Dear friends and readers,
This is a continuation of my previous blogs on Catherine Hubback’s writing, and what her and Austen’s other gifted niece, Anna Austen Lefroy’s sequel, fiction and relationship with Jane Austen can tell us about Austen and her writing.
I’ve now finished reading Zoe Klippert’s edition of Catherine Hubback’s letters and while it is a sound first step in learning about this second gifted niece of Austen and her writing, it is only a first step, and (alas) the book shows some peculiarities can be explained only as the result of some family control exerted on the editor to stop her from telling the full story glimpsed here. Even with Klippert’s introduction, notes and reachable bibiography, without Alice Villasenor’s Women Readers and the Victorian Jane Austen two chapters, one on Hubback and the other on Anne Austen Lefroy’s daughter, Fanny Caroline Lefroy and her articles on Austen (Temple Bar 1880s) and memoir, I would not have been able to see een as far into The Younger Sister or these letters.
The letters just cover 5 years and there are not many of them. Like so many women’s letters, these are what survived. They are only one side, mostly Catherine’s letters to her oldest son, John, with a few to his wife, Mary; the book is not thick. We can pick up much about the realities of Catherine’s immediate life in California from the letters here which are do not seem to be censored, scissored. That is true. They make sense. The letters are lively, witty, contain astute pictures of American life and type people, ways of life, places. We also see strains in Catherine’s family, between John and the mother and John’s wife. But not much more. This son John left an enormous memoir which was only privately printed and is hard to get hold of. He (John) and his daughter, Edith, wrote the JA’s Sailor Bros and she wrote 3 sequels to Austen’s books, wherein all of them feature a heroine who feels like an exile. So much remains to be elucidated
The introduction to the letters is weak. The barest outline is told; we are not told how Catherine’s husband came to have a breakdown, or what were the circumstances; much is omitted from the life which would be easy and natural to tell. The list of characters in Catherine’s life is bare too, odd. Many people are left out who count (we could at least have had all her siblings) and we are not told why. Fanny Sophia Austen is presumably included so that Klippert can be sure we understand who it was that destroyed the correspondence of Jane and Frank Austen, but I found more helpful information about Hubback’s life and the information about Fanny’s destruction of Jane and Martha Lloyd’s correspondence in Villasenor’s redaction of Fanny Caroline Lefroy’s papers.
It seems to me the explanation for the thinness of the book is at least twofold. First Catherine’s branch of the family feel from the gentry. All three of Catherine’s children (including the son who remained in England) left the cozy landowning navy-clerical appointments-patronage world of the Austens, to find and create work in the business world of the UK at the time, to become selling travelers for firms. This probably because they couldn’t get anything from the family by this time. All the money the Steventon Austen branch of the family had expected first from James Leigh-Perrot, and then from his domineering stingy wife, Jane Leigh-Perrot (yes the one who stole the lack) went to James-Edward Austen-Leigh. There was anger for a while because Frank had been promised the property too, but he displeased the harridan aunt by his marriage to Martha Lloyd (isn’t that interesting) and she instead did give him a payment of 10,000 pounds, with which he was able to buy Portsdown Lodge. Southam mentions this; Mary Austen Austen in her biography of her father, James-Edward Austen-Leigh does; Tomalin at the close of her biography of Jane Austen. Villanesor suggests that Robert Watson’s anger about his lack of inheritance from Emma’s uncle and aunt is a reflection of Frank’s expectations and dependence on help having been thwarted.
Frank had 11 children and that’s a lot to provide for. George Austen had had tenuous patronage; after all Hastings was not the legal father of his niece, Eliza de Feuillide Austen, his sister, Philadelphia had been Hasting’s mistress for only a short time (between his first and second wife) and all were long dead. Catherine’s husband broke down and was put in an asylum, and she had to return to live with her father for some years. Except for John (the eldest) who eventually became stable in one place in the UK, the two sons and their families all moved around continually. Many people in the US did. Catherine Hubback notes (what both Trollopes saw and mention and is found in Wm Dean Howells, Mark Twain, anyone who describes 19th century American life, including Anthony Trollope) how in the US many middle class people lived in boarding houses. It was a frustrating life for married women with families. Edward, her eldest, ended a draftsman for a lumber company, the younger brother, Charles, became a woodchopper and eventually moved in with his older brother. Charles and his wife had had six children, she died after the sixth, and all dispersed. Tomalin at the close of her excellent biography of Jane shows that other members of the Austen ended up impoverished and below the gentry, but this is not the image the family left today wants for themselves.
Catherine Hubback does remind me of Fanny Trollope in her strength; as long as she was alive the sons didn’t do too badly — though again she needed her father’s help who himself lived in Chawton house on Edward’s lcuk and largess. She did present herself as widow in the US (and was at risk of chatting up in one incident she tells). She worked herself and gave, and shortly after these letters contracted pneumonia. She died and was buried in Virginia. I find myself much admiring her, but have learned that people want rather to identify with high class status than someone struggling and surviving as best she can as she loses class status. Among the stories Catherine was willing to tell was that some of the letters Cassandra destroyed were her “triumphing over the married women of her [Jane’s] acquaintance, and rejoicing in her own freedom” and were “most amusing” (Tomalin, 281).
The second area of Catherine’s life and works that could make those who control her papers uncomfortable is her novels mirror the real lives of the Austens which Jane reflected mostly indirectly. The titles reflect the realities of the family, an older wife and younger husband, a wife’s sister married, exile from security. Except for The Watsons Jane kept to a milieu higher than the one she grew up in or lived later when her father died. She avoids too close a literal mirroring in her other books. Her loss of Lefroy is seen through Jane Bennet’s near loss of Charles Bingley say; the three women’s distressed circumstances in the ejection from Norland Park and settling in Barton cottage and so on.
Hubback’s Younger Sister cries out for a decent edition, and from what Klippert says diplomatically about Tamara Wagner’s essays on Hubback for the Victorian Web, they show a lack of real knowledge and have errors of fact (they are again thin like her essay on Sherlock films). It’s curious how hard it is to get Volume 3 of Younger Sister; the other two are easy to get, but without volume 3 the story doesn’t make sense, and I was able to get a copy only through a friend who managed to xerox a rare library copy. I suggest the relatives today are controlling access to this.
It’s a case of a minor Victorian woman novelist not getting her due as yet and nothing being done because of the dead hand of family control together with the reiterated idea (flung at to dismiss women’s writing) that Hubback’s work is not worth it, very minor. Until Elizabeth Grant Smith’s journals (the Highland Lady) were published whole, people said that of her, they no longer do. To read Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun’s (the artist) full journal is a revelation; the truncated abridged and censored one still on line makes her seem like a facile fool; far from it, astute, witty, a real businesswoman who avoided the guillotine (unlike Eliza Austen’s husband who seems to have run into it) and made a success of hard life of traveling and painting and selling her pictures as far away as freezing St Petersburg.
It’s with these women that Hubback’s still thwarted fate should be seen. They, Julia Kavanagh, Geraldine Jewsbury are coming into print and beginning to be discussed candidly and their works available and treated with respect. Paradoxically, the reason often cited for our paying attention to Hubback at all, her relationship to Austen gets in the way of our paying attention to her.
She is an ignored source for Austen, another real source, and a worthy writer and woman for study in her own right. Her Younger Sister may be considered a historical novel, an imitation of 18th century novels and insofar as she does this, this is part of the reason for the text’s success. In this The Younger Sister reminds me of Valerie Martin’s Mary Reilly whose success is the result of a skilled imitation of later 19th century prose and subjective novellas.