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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe


The voracious interest in all things Jane Austen has inspired plenty of scholarship about her ancestors and her collateral descendants – Austen ghosts, haunting the places she, and they, once lived.

Herewith a Christmastime roundup of some recent stories about Jane Austen’s past, present and future:

* The ghost of Austens past: I’ve noted before that Jane Austen’s aunt Philadelphia, one of her father’s sisters, is a fascinating and under-studied character. So I read with interest an account of Philadelphia’s Indian connections published on Samaa, the website of a Pakistani satellite news channel.

Not much here is new – and I take with a shakerful of salt the suggestion that Jane Austen’s silence on the subject of India implies family censorship – but it’s always useful to be reminded of how close were the ties that bound the Austens’ country rectory to the wider world of empire.

* The ghost of Austen’s present: Beginning in 2020, Sydney Gardens, the park the Austen women frequented during their peripatetic years in Bath, will undergo a makeover, courtesy of £2.7 million (about $3.4 million) in British government money.

Along with the replanting of flower gardens and the restoration of historic neoclassical structures, “Sydney Gardens will become Bath’s first dementia-friendly park,” according to a news report. Whatever dementia-friendliness entails – the story leaves that up to the reader to imagine – Janeite visitors to Bath will surely enjoy strolling in a Sydney Gardens that more closely resembles the park of Austen’s day.

* The ghost of Austens future: Although Jane Austen had no children herself, four of her brothers reproduced prolifically, and many of these nieces and nephews went on to have interesting lives. Sophia Hillan, an Irish novelist and academic who has written a non-fiction account of three Austen nieces who settled in Ireland, expands the story in a recent piece in the Irish Times.

Hillan's account of the later adventures of Marianne Knight, Austen's niece, and Marianne's own niece, Cassandra Hill, is a tale worthy of a Victorian novel, complete with political agitation, a semi-scandalous marriage, a dollop of proto-feminism, and the careless unkindness of male inheritors toward their female poor relations. Perfect reading for any Janeite’s holiday fireside.

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