James Edward Austen-Leigh’s Memoir of Jane Austen

Cassandra Austen's portrait of Jane Austen (ac.1810)

James Edward Austen-Leigh (1798 – 1874), a nephew of Jane Austen’s, first published A Memoir of Jane Austen in 1869. Its second edition in 1871 was much expanded to include more letters and biographical material. 

At this point in time, Jane Austen’s reputation was  waning somewhat, and this publication is credited for having helped to revive her reputation.

In the narrative, Austen-Leigh describes the difficulties experienced by Austen’s family to secure publication for her early works. Indeed, during Jane’s lifetime, her successes were solid yet modest, and much of her work was published under the generic nom de plume “A Lady.”

This book also cemented the myths that surround Jane’s writing life: that she wrote only for her own and her family’s enjoyment, was somewhat ashamed of writing, and didn’t care about money.

We heartily disagree and believe that Jane Austen cared deeply about being published and also enjoyed earning money.These myths are discussed in Jane Austen’s Literary Ambitions and The Biggest Myth About Jane Austen’s Writing Life.

It must be noted that Austen-Leigh was only sixteen when his aunt died, and in his early seventies when the memoir was published. So some of what was remembered may have been bound up with at least a generation’s worth of family mythology.

Still, if this book was instrumental in getting the reading public of its time to take another look at Jane Austen lest she be forgotten, we can appreciate it for its merits while adding a grain of salt. It makes for fascinating reading! Here’s just a snippet, and you can link to the entire text at the end:


The slow growth of Jane Austen’s literary reputation

Seldom has any literary reputation been of such slow growth as that of Jane Austen. Readers of the present day know the rank that is generally assigned to her … the reason why the highest place is to be awarded to Jane Austen, as a truthful drawer of character, and why she is to be classed with those who have approached nearest, in that respect, to the great master Shakespeare.

They see her safely placed, by such authorities, in her niche, not indeed amongst the highest orders of genius, but in one confessedly her own, in our British temple of literary fame; and it may be difficult to make them believe how coldly her works were at first received, and how few readers had any appreciation of their peculiar merits …

So much was this the case, that one of the ablest men of my acquaintance said, in that kind of jest which has much earnest in it, that he had established it in his own mind, as a new test of ability, whether people could or could not appreciate Miss Austen’s merits.

But though such golden opinions were now and then gathered in, yet the wide field of public taste yielded no adequate return either in praise or profit. Her reward was not to be the quick return of the cornfield, but the slow growth of the tree which is to endure to another generation.

. . . . . . . . . .

James Edward Austen-Leigh

James Edward Austen-Leigh
at about the time of the book’s publication (1871)
. . . . . . . . . .

First attempts at publication were discouraging

Her first attempts at publication were very discouraging.  In November, 1797, her father wrote the following letter to Mr. Cadell:

Sir, — I have in my possession a manuscript novel, comprising 3 vols., about the length of Miss Burney’s Evelina. As I am well aware of what consequence it is that a work of this sort shd make its first appearance under a respectable name, I apply to you. 

I shall be much obliged therefore if you will inform me whether you choose to be concerned in it, what will be the expense of publishing it at the author’s risk, and what you will venture to advance for the property of it, if on perusal it is approved of.  Should you give any encouragement, I will send you the work.

I am, Sir, your humble Servant,
George Austen.
Steventon, near Overton, Hants
1st Nov. 1797


Rejections and humiliations for Jane

This proposal was declined by return of post!  The work thus summarily rejected must have been Pride and Prejudice.

The fate of Northanger Abbey was still more humiliating. It was sold, in 1803, to a publisher in Bath, for ten pounds, but it found so little favour in his eyes, that he chose to abide by his first loss rather than risk farther expense by publishing such a work. It seems to have lain for many years unnoticed in his drawers.

But when four novels of steadily increasing success had given the writer some confidence in herself, she wished to recover the copyright of this early work. One of her brothers undertook the negotiation. He found the purchaser very willing to receive back his money, and to resign all claim to the copyright. 

When the bargain was concluded and the money paid, but not till then, the negotiator had the satisfaction of informing him that the work which had been so lightly esteemed was by the author of Pride and Prejudice.


The author was undaunted

I do not think that she was herself much mortified by the want of early success. She wrote for her own amusement. Money, though acceptable, was not necessary for the moderate expenses of her quiet home.

Above all, she was blessed with a cheerful contented disposition, and an humble mind; and so lowly did she esteem her own claims, that when she received 150l. from the sale of Sense and Sensibility, she considered it a prodigious recompense for that which had cost her nothing. 

It cannot be supposed, however, that she was altogether insensible to the superiority of her own workmanship over that of some contemporaries who were then enjoying a brief popularity.

. . . . . . . . . .

Jane Austen Sense and Sensibility stamp 2013

Jane Austen Postage Stamps 2013 and 1975
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… The fact is that, in the course of the intervening five years, these works had been read and reread by many leaders in the literary world. The public taste was forming itself all this time, and ‘grew by what it fed on.’

These novels belong to a class which gain rather than lose by frequent perusals, and it is probable that each Reviewer represented fairly enough the prevailing opinions of readers in the year when each wrote.

Since that time, the testimonies in favour of Jane Austen’s works have been continual and almost unanimous. They are frequently referred to as models; nor have they lost their first distinction of being especially acceptable to minds of the highest order.

Read the entire text of A Memoir of Jane Austen by James Edward Austen-Leigh on Project Gutenberg. You can also listen to it on Librivox.

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