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