Jane Austen, Her Life and Letters

A Family Record


Since 1870-1, when J. E. Austen Leigh[1] published his Memoir of Jane Austen, considerable additions have been made to the stock of information available for her biographers. Of these fresh sources of knowledge the set of letters from Jane to Cassandra, edited by Lord Brabourne, has been by far the most important. These letters are invaluable as mémoires pour servir; although they cover only the comparatively rare periods when the two sisters were separated, and although Cassandra purposely destroyed many of the letters likely to prove the most interesting, from a distaste for publicity.

Some further correspondence, and many incidents in the careers of two of her brothers, may be read in Jane Austen's Sailor Brothers, by J. H. Hubback and Edith C. Hubback; while Miss Constance Hill has been able to add several family traditions to the interesting topographical information embodied in her Jane Austen: Her Homes and Her Friends. Nor ought we to forget the careful research shown in other biographies of the author, especially that by Mr. Oscar Fay Adams.

During the last few years, we have been fortunate enough to be able to add to this store; and every existing MS. or tradition preserved by the family, of which we have any knowledge, has been placed at our disposal.

It seemed, therefore, to us that the time had come when a more complete chronological account of the novelist's life might be laid before the public, whose interest in Jane Austen (as we readily acknowledge) has shown no signs of diminishing, either in England or in America.

The Memoir must always remain the one firsthand account of her, resting on the authority of a nephew who knew her intimately and that of his two sisters. We could not compete with its vivid personal recollections; and the last thing we should wish to do, even were it possible, would be to supersede it. We believe, however, that it needs to be supplemented, not only because so much additional material has been brought to light since its publication, but also because the account given of their aunt by her nephew and nieces could be given only from their own point of view, while the incidents and characters fall into a somewhat different perspective if the whole is seen from a greater distance. Their knowledge of their aunt was during the last portion of her life, and they knew her best of all in her last year, when her health was failing and she was living in much seclusion; and they were not likely to be the recipients of her inmost confidences on the events and sentiments of her youth.

Hence the emotional and romantic side of her nature--a very real one--has not been dwelt upon. No doubt the Austens were, as a family, unwilling to show their deeper feelings, and the sad end of Jane's one romance would naturally tend to intensify this dislike of expression; but the feeling was there, and it finally found utterance in her latest work, when, through Anne Elliot, she claimed for women the right of 'loving longest when existence or when hope is gone.'

Then, again, her nephew and nieces hardly knew how much she had gone into society, or how much, with a certain characteristic aloofness, she had enjoyed it. Bath, either when she was the guest of her uncle and aunt or when she was a resident; London, with her brother Henry and his wife, and the rather miscellaneous society which they enjoyed; Godmersham, with her brother Edward and his county neighbours in East Kent;--these had all given her many opportunities of studying the particular types which she blended into her own creations.

A third point is the uneventful nature of the author's life, which, as we think, has been a good deal exaggerated. Quiet it certainly was; but the quiet life of a member of a large family in the England of that date was compatible with a good deal of stirring incident, happening, if not to herself, at all events to those who were nearest to her, and who commanded her deepest sympathies.

We hope therefore that our narrative, with all its imperfections and its inevitable repetition of much that has already been published, will at least be of use in removing misconceptions, in laying some new facts before the reader, and in placing others in a fresh light. It is intended as a narrative, and not as a piece of literary criticism; for we should not care to embark upon the latter in competition with biographers and essayists who have a better claim to be heard.

Both in the plan and in the execution of our work we have received much valuable help from another member of the family, Mary A. Austen Leigh.[2]

An arrangement courteously made by the owners of the copyright has procured for us a free and ample use of the Letters as edited by Lord Brabourne[3]; while the kindness of Mr. J. G. Nicholson of Castlefield House, Sturton-by-Scawby, Lincolnshire, has opened a completely new source of information in the letters which passed between the Austens and their kinsmen of the half-blood--Walters of Kent and afterwards of Lincolnshire. Miss Jane Austen, granddaughter of Admiral Charles Austen, and Miss Margaret Bellas, great-granddaughter of James Austen, are so good as to allow us to make a fuller use of their family documents than was found possible by the author of the Memoir; while Mr. J. H. Hubback permits us to draw freely upon the Sailor Brothers, and Captain E. L. Austen, R.N., upon his MSS. Finally, we owe to Admiral Ernest Rice kind permission to have the photograph taken, from which the reproduction of his Zoffany portrait is made into a frontispiece for this volume. We hope that any other friends who have helped us will accept this general expression of our gratitude.

W. A. L.
R. A. A. L.

April 1913.

In the notes to the text, the following works are referred to under the shortened forms here given:--

Memoir of Jane Austen, by her nephew, J. E. Austen Leigh: quoted from second edition, 1871. As Memoir.

Letters of Jane Austen, edited by Edward Lord Brabourne, 1884. As Brabourne.

Jane Austen's Sailor Brothers, by J. H. Hubback and Edith C. Hubback, 1906. As Sailor Brothers.

Jane Austen: Her Homes and her Friends Constance Hill, 1902. As Miss Hill.


[1] Father of one of the present writers, and grandfather of the other.

[2] Daughter of the author of the Memoir.

[3] It has not, however, been possible to consult the originals except in the instance of the letters from Jane to Anna Lefroy.