Deborah Yaffe

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On this day in 1807. . .

By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 9 2017 02:00PM

Twentieth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


Jane Austen came from a large and close-knit tribe of siblings who remained intimately engaged with each other all their lives.* So Austen’s uncharitable description of her oldest brother, contained in a letter to their sister, Cassandra, finished exactly 210 years ago today, has intrigued biographers.


“I should not be surprised if we were to be visited by James again this week,” Jane wrote to Cassandra, then staying with their brother Edward in Kent. “I am sorry & angry that his Visits should not give one more pleasure; the company of so good & so clever a Man ought to be gratifying in itself;--but his Chat seems all forced, his Opinions on many points too much copied from his Wife’s, & his time here is spent I think in walking about the House & banging the Doors, or ringing the Bell for a glass of Water.” (Letter #50 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence)


In “Brothers of the More Famous Jane,” a fascinating paper delivered at the 2009 Annual General Meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America, Maggie Lane calls this passage “the most negative thing that Jane Austen ever wrote about any of her family—or at least, that Cassandra allowed to stand when she cut up the letters” and argues that “it has colored all subsequent portraits of James.”


Noting his support for his sister’s writing and his deep affection for his children, Lane convincingly mitigates posterity’s harsh verdict on James Austen (1765-1819). More than a decade older than Jane, James followed in their father’s footsteps by becoming a clergyman and eventually taking over the living at Steventon in 1800, when the elder Austens retired to Bath. He was his mother’s favorite, an Oxford graduate and a lifelong writer of unpublished poetry – indeed, something of a literary man manqué.


His toughest critics believe that the biting Chapter 2 of Sense and Sensibility, in which a man allows his wife to talk him out of acting generously toward his widowed stepmother and younger half-sisters, is Jane Austen’s barely veiled account of how James and his second wife, Mary Lloyd Austen, behaved over the move to Steventon.


I’ve always been leery of this conclusion, as I so often am of biographical readings of Austen’s fiction, given the dearth of our information about Austen’s life and writing process. Sure, it’s possible that John and Fanny Dashwood are precise portraits of James and Mary Austen and that the bitterness of those scenes in S&S reflects Austen’s own feelings over her displacement from her childhood home. But it’s equally possible that Austen observed, interrogated and reshaped events, drawing inspiration from real life but heightening the emotions and exaggerating the behavior in the service of her story. This is what writers do.


So what should we make of Austen’s unflattering portrait of the middle-aged James as a dull and inconsiderate houseguest? I’m inclined to be cautious in assuming that this passage represents Jane Austen’s definitive verdict on her brother. Who among us has never felt irritated by a sibling? Who among us has never confided such irritation to an injudicious email? Two centuries from now, would we want our future biographers to conclude that irritation was the sum total of what we felt?


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