Dear friends and readers,
Still on the trail of Jane Austen and her niece, Anna Austen Lefroy I read that strange oddity, Jane Austen’s Sir Charles Grandison, and decided it’s not so odd after all. It’s a collaboration between niece and aunt; the ms resembles what we find in the other extant worked-over ms’s; it’s a sort of unfinished, first version play adaptation or sequel. As a ms this text tells the same tale of development from caricature as the other ms’s.
This afternoon I reread the short play (playlet really) called Sir Charles Grandison, which has become a site of mild controversy. A diplomatic transcript of the ms has been published by Southam in a now famous edition (it gave rise to a Merchant/Irovy/Jhabvala movie, Jane Austen in Manhattan) and in an Italian edition by Beatrice Battaglia.
Who wrote it is the question? It exists in a ms with corrections in Jane Austen’s handwriting, so it’s very like the ms of The Watsons, Sanditon, and the two concluding chapters of Persuasion, the penultimate of which did not make it into the novel. Only there are fewer of these nuanced revisions and crossings out; it’s not as hard worked over. Perhaps whether you opt for 1) it was written by Anna Austen Lefroy dictating to her aunt Jane; or 2) written by the aunt giving the 8-10 year old credit, or 3) a collaboration — does not matter as much as the reasoning behind what what you opt for.
Here again I find myself agreeing with Deirdre LeFaye: it’s a collaboration (see her Family Record). The text is just too sharp (adult) and adept in its pulling out of precisely the most memorable scenes of Pollexfen’s abduction of Harriet Bryon (Vol 1, letter 29); astute observations about human nature from Grandison on a few occasions (and scattered in the original text); strong lines (“I will not be bribed into liking your wit”); and funny ones of the type we find in her Juvenilia: to me who have read Grandison and written a chapter of my dissertation on this book, the best of these is his sister, Charlotte, Lady G, explaining why Sir Charles has hitherto not fallen in love or courted anyone: he hasn’t the time, “for he is constantly going from one place to another. But what for, we cannot tell”. There are lines from from Vol 4, Letters 14 & 15, Vol 6, Letter 43 — could a child get that far?
People may not know that Grandison was published in two omniscient abridgements of the modern type (rewrites which simplify) before the end of the 18th century. This was done once to Clary. Readers Digest anticipated? It is possible Anna was given one of these to read first, thought I doubt it. In this reading and writing family, it’d be a come-down. There’s a good later abridgement of Grandison in its epistolary form by none other than George Saintsbury who apparently wanted to get more people reading it – it’s a fat 2 volumes. (See Leah Price’s The Anthology and the Rise of the Novel).
Yet the text of this playlet is often flat and doing tiresome things: who comes in? signals to get on and off the stage. Yes, it’s about getting married and brings up no new objections to the sort of bullying Grandison is famous for (though the word is not used), no matter how well meant. There’s inanity in what is kept. There’s a happy ending of marriage. Miss J[ervois] has nothing to do.
One thing that can help is the diplomatic transcript and this shows Grandison to look like the ms’s of Watsons, Sanditon and Persuasion. The same kind of nuanced crossings out, second thoughts – fewer but of the same type. One crossed out scene (and thus relegated to notes in Todd and Bree) is a really deft sketch of a series of actions of violent pulling and pushing and forcing clothes on that we rarely see in an Austen novel (Italian edition, p 65). Unfortunately, this diplomatic ms is not included in the online editions nor the Later Manuscripts of Jane Austen in the Cambridge Edition.
The “fun” (as Jane Austen might say) of the Italian edition is it has both sides of the quarrel in direct opposition. Battaglia opens the book by arguing this text is Jane Austen’s; she agrees with Southam, Halperin and those who say this is clearly a Jane Austen project and even brilliant text (there’s over-speak here). It’s a sort of Juvenilia ironed out, a much longer developed playlet for family performance. Then Colasini (the post-script) closes the book by asserting this is the detritus of the family; it’s brief sketches contained within the acts shows what happens when you have a family getting together. Colasini finds traces of Austen’s spirit; yes it’s a collaboration but nothing something we should study. It’s a left-over remnant of the family life, rather like the family “bout rimes” and poems ending in “rose.”
I also reread the letters in Grandison by Richardson that Southam claims lies behind the play. What bothers me about this text as a reader of Richardson’s Grandison is Austen has omitted the intensities of Richardson’s depth. Even in comedy Richardson cannot be light. But then that fits too as I am coming to see her when she starts out, before she begins rewriting.
That is to say, we see in the playlet ms Sir Charles Grandison, the same start in caricature we have seen in Juvenilia, in Sanditon, in Plan of a Novel. The difference is there are no leaps here such as we see in the others ms’s. This is not an oddity. Simply this time Austen did not go further than that as she was working with and amusing a lonely young niece, a reading girl like herself. She did not go much beyond her niece, did not return again and again to this ms. Southam suggests that some of Austen’s changes (minor) to Richardson’s story show an attempt at improvement. So it might be considered a weak adaptation, a kind of sequel.
Remember Miss Andrews? she could not get through the first volume (Northanger Abbey, I:6), so wholly unlike was it to Udolpho. Isabella Thorpe herself “thought it had not been readable” (I:6), though we must not forget Mrs Morland year in and year out reading and re-reading but then new books do not often fall in her way. Nevertheless, I don’t dismiss it: I believe Henry was telling the truth when he said Grandison was one of Jane’s favorite books and her niece might have idolized her when she was 8-10.
Margaret Anne Doody is the English influential voice who vigorously claimed Jane Austen could not be the author (Nineteenth Century Fiction 38:2 (Sept 1983):220-04. Perhaps because it irritates her. Like other more radical readers (those who want to find the transgressive & romantic Jane), Doody prefers the Italian plot (Clementina della Poretta, her brother Jeronimo) and this Italian matter is omitted altogether. This is a paradox as Doody just loves Austen’s Juvenilia.
From my reading of the letters and now these m’s, I’d argue that much of what is found in the Juvenilia is read into them; I’m not saying the diabolic and anger is not there, but that it was not consciously intended or admitted to. Like her family, Jane Austen deflected the satire, anger, resentment of her texts; the family called such passages “nonsense” or neutrally “vigorous;” Austen described it as “fun,” delightful, and laughed.
So, given Austen’s preference for the “gay” consciously (as seen in her letters to Anna), Austen would go for Harriet Byron primarily to start with. Then maybe she’d swing round for another correction, and then another.
What is missing here that makes Doody feel it’s not by Austen: on the one hand, in the early writing the irritation, the breaking of taboos by abrupt violences within and without the characters; and in the later the slowing down, the avoidance of these sorts of tricks, the use of propriety and naturalness to control the surface.
My argument is this is an early first draft for a full length play that like many another author’s first work, the author writes in imitation or or inhabiting what she loves. She just never went back to it because it was only partly hers and the motive for writing therefore too much a social occasion, not an inner need.
There was a time Anna and Jane were very close.