ESSENTIAL AUSTEN: Jane Austen’s Letters AND Austen Papers (a review)

Austenian scholarship would do well to emulate Mozartean scholarship; in Le Faye’s Chronology of Jane Austen and Her Family we finally have an equivalent to Deutsch’s superb Mozart: Dokumenten seinen Leben, published in English as Mozart: A Documentary Biography. (Le Faye in fact surpasses Deutsch in inclusiveness, as there are more Austen family materials in existence – bank records, diaries, letters – that she is able to cull.) Therefore, might we hope that someday Austen’s letters will be published intermingled with the letters of her family, in emulation of Mozart: Briefe und Auszeichnungen. This seven-volume set includes the grand tour travel diaries of Mozart’s sister and father as well as other family writings, and is comprehensively annotated and indexed (the index alone comprises one volume; the letters, four volumes; the remaining two are all commentary).

Jane Austen did not grow up in a vacuum; she was in the midst of a vibrant familial and social circle whose only means of communication other than in-person speech was via the letter. To truly know Austen within her family, the letters of those connected with her need to be presented alongside her own, uncut, and in a chronological format. Until that happens, we make do with what we have: one volume that is the standard for Austen scholars, Deirdre Le Faye’s third edition of Jane Austen’s Letters, and the other is the original, privately published (in 1942) edition edited by R.A. Austen-Leigh, the Austen Papers (when reprinted, part of the five-volume set collectively entitled Jane Austen: Family History – available to those with deep pockets or a library card).

Only in the Austen Papers do readers hear of the arrival of Jane Austen, the birth quietly announced by her father in a letter to his sister-in-law, Susanna:

Rev. George Austen to Mrs. Walter; Steventon, 17 Dec 1775


“You have doubtless been for some time in expectation of hearing from Hampshire, and perhaps wondered a little we were in our old age grown such bad reckoners but so it was, for Cassey certainly expected to have been brought to bed a month ago: however last night the time came, and without a great deal of warning, everything was soon happily over. We have now another girl, a present plaything for her sister Cassy and a future companion. She is to be Jenny, and seems to me as if she would be as like Henry, as Cassy is to Neddy. Your sister thank God is pure well after it, and sends her love to you and my brother…” (32-3)


If Jane’s cousin Eliza fascinated her, the Austen Papers display some reasons behind that fascination:

Elizabeth de Feuillide to Philadelphia Walter; Paris, 27 Mar 1782


“As for me I have danced more this winter than in all the rest of my life put together. Indeed I am almost ashamed to say what a racketing life I have led, but it was really almost unavoidable, Paris has been remarkably gay this year on account of the birth of the Dauphin. This event was celebrated by illuminations, fireworks, balls etc. The entertainment of the latter kind given at court was amazingly fine. The Court of France is at all time brilliant, but on this occasion the magnificence was beyond conception. The ball was given in a most noble saloon, adorned with paintings, sculpture, gilding etc. etc. Eight thousand lights disposed in the most beautiful forms shewed to advantage the richest & most elegant dresses, the beautiful women, & the noblest Assembly perhaps anywhere to be beheld; nothing but gold silver & diamonds & jewels of all kinds were to be seen on every side. Her Majesty, who is handsome at all times had her charms not a little heightened by the magnificence of her adjustment. It was a kind of Turkish dress made of a silver grounded silk intermixed with blue & entirely trimmed & almost covered with jewels.” (102-3)


It is inconceivable that the Hampshire Austens weren’t in turn sent snippets from Eliza’s letters. How far from quiet Steventon must Paris have seemed, especially when filtered through the eyes of the glittering young Comtesse.

And here we meet Mrs Leigh Perrot, telling first-hand about her outrage over being suspected a shoplifter:

Jane Leigh Perrot to Mountague Cholmeley; London, 11 Sept 1799


“My dear Cousin,

 Will it not surprise you to hear that the last month, from this very day, has been passed in real affliction without my giving you a line? I wished to spare you pain on my account and I hoped long before this to have written to you from my own comfortable House. … You never imagined your Cousin would have addressed you from a Jail, and altho’ I do not absolutely do that now, being in London in order to give Bail for my appearance at the Spring Assizes, yet my dearest Husband is not now my only Protector, as I have the Ilchester Jailor in my suite…” (182)


There come politics of the day, as well as naval preferments for the Austen sons, as in this letter:

Rev. George Austen to Warren Hastings; Steventon, 8 Nov 1794
“I have had the favour of both your letters, and must ever acknowledge myself much your debtor, for the friendly manner in which you have made in behalf of my son. As to the event of it I am not very sanguine, convinced as I am that all Patronage in the Navy rests with L:d Chatham; however as it may be of material service to us to have a warm Friend at the Board I am very thankful you have procured us one in Admiral Affleck….
Should we not succeed in our first object of getting him promoted, it might forward his views to have him removed to a Flag Ship on a more probable station; & this is a circumstance you might, if you had no objection, suggest to the Admiral when you meet him in Town.” (226)


Such a letter, with its requests, sheds light on the father who believed so in the scribblings of his daughter that he wrote a publisher on her behalf. There are depths to the Rev. Austen’s life and thoughts no one will ever realize until more of his letters are made widely available.

Parsimonious actions of old Aunt Leigh Perrot, upon whom so many counted – including Jane, Cassandra and Mrs Austen, is well outlined, as is the hurt of her struggling family members:

James Edward Austen to Rev. James Austen; 1 May 1818


“My dear Father… I am very sorry and certainly surprised at this last motion of Mrs. L. Perrot, but I have long thought too meanly of her, to be much astonished at any fresh instance of want of feeling or of hypocrisy. So much for your reduction of income: now for the effects it is to have: this subject I cannot so easily dismiss & though you tell me not to vex myself about Caroline’s removal from school, … (if that removal must take place) … I am sorry that the weight should fall so heavily on her & still more so that it is out of my power to take much of it on myself…” (259)


Here are all the worries, connections, thoughts that Jane herself knew of and dealt with. HERE are the elements missing from the burnt, lost, trimmed and disbursed letters of her own composition. It is unbelievable that in the last 138 years (since the 1870 publication of J.E. Austen-Leigh’s Memoir where some letters of Jane’s saw the light of day) that no one has undertaken this momentous and valuable wedding of all available materials – the few diaries (like the travel diaries of young Edward Austen [Knight], edited by Jon Spence), the many and disparate letters, and not forgetting their Hampshire neighbors and friends (see the Letters of Mrs Lefroy; the Diaries of Dummer). The advancement of Austen scholarship would be ever grateful to the team of editors (a la the Boswell papers, or the Letters of Mrs Piozzi), although publishing nowadays seems bent on charging hundreds of dollars per publication, which would put such out of the reach of many. Public and university libraries should not be the only beneficiaries; there are general readers who would value owning such all-inclusive scholarship. In the meantime, be grateful for what we have – buy your own Jane Austen’s Letters and hunt up that library with a copy of Austen Papers, then read the two together.

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