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The REAL Jane Austen_Byrne

Musings from a blogger:

I meant to write a review of The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things by Paula Byrne in February shortly after the book came out, but life intervened – life in the form of visitors, a busy schedule at work and move to new offices, a bum knee that required an operation and recuperation, and the book itself, which – several pages into it – urged me to read it to the last before recommending it (or not) to others. I carried the book every day to work hoping to complete it during lunch, but my best laid plans were inevitably derailed.

In addition to this blog and my interest in Jane Austen and the world she lived in, I have been reading other authors: Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Georgette Heyer, to name a few. David Stockman’s The Great Deformation, a great big bear of a book that holds economic insights that will chill the confidence of avid savers like myself, is my most recent acquisition. And then there’s Netflix. I admit to being a serial viewer of series that I missed seeing: The West Wing, for example, The Walking Dead, and now 30 Rock. Warmer weather now pulls me to spring gardening and walking in the great outdoors.

The real life of Vic Sanborn has been getting in the way of her quest to know more about the real Jane Austen, which is why this blog’s entries have been so spare of late and why I took so long to finish Paula Byrne’s book. Not that I didn’t enjoy it. This image of my copy of The Real Jane Austen will tell you all.

My well thumbed copy of The Real Jane Austen

My well thumbed copy of The Real Jane Austen

One would think that as a devoted Janeite who has read almost all the major biographies and articles about Jane, plus her books and letters and a great number of sequels about her novels and life, that I would have my fill of reading about Miss Austen. But I haven’t.

One acquaintance asked me how I could continue reading books that, on the surface, seemed all so similar. It’s simple, really. I rarely tire of talking about Jane and her works. I love the conversations in our book group. I enjoy attending conferences and meetings about her, listening to Janeite scholars and reading the insights of other bloggers who bring their own unique perspectives to her life and work. No matter how much I learn, I am still eager to know more. Just a slightly different take on her life and novels will provide me with new insights that spur me to uncovering more information. Full-fledged Janeite that I am, I can now publicly confess: I am dotty about Jane Austen and crazy about the Regency era.

My review of The Real Jane Austen

I frankly did not think I would like this book, my preconception coming from the blitz of publicity last year about the lost image of Jane Austen that Paula Byrne discovered. (I much prefer Cassandra’s tiny amateurish watercolour, which I viewed at the National Portrait Gallery.) When I received the book for review, I was mightily sick of the hoopla surrounding the portrait and began reading Dr. Byrne’s biography with some skepticism. Imagine my joy when the book held my interest from the start.

My preferred image of Jane Austen painted by Cassandra Austen. Image @National Portrait Gallery.

My preferred image of Jane Austen painted by Cassandra Austen. Image @National Portrait Gallery.

The Real Jane Austen focuses on specific objects, like the topaz crosses that Jane and her sister Cassandra received from their brother Charles. The conversation segued into a discussion of Charles and Frank Austen’s careers in the Royal Navy, and the lives of sailors in general, including that of William Price in Mansfield Park and those of the sailors in Persuasion. Details of letters and visits home flesh out our knowledge of Jane’s relationship with her brothers, as well as the background for some of the characters in her novels. While life on board ship was harsh, a career in the navy was one way in which the Austen men could seek their fortune through promotions and the spoils of war. At the tender age of eighteen, Frank obtained his lieutenant’s commission.

In some cases, early promotion led to discontent among the crews, particularly when over-enthusiastic young officers meted out punishments to their inferiors. Logbooks taken from Frank’s ships show the severity of the punishments. Forty-nine lashes would be given for theft and a hundred for insolence to a superior officer.”

Janeites who have read Jane Austen’s Sailor Brothers by John Henry Hubback, Edith C. Hubback, J.H. Hubback would already know many of these sailor details, but they are new for many. Dr. Byrne threads the influences in Jane’s life in such a way that a seasoned Janeite is happily reminded of well-known facts and a new reader is introduced to them in the context of Jane’s life, her letters and novels, and her influences.

Dr. Byrne uses other objects to develop Jane’s biography: a vellum notebook; a card of lace, which led to a discussion of the shoplifting trial of her aunt, Jane Leigh Perrot; the laptop writing box given to her by her father; her royalty check, which confirmed her as a professional writer; and a bathing machine, commonly used by bathers at seaside resorts. While at Lyme, Jane caught a fever and took to bathing to recover, using bathing machines and the services of a dipper named Molly:

Jane Austen enjoyed the experience of being dipped so much that she continued to take advantage: “The Bathing was so delightful this morning and Molly so pressing with me to enjoy myself that I believe I staid in rather too long, as since the middle of the day I have felt unreasonably tired.”

We learn that Jane, while a doting aunt, viewed children much as she did adults – some were simply easier to like than others. Her observation of Anna Lefroy’s girls is not unlike one that I can make of my family members, including myself: “Jemima has a very irritable bad Temper (her Mother says so) – and Julia a very sweet one, always pleased and happy.” Jane fondly thought about her fictional characters and how their lives would unfold, telling her relatives the details of Jane Fairfax’s and Kitty Bennet’s futures, for example – details that we Janeites crave.

There are other pleasant tidbits, of which I shall name a few. They include Tom Fowle’s letter to Cassandra, her fiance who tragically died at sea before he could afford to wed her; Cassandra’s deep romantic nature and her humorous side; the fact that Elizabeth Bridges preferred Cassandra over Jane, whom she did not like; details of Jane’s travels in an age when 90% of the populace sojourned only a few miles from their own community (This proves her to be less provincial than the myth of the isolated, rural spinster); Jane’s knowledge of the larger world, including the Napoleonic wars, slave and opium trades, and life at sea; that serious Frank Austen lacked a sense of humor but that he was quite generous towards the Austen women after Rev. George Austen’s death; and that Henry, Jane’s favorite brother called his sisters and mother “The Dear Trio”.

Frank Austen

Frank Austen

Many of these details are well-known to those of us who have researched Jane’s life for a number of years, but their presentation is delivered in a unique package that ties biographical influences to key moments and objects, and that weaves a view of Jane Austen which is both personal and well-researched. Unlike dry scholarly endeavors, filled with footnotes and references and a dense academic tone, Byrne keeps her wide readership in mind with a writing style that is relaxed and quite readable. There are just enough images to add another layer of depth to our reading experience.

Five out of five regency teacups

Five out of five regency teacups

I recommend The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things highly to readers who are new to Jane Austen’s life and times, as well as to committed Janeites who simply cannot read enough about their favorite author. I imagine there will be some Janeites who will find this biography somewhat repetitive – I am not one of those. My rating is five out of five regency teacups.
Product Details
Hardcover: 400 pages
Publisher: Harper; First Edition edition (January 29, 2013)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0061999091
ISBN-13: 978-0061999093

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Copyright (c) Jane Austen’s World. Post written by Tony Grant, London Calling.

In 1754 David Garrick became the lessee first and finally bought the house, which was to become his villa beside The Thames.

Garrick's villa, 1783

It became his country retreat and the place where he and his wife entertained friends. He began to alter the original building, which had parts that dated back to the middle ages, and employed his friend Robert Adam to redesign the façade in a classical style.Capability Brown advised on the layout of the gardens. The Kingston to Staines Road runs outside the front of the house today and it did also in the 18th century.

Temple doorway. Image @Tony Grant

Garrick had a tunnel dug  from the front of his villa under the road to his gardens beside The Thames which today is called, Garrick’s Lawn. On this lawn, beside The Thames, Garrick had a temple to Shakespeare built. Inside was placed a very fine statue of Shakespeare designed by Roubiliac, another friend. When Garrick died, his wife Eva, gave it to the British Museum. A copy of the statue now has been placed inside the temple.

Garrick's dorric Temple. Image @Tony Grant

Garrick  added an orangery at the far end of the main garden which backs onto Bushy Park. Adam also designed the orangery in the main garden with a corinthian façade and classical entablature. Garrick owned much of the farmland, which is now Bushy Park. He also bought other houses in Hampton, including Orme House in Church Street, The Six Bells pub, later named The White Heart, Garrick’s Ait, the island opposite the temple and the villa and three other aits on The Thames. Just before his death, Garrick bought The Cedars, now called Garrick House, which you drive past on the Kingston Road.

The villa under wraps after the fire. Image @Tony Grant

In 2008 some work was being done on the villa when a fire broke out. The entire roof of the grade 1 listed building collapsed. The second floor also caught fire. It took ten fire engines to bring the blaze under control and save the shell of the house. It is now undergoing extensive rebuilding. The house is a symbol  of the English Theatre and must not be lost to the nation and the world.

David Garrick in Hamlet. Image @Wikimedia Commons

David Garrick came from humble origins in Leicestershire. His family were Huguenot immigrants who had to struggle and fight for their survival and success. Garrick  continued this need for success. He had an incredible talent as writer, actor and innovator. His greatness can only be measured by his influence on theatre and acting today.

Garrick Estate Auction, 1921

What is interesting is his need to acquire property and land, to have the best in architecture and to keep acquiring, throughout his life. Was this the sign of an inner drive to stay successful, to gain security, to not allow himself to revert to lowly circumstances? Was he a driven personality? This reminds me of another driven personality, Charles Dickens, who literally worked himself to death. He too saw property and one house in particular, as a sign to himself and others that he was at the top, that he had made it.

Tony Grant at Gads Hill. Image @Tony Grant

The house was Gads Hill in Kent just outside of Rochester and Chatham. After Dickens death, John Foster, a great publishing friend of Dickens wrote, “ upon first seeing it (Gads Hill) as he came from Chatham with his father and looking upon it with much admiration he had been promised that he might himself live in it or in some such house when he came to be a man, if he would only work hard enough.”

Gads Hill front door. Image @Tony Grant

Of course Dickens did work. He probably had more need to stay at the top than even Garrick. His father was notorious for getting into debt and had ended up in debtors prison. Cahrles Dickens had had to work in a blacking factory in almost slave like conditions. This affected Dickens for the rest of his life.

Ducks on the Thames. Image @Tony Grant

Both Dickens and Garrick were influenced greatly by Shakespeare. Garrick as actor and theatre owner. Garrick’s greatest performance was playing Richard III. Dicken’s house at Gads Hill was the very spot, in Henry IV part I, where Prince Hal waylays and robs Falstaff as a  prank or joke. Of course Dickens absolutely loved this connection. There is another rather obscure link with Garrick. David Garrick had a tunnel dug under the road in front of his villa to get to his garden beside The Thames. Dickens purchased the land on the opposite side of the road to his house at Gads Hill and had a tunnel dug in front of his house under the road to get to it.

Gads Hill tunnel. Image @Tony Grant

Dickens had a small wooden Swiss Chalet built on the other side of the road where, towards the end of his life, he wrote. Passing through a tunnel to the beautiful scenery of The Thames or to a place to work could be read as having deep psychological meaning I am sure.

Dickens's Swiss Chalet. Image @Tony Grant

David Garrick’s  villa can be seen as his badge of success. A symbol of all his striving and hard work.

Where do our middle class ambitions get us? Are we driven? Where have we come from and where do we want to go? Are we working like Garrick and Dickens to prove something? How desperate are we and are we happy with it? I wonder if Dickens was ever happy? Maybe in the heightened hyper reality that he achieved  in his live readings, but that was fleeting. He was driven, so was Garrick and are we?

Garrick's villa, 1824

I know this an odd request on this site but you never know who might read this stuff. To any Hollywood Super Star out there. You owe everything, your whole profession, to David Garrick. If you have some spare cash, go on, pay for the refurbishment of Garrick’s Villa. It could be your real contribution to the world.

Garrick's temple, sunset. Image @Tony Grant

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Copryright (c) Jane Austen’s World. Post written by Tony Grant, London Calling.

For four days last week, I was working in a school in Staines near Heathrow Airport. To get there from Wimbledon I had to drive past David Garrick’s Villa and his temple to Shakespeare, at Hampton on The Thames.

Garrick's Villa, 1783

David Garrick was an 18th century actor, playwright and owner of Drury Lane Theatre. He was innovative, and the forerunner of a new acting style. He was regarded as the greatest actor of his time and arguably is one of the great actors of all time. He had a profound interest in Shakespeare. It is easy to see connections between David Garrick and his career and the career and  driven personality of Dickens. Perhaps they are both a mirror in which we can see something of ourselves.

Garrick

David Garrick was the second son of Peter and Arabella Garrick. He was born at The Angel Inn in Hereford on the 19th February 1717. For a while he was the pupil of Samuel Johnson at the little school at Edial near Lichfield. In 1773 Garrick and Johnson went to London together both with little money to support them. Garrick at first worked as a salesman in his family’s wine firm. However he turned to playwriting and acting. He write a version of, “Lethe,” that was used by Henry Giffard’s company at Drury Lane. He then joined Giffard’s company and worked at the theatre in Tankard street in Ipswich. At first Garrick took the stage name of Lyddall. On the 19th October 1741 he played Richard III at Goodman’s Fields Theatre in East London. He was an overnight sensation.

David Garrick as Richard III, 1745. William Hogarth

His acting style was new and innovative. He began a more naturalistic style. Rather than use the exaggerated bombastic style that was popular. On 28th November that year he got rid of his stage name and began to use his real name. His real name appeared on the posters advertising, “The Orphan,” in which he played the character, Chamont.. As a sign of his meteoric rise to fame within two months William Pitt decalerd that the 22 year old Garrick was the best actor the British stage had ever produced. Garrick became the dominant force in British theatre from then on.

Drury Lane 1808

In 1747 with a new partner, James Lacey he took over the management of Drury Lane Theatre. For 29 years he directed repertory company in Europe. He developed new rehearsal techniques and discipline. His ideas included analysing characters, restoring the original texts of Shakespeare. Much of Shakespeare’s plays in the 18th century had been written in a bombastic and alliterative style. He didn’t always keep to Shakespeare’s original texts himself. He did tend to leave out bits and add bits to emphasise the character he was playing. Garrick was one of the leading playwrights of his day and wrote The Clandestine Marriage, Cymon, The Lying Valet and The Guardian. Garricks influence became the yardstick by which all other acting and drama was measured throughout Europe.

William Garrick and his wife, Eva Maria Vegel, by William Hogarth

In 1749 Garrick married the Viennese dancer, Eva Maria Vegel. They had no children and she outlived him by 43 years.They were so famous the crowned heads of Europe, the nobility and the leading figures of the London literary, art and social circles came to visit him.He owned residences at No 27 Southampton Street in Covent garden, in the Sdelphi, and his villa at Hampton on The Thames.You can imagine the elite of Europe coming to Hampton to visit garrick at his Thameside retreat, walking by The Thames, visiting his temple to Shakespeare and rowing out to the aits (river islands) Garrick owned along his stretch of the river to have sylvan parties in a beautiful natural surround.

Garrick's temple close up. Image @Tony Grant

Garrick gave up Drury Lane and made his last performance at Drury Lane during a series of final performances in June 1776. He died in his house in the Adelphi on 20 th January 1779. He was buried at Poets Corner, Westminster Abbey.

View of the Thames from the Temple. Image @Tony Grant

Gentle reader: This is the first of two articles about David Garrick by Tony Grant. The second will concentrate on the actor’s beautiful house and temple on the Thames.

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Born December 16, 1775

WIN one of six Jane Austen NAXOS books on tape by leaving a comment on Jane Austen Today. Click on the link for an opportunity to win a high quality audio book.

Also win a two-pack of Jane Austen note cards and Christmas cards on Austenblog.

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Often a journey is more pleasant if one slows down and savors it. I had hoped to review Lori Smith’s book, A Walk With Jane Austen: A Journey into Adventure, Love & Faith, in one fell swoop, but my busy summer schedule would not allow it. This was to my benefit. Everywhere I went I took Lori’s manuscript with me, like a comfortable friend. I discovered that this is no facile book to be read quickly, for Lori investigates such important concepts as faith, morality, and the decisions that change one’s life and set one on a different path.

In fact, this book resonated deeply with me, a fallen Catholic girl. Like Lori, I stayed in a monastery. Last week I was a guest of the Benedictine nuns for two nights, and experienced the same sense of peace that Lori describes in Alton Abbey, the monastery she stayed in when she visited Steventon (above) and Chawton Cottage. But unlike Lori’s silent monks, my nuns chattered like magpies and lived in the moment, working in the real world to bring home the bacon.

Lori describes her visits to Jane’s homes vividly, including Edward Austen-Knight’s Wedgewood china (above) with its geometric pattern of purple and gold around the edge, which he chose in London when Jane was with him. In fact, Lori weaves the personal details of Jane’s life and the details of her own past and present seamlessly in her exquisitely crafted journal.

We learn about the love the two elder Austens had for each other, and what a close-knit family they had created; how Henry championed Jane’s career and bragged about his sister’s authorship; how Edward waited just a tad long to invite his mother and sisters to live in Chawton Cottage; how close Jane felt to Anne Lefroy, who was 27 years her senior; and which character flaws Jane might have had in common with the spoilt and indulged Emma, whose picnic at Box Hill (below) resulted in Mr. Knightley scolding her for humiliating poor Miss Bates.

My favorite section in Part II is Lori’s description of the British Library. Its fascinating contents were a revelation on her part (See the previous post), especially the variety of rare and original manuscripts. This section of the books ends with Lori’s visit to Godmersham Park (below). She describes a horrendous journey on the A road that ended with the kind gesture of a cabby and a breathtaking view of Edward’s fabulous mansion. Lori’s next stop is Winchester, which begins the last part of the book. I can’t wait to read it.

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On the anniversary of Jane Austen’s death – she died 190 years ago today – I thought I would put a different spin on things and celebrate her life. Jane means so many things to so many people, and her popularity, instead of diminishing, increases each year. What is it about Jane that attracts so many to her? It seems that every time we turn around, another book about Jane’s life sits on a shelf in a book store and she is more popular than ever.

In her new book, A Walk With Jane Austen, author Lori Smith describes the first time she encountered Jane Austen in college. She discovered Pride and Prejudice in a used book sale, and so, over Christmas break, her love affair with Jane Austen began. My own relationship with Jane’s novels started during my fourteenth summer. Like Lori I have read Jane’s marvelous words ever since. But I digress. This post is meant to be a review of Lori’s quest to strengthen her relationship with Jane and, in doing so, gain a better sense of her own life, which was whirling out of kilter.

During a critical juncture in Lori’s life when she faced a personal crisis, she chose to do what many of us yearn to do but few actually dare, which is to leave everything behind and embark on a life altering journey. Lori’s account about her search for Jane is written on several levels, as a memoir and personal journey of faith and discovery, as a search for the places where Jane Austen lived and trod, as a straightforward history of Jane’s life, and as a way to deepen her understanding of the author.

One January not long ago Lori gave her notice at work. “In February I walked away from meetings and coffee breaks and lunch breaks and paid vacation and health insurance to the gloriously terrifying world of writing full-time.” Lori did not choose an easy road when she decided to walk with Jane Austen. Writing a memoir might seem straightforward on the surface, but…

There are enormous difficulties in reconstructing anyone’s life, for however copious the evidence of letters, diaries, journals, and eye witness accounts, there is always the problem of interpretation, of the subjectivity of witnesses, and of the basic contradictoriness of the human being. Moods and emotions are volatile, but when recorded on the page are often forced by posterity to carry a much greater weight than was ever intended by their author. The Art of Writing Biography

Lori’s journey is deeply personal, but one she willingly shares with her readers. The first chapter ends with her heading for Oxford, the city where Jane’s parents met and married.

I plan to review Lori’s book chapter by chapter. The book, published by Waterbrook Multnomah Publishing Group, a Division of Random House, Inc., will be available this fall. Click here to visit Lori’s blog.

Click here for my post about Jane’s last illness.

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During her short life, Jane Austen was a prolific writer of letters, yet few survive. It is widely known that a majority of Jane’s letters were burned by her sister Cassandra and destroyed by other members of her family. Their reasons were varied. This excerpt from Jim and Ellen Moody’s website: English and Continental Literature, discusses the destruction of these letters and the reasons for it:

Not all the Austens of Jane’s generation and increasingly fewer who belonged to the later generations wanted the family’s private papers destroyed. It was not Jane but Cassandra who burnt ‘the greater part’ of Jane’s letters, and she only committed them to the fire when in 1842 she understood her own death could not be far off. Jane’s letters to Eliza and Henry and hers to them were left in Henry’s hands, and they have not survived. However, Frank, throughout a long mobile life, carefully preserved Jane’s letters to his first wife, Mary Gibson, and her packets of letters to himself and to Martha Lloyd (who became his second wife). It was Frank’s youngest daughter, Fanny-Sophia, who destroyed these and she did so after her father’s death (Family Record, p. 252). She acted without consulting anyone beforehand because by that time mores had changed and other of Frank’s children and grandchildren would have objected. Happily Philadelphia Walker had no direct descendants who felt their reputations or self-esteem put at risk by the existence of Eliza’s letters to her, and she lived long enough so that upon her death these letters fell into the hands of someone disinterested enough to save them, though in a somewhat mutilated state. A record of Jane Austen’s great-grandmother, Elizabeth Weller Austen’s steady courage, which enabled Jane’s branch of the family to maintain the status of gentleman and amass wealth and prestige, survives in a seventeenth century manuscript because several generations of Austens who descended from her second oldest son, the attorney, Francis Austen of Sevenoaks, preserved it (Austen Papers, p. 2).

As a result of the destruction of Jane’s own words, biographers have over the years come to widely different conclusions about Jane’s thoughts and motives. Ellen Moody outlines some of these varying interpretations in the link I have provided.

To read Jane’s letters, click on the following sites:

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Jane Austen, 1775-1817: I have lost a treasure, such a sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed. She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow; I had not a thought concealed from her, and it is as if I had lost a part of myself. I loved her only too well — not better than she deserved, but I am conscious that my affection for her made me sometimes unjust to and negligent of others; and I can acknowledge, more than as a general principle, the justice of the Hand which has struck this blow.

Cassandra to Fanny Knight, July 20, 1817, two days after her beloved sister’s death


Jane Austen’s grave stone at Winchester Cathedral

Although Jane Austen had been ill since fall of 1816, as late as May 27, 1817 she wrote a letter to her nephew Edward saying she was feeling better:

Letter to Edward, 1817
Mrs. Davids, College Street-Winton

Tuesday May 27.

I know no better way my dearest Edward, of thanking you for your most affectionate concern for me during my illness, than by telling you myself as soon as possible that I continue to get better.-I will not boast of my handwriting ; neither that, nor my face have yet recovered their proper beauty, but in other respects I am gaining strength very fast. I am now out of bed from 9 in the morng* to 10 at night-upon the sopha t’is true-but I eat my meals with aunt Cass: in a rational way, & can employ myself, and walk from one room to another.-Mr. Lyford says he will cure me, & if he fails I shall draw up a Memorial and lay it before the Dean & Chapter, & have no doubt of redress from that Pious, Learned, and Disinterested Body.-Our Lodgings are very comfortable. We have a neat little Drawing room with a Bow-window overlooking Dr. Gabell’s garden. Thanks to the kindness of your Father & Mother in sending me their carriage, my Journey hither on Saturday was performed with very little fatigue, & had it been a fine day I think I should have felt none, but it distressed me to see uncle Henry & Wm. K-who kindly attended us on horseback, riding in rain almost all the way.-We expect a visit from them tomorrow, & hopethey will stay the night, and on Thursday, which is Confirmation & a Holiday, we are to get Charles out to breakfast. We have had but one visit yet from him poor fellow, as he is in sick room, but he hopes to be out to-night. We see Mrs. Heathcote every day, & William is to call upon us soon.-God bless you my dear Edward. If ever you are ill, may you be as tenderly nursed as I have been, may the same Blessed alleviations of anxious, simpathising friends be yours, & may you possess-as I dare say you will-the greatest blessing of all, in the consciousness of not being unworthy of their Love. I could not feel this.

Your very affec: Aunt

J. A. Had I not engaged to write to you, you wd* have heard again from your Aunt Martha, as she charged me to tell you with her best Love.

Alas, Jane died in her sister’s arms on July 18, 1817. Today, there is a debate about the disease that caused her early death. (See the links below.) Mourning rituals and observances were fixed during the 19th century, and a lock of Jane’s hair is preserved to this day (see the sidebar in this blog). I wouldn’t be surprised (though I have found no corroboration of my suspicion) that Cassandra or Mrs. Elliot, Jane’s mother, wore a locket with a sample of her hair.

Mourning heart locket, 1800-1820, typical of its day and often filled with the hair of a loved one.

Read more about about this sad period in the life of the Austen family:

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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. He received a Bachelor of Arts, a Master of Arts, and a Bachelor of Divinity degree at Oxford. Called “the handsome proctor”, he worked as an assistant chaplain, dean of arts, Greek lecturer while going to school.

He first met Cassandra Leigh in Oxford when she was visiting her uncle Theophilus. After they married, George became rector in several country parishes. The family grew by leaps and bounds, and eventually he and Cassandra Leigh 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.”

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 around 210 pounds. The sales of his farm produce also supplemented his income. With so many mouths to feed, the family was not wealthy, to say the least. To augment his income even more, Rev. George Austen opened a boarding school at Steventon Rectory for the sons of local gentlemen.

Rev. Austen encouraged Cassandra and Jane to read from his extensive library. For entertainment, the family read to each other, played games, and produced plays. George Austen must have been proud of his daughter’s accomplishments. He tried to get Pride and Prejudice published. The “Memoir” by Edward Austen-Leigh contains a letter from George Austen to Mr. Cadell, the 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 in a much shorter form. The original 3-part manuscript no longer exists. Regardless, countless readers have delighted in the much shorter version for 200 years.
The Rev. George Austen died January 21, 1805, where the Austen family had moved after living in Steventon for over 30 years. (The silhouettes above are of George and Cassandra). On the 2nd. January 1805, Jane Austen wrote sorrowfully to her brother, Frank: “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?”

The inscription on Rev. George Austen’s 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)


Read about Jane’s mother, Cassandra Austen nee Leigh on this site. Click here.

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During her life and shortly after her death, Jane Austen’s novels were not popularly known. Oh, she had her admirers, most notably the Prince Regent, to whom she dedicated Emma, and a few other distinguished personages, such as Lord Macaulay, Lord Byron’s wife, Ann, and writers Philip Sheridan and Robert Southey. But her works languished in relative obscurity until her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh wrote A Memoir of Jane Austen in 1869. His book was well so well received that he quickly published a second edition in 1871 that expanded on the first one.

In the memoir, Edward’s recollections and those of his family, including Jane’s nieces and nephews, all of whom remembered their aunt fondly, made Jane accessible to a fresh, new audience. Along with these family recollections, are letters from Jane to various people outside her family. The one below is written to a Mr. J. S. Clarke, librarian, Carlton House in 1815, two years before her death:

Dec. 11. ‘Dear Sir,—My “Emma” is now so near publication that I feel it right to assure you of my not having forgotten your kind recommendation of an early copy for Carlton House, and that I have Mr. Murray’s promise of its being sent to His Royal Highness, under cover to you, three days previous to the work being really out. I must make use of this opportunity to thank you, dear Sir, for the very high praise you bestow on my other novels. I am too vain to wish to convince you that you have praised them beyond their merits. My greatest anxiety at present is that this fourth work should not disgrace what was good in the others. But on this point I will do myself the justice to declare that, whatever may be my wishes for its success, I am strongly haunted with the idea that to those readers who have preferred “Pride and Prejudice” it will appear inferior in wit, and to those who have preferred “Mansfield Park” inferior in good sense. Such as it is, however, I hope you will do me the favour of accepting a copy. Mr. Murray will have directions for sending one. I am quite honoured by your thinking me capable of drawing such a clergyman as you gave the sketch of in your note of Nov. 16th. But I assure you I am not. The comic part of the character I might be equal to, but not the good, the enthusiastic, the literary. Such a man’s conversation must at times be on subjects of science and philosophy, of which I know nothing; or at least be occasionally abundant in quotations and allusions which a woman who, like me, knows only her own mother tongue, and has read little in that, would be totally without the power of giving. A classical education, or at any rate a very extensive acquaintance with English literature, ancient and modern, appears to me quite indispensable for the person who would do any justice to your clergyman; and I think I may boast myself to be, with all possible vanity, the most unlearned and uninformed female who ever dared to be an authoress. ‘Believe me, dear Sir, ‘Your obliged and faithful humbl Sert. ‘Jane Austen.’

As a result of Edward’s memoirs, the public embraced Jane Austen’s novels. Josephine Ross writes on page 3 in Jane Austen: A Companion, “Jane Austen had won the ‘admiration, even to fanaticism, of innumerable readers’; and in the years that followed, amid a surge of articles, essays, critical studies and reprints of her novels, the unmarried daughter of a Georgian vicar, who had feared to be made ‘a wild beast’ by her contemporaries, was to become one of the best-known authors in the English language.”

You can read Edward Austen-Leigh’s memoirs by clicking on this link to the Gutenberg Project. The link also sits permanently on the left column of this blog, under Original Sources.

You can also Trace Jane Austen’s Popularity, starting with the publication of this memoir, at this link. Click here.

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Jane Austen’s Will

The website, Treasures from the National Archives, UK, links to a copy of Jane Austen’s Will which she wrote at Chawton just months before she died. Also find William Shakespeare’s Will on this site.

Here is the transcript of Jane’s Will:

I Jane Austen of the Parish of Chawton do by this my last will I testament give and bequeath to my dearest sister. Cassandra. Elizabeth everything of which I may die possessed of which may be hereafter due to me, subject to the payment of my Funeral expences, & to a Legacy of £50. to my Brother Henry, & £50 to all de Byion which I request may be paid as soon as convenient. And I appoint my said dear sister the executrix of this my last will & testament.

April 27 1817

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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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