Deborah Yaffe

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Family album

By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 17 2019 02:00PM

The Janeite world is a-twitter (and a-Twitter) this week over the serendipitous discovery of a Victorian photo album filled with pictures of Austen descendants – the children and grandchildren of her brother Edward, who was adopted by wealthy relatives and took their name, Knight.


It’s an irresistible story: Last November, a history buff in Ireland paid $1,000 for an eBay offering -- and discovered that she’d stumbled across previously unseen documentation tangentially related to the world’s trendiest classic novelist. *


Too bad that, inevitably, press coverage has swept right past the tangential nature of the discovery in order to wallow in the usual silly speculation and inaccuracy.


To wit:

--The Daily Mail: “Austen . . . has never been pictured herself** but the remarkable discovery gives historians an unprecedented insight into the inspirations for her most famous characters . . . . the photo album shows the family and places which are said to have influenced her writing.”


Guys, this is a stretch.


Austen loved her nieces – and her relationship with the eldest, Fanny, whose picture appears in the album, was important enough that it’s plausible to speculate about influences – but most of the people pictured here were children, if that, when Austen died in 1817. A family wedding from 1865 does not give historians insight into Austen’s influences fifty years earlier, no matter how gee-whiz it is that the groom lost his arm in a tiger attack in India.


As for the places that influenced her, only Chawton House, the Knight family manse in Hampshire, seems to be pictured here, and it’s not exactly “unprecedented” news that Austen spent lots of time there. Nearby Chawton cottage, where Austen wrote or revised all six of her finished novels, is now known as Jane Austen’s House Museum, for crying out loud.


For Janeites, it’s ultra-cool to put faces to the names we’ve seen on Austen family trees, but “unprecedented insight” into Austen’s fiction? I don’t think so.


--Jezebel: “Am I the only one who thought Jane Austen’s family was at least Pride and Prejudice-level poor? According to the pictures of her fancy-ass relatives in The Daily Mail, it turns out they were Emma rich. Look at that manor house!”


Sigh. Where to begin?


1. The Bennets of Pride and Prejudice are not poor, whatever Joe Wright’s 2005 movie may have implied to the contrary. They are landed gentry. Mr. Bennet does not have to work. His daughters move in the best circles of their small-pond country world. The Bennet family's problem is not immediate poverty; it’s a lack of security for the future.


2. Jane Austen’s family of origin was also not poor. The Austens were respectably middle class. Unlike the Bennets, however, they were not landed gentry. The Rev. George Austen did have to work, as a teacher and a minister. This is well-documented in roughly a gazillion Austen biographies.


3. But one of Jane Austen’s brothers – the one whose descendants are pictured here – was rich, possibly even Emma rich. (See above.) Again, this is not news.


4. In any case, however, the people pictured here lived long, long after Jane Austen, in a social world far different from her own. Their economic circumstances, while interesting in themselves, don’t tell us much about Austen’s own life.


Still, if you want to ransack the attic again in hopes of finding a previously unsuspected Austen family relic, be my guest. It doesn’t have to offer unprecedented! insights! to be intriguing.



* Novelist and academic Sophia Hillan, the author of a non-fiction account of three Austen nieces who settled in Ireland, mentioned the album in passing in a piece she published last month in the Irish Times. (I mentioned it here.) But the press doesn't seem to have registered the importance of the discovery until a few days ago.


** No big surprise, that, since she died two decades before the invention of photography. (Details!)


2 comments
Jan 19 2019 08:24PM by A. Marie

I too have been wearily amused by the UK mass media's late jump on the bandwagon about this album (and all the attendant nonsense). I think it's also worth noting that the Telegraph, the Daily Mail, and the Times all misspelled the album purchaser's surname as Levers. As the lady herself has been (also wearily) pointing out on Twitter, "The name is Ievers. Karen Ievers."

Jan 20 2019 04:56PM by dyaffe

I was wondering about that last name: I saw it both ways and couldn't figure out which was the mistake, since typographically it's hard to distinguish a capital I from a lower-case l. Thank you for clearing that up!

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