Deirdre Le Faye: 26 October 1933 – 16 August 2020It is with great sadness that we share the news of the death of Deirdre Le Faye, internationally celebrated Jane Austen scholar, extraordinary character, and great friend to Jane Austen’s House. Deirdre died peacefully at Portishead, Somerset, after a long illness that even her sheer grit could not in the end face down.
In retrospect, Deirdre’s beginnings marked her for her future role as Austen sleuth par excellence. She was born in Bournemouth, on the fringes of Austen country. She was a scholarship pupil at the famous Abbey School, Reading, where Jane Austen, too, had briefly been educated. But at this early stage the coincidence did not spark an enthusiasm for Austen’s novels; by her own admission, Deirdre came to enjoy Jane Austen rather late.
Living in London and working as an administrator in the Department of Medieval and Later Antiquities at the British Museum, Deirdre developed an interest in local history, spending her spare time exploring the architecture of her patch of North London. In a Hampstead churchyard, she discovered the graves of Jane Austen’s Aunt Hancock, her daughter Eliza de Feuillide, and Eliza’s young son, all three in the same plot. So the adventure into Austen family genealogy began. She was, she later wrote, determined to find out ‘anything and everything which has any kind of bearing upon the life of Jane Austen and her family’ (Jane Austen. A Family Record (1989), p. ix). The rest, as they say, is history.
Jane Austen. A Family Record, the Le Faye Austen biography (revised again in 2004), is the outgrowth of Austen family-authored biographies dating back through several generations of the Austen-Leighs as far as 1870; it is consulted as a sacred sourcebook, the biographer’s biography. Deirdre’s enthusiasm for hunting down evidence was tireless: nothing was too small or too insignificant; any and every detail might illuminate an obscure corner of Jane Austen’s life; any small matter might be made to matter. She took seriously the responsibility she believed her searches entailed, ruthlessly exposing myths and celebrating the ‘facts’ as she saw them. We disagreed at our peril! And yet, she was ever generous to share her findings and to assist even the most novice among us who knocked at her door.
Deirdre’s ever-expanding card-index of informative facts will go down in scholarly legend. From it, further publications emerged: among which A Chronology of Jane Austen and her Family (2006). Not only might Jane Austen be tracked moment by moment through its pages; but here’s the place to learn on which date the waste pool at Chawton Cottage was cleaned, who drank tea with whom and when, and the price of James Austen’s ‘scotch bedside carpets’. Who is to say what might not be turned to use?
In her last months, Deirdre was working on a fifth edition of Jane Austen’s Letters, now in preparation with Oxford University Press. Her publications, well-thumbed, worn, and indispensable, fill our bookshelves; we consult them daily. She never shrank from controversy and relished a good fight. Just as well, for Austen attracts as much dissent as love. It is unlikely that we shall ever again see a scholar quite like Deirdre. The business of research was her passion and she never faltered in her duty, as she saw it, to set the record straight. She was writing to friends, sharing Austen news and advice to the very end. On 1 August she announced cheerfully that she had defied medical prediction that she would not survive the end of July, and signed off her letter, ‘Austenian Love and Freindship for ever’. Yes, indeed, Deirdre, from us all at Jane Austen’s House.
Deirdre Le Faye’s enduring contribution to Jane Austen studies was recognised by the award of the Honorary degree of Doctor of Letters, Southampton University, 2011, and the Royal Society of Literature’s Benson Medal, 2014.
St Anne’s College, Oxford
Trustee, Jane Austen’s House, Chawton