The Private Jane Austen

Michael J. Schofield wrote to me about Cassandra Austen’s censoring of Jane Austen’s letters.

If anything can be drawn from Lady Susan, then even Jane’s letters to Cassandra–albeit personal—were in some way performative, meant to be read, projecting an idea of herself Cassandra deemed publicly inappropriate. Privacy is obviously sacred as it is today, but I wonder whether you might dig speculating on what the state of privacy was, then. Perhaps even Regency folk felt privacy was under threat, like us, when private knowledge became public knowledge at ever increasing rates. I don’t know.

I have always assumed that the Austen’s were highly concerned with privacy, as were the gentry generally. As we have become more liberal socially there has been less of a need to protect privacy. Why should this be? I think you can see the answer in Austen’s novels, where there is an interesting relationship between manners and ethics, reputation and integrity, all bound up in the idea of ‘character’.

To help get my thinking straight on what ‘character’ meant I have taken some quotes from the closing stages of Mansfield Park:

Sir Thomas, however, remained yet a little longer in town, in the hope of discovering and snatching her from farther vice, though all was lost on the side of character. (47.12)

Fanny was not in the secret of her uncle’s feelings, Sir Thomas not in the secret of Miss Crawford’s character. (47.15)

Fanny, now at liberty to speak openly, felt more than justified in adding to his knowledge of her real character, by some hint of what share his brother’s state of health might be supposed to have in her wish for a complete reconciliation. (47.31)

She persisted in placing his scruples to her account, though Sir Thomas very solemnly assured her that, had there been no young woman in question, had there been no young person of either sex belonging to him, to be endangered by the society or hurt by the character of Mrs. Rushworth, he would never have offered so great an insult to the neighbourhood as to expect it to notice her. As a daughter, he hoped a penitent one, she should be protected by him, and secured in every comfort, and supported by every encouragement to do right, which their relative situations admitted; but farther than that he could not go. Maria had destroyed her own character, and he would not, by a vain attempt to restore what never could be restored, by affording his sanction to vice, or in seeking to lessen its disgrace, be anywise accessory to introducing such misery in another man’s family as he had known himself. (48.13)

The first quotation suggests that ‘character’ is dependent on public perception, but it is by no means clear to what extent public perceptions are involved—it could be the case that even if they had succeeded in keeping the affair hushed, Maria would have lost her character at this stage. The next two quotations talk about the ‘secret’ of Mary’s character so in this sense character is something apart from public perceptions.

In the final quote we can see how Maria’s character is quite caught up in public perceptions. It could be argued that public perceptions have nothing to do with Maria’s character, but it would be hard work. From Sense and Sensibility we find that that the idea of private ethics is pretty meaningless—all ethics must work in relation to some public norm (I explain this in the draft of my book In Search of Search of Sensibility, though if anyone takes an interest in this I could try to pull the argument out into a blog article).

(I should add that I by no means saying that Sir Thomas’s harsh treatment of Maria is any more representative of the author’s views than Mr Bennet’s indolence where Lydia is concerned. Sir Thomas’s fault has been to become too preoccupied in outer appearances at the expense of the inner, a trait that he continues to indulge at the end despite realising his mistake.)

It is actually quite different to keep the public and private absolutely separated. Although morality is clearly not about public perceptions (hence Edmond’s horror at Mary’s exclusive focus on the damage on the reputations of Maria and Henry) it can’t be excluded either. Morality can’t work if there is no public agreement on any norms, so if nobody cared about perceptions, everyone were to behave virtuously while giving the appearance of vice then the shared idea of what is right and wrong would soon break down. For a healthy society it is important that people take care with their reputations too.

Privacy is important here I think. If you are obliged for the health of the public sphere to project the appearance of virtue (which remains absolutely subordinate to being virtuous) then you want to be able to indulge in your foibles while communicating with your most intimate companion, who will be in no danger of taking things in part, but will understand the context, the true character of the person writing the letters.

If you have been following me you will see that I have been arguing that the appearance of virtue is important, but not of paramount importance—one shouldn’t sacrifice virtue in order to appear virtuous. As private communication is bound to rely on the understanding of the recipient, taking that out of context and placing it in the public domain is bound to lead to misunderstanding, so privacy ought to be respected.

Cassandra, in addition to considering privacy will have had to consider whether the letters would offend the feelings of various branches of the Austen family. So I think it is not surprising that Cassandra removed some of the letters from the public domain.

Would we have learned much from the missing letters? I doubt it. She gave us such a beautiful map of her mind in the novels with the letters give us enough of a flavour of her everyday persona to be useful.


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