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Posts Tagged ‘Jane Austen’s family’

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.

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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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