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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

On this day in 1798. . .

Sixty-ninth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen’s letters.

Jane Austen’s nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh, who wrote the first substantial account of her life, sometimes gets bad press. His 1869 Memoir of Jane Austen has been criticized for portraying his famous aunt as a sweet, domestic little lady who never let writing interfere with her needlework – a Victorian angel in the house whom contemporary readers find hard to square with the spiky, sarcastic voice of her novels.

Fair enough – but on this Thanksgiving Day, I’m nonetheless inclined to be grateful for his work. And it’s an apt moment to reflect on his accomplishments, because it’s exactly 223 years ago today that the 22-year-old Jane Austen described her first encounter with her future biographer.

“I had only a glimpse at the child, who was asleep,” Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra (#12 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence), “but Miss Debary told me that his eyes were large, dark, and handsome.”

Austen-Leigh may have slept through his first meeting with one of the giants of English literature, but over the next eighteen and a half years, they seem to have delighted in each other’s company – which perhaps explains his decision to write about her, more than fifty years after her untimely death.

Outside the pages of the Memoir, we have precious little information about Jane Austen’s life: A handful of letters. An elder brother’s brief biographical account. The scattered recollections of a few acquaintances. A turquoise ring and a topaz cross. One indubitably authentic portrait sketch. A lock of hair.

Yes, Austen-Leigh’s perspective is inevitably partial, even problematic. He plays down family discord, ignores the subversive elements in Austen’s work, and elides her drive and ambition. The result is a version of female artistic achievement that poses no threat to Victorian views of womanhood.

Yet the Memoir, along with the family reminiscences that Austen-Leigh solicited while writing it, is our only source for a slew of now-familiar details about Austen’s life and opinions – her hazel eyes, the creaking door that warned her to hide her work in progress, her description of Emma Woodhouse as “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.”

Perhaps Austen-Leigh didn’t see Jane Austen and her work the way we do – but decades after her death, he valued her enough to ensure the survival of remembrances that would otherwise have been lost. That’s a gift worth a Thanksgiving Day thank-you.


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