Friday, 21 October 2016

Jane Austen's Family

So much is known about Jane Austen’s ancestors, immediate family and numerous acquaintances that too close a study soon results in indigestion. I will try to summarise just the information I have found helpful.

At the time when I am typing, the best reference book for anyone interested in the many branches of Jane Austen’s family and the details of her day-to-day life is A Chronology of Jane Austen, by the indefatigable researcher Deirdre Le Faye. This expensive but marvellous book of 776 pages was published in 2006. It offers comprehensive information in a simple and elegant form.

Jane Austen lived at the time when the rhododendron, the camellia, the hydrangea, the wild cherry, the rudbeckia, the aster, the Venus fly-trap, the azalea, and the virginia creeper were being discovered and eagerly imported into England. It was the time when Thomas Nuttall, a kindly young printer from Liverpool, had just arrived in America and, fascinated by its plant-life, undertook long expeditions, largely on foot, made many discoveries, and became a self-taught botanist. He sent many specimens back to the Liverpool Botanical Gardens. He wrote an authoritative Genera of North American Plants and became curator of the Botanic Garden at Harvard University.

Cotton manufacture was on the rise. Aiken, visiting Colne in 1795, wrote that the trade formerly consisted in ‘shalloons, calamancoes and tammies’, but the cotton trade consists of ‘calicoes and dimities’. I transcribe this because I love the words (shalloons!), and surely they would have all been known to Jane Austen, whose letters have so many references to dressmaking and fabrics, and a few dress terms even creep into her books - Isabella and the coquelicot ribbons, and Wentworth uncharacteristically talking about an old tippet being passed among friends.

The Austens and Knights (of Godmersham, Kent) were descended from John Austen (1629-1705). His daughter Jane married Stephen Stringer of Goudhurst, from whom the Knights were descended. His son John (?1670 -  1704) had a large family in Kent, including a son William (1701-37). In his short life, William practised as a surgeon in Tonbridge and had three wives and three children. One of these, George Austen (1731-1805), was Jane Austen's father.

However, John's son Francis Austen who had three sons (& two wives), brought up William's children after his brother's early death. These children included George and also Jane's Aunt Philadelphia (who later married a Mr. Hancock in India). This Francis Austen was himself a remarkable character. His mother, impoverished after the early death of her husband, found a job as housekeeper and matron at Sevenoaks Grammar School, in return for which her sons had free accommodation and education. Born in 1698, Francis made the most of his good education. He became a lawyer and land-buyer. By marrying into money and acquiring a rich and famous client, the Duke of Dorset, he accumulated considerable wealth. He had practices in both Sevenoaks and London, specialising in tricky settlements of estates (of the kind affecting the Bennet family in Pride and Prejudice). Jane Austen must have known him personally. She visited him with her family in Sevenoaks when she was 12 and he was 90.

Jane's father, orphaned at the age of five, was lucky in having generous relatives who bought him a good education (at St. John's College, Oxford from the age of sixteen) and his livings as a priest. He settled into adult life as a farmer, private tutor, clergyman and scholar. 

George went first to Tonbridge School, which had 53 pupils at the time of his arrival. The education provided would have been largely Latin literature. After two years, the new 'Master' was 24-year-old Rev. James Cawthorn, who was a poet and keen on music. George returned to the school to work as 'Usher' (assistant to Cawthorn) between the ages of 23 and 26. This appointment was a considerable achievement.

George then returned to Oxford, studying Divinity and rising to the posts of Chaplain and Junior Proctor (the latter involving the administration of examinations and student discipline).

Oxford and Cambridge Universities then existed mainly to provide a flow of clergy for  the Church of England. There were no theological colleges. Irene Collins’ book, Jane Austen and the Clergy (London 1993), is enjoyable to read, as well as very detailed and scholarly in discussing the lives of the clergy and attitudes to morals and manners. The only qualification needed for priesthood was a degree from one of those two universities. A call from God was not considered necessary. (Note how Charles Hayter in Persuasion aspires to become a scholar and a gentleman: that is the main reason why he aims for a career as a priest.) George Austen at least went to the trouble of taking a degree in Divinity.

You could buy a living for ready cash. Forty-eight per cent of livings were allocated by private patronage and patrons sometimes sold their right to choose an incumbent. This was considered perfectly proper. The purchasing of benefices never seemed to trouble Jane: she took the view that the system (which seems corrupt to us) could operate without corruption.

Incidentally, at the time, study at Oxford usually consisted mainly of classics, with mathematics and science as a minority part of the programme. At Cambridge, the emphasis was the other way round: more attention was given to mathematics. Jane’s young cousin Henry Walter was an outstanding scholar in Mathematics at St. John’s, Cambridge, in 1811.

Jane's mother, Cassandra Leigh, though the great-niece of the Duke of Chandos, was not personally rich. Her father was a vicar at Harpsden near Henley-on-Thames. Mrs. Austen was to inherit £1000 on her mother's death. With other investments, this brought her an annual income of £140. However, although we do not think of Jane Austen as in any sense belonging to the aristocratic stratum, it is interesting that her maternal great-grandmother was a sister of the first Duke of Chandos.

Jane’s father became the rector of Steventon in Hampshire. The population of the two parishes he served is known to have been only 284 in the year 1801. It is hardly surprising that his post was not very demanding and that he established for himself a portfolio of jobs, particularly as a farmer and as a private tutor.

With their small income and large family, the Austens needed to be largely self-supporting in food. Despite her aristocratic connections, Cassandra settled as a hard-working country woman, busy with her family, domestic and farm duties. She kept poultry. She gardened in an old green smock and was proud of the butter produced from her little Alderney cow. She grew potatoes, which were still a novelty at the time. She was also a vivacious talker and a writer of both entertaining letters and light verse. Perhaps it was from her that Jane derived much of her shrewd judgement and sense of comedy. Mrs. Austen was also noted for not mincing words. This is another trait reflected in Jane's writing, especially in her letters.

Jane had six brothers and one sister. The eldest brother was James (1765-1819). He became a clergyman, eventually taking over his father's parish at Steventon. He married Anne Mathew and ( in 1797) Mary Lloyd. His daughter Anna - beloved by Jane - married Ben Lefroy in 1814 & had seven children. His daughter Caroline never married and died in 1880. His son James (who inherited the Leigh-Perrot estate and added 'Leigh' to his name) is best-known as the author of an important Memoir of Jane Austen, published in 1869.

Next came George (1766-1838) - the 'missing' member of the family. Born eleven years before Jane, he was placed in care with the Cullum family at Monk Sherborne and is never mentioned by Jane in the letters of hers that survive. He is believed to have been epileptic and possibly deaf and dumb. During his final years, the payments for his maintenance were made by William Francis Digweed, a good family friend of the Austens at Steventon.

Jane's brother Edward (1767-1852) had the good fortune to be adopted by the childless son of the Revd. Austen's benefactor, Thomas Knight of Godmersham in Kent. (Thomas Knight's wife – Jane – had been a second cousin of Jane Austen's father. Edward assumed the surname 'Knight'.) As a result, Edward not only inherited estates in Kent and Hampshire but was also able to provide a cottage in Chawton, Hampshire, for Jane, her sister and her mother during Jane's final years. Edward married Elizabeth Bridges in 1791. They had eleven children, her death in 1808 following the birth of the last. The eldest and best-known of the children is Fanny, a beloved niece of Jane Austen. Fanny became Lady Knatchbull in 1820, had nine children and died in 1882. Her eldest son Lord Brabourne edited the first Letters of Jane Austen.

Henry Austen (1771-1850) set himself up in 1807 as a banker and ingenuously lent £6000 to the spendthrift Lord Moira, who was a friend of the Prince of Wales and later Commander-in-Chief in India. Moira’s failure to repay any of the money led to Henry’s bankruptcy in 1816 (the year before Jane Austen‘s death), after which - taking advantage of his Oxford degree - he became a clergyman. In 1797 he had married his widowed cousin Eliza de Feuillide. His second marriage in 1820 was to Eleanor Jackson. He had no children. Eliza de Feuillide, incidentally, (a merry optimist whose life was a catalogue of suffering and tragedy) may have been a considerable influence on Jane. She seems to have had much the same sort of personality as Jane and the observant, satirical content of her surviving letters is similar to Jane’s.

Next born was Jane's adored sister Cassandra-Elizabeth (1773-1845). The sisters lived together for the whole of Jane's life and Cassandra was Jane's executrix. In her entire childhood, Jane spent only about two years in institutions with pretensions to being schools, so she had practically no chance of making friends at schools, like women of later generations. While Cassandra enjoyed drawing, Jane wrote or played her piano. 

Francis-William Austen ('Frank' - 1774-1865) had a naval career and became an admiral in 1848. For us in the twenty-first century, his extraordinary life provides a revealing insight into life-styles of the time and naval life in particular. At the tender age of 11, he was sent off to train at the Royal Naval Academy in Portsmouth. At 14, he was a sailor on the Perseverance, heading to the East Indies. He would not see his family again for almost four years. By the age of 25, he had served on twelve different naval vessels and was lucky to have survived with life and limb, having been involved in situations where storms at sea, and diseases and battles had carried off many other men. But with all his experience, he was now ready for his first post as Commander of a ship; and that ship was the sloop Peterel, with a crew of 121. It is astonishing today to imagine a man of 25 having such a responsibility. Later he was one of Nelson’s captains.

During the rest of his life, he was to command seven more ships including, from 1845, ships powered by steam. He amassed a fortune from rewards and the prize money from captured ships. In 1810, for example, when Jane was still alive, he received a thousand guinea bonus from the East India Company for successful escort duties. It is not surprising that Jane, leading a tranquil, frugal and sheltered life in the south of England, saw her brothers as the heroes of the family. It would never have crossed her mind that she would one day be the Austen everyone heard of, while her brothers would be forgotten. In Mansfield Park, she mentions two of the ships that Francis at one time commanded (Canopus and Elephant).

When it was suggested to him, late in life, that he was something of a Captain Wentworth figure, Francis replied that he saw himself more as a Captain Harville.

When Francis died at the age of 91, he was the highest-ranking officer in the navy - Admiral of the Fleet. He was courageous, a tough disciplinarian, strictly religious and not given to socialising. In 1806 he had married Mary Gibson and they had eleven children. She died in childbirth in 1823 at the age of 33. Five years later, Frank (now 54) married Jane's lifelong friend Martha Lloyd (who by then was 63).

Frank's eighth child, Catherine-Anne, born in Chawton in 1818, also (as Mrs. Hubback) became a writer: she produced 10 novels, the first of which was a completion of Jane Austen's The Watsons



When Frances first went to sea, his father, the Revd. Austen, sent the boy a letter, advising him always to be diligent in studies and to behave with honour, prudence and kindness to others. He tells Francis: 'You may either by a contemptuous, unkind and selfish manner create disgust and dislike; or by affability, good humour and compliance, become the object of esteem and affection; which of these very opposite paths 'tis your interest to pursue I need not say'. (A young Austen could be relied upon to read fluently and with full understanding, however complex the vocabulary or syntax!) Francis treasured this letter: when he died seventy-seven years later, it was found in his pocket.

Jane (1775-1818) was her parents' seventh child.

Finally came Charles-John (1779-1852), another naval man. Unlike his elder brother, he was a socialite, a charmer and very good-natured. He served as a popular young captain around Halifax, Nova Scotia and Bermuda between 1805 and 1810. In those days of what we may consider legalised piracy, he captured the French ship La Jeune Estelle, which he boarded on 19 June 1808, setting him on the path to fame and fortune. He was to become a rear-admiral in 1846. He married Frances Palmer (who died in 1814, leaving four daughters); then in 1820 he married her elder sister Harriet and there were four more children. The eldest child, Cassandra-Esten, helped in the compiling of the 1869 Memoir. Another son was yet another naval Charles (1821 - 67), who left a further son Charles. He  had a daughter Jane (1849-1928, unmarried).