Jane Austen, the Banker’s Sister

Reading this fantastic book was a little like one of those dreams where you discover an extra room in your apartment. An entire book focused on Henry Austen, a man I’ve spent years thinking about and trying to imagine!

Despite the abundance of biographies of Austen, there are significant gaps in what we know about her life, and those things that are known tend to be repeated over and over with slight variations. Some books, not strictly biographies, do the valuable work of situating her in some context or another — within the tradition of the era’s criminal justice system (“Jane Austen and Crime“), the theater (“The Genius of Jane Austen“) or the Church of England (“Jane Austen, the Parson’s Daughter). Some talk about food (“Jane Austen and Food“), or weave speculative fancies involving certain episodes in her life, among them “Becoming Jane Austen,” which resulted in that unfortunate movie.

But none I’ve run across, until this one, about Jane Austen and money. Which could have been a good title for this book, actually, for to talk about Henry Austen, who was not only a banker but essentially Jane’s literary agent, as well as her conduit to the worldly world of London social and financial life, is inevitably to talk about money. Considering how central a role economic considerations play in her novels (and her life) I’m amazed that no one seems to have  written a book on this topic, until now.

The Banker’s Sister is apparently is not yet published on paper in America (I bought the Kindle edition) and has not gotten a lot of attention on this side of the Atlantic, which is too bad and I hope merely temporary. This work is a valuable and fascinating addition to what we know about Jane Austen.

Here, in one book, is nearly everything I wondered about Henry but was not able to determine from my reading and had to extrapolate, omit or invent in my novel. What was actually involved in his earlier work as army agent? Why was he successful as a banker initially and what went wrong? What were the sequence of events involved with the bank failure? How did the banking system and money actually operate circa 1815?

E.J. Clery , a professor  of 18th-century literature at the University of Southampton, had access to primary sources I could only fantasize about and the writing chops to turn them into a work that combines fact and speculation in a fascinating and satisfying way. There is, to my delight,  a lot about Henry’s first wife, cousin Eliza, who seems to have bewitched both Jane and Henry from her first appearance in their lives during the holiday theatricals in Steventon in the late 1780s.

The Jane-and-Cassandra bond is well known, and it is an article of faith among biographers that each was everything to the other, two sisters in a family of boys, never marrying and living their entire lives together. It is not to diminish this sisterly bond to take a closer look at the warm and affectionate Henry-and-Jane tie, which was entirely different but no less important to them both.

And as Clery points out, it is Henry who not only believed in Jane’s writing, but also who had the London connections and took the practical steps that made finding a publisher actually  happen. Terrifying to think, if she had not had such a brother, the world might never have heard of Jane Austen.

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