Friday, September 7, 2007

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


When first I was asked to put together a memoir of my aunt, I saw reasons for declining the attempt.  It was not only that, having passed the three score years and ten usually allotted to man’s strength, and being unaccustomed to write for publication, I might well distrust my ability to complete the work, but that I also knew the extreme scantiness of the materials out of which it must be constructed.  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.  It has been said that the happiest individuals, like nations during their happiest periods, have no history.  In the case of my aunt, it was not only that her course of life was unvaried, but that her own disposition was remarkably calm and even.  There was in her nothing eccentric or angular; no ruggedness of temper; no singularity of manner; none of the morbid sensibility or exaggeration of feeling, which not unfrequently accompanies great talents, to be worked up into a picture.  Hers was a mind well balanced on a basis of good sense, sweetened by an affectionate heart, and regulated by fixed principles; so that she was to be distinguished from many other amiable and sensible women only by that peculiar genius which shines out clearly enough in her works, but of which a biographer can make little use.  The motive which at last induced me to make the attempt 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.

Postscript printed at the end of the first edition; omitted from the second.

Since these pages were in type, I have read with astonishment the strange misrepresentation of my aunt’s manners given by Miss Mitford in a letter which appears in her lately-published Life, vol. i. p. 305.  Miss Mitford does not profess to have known Jane Austen herself, but to report what had been told her by her mother.  Having stated that her mother ‘before her marriage’ was well acquainted with Jane Austen and her family, she writes thus:—‘Mamma says that she was then the prettiest, silliest, most affected, husband-hunting butterfly she ever remembers.’  The editor of Miss Mitford’s Life very properly observes in a note how different this description is from ‘every other account of Jane Austen from whatever quarter.’  Certainly it is so totally at variance with the modest simplicity of character which I have attributed to my aunt, that if it could be supposed to have a semblance of truth, it must be equally injurious to her memory and to my trustworthiness as her biographer.  Fortunately I am not driven to put my authority in competition with that of Miss Mitford, nor to ask which ought to be considered the better witness in this case; because I am able to prove by a reference to dates that Miss Mitford must have been under a mistake, and that her mother could not possibly have known what she was supposed to have reported; inasmuch as Jane Austen, at the time referred to, was a little girl.

Mrs. Mitford was the daughter of Dr. Russell, Rector of Ashe, a parish adjoining Steventon, so that the families of Austen and Russell must at that time have been known to each other.  But the date assigned by Miss Mitford for the termination of the acquaintance is the time of her mother’s marriage.  This took place in October 1785, when Jane, who had been born in December 1775, was not quite ten years old.  In point of fact, however, Miss Russell’s opportunities of observing Jane Austen must have come to an end still earlier: for upon Dr. Russell’s death, in January 1783, his widow and daughter removed from the neighbourhood, so that all intercourse between the families ceased when Jane was little more than seven years old.

All persons who undertake to narrate from hearsay things which are supposed to have taken place before they were born are liable to error, and are apt to call in imagination to the aid of memory: and hence it arises that many a fancy piece has been substituted for genuine history.

I do not care to correct the inaccurate account of Jane Austen’s manners in after life: because Miss Mitford candidly expresses a doubt whether she had not been misinformed on that point.

Nov. 17, 1869.

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