It is a truth universally known that during her lifetime, Jane Austen published her novels as “a lady.” While some in the family knew about her writing success – her brother Henry and sister Cassandra swiftly come to mind – many did not, including the cousins. When a genteel woman like Jane was described as being at “work”, the phrase meant needlework and sewing clothes for the poor basket. A lady simply did not sully her hands by toiling at a trade. Jane did not want it bandied about that she was the author of Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility, but her proud siblings, Henry in particular, couldn’t restrain themselves and bragged about their talented sister. The word got out and the least well-kept secret was the name of the lady who wrote those delightful novels.
James Edward Austen, the son of Jane’s eldest brother James, and a favorite nephew of hers, discovered at school in 1813 that his favorite aunt was the author of two novels he had enjoyed immensely. The 11-12 year-old was so delighted with the news that he penned an enthusiastic poem about his discovery and sent it to her:
To Miss J. Austen
No words can express, my dear Aunt, my surprise
Or make you conceive how I opened my eyes,
Like a pig Butcher Pile has just struck with his knife,
When I heard for the very first time in my life
That I had the honour to have a relation
Whose works were dispersed throughout the whole of the nation.
I assure you, however, I’m terribly glad;
Oh dear! just to think (and the thought drives me mad)
That you made the Middletons, Dashwoods, and all,
And that you (not young Ferrars) found out that a ball
May be given in cottages never so small.
And though Mr. Collins, so grateful for all,
Will Lady de Bourgh his dear Patroness call,
‘Tis to your ingenuity he really owed
His living, his wife, and his humble abode.
When Edward Austen-Leigh, as he became later known in life, was 72, he penned his now famous Memoirs of Jane Austen, leaving a legacy of the memories that he and his cousins retained a half century after her death. Had Edward not embarked on this quest, his memories (he was 16 when Jane died), and those of Caroline Austen and Fanny Knatchbull, might not have been captured in print. While his book preserved those fading memories, they also “sanitized” his aunt Jane’s reputation, erasing much of her sharp tongue and wit and replacing it with sweetness of character:
The grave closed over my aunt fifty-two years ago; and during that long period no idea of writing her life had been entertained by any of her family. Her nearest relatives, far from making provision for such a purpose, had actually destroyed many of the letters and papers by which it might have been facilitated. They were influenced, I believe, partly by an extreme dislike to publishing private details, and partly by never having assumed that the world would take so strong and abiding an interest in her works as to claim her name as public property. It was therefore necessary for me to draw upon recollections rather than on written documents for my materials; while the subject itself supplied me with nothing striking or prominent with which to arrest the attention of the reader…
The motive which at last induced me to make the attempt [to write this memoir] is exactly expressed in the passage prefixed to these pages. I thought that I saw something to be done: knew of no one who could do it but myself, and so was driven to the enterprise. I am glad that I have been able to finish my work. As a family record it can scarcely fail to be interesting to those relatives who must ever set a high value on their connection with Jane Austen, and to them I especially dedicate it; but as I have been asked to do so, I also submit it to the censure of the public, with all its faults both of deficiency and redundancy. I know that its value in their eyes must depend, not on any merits of its own, but on the degree of estimation in which my aunt’s works may still be held; and indeed I shall esteem it one of the strongest testimonies ever borne to her talents, if for her sake an interest can be taken in so poor a sketch as I have been able to draw.
Sept. 7, 1869.