Deirdre Le Faye (ed.), Jane Austen's Letters (Fourth Edition)

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pg ixPreface to the Fourth Edition

Unlike those of other writers of her day, Jane Austen's letters have crept out almost silently into public view over the course of nearly 200 years, from 1818 until 1995. The very first two mentioned in print were the extracts quoted by Henry Austen in his 1817 'Biographical Notice of the Author' prefixed to the first edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, nos. 146 and 161(C) of this present volume; and nothing more was known about either the authoress herself, or her correspondence, for the next fifty years.

In 1870 her nephew the Revd James-Edward Austen-Leigh (1798–1874) published A Memoir of Jane Austen, where he quoted some of the letters which had descended in his family 'A wish has sometimes been expressed that some of Jane Austen's letters should be published. Some entire letters, and many extracts, will be given in this memoir; but the reader must be warned not to expect too much from them. The style is always clear, and generally animated, while a vein of humour continually gleams through the whole; but the materials may be thought inferior to the execution, for they treat only of the details of domestic life.'1 The Times reviewed the Memoir kindly, and approved of the biographical element, saying it was strange that 'fifty years have been allowed to pass without a memoir of the author … and among two generations of readers many must have longed to know more of the woman who wrote such lifelike portraits …', but did not find the letters themselves interesting. 'This biography shows that Miss Austen as an author was a novelist and nothing more; her letters are nothing, her verses are worse than nothing …'2 However, the reading public enjoyed the Memoir and asked for further information, hence Mr Austen-Leigh published an enlarged second edition, adding in some more letters, in 1871.

Another family member, Lord Brabourne, son of Fanny Knight, published in 1884 two volumes of Letters of Jane Austen, which brought pg xto light nearly a hundred of Jane's letters either addressed directly to his mother or which had passed to her following Cassandra Austen's death in 1845, and which therefore had been unknown to the Austen-Leighs. Brabourne stated firmly:

it has seemed to me that the letters which show what her own 'ordinary, every day life' was, and which afford a picture of her such as no history written by another person could give so well, are likely to interest a public which, both in Great Britain and America, has learned to appreciate Jane Austen … amid the most ordinary details and most commonplace topics, every now and then sparkle out the same wit and humour which illuminate the pages of Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, etc., and which have endeared the name of Jane Austen to many thousands of readers in English-speaking homes.3

Brabourne's volumes were not well received by reviewers, who complained that his editorial comments were at once excessive and inadequate—too much about the genealogies of Kentish families, and too little in the way of explanatory footnotes to the actual letters, which, they thought, were in any case so familial and personal as not to be easily understood by modern readers and therefore should not have been published in full. The Times, however, considered that, 'though not of the highest class as letters, [they] are full of instruction and, in parts, are extremely interesting. They have the great merit of being entirely natural… . Their chief if not their only interest consists both in their proceeding from her pen and in their proving how natural and charming she was.'4

These reviewers, and those of the Memoir previously, were presumably comparing Jane Austen's biography and letters, either consciously or unconsciously, with the overwhelmingly full publications of letters by other authoresses, famous in their day, who had deliberately written not for their families but for effect and for posterity Fanny Burney had died in 1840, and seven volumes of her diaries and letters were published between 1842 and 1846; Mary Russell Mitford (1787–1855) published three volumes of her own Recollections of a Literary Life in 1852, and two biographies appeared in 1870, followed in that decade by four separate volumes of letters to individual recipients. A huge Life of Mrs Sherwood (1775–1851) was written by her daughter in 1854, and her works were reprinted in sixteen volumes during 1855; while a pg xibiography of Charlotte Bronte (1816–55) was started immediately after her death and rapidly published by Mrs Gaskell in 1857.

Another twenty years passed before Admiral Francis Austen's descendants John Henry Hubback (1844–1939) and his daughter Edith Charlotte published Jane Austen's Sailor Brothers (1905), discussing the professional lives of Francis and Charles Austen, and as part of this adding in five letters from Jane (nos. 40, 41, 42, 86, 90 of the present edition) which had descended in their family John Hubback later wrote:

One or two critics considered that all relevant matter could have been compressed into a magazine article, another found fault with our dressing up Jane in blue and gold, while admirals complained of the admixture of literary stuff with important naval narrative. But we had sixty reviews, some twenty of them dealing solely with the naval events, another third confining their attention to the literary points, while the remaining twenty took up our theme of the double interests quite vigorously, and gave us their cordial approval in general.5

In 1913 William and Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh wrote the first proper biography, the Life and Letters of Jane Austen, and published more letters and extracts, including some which had not been used in the Memoir—so at this date most of Jane's letters were available in print. This enabled the Austenian scholar Reginald Brimley Johnson to publish the first 'selected edition' in 1925, reprinting forty-four letters taken from Lord Brabourne's large collection, the Sailor Brothers, and the Life, his selection being 'expressly designed to reveal character and personality, as apart from the writer's genius'.6

Dr R. W. Chapman, whose interest up till then had been in working on Dr Samuel Johnson's correspondence, started collecting Jane Austen's letters in the 1920s, aided by the fact that some had come on the market after Brimley Johnson's selection had appeared. Chapman published his first edition in 1932, transcribing in full all the letters as then known, with much more editorial apparatus than had been provided beforehand by anyone else. He published a second edition in 1952, adding in five letters and part of a sixth which had surfaced in the previous twenty years, nos. 77, 82, 106, 133, 140, and 154 of the present edition.

pg xiiFrom the 1950s onwards interest in Jane Austen and her works expanded rapidly and widely, and many critics published studies on the novels and on specific aspects of her work—grammar, vocabulary, literary influences, social history—which naturally relied heavily upon her letters but also subsumed the brief essays on these and similar topics that Chapman had included in his editions. In the 1980s Mrs Jo Modert, an independent scholar in America, collected photographs of all the letters she could find, and published her Jane Austen's Manuscript Letters in Facsimile in 19907 —which enabled close study of the corrections and alterations that Jane made as she wrote and which had not been noticed beforehand by any of the other editors. In the 1990s Oxford University Press considered the time was right for a new (third) edition of the letters, and this was published in 1995, adding in nos. 48(C), 69(D), 83, 100, 116, 117, 122(A)(D), 134, 158, CEA/1, /2, and /3; plus full biographical and topographical indexes.

So far from the letters being trivial or irrelevant, their interest for posterity has become well proven and Lord Brabourne's claim is now thoroughly vindicated. Literary critics hunt through them for the most minute details of Jane's opinions, actions, family and friends, as source-material for biographies, and for studies on the composition of the novels; social historians immediately turn to them to find her precise and accurate information on contemporary manners, style, and cost of living; and local historians look for specific references to the places where she lived or visited in order to cast some reflected glory upon their particular territories. In recent years, film and television directors also have taken to picking out sentences from the letters to try and give verisimilitude to their scripts for romanticized biographies or adaptations of the novels.

Jane's niece Caroline Austen recorded many years later: 'Her letters to Aunt Cassandra (for they were sometimes separated) were, I dare say, open and confidential—My Aunt looked them 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 Neices [sic]—but of those that I have seen, several had portions cut out.' Cassandra Austen's weeding-out and censoring of her sister's letters shows itself more in the complete destruction of letters rather than in the excision of individual sentences; pg xiiithe 'portions cut out' usually only amount to a very few words, and from the context it would seem that the subject concerned was physical ailment. This destruction of letters can usually be noticed when the dates of those surviving are compared. When the sisters were apart, they wrote to each other about every three or four days—another letter begun as soon as the previous one had been posted. There is always a first letter from Jane telling Cassandra of the journey from home to the destination; then a series of letters talking about daily events at the other place; and one or more letters planning the journey home. If Cassandra is the traveller, then the first letter is from Jane hoping she had a good journey; the bulk of the sequence is Jane telling Cassandra how life progresses at home; and the last one or two are Jane's anticipation of her sister's speedy and comfortable return trip. Where a series of letters does not contain this pattern and frequency of correspondence, it means that Cassandra destroyed some of the group in later years, when she was planning to bequeath a token few to her nieces as souvenirs of their aunt Jane. Close consideration shows that the destruction was probably because Jane either had described physical symptoms rather too fully (for example, during the autumn of 1798, when Cassandra was at Godmersham and Mrs Austen was ill at home in Steventon being nursed by Jane), or else because she had made some comment about other members of the family which Cassandra did not wish posterity to read. An example of this is in Jane's letter of 11–12 October 1813 (no. 91 of the present edition), where she says: 'As I wrote of my nephews with a little bitterness in my last …', and then goes on to praise them for their virtuous behaviour in attending a Holy Communion service the previous day. But 'my last' letter does not survive—it was written some time between 25 September and this one begun on 11 October— and Cassandra evidently did not want the younger generation to come across the 'little bitterness' and be hurt by what Jane herself now felt to be an over-hasty criticism of which she already repented. Where such gaps occur within a series of letters, this is drawn to the reader's notice by the insertion of [Letters missing here]; and where longer periods of time elapse between groups of letters, when perhaps the sisters were at home together, this is marked by Preface to the Fourth Edition placed centrally.

Of those letters which do survive, it is very lucky that the majority fall into clearly defined groups which give examples of a variety of recipients and subjects and Jane's approach to both. The letters to pg xivCassandra are the equivalent of telephone calls between the sisters—hasty and elliptical, keeping each other informed of domestic events and occasionally making comments on the news of the day, both local and national. To her brother Frank, away at sea, Jane writes in a more regular and considered style, giving a bulletin of information about all members of the family, such as someone away for a long period would need to know. No doubt similar letters went to Charles—his surviving pocket-books note the receipt of a number of letters from Jane—though unfortunately he preserved only the very last of them, that written during her final illness. As the elder nephews and nieces grow up, the letters to Fanny Knight are those of an 'agony aunt' in the modern sense—giving advice on affairs of the heart to this motherless teenager. Here again, although Lord Brabourne stated that his mother's diaries showed the receipt of 'upwards of thirty letters',8 a closer study makes it clear that Fanny records receiving at least forty-seven letters from Jane between 1803 (when her diaries commence) and 1817. Anna's interest in trying to write a novel leads to the group of letters in which Jane sets out her views as to how a natural and credible story should be composed (these letters of course are now of particular interest to literary critics); there are cheerfully teasing letters to young James-Edward Austen(-Leigh) as he grows from good-natured schoolboy into charming young Oxford undergraduate; and little joking notes to the much younger Caroline. Outside the family, there is the crisp business correspondence with Crosby & Co. and John Murray regarding publication, and the careful formality of Jane's responses to Lady Morley and the Revd James Stanier Clarke.

In the century since the first publication by Lord Brabourne of the letters that had been in his mother's possession, most of those which he subsequently put on the market have reappeared and are owned by libraries or other institutions. In these cases, where it has been possible to check Brabourne's published version against the actual manuscripts, it can be seen that not only did he or his printer transcribe carelessly and on some occasions omit or alter sentences or punctuation, but that the division of Jane Austen's text into paragraphs was nearly always arbitrary and incorrect. Where such comparisons can be made, the texts in this new edition are of course corrected in all respects; however, pg xvthere remain fourteen letters which have never been seen since the dispersal of the Brabourne archive, and these can only be reprinted here as from the 1884 publication, but with the difference that the texts are run on from beginning to end without any attempt to create such false paragraphs.

The layout of this edition is planned to give the maximum degree of ease in reading the actual text, so that the letters follow one after the other with only a brief heading of the necessary names and dates; the printed version reflects as closely as possible Jane Austen's own spelling, capitalization, and punctuation, and page-breaks are also noted. It will be seen that the numeration of the letters is in some cases followed by (A), (C), (D), or (S). The addition of (A) signifies that the letter itself was not composed by Jane Austen, but was either copied out by her or else was one to which she replied; (C) is one of Jane's own letters, but where the original manuscript is now missing and the text is known only from a copy or copies made by some other member of the Austen family in later years; (D) is a draft preserved by Jane for her own reference, the fair copy of which may or may not also survive; (S) is a section cut from one of her letters at a later date, the provenance of which may be different from that of the remainder of the manuscript. In the few cases where drafts and their fair copies exist, both texts are given in full and the provenance of each is given separately.

The physical details of the manuscripts—size and type of paper, watermarks, postmarks, endorsements, seals and wafers—are given as endnotes, together with information on their provenance and present ownership so far as can be ascertained, and these endnotes also give explanations of now-obscure references to contemporary matters. A biographical index and a topographical index follow the endnotes, providing for those who seek it more detailed information on the people and places mentioned by Jane; a subject index has been added, and a bibliography and general index complete the work.

Apart from Jane's letters, from time to time there appear in the salerooms fragments of text undeniably in her handwriting, but with religious subject-matter, and so quite unlike the style of her usual correspondence. These fragments may perhaps be referred to as 'Sermon Scraps', since their origin is explained in an undated letter pg xviwritten by the Revd James-Edward Austen-Leigh to his daughter Mary-Augusta, soon after the publication of his Memoir:

I continue to have letters about the Memoir. At last, a very civil one from Sir John Lefevre. One came from the Secretary of a Mechanics Institution at Guernsey!! with the cool request that I would give them a copy of the Memoir, together with some letter of Aunt Jane's. I might as well be asked by any or every Mechanics' Institution between Shetland and the coast of France. I declined, explaining that I had none to give, nor any other means of procuring one but such as are open to the public; but I did send not a letter, but an autograph of my aunt. Mamma has found what I had known of but forgotten, an MS sermon partly written out by Aunt Jane for my father. This I have been able to break up into about twenty sentences. I have pasted each on a larger strip of paper, and have added a certificate that it is in her 'handwriting, not her composition.' One of these I sent to the Guernsey gentlemen, or simple men, whichever name may best fit them. I had some feeling of gratitude to the Island, on account of the pleasant visit which I paid there, with the Le Marchants more than twenty years ago.9

The location of several of these Sermon Scraps has been noted by David Gilson in The Book Collector, 36/2 (Summer 1987), 269–70. They are not, however, published in this present volume, as they are in no way concerned with Jane's correspondence.

No new letters by Jane Austen have been found since the publication of the third edition in 1995, but continuing research by members of the Jane Austen Society and other academics, using the resources both of County Record Offices and now the ever-burgeoning internet, has brought to light much more information regarding her life and her family. This new information clarifies what hitherto have been passing and puzzling references in the letters, and shows the social awareness, the knowledge she gained from others and from her reading, and her interest in national events which in turn are reflected in the novels. It has become clear, therefore, that a fourth edition is now necessary to publish the findings of this latest scholarship; hence the biographical and topographical indexes have been amended and updated, a new subject index has been created, and the contents of the notes (also amended and enlarged) added to the general index. Although it seems unlikely that any very considerable hoard of Jane Austen's letters will hereafter pg xviicome to light, nevertheless interesting fragments have continued to appear right up to the 1990s, and others may yet surface as more family archives find their way into modern County Record Offices. Apart from writing frequently to her brothers and their wives, the Leigh-Perrots, and her various cousins, Jane would have had reason to keep in touch with other old friends and connections in Kent, London, Hampshire, and Berkshire, as well as corresponding occasionally with such people as Miss Irvine of Bath, and the Buller family in Colyton, Devon. Research in the archives of those persons mentioned in the Biographical Index might well yield some unexpected treasure.

Deirdre Le Faye

Portishead 2011


1 James-Edward Austen-Leigh, A Memoir of Jane Austen, and Other Family Recollections, ed. Kathryn Sutherland (Oxford, 2002), 50–1.

2 The Times, 17 Jan. 1870.

3 Brabourne i, pp. xii–xv.

4 The Times, 6 Feb. 1885.

5 J. H. Hubback, Cross Currents in a Long Life (privately printed, 1935), 81.

6 The Times Literary Supplement, 7 Jan. 1926.

7 Jo Modert, Jane Austen's Manuscript Letters in Facsimile (Carbondale and Edwardsville, Ill., 1990).

8 Brabourne ii. 118.

9 Austen-Leigh archive, Hampshire Record Office, 23M93/86/4.

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