Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Family and Scholarly Annotations in Lord Brabourne's Letters: Adventures of an Amateur Academic

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Family and Scholarly Annotations in Lord Brabourne's Letters: Adventures of an Amateur Academic

Article excerpt

IN NOVEMBER 1999, I buy a copy of Lord Brabourne's 1884 edition of previously unpublished Letters of Jane Austen. Don't really look at it. Shelve the two volumes next to Chapman's edition of the Letters, Deirdre Le Faye's more complete recent one, Jo Modert's facsimile collection, Penelope Hughes-Hallett's colorful My Dear Cassandra, and the paperback selection Marilyn Butler signed for me once at Oxford. The Brabourne book rests there quietly ticking away for eight years.

Then last fall for some reason I finally open it, and the bomb bursts. Good grief! This book is rich with marginal notes, tipped-in pages of careful brown-ink Victorian manuscript and penciled comments. Here are detailed Austen family genealogies, comments on people and places in the Letters, and a pasted-in page that casts doubt on all those pictures of the sweetly harmonious Austen family. Best of all is a two-page written account of Jane Austen's Unknown Suitor. These notes are the source for stories I've read in all the modern biographies! There's even one bit of family gossip I've never seen quoted anywhere. Only a scrap, and only gossip, but how often does one come across anything new where Jane Austen's family is concerned?

Facing the half-title page I find penciled in a modern hand

   The MS notes are presumably in the handwriting of Mrs Lefroy--a
   niece of Jane Austen.


Then a different hand adds, again in pencil,

No, she died in 1872. This is her daughter Mrs Bellas

Who wrote these notes? Where has the book been for more than a hundred years? Who was Mrs. Bellas?

I start with Google of course, and all that turns up is "Welcome to Mrs. Bellas' fourth grade. This blog will have daily updates so you and your family members can check homework assignments...."

I've sometimes wondered if there was really any practical use for my Austen collection. Now it's wonderful; everything I need is at my fingertips. No need to leave the house! Maggie Lane's Jane Austen's Family identifies Lord Brabourne as the son of Jane Austen's niece Fanny Knight (Lady Knatchbull), a member of Parliament and a Privy Counciller. There's no Mrs. Bellas in the index, though. Deirdre Le Faye's edition of the Letters has neither Bellas nor Brabourne in the index, but George Holbert Tucker's A Goodly Heritage credits Mrs. Bellas with the story about how bitterly Mary Austen disliked her sister-in-law Eliza. Tucker's note says he found the information in Jane Austen: A Survey, published in 1929 by C. Linklater Thomson. That's a book I don't have. I try the Internet: no copies available anywhere. But whoever Thomson was, he must have seen this book. Then at the front of each volume, in pencil hardly showing against the dark brown flyleaf, I find "C. L. Thomson." He owned it!

I'm touching the actual page where he found the story! The careful browned penmanship tells of a disappointment for the teenaged Anna Austen, whose stepmother, James Austen's wife Mary, wouldn't let the girl accept an invitation from Uncle Henry's wife, glamorous Aunt Eliza (Countess de Feuillide), to visit exciting London:

   The invitation was sent but my mother was not permitted to accept
   it. The reason of the hesitation on Mrs H. Austens part was that
   she was not on terms with her sister in law, who would neither go
   to her house, nor receive her at Steventon--I believe the Ci
   devant Countess who was an extremely pretty woman, was a great
   flirt & during her brief widowhood flirted with all her Steventon
   Cousins, our Gdfather inclusive which was more than his after wife
   could stand or could ever forgive--and I think it is very probable
   that he hesitated between the fair Eliza and Miss Mary Lloyd--
      I can testify that to the last days of her life my Grandmother
   continued to dislike & speak ill of her

      It must have cost Mrs H Austen a great effort to send the
   invitation & certainly shows her to have been the more aimable
   woman of the two. … 
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