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Younger Sons in Jane Austen’s England

This guest article is written by Rory Muir – a visiting research fellow at the University of Adelaide and a renowned expert on British history. You can buy a signed copy of his book, Gentleman of Uncertain Fortune, in the Jane Austen Online Gift Shop.


Younger Sons in Jane Austen’s England

Like many people, I first read Jane Austen’s novels in my mid-teens when I was still at school, and I fell in love with their sharpness, their wit and their emotional pull. I was intrigued by their depiction of early nineteenth century British society, with its minute distinctions of class and status indicating degrees of good breeding or vulgarity, and I appreciated the way that Austen showed that even her heroes and heroines were flawed, or at least behaved badly on occasion, without sacrificing our sympathy for them.

I was also interested in the early nineteenth century in a different way. When I was still in primary school I had become fascinated in the battle of Waterloo and this had broadened to cover all of Napoleon’s campaigns and the nature of Napoleonic warfare. This interest in military history continued at university and led in turn to a doctorate and then a number of books looking at Britain’s part in the war against Napoleon and Wellington’s campaigns in particular. I edited a collection of confidential letters from Alexander Gordon, one of Wellington’s ADCs, which gave new insight into the way Wellington operated, and I wrote a comprehensive two volume life of Wellington which was published in 2013 and 2015. That book took me fifteen years and by the time I had finished it, I needed a change, but I still loved the period and wanted to keep on writing.

Both Alexander Gordon and Wellington were younger sons whose fathers died when they were very young. Neither inherited enough to live on, and they depended on their elder brothers – who inherited great estates – for assistance in their careers. I was struck by the obvious injustice of this: that one brother would inherit an estate that gave him an income of £16,000 or £17,000 while the other would get only £2,000 of capital (which might produce £100 income), and that everyone accepted that this was perfectly normal and reasonable. The consequence of this was that younger sons and younger brothers had to go out and make their way in the world even when their father was a wealthy lord.

But how could the younger son of a lord, or an independent gentleman, make money in Regency England? Suppose Mr and Mrs Bennet, in Pride and Prejudice, had had five sons, not five daughters, how would the younger ones have made a place for themselves? And for that matter, how did Jane Austen’s own brothers fare?

I already knew the rough answer to the question. That relatively few careers were open to young men of good family without the loss of some social status: they might become officers in the army or the navy; or clergymen; or lawyers. Medicine was rather more dubious, but physicians were often regarded as gentlemen, and surgeon-apothecaries were no longer the crude barber-surgeons of the past. Some young men might follow a family connection into trade (and some business ventures, such as banking, were socially acceptable), while others were sent out to India or other colonies in the hope – a rather desperate one – that they would make a fortune and return a wealthy nabob.

But that was no more than an outline, and no one seemed to have gone any further. What did it mean to become an officer in the army, or a barrister, or a clergyman? What prospects of worldly success or of happiness did these careers offer? What sort of life would they bring?

When I dug a little further I found some fine scholarship on individual careers: the clergy and the navy were particularly well covered, while other careers had received much less attention. But even the best of these studies lacked a comparative element. How did a clergyman’s prospects compare to those of a naval officer? Was an attorney, or a curate, or militia officer more suitable as a suitor or a young woman of good family?

I set to work to try to answer these questions and I found the result fascinating. The result, Gentlemen of Uncertain Fortune: How Younger Sons made their way in Jane Austen’s England, was great fun to write and I hope will be fun to read, even though some of the lives that it recounts were sad and often quite short. Jane Austen, her characters and her family figure prominently, for they provide an excellent entry point to the great majority of young men who never became particularly successful. But Wellington is there too, and so is Alexander Gordon; Sydney Smith, the witty clergyman, and a young lawyer, John Scott, whose career almost ended in obscurity but was saved by a chance opportunity. Then there are Henry Thornton, a banker; John Green Cross, a surgeon; Benjamin Smith, an attorney; Henry Roberdeau, an official of the East India Company, and many more. It is a wonderful subject, and I was delighted to find so many vivid first hand accounts describing the lives of these young men, who might easily have provided the model for a character in any of Austen’s novels.

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Jane Austen Letter to Cassandra up for auction

A rare handwritten letter from Jane Austen is coming up for auction on 23rd October 2019 at Bonhams in New York.

Although Jane was a prolific letter writer (it’s estimated that she composed at least 3000 during her life), there are only around 160 known examples surviving – many were destroyed routinely, as was custom of the time and it is suggested by some that a number were deliberately destroyed to protect the Austen family and Jane’s image.

This particular letter, dated September 1810, was written to her sister Cassandra and discusses many personal matters, including music lessons, the children’s dentistry and Mrs Tilson’s child-bearing (by this point, the wife of Henry’s business partner had given birth to at least thirteen children and Jane predicts that she may be “in the family way” again. Jane is also glad to report on her mother’s health and that she is “no longer in need of leeches”.

The letter also contains a beautiful snapshot of Jane’s everyday life with a wonderfully Austenian line: “We are now all four of us young Ladies sitting round the Circular Table in the inner room writing our Letters, while the two Brothers are having a comfortable coze in the room adjoining…”. Interestingly, Mansfield Park contains the first known published use of the word “coze” and this letter pre-dates that.

The book is expected to reach $80,000 – 120,000 (£65,000 – 98,000) at the auction – time to raid those piggy banks!


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The Jane Austen Quiz – Food Glorious Food!

The Jane Austen Quiz – Food Glorious Food

This edition of the Jane Austen Quiz centres around food mentions in Jane’s novels. Score 8/10 or better and you’ll be in with a chance to win a £10 voucher for our Online Gift Shop in our monthly quiz prize draw!

If you’d like to see your scores without entering the competition, just scroll to the bottom of the page after entering the last question and hit the submit button!


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Meet the Watsons!

Andrew Davies’ adaptation of Sanditon isn’t the only adaptation of an unfinished novel which is making headlines in the UK at the moment. After a sell-out run in its debut at the Chichester Festival Season in 2018, The Watsons has made its way to London where it’s running until 16th November.

Sadly as the time of writing, the entire run is sold out, but given the five star ratings it has already received and its credentials (it’s written by Laura Wade, this year’s recipient of the Oliver Award for Best New Comedy), surely there will be future opportunities to meet the Watsons!

The play’s start point is Jane Austen’s unfinished novel – The Watsons. Abandoned in 1805, Jane’s 68 page handwritten partial manuscript sold at auction in 2011 for almost a million pounds and is now the property of the Bodleian Library.

Whereas Andrew Davies filled in the blanks left by Austen for Sanditon, Wade has taken a slightly different approach. With the novel left unfinished, what can the characters do with their author abandons them? Who will write a happy ending for the tale’s heroine, Emma Watson, now?

Click here to visit the Menier Chocolate Factory theatre website where returns will be listed daily. You can also sign up for updates on the future life of the show.

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The Jane Austen Quiz – A Northanger Abbey Special

The Jane Austen Quiz – A Northanger Abbey Special

The Jane Austen Quiz - A Northanger Abbey Special

This edition of the Jane Austen Quiz centres around Northanger Abbey” Score 8/10 or better and you’ll be in with a chance to win a £10 voucher for our Online Gift Shop in our monthly quiz prize draw!


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The Jane Austen Quiz – Who Lives Where?

The Jane Austen Quiz – Who Lives Where?

In this edition of the Jane Austen Quiz, we pose the question “who lives where?” Score 8/10 or better and you’ll be in with a chance to win a £10 voucher for our Online Gift Shop in our monthly quiz prize draw!

Finished the quiz? Don’t go yet! Why not become a Jane Austen Centre Member – it’s completely free and you’ll be able to enjoy all of these benefits:

– A 10% off welcome voucher which you can spend in our online gift shop
– Full access to the Jane Austen Archive, which is packed with articles about Jane’s life and the Regency period.
– Regular Jane Austen news, offers and product information
– A weekly reminder when new quizzes are launched.

Fill out the form below to join!


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The Most Beautiful Libraries in the World

Beautiful libraries

What does the word “library” evoke in your mind? The smell of old books? Dusty shelves? A sense of peace and tranquility? Or something completely different?

The New York Public Library


Vogue UK published a fascinating article last week in which it examined eight of the most beautiful libraries in the world. From the classically beautiful Duke Humfrey’s Library in Oxford (which doubled as the Hogwarts library in the Harry Potter movies) to the clinically modern open-plan Stuttgart City Library, the breadth of styles here means that there is probably a dream bookish haven for any book lover! You can read the article here:


Binhai Library, China

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Playing Piano with the Great-Great-Granddaughter of Fanny Knight

Back in 2009, Gwen Bevan, the great-great-granddaughter of Jane Austen’s niece, Fanny Knight composed a dozen piano pieces, each reflecting a different aspect of Bath as Jane Austen would have known it. These pieces have been deliberately composed to be tuneful and expressive, without being difficult to learn and have been transcribed into a handsome book of sheets music and illustrations called “A Carriage Ride in Queen Square”, with an accompanying CD of the pieces being played.

The Jane Austen Centre is pleased to present an exclusive audio extract from the CD – Gwen’s musical interpretation of Great Pultney Street.

Great Pultney Street

“They arrived at Bath. Catherine was all eager delight–her eyes were here, there, everywhere, as they approached its fine and striking environs, and afterwards drove through those streets which conducted them to the hotel. She was come to be happy, and she felt happy already. They were soon settled in comfortable lodgings in Pulteney Street.” Northanger Abbey