Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh (1872-1961)
Dear friends and readers,
On Austen-l and Janeites, with copies to my yahoo listservs: Eighteenth Century Worlds and Women Writers through the Ages (for those who for whatever reason prefer not to join in on the two major Jane Austen listservs on-line), a group of us have embarked on another long-term reading and discussion of Jane Austen texts. We are for now reading and discussing the letters and documents RAAL (the abbreviation I will use) gathered together and published in 1942 (Spottiswood Press) in the first two privately-printed volumes of what he called Pedigree of Austen: Austen Papers, 1704-1856. We have been enabled to do this because some of us took the books out of the library (there is a 1990 reprint by the Bath Thoemmes Press), others have xeroxes of RAAL’s volumes, and Christy Somers sent those who asked for them, the pages of the first volume as we read them as attachments from copies she scanned in, and Ronald Dunning is putting on his website, also from the 1942 edition, the chapters of the first two volumes as we go through them.
RAAL was the 2nd son of Cholmeley Austen-Leigh (1829-1899) and his wife, Melesina Mary (also with a pedigree, one linking her to a Dean and Archbishop); and thus a grandson of the James-Edward Austen-Leigh and Emma Smith. JEAL wrote the first memoir of Jane Austen that began the cult of Austen’s life and books, from which we can date the widening knowledge and reading of her books and then watching of film adaptations, with accompanying ever increasing scholarship to the point the subject becomes a life’s work; JEAL’s book included the texts of Lady Susan and The Watsons. We saw in going through Austen’s letters how fond she was of him and how much he loved her. His sisters, Caroline Austen and Anna Austen Lefroy (both beloved by Jane, if at times with Anna genuinely estranged) contributed letters; Anna prepared an edition of Sanditon with her own attempts at a continuation from what she knew of her aunt’s aims, and Caroline her Reminiscences, separately printed. All three were the children of Jane’s oldest brother, James, the poet of the family.
In the preface to the 1990 Bath Thoemmes press reprint of RAAL’s effort in four volumes (which includes JEAL’s Memories of the Vine Hunt, books on Jane Austen and Bath, Constance Hill’s nostalgic work on where Austen lived, and a judge’s notes on the case of Jane Perrot-Leigh’s shoplifting), David Gilson provides a brief review of the successful business and socially elite life of RAAL as well as RAAL’s publications apart from those on Jane Austen (Eton college, architectural, a history of his printing firm): Gilson’s few words are valuable. He gives a brief but full enough account to give us a sense of what kind of man RAAL was through reviewing R.A. Austen-Leigh’s business life, his professional memberships. RAAL spent his life as a publisher, Spottiswood was the family firm; he was successful (reminding me of Samuel Richardson) and was the head of a number of printers’ councils, boards, chairman of this and that. He was also a literary man and member of the Society of Antiquaries, Royal Society; he married twice in the way the family approved, upper middle class daughter of military and university people, once within the same family his father had. He never had any children by either wife. His writes on architecture, Eton, the story of his firm, JA and Lyme Regis, JA and Southampton. Gilson has a joke at the conclusion of his preface where he says someone in Notes and Queries found one error in R.A. Austen-Leigh’s various articles and books — it was Elinor not Marianne who drank the constantia wine.
After Gilson’s introduction (in the 1990 reprint) ,there is a long detailed pedigree (got up by RAAL) — it is worth having because you can see the family were clothiers in Kent in the 15th, 16th, 17th century; they also become surgeons (a few sons) and stationers (so get involved in printing and state papers). By the later 17th century Austen men are going to university, holding fellowships, getting positions. One can identify Elizabeth Austen as the wife of John Austen IV. The calamity of her life is her husband (John IV) predeceased his father (John III), and their eldest son John was given everything contrary to what she said were her husband’s John IV’s express wishes. Why was John III so very mean to all the other children (refusing to give them any help) and his daughter-in-law? It’s said he didn’t like her. It’s sometimes implied there is something extraordinary here, but I’d like to suggest this was how primogeniture could work. The law was set up to allow the behavior of John III if he felt like it.
Then starting with Elizabeth’s 4th son, William, we see George Austen’s parentage (and how he was orphaned more than once as were of course his full sisters, Philadelphia and Leonora). We also see the other sons who were the uncles Henry sometimes mentions — especially Francis Motley who Henry was wont to say (it’s apparent more than once) sat down on a chair as a lawyer and just grew rich — very rich. It was not quite so easy or simple or innocent. Francis became a moneylender — banking was ever a place to grow rich through money changing hands and investments. Henry followed in this uncle’s footsteps.. But with no safety net, no regulations, most people did crash if there was a depression or recession (and there was a bad once when Napoleon was defeated and the armies sent home) — unless very well wadded by family connections.
The genealogy is very long and one might say Deirdre LeFaye imitates it in her biographical index to her edition of Jane Austen’s letters. She gives us little genealogies when she should give us accounts of individuals. But she cares not for them in the way she does genealogies. A younger daughter (or “sister” as Austen is said to have first titled her Watsons) would not have been particularly valued, was not because it would not have been seemly (conforming to respectability) until well after her death, until after 1870 when JEAL broke ranks and began to publish what he felt he could about her private life, what he believed to be truth about her.
Anna Maxwell Martin as Cassandra when younger reading one of Jane Austen’s letters (Becoming Jane, 2008)
RAAL’s preface comes next. He strikes a modest tone. He asks, why should such family papers be of interest — he is aware somehow that the Jane Austen connection is not quite enough, though the primary function of the book is to shed light and information on her. Chapter 2 ends with Austen’s birth. He says the letters of this and other chapters are representative – – and they are of a family, some of whose members made good — with great difficulty some of them, luck (the adoption of Edward Austen) and marrying well (JEAL and several others). He hopes their ordinary upper middle classness will be instructive. He also thinks of his material as a kind of story and sets his book up as one — rather like Charlotte Barrett did for her great-aunt, Fanny Burney.
He has a great deal of material from Eliza Hancock de Feuillide Austen, and it’s clear will handle it discreetly. Hancock, her legal father, is described early on as a “sour and disappointed” man. Warren Hastings is only mentioned once in the chronology, but it is interesting to see that Daylesford (which Hastings purchased with his “ill-gotten gains) was not far from Adelstrop Rectory where some of the Austen cousins lived (and Jane visited) and the manuscripts of Eliza’s letters were found in the hands of a Hastings descendent. RAAL shows an awareness of how Mrs Leigh-Perrot will emerge as a deeply unpleasant figure, and has included what material he could by JEAL to tell about her candidly.
Chapter one contains the slightly astonishing and important narrative by Elizabeth Weller Austen and a long letter from Henry Austen to James-Edward Austen-Leigh dwelling on how Francis Austen (one of Henry’s uncles, one of Elizabeth’s sons) became so rich, and how particular people in the family came to inherit this or that
Imitator of David Teniers the Younger, An Old Woman Reading (17th century)
Elizabeth Weller Austen’s narrative is a story of the workings out of primogeniture when held to super-strictly, except for a defiant daughter-in-law. Usually it’s said something would be allowed for schooling and prospects of younger sons and perhaps a small dowry for a daughter. But this mean (in all senses of the term) man (John III) would not give a penny unless someone else forked out an equal amount and even then not always. Elizabeth acknowledges her husband (John IV) left her badly in debt but says not unreasonably that though he had debts before he married and as he accumulated debts over the marriage, they were the members of a very rich family and lived in a way commensurate with that. Probably John Austen IV was a bad businessman, did not attend to his rents, farming and the clothier business — if you look you find people like Thomas Jefferson worked as businessmen, taking on debt to run a place being the great problem they ever had to cope with. The meanness in the father-in-law is also seen in his first refusal to pay even for a funeral (10 pounds was fought over fiercely): I assume John III detested something his son had done, or was a person, and was determined to get back or not give over any money to John IV’s whole family. He would himself educated John III separately from them. Elizabeth says the way she was treated in her father-in-law’s will (for he died not long after his son) made her into an enemy, someone not part of the family. It was not that she had nothing for her father is applied to for half to make up a sum and he is willing, but he dies too. She says her husband would have written out something for her, but was told that there was no need, his father (JA III) promising to actually care equally for all his grandsons. He reneged on promises several times in the course of this narrative, and I expect everyone feared that he would.
Were this sort of truth and candor practiced by people regularly how much more would we know of the realities and workings of our world and human nature. I stopped reading at page 8 for at that place the narrative drops into the present tense for a page or so. Elizabeth is left nearly destitute with 5 of her sons (all but the eldest) and a daughter after the death of her husband, then the death of her father, and then of this very tormenting father-in-law who more than once she said “all feared to displease.” She does not know and is writing out of immediate distress and perplexity: what she shall do? She projects intense anxiety, bewilderment yet determination not to sit down and live penuriously while her children grow up to be laborers. It’s clear no one will help them and this will be their fate unless she can get a job that pays well enough and houses them decently herself. She does not put it this way, but that is what she goes out and does.
The use of the present tense at this transition point in the narrative (p. 8) suggests the manuscript was not written all at once at the end of her life but rather in pieces, some of it later after an event, and other of it at the time of happening, as an outlet or vent, a kind of diary. Then at the end of her life or when she put this together some parts show the diary nature of some of the material. This helps explain the exactitude of the amounts she cites in the early part of the story and again the later: how much at each juncture was paid or not paid after her husband and then father-in-law died, and the bargaining over each item. The narrative also shows how central is money to these people. Auden professed to be shocked at Jane’s concern with money; Elizabeth Weller Austen would not have been.
Elizabeth is casting about what to do and writes in the present tense for a couple of paragraphs. She laments that she is treated as an enemy in the will and talks of how her husband feared his father would disinherit the younger children as severely as he did and insists all her children are dear to her as they were to her husband. The next page is pathetic dealings with her in-laws (as we’d call them) her husband’s siblings who she is hoping will (in effect) set aside the will and obey her husband’s desires – share some of the money and property for the younger ones. This part seems to be written as an argument she is going to present to them. She says she does not have enough to give her children an education they will not be ashamed of, to apprentice her children, has no prospect of saving money (as she has none).
Elizabeth writes to expose what happened, to tell, and to justify what she did — becoming a housekeeper is a come-down and some of the apprenticeships she took were also come downs from gentlemanly positions like in the military or clergy or law (law was not as respected) for which Jane Austen’s father fitted his sons. She can write – -so the talent of the family comes out here. A typical phrase: I were loathe to appear ridiculous” about her lack of proper mourning clothes for her husband’s funeral. We learn that her husband kept the debts he brought into the marriage and the larger debts accumulated “private” from her. She says that John III did not perform a promise made at the marriage to pay the debts upon the marriage — so they did not begin with a clean slate (rather like US students today who begin life with large college debts hanging over them). After John IV’s death, John’s real unkindness over the furniture and household goods (reminding me of how Jane Austen had to give up her few things,but then she had only herself, was not going to be dumped and had not been given promises at all — galling itself). All the deaths raise curiosity and she gives some details — for example her own father’s fatal illness (Weller his name) “seized his brains” so he was not able just before his death to perform promises to the father-in-law. I wonder if the man had brain cancer or some sort of dementia (how old was he at time of death?)
What happens then is her biological father dies and then John III himself. Now it is the siblings of John III who refuse to ignore the will, to help her, to make good on promises she says she had. She mentions a biological brother of her own, Stringer. The case is that is by word of mouth her father promised 200 pounds for her household goods, to pay her husband’s debts, and leave enough money for her younger sons, but as it was not in the will the promise was not honored. Her “brothers” (she may mean brothers-in-law) insisted as it was not in law, as “it could not be answered in law, and they must be just to the heir.” In other words, they’d be sued by this heir or later on when he grew up or his close relatives who thought to gain.
Elizabeth’s narrative is more than courageous and poignant; it’s defiant. To bring in that trivializing word “feisty” at this point is to show how it’s usually used for behavior which does not threaten or expose the system. Elizabeth Austen’s narrative exposes the system which would have destroyed her — Anna Austen Lefroy allowed the system to destroy her, did not fight back after her husband died, but lived off other relatives penuriously. Granted it’s hard to fight, hard to see past the views of everyone around you that can hold you in an invisible prison. All around Elizabeth probably disapproved publicly and some privately when she became a housekeeper. Housekeepers ended up the mistresses of the men in the houses they worked in if the men didn’t have wives (or if they did) been able to read the latter pages. She was smart too: she took a job at Sevenoaks, a boarding school so her sons could be educated as part of her payment.
She was a woman and the system ignores her and expected her to do nothing, to live in a hovel or beg and plead to no avail.
She first takes over two years to cope with her debts; her purpose was to give up as little as she could, take what she could away with her, and she managed to borrow some of what she needed. Taking a job as a housekeeper in a boarding school shows cleverness: her boys would naturally be educated among the others — crumbs from the table on what was going. This was part of the deal I imagine. Then we get a picture of a subsidence life — before the middle 19th century almost every one lived that way in Europe (and now again in the US a huge population does again). Tiny sums accounted for — I’m sure Jane Austen saw this kind of thing. Elizabeth does provide for her daughter differently — trying to get her clothes to be decorated out. Francis has small pox at one point and the doctors’ bill is a whopping 29 pounds plus. She tells nothing of her relationship to her employer.
Now and again she writes placatings of God, especially when she is doing something unconventional as when she takes the job at Stevenoaks. I gather the way you could pressure on someone to stop them doing something unconventional (and against say your interest or pride) was to identify the hegemonic opinion with God’s and frighten them that God would not approve.
This is material which requires annotation and these two editions (1941 and 1990) provide none. In her narrative, Elizabeth Austen’s narrative she does not differentiate clearly her father-in-law (John III) from her father (Weller) and sometimes one has to work to make sure she is talking about her husband (John IV). She does not refer to John III as her father-in-law but either father Austen or father, or my husband’s father. To call hiim father is to use the same word as for her biological father. (I note a reluctance today to use the term stepfather so that someone’s father becomes their biodad and the stepfather they live with their father. Biodad is a back formation as father means biological father.)
In his brief introduction RAAL talks of all this in the mildest terms and emphasizes how by the time her boys needed it, Elizabeth had the money to apprentice each, where he was apprenticed and in the case of Francis (who was a lawyer who went into lending, a banker in effect) what great success he had. This provides that optimistic non-questioning stance so necessary (I speak ironically), but RAAL does bring out how as the whirligig of time proceeded the eldest branch died off, and after all it was Francis’s grandson who became heir to the large estates. And he prints it. He knows that the relatives at the time or even a hundred or so years later would have been mortified to see the real family behavior and resorts so exposed.
The 1995 film adaptation of P&P: Mrs Bennet (Alison Steadman) telling Mr Austen (Benjamin Whitrow) a man of good fortune has come into the neighborhood: they need this as the Bennet property will go to a distant male cousin, Mr Collins
Elizabeth’s narrative relates directly to central themes of P&P and S&S. P&P: The workings of primogeniture is made into a joke over Mrs Bennet’s lamentations: and she says how ridiculous further of relatives should by chance inherit — but it’s the whole system. Francis’s grandson finally got the property from the line of JA IV’s eldest son when there was no son. Towards the end of Henry’s letter, Henry talks of someone who deserved a property by feeling and abilities and yet it was given to the heir and points to primogeniture. He’s not amused and his complaint is really something in the spirit of Austen’s Mrs Bennet. He is at pains to explain each turn in the family too because (he says) it’s not always clear which is the line to inherit, and then people end up litigating (what nearly happened over Stoneleigh Abbey).
In 1995 film adaptation of S&S, Fanny Dashwood (Harriet Walter) discourages John Dashwood’s (James Fleet) idea he should give his step-mother an annuity in lieu of a big lump sum to furnish interest: Just think she could live more than 15 years!
S&S: second powerful famous chapter about how a promise is not worth the air it took to utter it. Henry Dashwood has no power in law to offer anything to his second wife and daughters. Austen might have said what he asked was not permanent property but a one time gift; however we see in Elizabeth Austen’s letter how her brother Stringer would not budge for gifts either: maybe he’d be sued. Well maybe he would have been. We do not fell Mrs Austen and the girls had any case; Elizabeth Austen actually talks of going to a lawyer but says she “had no pocket to know ye opinion of my Lord Chanceller.” (p. 11)
Francis Austen (1698-1791)
I found Henry’s narrative letter clearly written as information to JEAL — perhaps when working on his aunt’s biography. It is insightful, calmer than most of Jane’s letters to Cassandra. He give a positive portrait of the uncle Francis: smart in lots of ways, including getting along with people. The tone of the whole is pleasant — he likes his nephew and liked his uncle. Henry feels comfortable telling of all these properties too. Francis rose through an initial 800 pounds (we are not told how he put that together) and then marrying a widow whose property he was defending from further rapacious heirs. Henry says this widow was a decently natured as Francis. Henry says it was a privilege to have known this generation. Henry is at some pains to explain who inherited various properties after Francis Austen died and why to his nephew, JEAL.
We see why the Austens had a certain pride: they do have properties, they do have “ownership” of fellowships, with all the connections all this brings. The letter to be understood needs a family table nearby to see all the relationship. Henry refers to George Austen as JEAL’s grandfather and says Francis left George Austen 500 pounds though he had three married sons and at least a dozen grandchildren. The implication is such moneys are not usually given to people at that time of life as they are not so (desperately) needed as at other times.
Now although it might seem George Austen did not need it, this 500 would have come very handy (as Francis may have known) when George Austen was in Bath. He has a wife and two daughters and they are struggling to afford a decent place to live. With this 500 they escaped living with Mr and Aunt Leigh-Perrot and lived near Queens Square; later they went “down” to Green Park Buildings. I imagine they just spent what they had until it ran out with a small amount put in the funds (and small interest there).
Throughout it’s only sons that are paid attention to by Henry unless a widow is left money or property. The idea that later in life money is not needed is the idea that the moment of the career, the education for it is what counts. Girls were not included in all that, only for a dowry, and again that’s the same point in a life.
Later life matters when the people grow old and fight over these wills. Leonard Wolf has a savagely ironic novel about the litigation he saw in Sri Lanka as families fought over bits of property and I daresay people on this listserv have seen similar fights over large and small properties. I have been lucky never to have participated personally in anything like this.
I am convinced Jane Austen saw Elizabeth Weller Austen’s letter — from Henry’s letter he seems very familiar with the details of Elizabeth Weller Austen’s later doings for her sons. What Jane Austen thought of al this is indirectly seen in her novels and what’s left of her letters by her ways of talking about primogeniture (mostly ironically), her powerlessness, her desire for money from her novels. It must have hurt as she grew near death to have gained so little on MP and Emma. Years later Henry and Cassandra got what little they could when they sold the copyright for the sets of novels printed across the century.
Sevenoaks, Kent — now a boarding independent school
A few thoughts on the significance of Elizabeth Weller Austen’s narrative beyond its relevance to Austen’s novels. RAAL thought his material could have larger relevance.
What happened to Elizabeth’s children and then their children (where we find George and Philadelphia Austen) beyond its poignance. First and foremost it is a protest large and clear against primogeniture. It’s often said that people accepted the system as a whole to keep property together for a family: not so if you look at the first reform movements of the 1780s through early 1800s (when these were crushed). As the immediate thing all French cahiers sought was to end lettres de cachet and the English in the 1790s to make real reform of their parliament and its laws. We find people in the corresponding, liberty and other reform societies want an end to primogeniture (I know it will be said the parliament didn’t have the power, but people often ask institutions to create or find the power), then equal representative (no rotten boroughs) and universal suffrage for men.
Primogeniture was in fact disliked intensely by those who lost out — even if they dared not say so in front of the powerful single individual they now needed. Some families did soften the blow, did help the younger ones — but the important truth to keep your eye on is they didn’t have to. When terrible things are permitted men to do to women in a society, that does not mean that all men do it: what it does mean is those who want to can, and people use power. It’s often said to subdivide the property would have destroyed but that is to leave out of account the effect of time. It takes time for each generation to grow up and as that is happening (as in stocks and bonds), the property if well managed can grow and provide for all. Inheritance of large properties is not a zero-sum game; they bring patronage at the time (not later), rents, natural resources on the property.
We do see Jane’s despair and some of the bitterness of her cousin, Edward Cooper over the betrayal that the other Austens all felt that James Perrot-Leigh inflicted on them show the Austens angry at the workings of inheritance customs — in this case Perrot-Leigh had no sons and his property was not entailed so he gave the impression (and more than that to his relatives) he was going to leave the immediate legacies and this made them treat him better — that we see here is felt so egregiously and is part of the results of this primogeniture system.
So although the originating story of the family as told by Elizabeth Austen was well-known to them all, what is so remarkable here our first document is a real protest that tells us the real feelings of people in the era. Also that it was unthinkable not to try to hold onto your status, that people would do almost anything to — the ancien regime was a tough place. Many a Trollope novel hinges on a person doing some illegal or wrong thing in some way in order to provde a son or daughter (or self) with gentlemanly or the status of a lady. In the 17th through 19th century and today still the way to hold onto your status is education for a middle to upper class niche. So John III’s behavior was egregiously unjust.
The way Brenda Blethyn as Mrs Austen is dressed in Joe Wright’s 2005 P&P is probably close to that of Elizabeth Weller Austen
To return to Austen’s novels, among other things to be extrapolated from this document is that Mrs Bennet’s complaints are not to be dismissed. So many people defend her for the way she openly goes about trying to get husbands for her daughters — which in the novel are shown to be mostly counter-productive. Many readers unfortunately dismiss the way Mrs Bennet discusses the entail on Mr Collins because Austen herself sets up a context which ridicules her. Ridiculous woman to keep repeating what cannot be helped. And of course the heir will take all. I take it that’s part of the conservative stance her family would have been comfortable with and the ridicule allowed her novel to get past their censuring eyes. I’m inclined to defend Mrs Austen’s indignation even if expressed in ways that allow for ridicule — and think readers at the time would have felt the sting strongly of the girls being turned out when the father dies.
In Austen’s S&S the uncle did have the power to leave much more to his nephew — if you read carefully you find the entail had ended for a time. But the way of thinking was to leave the huge amount to one, the oldest male; Austen’s irony is that in fact the old man left it tied up (set a new set of restrictions) so as to make sure it would end up in he hands of a child (boy) when he grows up.
As to the workings of primogeniture with males counting in Jane Austen’s immediate family, George Austen leaves his vicar’s position and salary to his eldest son, James, discarding a lifetime’s posssesions which included those valued by his daughter, Jane who became a wanderer, spent hated time in Bath and only was able to resume equanimity when her brother, Francis, provided a temporarily stable place to live in Southampton. It was a lucky adoption (of Edward by the Knights) that provided Chawton after the death of his wife, Elizabeth.
if you look at Elizabeth Austen and then study what happened to her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren — Henry a fourth son (see my portrait of him) — the reality is not to be surprised he ended up nearly broke except for a curacy patronage got him but how far he got. In his wife, Eliza Hancock de Feuillide Austen’s immediate family: we see her mother, Philadelphia, driven to go to India and marry where she could. No education for her the way one was provided for her brother George. She took crumbs from the table of Warren Hastings after he impregnated her with Eliza (see my portrait of her) – not a happy position — or one Henry could work to his advantage later in life when he married Eliza.