James Edward Austen-Leigh’s Memoir of Jane Austen quickly sold out its 1000-copy printing in 1870. The second edition of 1871 included, in addition to the Memoir, Austen’s unpublished manuscript Lady Susan, The Watsons, and extracts from Sanditon, as well as the cancelled chapter of Persuasion and more letters. This also sold well: another reprint followed the following year, and the Memoir has remained in print ever since. Jane Austen may not have recognised herself in the saint represented by her nephew. The Austen family, close-knit, with an ample portion of family pride, controlled the images of her, and of the family as a whole, which were allowed to be projected into the public domain. Letters were destroyed, or censored, mostly by Cassandra Austen; no mention was made of Austen’s brother George who, in some way disabled, lived in seclusion away from the family; and care was taken that every mention of ‘Aunt Jane’ should be positive. Her prayers and pious utterances were acceptable, but the sharp side of her tongue was not. Austen-Leigh produced a Jane Austen to suit Victorian taste; refined, genteel, retired, unambitious, virtuous; an author whose works would be suitable for family reading. As Austen retreated in time, her novels entered the nostalgia zone, where film and television adaptations were later to imprison them, and, like Dickens’s Pickwick Papers (1837) and the less disturbing parts of A Christmas Carol (1843), became iconic of a lost golden world of the pre-industrial Olde Englishe past.
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- ‘Dear Jane’: late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century writing
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