By Devoney Looser, Arizona State University
Despite the popularity, Jane Austen’s life is sometimes referred to as uneventful. On the other hand, it’s sometimes referred to as a mystery. The fact that both of these things can be claimed should be taken as evidence of how fraught it is to try to describe her as a person. So who was Jane Austen?
The Austen Family
Jane Austen was born into a large family in a rural village called Steventon, in north Hampshire, England on December 16, 1775. She was the seventh of what would turn out to be a family of eight children. Her father, George Austen, was a clergyman. He lived in the Steventon rectory or parsonage, where his position gave him tithes from parish households and some land to farm. He did not own land and didn’t stand to inherit it.
The Reverend George Austen married Cassandra Leigh, a woman from a better-connected family than his own, although she did not bring a large fortune into the marriage. Both parents were related to the class of wealthy landowners, called the gentry. The Austens would have hoped that they and their children might profit from these family connections, economically and socially. People who are in the Austen’s situation—related to wealthy landowners but not landowners themselves—were labeled as the pseudo-gentry or the low gentry. This class was referred to as the middling class. Austen was born into the middling class, and it was a background that shaped her.
Jane Austen’s Siblings
Being the seventh of eight children shaped her, too. Six of the siblings were boys. Austen had a close relationship with several of her brothers, but she was especially close to her only sister, Cassandra, born two years before Jane. Cassandra outlived Jane by 28 years. During their lives, they wrote letters to each other when they were separated, and much of what we know of Austen’s life comes from her loving, humorous letters to her sister.
But if her close relationship with her sister shaped her life, then so did the fact that she grew up around all of those boys. Living with five brothers obviously had an impact on how she understood the world and her role in it. Austen actually had six brothers. However, her second oldest brother, George, didn’t grow up with the rest of his siblings. Various pieces of evidence point to the likelihood that George was mentally disabled. It was not uncommon for mentally disabled children then to be boarded out to caretaker families. There isn’t much reference to him in the surviving records.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Life and Works of Jane Austen. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
James and Edward Austen
Jane’s oldest brother, James, was a decade older. He took advantage of the Austen family’s connections to Oxford, went to university, and became a clergyman, like his father. James was also a writer and editor. Along with another Austen brother, Henry, James created, edited, and wrote for a periodical in Oxford called The Loiterer, which ran for a little over a year.
Jane’s third oldest brother, Edward, experienced a stroke of economic good luck. A wealthy childless couple, relatives of her father, took a shine to him as a boy. They ended up raising him as their own. The Austens no doubt encouraged this quasi-adoption in the hope that it would make Edward’s fortune—that he would become their heir. Edward Austen even ended up taking the couple’s surname, Knight, and inheriting their properties.
He played a crucial role in his sisters’ and mother’s later years, when he made available to them a cottage on one of his estates in Chawton, England.
Francis and Charles Austen
Jane was also close to her two naval brothers, Francis and Charles Austen. Francis ultimately rose through the ranks to become Admiral of the Fleet, while Charles became a rear admiral. Jane died many years before they reached these heights of career success. What she would have known of were their naval experiences during the Napoleonic Wars and in the British colonies, both in the West and East Indies.
Jane drew on her brothers’ naval experiences in her novels, especially in Mansfield Park and Persuasion.
The brother Jane was closest to—or at least the brother who had the closest ties to her writing career—was Henry Austen. Henry was, by all accounts, a charismatic, colorful man of many talents. He was a military officer, a banker, and then a clergyman.
Henry’s first wife, born Eliza Hancock, and later Comtesse de Feuillide, was a cousin on his father’s side. She was a widow who’d been married to a Frenchman, said to be a count, who was guillotined in the French Revolution. Eliza was the goddaughter—and it was rumored, secret illegitimate daughter—of a controversial English statesman named Warren Hastings.
However, Eliza was hardly weighed down by all of this tragedy and difficulty around her. She had a reputation as a flirtatious, colorful widow. Jane seems to have drawn on Eliza’s talents and many attractions in creating her fiction’s female characters. Some critics believe Eliza was a model for the vivacious flirt, Mary Crawford, in Mansfield Park.
Thus, Jane Austen witnessed, within her own family, a wide variety of human characters and experiences. They traveled the world, and experienced heartbreak and danger. These weren’t just things Austen read about in books. She shared in her family’s experiences, even when she didn’t directly witness them.
Common Questions about James Austen’s Family
People related to wealthy landowners but not landowners themselves were labeled as the pseudo-gentry or the low gentry. This class was referred to as the middling class.
Francis and Charles Austen were in the navy. Jane drew on her brothers’ naval experiences in her novels, especially in Mansfield Park and Persuasion.
Before Eliza Hancock became Jane Austen‘s sister-in-law, she was a widow who’d been married to a Frenchman. Eliza was the goddaughter of a controversial English statesman named Warren Hastings.