Persuasions #10, 1988 Pages 59-64
The Austen Brothers and Sisters
School of English, University of Leeds, Leeds, England LS2 9JT
Jane Austen studied human nature so well that one may find oneself in her characters; that is one sign of her universality. Trying to write about her, I have sometimes seen myself in Elizabeth Bennet’s friend Mr. Collins. But some years ago, with some of Mr. Collins’s confidence and hope, I set out to write a biography of Jane Austen. I wanted to put into one book just what could reliably be known as of the 1980s about her life.
A great deal came to light – more family manuscripts, diaries, letters, after four years of work, than one might have imagined existed. I was in England; Austen and Lefroy descendants found a great deal in their attics. Then late one day I arrived in the city of Reading near London; and having put my overnight bag in a rooming-house, I went out at night to try to find Reading’s green Forbury, where Jane and Cassandra had attended Abbey School. Perhaps even a child would have had the good sense to look for a green field in daylight – but I wandered in a strange city in the dark. At about 10:30 p.m. I felt gloomy; by 11:00 I was lost. At about 11:45, as midnight approached, the streets were empty and there seemed no way back to my rooming-house. In a state somewhere between self-doubt and metaphysical anxiety about the worth of living at all, I realized just how much one can get to be like Mr. Collins – pompous, over-confident, and on the wrong track about everything; and this made me laugh. I’d needed guidance to find my way – just as we need the views of other people to come to a better understanding of Jane Austen’s novels and life. All discussion, all guidance, all essays and talk about this author help us. Having come to that happy conclusion, I saw a light in an Anglican church and walked in to find its rector, who happened to be an expert on Reading’s Forbury and had information that saved weeks of research and led me to feel glad about wandering in the dark. Another time I found new material about Frank Austen by putting the wrong number on a request slip at the India Office. More often, my blunders were simply blunders; but I enjoyed sitting up sometimes until 4 or 5 a.m. to study the history of the clergy, banking, Hampshire geology and farming, clothes, etiquette at the dance, and so on, or tramping through Kent and finding Edward Austen’s Rowling House and talking with its owners.
But to conclude this preface to my few remarks on the Austens, my point is, that all of that was relatively easy. The error-filled, continuing delicate thing (which we are all engaged in) is the interpretation of life, or of art, history and persons. New data can lead to new errors; facts can mislead; one is too sure or just sentimental. That is why this Society is so important; in our discussions we may come closer to Jane Austen by gently correcting each other, and learning not to be too certain.
For example, for years it was assumed (because so much was left out of the 1913 Life) that Jane Austen, born in 1775 as the seventh child of a Tory clergyman and his rather aristocratic wife, was only purely happy in her family. Others have said she was miserable and full of hatred. The word “happy” was itself a favourite and ambiguous one for Jane Austen, and it would be well not to take a too-simple view of her family. The eight Austen children had divided themselves as young people into two groups: first, the elder boys (except for George who was handicapped), the bright, promising James and Henry who went to St. John’s College, Oxford, and Edward who went to Europe in lieu of a university education. Cassandra was a catalyst or go-between, and then came the younger ones, Frank, Jane, and Charles, the two young boys soon going off to naval school. Mr. and Mrs. Austen stressed success; they put hard pressure on their children to excel and account for their progress. Mr. Austen used leverage with Warren Hastings (when it was dangerous to do so) to have Frank carry out secret orders for the East India Company; Henry Austen’s disastrous financial plans were supported; James, as a clergyman, was led to collect parishes like buttercups; Edward was given away to wealthy Kentish relatives. Several young Austens wilted under parental schemes and the brothers tended to marry psychologically stronger women (as James, Henry, and even Frank did); Henry and Frank had wives 9½ and 8½ years older than themselves (Eliza and Martha), to speak of Frank’s second marriage, and James’s wife Mary was very forceful.
As Jane came under family pressure she imitated Cassandra, but took a view of family advice that, has discernible roots in the Judeo-Christian moral tradition. “Be deaf to those who love you most of all,” Seneca the Stoic had written, and on family advice the New Testament seems ambivalent: the writer in Ephesians, you recall, quotes the Old Testament, “honour thy father and thy mother,” but Jesus of Nazareth as reported in Matthew, 11, says, “I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter-in-law against the mother-in-law …. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.” Now it may be unfashionable to say that Jane Austen was a rational Christian, or to point out that she composed prayers, and heard exegetic sermons on the New Testament regularly. Some critics in our century have said she was not religious; her contemporary readers and even a reviewer did not make that mistake about her. We know – and feminist critics have pointed this out – that English Protestants (even an archbishop of Canterbury) before the Austens’ time were saying that Christ meant that a wife should disobey if a husband’s words contravened Scripture, and in that case a child might very rightly disobey a parent. In the Austens’ time – though I comment not as a theologian – those words in St. Matthew that the Saviour has come to set “the daughter against her mother” guaranteed a certain freedom within the family. A daughter was to be loyal to her parents and older brothers, but even more loyal to a spirit within; advice from the family or from society, of course, is less important than self-knowledge.
The Austens believed that each person had his or her own promptings and directions within. A daughter usually ought to obey her mother (as Jane and Cassandra did) but had freedom to say or write what she liked. And Jane acts upon this liberty, which enables her to love and defy her family at once. She is very loyal to herself; she disciplines language until it reflects what she thinks; she gives in to no one – while being a loving and rather shy sister and daughter. A certain dynamic in her writing, I think, comes from this: one is to listen to advice but not accept it; one is to obey and disobey; one can be a dutiful child and yet a wholly independent soul. The tension in her writing owes partly to these paradoxes, as does her fictional treatment of the comedy of good advice.
It was felt that Cassandra and Jane should marry well despite the family’s meagre income and a wartime scarcity of men. For that reason Mr. Austen had a twofold Oxford plan for his daughters to increase their accomplishments. At last Jane came from school to find her two Oxford brothers, James and Henry, ahead of her as writers; their witty journal, The Loiterer, had a Tory political purpose. Jane championed Mary Queen of Scots (with a romantic Tory enthusiasm), and at 16 she went to public balls. Dancing had its risks: a girl more often heard at a dance a mumbled “Let’s to bed” than a decent proposal; social competition was fierce – and comic – and Jane, sometimes without her sister as a guide, took chances and aroused gossip and got into trouble. This is not consistent with our former view of “sensible Jane” but trouble and failure may instruct a remarkable talent. She plumbed the depths of “good sense” in the aftermath of her mistakes – just as she might retain something in her wrong but illuminating first impressions in her final judgement of a person. As a reported “affected, husband-hunting butterfly,” she upset Mrs. Lefroy by flirting too often with that lady’s nephew Tom. Edward Taylor, Edward Bridges, Charles Powlett, Benjamin Portal, Mr. Hartley, and Samuel Blackall were among those who pursued Jane, and her successes in the southern counties were impressive. She was warned by Cassandra, who at last found the right suitor for her at Sidmouth, a clerical gentleman who died before he could be seen again. Soon after the Sidmouth affair, on December 2, 1802, at Manydown Park, Jane Austen agreed to marry Harris Bigg-Wither. We have reliable evidence of that.
She was almost 27. He was 21 – overgrown, with a stammer, a big, timid, stuttering, red-faced man.
Much has come to light about Harris. (No one ever inhibited my research, or kept me from quoting any Austen, Lefroy or other document, and we know more about several of her suitors now than previously.) Harris is one sign of the shortage of available bachelors in wartime; we find no real Darcys or Henry Tilneys among Jane’s known suitors – but instead limp, shy young men, and one or two hulking fellows such as Blackall, or Harris, who was, at least, an inheritor.
Jane found real gentlemanly grace in her own brothers. She turned down Harris the day after he proposed – and all of those green acres of his father’s (which Harris’s bride would share) at Manydown Park with its tall cedars, at Basing and Wortley, at Up Nately, at Pamber, at Wymering and Widley off near the naval port were lost to Jane Austen.
It simply is not true that this affair was easily settled, or that the issues at stake were less than painful and complex. One matter (not the only one) was this. Marriage would have broken into Jane’s status quo, her relations with that strange creative group, the Austen brothers and sisters. They protected Jane, helped to ensure her self-possession and the inwardness that makes creativity possible; she was close enough to her brothers (even after they married) and of course to her mother and Cassandra to complain, at one time or another, about them all. But it may be that the mind (hers or anyone else’s) stagnates without torment: “I began to understand,” says the Greek novelist Kazantzakis, “that it does not matter very much what problem, whether big or small, is tormenting us; the only thing that matters is that we be tormented.” We find Mrs. Austen mocking Jane and Jane privately mocking her mother; but Mrs. Austen’s loyalty and support were like rock – much as Mrs. Austen loved Scott’s Waverley, she would not say that Scott’s works amused her more than Jane’s. Henry’s lightminded, changing temperament irritated. So did James’s arrogance even more. New evidence shows that James and his wife Mary battled with each other, and that little Anna stirred them up and reported on that battle of love-and-jealousy to Aunt Jane. Remaining close to James, Jane gained a good knowledge of a remarkable household – and Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park are not the worse for that, though we have no evidence that she exactly duplicated her impressions of any one, real marriage.
Her brothers, however, certainly increased the range of her impressions not only of marriage, but of the clergy, the Navy, London, economics, painting, the life in great houses as in Kent, the wider world of politics, and the whole social-class system. And they changed; they were a living theatre. True, James was a happy epilogue-writer in youth, but after Oxford and his second marriage he was embittered, and attacked novels even after Mansfield Park appeared. Edward, in Kent, was capable, but after his wife’s death he spoiled his children and became timid and uncertain with his own daughter Fanny. Henry failed as a banker, then cut an odd caper as a clergyman. Jane kept their respect – even the uncritical adoration of her rising naval brothers – and her clarity and honesty complimented them. She refused to make the usual knee-jerk responses in expressing family sentiment. We hear one aspect of her tone (which the family knew well) when she tells Cassandra of people at a ball, “I was as civil to them as their bad breath would allow me.” Or when she writes, “Mr. Waller is dead I see; – I cannot grieve about it, nor perhaps can his Widow very much.” And how important! That same comic candour – when it has moral authority – builds the world of her novels.
Her brothers had to respect it because they set a high value on candour. The motto of James and Henry’s Oxford journal was “SPEAK OF US AS WE ARE,” and her naval brothers liked her usual directness, just as she valued Captain Frank Austen’s simple, sensible way with words and put his opinions of Emma and Mansfield Park above everyone else’s. All of Jane’s writing is a comic protest against the way we delude ourselves and other people with words; and her family could allow her to be forthright, or as outrageous as she could be even in her early jokes. Her own talk could irritate, and almost surely irritated at Godmersham Park in Kent. If she had married Harris or almost any other man, she would have been less free to talk or even to write just as she wished. (How many wives today have complete expressive freedom?)
What is less obvious, I think, is that behind her honesty with words is a struggle to control herself, to be clear and straight with her family. She used and even exploited her sister Cassandra, as an audience, source of information, critic, and ally, but would admit the need: “I am sure nobody can desire your letters as much as I do,” Jane told her, “and I don’t think anybody deserves them so well.” And that need – for Cassandra and the others – may lead us to readjust our notions about families. The family may be the only profound source of creativity there is. If that is true, then families do more than influence – they make important creative work possible. Consider Jane and Cassandra. One of our best new sources of information about Cassandra is the once-missing “MS. Family History” by Fanny Lefroy, who quotes letters and gives some views. “No one,” says Fanny, “was equal to Jane in Cassandra’s eyes. And Jane looked up to Cassandra as one far wiser and better than herself. They were as their mother said “‘wedded to each other.’” There is no reason to doubt that Mrs. Austen said the sisters were “wedded,” since other remarks by Mrs. Austen (and a reported one by Mr, Austen, too) take that theme, but we know that there were many reserves in this “wedding” of sister and sister. Jane kept much from Cassandra, and could strongly oppose her wishes or carry on a warfare against Cassandra’s fault of meekness or low self-esteem (akin to Martha Lloyd’s fault of being too good and self-effacing). Both Martha and Cassandra were Jane’s prime defences against intrusions of the world at the house they shared at Chawton; but, in fairness, Jane felt that these two kind, close allies were usually bustling and humbling themselves and seldom taking pleasure in the delight of being a person.
So there was a gap between sister and sister. Their outlooks were not the same. Jane tried to stir Cassandra up, over-advertising her own tendency to fall (half-facetiously) in love with men and writing “I am rather in love with him”; or prodding her sister to do something a little out of her meek routine in London: “You will get acquainted with my friend Mr. Phillips,” as Jane wrote instructively, “and hear him talk from books.” But “be sure to have something odd happen to you, see somebody that you do not expect, meet with some surprise or other, and find some old friend sitting with Henry when you come into the room. Do something clever in that way.”
“See somebody that you do not expect” indeed. She might have sent her sister to a Jane Austen Society meeting as a remedy, one might think. There were other differences between the two sisters, despite much that they had in common besides the colour of their bonnets. Across that little gap in outlook and understanding, something passed – and this was nothing less than Jane Austen’s art, in its origins. She had begun as an entertainer of her family, at first of Cassandra. Later as that sister and her brothers matured, she became less jokey and evolved as a writer of moral comedy – but still to entertain them. Our new evidence about her brothers tells a great deal about a part of the changing, varying family audience she tried to reach; and the pressure and energy of her writing thus have much to do with the Austens, including of course that resigned and seldom overjoyed or (in her maturity) ever very child-like Cassandra. These (with her own parents) were the people she knew best, and who most consoled, inspired, irritated and tried her even through their love and loyalty.
It would be helpful, I think, to take a critical view of our own still very Romantic idea as to what an “author” is. The early biographies told us that in the bosom of her happy family, Jane Austen was a lone genius – as if, hit on the head by the spook Genius, she spouted merry comedy. But the tensions within her family are involved in her writing at all times; and an author is someone whose work proceeds from energy, tensions and pressures in the human setting of relationships. Jane penned the novels, but family relationships are in that complex set of factors which gave the pen its force, intimacy, moral intensity and comic sharpness.
From our evidence, Cassandra was usually too unbending as an adult to follow Jane back into an important world – that of childhood. Jane Austen “was a most kind & enjoyable person to Children,” says Charlotte-Maria Beckford, whose reports of Jane at Chawton came to light only in 1985. “I remember we liked her greatly as children from her entering into all games, &c.” In contrast “her sister Cassandra was very lady-like but very prim.” Now, Caroline Austen’s memories do confirm that impression. The child-world of imagination, for Jane, offset the prim adult world of dull submissiveness and literal commonsense, or Cassandra and Martha’s world.
Yet Cassandra was far from being ungenerous or obtuse, and she knew what she had lost when Jane died, “such a Sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed, – she was the sun of my life.” Jane had been the “sun” of Cassandra’s life at a little, necessary distance. Loving Cassandra and the brothers, but relating to them with detachment and opposition as well as intimacy, Jane was able to test her power as an artist with them; and it was through them that she learned to be the “friend” and amused entertainer of thousands of unknown readers, who may feel themselves admitted to the Austen family as they enjoy her comedies. And this is not, after all, to deny the uniqueness of her genius; but, I think, to say that our evidence about Jane Austen’s family life reminds us of the extraordinary ability she had to make good use of the pressures and personalities she knew best.