Image and reality

A Memoir of Jane Austen, by James Edward Austen-LeighSome writers’ names conjure an instant image: Shakespeare – receding hair, small beard, dark, hooded eyes, a quill pen in his hand. Jane Austen – round face, eyes demurely averted from the viewer, mouth not quite smiling, goffered white cap trimmed with a ribbon: the stereotypical spinster aunt.

This was the image of Austen which appeared as the frontispiece of the Memoir of his aunt offered to the world in 1870 by James Edward Austen Leigh, Vicar of Bray in Berkshire, who was the son of Jane’s eldest brother and had known her personally. Concentrating on his aunt Jane’s life in rural southern England, he made public for the first time the domestic and social context which nurtured her and within which she wrote her famous novels. He also gave previously unknown details about her efforts to publish her work, including some of her correspondence. But at the same time he created a portrait of a modest, unassuming and devout woman, living ‘in entire seclusion from the literary world’, which has influenced Austen scholarship ever since.

The following year, in a second, and much larger edition, offered in response to ‘an unabated interest . . . still taken in every particular that can be told about her’, he published for the first time her early epistolary novel, Lady Susan, and the fragmentary The Watsons, as well as a brief summary of her last unfinished work, later known as Sanditon. Lady Susan, with its wicked, worldly, pleasure-loving, unmotherly, scheming anti-heroine, was a surprise to many Austen devotees. The publication in 1884 of a two-volume selection from Austen’s letters, edited by Lord Brabourne, the son of Jane Austen’s ‘favourite niece’ Fanny Knight, gave further evidence of a sharp, sometimes unkind wit, though it was not until the twentieth century that ‘unexpurgated’ letters containing barbed remarks such as the notorious ‘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’ were published.

But how good a likeness is the frontispiece in the Memoir? Not very good at all, according to Margaret Kirkham, who discusses the images of Austen in chapter 8 of Jane Austen in Context. She in fact classes it as an ‘imaginary image’ meant to ‘make Aunt Jane presentable to the Victorian public’ and traces it back to its origins in a rough sketch by Cassandra and forwards through many iterations to the tea-towel and fudge-tin adornments familiar today. Austen’s niece, Cassy Esten Austen, commented on the engraving, ‘It is a very pleasing, sweet face – tho’, I confess, to not thinking it much like the original.’

Caroline

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