- Biography, Archives, and Research:Keep Hunting!
In 1969 the fictional Morris J. Zapp, professor of English literature at the equally fictional State University of Euphoria at Plotinus, near Esseph, California, remembered that:
Some years ago he had embarked with great enthusiasm on an ambitious critical project: a series of commentaries on Jane Austen which would work through the whole canon, one novel at a time, saying absolutely everything that could possibly be said about them. The idea was to be utterly exhaustive, to examine the novels from every conceivable angle, historical, biographical, rhetorical, mythical, Freudian, Jungian, existentialist, Marxist, structuralist, Christian-allegorical, ethical, exponential, linguistic, phenomenological, archetypal, you name it.(Lodge 35)
Professor Zapp's project never came to fruition, so we are later told; but during the half century since his plans were first made, numerous genuine literary critics have taken up the torch he dropped and run with it. Jane Austen left us the juvenilia, six novels, two fragments of novels, some oddments, and some letters—and this small oeuvre has been torn apart, chewed up, and regurgitated over and over again, from all these conceivable angles, on paper and online, actually fulfilling the fictional professor's imaginary dreams. [End Page 434]
Since the novels as they stand have been discussed to death, attention should now turn to a deeper investigation of Austen's biography and background to find new facts that influenced her writings. It is still possible for unknown items suddenly to appear, such as the identification of a group portrait by Joshua Reynolds, previously believed to be of George Clive and His Family with an Indian Maid, as being that of Austen's uncle Tysoe Saul Hancock; his wife, Philadelphia (Mr. Austen's sister); their little girl, Eliza (who later grew up to become Eliza de Feuillide when she married a French count, and later still Austen's sister-in-law when she married Henry Austen); and Clarinda, their Indian ayah, or children's maidservant, painted in London in 1765 following the Hancocks' return from India (Mitchell and Mitchell 2017, 2018). A small manuscript pocket-book, Edward Austen Knight's first Grand Tour journal, detailing his route from England to Switzerland in the summer of 1786, was found recently in the library collections at Chawton House; Edward's breathless account of his travel across France undoubtedly sparked possibly the earliest item in Jane's Juvenilia—the "Memoirs of Mr. Clifford" (Le Faye, "Edward"; Austen, "Memoirs"). Some original but long-mislaid manuscripts of Austen's letters were auctioned in 2017, as was a hitherto unknown fragment of another letter found in a Victorian autograph album (Le Faye, "Appearance"; Le Faye, "Hitherto"). These, however, are one-off finds, and such bonus items may never appear again.
Ten years ago, I urged biographers and literary critics to hunt for the archives of families related or known to Austen, in the hope of finding letters with gossipy comments made by neighbors about the Austens. The Centre for Kentish Studies has already provided a helpful article listing some of the archives they hold, which should be a starting point for anyone interested in the Austen family's roots in that county (Le Faye, "Three"; Ballard and Cresswell). I repeat this advice to investigate likely personal archives, and would now add that newspapers can also provide information regarding events affecting Austen's family and ultimately her writings. The Reading Mercury, published in Berkshire, circulated for a radius of twenty to thirty miles, taking in parts of Oxfordshire, Surrey, and North Hampshire, and was the weekly paper read in the Steventon rectory; in two of its issues in the summer of 1792 giving news of a military camp set up in Surrey, Jane found the name of "Wickham" (Vick 1997, 2005; Le Faye, "Pride").
When Mr. Austen retired in 1801 and took his wife and daughters to live in Bath, they would have read The Bath Chronicle and Universal Register, which appeared daily and gave lists of all visitors to the city, together with [End Page 435] the entertainments provided for them; when they were holidaying in the West Country, they probably also found the...