Persuasions #6, 1984                                                                                                                                            Pages 18-20

 

 

HERE, FOR THE FIRST TIME, A JANE AUSTEN LETTER

 

Jo Modert

Mt. Vernon, Illinois

 

Copyright, 1983, St. Louis Post-Dispatch December 18, page 4E,
reprinted with permission.


“ … we thought him a very fine boy, but terribly in want of Discipline. – I hope he gets a wholesome thump or two; whenever it is necessary.”

It is a truth almost universally acknowledged that a small child, “terribly in want of Discipline,” will benefit from “a wholesome thump or two; whenever it is necessary.” That, at least, was Jane Austen’s crisp opinion, expressed in a delightful letter-fragment owned by the Houghton Library at Harvard. The entire fragment has never been published before, so to celebrate the 208th anniversary of Austen’s birth, December 16, I would like to present the full text for the first time, together with its documentations, with the kind permission of the Houghton Library.

I came upon this fragment unexpectedly last summer, and perhaps some background information is needed for those unfamiliar with Austen studies. The only authority for all known Austen letters (around 155 out of what must have been several thousand) is Robert William Chapman’s complete edition of Jane Austen’s Letters, first published by the Oxford University Press in 1932 and reissued with corrections periodically. It lists the letters chronologically.

Dr. Chapman, who died in 1960, always suspected that many of the letters he couldn’t trace were in the United States, such as Letter 3, which Lord Brabourne, an Austen grandnephew, had given to Oscar Fay Adams in 1889 and which appeared in facsimile in the second (1897) edition of Adams’ A Story of Jane Austen’s Life. In 1982, I decided to try to locate Adams’ private papers in hopes of finding the Austen letter.

A series of inquiries disclosed that Adams had bequested the letter in 1919 to the Boston Authors Club, which, in 1966, gave it to the Boston Public Library. So the “missing” letter had never been lost – except that no one else had known where it was. I began checking other American institutions to see whether more letters untraced by Chapman were now in the United States.

I had begun requesting photocopies, and among those I received were copies of four letters owned by the Houghton Library. I knew from their card file, however, that they also owned a fragment, which I requested as mere routine, assuming it was one of three that make up Chapman’s letter 105. To my surprise, the fragment turned out to be unrecorded in Chapman’s Letters. Moreover, I had never seen it quoted, despite its provocative nature. Since then, I have not only confirmed my initial hunch but have located a copy of this fragment, also hitherto overlooked, at the Pierpont Morgan Library, which purchased it as part of lot 268 at Sotheby’s auction on December 13, 1977.

The undated, unsigned fragment at the Houghton is approximately seven and three-fourth inches wide by one inch deep and consists of four lines on one side, three on the other. As its documentations show, it was cut from a longer letter written to Anna, oldest daughter of Jane Austen’s oldest brother, James, and probably dates sometime after November 4, 1814, when Anna Austen married Benjamin Lefroy. The first side, which appeared, with minor inaccuracies, in Frederick Locker-Lampson’s 1886 catalogue of his Rowfant Library, reads in full:

“If you & his Uncles are good friends to little Charles Lefroy, he will be a great deal the better for his visit; – we thought him a very fine boy, but terribly in want of Discipline. – I hope he gets a wholesome thump or two; whenever it is necessary.”

The other side, hitherto unpublished, consists of an incomplete sentence, which echoes other letters to Anna, giving her encouragement for the novel she was attempting to write:

“from the first, being born older, is a very good thing. – I wish you perseverance. & success with all my heart. – and have great confidence in your producing at last, by dint of writing.”

With the Houghton fragment are two short documents, the second of which is fascinating and amusing in itself. The first, dated “Feb. 5. 1877” and signed “Fanny Caroline Lefroy” reads:

“I certify that this was written by my great aunt Jane and formed part of a letter written to my mother.”

The second is written on stationery bearing the letterhead “24 Chapel Street. Belgrave Square.” and is dated “Tuesday,” probably February 6, 1877. It reads in full, with its unusual punctuation and spelling:

Dear Mr. Locker The enclosed is all I can procure for you of Miss Austens writing it is given by her great neice Miss Lefroy a cousin of my husbands & she says the letters signed by Miss A are not to be had & that I might as well aske for a star from heaven! in fact she made an immense favor of giving me this scrap. The Charles Lefroy mentioned in it is my husband’s father. With kind regards Believe me sincerely Effie Lefroy.”

David Gilson, who has been helping me trace Jane Austen letters in order to up-date Chapman’s list, supplies the information that “Effie Lefroy,” born Euphemia Smythe, was the wife of Clement George Lefroy (1850-1917), son of Charles Edward Lefroy (1810-1851). Thus, “little Charles Lefroy” would probably have been between four and five years old when this fragment was written.

The copy of the fragment owned by the Morgan Library was the second part of a purchase described and catalogued as “‘Copy of a Note written by Jane Austen to her niece Anne (Anna) Austen (Mrs. B. Lefroy) and given by me (F. C. Lefroy) to Chomeley Austen-Leigh for his Collection of Autographs’, being a transcript of a letter by Jane Austen. Together with ‘Copy of the Scrap of Aunt Jane’s writing I sent Mrs. Clement Lefroy. Feb 5/77.’”

In the strictest sense, my discovery of this fragment is not a literary “find,” as its existence has been recorded in print for almost a century. Its first notice is in Locker-Lampson’s 1886 catalogue, where it is mistakenly described as signed, an error repeated in David Gilson’s A Bibliography of Jane Austen (1982). At some later time, the fragment, contained in what is now called the Locker-Larnpson-Warburg-Grimson Album, and also an Austen manuscript letter (listed by R. W. Chapman as Letter 19), were acquired by Samuel B. Grimson, Anglo-American pianist and photographer, who placed them on deposit at the Houghton on June 25, 1953. Mr. Grimson’s widow gave them to the Houghton in 1960, and they are listed in the Houghton catalogue with other Austen holdings.

In a broader sense, however, this is a discovery of some importance. It is incredible that this eminently quotable fragment has been completely over-looked by scholars and has never been recorded in Chapman’s Letters. Moreover, neither the Houghton nor the Morgan Library was aware of the other’s holding until I made the connection this past summer.

Austen devotees will agree, I hope, that little Charles Lefroy has gone unnoticed far too long and that Jane Austen’s espousal of “a wholesome thump or two” is consistent with her firm but kind belief, implicit in her novels, that well-mannered children are made, not born.

Editor’s note: Jo Modert is in the process of updating Dr. Robert William Chapman’s list of letters in “Jane Austen’s Letters” as to the ownership and location of all known Austen letters. Thus far she has verified or corrected data for 110 of the 155 known letters, including three original letters known to Dr. Chapman but untraced by him. Eventually, Mrs. Modert hopes to publish a facsimile edition of all available Austen manuscript letters.

Note: The color image has replaced the original black and white image for the on-line edition of this essay. C. Moss, JASNA Web Site Manager

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