Jane Austen, a parson’s daughter who grew up in quiet rural Hampshire in the 18th century, is one of England’s most acclaimed novelists. She originally started writing to amuse herself and to entertain her family, who enjoyed reading aloud to each other. Although Jane’s books sold steadily during her lifetime, it was not until the Victorian period that she was recognised as a great author. By the 20th century her reputation had reached cult status and today a thriving commercial industry has grown out of her fame – a fact that would probably have astonished and amused Jane. But did you know…
Jane Austen’s life was saved by her cousin
In 1783 Jane’s parents, the Revd George Austen and his wife Cassandra, decided to send Jane’s sister, also called Cassandra, to Oxford with her cousin Jane Cooper, to be tutored by a Mrs Ann Cawley. This was probably to reduce Mrs Austen’s workload, for as well as caring for five boys of her own she had to look after several boys who lived at the rectory while being tutored by her husband.
Jane, then aged seven, was devoted to her sister and would not be separated from her, so she went to Oxford as well. A few months later Mrs Cawley moved house to Southampton, taking the young girls with her. While there Cassandra and Jane became very ill with what was then called “putrid sore throat” – probably diphtheria [a potentially fatal contagious bacterial infection that mainly affects the nose and throat].
Jane was so ill that she nearly died, but Mrs Cawley, for some inexplicable reason, made no attempt to alert her parents. The young Jane Cooper took it upon herself to write and inform her aunt that Jane’s life was in danger. Without delay Mrs Austen and her sister Mrs Cooper set off for Southampton to rescue their daughters, taking with them a herbal remedy that would supposedly cure the infection.
The Austen sisters recovered under their mother’s care at home but tragically Mrs Cooper caught the infection and died soon afterwards at her home in Bath. The three girls never returned to Mrs Cawley.
Without her cousin’s timely intervention Jane Austen would almost certainly have died and the world would have been deprived of her outstanding talent.
Jane Austen had a little-known brother
The first biography of Jane Austen, which was written by her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh in 1869, gives the impression that she had only five brothers: James, Edward, Henry, Frank and Charles. There were, however, six sons in the Austen family – George was the second child of Revd Austen and his wife. He was also largely omitted from family memoirs.
George, who was born in 1766, suffered from epilepsy and learning difficulties and was probably deaf too. For this reason he did not live with his family – he was instead looked after by a family who lived in the village of Monk Sherborne, not far from Steventon Rectory where Jane was born and where she grew up.
The Austens made financial provision for George and visited him regularly, but he was not truly part of their lives. Apart from a few early letters that mention George and reveal his parents’ concern for him, he was not mentioned in later correspondence or in any of Jane’s letters.
The Austens clearly cared about George and they perhaps felt that he would better receive the attention he needed living quietly with another family than in the overcrowded rectory, which was also home to several of Revd Austen’s pupils.
George died at Monk Sherborne on 17 January 1838 at the age of 71. He lies in an unmarked grave in the churchyard of All Saints Church.
Jane Austen was partial to a Bath bun
Jane became fond of Bath buns (or ‘bunns’) while staying, and later living, in Bath. These large, rich cakes, which were similar to French brioche bread, were served warm and soaked in butter. The Austen family ate theirs for breakfast (traditionally 10am in the Georgian period), with tea or coffee. Some bakeries, including the famous Sally Lunn’s Bakery in North Parade, delivered these buns to their customers warmed and ready to eat.
Jane, who seems to have had a sweet tooth, also liked sponge cake – in a letter to her sister in June 1808 she wrote: “You know how interesting the purchase of a sponge-cake is to me”.
There are many references to food and meals in Jane’s letters. She clearly enjoyed her food but she also took an interest in it because she helped her mother and sister to run the Austen household on a tight budget. Jane noted the cost of food items, which rose and fell during the years that England was at war with France, and she collected recipes for the servants to try.
Bath bun. (Photo by Richard Hancock/Alamy Stock Photo)
Jane had a seaside romance
All her heroines fell in love with and married their perfect man, but Jane Austen was not so lucky herself – she received only one known offer of marriage. This unexpected proposal came from Harris Bigg Wither, the brother of her friends Elizabeth, Catherine and Alethea, who was heir to a considerable estate. At first Jane accepted this tempting offer but soon changed her mind because she knew she would not be happy if she married a man she did not love.
Many years after Jane’s death her sister Cassandra revealed that Jane had enjoyed a brief holiday romance while staying in Devon in the summer of 1802. The identity of the man concerned is not known, but it is believed that he was a clergyman. The girls’ nephew James Edward wrote that Cassandra thought this man “worthy to possess and likely to win her sister’s love”.
When they parted he expressed his intention to see Jane again, and Cassandra was in no doubt that he intended to propose to her. Sadly, though, they did not meet again because the unidentified man died suddenly not long afterwards, and Jane remained unmarried for the rest of her life.
If Jane had married the man she met in Devon and become a mother, the demands on her time would probably have made it very difficult for her to continue writing, meaning her last three novels might never have been written.
Jane Austen was renowned for her manual dexterity
According to her nephew, Jane Austen was “successful in everything she attempted with her fingers”. All girls of her class were taught to sew by their mothers, and Jane’s needlework was exquisite. Jane, who was usually very modest, was proud of her skill with the sewing needle. In a letter to her sister written in September 1796 from her brother’s home, Jane wrote: “We are very busy making Edward’s shirts and I am proud to say that I am the neatest worker of the party”.
Jane was particularly good at folding and sealing letters, which was a useful skill in the days before ready-made envelopes. Her nephew recorded that “her paper was sure to take the right folds, her sealing wax to drop into the right place”.
Much to the delight of her nephews and nieces, Jane excelled at the game bilbocatch. A bilbocatch comprised a wooden handle with a pierced ball attached by a string. The player tossed up the ball and tried to catch it in a cup on the top of the handle. She was known to have caught the ball more than 100 times in succession, until her arm ached. When she needed to rest her eyes after reading or writing for long periods, she often played bilbocatch; how many times might she have caught the ball during the writing of the 55 chapters of Emma (1815), her longest novel?
Jane Austen’s bilbocatch can today be seen at the Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton, Hampshire.
Jane Austen thought of her novels as children
In letters to her sister, Jane described Pride and Prejudice (1813) as her “darling child” and wrote “I am never too busy to think of S & S (Sense and Sensibility). I can no more forget it than a mother can forget her sucking child”.
This is an interesting analogy because, like pregnancy and childbirth, the creation of her novels was a long and laborious process. Pride and Prejudice, for example, was a long time in the making – she started the first draft in October 1796 but the book wasn’t published until January 1813. The (unread) manuscript was rejected by the first publisher to whom it was sent.
In regarding her novels as her children Jane may also have been acknowledging that if she had followed the traditional path of women of her class and become a wife and mother she would probably not have written them.
Her letters contain no indication that she regretted not having children but, if she did, at least she had the compensation of her many nephews and nieces, to whom she was a devoted and much-loved aunt.
‘Sense and Sensibility’ by Jane Austen – Lady Middleton’s son is shy before company. First published in 1896, Chapter VI. Illustration by Hugh Thomson (1860-1920), 1896. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)
Emma was dedicated to the Prince Regent, even though Jane Austen hated him
Jane once recorded in a letter that she hated the Prince Regent because of the unkind way he was said to treat his estranged wife, Caroline, such as restricting her access to their daughter. So why did she dedicate Emma to him?
In the autumn of 1815 Jane nursed her brother Henry when he was dangerously ill. One of the doctors who attended him at his home in London was the Prince Regent’s physician. When he realised that his patient’s sister was the author of Pride and Prejudice the physician informed her that the prince was a great admirer of her novels and kept a set in every one of his residences. Much to Jane’s dismay the physician then informed the prince that she was in London, and the prince instructed his librarian, James Clarke, to invite her to Carlton House, his London home, to show her the library and his other apartments.
During her visit Mr Clarke told Jane that he had been instructed by the Prince Regent to say that she was at liberty to dedicate any forthcoming novels to him. At first Jane was not inclined to do so, until she was advised, probably by her brother Henry, to regard the invitation as a command. Reluctantly, therefore, Jane asked her publisher to dedicate Emma, then being prepared for publication, to him.
There is no mention on Jane Austen’s gravestone that she was an author
Jane is today known as such a famous author that she is to feature on the next £10 note, but there is no indication at all on her gravestone in Winchester Cathedral that she was a writer. Her grieving family did not consider it worth recording on the stone, and Jane was buried in the cathedral only because she died nearby and it is believed that her clergyman brother obtained special permission from the Dean.
Jane’s reputation grew slowly after her death at the age of 41. Her nephew, in his biography, wrote: “Her reward was not to be the quick return of the cornfield, but the slow growth of the tree which is to endure to another generation”.
Jane Austen’s gravestone in Winchester Cathedral, Hampshire, England. (Photo by Peter Barritt/Alamy Stock Photo)
Even in the middle of the 19th century, when Jane’s fame and popularity as an author were increasing rapidly, one of the vergers of Winchester Cathedral was mystified by the large number of people seeking out her grave. “Was there anything special about this lady?” he asked.
A brass memorial tablet, which mentions Jane’s writing, was placed on the wall near her grave in 1872. It was purchased with the profits of her nephew’s biography of her, which he wrote to satisfy the growing curiosity about her life and work. There was such a demand for it that a second, extended, edition was soon published. This was to be the first of countless biographies and books about one of England’s best-loved novelists.
Helen Amy is the author of The Jane Austen Files: A Complete Anthology of Letters & Family Recollections (Amberley Publishing, 2015) and Jane Austen: In Her Own Words and The Words of Those Who Knew Her (Amberley Publishing, 2014).
This article was first published on History Extra in March 2016