To mark the day, I am paying tribute to a woman whose influence has been remarkable, whose work has inspired generation after generation, and to whom I just happen to be distantly related!
When I was first introduced to Jane Austen, I found her difficult to read. This was partly because she was labeled a ‘classic’ writer that we had to study at school, along with Dickens and Shakespeare and so forth, and our English teacher was evidently an actress manqué whose renditions rendered us speechless with horror. I loathed Shakespeare until my parents took me to an RSC production of Twelfth Night with Judi Dench, Richard Pasco and Elizabeth Spriggs. Immediately I understood what the fuss was about.
My parents introduced me to many artistic delights but the time when they would have urged me to read Austen was a time that the family was wrenched apart by my mother’s manic depression. Perhaps if they’d told me at that time that there was a blood connection, I just might have approached Pride and Prejudice or Mansfield Park a little differently. I don’t know. As it was, I didn’t read Jane Austen for myself until my late teens, at which point I fell utterly and completely in love with all her work and everything about her.
One of the best books I’ve read about Jane Austen is a fascinating volume by Fay Weldon, Letters to Alice in which she casts fresh eyes upon Jane’s work through a series of letters to her niece. She debunks the myths and pours scorn on some of the theories that have grown up around the name and the work. Weldon does this with humour that matches Jane’s. It is well worth reading.
As for the blood connection, I didn’t learn about that until the late ’80s, early 90s. I’d known forever that Leigh was a maternal family name but not where it came from, only that my mother had chosen it for her stage name when someone told her that she would never see her name in lights with the number of syllables contained in ‘Benedicta Hoskyns’! I also knew of several forebears whose middle names included Leigh and others whose surname was Leigh. If you know your Austen, you will know where I’m heading! When I did some research, I discovered exactly how we were related to Jane. Even my mother didn’t know the details.
Jane’s mother was Cassandra Leigh. Cassandra’s father, Thomas, was part of the Leigh family of Adlestrop, Gloucestershire. He had a pugnacious brother, Jane’s great-uncle, Theophilus Leigh (1693-1784), who was Master of Balliol for more than 50 years and known for ‘overflowing with puns and witticisms and sharp retorts‘. These are the words of Jane’s brothers’ descendants, William Austen-Leigh and Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh in Jane Austen, Her Life and Letters, which was published in 1913 as an updated follow-up to Jane’s nephew, James Edward Austen Leigh’s memoir — A Memoir of Jane Austen: and Other Family Recollections — from 1870. These two later Austens go on to say that Theophilus’ ‘most serious joke was his practical one of living much longer than had been expected or intended’!
So where do I come in? Theo, as I feel I can call him — Somehow I doubt that was ever the case in his lifetime! — had several children, one of whom, Mary, went on to marry Sir Hungerford Hoskyns, 4th Baronet. I come down from there but I won’t bore you with the details! To cut a long story short, Jane Austen’s great-uncle was my great-uncle seven times removed — or near enough!
Take care and keep laughing!