The Real Jane Austen

A Life In Small Things

by Paula Byrne

Paperback, 380 pages, HarperCollins, List Price: $16.99 | purchase


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Through an assortment of mundane objects, literary biographer Paula Byrne tells the story of Jane Austen's personal and creative life.

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Excerpt: The Real Jane Austen


The Family Profile

All the faces are turned towards the young boy. He is being passed to one ofthe two fashionably dressed women with powdered hair who are sitting at the table playing chess. The surrounding drapery makes the portrait resemble a theatrical scene. In the manner of actors well versed in the art of gesture, the figures are talking with their hands: the father's fingers rest on his son's shoulders, while the boy has his arms outstretched in supplication towards his new mother. Her hand remains on a chess piece, as if she has won a pawn. The master of the house leans on the back of the chair of the other woman, who is his sister. His relaxed pose bespeaks the casual assurance of proprietorship. The sister is pointing her finger at the boy, as if to say 'so this is the child who is coming to our great house'. The boy's birth-mother is absent.

The silhouette, dated 1783, is by William Wellings, one of the leading practitioners of this highly fashionable form of miniaturized portraiture. A plain black profile cut on card could be taken in a few minutes and cost as little as a shilling. Though sometimes known as 'poor men's miniatures', profiles were renowned for the accuracy of representation that they could achieve. 'No art approaches a well-made silhouette in truth,' wrote the influential physiognomist Johann Caspar Lavater. Jane Austen's nephew James Edward would become renowned within the family for his skill at the art. He could execute silhouettes without preliminary drawing, cutting them out directly with a special pair of scissors, 'the points ... an inch long, and the curved handles about three inches'.

Silhouettes were known as 'shadows' or 'shades' or 'profiles'. Hence Austen's imagining of the 'collection of family profiles' in Fanny Price's sitting room in Mansfield Park. This one tells a story. To modern eyes, the starkly shaded medium seems particularly fitting because of the solemn nature of the subject: the handing over of a child from one family to another. It was commissioned by Thomas Knight, a wealthy but childless gentleman from the county of Kent, to commemorate his formal adoption of his nephew, Edward Austen, one of the elder brothers of the future novelist. It was not only the Wellings silhouette that commemorated the adoption. The Knights also had an oil painting commissioned. This painting hangs now in Chawton Cottage and shows a very handsome child with golden hair and bright hazel eyes. He is wearing a blue velvet suit.

In the family profile the father, to the left of the scene, is George Austen. The adoptive mother, receiving Edward, is Catherine Knight, who many years later became Jane Austen's only literary patron. Thomas Knight himself is to the right, standing over his sister Jane. In 1783, the boy Edward reached his sixteenth birthday, whereas the child in the silhouette appears to be rather younger. This suggests that Knight may have requested the artist to evoke the scene two or three years earlier when the boy first went to stay with the childless couple in the great house.

Little Neddy first met his wealthy uncle and aunt when he was twelve. In1779 the newly married Knights visited their relatives at Steventon and took such a fancy to the golden-haired boy that they decided to bring him along with them on their honeymoon. It was quite common to do such a thing: George and Cassandra Austen took a boy called George Hastings with them on their own honeymoon tour. Genteel children generally had more freedom and independence than we might expect by today's standards: as a young girl, Jane Austen's sister Cassandra often visited her aunt and uncle Cooper in Bath.

In 1781 Thomas Knight inherited two large estates in Hampshire and Kent. By then, it was a matter of concern that he and his wife Catherine showed no sign of having children of their own. They needed a suitable boy to adopt and make their heir. Again, the practice was not unusual in the Georgian era, when the preservation of large estates was the key to wealth and status. So it was that young Edward Austen was taken away to Kent, first for extended visits during the summer months and eventually as a permanent arrangement. According to perhaps over-dramatic family tradition, George Austen hesitated, only for his wife to say, 'I think, my Dear, you had better oblige your cousins and let the Child go.' Mr. Knight's coachman, who had come on horseback, had led a pony all the way from Godmersham in Kent. The boy rode it all the way back, about a hundred miles. Among the brothers and sisters he said goodbye to when he left home was Jane Austen, aged about five and a half.

It wasn't just boys who were transferred into wealthy families. Jane Austen knew at least two childless couples who adopted young girls and made them their heirs. There was Lord Mansfield, the great abolitionist judge, who adopted his niece Lady Elizabeth Murray. She became a neighbor of Edward Austen, and met Jane Austen on several occasions. And then there was a family called the Chutes in a big house nearby, who adopted a girl called Caroline Wigget when she was three years old. So it should not come as a surprise that Jane Austen's novels show more than a passing interest in adoption. In Mansfield Park Fanny Price, considered a burden on her family, is sent to live with her wealthy cousins, the Bertrams. In Emma, Frank Churchill is adopted into the family of a rich but childless couple, and Jane Fairfax, an orphan, is brought up with the Dixons.

The case of Emma Watson in Jane Austen's incomplete novel The Watsons offers a striking reversal of the convention, whereby she has lived away from her birth family but is sent back to live with them. In Emma, Isabella Knightley exclaims against adoption, suggesting that it is unnatural: 'there is something so shocking in a child's being taken away from his parents and natural home! ... To give up one's child! I really never could think well of any body who proposed such a thing to any body else.' But Jane Austen believed that the good fortune of one family member was the good fortune of all.

From The Real Jane Austen: A Life In Small Things by Paula Byrne. Copyright 2013 by Paula Byrne. Excerpted by permission of Harper Collins.

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