On this day in 1817. . .
By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 6 2017 01:00PM
Twenty-second in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.
Devotees of the Victorian novel are familiar with the Will Subplot, wherein family members jockey for the favor of a rich, elderly relative with an unresolved estate plan. Think of Dickens’ Miss Havisham toying with her horrible relations, or George Eliot’s Peter Featherstone having deathbed second thoughts about the disposition of his property.
Jane Austen didn’t write Victorian novels, of course – she died nearly two years before the future Queen Victoria was born – but the last months of her life were shadowed by a real-life Will Subplot. That’s the context for the letter Austen sent her youngest brother, Charles, exactly two hundred years ago today (#157 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).
The Austens were a shabby-genteel family with more breeding and education than money, but one relative had indisputably made good: James Leigh-Perrot, the older brother of Jane Austen’s mother, had inherited a fortune (and a second surname – that’s the Perrot) from a childless relative. Since he and his wife, Jane Leigh-Perrot, had no children of their own, the Austens expected that his death would bring handsome bequests to his sister’s large family, most of whom needed the money badly.
But when Leigh-Perrot died in March 1817, his will “like almost every other will, gave as much disappointment as pleasure,” as Austen wrote presciently in the opening chapter of Sense and Sensibility. Leigh-Perrot left all his property to his wife for her lifetime, with a substantial fortune going to Jane Austen’s oldest brother, James, only after her death. The rest of the Austen siblings got £1,000 each – but they, too, had to wait for their money until after the death of disagreeable Aunt Jane. The disappointment was intense, and Jane Austen, already suffering from the illness that would kill her three months later, felt it keenly.
“A few days ago my complaint appeared removed, but I am ashamed to say that the shock of my Uncle’s Will brought on a relapse,” she wrote to Charles. “I am the only one of the Legatees who has been so silly, but a weak Body must excuse weak Nerves.”
We Janeites, who would do anything to read the novels that Jane Austen might have written if only she’d survived another twenty-five or thirty years, can’t help but resent the pain that Uncle James’ foolish uxoriousness caused Our Jane – even if it seems unlikely that disappointment over the will actually hastened her death, whether caused by Addison’s disease, cancer, typhoid, tuberculosis, arsenic poisoning or a still-unsuspected something else.
It’s poignant, though, to read the bibliographical information that Le Faye includes in her footnotes – information that perhaps explains why this is the only letter from Jane to Charles that has come down to us, even though she surely wrote him frequently all her life. Charles saved this one, labeling it “My last letter from Dearest Jane.”
I'm not even going to start on Aunt Leigh-Perrot. I'd be here all night.
But, like you, I've always been moved by that inscription on the letter Charles saved. And I don't blame him for not saving more of them (he moved many times in the course of his naval life, and lost all his possessions at least once, when his ship the Phoenix sank in the Mediterranean in 1816) as much as I blame some of the other brothers for not saving theirs. We know that Frank cut up a few for signatures, and that one of his daughters destroyed a lot more. And James? Edward? Henry? All MIA in the letters-from-Jane department.
I thought Frank actually saved all his letters from Jane, only to have an officious daughter or granddaughter toss them all in the trash the minute he died. (If only she'd known how much money she could have gotten for them. . .) But yes: I think Cassandra gets a bad rap from Janeites for destroying her cache of letters, given that she had a cache in the first place: presumably, everyone else had regularly been using their correspondence from Jane to light their fires or line their birdcages.
Thanks for the uxoriousness! I got to learn a new word today! Love to do that!!
It's definitely one of those words you don't need often, but sometimes it's just perfect. . .