As tributes pour in from the Austen community for Deirdre Le Faye, we recall the life of the greatest Jane Austen expert.

In 2012, Deirdre Le Faye was awarded an honorary doctorate at the University of Southampton. Below is a speech written by Dr Bill Brooks and Dr Gillian Dow, given at the time, and which details Deirdre’s life’s works and achievements, as well as giving a sense of the debt all Austen readers owe to her scholarship.

“Today, we celebrate a scholar who is acknowledged on both sides of the Atlantic as, in Paul Johnson’s tribute in the Spectator: “the greatest living Austen expert”. Her story, like her unparalleled contribution to the scholarly apparatus of Austen studies, is a remarkable one, revealing her tenacity, diplomatic skills, careful attention to every detail, and sheer enthusiasm. The enterprise of writing the most factual biography of Jane Austen was fraught with difficulty. Had not Jane Austen herself once said:

“Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure: seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken”?

Deirdre was born in Bournemouth. Later moves with her family took her north to Farnborough and then to Reading: not perhaps the best of choices for a family living out the bombing raids of the Second World War. Sadly, her father fell ill and died, meaning that Deirdre, by now a scholarship pupil at the Dean school in School in Reading, uncannily not far from the Abbey School where Jane Austen herself was educated, had to leave just before her 16th birthday to train as a secretary. This training was supported by another scholarship, unearthed by her mother from an obscure charity, which sought to make it possible to “apprentice virtuous girls to a virtuous trade”.

Eventually she took a position at the British Museum where she was to work as an administrator in the Department of Medieval and Later Antiquities for the next 23 years. By then, she was living in Chalk Farm on the edge of Hampstead, where her great adventure with the Jane Austen family record was about to begin. Two things had happened: she discovered from a friend that cheap holidays in the country could be had if combined with archaeological digs. This took her to Selborne Priory working with the classic antiquarian vicar. “Uncle George”, as she affectionately called him, put her on the path of archival research looking at the papers of Gilbert White. She says she was squeaked into the Institute of Historical Research in the category of “other historian”. At the same time, as a member of the Camden History Society and caught up in the excitement of the 70s in local history, she set about recording the graves in the old church of St John of Hampstead. Using the work of Millward, who had fortunately recorded the graves in the 1880s, she was able to track down the grave of Jane Austen’s Aunt Hancock, her daughter Eliza la Feuillide and her little son, all three in the same grave.

Deirdre had been mildly interested in Austen before, but this discovery was the spark that ignited the fire that has burned ever since. The biographies of Jane Austen between the wars were mainly extrapolations from her novels. Little of the documentary evidence was available and so little research had been done. Deirdre set about making contact with great great great nephews and other members of Jane’s extended family eventually finding the Austen-Leigh heirs living near Winchester with their all-important family archive. These precious archives had been stored in cardboard boxes in the attic. And so a pattern was established. Deirdre would come down from London at the weekend, have tea with the couple and then was permitted to roam freely in the attic. She borrowed the correspondence in bundles, sorted it, classified it, xeroxed it. She did all this while working full time at the British Museum. The work took five years and, during that time, she got to know the family well. The bookcase in the study living room contained the book published in 1913, Jane Austen: her life and letters, a family record by William and Richard Austen-Leigh, with additional letters stuffed in. The possibility of a second edition was discussed and the family asked Deirdre if she would be willing to do it. She didn’t need to be asked twice. She wrote “Jane Austen: A Family Record”. It took two years and was first published in 1989. Re-edited in 2003 “A Family Record” has become known as the “factual biography” of Jane Austen.

There is no doubt that working in the British Museum helped our honorary graduand to accomplish her work. She would get to work at 7.15 every morning. Open up the department and Xerox like mad until the working day began. Then at around 4 she would return to her haul of books preparing for the Xerox session of the following morning. She recalls that, now and then, the director would drop in. He used to scold Deirdre’s senior officer saying that the only person who did any work in that department was Miss Le Faye!

Deirdre is sure that she has done as much as is possible at the moment, but is still excited by the chance that there may be more Jane Austen letters somewhere and that further discoveries are still to be made. Deirdre does not consider that she does “lit crit”. She likes her facts to be “crisp as lettuce leaves” and, through the correspondence and the records, comes at Austen through fact rather than fiction. She distinguishes between Jane’s knowledge of places, Bath, Lyme Regis, Great Bookham and Box Hill and Portsmouth and her created characters.

Deirdre enjoys collaboration with others, especially if the books produced reach a wider audience. “The Jane Austen Cookbook” with Maggie Black* was first published in 1995. She does the “talky talky”, based on the Martha Lloyd Cookbook that the Austen’s would have known while Maggie Black updated the recipes, translating “take a buttock of beef and marinade in best French brandy for a week” into “take 6 fillet steaks and marinade overnight”! “So you think you know Jane Austen” was the idea of Professor John Sutherland, academic and literary critic. Great writers like Austen and Hardy are introduced to a wider audience in a serious way but with a humorous twist. The questions move from the easy to the increasingly and then very difficult. Deirdre was brought in to check the facts. Not for the first time, one suspects, Deirdre was playing the part of “éminence grise”. More recently she has done radio programmes like Jane Austen’s Ipod, in collaboration with Professor David Owen Norris of the University of Southampton, though she says she does not like the sound of her own voice on the radio.

Her enthusiasm for interdisciplinary study is not confined to linking subjects in the arts, however, and she is concerned at the worrying split between arts and science. There is one archive, therefore, compiled for the eminent paediatrician Hugh Jolly, which was to be a study of child rearing from birth to 5 years of age. She has some 500 items in her bibliography from the ancient Egyptians, through the Romans, with diversions into explorers observing such activities in South America and Africa. So, at the same time as she was compiling her archive for Jane Austen, she was also submerged in files and books about child rearing. Imagine, therefore, her surprise and delight to discover in the Austen-Leigh archive two playlets about child rearing, which she is convinced were written by Jane, based on the writing of Dr Buchan, and translated into didactic comedies.

Deirdre le Faye is a meticulous editor and an eloquent writer who has changed the face of Jane Austen studies. Claire Tomalin, herself a distinguished Austen biographer, commenting recently on Deirdre’s fourth edition of Jane Austen’s letters said, “Deirdre le Faye’s new edition is necessary and very welcome: no one was better qualified, no one could have done it so well”. With 11 monographs and over 70 published papers authored, her presence at conferences is eagerly sought around the world. We were honoured that Deirdre gave keynote lectures at University of Souhampton conferences on Jane Austen in 2006 to commemorate Jane Austen’s move to Southampton and in 2009 to commemorate the bicentenary of her move to Chawton. We are delighted that not only has she accepted to become a Patron of Chawton House Library but that she has also deposited her own personal Austen archive at Chawton House. There, it will attract visiting fellows from across the world. Her great wish is to return to her beloved Hampshire and “roost “at Chawton.”

*In an earlier version of this blog post, “The Jane Austen Cookbook” was mistakenly attributed to Maggie Lane rather than Maggie Black. It has now been corrected. We apologise for the error.