Writers necessarily edit as they write; to make paragraphs and resultant chapters coherent, some information has to be gone into in depth, while other information reluctantly or automatically must be jettisoned. Too much information, unskillfully crafted, will leave readers in the dust. A skillful author, however, molds the story with the facts at hand, picking and choosing what to include, and how to phrase or emphasize those inclusions. This is particularly true of biography.
Take, for instance, the prize-winning A MIDWIFE’S TALE, by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. While confronted with an entire decades-long diary (spanning 1785-1812), Dr Ulrich carefully chose certain illustrative sections in which to pinpoint aspects of Martha Ballard’s life. Reader’s interested in the minutiae of that life, as described by its protagonist, must unearth a copy of the published diary or go to the copy online.
The minutiae of life is exactly what Deirdre Le Faye gives readers in her superb and invaluable A CHRONOLOGY OF JANE AUSTEN AND HER FAMILY. This is certainly not the type of book one takes to bed, but it is nevertheless an engrossing read. Within its pages are the lives of not only Jane Austen, but also her forebears, immediate family, cousins, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews – a three-hundred-year span from 1700 to 2000. This result of Le Faye’s digging through archives, private collections and published works provides Austen fans the bones with which to build biographies all our own. Through it, you can uncover the additions and deductions of Austen bank accounts; follow the rise and fall of Henry Austen’s partnership with Tilson; chart the Hampshire weather utilizing the notations in neighbor Eliza Chute’s diaries; and find the private thoughts of girls like Fanny Austen Knight.
Some random samples:
In 1796 [p. 187]
September 2, Friday
Rowling: HTA leaves to return to Great Yarmouth. He will write soon to Steventon.
Hampshire: A ball is held in the Steventon district, possibly today (or possibly it is the next assembly ball at Basingstoke, on 8 September, Thursday), at which CEA is present. Other dancers include a large party from the Terry family of Dummer, Mr John Lovett, Mr Tincton, Mr John Harwood, Mary Lloyd, Mary Harrison and James Austen.
[Letters 4, 5]
September 3, Saturday
Rowling: EAK, Elizabeth, JA and FWA, dine at Goodnestone and have an impromptu dance afterwards. Others present are Lady Bridges and her children Edward, Harriet, Louisa and George, as well as Fanny and Lewis Waltham, the Misses Anne and Mary Finch. The invalid Marianne Bridges does not appear. The Rowling four walk home afterwards.
In 1802 [p. 267]
January 18, Monday
Dummer: ‘Miss Terry, Anne & I rode & called at Worting, Manydown, Oakley Hall, & Deane.’
[Powlett journal 119A00/1]
January 21, Thursday
London: Army agents Cox & Greenwood debit Major Thomas Austen’s account: ‘Cash paid freight of a Hogshead of rum from Jamaica, £2.8s.11d.’
[Cox & Greenwood ledger, fo. 33]
January 24, Sunday
London: Army agents Cox & Greenwood credit Major Thomas Austen’s account: ‘By 31 days Pay to 24 January 1802, £21.16s.7d.’
[Cox & Greenwood ledger fos. 33, 212]
The Vyne: ‘Misling small rain most of the day. Church. Mr. Austin to dinner.’
[Chute pb 23M93/70/1/9]
In 1809 [p. 369]
Alton: MLA goes to stay with Mary Gibson in Rose Cottage for about a month, while Mary G is expecting her second child.
[CMCA Rems 19]
June 14, Wednesday
Canterbury: ‘Aunt Louisa came & dressed here & dined with [three words illegible] where we met G.M. Bridges, Uncle B. & Mr. Champneys. Papa & Aunt J. with G.M. [Austen] & Aunt C. from Godmersham dined with Mrs Knight & called here in the morning. Mr. & Mrs. E. Cage & Annetta called. Aunt Louisa slept here. Little George Moore not very well went to stay at Goodnestone Farm for change of air.’
June 15, Thursday
Canterbury: ‘Uncle & Aunt M. dined at Dr. Walsby’s & Aunt L. & I with Mrs. Knight where we met G.M. Bridges again & Aunt L. went back with her. Walked about the town in the morning. Fine & hottish.’
The abbreviations utilized (fully explained at the front of the book) are, most of them, the typical used for personages and already well known: CEA = Cassandra Elizabeth Austen [Jane’s sister]; EAK = Edward Austen Knight [Jane’s brother]; CMCA = Caroline Mary Craven Austen [Jane’s niece, younger daughter of James]. Pb = pocket book. Entries are arranged with the geographic (town, estate, etc) in italics; and the source is clearly marked on the side margin [they appear below entries only in this review].
The sources for these listings are astounding: letters, diaries (pocket books), accounts books, taxation records, published memoirs and biographies, privately-held papers.
The one minus: while readers will be grateful for the extensive Personal Names index (which runs from pages 757-776, three columns per page), you do end up searching for references because, rather than indexed by page number, everyone is indexed by year. For instance:
Knatchbull, Joan: 1796
Knatchbull, Mary Dorothea, see Knight
Knatchbull, Wadham: 1813
Knatchbull, Wyndham: 1784, 1805, 1808, 1810-14 [page 768]
This obviously works best for people who occur multiple times within a given year; it does give a quick indication of which ‘periods someone appears in; and must have provided the publisher with a space-savings.
The structure of the book includes a substantial bibliography (712-724); thirty-two family trees (725-756); a frontispiece map and several illustrations. This is truly a publication of Le Faye’s DECADES of research into the Austen family; readers will feel as if they are sitting down with the scholar and picking her brain. In her preface, she says: ‘I hope that this uniquely detailed chronology will be of the greatest use to all future biographers, literary critics and historians, providing as it does accurate documented facts gathered from a wide variety of sources.’ We all owe her a debt of gratitude (to Cambridge University Press as well; although the steep $168 price tag does seem more geared towards library rather than individual purchase) for sharing the results of her researches with us all. It represents Le Faye’s gift to serious scholars, making this an Essential Austen volume.
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ESSENTIAL AUSTEN is a series we will continue, which will introduce or earmark those books (and other items?) essential to an Austen collection.