Meet the Austens

Jane was the seventh of eight children born to Rev. George Austen and his wife, Cassandra Leigh. Her father had two siblings, Philadelphia, and Leonora. The Austens were married on April 26, 1764.

Cassandra and Jane were the only girls amidst a clan of brothers who became clergymen, navy men, or both. In order of their birth:

  • Rev. James Austen (born 1765): He married twice; once to Anne Matthews, with whom he had a daughter, Anna; and again to Mary Lloyd, with whom he gave birth to the future Rev. James Edward Austen. The Steventon Rectory, where Jane and all her siblings were born, passed through her family as such: Her father; James (when George died in 1801), and then to her nephew William.
  • George Austen (1766-83): Not much is known about George. He was disabled in some way–the records don’t agree, but there are suggestions of epilepsy and cerebral palsy–and lived with another family during his life time. He was cared for, but “unmentionable” by the family. In the film Becoming Jane, Jane is seen to have a close relationship with him.
  • Edward Austen (b. 1767): Edward’s life is a bit complicated. He was adopted as the heir to the Knight fortune as a child, so he was called Edward Austen-Knight, legally. He married Elizabeth Bridge, who bore him 11 children, which probably hastened her death in 1808. The oldest daughter, Fanny, was very close to her Aunt Jane, and often sent her writings to Jane for critique. Jane married Sir Edward Knactchbull (a widowed MP) , and was almost 80 when she died, having given birth to six children.
  • Edward lived in great style at Godersham estate in Kent,  and also owned Chawton Cottage, which was eventually lent to Jane, Cassandra, and Mrs. Austen following Rev. Austen’s death, and where Jane died.
  • Henry Austen (1771-1850): Jane’s favorite brother, he was instrumental in helping Jane’s works get published. He was a “jack of all trades”: during his life, he was a captain in the militia, a banker, and a clergyman. He was ambitious, optimistic, and agreeable, an also had a way with women. He married twice: first to Eliza de Feuillede, who was his cousin (through their Aunt Philadelphia), and then to Eleanor Jackson. His marriage to Eliza was fraught with intrigue: first, they were first cousins; second, her first husband, the Comte de Feuillde, was guillotined during the French Revolution. Eliza had a son, Hastings, from that marriage. Hastings died in 1801, and Henry had no other children.
  •  Henry was also instrumental in having Emma dedicated to the Prince of Wales. While Jane preferred to keep her identity a secret, Henry constantly bragged about her.
  • Cassandra Austen(1773-1845): Jane’s only sister and dearest friend. Like her sister, she was crossed in love, having been engaged to the Rev. Thomas Fowle, who died of yellow fever during an expedition to the West Indies. Fowle left Cassandra a legacy of 1000 pounds. Cassandra, Jane and Mrs. Austen lived together for their entire lives. She was also something of an artist, and the famous sketch we have of Jane is Cassandra’s work.
  • Francis “Frank” Austen (1774-1865): Frank became a Vice-Admiral in the Royal Navy (1838) and grew closer to Jane as they matured. He married twice: first to Mary Gibson, who died in childbirth in 1806, and then to Martha Lloyd, who was a great friend of Jane’s. Francis had 9 children with his first wife, and Jane, Cassandra, and Mrs. Austen lived with him and Mary for a time after moving from Bath following Rev. Austen’s death.
  • Jane, herself, seventh in the family, born December 16, 1775, and died at Chawton Cottage July 18, 1817.
  • Charles Austen (1779): Like Frank, an officer in the Royal Navy (you can see where Jane gets so many of her seafaring men, especially in Mansfield Park and Persuasion). He, like his brothers, married twice: first to Fanny Palmer, who died in childbirth at age 24, leaving two daughters Cassandra (“Cass”) and Harriet. (When she died, she also lost her newborn son.) In a fit of convenience, Charles took Fanny’s sister as his second wife, who died in Burma of cholera.

Jane had, as you can see, many nieces and nephews, and she often traveled to visit them during her lifetime, either with Cassandra and her mother, or by herself.

The major disruption in Jane’s life came from her brother James’ taking of the Steventon rectory in May of 1801. Her father’s health had been declining, and, since James was married, he needed his own living for his wife and family. The family moved to Bath, a place Jane hated (which is reflected in her writing). The sea air was supposed to be better for her father. Jane hated the society and the living conditions, but it became worse after her father’s death in January of 1805.

In Georgian England, the wife and unmarried sisters in a family were the responsibility of the other men–in this case, Jane’s brothers. Most of them were cordial and took their mother and sisters’ needs into account, but the women had no means of having their own living. So, they moved; first to Southhampton to share a house with Frank and Mary Austen, and then to Chawton Cottage, which was owned by Edward. Jane remained at Chawton for the rest of her life, and the majority of her novels were written there, while Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice were substantially revised. The women did travel to see their relatives, but mostly, their lives after 1809 were spent at Chawton. Jane’s writing did bring in some income, but not enough for them to live independently. Henry  tried to help them, but he was often in precarious financial straits himself.

Her mother’s family is not quite as well-documented as her father’s, but they do play a role in Mansfield Park. Jane got the idea for the novel’s three sisters from the Wards, relatives of her mothers on the Leigh side. The three sisters clearly have counterparts in Mansfield: Sarah Ward married well (like Lady Bertram), Anne Ward married respectfully (like Mrs. Norris) and Martha Ward married “a man of no specified position”, via elopement (seen as Mrs. Price in the novel).

Jane began to read early, and had a wide taste in books: “If a book is well-written, I always find it too short.” Rev. Austen educated his children, including his daughters (he even took in parish boarders to supplement his income), and encouraged the reading habit in Jane. He would buy her paper and notebooks, and gave her access to his 500+ volume library. He even attempted to have Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice published.

*Information in this entry culled from Claire Tomalin’s Jane Austen: A Life and John Spence’s Becoming Jane Austen


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