My Austen in August quest to read more about Jane Austen’s life begins with the first ‘official’ biography. Written in the late Victorian period, more than fifty years after she died, A Memoir of Jane Austen is offered to readers as a kind of ‘family record’ of the author. Austen’s nephew, J.E. Austen-Leigh, was responsible for compiling family histories and records into a coherent account of her life.
It’s no secret that A Memoir of Jane Austen is a flawed account, and deeply unsatisfying for Austen’s readers and admirers. Indeed, my own personal opinion quickly came to be that it tells the reader more about Austen-Leigh, and the age in which he was living, than it does about Austen herself.
A Memoir of Jane Austen is responsible for launching the infamous ‘Aunt Jane’ image which has been impossible to shake off, even after more than a century has passed. The tone of the book is a little priggish, and at times you almost feel that Austen-Leigh is sermonising (probably not surprising, as he was a clergyman; in the Austen family the church had become something of a family business, and they churned out clergymen by the dozen).
Austen-Leigh approaches his aunt’s life with the assumption that nothing much happened to her; he therefore pads his account with stories about Austen’s neighbours, friends, and distant acquaintances. Who is related to whom seems far more important than who Austen actually was. The memoir becomes a kind of patchwork of eminent people, and Austen-Leigh reveals his own prejudice as an Oxford man by jumping on every opportunity to mention people even vaguely connected to the institution. The result is that Austen herself disappears from the narrative, crowded out by the mass of complete and often unimportant strangers Austen-Leigh talks about.
In order to further ‘pad up’ the memoir, and to make it more ‘interesting’ to a general audience (Austen scholars laugh derisively and shake their fists in anger), Austen-Leigh justifies writing the memoir by promising to use the space to try and record details of late eighteenth-century life. Needless to say, he doesn’t do brilliantly at this, either.
The memoir is mostly a mix-and-match of long-gone names and places, and frequent allusions to Austen’s acceptable femininity. “We did not think of her as being clever,” Austen-Leigh writes, “but we valued her as one always kind, sympathising, and amusing” (Chapter I). He frequently makes references to her ‘modesty’ and ‘kindness’. And he writes that “She was always very careful not to meddle with matters which she did not thoroughly understand. She never touched upon politics, law, or medicine” (Chapter I). Though there is truth to this statement (inasmuch as it is true that Austen did not write about “politics, law, or medicine”) there is a distinctly gendered sentiment here; ‘meddling’ is something women do, and I have yet to hear it applied to a man (men ‘interfere’, but they never meddle; heavens no). In addition, Austen-Leigh makes several backhanded remarks about contemporary female writers; he compares his aunt to Fanny Burney and Maria Edgeworth (both writers Austen read and admired), illustrating the superiority of his aunt’s work to theirs. I somehow doubt his aunt would have approved.
Altogether, it was not enjoyable trying to get through A Memoir of Jane Austen. Though it potentially includes some useful biographical information, everything in this account must be read with a grain of salt. It is a reflection of the mind of the author and the period in which he wrote, more than an account of the life and times of Jane Austen. The writing is poor, and the writer’s prejudices at times leak out in almost amusing ways. Take, for instance, the headings for Chapter Nine, which details the reception of Austen’s work: Austen-Leigh promises us “Opinions expressed by eminent persons – Opinions of others of less eminence – Opinion of American readers.” Austen-Leigh appears to live in a world where people can be divided into three neat groups – ‘rich’, ‘poor’, and ‘Americans’. It’s a perfect illustration of the way that Austen’s life is constantly being put under the lens of our own cultural preoccupations.
Rating: 2.5 Stars