Jane Austen in Perspective
Jane Austen's Family
Like Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Austen was a gentleman’s daughter, and on both sides she was descended from families long established in southern England. Claire Tomalin observes in her biography (Penguin, 2000:11) that Jane Austen
What Tomalin goes on to say next expresses what many of us might feel, once we venture beyond the novels and into Jane Austen’s own life history: that
Nevertheless, as her biographer says, if we wish to ‘inhabit the world in which she was at home’ we do need to have at least a nodding acquaintance with all this ‘cousinage’. So let us not be dismayed, and plunge right in.
Her mother’s family
Her mother was Cassandra Leigh, born in 1739 to Thomas Leigh and wife Jane (nee Walker), the third of four children, and the second girl. The Leighs were descended from the Lord Mayor who had proclaimed Elizabeth Queen, and they also had links with the aristocracy. Cassandra Leigh’s father - like George Austen, the man she married – was a country parson and Cassandra grew up in the village of Harpsden, near Henley-on-Thames, which was his parish. Her name was handed down from the wife of a great-uncle who became the Duke of Chandos, and she in turn bestowed it on her first daughter, Jane Austen’s sister. She also shared it with a cousin, and three of her sons (Edward, Frank and Charles) ensured it was passed on by giving it to their daughters. There was intellect and learning in her family and her uncle, Theophilus, her father’s brother, was Master of Balliol College, Oxford, for 50 years.
Two events in Cassandra Leigh’s generation are oddly mirrored in the next. Her older brother James was singled out by a rich great-uncle to inherit a fortune, changing his name in the process to Leigh-Perrot. One of Cassandra’s own sons, Edward, was similarly chosen by a rich relative to rise in fortune above the rest of the family, and also changed his name. In another repetition, this time of misfortune, Cassandra’s younger brother Thomas was mentally handicapped, a sadness that occurred in her second son George. In the next generation too, Hastings, the child of Jane Austen’s cousin Eliza, failed to develop in the usual way, and he died at age 15.
Her father’s family
The Austen side of the family is characterised by the type of family dramas which resonate with us from Jane Austen’s own novels. Jane Austen’s great-grandmother (her father’s grandmother) was a most enterprising and resourceful woman called Elizabeth Weller, born sometime during the reign of Charles II, who married John Austen in 1695. Elizabeth and John Austen began their married life comfortably off: she was the daughter of a Tonbridge gentleman, and John Austen was the only son of a rich Kentish cloth manufacturer. They had seven children, one daughter followed by six boys. (It was their fourth son William who was the father of George Austen, Jane Austen’s father.) All promised smooth sailing, but there were rocks on which the family foundered quite early on: John Austen’s health was poor and in 1704, aged only in his mid-thirties, he died, leaving seven children aged nine and under – the youngest a baby – along with the debts which he had begun accumulating before his marriage. His Will entrusted the education of his children to his wife (remember there were six sons) and on his deathbed he asked his father to look after his children. And his father promised to do so, also promising that he would not allow the household goods to be sold off to service his son’s debts.
Alas, all was forgotten once the funeral was over. Old Mr Austen reluctantly agreed to hand over £200 to save the household effects, but before he could do so he too died. His Will made things much worse: he provided generously for Elizabeth’s eldest son, but left nothing at all to the other children. In behaviour reminiscent of John Dashwood’s in Sense and Sensibility, the executors of his Will, Elizabeth’s brothers-in-law (married to her husband’s sisters) managed to talk themselves out of honouring old Mr Austen’s promise about the household goods. Over the next few years, all of these were sold off so that the family could live – and so that Elizabeth could pay off her husband’s debts, which she did, in their entirety.
Her late husband’s family did not honour promises, but the same could not be said of Elizabeth Weller Austen. John Austen had entrusted her with his sons’ education and she took that seriously. In 1708 she got a job as housekeeper and matron at a schoolhouse in Sevenoaks, on the condition that in exchange for her work, her boys would be educated. It was a step down the social scale, but it achieved her purpose: in the following eleven years, her sons were educated and her daughter married. The eldest son, the beneficiary of his grandfather’s Will, showed no inclination to extend his good fortune to his six siblings, who all had to find their own way in the world. And they did.
Elizabeth’s son William is the one who concerns us here, as the grandfather of Jane Austen. He became a surgeon and in 1727 married Rebecca Walter, a widow with one son, also called William. Four children were born of this marriage: a girl who died, a second girl in 1730, given the unusual name of Philadelphia, then a son, George – Jane Austen’s father – born 1731, followed by Leonora in 1732, whose birth killed her mother. William Austen married again five years later, but then disobligingly died shortly after, in 1738, giving to those remaining an opportunity for yet another demonstration of deficient family feeling. His widow – who had been his wife for a mere year or so – turned his children out of the house into the care of their uncle Stephen (one of their father’s younger brothers) who pretty smartly passed them on. A bookseller in London, he had one son and agreed to keep only the baby, Leonora. Philadelphia went to a maternal aunt; George, Jane Austen’s father, to his father’s only sister, Aunt Elizabeth, married to a Mr Hooper and living in Tonbridge.
Leonora falls from sight in the family chronicles. Philadelphia however showed the spirit of her grandmother Elizabeth Weller. At fifteen, Phila, as she was known, was apprenticed to a milliner in Covent Garden, served out her five year apprenticeship but then took her destiny into her own hands. At the age of 21 she sailed for India on the Bombay Castle, probably to see if she could better herself in one of the few ways open to women then, by catching a good husband. As Claire Tomalin observes, even if her passage was facilitated by her uncle Francis (another of her father’s brothers), who had clients in the East India Company, Phila must have had ‘a great hatred of millinery and a lot of spirit to embark on so risky and uncertain a venture’.1 Shortly after arrival in Madras, in southern India, Phila married Tysoe Saul Hancock, a surgeon and trader with the East India Company. There were no children, and in 1759 the Hancocks moved north to Bengal and formed a close friendship with Warren Hastings, the British administrator who was later governor of Bengal and then of India. After eight childless years, Phila gave birth to a baby girl, born in December 1761. She started life as Betsy or Bessy, but was later known as Eliza, Jane Austen’s exotic cousin who figured significantly in her life. Warren Hastings, a widower, was Eliza’s godfather and later settled £10,000 on her; Eliza had been the name of his own daughter, who died as an infant. There is a strong suspicion that Eliza was Hastings’ daughter, not Hancock’s, but there is no proof, and Hastings was an occasional benefactor to the Hancocks at times of financial difficulty.
Philadelphia’s brother George Austen (Jane Austen’s father) meantime, living with his aunt Elizabeth at Tonbridge, distinguished himself at school and later on with a fellowship at Oxford, where after taking his degree he won a scholarship in 1751 to study divinity. He was ordained at age 24 and then earned his living as a teacher at his old school in Tonbridge. Fate took a hand when he was invited back to Oxford to become assistant chaplain at his college, for at Oxford he met Cassandra Leigh, the niece of the Master of Balliol, Theophilus Leigh. In 1761 George was offered, through family connections, the livings of Deane and Steventon but it was another three years before, between them, he and Cassandra Leigh had the wherewithal to marry, which they did in April 1764, in Bath. He was by this time aged 32 and she 24. Miss Leigh wore a red riding habit for the wedding, so that she was able to set off immediately to journey to the parsonage at Deane which was to be their home as they waited for the nearby Steventon rectory, about a mile away, to be repaired. That red riding habit had many ‘lives’: it became her ‘gardening gown’, and eventually she made it into a hunting jacket for her son Francis, when he was aged 9.2
Jane Austen was the seventh of the eight children born to George and Cassandra Austen, and the second of only two girls. (See family tree on p.5) Her six brothers were James (b.1765), George (1766), Edward (1767), Henry (1771), Francis, or Frank (1774) and Charles (1779). Her one sister, Cassandra, was more than two years’ older than Jane, having been born in 1773. Cassandra long outlived her, dying in 1845, but she and Jane were inseparable companions during Jane’s lifetime and this relationship was perhaps the most important emotional foundation of Jane’s life: their mother once observed that if Cassandra were going to have her head cut off, Jane would insist on sharing her fate.3 As was the practice of the day, Jane had what we could now regard as a precarious emotional start to life, in that her mother sent her away when she was three months old, until the age of around two, to live with a wet nurse. This was a practice she had instituted for all her children, perhaps with the exception of the eldest, James. Once returned to the family, however, Jane Austen was embedded in the security of a large, lively and loving family, itself part of a sprawling network of aunts, uncles, and cousins whose lives and fortunes provided the backdrop to the smaller family circle. As well, Jane Austen grew up surrounded by boys, for her father took in pupils all through her childhood and the Austens ran a small school on the premises, her mother superintending the domestic side. Some of the students became lifelong friends of the Austen children, and it was to one of those boys, Tom Fowle, that Cassandra later became engaged.
09 March 2008