Warning: Book Ends contain spoilers so please don't look at the notes of a novel you are planning to read.
Readers familiar with Jane Austen's life will probably recognise a similarity between the situation of young Edgar Montague and Jane's brother George. Like Edgar, George was sent away from his family as a small child to be brought up more or less in secret because he was in some way different. It is not actually known why the Austen family felt that George should not live with his brothers and sisters, but some biographers have speculated that he might have been deaf. In a letter of 1808 Jane writes of talking to a deaf man 'with my hands' – so perhaps she had learned sign language in order to communicate with this brother who was ten years older than her.
George – like Edgar – was established in a quiet village some distance away from the family home. He outlived his famous sister by many years and it astonishes me when I read the Austen family letters that a member of the family can have been so totally hidden: his existence, apparently, denied to most of their acquaintance. But among the middle and upper classes I think this concealment might not have been unusual. There was another instance within the Austen family – Mrs Austen's brother Thomas was similarly secluded.
Writing in his Introduction to the1802 edition of The Lyrical Ballads, William Wordsworth explains that one of the inspirations for his controversial poem 'The Idiot Boy' was admiration for the care and affection shown by the 'lower classes' to their 'afflicted' children which, he felt, contrasted very favourably with the neglect such children often received in more wealthy families.
And next time you are in an art gallery or stately home looking at portraits of the gentry and aristocracy of this period, just count any characters with a disability or a slightly different appearance. I doubt you will need more than one hand to keep your tally! As a woman researching the early nineteenth century, I am constantly aware of the way in which wealth and power were concentrated in male hands. But I wonder whether the exclusion of women was only part of the story; perhaps some men were also deemed unworthy…
The family portrait hidden away by Sir Edgar was inspired by Gainsborough's famous portrait of Mr and Mrs Andrews. The period of this painting is slightly earlier than the Montague picture would be, but the composition of sitters surrounded by their country estate is just what I have in mind. And the smug, self-satisfied stance and expression of Mr Andrews is exactly what I imagine for Sir Edgar. In the Gainsborough portrait there is a blank space in the wide blue lap of the lady – some art historians believe that this was meant to contain a baby who was never painted in. (Though there is also a school of thought which maintains it was a brace of dead game birds that was to lie there – perhaps Mrs Andrews objected to that idea…)
Dido sometimes remembers lines of Shakespeare, but considers their context to be unimportant. This is one of several points upon which she and I disagree. I always like to know the provenance of a quote. So, for readers who share my more exact taste: 'Not to be abed before midnight is to be up betimes,' is spoken by Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night (Act II Scene 2). 'What is done cannot be undone,' is taken from the sleepwalking scene in Macbeth (Act V Scene 1).
Thomas Gainsborough [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons