Memoir of Jane Austen
A Memoir of Jane Austen is a biography of the novelist Jane Austen (1775–1817) published in 1869 by her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh. A second edition was published in 1871 which included previously unpublished Jane Austen writings. A family project, the biography was written by James Edward Austen-Leigh but owed much to the recollections of
A Memoir of Jane Austen is a biography of the novelist Jane Austen (1775–1817) published in 1869 by her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh. A second edition was published in 1871 which included previously unpublished Jane Austen writings. A family project, the biography was written by James Edward Austen-Leigh but owed much to the recollections of Jane Austen’s many relatives. However, it was the decisions of her close friend and sister, Cassandra Austen, to destroy many of Jane’s letters after her death that shaped the material available for the biography. Austen-Leigh described his “dear Aunt Jane” domestically, as someone who was uninterested in fame and who only wrote in her spare time. However, the manuscripts appended to the second edition suggest that Jane Austen was intensely interested in revising her manuscripts and was perhaps less content than Austen-Leigh described her. The Memoir does not attempt to unreservedly tell the story of Jane Austen’s life. Following the Victorian conventions of biography, it kept much private information from the public, but family members disagreed over just how much should be revealed, for example, regarding Austen’s romantic relationships. The Memoir introduced the public to the works of Jane Austen, generating interest in novels which only the literary elite had read up until that point. It remained the primary biographical work on the author for over half a century. In the late 1860s, the Austen family decided to write a biography of Jane Austen. The death of Sir Francis Austen, her last surviving sibling, and the ageing of those who had any memory of her prompted the family to gather their papers and to begin recording their memories. Public interest in Jane Austen was also developing and the family became concerned that an outsider or another branch of the family would produce a biography. James Edward Austen-Leigh, as the son of the eldest branch, “in a spirit of censorship as well as communication”, thus began the project. With the help and support of his sisters and Jane Austen’s nieces, he collected materials. The biography was largely the work of James Edward Austen-Leigh, his half-sister Jane Anna Elizabeth Austen Lefroy and, his younger sister Caroline Mary Craven Austen, and their cousin Cassy Esten. As Austen scholar Kathryn Sutherland points out in her “Introduction” to the Oxford edition of the Memoir, however, Austen-Leigh’s biography is specific to the Steventon or Hampshire Austens, for whom Jane Austen is “nature-loving, religious, domestic, [and] middle class”. The Godmersham or Kentish Austens viewed Jane Austen as more “inward and passionate…gentrified, improved willy-nilly by contact with her fine relations”. Moreover, as Caroline wrote, “the generation who knew her is passing away”. Much of the biography is based on the memories of those who had only known Jane Austen when they were children and she was their older aunt; the rest is based on written records passed down through the family. As Sutherland explains, “the major ingredients of the Memoir, as well as its reverent colouring, are owed, in one way or another, to Cassandra Austen.” Cassandra was the executor of Jane’s will and was responsible for the preservation and destruction of all remaining letters and manuscripts after Jane’s death. According to Caroline Austen, one of Jane Austen’s nieces, Cassandra “looked [the letters] over and burnt the greater part, (as she told me), 2 or 3 years before her own death—She left, or gave some as legacies to the Nieces—but of those that I have seen, several had portions cut out”. Thus, while writing the Memoir, Austen-Leigh did not have access to large numbers of Jane Austen’s letters. Furthermore, the rest had been scattered as bequests; a complete collection of Jane Austen’s letters was only gathered in 1932.