Archive for March 31st, 2012

Anna Austen, later Lefroy (1793-1872)

John Glover ( (1767-1849) ( (one of the two artists who popular engraved prints Austen was familiar with, possibly one like this of local English countryside is intended)

Dear friends and readers,

I’m breaking strict chronology at this point (see letter 70) because I’ve been asked to review The Later Manuscripts, ed. Janet Todd and Linda Bree, a final volume of Austen’s texts in the Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen, gen. ed. Janet Todd, and have come to that part of the volume where the editors print five and the postscript to a sixth letter (Letter 103) from Jane Austen to one of her two closest nieces, Anna Austen Lefroy (oldest daughter of Austen’s older brother, James, by his first wife, Anne Matthew [died 1795]). There are altogether sixteen extant letters from Austen to Anna, and of the five “whole” selections Todd and Bree make (where they take the complete text as far as we can guess), one is a letter cut off after an initial single paragraph (Letter 113).

This is, in other words, a series of scraps taken from a remnant of censored letters, on the supposition they give Jane Austen’s “theory of fiction.” They do not because 1) Jane Austen had no consistent worked-out theory of fiction: she talks only of her attitudes towards her heroines (usually some version of qualified fondness), strict literal verisimilitude and the actual literal situations she likes to delve (“3 or 4 Families in a Country Village”); and 2) if you want to argue she did have one, no matter how unconscious, what you need to do is bring all her letters together which bring up or discuss fiction, especially her own; these are many and must include the one to her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh (Letter 142).

This section of their book may best be read as a half-hearted attempt to present Jane Austen’s relationship with her niece who was possibly potentially as gifted as she but never developed these gifts. Letter 76, which I begin with here, is a parody ridiculing a minor novel Austen, her sister, and Anna, had been reading aloud to one another, Rachel Hunter’s Margiana; or, Widdrington Tower (1808, Minerva Head Press). See later correction and blog: the novel in question was Lady Maclairn, or The Victim of Villany.

The others are about the first novel Anna attempted, which she first called Enthusiasm, but changed to Which is the Heroine, and destroyed one night by casting it into the fire on her hearth in the later 1820s. In their notes they include (as LeFaye does not) all the comments of Anna’s third daughter, Fanny Caroline Lefroy about how much the novel meant to her mother, how she tried to finish Sanditon, Anna’s intense depression in the her later 20s and her destruction of her this item she had been so proud of, cherished. Proud because Jane Austen had taken it seriously, liked it. As her daughter, Fanny Caroline Lefroy laments, if her mother had not destroyed what she had written in a moment of self-rejecting despair (and loneliness for her aunt too), Jane Austen’s letters would mean more and we would have a much better understanding of Anna’s talents (perhaps a novel worth reading). The section is followed by the playlet, Sir Charles Grandison, which was probably written by Anna in her girlhood and corrected (polished, improved) by her aunt.

Since their book includes both a modern printing of Sanditon, and a diplomatic transcript of the manuscript, all one needs to do is read the other 9 letters, Mary Gaither Marshall’s edition of Anna’s continuation of Sanditon, which includes Anna’s Reminiscences of her aunt, and Anna’s three extant novellas, Mary Hamilton (1833), The Winter’s Tale (1841) and Springtide (1842), and cobble together from the various Jane Austen biographical books what is known of Anna’s life and documents by and about her (including her sister, Caroline’s truthful account of Anna’s bleak sad wedding to Benjamin Lefroy), and a relevant life and person to Jane Austen’s oeuvre is before you. I am not in a position to reach the three novellas (though I will try what I can do in my local Library Of Congress and Folger Library and through interlibrary loan), but I will here in the next few blogs present the rest.

This first blog is presents and reads first of the letters as printed by LeFaye, the ridiculing “fun” of Rachel Hunter’s historical fiction, apparently a cross between a gothic and sentimental text. I’ll then go on to offer a brief life of Anna, and then the five other texts in Todd and Bree, with an account of the nine further texts in LeFaye’s fourth edition of the letters. These can form a preface to the second half of the remnant of Jane Austen’s letter that is left to us, those which contain what is left of her explicit comments on her novels while preparing them for publication, writing and revising the best known six.


Francis Nicolson (1753-1844) (the other painter whose popular more feeble work is alluded to)

76(C). To Anna Austen. ?Between Thursday 29 and Saturday 31 October 1812

Miss Jane Austen begs her best thanks may be conveyed to Mrs Hunter of Norwich for the Threadpaper which she has been so kind as to send her by Mr Austen, & which will be always very valuable on account of the spirited sketches (made it is supposed by Nicholson or Glover) of the most interesting spots, Tarefield Hall, the Mill, & above all the Tomb of Howard’s wife, of the faithful representation of which Miss Jane Austen is undoubtedly a good judge having spent so many summers at Tarefield Abbei the delighted guest of the worthy Mrs Wilson. [It is impossible for any likeness to be more complete. Miss Jane Austen’s tears have flowed over each sweet sketch in such a way as would do Mrs Hunter’s heart good to see; if Mrs Hunter could understand all Miss Jane Austen’s interest in the subject she would certainly have the kindness to publish at least 4 vols more about the Flint family, & especially would give many fresh particulars on that part of it which Mr, H. has hitherto handled too briefly; viz, the history of Mary Flint’s marriage with Howard.

Miss Jane Austen cannot close this small epitome of the miniature abridgment of her thanks & admiration without expressing her sincere hope that Mrs Hunter is provided at Norwich with a more safe conveyance to London than Alton can now boast, as the Car of Frankenstein which was the pride of that Town was overturned in the last 10 days.

Miss Austen


John Glover ( (1767-1849), Rhiadr Ddu, North Wales (this is more like the paintings Glover is famous for today)

There is a brief but descriptive enough account of either this novel or one very like it in M. H. Dobbs, “Margian: Name of Author Wanted,” Notes and Queries, 7, Series 11 (1913):233-34. A brief account of the major characters, plot-turns and quality — it’s a historical novel which grounds history in Shakespeare, with gothic motifs and a sentimental courtship plot. Dobbs is someone who appears prima facie to think little of women’s novels; he (or she writing from a man’s point of view which she’s imbibed) he opens by assuming this one is by a woman and yet Dobbs grants the novel is a semi-serious attempt to write historical fiction and says there is genuine feeling in it. In her account of this novel in her Reminiscences, Anna says Hunter repeated the same story of the character several times: perhaps this was done from the different characters’ point of view.

Anna also tells Edward that the letter shows their aunt’s tendency to “ridicule:” thus she alludes two landscape artists in ways meant to stigmatize Hunter’s Abbey pictures: they are, Jane implies, verbal recreations of images such as Mrs Hunter might have seen in local books or places she visited. Austen is not only up on what is popular; she here distinguishes between what’s high status, prestigious (say an original oil or watercolor by a famous name you’d have to pay a good deal of money to if you wanted one of his or her pictures) and what’s popular, readily available to anyone who can get to the circulating library. In an earlier letter (55, 30 Jun-1 July 1808) we saw her half-mock William Hodges’s painting of Hasting’s second wife (only half, because it was Hastings, Eliza’s biological father, an important possible dispenser of patronage to the Austen family). Hodges are similar works: very pleasing Anglo-picturesque landscapes.

William Hodges (1744-97), A View of Matavai Bay in the Island of Otaheite (1776)


Fanny Austen Knight, later Knatchbull (1793-1882) writing a letter when young (watercolor by Cassandra Austen)

The letter is undated but after a careful study of the group of letters to Anna, especially those just before and around Anna’s wedding, LeFaye concluded these are the closest dates we have. Anna’s letters are in a parlous state, in versions she herself may have censored, I suggest because it was too painful to her later in life to realize her aunt had sometimes made fun of her or talked of her desires for say a pianoforte just after she married in hostile terms to her cousin, Fanny, very different from the way Austen had talked to her. (See LeFaye, “Jane Austen: Some Letters Redated,” Notes and Queries, 34:4 n.s. (1987):478-81.

It’s significant this is the first letter to Anna that has survived. Anna was someone with brains enough if not quite to understand explicitly the basis of the ridicule, at least someone who would sympathize with the desire to take the fiction sufficiently seriously to write up a parody. She opens with a mild sneer: Rachel Hunter’s book is so much threadpaper. The literal definition is a strip of folded paper serving to hold skeins of thread in its divisions. But the use is continually pejorative once that meaning is extrapolated out from, e.g., “No matter — as an appendage to a seamstress, the thread-paper might be of some consequence to my mother — of none to my father, as a mark in Slawkenbergius. (Tristram Shandy, Sterne). Again: “Sedley said he feared poor Desdemona had lost the thread-paper from which she was to mend her gown, and recommended to the two young ladies to have the charity to go and assist her” (Camilla, Burney). Also metonymic use it’s equivalent is a a woman: someone who uses this sort of thing: “A thread-paper, a doll, a toy – a girl, in short. ” (Bronte, Shirley)

Jane Austen’s most common reaction to most of those novels she mentions in her letters is hostile ridicule: to put the matter plainly. In part all these inferior texts get into print and hers has not, or in this case, gotten into print after ceaseless revision and paying for it. The exceptions are writers with strong prestige (Scott), who write didactically (Edgeworth, Genlis most of the time) or whose fictions resemble hers (but only if they have a name, so Burney is respected even if mocked, but Mary Brunton is not).

Still since the letter is dated dated October 1812, after the publication of Sense and Sensibility Jane Austen has had a real success d’estime — though the transcendent success of her archetypal romance (as it emerged from her cutting), Pride and Prejudice was not to come until after Jan 1813 (date of publication).

Austen specifically mocks the sentimental presentation of the servants in the novel, Mr and Mrs Wilson. I note that she had a hero named Howard who was a relatively poor tutor and we are told managed to escape the pursuit of Lady Osborne (suggesting a kind of Joseph Andrews plot unless a mistake was made in transmission and Jane told Cassandra Miss Osborne was to pursue Mr Howard). The connection of the names, Hunter having used the same one, may suggest why Miss Austen has this special interest in Mr Howard. Proprietary. The interest here is this suggests that Austen had not given up on The Watsons; she still considered the characters in that novel living creations that were hers and she intended to return to.

The reference to the Car of Frankenstein and number of miles between Alton and Norwich is not entirely nonsense — as the family liked to call much that Austen kidded about. In fact in one of Austen’s letters to Anna Austen (as we shall see) reveals an important part of her conscious method was to make sure she stayed within calendar and time and space limitations that exist in real life.

From Dobbs’s account and Austen’s reaction, it’s plain Hunter does not go carefully into such minutiae; Hunter does not care if she actually saw something happen or was in a place: one cannot be after all in a historical novel. Nor does she realize how important such control of time (slowing down) and felt space are in creating subjective time that draws the reader in — and thus instinctively, intuitively important to Austen. Austen herself thinks of this only as probability, a guard to make sure novels are not made fun of; we must turn to Anna Barbauld for a realization of a novel’s creation of a subjective consciousness.

Austen had been regaling her sister and Anna with stories she invented for the Car of Frankenstein. It had been overturned 10 days ago. Now this anticipates Sanditon which begins with an overturned carriage — so perhaps it already existed in some draft form. In Arthur Axelrod’s Jane Austen Caught in the Act of Greatness, a thorough careful diplomatic display of the manuscripts of the cancelled chapters of Persuasion and Sanditon, he notes hat on October 11/12, 1813, Jane wrote Cassandra:

I admire the Sagacity & Taste of Charlotte Williams. Those dark eyes always judge well. — I will compliment her, by naming a heroine after her.

It’s interesting that the name Frankenstein was perhaps already a stereotypoc name for gothic well before Mary Shelley’s book — or is this name prophetic?

Francis Nicolson, Pont Aberlaslyn, Wales (1809) — like Glover Nicolson did some fine painting (we need not adopt Austen’s attitudes here at all)


Catherine Anne Hubback, nee Austen (1818-77), Frank Austen’s 5th daughter by his first wife

The tendency is to think of Austen has having two nieces, and to put all the emphasis and interest on Fanny Austen Knight. It does seem as if for a time Jane Austen much preferred Fanny to Anna; but the letters to Fanny about marriage (often discussed and reprinted) show Jane at a distance looking at Fanny clinically (as we shall see when we get there). Alas, the movie Gweneth Hughes and Anne Pivcevic’s Miss Austen Regrets will solidify this erasure. Anna it was who grew up with the aunts when her father remarried, Anna was there to witness the first writing of Pride and Prejudice, Anna again lived near Austen at Chawton: Unlike Fanny, Anna had the brains, sensitivity, interest in her aunt’s fiction; she and her half-brother and half-sister, Caroline, inherited much from James the father and were responnsible for the important (even if wrong-headed) indispensable first memoir.

Not only that but there were three nieces and one who really did have career: Catherine Anne Hubback. Arguably it was Anna’s jealousy of her younger cousin, Catherine, and desire to forestall any publications by Catherine about their aunt, that led Anna to encourage and help James Edward Austen-Leigh in his biography of their aunt — Anna mentions more than once in irritated resentful terms that Catherine wrote The Younger Sister from a manuscript (it’s actually rather from memory). Catherine Anne Hubback helped support herself and family by writing (Victorian) novels when her husband had a nervous breakdown and was institutionalized; she published nine more novels after The Younger Sister (important for what it reveals about Austen’s The Watsons), among them the readable The Wife’s Sister, The Rival Suitors, and Agnes Milbourne, a story dealing with a young girl’s dilemma over the conflicting claims of the Episcopalian and the Presbyterian church and her most popular work of fiction. I hope to write blogs on Catherine Hubback’s Younger Sister as well as Fanny Austen Knight when the appropriate time in the letters provides.

Next up, the second letter to Anna printed in Todd and Bree’s Later Manuscripts.

See Jane Austen’s Letters



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