The Tribute to Jane Austen by Her Brother


By Devoney Looser, Arizona State University

Having suffered a long illness, Jane Austen finally succumbed to death on July 18, 1817. Even though it was anticipated, it was an incident that shook many. Five months after her death, her brother Henry Austen gave the world one short piece of writing about his sister, Jane: ‘Biographical Notice of the Author’.

memorial brass dedicated to Jane Austen
The biographical notice depicts Jane Austen through Henry’s perspective which may be biased or defensive for her cause. (Image: irisphoto1/Shutterstock)

Henry: Austen’s First Biographer

The Biographical Notice of the Author was written in late 1817. When Henry 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.

Henry’s biographical notice is worth a close read as a piece of rhetoric. It begins with an almost Gothic and melodramatic series of sentences.

He notes that the public has been entertained by the author of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma but that the “hand that guided that pen is now mouldering in the grave”. As a result, he hopes “a brief account” of Jane Austen will be read with “a kindlier sentiment than simple curiosity”. 

Uncertainty on Authorship

Henry didn’t sign this essay, and it’s possible he had help writing it from other family members. But the notice indicates its writer was in London. Henry was one of the few Austen family members with a London address.

Furthermore, Henry was advertised as the memoir’s sole author when it was republished in a revised version 15 years later. As a result, it is natural to describe Henry here as the author of the biographical notice.

This article comes directly from content in the video series The Life and Works of Jane Austen. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Henry’s Agreeable Portrayal of Jane Austen

Henry’s insistence on his sister’s small, unobjectionable life might be best grasped as part of a public relations campaign. 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.

A woman walking away dressed in Regency fashion
Jane Austen is presented as a humble, pious, and feminine girl in compliance with the societal expectations. (image: KathySG/Shutterstock)

Henry sets out to convince the public that his sister was a harmless, lovable spinster who deliberately didn’t seek fame. 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.

Henry’s Hard-to-Believe Claims

Henry’s claims of his sister’s spotless reputation may defy belief. He writes that she “never met reproof” from her family—that no one ever disapproved of her or corrected her!

He claims all of her wishes in life were reasonable and that all were gratified. Even when she met disappointments, he says, she was unfailingly cheerful. These claims require a credulous audience.

Debatable Demeanor

At least one statement that Henry makes is demonstrably untrue. He says his sister “never uttered either a hasty, a silly, or a severe expression”. Considering his use of “never” here, this just one example can poke a hole in his claim. Needless to say, there are dozens of examples of things she uttered in her letters and writings that might be judged hasty, silly, or severe.

In a private letter to her sister, Cassandra, Jane included a piece of unfortunate neighborhood news. Jane reports that “Mrs. Hall of Sherbourn was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, oweing to a fright.”

Then she added a line of cruel comedy to explain both the stillbirth and the fright. “I suppose,” Jane writes, Mrs. Hall “happened unawares to look at her husband.” This may be an instance of all three of the flaws that Henry Austen disavows as part of the character of his sister, Jane—hasty, silly, and severe.

Henry Advocating for Jane’s Piety

Henry preferred to shine a light on things other than his sister’s satirical wit. He emphasizes her being attractive, pleasant, and well read. But this is not his highest value of her either. As he concludes, “One trait only remains to be touched on. It makes all others unimportant. She was thoroughly religious and devout.”

Henry ends by telling his readers that his sister’s “opinions accorded strictly with those of our Established Church”. Again, this may well have been true. But it’s an interesting choice for describing what the world now thinks of as one of its greatest novelists in English and a master of comedy, irony, and social criticism!

An Attempt to Deflect Criticism?

For most of us, “devout” isn’t the first word that comes to mind when describing the main features of Jane Austen’s fiction. We don’t usually associate devotion with the comic, the ironic, or the critical. Could Henry here be trying to head off any criticisms of Austen’s depictions of defective clergymen, for her sake or his own? It’s a telling final line for a novelist’s biographical notice.

After Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published, with Henry’s biographical notice prefixed to them, a few reviews came out lamenting Austen’s death and lauding her fiction. A notable, positive one was published by the theologian Richard Whately, later Archbishop Whately, in 1821, so perhaps Henry’s groundwork in advocating for Austen’s Christian principles was successful. Whately declares that “Miss Austen’s work may be safely recommended”. The keyword here seems to be safe.

It remains a challenge to settle these longstanding arguments about who she really was or what her works ought to mean. But one thing these continuing disagreements and investigations do prove definitively is that her afterlife has become as complex and compelling as her novels.

Common Questions about the Tribute to Jane Austen by Her Brother

Q: When was the Biographical Notice of the Author published?

The Biographical Notice of the Author was written in late 1817. When Henry Austen revisited it in 1833, it was retitled as Memoir of Miss Austen.

Q: How does Henry portray Jane Austen in his notice?

Henry portrays his sister Jane Austen as a harmless, lovable spinster who deliberately didn’t seek fame. He asks us to view her as feminine, humble, and proper girl who “was thoroughly religious and devout.”

Q: Are Henry Austen’s claims about Jane authentic?

The claims that Henry makes about Jane Austen in his notice are debatable. It is uncertain if his portrayal of Jane was true to facts or if they were an attempt to deflect criticism coming their way.

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