Jane Austen (1775-1817) was the seventh of eight children born to respectable, middle class Parents. Her mother, Cassandra Leigh Austen (1739-1827) had family connections to a Duke as well as Lord Leigh of Stoneleigh Abbey. Her father, the Reverend George Austen (1731-1805) was known as ‘The Handsome Proctor’ of St. John’s College, Oxford. It was here that the two met while Miss Leigh was visiting her uncle, Dr. Theophilus Leigh, Master of Balliol Collge. It seems that Cassandra was much like her daughters when young, witty and shrewd, while Rev. Austen was more scholarly and calm. They seemed to compliment each other perfectly. It would seem that Rev. Austen followed Miss Leigh to Bath to continue his courtship of her, as they were married there, at “old” St. Swithin’s Church, April 26, 1764.
After their marriage, George took on the rectorship of Steventon, a good sized parish in Hampshire. He had obtained this position through his cousin, Thomas Knight of Godmersham Park (who would later adopt the Austen’s third son, Edward, eventually leading him to change his name to Edward Austen-Knight and inherit Godmersham, as well as extensive holdings in Chawton.) He also held the living of the neighboring parish of Deane, thanks to his Uncle Francis, who had paid for his education at Tonbridge and supported him through Oxford.
The Austen’s were parents to 8 children who, almost without exception, were outstanding in their chosen fields:
The eldest, James (1765-1819) was studious, went away to Oxford university at the age of 14 in 1779, and was ordained a clergyman in 1787. He had some literary pretensions and in 1789-1790 edited (with Henry) a university magazine at Oxford called The Loiterer, which ran for sixty issues.
Not much is known of the Austen’s second son, George, who was somewhat retarded and lived with a nearby family. The third son, Edward (1767-1852) was steady and business-like, and in the early 1780’s was adopted by Thomas and Catherine Knight. He was sent by them on the “grand tour” of continental Europe in 1786-1788, and eventually inherited their estate of Godmersham, Kent, and took the last name of “Knight”. Henry Austen (1771-1850) was Jane Austen’s favorite brother; he was witty and enthusiastic in whatever he did, but not always successful. He entered Oxford University in 1788, married Eliza de Feuillide (who died in 1813), and eventually ended up as a Calvinist-leaning minister, after a business bankruptcy in 1815. He saw Jane Austen’s novels Persuasion and Northanger Abbey through the press after her death.
Cassandra Elizabeth (1773-1845) was Jane Austen’s only sister, and her closest confidante. Over a hundred letters from Jane Austen to Cassandra have survived, giving us our most intimate look at some of the details of Jane Austen’s life. Cassandra’s fiancé Thomas Fowle died of yellow fever in the Caribbean in 1797. After this, Cassandra never married. Frank (1774-1865) and Charles (1779-1852) both entered the Royal Naval Academy at Portsmouth at the age of 12, fought in the British navy during the Napoleonic wars, and both eventually rose to become admirals.
In order to supplement his income, the Rev. Austen took in students turning the Steventon parsonage into a private boarding school. These young men included Lord Lymington, son of the Earl of Portsmouth, and the son of Warren Hastings, first governor general of British India and possible relation to the Austen’s neice, Eliza De Feuillide. He also took on tennents and farmed the family’s property in a style similar to Mr. Bennet of Pride and Prejudice fame. While the children were still young, the family must have enjoyed a certain amount of financial security.
It was the Deane connection that would lead to a lasting friendship for the Austen daughters. The Lloyd family were tenants of the Austens, and moved into the Deane parsonage in 1789.
Jane and Cassandra were good friends with Mary and Martha Lloyd, and Mary Lloyd eventually married James Austen, Jane’s brother. The Lloyds moved to Ibthorpe in 1792 and Jane and Cassandra stayed with them in October 1792.
In November 1800 Jane stayed with Martha Lloyd at Ibthorpe where she had ‘the pleasure of spending my time very pleasantly’ despite wet weather which made it ‘too dirty even for such desperate walkers as Martha and I to get out of doors’.
She returned to Steventon in the December to be greeted with the news that her family was moving to Bath, and family tradition has it that she fainted away, the shock was so great.
In 1800, at the age of 69, Rev. Austen had made the decision to retire from the ministry, turning the family living over to his son James. The family then moved to lodgings in Bath At this point Bath was, while still fashionable, past it’s glorious heyday. Much of society had, at this point, moved on to Brighton, where the Prince Regent had his ‘Royal Pavilion’. The healing waters and glittering assembly rooms had been left to the elderly, the infirm and the less wealthy who still wanted a taste of society, if not quite so expensively.
During these years (1801-1804) the family enjoyed many holidays to seaside resorts such as Lyme and Sidmouth, during the summer months. It was on one of these trips that Jane met and reportedly fell in love with the mysterious stranger. Unfortunately, though he had plans to meet up with the family again later on, he died before the relationship could progress.
On January 21, 1805 the Reverend George Austen died at the age of 73, and was buried St. Swithin’s Church. It was a shock to the family, and as the settlements their father enjoyed were life benefits, it left the Austen women in a precarious pecuniary position. Fortunately the Austen’s sons came together to make up their mother’s income to the £600 enjoyed when Mr Austen was alive, thus ‘saving her from misery and their sisters from the “slave-trade” of governessing.’ Still, Bath was becoming more and more a commercial city and it became difficult for three women with only £600 a year to find suitable lodgings. They soon moved to Clifton, another Spa town, with their friend Martha Lloyd.
Cassandra Austen, Jane Austen’s older sister, had helped Martha nurse her mother during her final illness, and after the latter’s death at Ibthorpe in Apr 1805, Martha Lloyd moved in with the Austens at Bath, and stayed with them after the move to Chawton in 1809. It was a happy arrangement and Martha stayed for about 20 years altogether.
From Clifton, the family moved to Southampton to be with Francis Austen, at that time, a Captain in the Royal Navy, and stay with his wife while he was away. Finally, in 1809, he Austens were able to move to their final home, Chawton Cottage, which had been recently inherited by Edward Austen Knight. Here, life was much like it had been at Steventon during the girl’s early years. Their income provided for two servants (one indoors and one outdoors) and they could rely on extended visits and house parties given by their many relatives and friends for amusement.
It was from Chawton Cottage that Jane Austen would write, edit and eventually publish her works (four novels were published during her lifetime, two others in the year after her death.) The Austen women shared the household chores, with Jane, Cassandra and Martha supervising the household work and meals and Mrs. Austen working in her significant garden.
Jane Austen died in 1817. Mrs. Austen, followed in 1827 and was buried in the Chawton cemetery. Soon thereafter (in about 1828) Martha Lloyd also left the household, this time to marry Frank, then Admiral Sir Francis Austen. Cassandra Austen lived on alone at Chawton Cottage until her death in 1847.
Laura Boyle is a longtime fan of Jane Austen and the Regency. She runs Austentation, a company that specializes in custom made Regency Accessories.