The Downfall of a Reading Detective Find!
To the memory of Mrs Lefroy was the title of a poem by Jane Austen, who became one of the most celebrated authors of all time.
It is also the title of a poem by Samuel Egerton Brydges, a forgotten Kent author.
Mrs Anne Lefroy nee Brydges was the sister of Samuel Egerton Brydges. They were born at Wootton in
Anne Lefroy is now better known than her younger brother because of her influential friendship with the young Jane Austen. Despite an age-gap of over 25 years, Jane Austen found "Madam Lefroy" to be sympathetic, intelligent, encouraging and great company. Both women could also share their love for literature. Anne Lefroy was a published poet, but authorship was not an important feature of her life. Many critics believe that the character of Lady Russell in Persuasion was, in part, modelled on Anne Lefroy.
Anne was also an inspiration to her younger brother. Unhappily, his literary talent was unequal to his ambition. Disappointed at the muted response to his published poems, Samuel Egerton Brydges turned to genealogical, antiquarian & bibliographical writing. He even financed his own printing press at Lee Priory. He became the Reading Detective of his day, publishing digests & commentaries on forgotten authors from earlier periods in multi-volumed works like the Censura Literaria. However, this work brought him limited personal fulfilment and limited financial reward. Despite considerable wealth and property inherited through family and gained through marriage, Brydges showed a disregard for financial management which ruined his fortune.
His other personal obsession was the Brydges family claim to the extinct Barony of Chandos. In 1803, after years of deliberation & controversy, the claim was dismissed by Parliament. Although he was made a Baronet in 1814, Brydges never recovered from this public humiliation.
Worse came when his lawyers and his eldest son were among those implicated in a fraud to generate money from the ailing Brydges estates. By then, Samuel Egerton Brydges was in exile in
In all his disappointment and bitterness, Brydges' literary output never slowed. One of the products of his final years was a rambling, but surprisingly entertaining autobiography. Included in this autobiography is a description of the young Jane Austen:
"I remember Jane Austen, the novelist, as a little child. She was very intimate with Mrs Lefroy and much encouraged by her. Her mother was a Miss Leigh, whose paternal grandmother was a sister of the first Duke of Chandos. Mr. Austen was of a Kentish family, of which several branches have been settled in the Weald, and some are still remaining there. When I knew Jane Austen, I never suspected she was an authoress; but my eyes told me that she was fair and handsome, slight and elegant, with cheeks a little too full. The last time, I think, I saw her was at Ramsgate, in 1803; perhaps she was then about twenty-seven years old. Even then I did not know that she was addicted to literary composition."
Despite a close relationship with his sister, the mentor of Jane Austen, Brydges was unaware of Austen's literary aspirations. However, his real lack of perception came in dismissing, through lack of comment, the "literary composition" of a writer far greater than himself. Perversely, in another passage of his autobiography, Brydges quotes Southey's insightful comment about the fiction of Jane Austen:
"You mention Miss Austen; her novels are more true to Nature, and have (for my sympathies) passages of finer feeling than any others of this age. She was a person of whom I have heard so much, and think so highly, that I regret not having seen her, or ever had an opportunity of testifying to her the respect which I felt for her."
By contrast, in criticising a novel published by Samuel Egerton Brydges, (in a private letter,) Jane Austen shows a ready perception of her fellow author's literary ability and personal character:
"We have got "Fitz-Albini;" my father has bought it against my private wishes, for it does not quite 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 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, unconnected 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."
The question is whether Jane Austen used her knowledge of this peculiar man in creating some of the less sympathetic characters in her novels? Several critics have suggested that, in his ancestor-worship and financial carelessness, the Sir Walter Elliot of Persuasion had a real-life counterpart.
In her book A Youthful Love, Jane Austen & Tom Lefroy Nadia Radovici goes way further, (way over the top?) dedicating a whole chapter to Samuel Egerton Brydges. She marks him out as a nemesis that Jane Austen could "never forget or forgive." She can discern the traits of Brydges in a litany of Austen's villainous characters such as General Tilney, John Thorpe and Sir Edward Denham.
At this point, I think i'll give Sir Samuel Egerton Brydges a break and pay him his due as a doughty Reading Detective:
"Brydges was enormously productive in republishing long-forgotten works of literature, particularly of the Tudor period. He disparaged these achievements, but his real talent rested in that field."
K. A. Manley, 'Brydges, Sir (Samuel) Egerton, first baronet, styled thirteenth Baron Chandos (1762-1837)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004
22 September 2009 from Rob Illingworth
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