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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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francis william austen

My dearest Frank, You will be glad to hear that every copy of  S. and S. is sold, and that it has brought me £140 besides the copyright, if that should ever be of any value.

In 1788,  14 ½ year-old Frank Austen prepared to put out to sea and leave his family. After excelling in his courses at the Portsmouth Naval Academy, the Commissioner of the Dockyards recommended that Frank join the Perserverance under the direction of Cornwallis, who was recently appointed Commander-in-Chief of India. The letter that young Francis received from his father, Rev.  George Austen, upon his departure was one that he would treasure for the rest of his life. In part, the Reverend wrote:

As you have hitherto, my dear Francis, been extremely fortunate in making friends, I trust your future conduct will confirm their good opinion of you; and I have the more confidence of this expectation because the high character you acquired at the Academy for propriety of behaviour and diligence in your studies, when you were so much younger and had so much less experience, seems to promise that riper years and more knowledge of the world will strengthen your naturally good disposition. That this may be the case I sincerely pray, as you will readily believe when you are assured that your good mother, brothers, sisters and myself will all exult in your reputation and rejoice in your happiness …

Ten years later, Jane would write with exultation:

My dear Cassandra, Frank is made. He was yesterday raised to the rank of Commander and appointed to the Petterel sloop, now at Gilbraltar. – Dec 28, 1798

Vice Admiral Sir Francis Austen

Vice Admiral Sir Francis Austen

By 1800, Frank, was still single, although his captain’s salary would enable him to marry and support a family in reasonable comfort. The letter Jane would write him on January 21, 1805 was heartbreaking:

My dearest Frank

I have melancholy news to relate, & sincerely feel for your feelings under the shock of it.—I wish I could better prepare you for it. But having said so much, your mind will already forestall the sort of event which I have to communicate.—Our dear Father has closed his virtuous & happy life, in a death almost as free from suffering as his Children could have wished. He was taken ill on Saturday morning, exactly in the same way as heretofore, an oppression in the head, with fever, violent tremulousness, & the greatest degree of Feebleness….towards the Evening however he got better, had a tolerable night, & yesterday morning was so greatly amended as to get up & join us at breakfast as usual, & walk about with only the help of a stick, & every symptom was then so favourable that when Bowen saw him at one, he felt sure of his doing perfectly well. But as the day advanced, all these comfortable appearances gradually changed; the fever grew stronger than ever, & when Bowen saw him at ten at night, he pronounc’d his situation to be most alarming. At nine this morning he came again—& by his desire a Physician was called in;—Dr. Gibbs—But it was then absolutely a lost case—. Dr. Gibbs said that nothing but a Miracle could save him, and about twenty minutes after Ten he drew his last gasp…My Mother bears the Shock as well as possible; she was quite prepared for it, & feels all the blessing of his being spared a long Illness. My Uncle & Aunt have been with us, & shew us every imaginable kindness. And tomorrow we shall I dare say have the comfort of James’s presence, as an express has been sent to him. Adieu my dearest Frank. The loss of such a Parent must be felt, or we should be Brutes—. I wish I could have given you better preparation—but it has been impossible. Yours Ever affectly – J A.

The news must have been a great blow to Frank, who sailed the world over and only saw his family sporadically. Perhaps his grief was somewhat ameliorated by Jane’s next letter a little over a week later:

My mother has found among our dear father’s little personal property a small astronomical instrument, which she hopes you will accept for his sake. It is, I believe, a compass and sundial, and is in a black shagreen case…Yours very affecly, JA.

When Frank asked Miss Mary Gibson to marry him, Jane and Cassandra discovered that they liked her extremely well. Their cordial relationship had an opportunity to flourish after Rev. George Austen’s death. Frank invited his mother and sisters to live with him and his bride in Southampton from 1806 to 1808.  It was to be a mutually beneficial arrangement, for Frank did not want his young wife to be alone while he was away on his next voyage. He rented a house in Castle Square  with a fine garden and a view across Southampton Water to the Isle of Wight, which Jane found very much to her liking. The invitation included the Austen women’s close friend, Martha Lloyd, sister to James Austen’s wife Mary.

Sir Francis Austen lived until 1865, well into the age of photography

Sir Francis Austen lived until 1865, well into the age of photography

Unfortunately, like Edward’s wife Elizabeth, Mary did not survive into old age and died after the birth of her 11th child in 1823.  In an ironic turn of events, Frank asked Martha Lloyd to be his second wife in 1828 and she accepted. By any stretch of the imagination, Frank’s career was illustrious. He eventually achieved Knighthood as Sir Francis Austen and rose to the position of Admiral of the Fleet. Jane last saw her brother in the New Year of 1817, when a lull in her fatal illness allowed her to visit Frank and his large rambunctious family in Alton.

Thirty-five years after her death there came also a voice of praise from across the Atlantic. In 1852 the following letter was received by her brother Sir Francis Austen:

Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.A., 6th Jan. 1852

Since high critical authority has pronounced the delineations of character in the works of Jane Austen second only to those of Shakspeare, trans-atlantic admiration appears superfluous; yet it may not be uninteresting to her family to receive an assurance that the influence of her genius is extensively recognised in the American Republic, even by the highest judicial authorities. The late Mr Chief Justice Marshall, of the supreme Court of the United States, and his associate Mr Justice Story, highly estimated and admired Miss Austen, and to them we owe our introduction to her society. For many years her talents have brightened our daily path, and her name and those of her characters are familiar to us as ‘household words’. We have long wished to express to some of her family the sentiments of gratitude and affection she has inspired, and request more information relative to her life than is given in the brief memoir prefixed to her works.

Having accidentally heard that a brother of Jane Austen held a high rank in the British navy, we have obtained his address from our friend Admiral Wormley, now resident in Boston, and we trust this expression of our feeling will be received by her relations with the kindness and urbanity characteristic of Admirals of her creation. Sir Francis Austen, or one of his family, would confer a great favour by complying with our request. The autograph of his sister, or a few lines in her handwriting, would be placed among our chief treasures.

The family who delight in the companionship of Jane Austen, and who present this petition, are of English origin. Their ancestor held a high rank among the first emigrants to New England, and his name and character have been ably represented by his descendants in various public stations of trust and responsibility to the present time in the colony and state of Massachusetts. A letter addressed to Miss Quincey, care of the Honble Josiah Quincey, Boston, Massachusetts, would reach its destination.

Sir Francis Austen returned a suitable reply to this application; and sent a long letter of his sister’s, which, no doubt, still occupies the place of honour promised by the Quincey family. – A Memoir of Jane Austen by her nephew, Chapter IX

More links:

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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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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