By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 3 2016 02:00PM
Eleventh in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen’s letters
Henry Austen, the fourth-oldest of Jane Austen’s seven siblings, is often described as her favorite brother. (For a helpful account, see this 1984 article by J. David Grey, one of the founders of the Jane Austen Society of North America.)
Four and a half years older than Jane, Henry was handsome, funny, charming and clever. As an Oxford undergraduate, he contributed to The Loiterer, the weekly publication founded by the oldest Austen brother, James, and after receiving his degree, Henry joined the Oxfordshire militia, adopting the dashing profession that so dazzled the youngest Bennet sisters.
But although Henry seems to have been blessed with infinite reserves of optimism, the arc of his life suggests that, despite all his talents, he never quite lived up to his early promise. By the time of Jane’s death, Henry, then age 46, was on his third profession: after rising to the rank of captain, he left the militia, failed as a banker and finally joined the church, briefly taking over his father’s old job as rector of Steventon. Although he married twice, once to his glamorous first cousin, Eliza de Feuillide, he fathered no children.
Whatever Henry’s professional failings, however, Janeites owe him an immense debt of gratitude, for he gave his brilliant younger sister valuable help in the publication of her books, often acting as her de facto literary agent. He was also a reader whose opinion she valued, as we can see in the letter Austen finished exactly 202 years ago today (#97 in Deirdre LeFaye’s standard edition of her correspondence).
With the publication of Mansfield Park just two months away, Henry is escorting Jane to London and reading the manuscript on the way, apparently for the first time. “Henry’s approbation hitherto is even equal to my wishes; he says it is very different from the other two, but does not appear to think it at all inferior,” Jane writes to their sister, Cassandra, back home in Chawton, betraying some of the anxiety that writers always feel when someone new reads their work. “He has only married Mrs. R. I am afraid he has gone through the most entertaining part.---He took to Lady B. & Mrs. N. most kindly, & gives great praise to the drawing of the Characters. He understands them all, likes Fanny & I think foresees how it will all be. . . . he admires H. Crawford—I mean properly—as a clever, pleasant Man.”
At least as reported by his eager writer-sister, Henry’s comments suggest a shrewd appreciation for her work. He seems to have sensed the new depth and complexity that she achieved in MP, still her most controversial book, and Lady Bertram, Mrs. Norris and Henry Crawford are, indeed, among her greatest creations.
I’d love to know what, exactly, Austen meant by “proper” admiration for Henry Crawford, though. Was Henry Austen commenting on the undoubted brilliance of the characterization, or was he saying that Crawford would make an entertaining dinner companion? If the latter, did he change his mind when Crawford set out to make a hole in Fanny Price’s heart? And did Henry Austen wonder, even for a moment, whether his sister had meant anything in giving her most equivocal male character the name of her brilliant, helpful, unsteady older brother? Alas, we’ll never know.