By Devoney Looser, Arizona State University
When Jane Austen died on July 18, 1817, it was a terribly sad event, though not an unexpected one. She enjoyed massive literary fame posthumously and it is remarkable how her siblings and collateral descendants shaped her literary legacy after she died. Several of them served as central figures in telling the story of her life and writings.
Foundation of Austen’s Posthumous Fame
The most profound impact on the world was left by Henry Austen’s one short piece of writing about his sister Jane. It carried the title, Biographical Notice of the Author, and was written in late 1817. When he revisited it in 1833, it was retitled as Memoir of Miss Austen.
With this brief essay, Henry became Jane Austen’s first biographer, only five short months after she died. His words laid the groundwork for his sister’s growing posthumous fame and her literary reputation, as well as for two centuries of problematic myths about her life and authorship.
Henry sets out to convince the public that his sister was a harmless, lovable spinster who deliberately didn’t seek fame. In presenting Jane as entirely polite and modest, he might have been attempting to prevent the critics from expressing their usual ire toward upstart female novelists.
He asks us to view her as feminine, humble, and proper, possibly so that she wouldn’t be criticized as masculine, ambitious, or risk-taking.
Monument Dedicated to Jane Austen
The first monument to her didn’t appear until 1872, in Winchester Cathedral. It was Austen’s family members who made it happen, with the profits from the first full-length biography of Austen which was written by Austen’s nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh in 1870.
He describes himself as the youngest mourner at his aunt’s funeral. His book, The Memoir of Jane Austen, gave the world, for the first time, a visual representation of what the author looked like.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Life and Works of Jane Austen. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
First Portrait of Jane Austen
For its frontispiece illustration, at the beginning of the book, the Memoir included an engraving of a newly commissioned portrait. This was a touched-up version of the small watercolor version of Jane’s face, drawn by her sister Cassandra.
Cassandra’s watercolor is now in the National Portrait Gallery, London. But the airbrushed version of it first published in the Memoir has become the far better-known image of the two. It is certainly the less reliable image. Only a handful of Austen’s relatives were still alive when it was first published with one of them even declaring that it didn’t look much like her!
Memoir of Jane Austen
Other kinds of airbrushing were involved in Austen-Leigh’s 1870 Memoir of Jane Austen, too. He describes his “Aunt Jane” in ways that are very similar to Henry Austen’s 1818 memoir, marking her out to be safe, sweet, and unambitious.
Nephew Austen-Leigh even describes an imagined scene of his aunt writing in the parlor. She’s said to have made efforts to hide the act of writing, thanks to that room’s squeaky door. It was said that she quickly hid her papers, whenever she heard anyone entering.
However, this story seems not to have been based in fact but in legend. Austen-Leigh himself never even claims that he saw it happening! Yet this anecdote caught on like wildfire. It’s still repeated as if it’s from an eyewitness account, which it isn’t.
Austen-Leigh’s 1870 Memoir was widely reviewed and sold well. Then, a dozen years later, in 1884, Austen’s great nephew, Edward Hugessen Knatchbull-Hugessen, who was by then known as Lord Brabourne, published the first edition of Austen’s private letters.
These letters hadn’t been known to exist before, even, apparently, in some branches of the Austen family. They gave the literary world the first glimpse into Austen as a correspondent. Most readers were disappointed by what they found. The letters focused on everyday problems, sometimes trivial ones. It would take many years before Austen’s letters came to be more widely appreciated.
Impact of Lord Brabourne’s Image
Austen’s great nephew Lord Brabourne was himself a public figure when he published the letters edition. He was a prolific writer of fairy tales and children’s writings. He was also a politician, who’d changed parties from liberal to conservative, almost as soon as he’d been made a baronet. He was ridiculed for it in the popular press.
Lord Brabourne’s political leanings, and especially his advocating against women’s right to vote, had an effect on how readers first approached his edition of his great-aunt’s letters. Lord Brabourne emphasized, in his long introduction to the letters, the Austen family’s gentility and his Aunt Jane’s polite, conservative, genteel credentials. Whether his first readers believed his interpretations may have stemmed from whether they shared his politics.
What we see in all of these conflicting and colorful parts of her posthumous legacy is that Austen began to serve, almost immediately after her death, as an admired and controversial figure. Austen’s fame, for the moment at least, continues to be both robust and deserved.
Common Questions about How Jane Austen’s Literary Legacy Was Shaped
Jane Austen‘s brother Henry Austen laid the groundwork for his sister’s growing posthumous fame and her literary reputation with his short piece of writing titled Biographical Notice of the Author, later retitled as Memoir of Miss Austen.
The first monument to her didn’t appear until 1872, in Winchester Cathedral. It was Austen’s family members who made it happen, with the profits from the first full-length biography of Austen which was written by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh in 1870.
The first edition of Jane Austen’s private letters were published in 1884 by Austen’s great nephew, Edward Hugessen Knatchbull-Hugessen, who was by then known as Lord Brabourne.