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Posts Tagged ‘A Memoir of Jane Austen’

Lady writing at her desk, 1813, Ackermann fashion plate, morning dress.

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.

James Edward Austen as a young man.

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…

Edward Austen-Leigh at the time he wrote Memoirs of Jane Austen

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.

Bray Vicarage:
Sept. 7, 1869.

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Before Jane Austen and her sister, Cassandra, and mother moved into Chawton Cottage, they lived in a “commodious oldfashioned house in a corner of Castle Square” in Southampton. In his Memoir of his aunt, James Edward Austen-Leigh writes this charming, although bittersweet description:

John Petty, 2nd Marquess of Lansdowne

At that time Castle Square was occupied by a fantastic edifice, too large for the space in which it stood, though too small to accord well with its castellated style, erected by the second Marquis of Lansdowne, half-brother to the well-known statesman, who succeeded him in the title. The Marchioness had a light phaeton, drawn by six, and sometimes by eight little ponies, each pair decreasing in size, and becoming lighter in colour, through all the grades of dark brown, light brown, bay, and chestnut, as it was placed farther away from the carriage. The two leading pairs were managed by two boyish postilions, the two pairs nearest to the carriage were driven in hand. It was a delight to me to look down from the window and see this fairy equipage put together; for the premises of this castle were so contracted that the whole process went on in the little space that remained of the open square. Like other fairy works, however, it all proved evanescent. Not only carriage and ponies, but castle itself, soon vanished away, ‘like the baseless fabric of a vision’. On the death of the Marquis in 1809, the castle was pulled down. Few probably remember its existence; and anyone who might visit the place now would wonder how it ever could have stood there. – A Memoir of Jane Austen

George IV’s spider phaeton (1790) Click on image to view a larger version.

Postillion by Thomas Rowlandson (18th century – 19th century)

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1833 Bentley edition of Jane Austen's novels

If you are thinking about getting out of the stock market and placing your money on a sure thing, consider bidding for this edition of six Jane Austen novels in 5 volumes at Bonhams. Set to be sold on June 8, with an estimate of £2,000 – 3,000, the value of this rare set is sure to  go up during the auction and for many years thereafter. The description of the Standard Novels on Bonhams’ web site states:

[Works, Bentley’s Standard Novel edition], 6 vol. in 5, 5 engraved frontispieces and additional titles, some light spotting to first and final few leaves, small corner tear to printed title “Pride and Prejudice”, without half-titles, ownership inscription of Eularia E. Burnaby (1856) on printed titles, bookplate of Henry Vincent, bookseller’s label of H.M. Gilbert, Southampton, uniform contemporary half calf, red and dark green morocco labels, extremities lightly rubbed [Gilson D1-D5], 8vo, R. Bentley, 1833 – Bonhams Website

Richard Bentley (Wikimedia Commons)

The Bentley editions are notable in that no English reissue of JA’s novels is known after 1818. In 1832, Richard Bentley, publisher, purchased the remaining copyrights to Jane’s novels. (An excellent description of how Henry and Cassandra Austen sold the copyright to Richard Bentley and how little money they received for relinquishing their rights to their sister’s novels can be found in Claire Harman’s Jane’s Fame.) Bentley published all of Austen’s completed novels in 1833 in five volume sets known as the Standard Novels.  They came with illustrations that were significant for depicting scenes in early Victorian settings, not Regency settings. (One wonders how much the costume designers of the 1940 Pride and Prejudice film adaptations were influenced by these illustrations.) Bentley’s purchase marked a milestone, for from this time forward Jane Austen’s novels would always remain in print.

Illustration, Pride and Prejudice, Bentley edition (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

At the time of the Bentley reissues, Jane Austen was still regarded as a niche writer. Only a few hundred copies of her books were published and reprinted over the years. When Bentley’s copyrights expired, other printers began to publish her works, but book sales remained modest. Then came 1870. The publication of A Memoir of Jane Austen by J.E. Austen-Leigh, Jane’s nephew, sparked renewed interest in her novels. Bentley reprinted the novels as 21-5 in his Favorite Novels series (Sutherland, page 3),keeping Jane’s name in front of the public. Public demand for Jane’s novels continued to rise with the arrival of Bentley’s deluxe Steventon edition in six volumes in 1882. In 1884, Jane’s great nephew Lord Brabourne published the 2-volume set of Letters of Jane Austen. Combined with the previous publications and a largely favorable assessment of scholars and critics, Jane’s star was born.  A second wave of popularity, whose crest we are still riding, surged after the Jane Austen film adaptations of the 1990’s. It is conjectured that interest in her novels, adaptations, and sequels has peaked, but the number of readers that continue to visit this blog (and other Jane Austen blogs) and to clamor for films based on her life and novels belie that belief .

Bonhams, New Bond Street

About Bonhams LTD:

Bonhams is the world’s oldest and largest auction house still in British ownership. Thomas Dodd, an antique print dealer, and Walter Bonham, a book specialist, founded Bonhams in London in 1793.  When the auction house was launched, it was one of several similar concerns in Georgian London. The firm handled antique objects as well as fine wines. Today Bonhams is considered on of the four major auction houses in England, along with Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips, and sales take place almost daily at the firm’s New Bond Street location in Mayfair, London. (Image at right: University of Notthingham.)

For a more detailed description of Eularia E. Burnaby, whose name is inscribed inside the printed titles of this Standard Novel Edition, read Laurel Ann’s post entitled, Hey Bonhams! That Bentley Edition of Jane Austen Novels is Worth More Than You Thought!

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Dear Readers, This post was originally published in 2007. Since then, Oxford World’s Classics has reissued A Memoir of Jane Austen and Other Family Recollections by J.E. Austen-Leigh with a list of illustrations, a family tree, an introduction by Kathryn Sutherland, and additional family recollections by Henry Austen, Anna Lefroy, and Caroline Austen. Letters are included in the appendix of this rich book, which is filled with the most interesting details about Jane’s life and thoughts:

She certainly took a kind of parental interest in the beings whom she had created, and did not dismiss them from her thoughts when she had finished her last chapter. We have seen, in one of her letters, her personal affection for Darcy and Elizabeth; and when sending a copy of ‘Emma’ to a friend whose daughter had been lately born, she wrote thus: ‘I trust you will be as glad to see my “Emma,” as I shall be to see your Jemima.’ She was very fond of Emma, but did not reckon on her being a general favourite; for, when commencing that work, she said, ‘I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.’ She would, if asked, tell us many little particulars about the subsequent career of some of her people. In this traditionary way we p. 158learned that Miss Steele never succeeded in catching the Doctor; that Kitty Bennet was satisfactorily married to a clergyman near Pemberley, while Mary obtained nothing higher than one of her uncle Philip’s clerks, and was content to be considered a star in the society of Meriton; that the ‘considerable sum’ given by Mrs. Norris to William Price was one pound; that Mr. Woodhouse survived his daughter’s marriage, and kept her and Mr. Knightley from settling at Donwell, about two years; and that the letters placed by Frank Churchill before Jane Fairfax, which she swept away unread, contained the word ‘pardon.’ Of the good people in ‘Northanger Abbey’ and ‘Persuasion’ we know nothing more than what is written: for before those works were published their author had been taken away from us, and all such amusing communications had ceased for ever.


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. However, the Oxford’s World’s Classics edition will give you a more detailed view of Jane through her family’s memoirs and letters.

For additional information, you can also trace the origins of Jane Austen’s popularity in this link. Click here.

  • Image of Jane Austen’s portrait: Oxford World’s Classics book cover, which is available at Amazon.com in the UK and the U.S.

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