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Only a Novel: The Double Life of Jane Austen


  ONLY A NOVEL

  The Double Life of Jane Austen

  Jane Aiken Hodge

  Copyright © Jane Aiken Hodge 1972

  The right of Jane Aiken Hodge to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.

  First published in the United Kingdom in 1972 by Hodder and Stoughton Ltd.

  This edition published in 2014 by Endeavour Press Ltd.

  FOR MISS MARY M. LASCELLES

  I wish to acknowledge the kindness of the Oxford University Press in allowing extensive quotations from Jane Austen’s Letters to her sister Cassandra and others, collected and edited by R. W. Chapman.

  I have also received much help, advice and encouragement from my husband, Alan Hodge, and from Sir Zachary Cope, Milton Crane, John Murray, W. O. P. Rosedale and B. C. Southam.

  J.A.H.

  Table of Contents

  ONLY A NOVEL

  The Double Life of Jane Austen

  Jane Aiken Hodge

  Table of Contents

  Introduction

  1

  2

  3

  4

  5

  6

  7

  8

  9

  10

  11

  12

  13

  14

  15

  16

  17

  Bibliography

  Extract from Jane Austen and Food by Maggie Lane

  Introduction

  In Jane Austen’s lifetime, it occurred to no one that she would one day be famous, that future generations would be eager for details of the intensely private life of “’tother Miss Austen”. Burying her, in 1817, in Winchester Cathedral, her grieving family paid due tribute to “the benevolence of her heart, the sweetness of her temper, and the extraordinary endowments of her mind”, but did not think to mention the six novels that would bring people from all over the world to look at the plain, stone slab that marks her grave.

  When Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were published posthumously in 1818, her brother Henry contributed a brief Biographical Notice that is more a laudatory character sketch of the lost, beloved sister than an attempt to give the facts of her life. He sums up his view thus: “A life of usefulness, literature and religion, was not by any means a life of event.” And he disposes of such events as he cares to notice in under two printed pages.

  It was more than fifty years before a fuller attempt was made at a biography, and by then all of Jane Austen’s own generation were gone, her last brother having died, at a great age, in 1865. The two oldest nieces, Fanny Knatchbull and Anna Lefroy, who might have remembered the Aunt Jane of the Steventon period, were old ladies. The author of the 1870 Memoir, her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, had been only nineteen when she died, so that most of his memories, like those of his sister Caroline Austen, were inevitably of the last years of their aunt’s life. And when he applied to his older cousin, Lady Knatchbull, for a sight of their aunt’s letters, most of which had been bequeathed to her by Jane’s sister Cassandra, he was put off with excuses. The letters were missing. Lady Knatchbull, Jane Austen’s beloved niece Fanny, was too old and too ill to be troubled about them. Though unfortunate, this is hardly surprising. Jane Austen, writing, years before, both to Fanny herself and to her sister and close confidante Cassandra, had talked freely about Fanny’s frivolous youth. There had been various young men to be discussed, seriously or otherwise, and one of them, comically described by Jane to Cassandra, had been, in fact, an apothecary. In Regency, and still more, no doubt, in Lady Knatchbull’s elegant Victorian circles, apothecaries were not at all the thing. It is no wonder if Fanny Knatchbull, remembering these letters, and others, in which her aunt had advised her over a serious affair with a young gentleman of an Evangelical turn, decided to take the standard Victorian lady’s refuge in illness. At all events, the letters were not available to James Edward Austen-Leigh, and his Memoir is the poorer for their lack, though it does include a few that had passed to other members of the family.

  To do her justice, Lady Knatchbull kept the letters, and when she died, her son, Lord Brabourne, published them, with a dedication to Queen Victoria and his own explanatory text; but by then it was 1884. When his Letters of Jane Austen came out, she had been dead sixty-seven years. Lord Brabourne himself was two generations away from his subject, and, still more important, he had lost touch with the Hampshire branch of the family, to which his great-aunt had belonged. For the Austens, like their most illustrious member, had a kind of double life. Lord Brabourne’s grandfather, Jane Austen’s brother Edward, had been adopted by rich relations in Kent and had finally taken their family name of Knight, while James Edward, son of her brother James and author of the Memoir, remained in Hampshire, inherited money and an extra name from the distaff side, and so became Austen-Leigh. It was members of his family, W. and R. A. Austen-Leigh, who finally published, in 1913, the Life and Letters of Jane Austen, which sums up family records and tradition. Another invaluable source book is the Austen Papers, 1704-1856, edited by R. A. Austen-Leigh, which appeared in 1942, and is a perfect goldmine of miscellaneous family letters and documents.

  But the dates of these books show how far they are removed from their subject, and there are, in fact, great gaps in the story they tell. This is because it is largely based on Jane Austen’s own surviving letters, the best source of all for her life, and they were ruthlessly pruned by Cassandra before her own death. In My Aunt Jane Austen, A Memoir, Caroline Craven Austen records that Cassandra “looked them over and burnt the greater part (as she told me), two or three years before her own death ... of those that I have seen, several had portions cut out”. And, again, in Personal Aspects of Jane Austen, Mary Augusta Austen-Leigh tells us that Cassandra, who shared her sister’s strong sense of privacy, saved only such of the letters as she thought to contain “nothing sufficiently interesting to induce any future generation to give them to the world”. In fact, the gaps in the letters can be expected to correspond with crises in their author’s life, or in her family’s. Cassandra’s hand was a heavy one. We can only respect, and regret it.

  What remains is suggestive of Jane Austen’s own description, in Sanditon, of a sea mist and “something white and womanish” just visible through it. Ever since the Memoir was published, people have been peering through the mist. Relatives and connections have added a fact or conjecture here, an anecdote there; contemporary sources have been combed for comment and criticism. As the Austen cult grew, devotees pursued “dear Aunt Jane” from place to place, happily discovering here a ballroom where she probably danced, there a double hedgerow that may have inspired her. It does not add up to very much.

  The family’s devoted, if belated, recollections give us a kind of framework of a life, but they tend to paint a character at once too good to be true and far too good to have written either the six brilliant novels or the equally surprising letters. I have no doubt that this is largely Jane Austen’s own fault. She played, supremely well, the part that was expected of her. She was “dear Aunt Jane”, beloved of children, who never said a sharp thing. Or hardly ever. There are sharp things in her letters, and there must have been in her conversation, but Cassandra burned many of the letters, and the family preferred to forget the conversation. In her lifetime, Jane Austen did her best to conform to the conventions of her day, and after her death the family touched up the picture. Somehow, in their devotion, they succeeded in superimposing their legendary dear aunt on the other figure of Miss Jane Austen, the author. One must always distinguish between these two
ladies. Dear Aunt Jane seldom said an unkind thing. She nursed the sick, looked after the children, gave way to her brothers’ convenience. She was, rightly, a beloved aunt and sister. One is not quite so sure how she stood as a daughter.

  But Miss Jane Austen, who commenced as an author at about twelve years old, was something very different. What depths of intellectual and moral despair must she have plumbed before she achieved the extraordinary ironic moral vision that has been compared, with justice, to Chaucer’s? No use going to her family’s records for evidence or clues about this. They will simply tell us that Aunt Jane played the piano before breakfast — and rather easy tunes at that. While she sat there, every inch the maiden aunt, she was doubtless wrestling, like every other artist who has created something that endures, with her vision of the universe. It was a fortunate thing for her family that the highly polished surface of the six novels, their sheer artistry, concealing tension, makes it easy to miss the depth and bitterness of what they are often saying.

  Jane Austen looked at the world around her, and found it wanting. She wrote at a time like ours, when the established moral code was under question, and the whole fabric of society changing. The gay, romantic plots that have delighted generations of teenagers are only the surface tune behind which beats the great rhythm of her moral and ironic argument. She had to choose between laughter and tears, and I think sometimes the choice was a very near thing. There are not many easy answers in her novels. There is curiously little religion either. One of the reasons, I think, why her books continue so readable is that her characters make their moral decisions in the same kind of climate of unknowing, or even of unbelief, that we are used to today. She did try, once in Mansfield Park, to write a book on a religious theme, and produced a flawed masterpiece. It is no wonder if the Victorians found her doubtful reading. How much more respectable to be Lucy Snow and rush to confession (even to a Roman Catholic priest) than to be Elizabeth Bennet or Anne Elliot, and deal with despair alone.

  Naturally, dear Aunt Jane would have told you, and with perfect truth, that she was a good churchwoman. A few of the prayers that she wrote survive. Her letters of condolence on family deaths say the proper things, properly. Dying, she had the comfort of two clergyman brothers at her bedside, and insisted on receiving the last rites of the Church when she was still conscious enough to understand them. I hope Miss Jane Austen, the author, was also conscious enough to find it ironic that of the two clergymen brothers, one was James, whom she had always liked the least, and the other Henry, who had turned to the Church as a pis aller after failing elsewhere.

  Ironic laughter was Jane Austen’s own answer to the tragédie humaine, and we must look for the real evidence about her character not in the censored reminiscences of Victorian relatives, but in the books and the letters themselves. We have all that remain now, brilliantly edited in R. W. Chapman’s definitive Oxford edition, to which I have referred throughout, but without page references which would have entailed a perfect jungle of footnotes. All quotations are from Jane Austen, unless otherwise identified. Peering, in my turn, through the mists of a hundred and fifty years, I have tried for my own picture of the person who could write those seven extraordinary novels (including Lady Susan), and those significant and delightful letters. Where I have allowed myself the luxury of conjecture, I have said so. Elsewhere, I hope, I am solidly grounded in the authorities.

  And then, there are the critics. How surprised, and how amused, Jane Austen would have been if she could have known what an immense number of critical works would be devoted to her. “Who, me?” one imagines her saying, with one of her occasional grammatical lapses. “All those books — and so many of them by men!” That would have amused her, I am sure, as much as anything. As it is, I must begin with an apology. Over and over again I have achieved what I thought an original point, only to find it tracked, already, in someone else’s snow. By now, the tracks are so thick, the pattern so confused, that I can only say I owe something to almost every author quoted in my inevitably selective bibliography, but a most particular debt to R. W. Chapman, Miss Mary Lascelles, Marvin Mudrick, B. C. Southam and Miss C. L. Thomson.

  Her critics have always spent a surprising amount of time contentedly retelling Jane Austen’s stories for her. In the text, I propose to pay my readers the compliment of assuming that they know the plots of the novels. I can think of no other author whose books change so much as the reader changes. Read Emma at eighteen, and at eighty, and you will have read two different books. But Jane Austen wrote them both.

  Finally, this book is written for the general public, not the world of scholarship, though its basis is as scholarly as I can make it. But in the interests of readability I have modernised spelling and usage in all quotations, and have kept my footnotes to a minimum, hoping that any critic who feels I have stolen his thunder may forgive me as a fellow admirer of Jane Austen, and one who claims no more than to be, as she once described herself, “a partial, prejudiced, and ignorant historian”.

  1

  When Jane Austen was born, a star danced. She had the gift of laughter; and she needed it. And yet, apparently, her prospects were fair enough. In an age of sharp contrast between the circumstances of rich and poor, she was born into a reasonably comfortable nook of nearly the upper middle class. Her father, George Austen, a surgeon’s son, had been left a penniless orphan, it is true, but the Austens of Kent had strong family feelings. Young George was taken in hand by his uncle, Francis Austen, a successful attorney of Tonbridge, who sent him to Tonbridge School. From there he obtained a scholarship to St. John’s College, Oxford, where he seems to have acquired a good deal more education than many of his contemporaries, in that time of academic dead water. His son Henry described him as “not only a profound scholar, but possessing a most exquisite taste in every species of literature”. Even allowing for family prejudice, we can probably accept this as close enough to the truth. George Austen went back to teach at his old school when he left St. John’s, but returned there later as a Fellow. He was ordained in 1760 and next year another relative, Thomas Knight of Godmersham in Kent, presented him with the living of Steventon, in Hampshire, to which his Uncle Francis presently added that of Deane, a mile and a half away.

  It was, comfortably, enough to marry on. History does not relate just where or when George Austen met his future wife, Cassandra Leigh, but it seems reasonable to assume that it was through an Oxford connection. The Leighs were Founder’s Kin of St. John’s College through their ancestor, Sir Thomas White, and Cassandra’s father, the Reverend Thomas Leigh, had been a Fellow of All Souls before he received the college living of Harpsden in Berkshire. Moreover her uncle, Dr. Theophilus Leigh, was Master of Balliol for over half a century, and was praised for his wit by Mrs. Thrale in a letter to Dr. Johnson.

  Altogether the Leighs came from a rather higher stratum of the complex society of their day than the Austens. They had baronet blood, and an abbey in the family. Charles I had found shelter at Stoneleigh Abbey when Coventry shut its gates against him, and his portrait still hung there, disguised as a flower-painting. There was money about, too, tantalisingly near, though never, as it turned out, quite near enough.

  But for the moment, it all seemed a happy ending. Handsome George Austen married witty Cassandra Leigh in Walcot Church, Bath, on April 26th, 1764. The bride went away in a scarlet riding habit and the short honeymoon journey home to Hampshire was unusual in that the happy couple were accompanied by a six-year-old boy. He was another George, the son of Warren Hastings, the famous first Governor-General of British India, and had been in George Austen’s care since 1761. This was presumably the result of George’s sister Philadelphia’s friendship with the great man in India. Orphaned and penniless as her brother, Philadelphia had been shipped off by her friends, like Jane Austen’s Miss Wynne in Catherine, to make the best marriage she could in India. She had married a surgeon called Tysoe Saul Hancock, considerably older than herself, and it seems reasonable to assume tha
t she had made friends with Warren Hastings’ first wife either before or on the voyage out, since the same people stood sponsor for them both. It was to prove an invaluable connection for her.

  Little George Hastings, however, died young, that autumn of 1764 of a putrid sore throat (probably diphtheria) and Mrs. Austen, her grandson tells us in his Memoir, “always declared that his death had been as great a grief to her as if he had been a child of her own”. Those were strong words, for her own family grew fast. By 1772, Mr. Hancock was writing gloomily from India to his wife in England about “the violently rapid increase of the Austens’ family”. And, again: “I fear George will find it easier to get a family than to provide for them.”

  He reckoned without the capable Austens and Leighs. George and Cassandra managed, but it was not easy. Like Mr. and Mrs. Heywood, in Sanditon, they found that “the maintenance, education and fitting out of their children demanded a very quiet, settled, careful course of life”. The honeymoon scarlet riding habit was worn steadily for two years and reappeared, later, cut down into hunting pink for one of the active Austen boys. Mr. Austen supplemented the income from his two parishes by taking in pupils and farming his glebe.[1] His wife wrote knowledgeably to her sister-in-law[2] about hay and cows, and cheerfully received guests while doing the family mending in the parlour.

  The family kept on growing. James was born in 1765, George in 1766, Edward in 1768 and Henry in 1771. Then, in 1773 came the first girl, Cassandra, followed in 1774 by Francis, in 1775 by Jane, and finally, in 1779 by “our own particular brother”, Charles. Some biographers of Jane Austen have suggested that Mrs. Austen was a bit of a malade imaginaire, needing constant physicking by her daughters. There may be some truth in this as far as her later life was concerned, but as a young woman she must have had a constitution of iron to have borne and reared all those children, running a large household and doubtless helping to run her husband’s parish the while, and have come out of it all still capable of writing an entertaining letter, or a reasonably comic poem; still prepared to enjoy the inevitable business of the amateur theatricals the Austens liked to indulge in.

 
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