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Monday, November 1, 2010

The First Biography of Jane Austen

I’ve finally got my hands on the most authentic piece of work on Jane Austen’s life – the memoir written by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, who knew Jane Austen when he was still young. No longer do I have to rely on an e-book!

Interestingly, this edition has been edited by Kathryn Sutherland of the disputed Austen manuscripts fame. 


                   James Edward Austen-Leigh

In 1870, over 50 years after Jane Austen’s death, Austen-Leigh asked for letters, opinions and reflections from his sisters, brothers and cousins - all those who knew Jane - and wrote this memoir with what little information he had. The memoir also features Jane’s brother, Henry Austen’s brief Memoir from 1833, Jane’s niece, Anna Lefroy’s Recollections and Caroline Austen’s Memoir, as well as letters from Jane’s nieces.


               Henry Austen

Although the Memoir is the most authentic piece of work ever written on Jane Austen’s life, we have to bear in mind that it has been written with Victorian sensibilities in mind. Some interesting details of her life were shunned to maintain the reputation of the family, such as the existence of Jane’s handicapped brother, George, and other family histories of negative connotation, such as the arrest of Jane’s aunt, Mrs Leigh-Perrot. 

AnnaLefroy2 CarolineAusten

                               Anna Lefroy                                                                         Caroline Austen

The interesting letters included in the contemporary edition truly shed light to the work behind this memoir and to what was omitted and what was included in the final edition, e.g:

  • Caroline Austen asks Austen-Leigh not to mention the name of  Harris Bigg-Wither (who proposed to Jane and was later turned down), as his family were, at the time, still living in the neighbourhood. 
  • Caroline also asks Austen-Leigh not to “rake up” the “old story” about the “Chief Justice” (her youthful romance with Tom Lefroy).
  • Caroline says to Austen-Leigh that he has been “merciful”  in omitting the most ridiculous parts of Mr Clarke’s (The Prince Regent’s librarian) letter, where he made suggestions to Jane on what she should write about in her novels (Jane subtly ignored his suggestions).

It was fascinating to read all the different accounts – while reading the memoirs and letters, you almost feel like these people are still alive and sharing all these beautiful memories of their aunt…  I highly recommend this book to anyone who wishes to become well acquainted with Jane Austen!


  1. Anna, I've got to get this.

    Quite often, in posts, I quote from the collected letters in Deirdre le Fayes edition. I've found those letters, sometimes, more interesting than the novels.

    To get hold of some of Jane's nieces letters and other family reminiscences, would be fantastic.

    Thank you.


  2. Yes, Tony, it is fascinating to read through this. That said, I would also like to have Deirdre le Faye's edition, as this one does not have that many letters. As of now, I am accessing that on-line.


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