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In Which Jane Austen Reviews A Book And Makes Me Laugh

The engraving of Jane Austen

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m currently doing some research for a post, about Jane Austen. It’s taking a lot longer than I’d thought it would so I’ll share a brief part of what I’ve noted and add to it.

On Sunday 25th November 1798, Jane wrote from Steventon to her sister Cassandra about a variety of things that were happening. Her letters to Cassandra are often lengthy, and at present I have a hunch (from the bit of research completed so far) that she is more open about her opinions of books to her sister than to anyone else; this is to be expected – as we know, they were very close.

On this day, Jane included a fair paragraph of fun background context and opinion of a book that had been published earlier that year; I’ve not been able to trace the month, but it was Arthur Fitz-Albini by Samuel Egerton Brydges, a novelist/bibliographer. Here is Jane’s opinion:

“We have got ‘Fitz-Albini’; my father has bought it against my private wishes, for it does not satisfy my feelings that we should purchase the only one of Egerton’s works of which his family are ashamed. That these scruples, however, do not at all interfere with my reading of it, you will easily believe. We have neither of us yet finished the first volume. My father is disappointed – I am not, for I expected nothing better. Never did any book carry more internal evidence of its author. Every sentiment is completely Egerton’s. There is very little story, and what there is told in a strange, uncorrected way. There are many characters introduced, apparently merely to be delineated. We have not been able to recognise any of them hitherto, except Dr. and Mrs. Hey and Mr. Oxenden, who is not very tenderly treated.” (Jane Austen in Le Faye (ed.) (2011), pp. 22-23)

Had they been a thing, I think she may have given it one star.

I’ve made a cursory search for contemporary reviews of this long-forgotten book, but it’s been difficult to find any. What I did find was an obituary for Brydges, written by John Bowyer Nichols and published in The Gentleman’s Magazine, November 1837. I’ve redacted it down to the most poignant sections on the man himself as well as the novel because as you might expect, it’s Dickensian in length:

“The biography of this gifted and laborious litterateur, this imaginative poet, and in one sense we may accurately say, this imaginary character, can scarcely be treated in the sober detail of our ordinary narrative; yet, as our object in this place is always the relation of facts, we shall, in the first instance at least, state the circumstances of his birth and early life as we should do those of any other distinguished individual, premising that the particulars are derived from his own account …

The hopes and disappointments of his early years are disclosed in his Novel, called Arthur Fitz-Albini, in which he clothed a fictitious personage with his own sentiments and aspirations, and at the same time depicted with the utmost freedom the foibles not only of his neighbours and acquaintances, but even those of his own family and relations. In Arthur Fitz-Albini, “the few, whose penetration and freedom from envy enabled them to appreciate such a character, beheld the eloquence of the enlightened senator, with the independence of the country-gentleman, and the spirit and hospitality of the feudal chief, without his fierceness, his tyranny, or his uncultivated mind. Before such a man, all the paths of glory seemed to open, and the ascent to fame appeared to be covered with flowers.”

[…]

In these and many similar passages may be traced the adumbrations of Sir Egerton’s own character, and proofs that he was not unconscious of the defects which repelled the affections of his fellow-creatures, though unhappily destitute of that sober discretion and that Christian humility which would have proved the only efficient means to control or correct them (pp.534-539)

It’s likely that, with this obituary, and references to Brydges’ own forays into writing for the magazine, there is at least one review of the book out there, likely favourable.

Later notes about the book can be found in various biographies. A Biographical Dictionary of the Living Authors of Great Britain and Ireland (1816) notes on page 43:

“Sir S. E. B. has distinguished himself in almost every sort of polite literature, but more particularly as a critic of English poesy, in which character it is not too much to say that he stands unrivalled by any living author.”

Next, a rather lengthy biography, which is titled an autobiography, likely due to John Gibson Lockhart’s over-use of Brydges’ own words (an amount that would cause a superb number of cautions for anyone using another’s material today) was published in the Quarterly Review, no. 51, in 1834. It does cite positive points, but the majority leans towards the negative in a way that rather supports Austen’s own view:

“The other great grievance is Sir Egerton’s literary one. With respect to it, we cannot do better than re-quote an emphatic sentence from Mr. Sharp’s “Letters:” namely, “A want of harmony between the talents and the temperament is, wherever it is found, the fruitful source of faults and of sufferings. Perhaps few are less happy than those who are ambitious without industry who pant for the prize, but will not run the race.” Sir Egerton has all his days been busy without industry — perpetually panting for the prize, but never sufficiently persevering to make out one real heat.”

Over all, biographies and other writings published later than the book was published speak moderately to highly of Egerton, who was an MP who it seems tried to style himself as the then-head of a baronetcy he was not entitled to. Nevertheless, whatever the objective truth to the novel may be (I must say I don’t plan to read it) Austen’s effective review is definitely, if snarky, the most entertaining there is. Unfortunately, perhaps, for Brydges, it’s also likely the one that will last the longest when it comes to literary studies.

References

Books

A Biographical Dictionary of the Living Authors of Great Britain and Ireland (1816) Henry Colburn, London
Courtier, Peter L (1806) The Lyre Of Love: Volume 2, John Sharpe, London
Le Faye, Deirdre (ed.) (2011) Jane Austen’s Letters, 4th edition, Oxford University Press

Articles

Gibson Lockhart, John (1834) Autobiography of Sir Egerton Brydges, Quarterly Review, no. 51, pp.342-365
Nichols, John Bowyer (1837) Obituary: Sir Samuel Egerton Brydges, The Gentleman’s Magazine, New Series, Vol 2, pp.534-539

 
 

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