“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.“ So wrote Jane Austen to Cassandra in late 1798. Despite her reservations, she did add that, “That these scruples, however, do not at all interfere with my reading it, you will easily believe.” Austen goes on to write that she is less disappointed in the work than her father because “I expected nothing better” and writes several more lines about her reservations regarding the work
So what is this minor work that is an affront to the “private wishes” and “feelings” of young (just shy of age 23) Jane Austen, but which she will read nonetheless?
Arthur Fitz-Albini(1798) is the title character of a novel by Samuel Egerton Brydges (later Sir Samuel; he was made a baronet in 1814), genealogist, editor, bibliophile, poet and novelist. It can be inferred from biographical information, that Egerton Brydges was a person whose ambition exceeded his abilities – not that his abilities were negligible, but his conduct suggested an inflated sense of worth. At the time of Arthur Fitz-Albini’s publication, Egerton Brydges was in the thick of a costly thirteen-year legal battle to claim a barony. His claim was eventually rejected, and it was strongly suggested, even in the obituary published in The Gentleman’s Magazine, that he had “tampered…with the documentary evidence” to support his “favorite illusion”.
Though Arthur Fitz-Albini was published when Egerton Brydges was a mature thirty-six, it was less a novel than a thinly-disguised and somewhat intemperate airing of his real, or perceived, disenchantments, grievances and injuries by way of his title character/alter ego. Young Arthur’s ambition is to seek out “the few, whose penetration and freedom from envy enabled them to appreciate [his] character”, a character that Egerton Brydges describes as having the eloquence of a senator, the independence of a country gentleman, and the spirit but not the tyranny of a feudal chief. Arthur’s parliamentary ambitions are thwarted by his father, and his refined sensibilities are offended in equal measure by the vanities of Londoners and the ignorance of country-folk. There are flashes of insight, if not self-diagnosis in the author’s description of Arthur/himself. He describes “an inequality of temper and mind” and displays of “indignation and haughtiness…which seem by fits to possess him.”
What we now know about certain forms of mental and emotional illness would make an interesting diagnosis of the author. Egerton Brydges approached his education with an attitude that fluctuated between intense focus and indifference, he studied law without having any apparent enthusiasm for it. From his first marriage, at age 24, he lived in the country, then in town, then purchased a country estate into which he poured thousands of pounds. Following a second marriage, he secured a seat in Parliament for six years, and afterward left England, eventually settling in Geneva. In the foreword to the reprint of his 1819 novel, Sir Ralph Willoughby: An Historical Tale of the Sixteenth Century, it is noted that the author lived his last years in virtual seclusion and “…has scarcely quitted his bed” and “During the latter part of his life, he never shaved and his white beard and hair gave him a most venerable and patriarchal appearance” to go with the manners described as “eccentric”. This brief biographical note is followed by the author’s fifteen-page introduction that fluctuates from high-flown to humble.
What is it about Fitz-Albini that set off Jane Austen to such a degree? She writes of the novel’s “many characters” and “very little story…told in a strange, unconnected way”; yet, it is hard to believe that Austen, who enjoyed novels such as the burlesque The Heroine, or the convoluted Margiana, or Widdrington Tower would object to a number of characters or a meandering plot. Her sense of his family’s shame, with such thinly disguised characters that Austen could recognize some of them (“We have not been able to recognize any of them hitherto – i.e., so far – except Dr. and Mrs. Hay and Mr. Oxenden”) was so off-putting that she refers to the author as ”Egerton”, omitting the “Brydges” that was the maiden name of her much-admired neighbor and confidante Anne Lefroy.
It is possible that Austen’s feelings had another source of dissatisfaction. Mrs. Lefroy was the aunt (by marriage) of Tom Lefroy, and despite the two years that had elapsed since Jane’s flirtation with Tom when he visited his relations, she has not forgotten him. Only a week before the Fitz-Albini letter, Jane had written to Cassandra of a visit from Mrs. Lefroy, and her (Jane’s) attempts to get her father and brother out of the way in the hope that Mrs. Lefroy might confide something of Tom. But “…of her nephew, she said nothing at all” until Jane’s father enquired about him. Perhaps Austen’s dormant “private wishes” had been stirred up by the portrait of the young, ambitious Fitz-Albini. Perhaps, unlike Mr. Collins, Jane cannot “reflect with augmented satisfaction” upon the proposal which never materialized, and an acceptance that might have involved her in the Brydges/Lefroy “sorrow and disgrace” incurred by Egerton Brydges’ fictionalized tell-all.