Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Memoir of Jane Austen (by James Edward Austen-Leigh): Chapter V

Description of Jane Austen’s person, character, and tastes.

As my memoir has now reached the period when I saw a great deal of my aunt, and was old enough to understand something of her value, I will here attempt a description of her person, mind, and habits.  In person she was very attractive; her figure was rather tall and slender, her step light and firm, and her whole appearance expressive of health and animation.  In complexion she was a clear brunette with a rich colour; she had full round cheeks, with mouth and nose small and well formed, bright hazel eyes, and brown hair forming natural curls close round her face.  If not so regularly handsome as her sister, yet her countenance had a peculiar charm of its own to the eyes of most beholders.  At the time of which I am now writing, she never was seen, either morning or evening, without a cap; I believe that she and her sister were generally thought to have taken to the garb of middle age earlier than their years or their looks required; and that, though remarkably neat in their dress as in all their ways, they were scarcely sufficiently regardful of the fashionable, or the becoming.

She was not highly accomplished according to the present standard.  Her sister drew well, and it is from a drawing of hers that the likeness prefixed to this volume has been taken.  Jane herself was fond of music, and had a sweet voice, both in singing and in conversation; in her youth she had received some instruction on the pianoforte; and at Chawton she practised daily, chiefly before breakfast.  I believe she did so partly that she might not disturb the rest of the party who were less fond of music.  In the evening she would sometimes sing, to her own accompaniment, some simple old songs, the words and airs of which, now never heard, still linger in my memory.

She read French with facility, and knew something of Italian.  In those days German was no more thought of than Hindostanee, as part of a lady’s education.  In history she followed the old guides—Goldsmith, Hume, and Robertson.  Critical enquiry into the usually received statements of the old historians was scarcely begun.  The history of the early kings of Rome had not yet been dissolved into legend.  Historic characters lay before the reader’s eyes in broad light or shade, not much broken up by details.  The virtues of King Henry VIII. were yet undiscovered, nor had much light been thrown on the inconsistencies of Queen Elizabeth; the one was held to be an unmitigated tyrant, and an embodied Blue Beard; the other a perfect model of wisdom and policy.  Jane, when a girl, had strong political opinions, especially about the affairs of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  She was a vehement defender of Charles I. and his grandmother Mary; but I think it was rather from an impulse of feeling than from any enquiry into the evidences by which they must be condemned or acquitted.  As she grew up, the politics of the day occupied very little of her attention, but she probably shared the feeling of moderate Toryism which prevailed in her family.  She was well acquainted with the old periodicals from the ‘Spectator’ downwards.  Her knowledge of Richardson’s works was such as no one is likely again to acquire, now that the multitude and the merits of our light literature have called off the attention of readers from that great master.  Every circumstance narrated in Sir Charles Grandison, all that was ever said or done in the cedar parlour, was familiar to her; and the wedding days of Lady L. and Lady G. were as well remembered as if they had been living friends.  Amongst her favourite writers, Johnson in prose, Crabbe in verse, and Cowper in both, stood high.  It is well that the native good taste of herself and of those with whom she lived, saved her from the snare into which a sister novelist had fallen, of imitating the grandiloquent style of Johnson.  She thoroughly enjoyed Crabbe; perhaps on account of a certain resemblance to herself in minute and highly finished detail; and would sometimes say, in jest, that, if she ever married at all, she could fancy being Mrs. Crabbe; looking on the author quite as an abstract idea, and ignorant and regardless what manner of man he might be.  Scott’s poetry gave her great pleasure; she did not live to make much acquaintance with his novels.  Only three of them were published before her death; but it will be seen by the following extract from one of her letters, that she was quite prepared to admit the merits of ‘Waverley’; and it is remarkable that, living, as she did, far apart from the gossip of the literary world, she should even then have spoken so confidently of his being the author of it:—

‘Walter Scott has no business to write novels; especially good ones.  It is not fair.  He has fame and profit enough as a poet, and ought not to be taking the bread out of other people’s mouths.  I do not mean to like “Waverley,” if I can help it, but I fear I must.  I am quite determined, however, not to be pleased with Mrs. ---’s, should I ever meet with it, which I hope I may not.  I think I can be stout against anything written by her.  I have made up my mind to like no novels really, but Miss Edgeworth’s, E.’s, and my own.’

It was not, however, what she knew, but what she was, that distinguished her from others.  I cannot better describe the fascination which she exercised over children than by quoting the words of two of her nieces.  One says:—

‘As a very little girl I was always creeping up to aunt Jane, and following her whenever I could, in the house and out of it.  I might not have remembered this but for the recollection of my mother’s telling me privately, that I must not be troublesome to my aunt.  Her first charm to children was great sweetness of manner.  She seemed to love you, and you loved her in return.  This, as well as I can now recollect, was what I felt in my early days, before I was old enough to be amused by her cleverness.  But soon came the delight of her playful talk.  She could make everything amusing to a child.  Then, as I got older, when cousins came to share the entertainment, she would tell us the most delightful stories, chiefly of Fairyland, and her fairies had all characters of their own.  The tale was invented, I am sure, at the moment, and was continued for two or three days, if occasion served.’

Again: ‘When staying at Chawton, with two of her other nieces, we often had amusements in which my aunt was very helpful.  She was the one to whom we always looked for help.  She would furnish us with what we wanted from her wardrobe; and she would be the entertaining visitor in our make-believe house.  She amused us in various ways.  Once, I remember, in giving a conversation as between myself and my two cousins, supposing we were all grown up, the day after a ball.’

Very similar is the testimony of another niece:—‘Aunt Jane was the general favourite with children; her ways with them being so playful, and her long circumstantial stories so delightful.  These were continued from time to time, and were begged for on all possible and impossible occasions; woven, as she proceeded, out of nothing but her own happy talent for invention.  Ah! if but one of them could be recovered!  And again, as I grew older, when the original seventeen years between our ages seemed to shrink to seven, or to nothing, it comes back to me now how strangely I missed her.  It had become so much a habit with me to put by things in my mind with a reference to her, and to say to myself, I shall keep this for aunt Jane.’

A nephew of hers used to observe that his visits to Chawton, after the death of his aunt Jane, were always a disappointment to him.  From old associations he could not help expecting to be particularly happy in that house; and never till he got there could he realise to himself how all its peculiar charm was gone.  It was not only that the chief light in the house was quenched, but that the loss of it had cast a shade over the spirits of the survivors.  Enough has been said to show her love for children, and her wonderful power of entertaining them; but her friends of all ages felt her enlivening influence.  Her unusually quick sense of the ridiculous led her to play with all the common-places of everyday life, whether as regarded persons or things; but she never played with its serious duties or responsibilities, nor did she ever turn individuals into ridicule.  With all her neighbours in the village she vas on friendly, though not on intimate, terms.  She took a kindly interest in all their proceedings, and liked to hear about them.  They often served for her amusement; but it was her own nonsense that gave zest to the gossip.  She was as far as possible from being censorious or satirical.  She never abused them or quizzed them—that was the word of the day; an ugly word, now obsolete; and the ugly practice which it expressed is much less prevalent now than it was then.  The laugh which she occasionally raised was by imagining for her neighbours, as she was equally ready to imagine for her friends or herself, impossible contingencies, or by relating in prose or verse some trifling anecdote coloured to her own fancy, or in writing a fictitious history of what they were supposed to have said or done, which could deceive nobody.

The following specimens may be given of the liveliness of mind which imparted an agreeable flavour both to her correspondence and her conversation:—

On reading in the newspapers the marriage of Mr. Gell to Miss Gill, of Eastbourne.

At Eastbourne Mr. Gell, From being perfectly well,

Became dreadfully ill, For love of Miss Gill.

So he said, with some sighs, I’m the slave of your iis;

Oh, restore, if you please, By accepting my ees.

On the marriage of a middle-aged Flirt with a Mr. Wake, whom, it was supposed, she would scarcely have accepted in her youth.

Maria, good-humoured, and handsome, and tall,

   For a husband was at her last stake;

And having in vain danced at many a ball,

   Is now happy to jump at a Wake.

‘We were all at the play last night to see Miss O’Neil in Isabella.  I do not think she was quite equal to my expectation.  I fancy I want something more than can be.  Acting seldom satisfies me.  I took two pockethandkerchiefs, but had very little occasion for either.  She is an elegant creature, however, and hugs Mr. Young delightfully.’

‘So, Miss B. is actually married, but I have never seen it in the papers; and one may as well be single if the wedding is not to be in print.’

Once, too, she took it into her head to write the following mock panegyric on a young friend, who really was clever and handsome:—


In measured verse I’ll now rehearse

   The charms of lovely Anna:

And, first, her mind is unconfined

   Like any vast savannah.


Ontario’s lake may fitly speak

   Her fancy’s ample bound:

Its circuit may, on strict survey

   Five hundred miles be found.


Her wit descends on foes and friends

   Like famed Niagara’s Fall;

And travellers gaze in wild amaze,

   And listen, one and all.


Her judgment sound, thick, black, profound,

   Like transatlantic groves,

Dispenses aid, and friendly shade

   To all that in it roves.


If thus her mind to be defined

   America exhausts,

And all that’s grand in that great land

   In similes it costs—


Oh how can I her person try

   To image and portray?

How paint the face, the form how trace

   In which those virtues lay?


Another world must be unfurled,

   Another language known,

Ere tongue or sound can publish round

   Her charms of flesh and bone.

I believe that all this nonsense was nearly extempore, and that the fancy of drawing the images from America arose at the moment from the obvious rhyme which presented itself in the first stanza.

The following extracts are from letters addressed to a niece who was at that time amusing herself by attempting a novel, probably never finished, certainly never published, and of which I know nothing but what these extracts tell.  They show the good-natured sympathy and encouragement which the aunt, then herself occupied in writing ‘Emma,’ could give to the less matured powers of the niece.  They bring out incidentally some of her opinions concerning compositions of that kind:—


‘Chawton, Aug. 10, 1814.

‘Your aunt C. does not like desultory novels, and is rather fearful that yours will be too much so; that there will be too frequent a change from one set of people to another, and that circumstances will be sometimes introduced, of apparent consequence, which will lead to nothing.  It will not be so great an objection to me.  I allow much more latitude than she does, and think nature and spirit cover many sins of a wandering story.  And people in general do not care much about it, for your comfort . . .’

‘Sept. 9.

‘You are now collecting your people delightfully, getting them exactly into such a spot as is the delight of my life.  Three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on; and I hope you will write a great deal more, and make full use of them while they are so very favourably arranged.’

‘Sept. 28.

‘Devereux Forrester being ruined by his vanity is very good: but I wish you would not let him plunge into a “vortex of dissipation.”  I do not object to the thing, but I cannot bear the expression: it is such thorough novel slang; and so old that I dare say Adam met with it in the first novel that he opened.’

‘Hans Place (Nov. 1814).

‘I have been very far from finding your book an evil, I assure you.  I read it immediately, and with great pleasure.  Indeed, I do think you get on very fast.  I wish other people of my acquaintance could compose as rapidly.  Julian’s history was quite a surprise to me.  You had not very long known it yourself, I suspect; but I have no objection to make to the circumstance; it is very well told, and his having been in love with the aunt gives Cecilia an additional interest with him.  I like the idea; a very proper compliment to an aunt!  I rather imagine, indeed, that nieces are seldom chosen but in compliment to some aunt or other.  I dare say your husband was in love with me once, and would never have thought of you if he had not supposed me dead of a scarlet fever.’

Jane Austen was successful in everything that she attempted with her fingers.  None of us could throw spilikins in so perfect a circle, or take them off with so steady a hand.  Her performances with cup and ball were marvellous.  The one used at Chawton was an easy one, and she has been known to catch it on the point above an hundred times in succession, till her hand was weary.  She sometimes found a resource in that simple game, when unable, from weakness in her eyes, to read or write long together.  A specimen of her clear strong handwriting is here given.  Happy would the compositors for the press be if they had always so legible a manuscript to work from.  But the writing was not the only part of her letters which showed superior handiwork.  In those days there was an art in folding and sealing.  No adhesive envelopes made all easy.  Some people’s letters always looked loose and untidy; but her paper was sure to take the right folds, and her sealing-wax to drop into the right place.  Her needlework both plain and ornamental was excellent, and might almost have put a sewing machine to shame.  She was considered especially great in satin stitch.  She spent much time in these occupations, and some of her merriest talk was over clothes which she and her companions were making, sometimes for themselves, and sometimes for the poor.  There still remains a curious specimen of her needlework made for a sister-in-law, my mother.  In a very small bag is deposited a little rolled up housewife, furnished with minikin needles and fine thread.  In the housewife is a tiny pocket, and in the pocket is enclosed a slip of paper, on which, written as with a crow quill, are these lines:—

This little bag, I hope, will prove

   To be not vainly made;

For should you thread and needles want,

   It will afford you aid.

And, as we are about to part,

   ‘T will serve another end:

For, when you look upon this bag,

   You’ll recollect your friend.

It is the kind of article that some benevolent fairy might be supposed to give as a reward to a diligent little girl.  The whole is of flowered silk, and having been never used and carefully preserved, it is as fresh and bright as when it was first made seventy years ago; and shows that the same hand which painted so exquisitely with the pen could work as delicately with the needle.

I have collected some of the bright qualities which shone, as it were, on the surface of Jane Austen’s character, and attracted most notice; but underneath them there lay the strong foundations of sound sense and judgment, rectitude of principle, and delicacy of feeling, qualifying her equally to advise, assist, or amuse.  She was, in fact, as ready to comfort the unhappy, or to nurse the sick, as she was to laugh and jest with the lighthearted.  Two of her nieces were grown up, and one of them was married, before she was taken away from them.  As their minds became more matured, they were admitted into closer intimacy with her, and learned more of her graver thoughts; they know what a sympathising friend and judicious adviser they found her to be in many little difficulties and doubts of early womanhood.

I do not venture to speak of her religious principles: that is a subject on which she herself was more inclined to think and act than to talk, and I shall imitate her reserve; satisfied to have shown how much of Christian love and humility abounded in her heart, without presuming to lay bare the roots whence those graces grew.  Some little insight, however, into these deeper recesses of the heart must be given, when we come to speak of her death.

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