Jane Austen’s Latest

Marilyn Butler

  • Jane Austen’s ‘Sir Charles Grandison’ edited by Brian Southam
    Oxford, 150 pp, £7.95, March 1981, ISBN 0 19 812637 9

‘There would be more genuine rejoicing at the discovery of a complete new novel by Jane Austen than any other literary discovery, short of a new play by Shakespeare, that one can imagine.’ Brian Southam begins his Introduction to ‘Grandison’ by quoting the apparently prophetic observation of Margaret Drabble in 1974. Ever since she said it, there has been a run of near misses or all-buts, beginning with Another Lady’s completion of Jane Austen’s fragment ‘Sanditon’, and continuing with someone else’s notion of ‘The Watsons’. Then, in the autumn of 1977, there was an Austen discovery, not of a novel but not of a fragment either – a complete new play, apparently Jane Austen’s version of a work she had admired from childhood, Samuel Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison.

It was actually a discovery only in a manner of speaking, since the manuscript was never properly lost. It had been handed down among the descendants of Jane Austen’s niece Anna Lefroy, born Anna Austen in 1793, the eldest child of Jane Austen’s brother James. According to family tradition, the play, though written down by Jane Austen, was not her brainchild. Anna, who knew Grandison as familiarly in youth as her aunt did, was always understood to have devised the play as a child and to have dictated it to Jane Austen. Scholars knew of the existence of the manuscript, and were on the whole not moved to try to see it. But when ‘Grandison’ was offered for auction at Sotheby’s in December 1977, it was examined closely, perhaps for the first time, and the experts apparently concurred in finding that the play was essentially by Jane Austen after all.

Brian Southam, in the Introduction to his edition, gives the line of reasoning:

‘Grandison’ is over fifty pages long. For all its lightness and absurdity, it bears the stamp of an adult mind. Can we really suppose that a child of seven, too young to write out the play for herself, who had to depend on her aunt as copyist, was capable not just of composing such a work but of composing it in her head? If ‘Grandison’ was written later than 1800, when Anna might have been old enough to conceive the play, Jane Austen would have had no hand in it. At that age the girl could have written it out for herself.

  Taken together, the literary evidence and the chronological circumstances point quite clearly to Jane Austen as the play’s author. The manuscript itself provides more evidence. While the paper used for the later sections is watermarked 1796 and 1799, and the style of the handwriting looks right for a date around 1800, the handwriting of the opening section, comprising the whole of Act One, on undated paper, is much less formed, less mature. These pages were written some years earlier, possibly before Anna was born.

Exit Anna as a dramatist, and enter Jane Austen, to the considerable enhancement, presumably, of the commercial value of the document, and its much greater significance for students of literature.

Among the winners on this occasion was Margaret Drabble, as an interpreter of contemporary taste. She did not underestimate the stir due to a new Austen work. Well before we could read the play, we could hear tantalising snatches of it in a film which began by re-enacting the Sotheby’s auction – Jane Austen in Manhattan, directed by James Ivory and scripted by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Jane Austen’s contribution to the film was admittedly slight to begin with, and became wholly submerged, in what turned out to be a subtle, ambivalent study of two rival producers of the play, with very different aesthetic premises but a not dissimilar will to manipulate their casts. Nevertheless, there could hardly be a greater tribute to Jane Austen’s 20th-century reputation. The international film-going public was not only expected instantly to recognise her name: it was expected to know her as a symbol, the acknowledged classic of a mainstream cultural tradition.

Having seen the film, we can now read the book, either in Brian Southam’s businesslike inexpensive edition, or alternatively in a three-coloured facsimile costing £150. And after the razzmatazz there might, in fact, be the occasion for another kind of noise – the sound of scholars breaking lances.

Some of the likely murmurs of complaint may prove a bit churlish. Of course we should have preferred a novel, and a polished performance rather than one written as a family entertainment, and an original Austen work rather than one initiated by Richardson. Yet, if it had to be an adaptation, no work by another artist seems more appropriate and potentially more significant than Richardson’s last novel, which contributed more than any other single book to the tradition of social comedy, naturalistic yet deeply ethical, which Jane Austen inherited. Brian Southam, very much a critic at heart, orientates his edition firmly towards the literary reader, teacher or student, who normally is not concerned with technical problems of handwriting and dating, but will be interested in this discovery precisely for what it has to show about the relationship between one great literary intelligence and another. The deaths in recent times of F.R. and Q.D. Leavis might prompt us, with the coming to light of ‘Grandison’, to look again at one of their leading critical preoccupations, the handing-on of the English novel’s Great Tradition. Southam’s Introduction focuses strongly on this aspect of the manuscript – its relationship as a play to the novel which is its source. And after his edited version and transcript of the play, he provides a special series of notes relating ‘Grandison’ to Grandison, for those who are no longer likely to have the same familiarity as the Austen family circle with that seven-volume masterpiece.

Without this informed sense of its literary context, ‘Grandison’ on its own could prove a sad disappointment. It is a very literal transposition of the more memorable scenes from the novel’s main plot, executed by a probably young and certainly not very practical dramatist. The first act is only unembarrassing on the assumption that the author is at most 12 years old; the rest has good touches, but is not overall so very much better, though Southam, perhaps moved a little by that handwriting, makes the best possible literary case for it. He is able to do so because of his hypothesis, already quoted, concerning the date at which the first act was written.

Everything turns, if Southam is right, upon the fact that ‘Grandison’, though eventually a coherent five-act play, is not a single manuscript. The first act and one cancelled page of a second were scribbled rather untidily on paper with no clear watermark, carelessly trimmed with scissors, and pinned and re-pinned on different occasions. The remaining three groups of paper have been neatly folded, in Jane Austen’s characteristic adult manner, into small booklets, in which she has written Acts Two to Five. Not only does the handwriting and one watermark on this paper indicate a date after 1799: there is a reference in Act Three to a popular song, ‘Laura and Lenza’ which comes from a ‘Fairy Ballet’ first performed in London at the Haymarket in May 1800. The date of the longer and more accomplished part of ‘Grandison’, then, cannot be earlier than 1800, and might, for all we can feel sure, be some years later than that. But a date after 1800 is a bit of an embarrassment, and could even turn the discovered play from a rocket into a damp squib. In 1800, Jane Austen was 25, and she had already drafted versions of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey, with the latter two in sufficiently complete shape to be offered to publishers. She was no longer at a stage when she was going to school to the late Richardson.

Yet all is well if, as Southam supposes, the opening Act was written by Jane Austen on her own much earlier, most probably in 1791-2, when she was 16 or 17. In terms of her career as a novelist, this possibility is altogether more satisfying. The lamentable Act One becomes the key part of the play, rich in clues to Jane Austen’s literary development. Now it need not matter that ‘Grandison’, as Southam frankly declares, is no masterpiece, not even a minor masterpiece. ‘Love and Friendship’ (1790) and ‘The History of England’ (1791) are much sharper burlesques of, respectively, sentimental novels and history-writing, each of them revealing a sharp eye for literary mannerism and (in a girl of about fifteen) a precocious literary intelligence. By placing ‘Grandison’ in a similar period, Southam incidentally encourages us to look out for evidence that Richardson’s novel, too, is being affectionately sent up. It turns out that examples of what might be taken confidently for burlesque are few and scattered. No matter. Even ‘Grandison’s’ general absence of sparkle becomes interesting, if like Southam we suppose the seriousness to be a symptom that Jane Austen was steadying herself for her productive early period of novel-writing. Thus, without making any inflated claims for the quality of the play, he has so placed it in Jane Austen’s career as to maximise its literary importance.

All Southam’s principal deductions are supported by Lord David Cecil, in a foreword written with that critic’s customary charm, his inimitable blend of middlebrow thoughts in upper-class tones. Though he cavils gently at Jane Austen’s taste for Grandison (‘I cannot help sympathising a little with Miss Andrews in Northanger Abbey, who could not get beyond the first volume’), Lord David adds his authority to Southam’s account of the play’s authorship and nature: ‘It is surely incredible that [Anna] should have been capable of the sustained literary effort involved in dramatising [Richardson’s seven volumes); all the more because this is done in a spirit of satirical burlesque intentionally unlike that of the book on which it is founded.’

Words like ‘burlesque’ and ‘intentionally’ dignify the play and imply that it is a knowing literary performance. But does ‘Grandison’ fit the description? Has the battery of experts, those who prepared Sotheby’s catalogue as well as Mr Southam and Lord David, established beyond reasonable doubt that ‘Grandison’ is by Jane Austen at all?

It would be absurd for a reviewer who has not seen the manuscript to stale categorically that it isn’t. But before ‘Grandison’ becomes canonical, with all the expenditure of scholarly time that will entail, it is worth noting that some of the grounds of scholarly ‘proof’ are not all that strong. For example, when Jane Austen wrote down Acts Two to Five is not so settled as Southam and Lord David seem to think. There is no tradition that ‘Grandison’ dates from the time that Anna Austen was seven – that is, from 1800. The family authority on the play’s inception is the third of Anna’s six daughters, Fanny Caroline Lefroy: ‘I have still in my possession, in Aunt Jane’s writing, a drama my mother dictated to her, founded on Sir Charles Grandison, a book with which she was familiar at seven years old.’ This carefully worded statement avoids setting a date on the play. Nor is it quite the case, as Mr Southam seems to think, that Anna could have had no motive for enlisting the help of an amanuensis and sympathetic adviser when she was, say, ten – by which time, as I shall be proposing in a moment, she could have been capable of substantially inventing the play we have before us. Jane Austen’s departure from Steventon for Bath in 1801 is not really a bar to the collaboration in the next years, since she continued to visit her brother’s family, and they her.

But the authorship of Acts Two to Five can wait, since Southam’s case for a dominant contribution by Jane Austen turns on his hypothesis about Act One. The manuscript of that act looks different, so different that it could not have been written by Jane Austen at the same date and stage of development as Act Two and the rest. Southam’s edition reproduces four pages of manuscript, three of them from the ‘early’ group, and indeed the examples of dialogue, from page 1 and page 44, do not conform. Nor is Act One set out and written with the most marked personal characteristic of Jane Austen’s later years – her celebrated neatness. But if the hand and the execution are as different as this, might it not follow that they are also sufficiently different to have been written by someone other than Jane Austen?

As the author of Jane Austen’s Literary Manuscripts (1964), Brian Southam has a formidable knowledge of the variations in Jane Austen’s early handwriting, and the problems of dating it. Perhaps page I of ‘Grandison’ is so like some of the pages of, say, ‘Volume the First’ as to account for his confidence in ascribing it to the teenage Jane Austen. Yet one would have liked Southam at least to have considered the possibility that Act One was written by a different writer immediately before the rest of the play, since there is some internal evidence that there was no significant lapse of time between the composition of Act One and Act Two.

The evidence in question consists in the cancelled page, intended for the beginning of Act Two, which ends the first, ‘early’ bundle of papers. These lines represent two false starts at Act Two, which is to deal with much the most stageworthy sequence in the story, the abduction and attempted forced marriage of the heroine, Harriet Byron, by the villainous Sir Hargrave Pollexfen:

Act the 2d. Scene the 1st.

Southam devotes little attention to these false starts, but they must be highly significant. The first idea was to begin Act Two at Colnebrook, the home of Grandison’s sister Lady L, where Sir Charles took Harriet after rescuing her. (In the play as we now have it, Act Three will begin in this way.) The adapter’s first notion, of immediately following Harriet’s disappearance with a scene after her rescue, is easily explained when Richard son’s novel is consulted. Since he was telling his story in letters, he had to follow a letter reporting Harriet’s disappearance with a letter reporting her safe and well at Colnebrook; the exciting details of what had happened in between could be filled in only when Harriet herself was sufficiently recovered to narrate them. The inexperienced adapter thus first had the notion of sticking to the same sequence as the novel, even though it is out of chronological order. She quickly saw how un-dramatic that would be, and began again with a freer approach to the plot – which nevertheless still begins the scene with a not very material detail about Harriet’s masquerade dress, a point Harriet harps on in the novel after she is rescued and before she tells her story. The angle of vision is still appropriate only for the novel, with its subjective way of telling; it is a nuance lost in dramatisation. The new Act Two, in Jane Austen’s mature handwriting, begins instead by boldly selecting a dramatic moment from the middle of the abduction scene, when Sir Hargrave overhears Harriet trying to bribe his female aides into helping her to escape. This looks uncommonly like the analytical thinking of an experienced adult, brought to bear when a child arrives with a technical problem. The beginning of Act Two, revised version, could in all probability signal Aunt Jane’s arrival on the scene.

In itself, Act One is no loss whatsoever from the Austen canon. As a dramatisation, it is inept; as literature, it has nothing to be said for it, not even as a skit. If Jane Austen’s name had not got attached to it, we should surely have no difficulty in taking this much handled sheaf of paper, on which different hands have scribbled, for the record of a semi-improvised production by a group of children. But if that is all there is to Act One, just how strong is Southam’s case for Jane Austen’s authorship of the entire play? This rested in part on his belief that Anna must have been only seven when it was written: but it depended in practice rather more on his proposition that the first act was written by Jane Austen ‘before Anna was born’, which makes Jane and not Anna the true begetter of the project.

Putting the technical details aside, what is ‘Grandison’ most like? A burlesque of Richardson by a clever adolescent or even a practised young novelist? A play begun by a 16-year-old to be acted by her grown-up brothers and sisters, and her sophisticated cousin Eliza de Feuillide? These are Southam’s suggestions. Or is it the ad-libbing of a child (or group of children), who happen to know the story of Grandison, some of its episodes and many of its verbal expressions, more or less by heart – perhaps from having the story read to them rather than from reading it themselves?

Scholars are not, surely, debarred from using common sense and common experience when the need arises. Children of between, say, eight and 11 cannot be supposed to act and think entirely differently from one century to another. Those of us who have, for our sins, taught in a school, or even been parents, may well have noted certain common characteristics in the child of ten (an age at which little girls often seem more brilliant than little boys). It is the phase of dressing-up; of playacting; not (if children are left to their own devices) so much of learning some adult’s script as of improvising their own. Before the scholars stepped in, the Austen family believed ‘Grandison’ to have evolved in just this kind of way. Rather than a burlesque, the play reads like a cross between a précis and a literal recapitulation. Its best lines are remembered from the novel. Its worst have the awkwardness and redundancy of children wondering what to say next or (especially) how to get themselves off the stage. There are many clever touches, and not much sense of purpose, especially towards the end. Many an indulgent parent must have sat through something like the following, from the end of Act Four:

MISS G. But come, is not it time to dress? [looks at her watch] Dear me! it is but four.

LORD L. You need not say ‘But’, Charlotte, for you know we are to dine at half after tour to-day.

MISS G. Indeed, my lord, my lady did not tell me so. Well, I will pardon her this time. Come, then, let us go, if it is time.

Exeunt ladies...

Enter a footman.

FOOT. Dinner is on the table, my lord.

LORD L. Very well.

Exit footman. Enter LADY L., MISS GRAND1SON. MISS BYRON and MISS JERVOIS.

LORD L. Dinner is upon the table, my dear Caroline.

LADY L. Indeed. Come Harriet and all of you.

Exeunt.

Is this really the writing of one of our greatest novelists, at a stage in her development when she had already completed versions of Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey? Some years before the date at which Southam proposes that she wrote Act One, she achieved in her fragment ‘The Visit’ in ‘Volume the First’ a broad caricature of the Richardsonian drawing-room situation which has more composure and more point than ‘Grandison’:

Enter the Company.

MISS F. I hope I have the pleasure of seeing your Ladyship well. Sir Arthur, your servant. Yrs Mr Willoughby. Dear Sophy, Dear Cloe, [They pay their Compliments alternately.]

MISS F. Pray be seated.

[They sit.]

Bless me! there ought to be 8 chairs and there are but 6. However, if your Ladyship will but take Sir Arthur in your lap, & Sophy my Brother in hers, I beleive we shall do pretty well.

LADY H. Oh! with pleasure...

SOPHY. I beg his Lordship would be seated.

MISS F. I am really shocked at crouding you in such a manner, but my Grandmother (who bought all the furniture of this room) as she had never a very large Party, did not think it necessary to buy more Chairs than were sufficient for her own family and two of her particular freinds.

SOPHY. I beg you will make no apologies. Your brother is very light.

‘The Visit’ was written to be read, ‘Grandison’ to be acted. Southam uses that point to account for the literary deficiency of ‘Grandison’, but it also helps to determine the date and the authorship. One Southam hypothesis is a stage performance by adults in the mid-1790s, the infant Anna looking on. The best part, that of Charlotte Grandison, might have been played by the now widowed Eliza de Feuillide, who certainly acted at Steventon in 1787-8 and is said on less good authority to have done so again in the mid-1790s. But what script does Southam mean us to understand that Eliza was using? Is he proposing an Ur-‘Grandison’? Four-fifths of the play he is editing could not have existed before 1800, and the introductory First act would not have been performed on its own even by children.

‘Grandison’ is a Five-act play – quite an undertaking to perform – which even with much doubling requires at least seven actors; it has in all 22 parts, 15 of which are for girls. Southam sees on the manuscript the signs of a play in rehearsal. But he does not ask the practical question: when were the Austen family and their friends sufficiently numerous and theatre-minded to act it? Plays were regularly performed at Steventon Rectory in the 1780s, while Jane Austen’s father, the Rev. George Austen, was Rector. The leading spirits in the theatricals were the Rector’s elder children: James, born 1765, Edward (who later took the surname Knight), born 1767, Henry, born 1771. The younger children – Cassandra, born 1773, Francis, born 1774, Jane, born 1775, and Charles, born 1779 – almost certainly took lesser parts or acted as onlookers and audience. The plays acted seem to have been all comedies, with the exception of Thomas Franklin’s tragedy Matilda; of the nine known titles, seven were first produced on the London stage in the 1770s and 1780s. As far as we know, professional plays were always chosen, though James Austen provided many of them with prologues and epilogues. The most spectacular and from a literary point of view interesting spate of theatricals began at Christmas 1787, when Eliza de Feuillide was staying at Steventon and, according to family tradition, flirting with the 22-year-old James and the 16-year-old Henry. Earlier Eliza toyed with two comedies for production at Steventon that Christmas, by Hannah Cowley and David Garrick, but eventually, presumably after some argument, the group agreed to perform Susannah Centlivre’s The Wonder: A Woman keeps a secret (1714), for which James wrote a saucy Epilogue for an actress (presumably Eliza), which declares the independence of ‘Creation’s fairest part’ from the dominion of ‘Creation’s mighty Lords’. The 12-year-old Jane Austen was presumably an observer of these fraught theatrical doings; in Mansfield Park she puts Fanny Price inarticulately in the same role, only substituting for Susannah Centlivre’s bold play a work smacking of more up-to-date impropriety, Kotzebue’s Lovers’ Vows.

The Steventon theatricals are well-documented for the 1780s, when the Rectory was crowded with young people, the Rector’s resident pupils supplementing his own family as they grew up. There are no such records afterwards, no extant prologues and epilogues, no references to acting in letters for any period in the 1790s, when the Rector had ceased to take in pupils, all the Austen sons except the mentally retarded George had left home, and only Cassandra and Jane among the younger generation remained. The literary efforts and Fireside amusements of the 1790s – including Jane Austen’s juvenilia-were, perforce, of a kind to be read rather than acted. There is, then, no evidence that Jane Austen wrote anything to be performed by her elder brothers. Indeed, there is a certain improbability in the idea that these polished actors, Oxford graduates and undergraduates, with literary pretensions of their own, would have condescended to learn lines written for them by a child.

Who could have written ‘Grandison’? Who might have wanted it? In 1801 the Rev. George Austen retired to Bath, taking his wife and daughters with him. His eldest son, the Rev. James Austen – he of the theatricals – moved into Steventon Rectory with his wife and young children. Jane Austen was a good aunt to her many nephews and nieces, but proximity ensured she was closest to the Steventon family, who became in later years the chief source of biographical information about her. It was James’s son, the Rev. J.E. Austen-Leigh (born 1798), who put together the family Memoir of Jane Austen (1870), with the assistance particularly of his sister Caroline Austen (born 1803) and of his half-sister Anna, who since 1814 had been Mrs Lefroy. All three remembered their aunt as a great entertainer of children. Caroline recalled being told serialised fairy-tales, and being given clothes from Jane Austen’s wardrobe with which to dress up. Anna was ten years older than Caroline, and on the whole in her recollections she told the stories, while Jane played the part of the encouraging or amused listener. When Anna was grown up and married she was still telling Jane stories: ridiculous versions of the novels she had borrowed from Alton circulating library, or her own attempt at a novel, which was to have been called Which is the Heroine? or Enthusiasm, To Anna’s novel Jane Austen responded with amiable criticism: ‘I wish you would not let him plunge into a “vortex of Dissipation”. I do not object to the Thing, but I cannot bear the expression; – it is such thorough novel slang – and so old, that I dare say Adam met with it in the first novel he opened.’

Demoting Anna’s part in ‘Grandison’ seems a bit of a shame. For an Austen, that ‘large and clever family’, she had what almost amounts to a deprived childhood. Her own mother, James’s first wife, died when she was two, and Anna had to be sent to her grandparents and aunts at Steventon Rectory to be comforted. Part of the comfort over the next two years included being let in on the secret first readings of what was to be Pride and Prejudice. After James remarried in January 1797, Anna lived under the parental roof, but not happily, since she and her stepmother, the former Mary Lloyd, never got on. From Jane Austen’s letters Mary emerges as a touchy, strong-willed, mean and narrow-minded woman, who came to exercise a strong influence over her husband which effectively cut out Anna. Jane Austen tried to intervene on Anna’s behalf – for example, urging James to pay more attention to his eldest child; though Anna, moody, reckless and charming by turns, always ‘doing too little or too much’, was evidently an exasperating protégée. Jane Austen must have helped her more effectively by taking an interest herself: introducing her, perhaps, to the favourite reading of her own childhood, Grandison, encouraging her to write, telling her how the previous generation of children at Steventon Rectory had entertained themselves with theatricals. In those days Anna’s father had been the leading light. Perhaps his neglected eldest daughter hoped to emulate him, and even to attract his attention, by getting her aunt to help her to stage a play.

Whether ‘Grandison’ ever was staged in its entirety may never be resolved. Many children in the same age-range gathered together when James Austen’s children visited their Knight cousins at Godmersham in Kent, or when the Knights came to Steventon. Perhaps Act One spontaneously took shape on one such visit, and Anna then pressed her aunt to help her to write a complete script in time for the next opportunity – which may or may not have come. The two of them, niece and aunt, must have spent many hours together, at Bath or at Steventon, working out the form the play would take, with Anna evidently giving most attention to the part she identified with – that of Charlotte Grandison, Sir Charles’s sprightly, rebellious sister. Charlotte’s jokes in ‘Grandison’ are those of a bright, pert child, clearly a terror in a drawing-room:

LORD G. I am afraid I have been making you wait, gentlemen.

MISS G. Well, you need not be afraid any longer, for you most certainly have.

A bright child further expresses itself in faithfully retained verbal mannerism (Mr Selby’s ‘Adzooks!’) and comic detail. Her aunt’s taste is heard equally unmistakably in the discreet, mannerly tones of ‘straight’ characters, like the principals Harriet and Sir Charles Grandison, some of whose quiet rejoinders seem rebukes not directed to Charlotte alone. ‘I will not be bribed into liking your wit, Charlotte.’

If this is the case, Jane Austen did not ‘really’ write ‘Grandison’ herself, while amiably letting Anna believe the play to be her own. Her contributions – the technical solution to staging Act Two, the more polite and adult lines of dialogue – unobtrusively rescued the play, but would not seem important to a child. They amount, surely, to less than joint authorship. In Anna’s play, it was proper for Jane Austen to efface the continuous wit and literariness of her own writing, from childhood on. She maintained the same sympathetic, encouraging modesty when years later Anna was writing her novel: ‘If you think differently, do not mind me.’

Such an interpretation extracts relatively little from ‘Grandison’ about Jane Austen the dramatist and Jane Austen the heir of Richardson. But it is not wholly without its insights. There are those who find Jane Austen the novelist and (especially) Jane Austen the domestic letter-writer a subtly unlikeable figure. Jane Austen the aunt emerges from the ‘discovery’ as an unmixed blessing.