Jane Austen, Her Life and Letters: A Family Record

Jane Austen, Her Life and Letters: A Family Record


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9789353292164
Publisher: Alpha Editions
Publication date: 12/07/2018
Pages: 370
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.82(d)

About the Author

William Austen-Leigh and Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh were among the many relatives that wrote a biography about Jane Austen. They attempted to bring a measure of objectivity to the family biographies of Jane Austen by consolidating every available source of knowledge about her. William Austen-Leigh, born in 1843, was Jane Austen’s grand-nephew, and Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh was William’s nephew.

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Almost one hundred years after the death of Jane Austen, her grand-nephew William Austen-Leigh and his nephew Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh published Jane Austen: Her Life and Letters. A Family Record (1913). Today, Jane Austen, one of the most readable, most influential, and most beloved novelists of the English language, is the subject of an ever-increasing number of biographies, speculations, and even fictional accounts. However, prior to the publication of Her Life and Letters at the beginning of the twentieth century, information about her life and family was scant, entirely inadequate to the task of satisfying the rapacious hunger for details of her growing, late-Victorian audience. Her Life and Letters, then, provided the most comprehensive biographical account of Jane Austen and quickly and deservedly became the gold standard of and foundation for Austen biographies for the next seventy-five years. The book lovingly details the ancestry, marriages, births, scandals, and deaths of the Austen family; Jane’s own birth, childhood, adolescence, and maturity; the everyday minutiae of her life, the circumstances in which she wrote her juvenilia and her six novels, and her early death. Using Jane Austen’s own letters, additional letters sent between a large and fond family, and family reminiscences, William and Richard Austen-Leigh continued the family tradition of carefully nurturing the literary and personal reputation of a literary icon who also happened to be a most beloved aunt.

Jane Austen was born in 1775, the seventh of eight children, the second of two daughters of Cassandra Leigh Austen and the Reverend George Austen, rector of Steventon, a small town in Hampshire, England. Despite less than two years of formal education, Jane was a voracious reader and devoured the plays, poetry, and essays of English literature. She was also an ardent admirer of the newfangled sensation of the eighteenth century, the novel, and began to write her own in her early twenties. On her father’s retirement in 1801, Jane and her only sister, Cassandra, both still unmarried, moved with their parents to Bath, where they lived for five years until the Reverend Austen’s death. The three women then lived in Southampton for three years, and finally returned to the country to settle at Chawton, in a house on the estate of one of Jane’s brothers close to her childhood home. It is from Chawton that Jane finally revised and published her first two novels, Sense and Sensibility (1811) and Pride and Prejudice (1813); wrote and published her next two novels, Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1815); and wrote Persuasion. A severe illness convinced her to seek medical attention in Winchester, where she died in July 1817 at the age of forty-one. Persuasion and an early work, Northanger Abbey, were published posthumously by her favorite brother, Henry Austen, in 1817.

Richard and William Austen-Leigh were by no means the first or last of Jane’s extended family to act as her biographer. Jane’s great-great-great-niece, Joan Austen-Leigh, wrote in 1989, “For us, in the Austen family, to maintain the importance of our most important aunt, has been the pleasure of successive generations.”1 Biographies of Jane Austen were exclusively a family production until R. W. Chapman began to publish her letters and academic editions of her novels in 1932. As Kathryn Sutherland states in her introduction to a modern reprint of four early biographies, “The details of the life of no other famous individual are so exclusively determined through family as are those of Jane Austen.”2 Prior to the publication of Richard and William Austen-Leigh’s Her Life and Letters, Jane’s brother Henry had revealed her name to the world in “A Biographical Notice of the Author,” her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh had published A Memoir of Jane Austen, both his sister Caroline Austen and his half-sister Anna Lefroy had written personal reminiscences of their aunt, and Jane’s grand-nephew, Lord Brabourne, had published The Letters of Jane Austen. It is worth understanding the provenance and contents of each of these biographies not only to understand the mighty task that William and Richard Austen-Leigh undertook in consolidating these different sources into their comprehensive biography of the aunt they never knew, but also to understand the successes and limitations of the result.

Jane Austen had always published anonymously, choosing to label her novels as “By a Lady” or “By the Author of” her previous works, rather than risking the fame—or rather the infamy—of affixing her own name to her “children,” as she called her novels in a letter to her sister. Jane’s brother Henry Austen attached a “Biographical Notice of the Author” to the posthumous combined publication of her very first novel, Northanger Abbey, and her very last, Persuasion, finally revealing her name to the world, five months after her death. In labeling Jane a writer, however, Henry exposed his sister’s reputation as a woman to the fickleness of public opinion, and he immediately and probably unconsciously attempted a pre-emptive neutralization of any potential damage by declaring that, except for writing and publishing six novels, his sister’s life “was not by any means a life of event.” While providing the bare facts of Jane’s birth, homes, and her fortitude during her illness and death, Henry’s description of his sister was almost entirely unrealistic, beginning the family whitewashing of Jane’s rather acerbic nature: “Faultless herself, as nearly as human nature can be, she always sought, in the faults of others, something to excuse, to forgive or forget. Where extenuation was impossible, she had a sure refuge in silence. She never uttered either a hasty, a silly, or a severe expression.” This of the woman who wrote unrepentantly to her sister on October 27, 1798, “Mrs. Hall, of Sherborne, was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, owing to a fright. I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband.”3

Henry’s angelic portrait of his sister, then, did not match the implied personality of an author who could create with such relish characters like the officious Lady Catherine de Bourgh of Pride and Prejudice, who says with a perfectly straight face, “There are few people in England, I suppose, who have more true enjoyment of music than myself, or a better natural taste. If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient,” or the petty, spiteful Mrs. Norris of Mansfield Park, or Mrs. Musgrove of Persuasion and “her large fat sighings over the destiny of a son, whom alive nobody had cared for.” Henry’s unrealistic portrait of his sister was almost worse than knowing nothing about her: rather than informing, it served merely to highlight how little was known about Jane Austen the person.

In 1870, Jane Austen’s nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, collected, wrote, and published A Memoir of Jane Austen. The oldest son of James Austen, Jane’s oldest brother, James Edward, born in 1798, spent a lot of time with his aunts and grandmother after they settled at Chawton. Fifty years after Jane’s death, when James Edward was in his early seventies, he was one of the last surviving members of the family who had spent significant time with his aunt. As such, he felt it incumbent on him to commit to paper his memories of his aunt: “I am the more inclined to undertake the task from a conviction that, however little I may have to tell, no one else is left who could tell so much of her.”4 His sister Caroline Austen, who was twelve when her aunt died, writes poignantly in her own informal memoir in 1867, “The generation who knew her is passing away.”5 In writing and publishing his Memoir, however, James Edward was not merely satisfying the public demand for more information about his aunt—he was also retaining for the family the sole ownership of the right to pen a biography in the first place. The very public demand that spurred him to write also threatened the possibility that an outsider would undertake the task, a possibility of which the family violently disapproved. Caroline explains:

A memoir of Miss Jane Austen has often been asked for, and strangers have declared themselves willing and desirous to undertake the task of writing it—and have wondered that the family should have refused to supply the necessary materials.6

Rather than continue to refuse all requests for biographical material, James Edward Austen-Leigh chose instead to control the process and do the job himself.

The sources for the Memoir are family reminiscences and any letters from Jane or about Jane that James Edward Austen-Leigh could find. His older half-sister, Anna Lefroy, and his younger sister, Caroline Austen, both wrote down their memories of their aunt from the time they spent with her as children. Cassy Esten, the eldest daughter of Jane’s brother Charles and the executrix of Jane’s sister Cassandra’s will, shared with her cousin many of the papers in her possession, including letters and her own memories of her aunt.7 James Edward did not have access, however, to a significant number of letters owned by the Knight branch of the family. As a result, as Sutherland argues, “What is left is an account of a life shaped and limited by the recollections, affections, and prejudices of a very few family members who knew her,”8 rather than a more objective account of a life taken from public record and wide social interaction. Jane Austen was a private person, however, with very little noteworthy social dealings beyond her family circle, and with the absence of any consciously autobiographical material from Jane herself, except letters that were never meant for the scrutiny of posterity, there was no other way for her nephew to build a legitimate biography.

The most significant gap in James Edward’s Memoir results from the fact that, before her own death in 1845, Jane’s sister Cassandra burned many of Jane’s letters and edited those she preserved with a pair of scissors. The sisters wrote to each other with clockwork regularity whenever they were apart and the preserved letters are our only source for information about Jane’s day-to-day life. However, considerable gaps in the letters exist during times that Jane and Cassandra were apart, as ascertained by external sources. These gaps coincide with periods of family scandal—such as during the seven months when Jane and Cassandra’s maternal aunt was arrested, held without bail, tried, and found not guilty of shoplifting—or with what we know from other evidence to be emotionally trying times for Jane—such as when she, her parents, and her sister lived in Bath. There is no way to know how many letters Cassandra destroyed in her concern for both her sister’s and the family’s privacy and reputation, nor is there any way to imagine what difference the destroyed letters might have made to our understanding of Jane Austen. The only certain result is that James Edward Austen-Leigh’s Memoir was decidedly sketchy about the details of his aunt’s life for long periods of time, and he filled in the silences with reminiscences and speculation, a technique his son and grandson emulated in their subsequent biography, Her Life and Letters.

A Memoir of Jane Austen sold out quickly, and James Edward Austen-Leigh published an expanded second edition in 1871. He incorporated letters, papers, and family reminiscences that came to light in the months between the first and second edition, as well as the most important of his aunt’s unpublished manuscripts: Lady Susan, a complete but short epistolary narrative that represented the most mature product of Jane Austen’s juvenile writing; The Watsons, a novel she abandoned during her unhappy residence in Bath; the original, abandoned ending of Persuasion; and Sanditon, the incomplete novel Jane was working on when she died. The expanded second edition of the Memoirs also sold very well, but while it temporarily sated the public’s demands for information about Jane Austen, it also created more questions about the gaps in her life story.

In 1884, Lord Brabourne, one of Jane’s many grand-nephews, published The Letters of Jane Austen, consisting of her letters to various family members that had been preserved by the Knight branch of the family. Jane’s third brother, Edward, had been adopted by a childless couple who were friends of the Reverend Austen, not an uncommon practice in the eighteenth century. Edward took the name of his adoptive parents, replacing Austen with Knight. His daughter Fanny Knight, later Lady Knatchbull, had received letters from her Aunt Jane, and in 1845 she also inherited from Jane’s sister Cassandra the bulk of Cassandra’s letters from Jane (probably because most of them were written while either Jane or Cassandra was visiting Godmersham, the home of the Knights in Kent). But by the time her cousin James Edward Austen-Leigh was researching his Memoir, Fanny was mostly senile and all requests for the letters in her possession were unsuccessful. Fanny’s sister, Elizabeth Rice, wrote to her cousin James Edward, “I really do not think that it is worth your while to defer writing the Memoir on the chance of getting the letters for I see none,” and Fanny’s daughter Louisa lamented, “I only wish the ‘Memoirs’ had been written ten years ago when it would have given my Mother the greatest pleasure to assist, both with letters and recollections of her own.”9 After Fanny’s death, however, her son, the first Lord Brabourne, collected the letters he discovered among his mother’s papers and published The Letters of Jane Austen. Although available knowledge of Jane Austen was essentially doubled with the publication of the letters, an additional consequence of their publication was that a complete picture of Jane was no longer possible from just one source. Significant and unique biographical information about Jane Austen was now split between two sources: James Edward Austen-Leigh’s A Memoir of Jane Austen and Lord Brabourne’s The Letters of Jane Austen.

In 1913, William Austen-Leigh and Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh brought together all published and unpublished information about the aunt they had never met and published Jane Austen: Her Life and Letters. A Family Record. Not only were the latest of Jane Austen’s biographers still family members, but they were from same branch as her previous biographer: William was James Edward’s second son, born in 1843, twenty-five years after the death of his famous great-aunt; and Richard was the son of James Edward’s first son, Cholmeley. In creating the biography on which, Joan Austen-Leigh claims, “all subsequent biographies are, or should be based,” William and Richard consulted Henry Austen’s “A Biographical Sketch of the Author,” James Edward Austen-Leigh’s A Memoir of Jane Austen, and Lord Brabourne’s The Letters of Jane Austen, as well as “every existing MS. or tradition preserved by the family, of which we have any knowledge,” as they detail in the preface to the volume. William and Richard claim that although James Edward Austen-Leigh’s A Memoir “must always remain the one first-hand account of her” and “the last thing we should wish to do, even were it possible, would be to supersede it,” their contribution to the family industry of Jane Austen biographies was necessary “not only because so much additional material has been brought to light since publication, but also because the account given of their aunt by her nephew and nieces could be given only from their own point of view, while the incidents and characters fall into a somewhat different perspective if the whole is seen from a greater distance.” William and Richard, then, by consolidating every available source of knowledge about her, were attempting to bring a measure of objectivity to the family biographies of Jane Austen.

As often as possible, William and Richard let their aunt speak for herself. They begin by detailing chronologically the circumstances of the Austen family and its connections, but as soon as extant letters written by Jane fit into the timeline, they are included in the text and reprinted with very little commentary. In fact, the delight of this biography arises chiefly from reading Jane’s own humorous, sardonic, and hastily written letters about her everyday joys and concerns, allowing Jane to build a picture of her own life through her own words. The drawbacks of the volume are similar to those of the previous biographies produced by the family. Where letters are missing, as during a chapter on Jane Austen’s possible love life, the gap is filled with family recollections and speculations, as in the Memoir of James Edward Austen-Leigh. Additionally, the image of Jane recovered through her letters is still tempered with a gentle censorship. Park Honan, one of Austen’s more recent biographers, claims that Her Life and Letters “omits much on the basis of propriety,” most obviously by neglecting “nearly every reference to family tensions” extant in the available manuscripts.10 Despite this, Her Life and Letters remains the gold standard of biographies of Jane Austen because it does not fall victim to “a post-Freudian compulsion to scrutinize, analyze, and explain” as more recent biographies do.11

In 1989, a much-expanded version of Her Life and Letters was published as Jane Austen: A Family Record. William and Richard Austen-Leigh are still listed as authors, but it is “Revised and Enlarged” by Deirdre Le Faye. In a short preface, Joan Impey, the wife of Richard’s nephew, related that her husband had inherited from his uncle “Richie” a “much-worn copy of the Life and Letters”:

It was stuffed to almost double its size with papers and correspondences he had about Jane, and filled with notes. Our friend Deirdre Le Faye considered he was clearly planning a revised edition . . . so I asked her if she would take on the task of revision, adding the new material and bringing it up to date for publication.12

While Le Faye complied with this request by producing an exquisitely detailed, perfectly researched biography of Jane Austen that draws together all previously published and unpublished resources about Jane Austen available in the late twentieth century and corrects many of the deficiencies of the original, all the changes to Her Life and Letters are silently made. As a result, although A Family Record is meticulous and comprehensive, the loving, respectful tone of Her Life and Letters has been lost, replaced with a more clinical, academic style.

This volume is the first reprinting of Her Life and Letters since 1963 and as such recovers a primary text detailing Jane Austen’s life that has been difficult to find in libraries. Although Deirdre Le Faye’s revision provides more raw information about Jane Austen, this volume captures a purer, softer voice, a loving family chorus that attempts to protect their favorite aunt while bowing reluctantly to the requirements of her public life.


1. Joan Austen-Leigh, “My Aunt, Jane Austen,” Persuasions (11): 1989, 28-36.

2. Kathryn Sutherland, Introduction to J. E. Austen-Leigh’s A Memoir of Jane Austen and Other Family Recollections (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), xviii.

3. Jane Austen’s Letters, ed. Deidre Le Faye (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).

4. James Edward Austen-Leigh, A Memoir of Jane Austen and Other Family Recollections, ed. Kathryn Sutherland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 10.

5. Caroline Austen, “My Aunt Jane Austen: A Memoir,” in J. E. Austen-Leigh’s A Memoir of Jane Austen and Other Family Recollections, ed. Kathryn Sutherland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 166.

6. Caroline Austen, 165.

7. Sutherland, xxii–xxiii.

8. Sutherland, xv.

9. Quoted in Sutherland, xxiii.

10. Park Honan, Jane Austen: Her Life (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987), 414.

11. Irene B. McDonald, “Contemporary Biography: Some Problems,” Persuasions 20 (1998): 69.

12. Joan Impey, Preface to Jane Austen: A Family Record by William Austen-Leigh and Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh. Revised and Enlarged by Deirdre Le Faye (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1996), vii.

Sarah S. G. Frantz is an assistant professor of English literature at Fayetteville State University, NC. She received from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, her doctorate in Romantic-era British women novelists and has published articles on Jane Austen's novels and the modern popular romance novel. She is a Chemical officer in the North Carolina Army National Guard, and is originally from South Africa.

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Jane Austen: Her Life and Letters: A Family Record (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading) 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
ReaderVA More than 1 year ago
Anyone who is interested in Jane Austen's life should approach this book with the understanding that it was written by her great-nephew and his nephew. There's a noticeable effort to portray "Aunt Jane" as sweet, even-tempered, loving, and almost saint-like. Don't expect any insight into Austen's work or jarring revelations about her life. The letters themselves are mundane to the point of being boring. Unless you're a true Janeite, stick with her novels - you'll enjoy them much more than this memoir.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I so enjoyed all the details of Jane Austen, her family and her heritage? Learning about her gives you an intamacy into the author that you haven't gotten in her writings alone. Thank you for putting together such personal knowledge of our beloved author, and one of my personal favorites.
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