Persuasions #4, 1982 Page 42
FRIENDS AND FOES
Katherine Mansfield’s review of Personal Aspects of Jane Austen by Mary Austen-Leigh, The Athenaeum, December 3, 1920. Reprinted in Novels and Novelists, edited by John Middleton Murry, Beacon Press, Boston, 1930. (Excerpted)
It seems almost unkind to criticize a little book which has thrown on bonnet and shawl and tripped across the fields of criticism at so round a pace to defend its dear Jane Austen. But even with the undesirable evidence before us of the stupidity, nay, the downright wickedness of certain reviewers, we cannot help doubting the need for such a journey. True, Jane Austen exists in the imagination as a writer who has remained wonderfully remote and apart and free from the flying burrs of this work-a-day world, and it does come as a surprise to learn that so-called friends of hers have said these dreadful things. But, begging Miss Austen-Leigh’s pardon – who cares? Can we picture Jane Austen caring – except in a delightfully wicked way which we are sure the author of this book would not allow – that people said she was no lady, was not fond of children, hated animals, did not care a pin for the poor, could not have written about foreign parts if she tried, had no idea how a fox was killed, but rather thought it ran up a tree and hissed at the hound at the last – was, in short, cold, coarse, practically illiterate and without morality. Mightn’t her reply have been, ‘Ah, but what about my novels?’ Though the answer would seem to us more than sufficient, it would not satisfy Miss Austen-Leigh …
Each of these charges can be met – and they are met, though, to be quite candid, it is somewhat quaintly at times. Take, for instance, the ‘baseless accusation that she always turned away from whatever was sad.’ It cannot, says Miss Austen-Leigh, be allowed to pass unnoticed. And she cites a family letter written by Mr. Austen on the occasion of a young friend’s having been invited to their house to have her attack of measles there: ‘She wanted a great deal of nursing, and a great deal of nursing she had,’ the nurses being Jane, her sister Cassandra and their friend Martha Lloyd. Well, that may go to prove that Jane was willing to face an unpleasant ordeal and to play her part, but we should not like our belief in her tenderness to depend on it. Does it not sound just a little grim? Might not a timid mind picture patient and pillows being shaken together; and, as to escaping one’s medicine, Cassandra and Martha to hold one down, and Jane to administer something awfully black in a spoon? Then, again, someone having said that sermons were wearisome to her, Miss Austen-Leigh contradicts him triumphantly with Jane Austen’s own words, I am very fond of Sherlock’s Sermons, and prefer them to almost any.’ But stare at that sentence as we may, we cannot see an enthusiasm for sermons shining through it. It sounds indeed as though Sherlock’s Sermons were a special kind of biscuit – clerical Bath Olivers – oval and crisp and dry …
[‘Ah, but what about my novels?’]
… For the truth is that every true admirer of the novels cherishes the happy thought that he alone – reading between the lines – has become the secret friend of their author.
Suggested by: Robert McNair, Minneapolis, Minnesota