Deborah Yaffe

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Jane Austen's first critic

By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 8 2019 01:00PM

For Janeites, it’s salt rubbed in a wound: the news that scholars will soon be able to inspect a fascinating trove of letters from an interesting and important Georgian-era woman. . . who isn’t Jane Austen, because her letters are still burnt to a crisp.


No, the letters in question were written by Henrietta, Countess of Bessborough – many of them to her lover, Lord Granville, an important nineteenth-century diplomat who served as British ambassador to Russia and France. The letters – stored in two tin trunks, reports the website inews -- form a small part of a huge Granville family archive, recently acquired by the British Library for £860,000 (about $1.1 million).


Lady Bessborough, usually known as Harriet, has no end of interesting family connections. Her father was the 1st Earl Spencer, originator of the line that leads to Princess Diana. Her sister was the writer, political activist, and socialite Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Her daughter was the scandalous Lady Caroline Lamb, who unforgettably summed up her own sometime lover, Lord Byron, as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” And Lady Bessborough eventually contrived to marry off Lord Granville – yes, the man she’d been sleeping with -- to her own niece, Georgiana’s daughter, who, in a stranger-than-fiction twist, was also named Harriet.


But enough of this gossip about the incestuously small world of the British aristocracy. For our purposes, what’s interesting is a book recommendation Harriet sent to her big sister Georgiana in November 1811. “God bless you dearest G. have you read Sense & Sensibility?” Harriet wrote, just weeks after the book’s publication. “It is a clever novel [,] they were full of it at Althrop – tho’ it ends stupidly I was much amus’d by it.”


As inews notes, this remark “is thought to be the first contemporary comment on a work by Jane Austen,” not to mention the first recorded instance of reader dissatisfaction with the ending of an Austen novel. (Did Lady Bessborough think Elinor should have married Colonel Brandon?)


The letter is not a new discovery – Lady Bessborough’s comments are mentioned in Brian Southam’s 1968 compilation of early responses to Austen’s works, and I don’t know if he was the first to find them. What’s new, apparently, is the chance for scholarly cataloging of – and, sometime next year, scholarly access to -- the full collection of letters.


Now if only Cassandra Austen had kept one of those tin trunks.


2 comments
Apr 26 2019 08:43PM by Henry Churchyard

I would guess that the "stupidly" part refers to Lucy Steele's marriage, and her ending up becoming the favorite daughter-in-law.

Cassandra destroying letters that she didn't want to pass on to other family members was kind of standard procedure in the 19th century...

Aug 3 2019 06:22PM by dyaffe

You could be right about Lady Bessborough's comments: if only she'd written more. . .

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