Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Searching for Jane Austen: Restoring the "Fleas" and "Bad Breath"

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Searching for Jane Austen: Restoring the "Fleas" and "Bad Breath"

Article excerpt

JUST MONTHS AFTER HIS SISTER DIED, Henry Austen published a brief biographical notice included with the posthumous publication of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. "Short and easy will be the task of the mere biographer," rued Henry Austen, concluding that nothing much happened to his sister (3). He shared with readers an account of Jane Austen's height, graceful carriage, proper deportment, pleasing features, and modest cheeks; he stressed her piety and emphasized her humility. He failed to mention, however, that she wrote saucy adolescent burlesques filled with outrageous heroines who murder their parents and poison their rivals. He also chose not to say that his sister acted in private family theatricals, negotiated with publishers, alluded in her novels to the slave trade and the rebellious Americans, and wrote acerbic letters to her sister, such as one suggesting of a critic of Pride and Prejudice, "Kill poor Mrs Sclater if you like it" (9 February 1813). (1)

Poor Mrs. Sclater was indeed killed--by relatives who omitted that sentence from biographical accounts and from early editions of Austen's letters, just one of many examples of whitewashing. Austen's remark about some neighbors--"I was as civil to them as their bad breath would allow me"--became "I was as civil to them as circumstances would allow me" when it was first printed for the public (contrast the full letter of 20 November 1800 with its censored version in Brabourne 1:243). Neither letter appeared in Henry Austen's Biographical Notice, presumably because such comments would have undermined his claim that Jane Austen "never spoke an unkind word to anybody or had anything but sweet thoughts."

To present a kinder, gentler Jane to the world, Henry Austen carefully quoted from only two letters. In one, Austen seems to apologize for the small scale of her feminine writing, referring to it as a "little bit of ivory, two inches wide, on which I work with a brush so fine as to produce little effect after much labour" (16 December 1816). In the other, a dying Austen praises her sister Cassandra's tender nursing and prays God to bless her family (28 May 1817). Henry Austen admitted that he had removed from this final letter some "gentle animadversion" of no concern to those outside the family. One wonders just how gentle this hostile criticism was and what dying remark about offensive neighbors or obtuse critics may have been lost to us forever. Together Henry and Cassandra Austen carefully destroyed or sprayed verbal perfume on portions of their sister's letters deemed too offensive for outsiders.

Henry Austen insisted in his Biographical Notice that his amiable sister never sought a public, so of course he omitted letters showing Austen's keen interest in sales: "You will be glad to hear that every Copy of S.& S. is sold & that it has brought me 140 [pounds sterling]--besides the Copyright, if that shd ever be of any value.--I have now therefore written myself into 250 [pounds sterling].--which only makes me long for more.--I have something in hand--which I hope on the credit of E&R will sell well, tho' not half so entertaining" (6 July 1813). This gives the lie to Henry Austen's insistence in his Biographical Notice that his sister was never motivated by hope of profit. As Jan Fergus has documented so incontrovertibly in Jane Austen: A Literary Life, Austen sprinkles references to money and readers throughout her letters. Austen "shall ... try to make all the Money" and "make People ... pay" for Pride and Prejudice, hopes "that many will feel themselves obliged to buy" the second edition of Sense and Sensibility, admits of Mansfield Park, "I am very greedy & want to make the most of it," and comments about readers who borrow rather than buy her books, "tho I like praise as well as anybody, I like what Edward calls Pewter too" (25 September 1813, 6 November 1813, 20 November 1814, 30 November 1814).

Although proud of his sister's writing, Henry Austen labored in his Biographical Notice to present a modest, delicate, saintly woman unconcerned with her artistic reputation. …

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