Monday, July 26, 2021

Jane Austen and Virtue

 From The Imaginative Conservative:

Since this lecture is a labor of love, I shall not scruple to enhance its legitimacy by adducing documentary proof that there exists an old tradition of offering transatlantic tributes to Jane Austen. In 1852, a female member of the distinguished Quincy family of Boston wrote as follows to one of Jane Austen’s naval brothers, Sir Francis Austen:

Since high critical authority has pronounced the delineations of character in the works of Jane Austen second only to those of Shakespeare, transatlantic admiration appears superfluous; yet it may not be uninteresting to her family to receive an assurance that the influence of her genius is extensively recognized in the American Republic, even by the highest judicial authorities. The late Chief Justice Marshall of the Supreme Court of the United States, and his associate Mr. Justice Story, highly estimated and admired Miss Austen, and to them we owe our introduction to her society.

Jane Austen would have loved this manifesto, and she would have declaimed it joyfully to her family. I am much afraid she would have done the same to this lecture.


The American letter is taken From the Memoir of Jane Austen, which was written in old age by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh. Since he had actually known his aunt as a boy, his memoir is the leading account of her life, while its main source is the collection of letters she herself wrote to members of the family, particularly to her sister Cassandra. Cassandra Austen was the only person to whom Jane revealed the plots of her novels before publication, at least until late in her life, when her favorite niece Fanny Knight was inducted into that merry conspiracy. These writings and others have been woven into a tactful, perceptive and, therefore, profitable biography by Elizabeth Jenkins. Beyond that, the study of Jane Austen’s life is a pleasantly interminable but superfluous labor, because so much and yet so little is known.

This is what we do know: that she admitted no torments of the soul, was not afflicted with epileptic seizures, extruded no devils, committed not sins of the flesh, and undertook no expiations of the spirit (I mention these negative occurrences because they appear to have been of importance in the lives of other novelists). Instead, she confesses in a letter of Monday night, December 24, 1798, that “there were twenty dances and I danced them all.” On Wednesday, May 6, 1801, she writes:

Mrs. Mussell has got my gown, and I will endeavor to explain what her intentions are. It is to be a round gown, with a jacket and a frock front, like Cath. Bigg’s, to open at the side. The jacket is all in one body and comes as far as the pocket holes….

This description continues, too expertly for my comprehension, over a page.

The family griefs, on the other hand, are not dwelled on so extensively in her letters—they are to be borne with an effort to be “tranquil and resigned.” Nor does her novel-writing add much external incident to her life. She appeared on the title page of her novels merely as “a Lady” and preserved her anonymity as long as the proud London brother, who acted as her agent, would permit it. Not that she considered her writing a mere avocation—she repeatedly referred to a novel in progress as her child, her “darling child.” She simply shunned publicity, preferring with wicked glee to collect the candid reviews aired by unsuspecting neighbors. She steadfastly abstained from entering the literary circles of London and even refused an invitation to meet Madame de Stael. In the portentous sense of the word, she had no “Life.” (Read more.)


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