Sarah Emsley

Henry Austen’s “Biographical Notice of the Author”

Today’s guest post for “Youth and Experience: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion” is by Peter Sabor, Professor of English and Canada Research Chair at McGill University. Peter’s publications on Jane Austen include an edition of her early writings, Juvenilia (Cambridge University Press, 2006), Manuscript Works, co-edited with Linda Bree and Janet Todd (Broadview, 2013), and The Cambridge Companion to Emma (Cambridge University Press, 2015). He is also Director of the Burney Centre at McGill.

Henry Austen

Last June, he gave two excellent lectures at the Jane Austen Society, UK conference in my hometown of Halifax, Nova Scotia. The first was on “Jane Austen and Canada: from Anna Lefroy to Joan Austen-Leigh” and the second was on “Jane Austen and America: The first fifty years; from 1817 to the late 1860s.”

It’s my pleasure to introduce Peter’s guest post on Henry Austen’s memoir of Jane Austen.

The first words that the fortunate first readers of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion read at the end of 1817 were not by Jane Austen but by her favourite brother Henry, her elder by four years, in a prefatory “Biographical Notice of the Author,” dated 13 December. While preserving his own anonymity, describing himself only as the “biographer” and as “the relator of these events,” he made his sister’s identity public for the first time, expressing his hope, in the opening paragraph, that “a brief account of Jane Austen will be read with a kindlier sentiment than mere curiosity.”

Like all biographers, Henry Austen had an agenda. One of his aims was to draw the attention of his readers to his sister’s previously published novels: the “merits” of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma are proclaimed in the first paragraph. He did not mention Austen’s manuscript fiction—“Lady Susan,” “The Watsons” and Sanditon”—having no intention of seeing it into print. Nor, for the same reason, did he notice the existence of the three juvenile notebooks: “Volume the First,” “Volume the Second,” and “Volume the Third.” Instead, he confined his attention to the books that his sister had “sent into the world,” comparing them boldly to those of the then far more highly regarded Frances Burney and Maria Edgeworth (both novelists whom Austen herself admired profoundly). Again alluding to best-selling novelists such as Burney and Edgeworth, or indeed Walter Scott, Henry contends that Austen’s works “may live as long as those which have burst on the world with more éclat.”

Henry informs his readers that “some of these novels had been … gradual performances,” rather than works first written in the “pleasant village of Chawton.” Intriguingly, he does not specify that Austen’s first two published novels, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, together with the newly published Northanger Abbey, are the performances in question, although Austen herself, in her prefatory “advertisement” to Northanger Abbey, points out that “this little work was finished in the year 1803.” No literary critic, Henry has little else to say about Austen’s novels, although he does observe that “her power of inventing characters seems to have been intuitive, and almost unlimited,” adding that “she drew from nature; but, whatever may have been surmised to the contrary, never from individuals.” By dwelling on Austen’s powers of invention, Henry could forestall complaints from readers who, inevitably, would find themselves traduced in the novels: there was no shortage of garrulous Miss Bateses or sycophantic Mr Collinses in England.

Henry’s second objective in his memoir was to portray Jane Austen as a woman of varied accomplishments, not merely as a novelist. She was attractive, he claimed, and her features revealed the “cheerfulness, sensibility, and benevolence, which were her real characteristics.” Elaborating on this idea, Henry alludes to lines by John Donne—“her pure and eloquent blood / Spoke in her cheeks” (“Of the Progress of the Soul. The Second Anniversary, 1612)—declaring that his sister’s “eloquent blood spoke through her modest cheek.” Her voice was “extremely sweet,” and she “delivered herself with fluency and precision, … excelling in conversation as much as in composition.” Austen was, according to Henry, talented as an amateur artist, musician, and dancer. She admired landscapes both in nature and art, and “at a very early age she was enamoured of Gilpin on the Picturesque”—in sharp contrast to the untutored heroine of Northanger Abbey. Henry also has some interesting remarks on Austen’s reading, noting that “her favourite moral writers were Johnson in prose, and Cowper in verse.” Among the novelists, she held Richardson in the highest regard, and especially esteemed Sir Charles Grandison: “she did not rank any work of Fielding quite so high.”

Another of Austen’s accomplishments singled out by Henry was her prowess as a correspondent. All her letters “came finished from her pen,” and “she never dispatched a note or letter unworthy of publication.” In a postscript to the “Biographical Notice” dated 20 December, just days before the first appearance of the novels it introduced (their precise date of publication is uncertain), Henry furnishes samples of Austen’s epistolary powers through excerpts from two of her letters: to James Edward Austen, 16-17 December 1816, and to an unnamed correspondent, probably Frances Tilson, 28-29 May 1817—for which his memoir is the only source. The excerpt from the first letter contains Austen’s celebrated remark on herself as a miniaturist, working on “a little bit of ivory, two inches wide,” and producing “little effect after much labour.” For all his praise of his sister’s novels, it seems unlikely that Henry could grasp the extent of the irony here: little effect, indeed.

For Henry, who had been ordained and appointed as curate of Chawton in December 1816, much the most important aspect of Austen’s life was her strong Christian faith. Even on her death-bed, he writes, “neither her love of God, nor of her fellow creatures flagged for a moment.” Winchester Cathedral, her burial place, “does not contain the ashes of a brighter genius or a sincerer Christian”: significantly, the sentence ends with what Henry clearly regarded as the more important of the two terms. Similarly, he devotes the final paragraph of his piece entirely to spiritual matters and is evidently writing as a parson here. Jane Austen was “thoroughly religious and devout; fearful of giving offence to God, and incapable of feeling it towards any fellow creature.” Although everything we know of Austen’s acerbic wit from her novels and letters belies these words, Henry presses on to a strange conclusion: “her opinions,” he declares, “accorded strictly with those of our Established Church.” The word “strictly” is especially jarring: Austen’s opinions, of course, were her own.

In 1833, Henry’s essay was reprinted under a different title, “Memoir of Miss Austen,” preceding a new edition of Sense and Sensibility published by Richard Bentley. For its second appearance, fifteen years after its initial publication, Henry revised his piece considerably. As well as adding material, he also omitted some of what Kathryn Sutherland aptly terms his “lighter and more intimate touches.” In 1833, Austen’s dancing no longer figures and an account of her writing comic verses on her deathbed is, regrettably, dropped.

In a letter of 4 October 1832, Henry wrote to Bentley: “I heartily wish that I could have made it richer in detail but the fact is that My dear Sister’s life was not a life of event” (for the full text of the letter see Deirdre Le Faye, “Jane Austen: New Biographical Comments,” Notes and Queries n.s. 39.2 (1992), 162-63). The letter clearly reveals Henry’s authorship of both the Biographical Notice and the revised memoir, but only in 1892 would this become public knowledge—as Juliette Wells demonstrates in a newly published article (“A Note on Henry Austen’s Authorship of the ‘Biographical Notice,’” Persuasions On-Line, 38.1, Winter 2017). Wells also conjectures that Cassandra Austen might have contributed, “perhaps quite substantially,” to the Biographical Notice. Here she develops a suggestion by E.J. Clery, in her fine biography of Henry (Jane Austen: The Banker’s Sister, 2017), that his piece “bears the mark of more cautious influences.” There is, however, no evidence to support this claim. The “Biographical Notice,” as Henry himself admits in his letter to Bentley, failed to provide much detail about Austen’s life, but its failings cannot be attributed to another’s hand. Despite her obvious fondness for Henry, Clery summarizes his memoir of Austen as, for the most part, “buttoned-up sentimental hagiography.” Yet for all its flaws, it would remain much the fullest available source of information on Austen until 1870, when it was at last superseded by the Memoir of Jane Austen written by Henry’s nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, a work that has numerous shortcomings of its own.

Quotations are from the Oxford edition of J.E. Austen-Leigh’s A Memoir of Jane Austen and other Family Recollections, edited and with an introduction by Kathryn Sutherland (2002), and the Cambridge edition of Northanger Abbey, edited and with an introduction by Barbara Benedict and Deirdre Le Faye (2006).

Second in a series of blog posts celebrating 200 years of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. To read more about all the posts in the series, visit “Youth and Experience.” Coming in January: guest posts by Lynn Festa, Serena Burdick, and Kate Scarth. In the meantime: Happy holidays!

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