During her life and shortly after her death, Jane Austen’s novels were not popularly known. Oh, she had her admirers, most notably the Prince Regent, to whom she dedicated Emma, and a few other distinguished personages, such as Lord Macaulay, Lord Byron’s wife, Ann, and writers Philip Sheridan and Robert Southey. But her works languished in relative obscurity until her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh wrote A Memoir of Jane Austen in 1869. His book was well so well received that he quickly published a second edition in 1871 that expanded on the first one.
In the memoir, Edward’s recollections and those of his family, including Jane’s nieces and nephews, all of whom remembered their aunt fondly, made Jane accessible to a fresh, new audience. Along with these family recollections, are letters from Jane to various people outside her family. The one below is written to a Mr. J. S. Clarke, librarian, Carlton House in 1815, two years before her death:
Dec. 11. ‘Dear Sir,—My “Emma” is now so near publication that I feel it right to assure you of my not having forgotten your kind recommendation of an early copy for Carlton House, and that I have Mr. Murray’s promise of its being sent to His Royal Highness, under cover to you, three days previous to the work being really out. I must make use of this opportunity to thank you, dear Sir, for the very high praise you bestow on my other novels. I am too vain to wish to convince you that you have praised them beyond their merits. My greatest anxiety at present is that this fourth work should not disgrace what was good in the others. But on this point I will do myself the justice to declare that, whatever may be my wishes for its success, I am strongly haunted with the idea that to those readers who have preferred “Pride and Prejudice” it will appear inferior in wit, and to those who have preferred “Mansfield Park” inferior in good sense. Such as it is, however, I hope you will do me the favour of accepting a copy. Mr. Murray will have directions for sending one. I am quite honoured by your thinking me capable of drawing such a clergyman as you gave the sketch of in your note of Nov. 16th. But I assure you I am not. The comic part of the character I might be equal to, but not the good, the enthusiastic, the literary. Such a man’s conversation must at times be on subjects of science and philosophy, of which I know nothing; or at least be occasionally abundant in quotations and allusions which a woman who, like me, knows only her own mother tongue, and has read little in that, would be totally without the power of giving. A classical education, or at any rate a very extensive acquaintance with English literature, ancient and modern, appears to me quite indispensable for the person who would do any justice to your clergyman; and I think I may boast myself to be, with all possible vanity, the most unlearned and uninformed female who ever dared to be an authoress. ‘Believe me, dear Sir, ‘Your obliged and faithful humbl Sert. ‘Jane Austen.’
As a result of Edward’s memoirs, the public embraced Jane Austen’s novels. Josephine Ross writes on page 3 in Jane Austen: A Companion, “Jane Austen had won the ‘admiration, even to fanaticism, of innumerable readers’; and in the years that followed, amid a surge of articles, essays, critical studies and reprints of her novels, the unmarried daughter of a Georgian vicar, who had feared to be made ‘a wild beast’ by her contemporaries, was to become one of the best-known authors in the English language.”
You can read Edward Austen-Leigh’s memoirs by clicking on this link to the Gutenberg Project. The link also sits permanently on the left column of this blog, under Original Sources.
You can also Trace Jane Austen’s Popularity, starting with the publication of this memoir, at this link. Click here.
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