By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 20 2013 01:00PM
Anna Austen Lefroy, the second-oldest of Jane Austen’s nieces, inherited the manuscript of Austen’s unfinished Sanditon and was the first writer to try her hand at completing it, as well as the first whose work I'll cover during this Sanditon Summer blog series. From a distance of nearly two centuries, Anna Lefroy’s life has a frustrated, unachieved quality; it seems sadly appropriate that her continuation of the fragment is itself only a fragment.
Jane Anna Elizabeth Austen (1793-1872) – clever, vivacious, perhaps flighty and unstable -- was the oldest child of Jane Austen’s oldest brother, James. She lost her mother as a toddler and spent the next two years living with her grandparents and her doting aunts, Jane and Cassandra, until her father remarried. But Anna and her stepmother, Mary Lloyd Austen, apparently did not get along, and, at twenty-one, Anna escaped into a marriage with Benjamin Lefroy, the son of Jane Austen’s beloved mentor, Madame Anne Lefroy.
The marriage seems to have been happy, but Ben died, at thirty-eight, in 1829, leaving Anna with seven children under the age of fourteen. Her prodigious rate of child-bearing – hardly unusual for the era – had worried Jane Austen. “Poor Animal, she will be worn out before she is thirty,” Austen wrote to another niece in March 1817, by which time Anna had already borne two children in two years and suspected she might be pregnant again. “I am very sorry for her.” Indeed, Anna’s long years of widowhood were spent struggling with ill health and straitened finances.
For Janeites, Anna Lefroy’s most substantial claim to fame is as the recipient of letters containing the only sustained literary criticism that survives from Jane Austen’s pen: in the months before and after her 1814 marriage, Anna asked her aunt to read a novel-in-progress titled Which Is the Heroine? Austen’s constructive criticism – about avoiding cliche, ensuring the accuracy of incidental details and taking care to maintain the consistency of characters – needs no updating to be useful to writers today.