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Posts Tagged ‘Jane Austen’s family’

Reverend George Austen

As many Jane Austen fans know, Rev. George Austen ran a boarding school out of his parsonage house in Steventon to augment his £230 pr year income. In1793 he began to teach the sons of local gentlemen in his home to prepare them for university. His library was extensive for a man of modest means, from 300- 500 volumes, depending on the source, an amazing collection, for books were frightfully expensive. Rev. Austen encouraged Cassandra and Jane to read from his library and supported budding author Jane in her writing. At some point, the Austens sent the girls to boarding school in Reading, for which he paid £35 per term, per girl, a not inconsiderable sum. He received around the same amount of money per boarder, and it is conjectured that the Austens hoped to replace their two daughters with many more pupils, which made economic sense. (See Linda Robinson Walker’s link below.) Mrs. Austen was not an indifferent bystander. She cooked, cleaned, sewed, and clucked over the boys like a mother hen, and was involved in their maintenance in a hands-on and caring way, acting as a surrogate mother.

In his Travels Through England in 1782, German traveler Karl Phillip Moritz describes learning academies, head masters, and boarding schools. From his observations, one gains a sense of what life must have been like for the Austens and their pupils:

A few words more respecting pedantry.  I have seen the regulation of one seminary of learning, here called an academy.  Of these places of education, there is a prodigious number in London, though, notwithstanding their pompous names, they are in reality nothing more than small schools set up by private persons, for children and young people.

One of the Englishmen who were my travelling companions, made me acquainted with a Dr. G– who lives near P–, and keeps an academy for the education of twelve young people, which number is here, as well as at our Mr. Kumpe’s, never exceeded, and the same plan has been adopted and followed by many others, both here and elsewhere.

18th Century school room. One imagines a less formal setting for Rev. Austen’s school.

At the entrance I perceived over the door of the house a large board, and written on it, Dr. G–’s Academy.  Dr. G– received me with great courtesy as a foreigner, and shewed me his school-room, which was furnished just in the same manner as the classes in our public schools are, with benches and a professor’s chair or pulpit.

The usher at Dr. G–’s is a young clergyman, who, seated also in a chair or desk, instructs the boys in the Greek and Latin grammars.

Such an under-teacher is called an usher, and by what I can learn, is commonly a tormented being, exactly answering the exquisite description given of him in the “Vicar of Wakefield.”  We went in during the hours of attendance, and he was just hearing the boys decline their Latin, which he did in the old jog-trot way; and I own it had an odd sound to my ears, when instead of pronouncing, for example viri veeree I heard them say viri, of the man,exactly according to the English pronunciation, and viro, to the man.  The case was just the same afterwards with the Greek.

Mr. G– invited us to dinner, when I became acquainted with his wife, a very genteel young woman, whose behaviour to the children was such that she might be said to contribute more to their education than any one else.  The children drank nothing but water.  For every boarder Dr. G– receives yearly no more than thirty pounds sterling, which however, he complained of as being too little.  From forty to fifty pounds is the most that is generally paid in these academies.

I told him of our improvements in the manner of education, and also spoke to him of the apparent great worth of character of his usher.  He listened very attentively, but seemed to have thought little himself on this subject.  Before and after dinner the Lord’s Prayer was repeated in French, which is done in several places, as if they were eager not to waste without some improvement, even this opportunity also, to practise the French, and thus at once accomplish two points.  I afterwards told him my opinion of this species of prayer, which however, he did not take amiss.

After dinner the boys had leave to play in a very small yard, which in most schools or academies, in the city of London, is the ne plus ultra of their playground in their hours of recreation.  But Mr. G– has another garden at the end of the town, where he sometimes takes them to walk.

After dinner Mr. G– himself instructed the children in writing, arithmetic, and French, all which seemed to be well taught here, especially writing, in which the young people in England far surpass, I believe, all others.  This may perhaps be owing to their having occasion to learn only one sort of letters.  As the midsummer holidays were now approaching (at which time the children in all the academies go home for four weeks), everyone was obliged with the utmost care to copy a written model, in order to show it to their parents, because this article is most particularly examined, as everybody can tell what is or is not good writing.  The boys knew all the rules of syntax by heart.

Reading Abbey, where Jane and Cassandra Austen were sent to boarding school

All these academies are in general called boarding-schools.  Some few retain the old name of schools only, though it is possible that in real merit they may excel the so much-boasted of academies.

It is in general the clergy, who have small incomes, who set up these schools both in town and country, and grown up people who are foreigners, are also admitted here to learn the English language.  Mr. G– charged for board, lodging, and instruction in the English, two guineas a-week.  He however, who is desirous of perfecting himself in the English, will do better to go some distance into the country, and board himself with any clergyman who takes scholars, where he will hear nothing but English spoken, and may at every opportunity be taught both by young and old.

Source: Moritz, Karl Philipp, 1757-1793. Travels in England in 1782 by Karl Philipp Moritz (Kindle Locations 645-656). Mobipocket (an Amazon.com company).

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Inquiring readers: Paul Emanuelli, author of Avon Street, has contributed a post for this blog before about the City of Bath as a Character. He has graciously sent in an article about crime and an incident involving Jane Austen’s aunt, Mrs James Leigh-Perrot. Paul writes about Bath in his own blog, unpublishedwriterblog. It is well worth a visit!

Arrest of a woman at night, 1800. Thomas Rowlandson. Image @The Proceedings of the Old Bailey

Apart from the Bow Street Runners in London there was no organised police force in 18th Century England. The capture and prosecution of criminals was largely left to their victims to deal with. Every parish was obliged to have one or two constables, but they were unpaid volunteers working only in their spare time. A victim of crime who wanted a constable to track down and arrest the perpetrator was expected to pay the expenses of their doing so.

Sometimes victims of crime hired a thief-taker to pursue the wrong-doer. Again, they were private individuals working much like latter day bounty hunters. Sometimes, thief-takers would act as go-betweens, negotiating the return of stolen goods for a fee. Many though were corrupt, actually initiating and organising the original theft in order to claim the reward for the return of goods, or extorting protection money from the criminals they were supposed to catch.

Covent Garden watchhouse. Image @The Proceedings of the Old Bailey

For the most part, unless a criminal was “caught in the act” (probably) by their intended victim it was unlikely they would be brought to justice. In the absence of a police force, the maintenance of “Law and Order” therefore came to depend more on deterrence rather than apprehension and the harshest penalty of all came to cover more and more crimes. In 1799 there were 200 offences that carried the death penalty, including the theft of items with a monetary value that exceeded five shillings.

In practice, judges and juries often recognised the barbarity of the punishment in relation to the crime. Juries might determine that goods were over-priced and bring their value down below the five shilling threshold. Defendants might claim “benefit of clergy” which by virtue of stating religious belief and reading out an oath allowed the judge to exercise leniency. In other cases the Government could review the sentence. Between 1770 and 1830, 35,000 death sentences were handed down in England and Wales, but only 7000 executions were actually carried out.

Milliners shop, after Henry Kingsbury

On the 8th August 1799, Jane Leigh-Perrot was accused of stealing a card of white lace from a millinery shop in Bath. The Leigh-Perrots, a wealthy couple, were Jane Austen’s mother’s brother and sister-in-law (Jane’s Uncle and Aunt). The white lace valued at £1 was found in Mrs Leigh-Perrot’s possession together with a card of black lace that she had bought and paid for from the same shop. Mrs Leigh-Perrot denied stealing the lace, saying that the sales clerk must have given it her by mistake when he handed over her purchase. She was nevertheless arrested on a charge of “grand theft” and the lace she was said to have stolen was worth four times the five shillings that carried the death sentence.

Jane Cholmeley Perrot, aka Jane Austen’s Aunt Perrot

In practice it was unlikely (given her standing) that if she had been found guilty she would have been sentenced to death. The alternatives, however, included branding or transportation to the Australian Colonies with the prospect of forced labour for 14 years. Jane Leigh-Perrot was refused bail and committed to prison on the sworn depositions of the shopkeeper. Due to her wealth, social standing and age she was allowed to stay in the house of the prison keeper, Mr Scadding, at the Somerset County Gaol in Ilchester, rather than being kept in a cell. Mrs Leigh-Perrot still wrote though that she suffered ‘Vulgarity, Dirt, Noise from morning till night’. James Leigh-Perrot insisted on remaining with her in prison.

Mr James Leigh-Perrot. Image @JASA

During her trial Jane Leigh-Perrot spoke eloquently for herself. Several testimonials as to her character were also read out to the court. At the conclusion of the trial the jury took only 10 minutes to find her “Not Guilty.” It does, however, make you wonder how someone less well refined, less well-connected, less eloquent, less educated, less wealthy might have fared. The evidence of her guilt, might have been quite sufficient to send someone else to the gallows, or transported, or branded with a hot iron. She was after all caught in possession of the item and identified by the shop-keeper. In “Persuasion” Captain Harville asks Anne Elliot, ‘But how shall we prove anything?’ Anne replies, ‘We never shall.’

Mrs. Leigh-Perrot. Image @JASA

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Inquiring readers: Jane Odiwe’s blog features a portrait of a Regency family that had sold in 1983. She wrote to several bloggers recently: “I’m writing to you on Mrs. Henry Rice’s behalf to ask if you would be interested in showing the painting with the information I’ve learned about on your blogs. The family would really like some help in publicising the picture, and wish to make an appeal to see if we can find its whereabouts, as Christie’s do not seem to have any record. They are hoping the painting is by Ozias Humphry, which will help to strengthen his association as a painter of the Austen family.”

Jane Austen's family?

Is this a portrait of Jane Austen’s family that has gone unnoticed until now?  The image was made in 1781, when young Jane would have been six years old. What say you?

To learn more about this art work and possible image of the Austen family, click on this link to Jane’s blog. Thank you for joining in!!

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Gentle Reader: This Father’s Day weekend, I salute Jane Austen’s father, George Austen. This post, which I wrote three years ago, has been resurrected and updated for this occasion.

Rev. George Austen was by all accounts a handsome man. Anna LeFroy, Jane’s niece wrote,

I have always understood that he was considered extremely handsome, and it was a beauty which stood by him all his life. At the time when I have the most perfect recollection of him he must have been hard upon seventy, but his hair in its milk-whiteness might have belonged to a much older man. It was very beautiful, with short curls about the ears. His eyes were not large, but of a peculiar and bright hazel. My aunt Jane’s were something like them, but none of the children had precisely the same excepting my uncle Henry.”

George Austen was born in 1731. His mother died in childbirth and his father died a year after marrying a new wife, who did not want the responsibility of taking care of the young lad. George then lived with an aunt in Tonbridge and earned a Fellowship to study at St. John’s. Smart, ambitious, and self-made (with the support of his uncle Francis), he received a Bachelor of Arts, a Master of Arts, and a Bachelor of Divinity degree at Oxford. Considered good looking all his life, he was called “the handsome proctor” as he worked as an assistant chaplain, dean of arts, and Greek lecturer while going to school.

George first met Cassandra Leigh in Oxford when she was visiting her uncle Theophilus, a renowned scholar. After marrying Cassandra in Bath, George became rector in several country parishes, including Steventon. The family grew by leaps and bounds, and eventually he and Cassandra had six sons and two daughters.

Shortly after Jane was born, her father said: “She is to be Jenny, and seems to me as if she would be as like Henry, as Cassy is to Neddy.” But the little girl was known as Jane all her life.

By all accounts George and Cassandra Austen had a happy marriage. His annual income from the combined tithes of Steventon and the neighboring village of Deane was modest. With so many mouths to feed, the family was not wealthy. To augment the family income,  George Austen opened a boarding school at Steventon Rectory for the sons of local gentlemen, and sold produce from his farm.

George Austen presents his son Edward to the Knights, who adopted him. This was a common practice in that era. Image from Chawton House.

Rev. Austen, a doting father to all his children, encouraged Cassandra and Jane to read from his extensive library, and taught his boys in his boarding school. For entertainment, the family read to each other, played games, and produced poetry, novels, and plays. James, the eldest son, an accomplished writer and poet, was considered to be the “writer” of the family, especially by his mother, Cassandra, who doted on him. George Austen was proud of his youngest daughter’s accomplishments, and tried to get First Impressions, the first draft of  Pride and Prejudice published. The “Memoir of Jane Austen” by Edward Austen-Leigh contains a letter from George Austen to Mr. Cadell, publisher, dated November 1797, in which he describes the work as a “manuscript novel comprising three volumes, about the length of Miss Burney’s ‘Evelina’” and asks Mr. Cadell if he would like to see the work with a view to entering into some arrangement for its publication, “either at the author’s risk or otherwise.” Unfortunately, nothing came of this query, but P&P became hugely popular among the friends and family who read it before it was published. The original 3-part manuscript no longer exists, and a much shorter form of the novel was finally published in 1813, long after George’s death and only four short years before Jane’s fatal illness.
Rev. George Austen died unexpectedly in Bath on  January 1, 1805, where the Austen family had moved after living in Steventon for over 30 years. This move did not sit well with Jane, who, as legend goes, fainted when she learned that the family was moving to Bath. (The silhouettes above are of George and Cassandra, who had not aged well). Rev. Austen did not linger long after falling ill, and on January 21,  Jane Austen would write sorrowfully to her brother, Frank, one of two sailors in the family:

“We have lost an excellent Father. An illness of only eight and forty hours carried him off yesterday morning between ten and eleven. His tenderness as a father, who can do justice to?” - Sir Francis William Austen

Rev. Austen was buried in St. Swithin churchyard in Bath. The inscription on his grave reads:

Under this stone rests the remains of
the Revd. George Austen
Rector of Steventon and Deane in Hampshire
who departed this life
the 1st. of January 1805
aged 75 years.”

Double click on this grave marker to read the words. (From: Find a Grave Memorial. Image of George and his grave is from this site.)

More on the topic:

The Austen Family:

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Upper School, Tonbridge, where George Austen taught

Upper School, Tonbridge, Where George Austen taught

A circular walk in Tonbridge celebrates the family links of Jane Austen, including Tonbridge School, where Jane’s father studied and taught. Learn more about Jane Austen’s family in this fascinating video. Learn more about Jane Austen’s Tonbridge relations in this link to Tonbridge History. Read the first chapter of Jane Austen: A Life, by David Nokes. The link is cached, since the New York Times now charges for their online subscriptions.

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“We have this comfort, he cannot be a bad or a wicked child,” George Austen writing about his second son, George

George Austen 2George Austen, Jane’s second oldest brother is an enigma, rarely glimpsed and hardly known to the world. No image exists of him, which is why the image I used for this post has no face to speak of. George Austen was thought to be mentally or physically impaired, or suffering from an infirmity. Nearly ten years older than Jane, Claire Tomalin wrote that he still lived in Steventon village in 1776 (See Boris’s comment in the comment section) and that the very young Jane knew him.

“He could walk, and he was not a Down’s Syndrome child, or he would not have lived so long, lacking modern medication. Because Jane knew deaf and dumb sign language as an adult— she mentioned talking “with my fingers” in a letter of 1808— it is thought he may have lacked language; it would not have stopped him joining in the village children’s games.” – Claire Tomalin, Jane Austen, A Biography

The Austens produced remarkably hardy children, for all survived their childhood. At forty-one, Jane was the youngest to die. George, who survived to a ripe old age, was cared for along with his Uncle Thomas (a mentally defective person), by Francis Cullum, who lived in Monk Sherborne, a nearby Hampshire village. Although George was not mentioned in Austen family letters, he was not totally forgotten, for the family contributed to his upkeep. The wildly sentimental film, Becoming Jane, shows George as an active member of the family, walking with Jane in the woods and attending church with them, but an article in JASNA rightly states, “It is not likely that he attended church with the Austens, as depicted in the movie.”

Jane, George, Rev. Austen, Eliza de Feuillide and Cassandra after church service in Becoming Jane.

Jane, George, Rev. Austen, Eliza de Feuillide and Cassandra after church service in Becoming Jane.

After Jane’s death, mention of George disappeared from several family sources. John and Edith Hubback in Jane Austen’s Sailor Brothers wrote: “In a family of seven all turned out well, two rose to the top of their profession, and one was—Jane Austen.”  Their math is obviously wrong. In the Memoir of Jane Austen, her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh mentions that James was the first brother and Edward the second. This historical oversight has outraged some authors, David Nokes in particular, whose reaction is described in a Washington Post review of his book, Jane Austen: A Life:

A second “family secret” hitherto little mentioned is the existence of Jane Austen’s brother George, 10 years older than Jane, who “never learned to speak” and was boarded out for the rest of his life in another Hampshire village along with Thomas Leigh, Mrs. Austen’s mentally defective brother. This George Austen (perhaps the origin of “poor Richard” Musgrave in Persuasion) long survived his sister Jane and lived on into his seventies. David Nokes devotes an indignant last chapter to “poor George” and contrasts the Austen family’s ruthless jettisoning of him — apart from payment of a small, regular fee for his upkeep — with their family’s rather sickening adulation, after Jane’s death, of their “dear angel” Aunt Jane — whose propensity for satire and malice was almost entirely played down, while her simple religious beliefs were elevated into near-canonization.

The Loiterer cautions us about first-hand accounts, saying they can be wildly inaccurate:

“There were eight children in the family and the second brother was George and not Edward who, in fact, was the third brother. George, apparently, was epileptic and may have been deaf and dumb as well. He simply was not allowed to join the family in their home. None of Jane’s existing letters mentions him—not one single time. (In spite of his infirmities, he outlived Jane by at least ten years!) Now, there is something to give one perspective on “first-hand accounts”. – The Loiterer

Another source of outrage for David Nokes was Mrs. Austen, who died in 1823. In her will she had divided the money from her South Sea Annuities equally among the surviving Austen children, with the exception of  George.

“He, as usual, was excluded and forgotten. It was Edward Knight who, as an act of kindness, made over his share of the money ‘for the use of my brother George, being his full share of the £3,350 old South Sea Annuities. – David Nokes, p. 525

Francis Cullum, George caretaker, died in the spring of 1834. After his death, his son George took over the responsibilities of caring for George Austen, who died of dropsy in 1838. Once again, David Nokes writes with melodramatic flourish about the loving way in which Jane’s memory was perpetuated by her family, even as they neglected poor George:

“Less than twenty miles away [from Jane’s grave], Jane’s brother George was laid to rest in an unnamed grave in the churchyard of All Saints church, Monk Sherborne. In death, as in life, he was to be forgotten, his remains unmarked by any stone. Only George Cullum was in attendance at George Austen’s death. It was he who noted for the death certificate that George Austen was ‘a gentleman’. – Nokes, p. 526

I cannot express how much I disagree with David Nokes in this instance. The Austens arranged to have George and Cassandra’s brother, Thomas Leigh, looked after by a caring family, and supported these two family members financially. One imagines that with eight children, a boarding school, a small plot of land to tend to with chickens and a cow, and two livings as a clergyman, that the two elder Austens had their hands full overseeing their burgeoning household. The addition of a special needs child who required constant care would have added a great strain to their living situation.

Bedlam inmate shackled in irons, Bethelehem Royal Hospital, London

Bedlam inmate shackled in irons, Bethelehem Royal Hospital, London

This was an age where few asylums for the mentally disabled or the physically disabled existed. People with infirmities were looked upon as defectives and many became sideshows at fairs or carnivals, or as beggars on the streets. It was a custom at this time to visit Bedlam and stare at the people in the lunatic asylum. In fact, there were very few institutions available during this era for people of special needs and very few places that could take them in. Bedlam was the only hospital of its kind in London during Jane’s lifetime. Workhouses and almshouses were the only other places where the physically and mentally handicapped could be deposited, and these were places that people strove to avoid at all cost. In addition, there has been a history since the beginning of time in almost all cultures that looked the other way when parents left their defective babies in the wild to die. (This situation still exists today.) Unlike David Nokes, my conclusion is that, given the era the Austens lived in, the family behaved in a remarkably responsible manner towards George, who lived a quiet life of peace and relative comfort for 72 long years. As for the inaccuracies in later biographies written by Austen family members, one wonders how effectively George had been hidden from view. Out of sight is out of mind, and these mistakes of omittance may well have been the natural result of – as David Nokes accused the Austens of doing – the extended family forgetting that George had ever existed.
Austen family

Gentle reader: In honor of JASNA’s annual meeting in Philadelphia this week, this blog, Austenprose, and Jane Austen Today have devoted posts to Jane Austen and her siblings. This is the last of seven articles devoted to her brothers and sisters. Tomorrow, Laurel Ann and I will recommend several biographies on Jane Austen.

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My dear Cassandra, Where shall I begin? Which of all my important nothings shall I tell you first? – Jane Austen, June 15, 1808

Cassandra Elizabeth AustenWhenever we catch sight of Jane Austen in recollections and letters, her sister Cassandra is usually not far away. Although the two spinster women were frequently separated by visits to their friends and relatives, they shared a bedroom all their lives and presumably each others’ thoughts and secrets. Cassandra was separated from the family in her crucial formative years as a baby. After her birth, Mrs. Austen breast fed her first daughter for three months before handing her over to a village woman to be cared for until she was 18 months of age. The Austens, it seemed, followed this unusual habit with all their children, which must have worked well for them, for all eight survived in an age when child mortality was high.

Cassandra's silhouette

Cassandra's silhouette

Two years after Cassandra’s birth, the Austens were blessed with a second daughter, Jane. Wherever Cassandra went, Jane followed. When 10-year-old Cassandra was sent off to boarding school in 1783, 8-year-old Jane demanded to go, refusing to be separated from her older sister…

…not because she was thought old enough to profit much by the instruction there imparted, but because she would have been miserable (at home) without her sister; her mother observing that ‘if Cassandra were going to have her head cut off, Jane would insist on sharing her fate. – Constance Hill, Jane Austen, Her Homes and Her Friends

Visits played an important part of Regency life and we have the frequent separations between Jane and Cassandra – who was often called to Godmarsham Park to help with her widowed brother Edward’s brood of children – to thank for their prolific correspondence. The letters between the two sisters reveal the intimate details of ordinary life, talking of purchasing ribbons and refashioning clothes or sending gifts. The sisters might well have written about more earth shattering events, but we shall never know, for Cassandra burnt or destroyed so much of Jane’s correspondence in 1843. The letters that do remain provide us with a glimpse into their relationship:

I saw some gauzes in a shop in Bath Street yesterday at only 4s. a yard, but they were not so good or so pretty as mine. Flowers are very much worn, and fruit is still more the thing. - 1799

and

I cannot possibly oblige you by not wearing my gown, because I have it made up on purpose to wear it a great deal, and as the discredit will be my own, I feel the less regret. You must learn to like it yourself and make it up at Godmersham. - 1800

Cassandra and Jane in Becoming Jane

Cassandra and Jane in Becoming Jane

After moving to Chawton Cottage, Cassandra and Mrs. Austen took over most of the duties of the house and garden, allowing Jane to capitalize on the most fruitful period of her writing. Once settled in a routine, she polished off earlier drafts of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, getting them published, and began to write new novels. The Austen women made do with very little, always economizing. Caroline Austenn, their niece, wrote, “The house was well furnished, and it was altogether a comfortable and ladylike establishment. Tho’ I believe the mean which supported it were but small.” In Chawton Cottage, Cassandra mourned the women’s lack of complete self-sufficiency, noting, “We have not even so much as a cow.” Chawton villagers recorded that “the Austen’s manservant would walk up to Chawton House each day accompanied by Cassandra’s dog “Link”, who would carry home the pail of milk in his mouth.” (Maggie Lane, p. 19). It is evident from the letter Jane sent to Cassandra in 1816, that she was grateful for Cassandra’s housekeeping activities:

It had been a busy week, and I wanted a few days quiet, and exemption from the thought and contrivances which any sort of company gives. I often wonder how you can find time for all you do, in addition to the care of the house; and how good Mrs West could have written such books and collected so many hard words, with all her family cares, is still more a matter of astonishment! Composition seems to me impossible, with a head full of joints of mutton and doses of rhubarb. – Jane Austen, Sept 8

A Times Online article describes Greta Scacchi’s portrayal as Cassandra in Miss Austen Regretsas a bedraggled bread baker, chicken plucker and general rural dogsbody.” But the fact was that without Cassandra’s physical, mental and emotional support, and her brothers’ contributions to their annual income, Jane would not have had the freedom to actively pursue her career as a writer.

Greta Scacchi as Cassandra reads Jane's letter

Greta Scacchi as Cassandra reads Jane's letter

An older Cassandra

An older Cassandra

After Jane died in Cassandra’s arms, one can only imagine how bereft the older sister must have felt for the remaining 28 years of her life. Like Elinor Dashwood, she held her emotions in check. When Cassandra’s short engagement to Thomas Fowle ended in tragedy, Jane worried over her sister’s restraint in grieving.  It is our tragedy that Cassandra chose not to follow a similar restraint in preserving Jane’s letters.  In 1843, Cassandra wrote on a bundle of Jane’s letters: “To be burned.” Of the letters that survived, her niece Caroline noted that a number had “portions cut out“.  How ironic that in the twilight of her life Cassandra destroyed the very letters that must have given her a great deal of comfort and made her laugh or cry, and that, for a very short while, brought her sister back to life during the long evening hours she spent alone.

Francis, Cassandra, Jane, and Charles were the Austen's youngest children.

Francis, Cassandra, Jane, and Charles were the Austen's youngest children.

More links about this topic:

Gentle reader: In honor of JASNA’s annual meeting in Philadelphia this week, this blog, Austenprose, and Jane Austen Today will be devoting posts to Jane Austen and her siblings. Look for new links each day.

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Father’s Day is a perfect time to describe George Austen (1731-1805 ) through his daughter’s biographers. By all accounts he married for love, adored his family, and was so handsome even in old age that he turned strangers’ heads as he walked the streets of Bath. (Click here to read my 2007 post about him.)

Here then, are some quotes about George Austen’s life by authors who wrote about the Austen family. The quotes are about the Reverend’s early life when he was a student, and later the young and vigorous father of a growing family. I will reserve the story of his later life and the circumstances of his death for another post.

Little George Austen lost both his parents at the tender age of six, and...

…all that we know of his childhood is that his uncle Francis befriended him, and sent him to Tonbridge School, and that from Tonbridge he obtained a Scholarship (and subsequently a Fellowship) at St. John’s College, Oxford–the College at which, later on, through George’s own marriage, his descendants were to be ‘founder’s kin.’ He returned to teach at his old school, occupying the post of second master there in 1758, and in the next year he was again in residence at Oxford, where his good looks gained for him the name of ‘the handsome proctor.’ In 1760 he took Orders, and in 1761 was presented by Mr. Knight of Godmersham–who had married a descendant of his great-aunt, Jane Stringer–to the living of Steventon, near Overton in Hampshire. It was a time of laxity in the Church, and George Austen (though he afterwards became an excellent parish-priest) does not seem to have resided or done duty at Steventon before the year 1764, when his marriage to Cassandra Leigh must have made the rectory appear a desirable home to which to bring his bride.
Jane Austen, Her Life and Letters: A Family Record, Chapter I, William Austen-Leigh and Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh (Portrait above is of George as a young man)

George was orphaned young, but luckily had Austen uncles and aunts who brought him up…He was tall, thin, scholarly and good-looking with chestnut-brown hair that turned silvery white in later life, and peculiarly bright hazel eyes. A distant cousin of George’s, Mr. Thomas Brodnax May Knight of Godmersham Park in Kent, also owned two estates in Hamphire, Chawton and Steventon, and so was able to present his young kinsman to the living of this latter small rural parish, which would provide an income just about sufficient to support a family. The World of Jane Austen, Deirdre Le Faye, p 11-12

The Reverend George Austen was a very handsome man with bright hazel eyes and finely curling hair, prematurely, white; he was a distinguished classical scholar, and he was also acutely sensitive to the construction of the English sentence. He taught all his own children in their early years, and one of his sons till the later became of university age, and he augmented his income by taking pupils in to the house, three and four at a time until his own family grew too large for them to be accommodated. Jane Austen, Elizabeth Jenkins, p 6.

George found a position as Second Master at his old school. It gave him a house, and he was able to supplement his earnings by lodging some of the boys, as his grandmother had done; but it was not enough to launch him on a properly independent life. During the school holidays he sensibly returned to Oxford to keep up his contacts, and when after three years his college invited him to be assistant chaplain, he want back gladly. He took another degree in divinity. He was well liked, and was soon appointed Proctor, in charge of discipline among the undergraduates, and known as “the handsome Proctor” for his bright eyes and good looks. By now he had certainly met the niece of the Master of Balliol, Miss Cassandra Leigh, and may have begun to think the life of a bachelor Fellow, however comfortable, had its drawbacks. (Image: Interior at Dean Cottage) Jane Austen, Claire Tomalin. P 21

George and Casandra married on 26 April 1764 at Walcot church in Bath, where her family had been living since her father’s retirement. She wore a smart and sensible red woollen dress that would serve her for several years to come…The newly-weds left immediately for Hampshire, where George took up his position as rector of Steventon. Steventon parsonage was in a state of disrepair and not habitable, so George rented Deane parsonage, a couple of miles from Steventon. He only had an income of 100 pounds a year and whatever the farm attached to the Steventon living yielded, but Cassandra’s father had died a month before she married, and her mother soon came to live at Deane, where she no doubt made a substantial contribution to the household expenses. Becoming Jane Austen, Jon Spence, p15-16

The Austens first settled in Deane, accompanied by Cassandra’s mother and the motherless seven-year-old son of Warren Hastings, future governor-general of India. After being in the Austen’s care for three years, young Warren, a sickly child, died, “which caused Mrs. Austen as much grief as if he had been her own child – the Austen’s kind affection was long after remembered with gratitude by the boy’s father.” Jane Austen’s Town and Country Style, Susan Watkins, p11.

In his study [George] kept his rows and rows of books; one of his bookcases covered sixty-four square feet of wall, and he was always collecting more, not just the classics but new ones, from which he read aloud. He also knew enough science to show [his children] the worlds in miniature revealed by his microscope…But Mr. Austen’s world was as much about the farm as about the study. The children often saw him riding about on his horse, and conferring with his bailiff John Bond. …There was his parish business to attend to, and his Sunday services. Jane Austen, Claire Tomalin, P 30-31

“Traditionally, land known as glebe was attached to most parsonage houses for the cultivation of food. At Steventon the glebe amounted to three acres, but Mr. Austen also rented the 200-acre Cheesedown Farm from Thomas Knight. Though he employed a bailiff, John Bond, Mr. Austen took an active role in the management of the farm, which produced all the family’s meat as well as wheat, barley, oats and hops. Surplus produce was sold to bring in extra income”. Jane Austen’s World, Maggie Lane, P 25

There were eight Austen children: James born 1765, Edward born 1767, Henry born 1771, Cassandra born 1771, Francis born 1774, Jane born 1775, Charles born 1776. [George, born 1766, lived away from the family.] George Austen was fond of all his children and so was Mrs. Austen. They enjoyed their company, took pains with their education, interested themselves in their careers, delighted in their successes. These were frequent. To judge by results, the Austens brought up their children extremely well. A Portrait of Jane Austen, David Cecil, P 28 – p 32

Read More About Reverend George Austen in these links:

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As Mother’s Day approaches, one’s thoughts turn to Cassandra Leigh Austen, Jane’s mother (1739-1827). In reading the dry biographies that are written about her, I asked the question:

What was she really like?

By all accounts, she lived a life that was representative of the gentry and a woman’s married status, that of wife, mistress of the household, and in charge of children and servants. She had a reputation of running an economical household, but she was also witty and lively, and much loved by her quieter, more scholarly husband, George. She gave birth to eight children, all of whom survived, a miracle for those times. Later in life her health deteriorated and the family moved to Bath, known for its restorative waters.

I found one colorful description of Jane’s mother by a student who was taking a Jane Austen course. She described finding and testing some old recipes for the class’ gala ball:“Jane Austen’s mother, for example, wrote out the recipes, but she did it in a very poetic way, so she’d make a poem about how to make pound cake,” said Jess Gunraj, a junior. “I think the main difficulty in making the recipes was just how to write it out so that anyone who picked up a recipe card would be able to figure out how to make this.”
From An Evening With Jane Austen, Portland Press Herald, Maine Sunday Telegram,

Chawton House Dining Parlor

Here is a description of her mother in Jane’s letter to Cassandra in 1798:

“You have already heard from Daniel, I conclude, in what excellent time we reached and quitted Sittingbourne, and how very well my mother bore her journey thither. I am now able to send you a continuation of the same good account of her. She was very little fatigued on her arrival at this place, has been refreshed by a comfortable dinner, and now seems quite stout. It wanted five minutes of twelve when we left Sittingbourne, from whence we had a famous pair of horses, which took us to Rochester in an hour and a quarter; the postboy seemed determined to show my mother that Kentish drivers were not always tedious, and really drove as fast as Cax.

Our next stage was not quite so expeditiously performed; the road was heavy and our horses very indifferent. However, we were in such good time, and my mother bore her journey so well, that expedition was of little importance to us; and as it was, we were very little more than two hours and a half coming hither, and it was scarcely past four when we stopped at the inn. My mother took some of her bitters at Ospringe, and some more at Rochester, and she ate some bread several times.”

The bitters confirm Cassandra’s poor health. According to Wikipedia, bitters is a type of British ale with an alcoholic content of up to 45%. In Jane’s day, this restorative, prepared with herbs and citrus and dissolved in alcohol, was used as a patent medicine or digestif. It was ingested in small quantities (or one would hope.)

Later in the letter, Jane makes the observation, “My father is now reading the “Midnight Bell,” which he has got from the library, and mother sitting by the fire.”

The scene is one of domestic bliss, and echoes the many biographies that exist about Jane’s life, which describe a happy childhood with parents who loved their children and each other. Though in poor health even while Jane was alive, Cassandra Leigh Austen outlived her daughter by ten years. You can visit her grave near Chawton Church, where she lies besides her daughter, Cassandra Elizabeth.


For biographies about Jane’s life, click on the following links:

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