Austen's Literary Apprentice

14 Sep 2015

 

To most readers, Jane Austen is a beloved, revered icon of literary history, but to Anna Austen (later Lefroy) she was simply Aunt Jane. After her mother’s death, two-year old Anna was sent to live with her grandparents and aunts, where she would grow up with the constant scribbling and keen literary awareness of Aunt Jane. Drafts of Elinor and Marianne (Sense and Sensibility), First Impressions (Pride and Prejudice), and Susan (Northanger Abbey) were Anna’s childhood companions, and family legend recalls a three-year-old Anna happily discussing Austen’s characters to whomever would listen.

 

A precocious child interested in stories and an aunt who enjoyed writing and storytelling made a potent combination, and in 1801, eight-year-old Anna received two books from her aunt Jane, which are now here at the Museum: Elegant Extracts, a volume of prose pieces on conduct, literature, history, and biography, and Mentoria, a series of educational dialogues.

 

 

Elegant Extracts contains Austen’s marginalia on passages from William Robertson’s History of Scotland and David Hume’s History of England, and her love of Mary, Queen of Scots and disdain for Elizabeth I are evident. (One passage of Elizabethan praise is met with the pointed comment, “A lie—an entire lie from beginning to end.”) Austen was an aggressive reader, and left evidence for her niece to become one as well.

 

Elegant Extracts also contains dozens of passages marked by Xs and lines—passages about writing, style, form, and literary history, largely taken from Henry Felton’s Dissertation on Reading the Classics and James Harris’s Miscellanies. It is unclear who made these markings: Austen, Anna, or Jemima, Anna’s daughter who inherited the book. Jemima seems the least likely candidate, for unlike her mother there is no evidence of her interest in authorship. If Austen wrote the markings, they may signal her own training in literary conventions, or that she was pointing Anna towards those passages for teaching purposes. If Anna wrote the markings, they suggest the desire for a literary education—for one needs to know literary rules in order to use, bend, or break them.

 

 

The second book, Mentoria, is far less annotated, though the draft of a poem is written upside down across the title page. Whether Jane or Anna is its author, the poem is clearly a work in progress: the stanzas are out of order, words are crossed out and sections edited. The evidence of writing as a process—and that one can write and create in another person’s book—suggests that authorship is not static, and books are available for invasion and appropriation.

 

The annotations in Elegant Extracts and Mentoria take on greater significance in light of the manuscript play of Sir Charles Grandison, which is part of the Chawton House Library collection. Richardson’s novel was a favorite of Austen’s, and the highly truncated theatrical version of Grandison was written circa 1800. It appears to be a collaborative effort of Austen and Anna: filled with edits, markings, and stage directions, a literary game for aunt and niece. That Austen gave Anna her copies of Elegant Extracts and Mentoria around this time—as she was moving to Bath, and away from Anna—suggests that Austen was encouraging her niece to keep reading and writing, and to learn the conventions, processes, and expectations of her craft.

 

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Each year the Jane Austen Society of North America support an 'International Visitor' to visit Chawton, the village where Jane Austen lived and wrote, to undertake an Austen related study. This year's IVP visitor was Marilyn Francus from West Virginia University.

This blogpost is based on the talk Marilyn gave at Jane Austen's House Museum in July. In 'The Writer's Apprentice: Literary Games with Jane Austen and Anna Lefroy' Marilyn explored the ways that the Grandison Manuscript and Elegant Extracts reflected literary play, and the ways Austen seemed to be training Anna to be a writer.

 

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