Jane Austen in Perspective
Jane Austen's Siblings & Cousin Eliza
With the exception of George, the second brother, who you will recall was in ‘care’, all of Jane Austen’s brothers were successful in their different ways. James became a clergyman and eventually took over the Steventon living in 1801 on his father’s retirement and the family’s move to Bath. Both Francis and Charles joined the Royal Navy. As was customary, they began their careers very young, entering the Royal Naval Academy at Portsmouth at age twelve, then embarking on a career, beginning as midshipmen, that has been brought vividly to life in recent years through the Hornblower series on television. Like Horatio Hornblower, Frank and Charles were engaged, amongst other things, in the long battle against the French which dominated these years. Jane Austen was very proud of her sailor brothers, though she must have both worried about them and missed them, for they were often away from home for years at a time. Both men ultimately attained the rank of Admiral, Frank becoming ‘Sir Francis’. Jane Austen’s fourth brother, Henry, – mercurial, charming and entrepreneurial, from the accounts we have (‘oh what a Henry!’ said Jane Austen in a letter to her sister, on hearing of his presence at a posh London ball to celebrate victory over the French, in 1814) – had several careers. He was first a soldier in the Oxfordshire militia (1793-1801), then a London banker (1801-1816) and finally, after his bank failed, a clergyman. Despite his previous rather high-flying life, he appeared to settle down quite well in 1816 to be the curate at Chawton.
Edward, third son of the family, had a very different fate. He became the favourite of some wealthy childless relatives of his father, the Thomas Knights. They met him as a 12 year old when they visited the rectory at Steventon on their wedding journey. When they left, Edward accompanied them for the rest of the trip and subsequently went frequently for holidays at their estate. Eventually, when Edward was 16, they adopted him as their heir. This was not so unusual as it appears to us now: it was not uncommon for wealthy relatives to take in a child from a less fortunate branch of the family. Fanny Price in Mansfield Park is an example of the practice, and so is Emma Watson in Jane Austen’s unfinished novel The Watsons. Unlike his older brother James, who after Oxford set about earning his living as a clergyman, Edward at 18 was sent abroad by the Knights on the Grand Tour.6 After Thomas Knight died, his widow, instead of waiting until her own death, handed over the family estates to Edward, who from 1798 lived the life of a country gentleman at Godmersham in Kent. When Mrs Knight herself died in 1812, Edward and his family, as stipulated in her will, took the name of ‘Knight’, prompting his eldest daughter Fanny (a favourite niece of Jane Austen’s) to write in her diary that now ‘we are therefore all Knights instead of dear old Austens How I hate it!!!!!’. Fanny’s aunt Jane wrote more calmly to her friend Martha Lloyd that ‘I must learn to make a better K’.7
Both Cassandra and Jane were frequent visitors to Godmersham, particularly Cassandra, who attended Edward’s wife Elizabeth at many of her eleven confinements, often staying on to assist afterwards. Cassandra herself never married. In 1792, when she was 19, she became engaged to the Rev Tom Fowle, but they could not afford to marry and so settled down to wait until he had better prospects. In January 1796, in a move which he hoped would achieve this, he sailed with Lord Craven to the West Indies, as his chaplain for the campaign there. Tom Fowle never returned from the West Indies: he died of a fever a year later, at San Domingo, and was buried at sea.8
Jane Austen of course also never married, but she had at least one and perhaps two ‘romances’ and one proposal of marriage, that we know of, as well as another that is less certain.9 In the same month, January 1796, that Cassandra farewelled Tom Fowle to the West Indies, Jane Austen also said goodbye to her love, Tom Lefroy. She had met Lefroy in the December before, when he made a visit to his uncle and aunt, the Lefroys, at Ashe rectory, prior to going up to London to study law. They met at balls and the attraction between the two young people – both turned twenty in that month – was obvious and mutual. The episode eventually came to nothing: neither had any money, and Tom was dependent on the approval of an uncle for his progress in the world. In January, Tom Lefroy departed Ashe to return to London and went out of Jane’s life forever; he lived to old age and eventually became Chief Justice of Ireland. It is impossible to say how serious Jane Austen’s feelings were at the time; it is certain however that her novels were not written by a woman who had never been in love.
The second ‘romance’ was mentioned by Cassandra many years after her sister’s death, and is reported by James Austen-Leigh, their nephew, in his memoir of his aunt. Cassandra said, he reported, that once when ‘at one of the Devon resorts’, they had become friendly with a gentleman who had seemed attracted to Jane and she to him; somebody quite eligible and, in Cassandra’s eyes, worthy of her sister. He had expressed his intention of seeing them again, but shortly afterwards they heard of his sudden death. James believed – though with what authority he does not say - that ‘if ever Jane loved, it was this unnamed gentleman’.
The marriage proposal occurred in December 1802, when Jane Austen was staying with Cassandra at the home of their old friends Catherine and Alethea Bigg at Manydown. Quite unexpectedly, their friends’ brother, Harris Bigg Wither, 5½ years younger than Jane herself, asked her to marry him. She accepted, and the evening was spent in celebration, but the next morning she sought him out and withdrew her acceptance. It was an embarrassing moment, although the long friendship with the family weathered it and endured. Why did she do this? She apparently wrote about it in letters which Cassandra destroyed, but not before one of her nieces, Caroline (a daughter of brother Frank) had seen them. She reported that Jane Austen said that it was ‘a momentary fit of self-delusion’.10 Jane Austen and Harris Bigg-Wither had nothing in common and she did not love him, but it is a very interesting moment in Jane Austen’s life: she was almost 27, the same age as Charlotte Lucas when she decides to put prudence before feeling and compatibility. Jane Austen had recently lost her home (see below), and her prospects after her father (then aged over 70) died, were not promising. Harris was heir to his father’s estate, and with marriage Jane Austen would have gained a home, security and fortune. She presumably changed her mind because, as Caroline further observed, she realised that ‘the place and fortune which would certainly be his could not alter the man’. That Jane Austen was even tempted shows how acutely she felt her losses, and the lack of stability in her life, at this time. These feelings may have continued to have a profound effect on her, for as far as we know she wrote almost nothing over the next seven years.
We could speculate that had any of these relationships come to fruition in marriage, we might not have had her novels, except perhaps the earliest ones. Her sisters-in-law demonstrated over and over the common experience of women of this era of minimal contraception and many childbirths. Three brothers – Edward, Frank and Charles – between them had 22 children by the time of Jane Austen’s death [they had more after this date], and all their wives died following childbirth. We need to add, however, that her brother James had only three children and Henry, though married, none; but ‘breeding’, to use the term of the times, was the expected outcome of marriage, not a choice, and large families were the norm.
Jane Austen’s cousin Eliza
An important friendship throughout Jane Austen’s life was with her cousin, Eliza, daughter of her mother’s sister Philadelphia. Eliza and Jane first met when Jane was eleven; at 25, Eliza was much older than Jane and fascinating to her from the first. When Eliza stayed at Steventon she was an eager participant in the Austen theatricals and Jane Austen, at 14, dedicated Love and Freindship to her. Born in India in 1761, Eliza had lived as a child and young girl in both London and abroad, then had married a Frenchman, the Comte Jean Francois Capot de Feuillide, with whom she had one son, her only child. In 1786 she had returned from France to England so that her child, whom she named Hastings, after her parents’ friend and sometime benefactor, Warren Hastings, would be born on English soil. Eliza’s husband was guillotined in 1794 and she was subsequently courted by Jane Austen’s oldest brother James, after his wife died, and then by Henry, ten years her junior. Henry and Eliza had had an on again/off again flirtation for years and she refused him once, but they were eventually married, in 1797. They had no children, and Eliza herself died before Jane Austen, in 1813, probably of breast cancer, which had killed her mother Philadelphia some years before. Henry lived on till 1850.
6. JASA has published Edward Austen
Knight’s journals in Jane Austen’s Brother Abroad: The Grand Tour
Journals of Edward Austen, edited by Jon Spence (2005)
13 July 2006