, Chomeley,
Mrs. Leigh Perrot’s maiden name.
To digress for a moment, most of you
remember that in 1800 this unpopular woman had stood trial for
Bath. She was accused of stealing a
card of lace. In those days the
punishment for such a crime was hanging or transportation to Australia.
After spending seven months in gaol, her trial finally took
It was attended by a thousand people and lasted seven hours. Although she was acquitted, the verdict is
In 1837 Mrs. Leigh Perrot died.
She was 92 and had survived her husband by twenty years.
She left Edward Scarlets and part of her fortune on condition
took the name and arms of Leigh. A
testimony to that obligation still exists at Scarlets, where I have
the Leigh and Austen coats of arms incorporated, together with the
date, in a
window over the staircase. The
handsome, charming, Georgian Edward was now being transmogrified into a
Victorian clergyman, the father of a large family, eight sons and two
In the evenings he used to read aloud to his children from the
Jane Austen and Walter Scott.
His daughter, Mary Austen-Leigh, in a
her father, recalls:
Jane Austen’s books
appeared to us then, and for a
long time afterwards, to be a family and almost a private possession. Our father looked upon it as an accepted fact that to enjoy them
a mind of a peculiar order, and that it was not to be expected that she
ever become a great favourite with the general public…. When in the
time, we heard of certain other families who knew and cared for [her]
as we did,
it came as a surprise, and made us feel that, if we could but meet, we
friends on the strength of it.
During Edward’s lifetime, only one new edition of Jane’s works had been published (compared to untold numbers of Walter Scott’s) and it seemed as if her reputation, slight as it had been, might fade and wither away entirely. But the enthusiasm of a vast, swelling multitude of new readers would not be denied.
When one assesses this – only one new
in fifty years, and thinks how few, in numbers, the actual copies in
must have been – when one considers that there was no promotion, no
advertising, just word of mouth and the sharing of treasured books
among friends – it is almost miraculous that her works should have
Now a clamorous public was demanding that details of her life be
revealed. All that her admirers had
hitherto been permitted to know was printed in the Biographical Notice
by Henry Austen and published in Northanger Abbey in
This notice, although over ornate in style, does contain one or
memorable phrases, that for example the claim, with which everyone here
agree, that “we shall never look upon her like again.”
But her devoted readers wanted more. At the age of seventy-two, Edward was urged to transcribe his recollections of his aunt. He was not at all willing. He declared he was not in the habit of writing for publication. Yet he had habitually composed fifty sermons a year, and in 1865 had published Recollections of the Early Days of the Vine Hunt. Finally he was obliged to acknowledge that: “However little I have to tell, there is no one else who could tell as much of her.”
If he had not made the attempt to recall and revive a life by such a period of time obliterated; if he had not by his example inspired his son, William, and grandson, Richard; his sister, Caroline, and his daughter, Mary, to still further exertions, it is likely that our sole source of information would be the surviving letters – those that Cassandra did not destroy.
Also, were the Memoir merely a
recollection, such as senior citizens today are encouraged at
write for their grandchildren, it might now are found only in some
archives. But the style is so
felicitous, that it is still in print today, and two new editions are,
been, published this year.
In my possibly proud and prejudiced opinion, the opening sentence is as remarkable in its way as that of Emma, or of Anna Karenina:
More than half a
century has passed away since I, the
youngest of the mourners, attended the funeral of my dear aunt Jane in
Winchester Cathedral; and now in my old age I am asked if my memory
to rescue from oblivion any events of her life or any traits of her
satisfy the enquiries of a generation of readers who have been born
To Edward’s surprise, The Memoir
Jane Austen was soon sold out, and a second edition was required.
This second edition caused an unforeseen difficulty.
In it, Edward included Lady Susan and The
to which, according to Chapman, he had himself assigned the titles.
A portion of Sanditon was also printed.
But the publisher actually issued the volume under the title
Susan,” as Chapman acutely observes, by “inadvertence or cunning.”
This caused Edward great distress. His
daughter, Mary, reports, “he foresaw the disappointment of its readers
they should discover the nature and brevity of the story, [Lady
and still more did he feel to put forward, as though on a par with her
works a character sketch which she never intended to give to the world
appear [and thinking of Virginia Woolf, I should like to emphasize,
this part] to
be showing due respect to the memory
judgement of his aunt.”
In fact Edward felt it necessary to state a disclaimer in the
wrote prior to its publication. “If
it should be judged unworthy of the publicity now given it, the censure
fall on him who has put it forth and not on her who kept it locked up
There was a further correspondence,
regard to the second edition, which has recently come to light through
researches of the scholar, Deirdre Le Faye.
Lord Stanhope, a politician, historian and literary person, was
admirer of Jane Austen’s novels, and had been in correspondence with
publisher, Bentley, regarding the verses which Henry Austen had
referred to in
the Biographical Notice as, “replete with fancy and vigour.”
This was the piece called “Winchester Races” which Jane had
three days before her death. Lord Stanhope
could not understand why these had not been
published, in the first instance in the first edition of The Memoir,
and now, when he received from Bentley a copy of the second, he was
again. Why were they omitted?
Surely they could not have been lost?
Were they perhaps irreligious, he asked?
A lively exchange of letters took
Copies of Lord Stanhope’s to Bentley being sent on to Edward,
turn sent them to his sisters. The
reason the verses had been left out was that Edward and Caroline
too frivolous, not at all suitable as the work of a devout Christian on
solemn occasion of her death bed. To
include them would be, in Caroline’s words, “A sad incongruity.”
She wrote to Edward:
am rather sorry that Lord. S. should be raising a
hue & cry after these “lines, replete with vigour and fancy” to
unluckily Uncle Henry alluded more than half a Century ago – Nobody
curiosity about them then – but see what it is to have a
posthumous reputation! we cannot keep anything to ourselves now, it
I like that… “cannot keep anything to
ourselves….” Indeed we cannot.
With regard to Jane Austen the public is a veritable Miss Steele
“… not without hopes of finding out… how much her washing cost
week, and how much she had every year to spend upon herself.”
The verses, incidentally, were not
another thirty years. They appeared
in The Sailor Brothers in 1906.
Poor Lord Stanhope, who died in 1875, never saw them.
As I have mentioned, in the next
Edward’s children and grandchildren also took a literary interest in
aunt. Jane Austen’s writing desk,
which is now in my possession, was left to William and Mary
their great-aunt Cassandra. William
together with his nephew, Richard, son of Chomeley Austen-Leigh, wrote
definitive Life and Letters of Jane Austen,
on which all subsequent biographies are, or should be based.
This appeared in 1912. In
1961, an obituary of Richard, remarks, “nor can we forget his works on
relative, Jane Austen, which laid the foundations of modern Janian
before the days of R.W. Chapman, who referred to his unrivalled
Jane Austen’s life and surroundings.”
Mary Austen-Leigh wrote, in 1920, at
the age of
82, Personal Aspects of Jane Austen published
own publisher, John Murray. It is
not a work to be taken very seriously though Caroline’s reminiscences,
are included, are invaluable. Of
this work Katherine Mansfield said: “It seems almost unkind to
little book which has thrown on bonnet and shawl and tripped across the
of criticism at so round a pace to defend its dear Jane Austen.”
A few years ago, I came across an
of Mary’s niece-ly defence of her aunt, again, to use Virginia Woolf’s
words, “respecting her memory”. It
is in a handwritten note at the back of my own copy of the Life and
which had originally belonged to Mary Austen-Leigh, and which had been
her by her brother, the author, William, with whom, I might say, she
house at Roehampton, called “Hartfield.”
The bibliography lists a work, Jane
a criticism and Appreciation by Percy
and states that the frontispiece is a reproduction of a bust of Jane
executed by Mr. Fitzgerald. In
Mary’s indignant hand is written, “From his own imagination only!”
A little detective work among the
files of the
London Times enabled me to uncover the story.
I found that Percy Fitzgerald, an eccentric author and
sculptor, much addicted to donating his works to whomever he could
to accept them, had presented a bust of Jane Austen to the Pump Room at
The occasion had been marked with suitable pomp and
speeches by the mayor and dignitaries. But
they made a grave error. They
failed to consult the keepers of the flame, William and Mary
It is amusing to imagine the rage of
and sister when they read an account of this affair in the Times
morning at breakfast.
They sallied forth, rather like Lady
scold the mayor and Council, not into harmony and plenty, but into
By great good fortune I found a
photograph of the
offending object at the University of British Columbia. The bust is
Jane Austin, her name spelled wrong for a start.
The person depicted has an enormous nose and a vulgar leer,
that of a procuress enticing custom to her house.
No wonder the brother and sister were outraged.
I think any of us would have been also.
bust] was placed, according to his wish in the
Pumproom, opposite a bust of Dickens, also executed by Mr. Fitzgerald.
No intimation of this intended proceeding had been made to the
Austen-Leigh family, nor was any member of it invited to the ceremony
unveiling the bust. When in a few
days time, the bust was seen by William Austen-Leigh and his sister
Austen-Leigh and was found to be of a most unworthy nature and to bear
resemblance to Jane Austen they requested the Mayor have it removed. After
some delay this was done, and a bust of Garrick now takes its place.
Hapless Percy Fitzgerald!
He was no match for the Austen-Leighs.
The bust of Garrick, by the way, had been previously offered to
of London and declined. What became
of the bust of Jane Austen, history does not relate.
And so in each generation members of
Austen-Leigh family have cherished and preserved the memory of our aunt.
I have done my own bit, I imagine, in founding with Jack Grey
Burke, this society, which now has over 2,000 members.
The idea, however, was not ours, but that of my husband, Denis
I must conclude by remarking that
Austen-Leigh had, with all his virtues, one grave defect.
He considered Walter Scott “a greater artist than my aunt.”
For this, one can hardly forgive him, and yet, historically, it
surprising. The Victorians
preferred Scott and Dickens. Romantic stories of lovers, villains and
scenes. Many people still do.
Jane Austen remains caviar to the general.
We, in this room, know that.