Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Jane Austen’s family’ Category

By Brenda S. Cox

“We do not much like Mr. Cooper’s new sermons;–they are fuller of Regeneration & Conversion than ever–with the addition of his zeal in the cause of the Bible Society” –Jane Austen, letter to Cassandra Austen, Sept. 8, 1816

Last month we talked about Austen’s first cousins, particularly Edward Cooper, son of Jane’s mother’s sister. He became a clergyman like Jane’s father and Edward’s father. Edward was a strong Evangelical, and he and Jane did not always see eye to eye.

Evangelicals in the Church of England

The Evangelical* movement in the Church of England started early in the 1700s. While some evangelicals left the Church of England, others stayed within it. (We use a capital “E” for this movement within the Church of England at that time.) In general, evangelicals stress the centrality of the Bible and of Christ’s death on the cross to redeem sinful people, the need for a personal conversion experience, and Christians’ responsibility to actively lead others toward Christ and do good in the world. These are the messages Edward Cooper and other Evangelicals preached. 

The most famous Evangelical of Austen’s time was William Wilberforce. Wilberforce and other Christians, especially Evangelicals, led the fight against the slave trade, supported campaigns to educate the poor in England, and much more. (While modern evangelicals may be associated with certain political stances, evangelicals in Austen’s England were associated with these issues instead: education for the poor, the campaign against the slave trade and slavery, and others.)

Cooper’s Sermons and Jane Austen’s Responses

In Jane Austen’s time, many clergymen published their sermons. Sermons were popular reading, as well as providing preaching material for other clergymen. Austen enjoyed reading books of sermons. Cooper published a number of volumes of his sermons. Apparently, though, Jane and Cassandra didn’t like them much. In 1809 (Jan. 17), she commented,

“Miss M. conveys to us a third volume of sermons, from Hamstall, just published, and which we are to like better than the two others; they are professedly practical, and for the use of country congregations.”

This was Edward Cooper’s Practical and Familiar Sermons Designed for Parochial and Domestic Instruction(meaning for reading at home and for preaching to churches), first published in 1809. The earlier volumes were one in 1803 criticizing the practice of the militia drilling on Sundays (a day of rest), and then Sermons, Chiefly Designed to Elucidate Some of the Leading Doctrines of the Gospel (1804).

Where did Jane differ from those “leading doctrines” of Evangelical preaching? Evangelicals taught that people needed a conscious, personal conversion experience, a regeneration or rebirth, to become true Christians. Other Anglicans believed that growth in faith was gradual through life, beginning with a person’s baptism as an infant; this was probably Austen’s belief.  Both groups believed that throughout life the person needed to trust in Christ, repent when they sinned, and ask God’s help to live a good life. Edward Cooper’s hymn, “Father of Heaven,” which is still sung today, asks God for His “pardoning love.”

Cover of Edward Cooper’s Practical and Familiar Sermons, which Jane Austen was to “like better than the two others.”

This theological disagreement partly explains Jane’s reaction to a later book which includes two of Edward’s sermons. It’s been speculated that the “we” here might refer to the rest of her family, perhaps to her mother and brother’s opinion more than to her own. But still she does include herself:

“We do not much like Mr. Cooper’s new sermons;–they are fuller of Regeneration & Conversion than ever–with the addition of his zeal in the cause of the Bible Society” (Sept. 8, 1816).

This refers to Two Sermons Preached . . . at Wolverhampton Preparatory to the Establishment of a Bible Institution (1816). I was surprised to find that these sermons do not use the word regeneration, and conversion is used only once (with convert used two further times). However, the concepts are implied.

Cooper does talk about the world’s need for the gospel and for the Bible. Jane Austen apparently did not disagree with these goals. In her third prayer, she wrote,

“May thy [God’s] mercy be extended over all Mankind, bringing the Ignorant to the knowledge of thy Truth, awakening the Impenitent, touching the Hardened.”

Cover of Edward Cooper’s sermons for the Bible Society, which Austen found too full of “regeneration and conversion.”

The SPCK and the Bible Society

So, why would Austen object to Cooper’s supporting the Bible Society? She and her family supported a different institution that distributed the Bible, the SPCK. In fact, Jane herself contributed half a guinea, a substantial amount of her income, to this organization in 1813.

The SPCK, or Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, is a Church of England organization that published and sold Christian literature at that time. However, many felt that they were not supplying enough Bibles in different languages (specifically Welsh, at the beginning), and so the British and Foreign Bible Society was formed.

The Bible Society included both Anglicans and Dissenters (people in other denominations). Because of this, they published and distributed only Bibles, with no commentary (which might support one set of doctrines over another). The SPCK produced the Book of Common Prayer and other materials explaining the Bible from an Anglican perspective. There was some tension or competition between these two groups.

Both societies formed auxiliary groups in various areas to support their work. According to Irene Collins, in 1813, both organizations set up branches in Basingstoke, in the Austens’ part of the country. James Austen, Jane’s brother, organized and spoke at the initial meeting of the SPCK. The Lefroy family, old friends of the Austens’, were leaders of the rival Bible Society auxiliary started at almost the same time.

A copy of James’s speech for the SPCK has been preserved. He said that the SPCK was better than the Bible Society, because along with the Bible it distributed commentaries and the Book of Common Prayer (the “Liturgy”). He explained,

“It [the SPCK] not only puts the Bible in a poor man’s hand, but provides him with the best means of understanding it.”

However, he also said that those supporting the Bible Society did so from “the purest and best of motives,” and encouraged them to support both organizations. He complimented the Bible Society, saying its “exertions” had produced “extreme good.” He called for a spirit of unity in the area and a spirit of “candour”—which meant assuming the best of one another. The speech is gentle and conciliatory; a good model for today’s controversies.

Jane Austen and the Evangelicals

So, Jane Austen had some disagreements with her Evangelical cousin Edward Cooper, and didn’t much like his sermons. However, Cooper had an Evangelical friend in neighbouring Yoxall, Rev. Thomas Gisborne. Both Cooper and Gisborne were involved with Wilberforce in working for the abolition of the slave trade. 

Austen did enjoy Gisborne’s work. In 1805, she told Cassandra,

“I am glad you recommended ‘Gisborne,’ for having begun, I am pleased with it, and I had quite determined not to read it” (Aug. 30, 1805).

The book was probably An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex

In Austen’s letters, she made two specific mentions of the Evangelicals. On Jan. 24, 1809, she wrote, “I do not like the Evangelicals.” She was telling her sister that she did not want to read a new book by Hannah More, a popular Evangelical author. She went on to say, “Of course I shall be delighted when I read it, like other people,” so she doesn’t seem to be very serious. My guess is that she did not like More’s style, which is didactic, clearly teaching lessons through her story. Austen preferred to tell a good story and let readers come to their own conclusions.

Later, on Nov. 18, 1814, she had a serious discussion with her niece Fanny Knight about marrying a man who was leaning toward Evangelicalism. She wrote, “I am by no means convinced that we ought not all to be Evangelicals, & am at least persuaded that they who are so from Reason and Feeling must be happiest & safest. . . . don’t be frightened by the idea of his acting more strictly up to the precepts of the New Testament than others.” So at that point, though she was not Evangelical herself, she admired them.

Austen’s beloved brother Henry later became an Evangelical preacher himself. But he still wrote about his sister, in the introduction to Northanger Abbey and Persuasion:

“She was thoroughly religious and devout . . . On serious [religious] subjects she was well-instructed, both by reading and meditation, and her opinions accorded strictly with those of our Established Church.”

While some have claimed that he was exaggerating here, at the time being “religious” was not necessarily popular. Jane Austen did not always agree with her cousin Edward’s theology or style of writing, but it seems to me that she was serious about her faith, as he was.

 

Brenda S. Cox blogs on Faith, Science, Joy, and Jane Austen. She has written a book called Fashionable Goodness: Faith in Jane Austen’s England, which she hopes will be available by the end of this year.

*Note that “Evangelical” and “evangelism” are two different things, though people sometimes get them confused. Evangelicals, the focus of the article above, were and are groups of Christians with certain common beliefs. Evangelism  means people sharing their religious beliefs with other people.

For Further Reading

Edward Cooper, Wolverhampton Sermons, Jan. 1, 1816.

Jocelyn Harris, “Jane Austen and the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge,” Persuasions 34: 134-139. 

Irene Collins, “’Too Much Zeal for the Bible Society: Jane Austen, Her Family, and the Religious Quarrels of Her Time,” Jane Austen Society Reports, Collected Reports Vol. 6 (2001-2005): 21-38. This article explains the rivalry and cooperation between the Bible Society and the S.P.C.K. in Austen’s community, and Jane’s theological differences with her cousin Edward Cooper. 

Gaye King, “Jane Austen’s Staffordshire Cousin: Edward Cooper and His Circle,” Persuasions 1993 

Gaye King, “Visiting Edward Cooper,” Persuasions 1987 

Donald Greene, “Hamstall Ridware: A Neglected Austen Setting,” Persuasions 1985 (Includes a photo of the rectory where Jane and her family visited Edward and his family)

Come and Visit Edward Cooper, Jane Austen’s Evangelical Cousin,” Jane Austen House Museum blog, Sept. 17, 2012, Edward’s portrait 

Edward Cooper as a hymn writer 

Edward Cooper’s letter to Jane April 6, 1817 (article also includes commentary on the letter)

Jane Austen in the Midlands,” scroll down for a section on Cooper. 

’Cruel Comfort’: A Reading of the Theological Critique in Sense and Sensibility,” Kathleen James-Cavan (springboards from Jane’s comment on Edward Cooper into the ideas in S&S) Persuasions On-Line 32.2 (2012) 

Other Sources

Deirdre Le Faye, Jane Austen: A Family Record, 2nd ed. (p. 262 says Henry Austen became an Evangelical clergyman)

Deirdre Le Faye, ed., Jane Austen’s Letters, 4th ed.

Laura Dabundo, Jane Austen: A Companion

Irene Collins, “Displeasing Pictures of Clergymen,” Persuasions 18 (1996): 110.

Irene Collins, Jane Austen and the Clergy

Read Full Post »

By Brenda S. Cox

“I like first Cousins to be first Cousins, & interested about each other.”—Jane Austen, letter to Anna Lefroy, Nov. 29, 1814

Austen’s First Cousins

Jane Austen was closely connected to her three first cousins: Eliza, Edward, and Jane. (She had additional cousins from her father’s half-brother, William Hampson Walter, though she doesn’t seem to have been as close to them.)

Eliza: Her father’s sister Philadelphia had one daughter, lively Eliza Hancock de Feuillide. Eliza, whose first husband was guillotined in the French Revolution, later married Jane’s brother Henry.

Jane: Jane’s mother’s sister (also named Jane) married a clergyman, the Reverend Dr. Edward Cooper. They had two children, Edward and another Jane. That Jane, Jane Leigh Cooper, went away to school for a time with Jane and Cassandra Austen. Her letter home from Southampton told their parents that the girls were seriously ill with typhus. Mrs. Austen and Mrs. Cooper came and took them home. The girls all survived, but, sadly, Mrs. Cooper caught the illness and died. Jane and Edward Cooper spent a lot of time with the Austen family. Jane was even married at Steventon, to a naval captain, Captain Williams, who was later knighted. Charles Austen served under him in the Navy. Tragically, Jane Cooper, by then called Lady Williams, died in a carriage accident in 1798.

Edward: Edward Cooper, Jane Cooper’s brother, became a clergyman like his father. He is mentioned frequently in Jane Austen’s letters. In her first two existing letters (Jan. 9 and 14, 1796), she talks about his visit to Steventon with his young son and daughter.

Edward Cooper, Clergyman

Many of Jane Austen’s friends and relatives were clergymen (estimated at over a hundred, including of course her father and two of her brothers). She held strong opinions on church livings. When Edward got his living, she wrote (Jan. 21, 1799):

Yesterday came a letter to my mother from Edward Cooper to announce, not the birth of a child, but of a living; for Mrs. Leigh [a relative, the Hon. Mary Leigh, of Stoneleigh] has begged his acceptance of the Rectory of Hamstall-Ridware in Staffordshire, vacant by Mr. Johnson’s death. We collect from his letter that he means to reside there, in which he shows his wisdom.

Staffordshire is a good way off [about 140 miles]; so we shall see nothing more of them till, some fifteen years hence, the Miss Coopers are presented to us, fine, jolly, handsome, ignorant girls. The living is valued at £140 a year, but perhaps it may be improvable. How will they be able to convey the furniture of the dressing-room so far in safety?

Our first cousins seem all dropping off very fast. One is incorporated into the family [Eliza de Feuillide], another dies [Jane Cooper, Lady Williams], and a third [Edward Cooper] goes into Staffordshire.  [Brackets added.]

Church of St. Michael and All Angels, Hamstall Ridware, where Jane Austen’s cousin Edward Cooper served as rector.
Bs0u10e01, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Jane commented that Edward intended “to reside” at his living, which showed “his wisdom.” At this time, many clergy hired curates to serve their livings rather than residing in them and doing the work themselves. In Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas Bertram makes a strong statement about residing at one’s living:

“A parish has wants and claims which can be known only by a clergyman constantly resident, and which no proxy can be capable of satisfying to the same extent. Edmund might, in the common phrase, do the duty of Thornton, that is, he might read prayers and preach, without giving up Mansfield Park: he might ride over every Sunday, to a house nominally inhabited, and go through divine service; he might be the clergyman of Thornton Lacey every seventh day, for three or four hours, if that would content him. But it will not. He knows that human nature needs more lessons than a weekly sermon can convey; and that if he does not live among his parishioners, and prove himself, by constant attention, their well-wisher and friend, he does very little either for their good or his own.”–Mansfield Park, ch. 25

Austen also mentioned that Edward might be able to “improve” his living. That means he might increase his income by negotiating for higher tithe payments from the farmers or leasing extra farmland, as Austen’s father did. Edward Ferrars’s living in Sense and Sensibility is also “capable of improvement” (ch. 39). Cooper added to his income later by becoming rector of nearby Yoxall (much like George Austen, who served two adjacent parishes).

In 1801 Austen said Edward wrote to her after his wife Caroline had a baby.

I have heard twice from Edward on the occasion, & his letters have each been exactly what they ought to be–chearful & amusing.–He dares not write otherwise to me, but perhaps he might be obliged to purge himself from the guilt of writing Nonsense by filling his shoes with whole pease for a week afterwards.–Mrs. G. [Mrs. Girle, Caroline Cooper’s grandmother] has left him £100–his Wife and son £500 each. (Jan. 21, 1801)

It appears that while Jane thought of Edward as too serious, he was willing to write “Nonsense” to her.

Later that month, Edward invited the Austens to come visit his family at the parsonage in Hamstall Ridware. However, Jane says, “at present we greatly prefer the sea to all our relations” (Jan. 25, 1801). Her family had already visited Edward in 1799, when he was a curate at Harpsden. The Austens did visit the Coopers at Hamstall Ridware for five weeks in the summer of 1806, after going to Stoneleigh Abbey. 

Interior of Edward Cooper’s Hamstall Ridware church;
John Salmon via Wikimedia commons CC BY-SA 2.0

Jane seemed to have trouble keeping track of Edward’s children. Some of them died quite young. In 1811 she wrote, “It was a mistake of mine, my dear Cassandra, to talk of a tenth child at Hamstall. I had forgot there were but eight already” (May 29).

In 1808, when Jane’s sister-in-law, Elizabeth Knight, died, Jane wrote, “I have written to Edward Cooper, & hope he will not send one of his Letters of cruel comfort to my poor Brother” (Oct. 15). We don’t know what sort of “cruel comfort” Edward had written in the past. The one still-existing letter from Edward to Jane was written in 1817 and sounds heartfelt and kind. His friend and neighbor John Gisborne wrote that Edward was a great comfort to him in his son’s final illness. But perhaps Edward had taken the opportunity to preach some of his Evangelical ideas in a letter, and Jane and her family did not agree.

Edward Cooper believed and preached an Evangelical interpretation of the Bible. Many of his sermons were published in books, which were reprinted and read for many years, in a long series of editions. So even if Jane didn’t care much for them, others did!

Next month in Part 2, we’ll look at what Edward’s Evangelical ideas were, what Jane Austen thought of his sermons, and why.

Brenda S. Cox writes on Faith, Science, Joy, and Jane Austen. She has written a book called Fashionable Goodness: Faith in Jane Austen’s England, which she hopes will be available by the end of this year.

For Further Reading

Visiting Edward Cooper,” Gaye King, Persuasions 1987

Hamstall Ridware: A Neglected Austen Setting,” Donald Greene, Persuasions 1985 (Includes a photo of the rectory where Jane and her family visited Edward and his family)

Come and Visit Edward Cooper, Jane Austen’s Evangelical Cousin,” Jane Austen House Museum blog, Sept. 17, 2012 (includes Edward Cooper’s portrait)

Edward Cooper’s letter to Jane April 6, 1817 (article also includes commentary on the letter) 

Jane Austen in the Midlands,” scroll down for a section on Cooper.

Other Sources

Deirdre Le Faye, Jane Austen: A Family Record, 2nd ed.

Deirdre Le Faye, ed., Jane Austen’s Letters, 4th ed.

Laura Dabundo, Jane Austen: A Companion

Irene Collins, “Displeasing Pictures of Clergymen,” Persuasions 18 (1996): 110. Collins says Austen’s correspondence refers to at least 90 clergymen, and her biographers could add many more. 

Irene Collins, Jane Austen and the Clergy

John Gisborne and his daughter E. N. A., Brief Memoir of the Life of John Gisborne, Esq., to which are added, Extracts from his Diary (London: Whittaker, 1852), 114-115, 128, 227. 

Read Full Post »

When visiting Jane Austen’s England today, you can stroll through the gardens at Chawton House and Jane Austen’s House Museum, explore the churches at Steventon and Chawton, and tour the homes and churches where Jane Austen and her relatives lived and worshipped in Bath and other areas of England. But what about Steventon Rectory (or parsonage) where Jane Austen and her family lived for the first 25 years of her life?

At Steventon, you can see the site of the rectory and get an idea of where it used to sit before it was torn down in the 1820s. It’s a beautiful spot in the lovely Hampshire countryside. And there’s more to see than just the fields and lanes where Austen grew up.

The old rectory site where the parsonage once stood. A well is the only visible remnant of that house.

If you drive up the tree-canopied lane further, you come to St. Nicholas Church, where Jane’s father preached and where Jane and her family attended church. The church is usually open for visitors who want to look or sit or reflect.

Road to St. Nicholas Church, Steventon. Photo @ Rachel Dodge.

The Rectory Landscape

Though we can’t take a tour of the gardens and property surrounding the Rectory, we do have detailed descriptions available to help us imagine what it once was like.

Deirdre Le Faye paints a descriptive picture of the Rectory garden in Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels: “Mr. Austen’s study was at the back of the house, on the warm southern side, overlooking the walled garden with its sundial, espaliered fruit trees, vegetable and flower beds and grassy walks.” Green meadows stretched beyond it, dotted with livestock.

In A Memoir of Jane Austen, James Edward Austen-Leigh provides this further description of the landscape surrounding the Rectory:

“[T]he neighbourhood had its beauties of rustic lanes and hidden nooks; and Steventon, from the fall of the ground and the abundance of its timber, was one of the prettiest spots in it… It stood ‘in a shallow valley, surrounded by sloping meadows, well sprinkled with elm-trees, at the end of a small village of cottages, each well provided with a garden, scattered about prettily on either side of the road…”

Parsonage, Steventon

Austen-Leigh continues with this: “North of the house, the road from Deane to Popham Lane ran at a sufficient distance from the front to allow a carriage drive, through turf and trees. On the south side, the ground rose gently and was occupied by one of those old-fashioned gardens in which vegetables and flowers are combined, flanked and protected on the east by one of the thatched mud walls common in that country, and overshadowed by fine elms. Along the upper or southern side of the garden ran a terrace of the finest turf…”

Improvements

In Jane Austen’s England, Maggie Lane provides several details about the changes the Austens made during their residency there. She says one of the “constant themes of discussion at Steventon Rectory was ‘improvement.’ Much had been done even before Jane’s birth, but throughout her twenty-five years’ residence there her parents were enthusiastically planting and landscaping their modest grounds.”

The following are some of the grander changes the Austens made to the landscape:

  • They planted a “screen” of chestnuts and spruce fir to “shut out the view of the farm building.”
  • They cut “an imposing carriage ‘sweep’ through the turf to the front door.”
  • The Church Walk – a “broad hedgerow of mixed timber and shrub, carpeted by wild flowers and wide enough to contain within it a winding footpath for the greater shelter and privacy of the family in their frequent walks to the church.”
  • The Elm Walk (or Wood Walk) – a similar hedgerow walk that skirted the meadows and included the “occasional rustic seat” where “weary stollers” could sit or rest.

In Austen-Leigh’s Memoir, he provides further details about the walks and hedgerows:

“But the chief beauty of Steventon consisted in its hedgerows. A hedgerow in that country does not mean a thin formal line of quickset, but an irregular border of copse-wood and timber, often wide enough to contain within it a winding footpath, or a rough cart-track. Under its shelter the earliest primroses, anemones, and wild hyacinths were to be found; sometimes the first bird’s nest; and, now and then, the unwelcome adder. Two such hedgerows radiated, as it were, from the parsonage garden. One, a continuation of the turf terrace, proceeded westward, forming the southern boundary of the home meadows; and was formed into a rustic shrubbery, with occasional seats, entitled ‘The Wood Walk.’ The other ran straight up the hill, under the name of ‘The Church Walk,’ because it led to the parish church…”

Hampshire is still breathtaking; scenes like these give us a sense of the greenery and vegetation Austen might have known.

In October 1800, Jane wrote to Cassandra about the improvements her parents were undertaking at the time: “Our improvements have advanced very well; the bank along the elm wall is sloped down for the reception of thorns and lilacs, and it is settled that the other side of the path is to continue turfed, and to be planted with beech, ash, and larch.”

In November, she wrote again: “Hacker has been here to-day putting in the fruit trees. A new plan has been suggested concerning the plantation of the new inclosure (sic) of the right-hand side of the elm walk: the doubt is whether it would be better to make a little orchard of it by planting apples, pears, and cherries, or whether it should be larch, mountain ash, and acacia.”

Reading these descriptions, it’s easy to see why Jane Austen included “improvements” to the grounds of the estates featured in so many of her novels.

Food and Livestock

However, the Austens didn’t just improve their land to make it more pleasing to the eye or pleasurable for walking. Lane tells us that “the garden at Steventon Rectory was a happy compromise between fashionable ideas and down-to-earth utility – typical of the balanced Austen approach to life.”

In Mrs. Austen’s garden, “vegetables and flowers [were] combined” to balance beauty and provision. One can imagine how the garden must have looked in the spring, summer, and fall, with its tangled profusion of color.

Today, “companion planting” is popular for many gardeners who include flowers among their vegetables.

Beyond the gardens around the Rectory, the Austens kept livestock and grew crops. Mrs. Austen oversaw the poultry-yard and the dairy: “She supervised making all the butter and cheese, baking all the bread and brewing all the beer and wine required by a large household. With the exception of such commodities as tea, coffee, chocolate and sugar, the Austens were virtually self-sufficient in food.” As for Rev. Austen, he grew “oats, barley and wheat, and reared cattle, pigs and sheep” and was able to “not only feed his family, but to sell the surplus.” (Lane)

“All the fruit, vegetables, and herbs consumed by the family were raised here. The Austens’ strawberry fields were famous, and Mrs. Austen was one of the first people in the neighbourhood to grow potatoes.” Taking this all into account, we get a better idea of the gardens and food Jane Austen enjoyed in her youth.

Today, strawberry crops are still grown and produced in Hampshire.

Reading these descriptions of the land surrounding Steventon Rectory can help us better envision what the gardens and fields looked like when Austen was growing up. It’s lovely to try to imagine where she walked and read and thought and imagined; what foods she ate; and what her parents did.

If there ever was a fundraising campaign I could get behind, it would be to someday see a replica (or a scale model) built of the Steventon Rectory and its surrounding gardens. Wouldn’t that be something? For now, I’ll keep dreaming and imagining, which almost just as nice.

If you’d like to take a deeper dive into the Steventon Rectory and its garden and farm, you can read “Why Was Jane Austen Sent away to School at Seven? An Empirical Look at a Vexing Question” in Persuasions On-Line by Linda Robinson Walker.

Read Full Post »

george austen

George Austen, Jane Austen’s father

Very little has been known about George Austen’s mother, Rebecca Hampson; what had been on record consisted of not much more than vital events, and some of their dates. That she was the daughter of Sir George Hampson of Gloucester, a doctor of physick and a baronet, is established fact, as is her first marriage to William Walter, with whom she had a son William Hampson; and after William Walter’s death, her marriage to William Austen, and the births of their four children. Her birth date had been extrapolated from the age stated on her grave in Tonbridge, erroneously as it turns out. Until S. G. Hale’s fortuitous discovery of her marriage to William Austen in registers of clandestine marriages, discussed later in this article, we didn’t know details of either of her marriages.

Although I cannot report the discovery of any letters towards constructing a biography, nor of any portraits, the indexing projects of genealogical companies such as Ancestry.com have revealed information which better focuses our curiosity about Rebecca and her two husbands. However, the first previously unrecognised fact predates online research by many years. Austen biographies had not mentioned the name of Rebecca’s mother, but The Complete Baronetage, published in 1902,1 states that George Hampson married Mary Coghill, daughter of John Coghill of Bletchingdon in Oxfordshire. The Coghills were a long-established Yorkshire family, until Mary’s grandfather Sir Thomas settled his branch at Bletchingdon. It is from that village, just north of the city of Oxford, that the first new facts emerge. 

George (not yet Sir George) Hampson and his wife Mary had their seven children baptised in the parish church, St Giles. Presumably they lived there; the fifty miles between the city of Gloucester and Bletchingdon would have been a dangerous distance over which to carry a newly born child, for the sake of baptism. Rebecca was baptised on 17 September 1693. The entry is unusually detailed, naming her godparents: John and Mrs Coghill (presumably her maternal grandparents), and Mrs Knapp (her maternal aunt Elizabeth, née Coghill). The stone slab in St Peter and St Paul’s, Tonbridge, recording her death in 1733, states that she was then 36; she was 39.

Dunning-800px-Allan_Ramsay_-_Queen_Charlotte_1744-1818_with_her_Two_Eldest_Sons_-_Google_Art_Project

Nothing is known of Rebecca’s childhood, nor of the date on which her father relocated the family to Gloucester. Now we have to fill gaps with assumptions. William Jarvis and Gilbert Hoole established, as they wrote in their article in the Annual Report of 1985,3 that her first husband William Walter, another doctor of physick, came from Tonbridge. He may have gone to Gloucester as an assistant to George Hampson, but we don’t know. We must assume that William and Rebecca married, but a search through the parish registers of St Michael’s, and St John’s, the two parishes with which the family are known to have been associated, has not provided any evidence; nor has Ancestry, so far, suggested another parish.

Now the new discoveries become more interesting. The couple had not one child, William Hampson Walter, but three. There is an entry in the parish register of St Owen’s, Hereford, for the baptism on 11 August, 1719, of Leonora, daughter of William Walter and his wife Rebecca.4 Although there is no corroborating evidence to confirm that it was this couple I am confident, because of the date and the combination of names. Hereford is not too far from Gloucester; William may, perhaps, have been seconded there for a time.

There must be significance in the choice of the name Leonora for Rebecca’s first and last daughters, but I have not found a precedent within her family. Another researcher has reported, although without evidence, that Leonora was buried on 19 November of the same year. She certainly did not appear in any later records. The date of her baptism in August 1719 provides a benchmark for the date of William and Rebecca’s marriage – one would expect that to have taken place by the end of 1718.

Their second child, William Hampson Walter, was baptised back at St Michael’s, Gloucester, on 31 August 1721. He survived into his late seventies, and is well documented, so I won’t dwell on him

The third Walter child was a boy named St George, who was baptised at St John the Baptist, Gloucester, on 25 June, 1723. The next record is, sadly, for his burial at Tonbridge on 29 September, 1725. George was the name of both Rebecca’s and William’s fathers, and she used it again in naming George Austen. This register entry shows that William and Rebecca were in Tonbridge during the year before his death. It had been thought that Rebecca did not visit the town till after that event, probably to look into the leasehold properties that he had held there.

Dunning-Image 2 St George's baptism 1723

dunning-Image 3 St George's burial 1725-1

Rebecca married again some nineteen months later, to another William – William Austen.

We do not know how they met, but we can guess. William Austen’s brother-in-law George Hooper, the husband of his sister Elizabeth, represented the fifth generation in a family of Tonbridge attorneys. George Hooper was well known to William Walter, who nominated him in his will as one of the two trustees. It would have been natural for the Walters to visit the Hoopers on their 1725 visit, where they may have encountered William Austen. Within the close-knit circle of Tonbridge gentry, there must have been other opportunities to meet. 

Stephen Hale, a member of the Society of Genealogists and of the Jane Austen Society, was the best-qualified person to recognise the significance of an entry for 13 January, 1727/8, in the registers of Clandestine Marriages in the Liberty of the Fleet, for William Austen of Tonbridge, Surgeon, and Rebecca Walter, also of Tonbridge.7 The Liberty of the Fleet was an area on the western edge of the City of London, surrounding the Fleet Prison for debtors, which was largely free of ecclesiastical oversight. There were many ‘marrying houses,’ where indebted clergymen could earn money to pay for their keep and ultimate release; however the specific locations of clandestine marriages were seldom noted in the registers. It is estimated that over 300,000 marriages took place there between 1720 and 1754. For many couples, it was simply a matter of convenience – they may both have come to London from distant parishes, and could marry quickly on the purchase of a licence. For others, they were definitely clandestine.

Why did William and Rebecca marry secretly, away from Tonbridge? No doubt they anticipated opposition from family and society. The couple’s age difference was greater than had been assumed – Rebecca was 34 and William 27. Fathers contributed property or finance on the first marriage of offspring, but not normally to a subsequent union; besides that, Sir George Hampson’s death had preceded William Walter’s by some twenty months. By remarrying, Rebecca sacrificed her half-share in her first husband’s property to their son. Whatever wealth William Austen had at his young age accumulated, and whatever status Rebecca had as the daughter of a baronet, their position in society was going to be precarious.

It is clear from a letter written by William’s aunt, Mary Tilden (née Weller), that he felt awkward. In the Annual Report of 2009 Mark Ballard, a Kent County archivist, transcribed some lines from her letter of 4 April 1728, written to her brother Edward Weller. They are worth repeating: 

In your last you hinted … you thought there was now nothing of Cous. Will Austen’s amour which I then wonder’d at, but I suppose my Brother [Robert] has told you what reason we have to think he is now married. I think he acts very foolishly in not declaring it and living as if it was so. I find him close & sullen if anything is mention’d to him of it tho I believe he’d have us think he is married. I said something to him a day or so ago and he answer’d me very ruff and unrespectfull. I found he was tutchd when I said the widow I believ’d was not that sincere person he believed.8

Mary’s misgivings concerning William’s behaviour are understandable, but we don’t know why she was suspicious of Rebecca. It appears that this first marriage of William’s was a love match and that Rebecca was prepared to sacrifice financial security for the emotional comforts of partnership. The couple wanted to be united despite the possibility of insecurity. What security they did gain was short-lived; Rebecca died only five years later, on 6 February 1732/3, shortly after the birth of the second Leonora. William died on 7 December, 1737. The eldest of their surviving children, Philadelphia, was nearly eight years of age; George, Jane Austen’s father, was six; and Leonora, nearing four. 

The new records presented here are only markers of events; we still know very little about the lives and characters of Rebecca and her two Williams. I began this article saying that this new evidence better focuses our curiosity; it leaves us wishing for more.

About the author:

Ronald Dunning

Ronald Dunning, Author

Ronald Dunning is the creator of Ancestry.com: The Jane Austen Page ” which is undergoing an update as his research continues. He learned through his grandmother that her family was in some way related to Jane Austen. After moving from Canada to England in 1972, he pursued this intriguing information and discovered that Frank Austen [Jane’s brother] was her great-great-grandfather. Find more information in Deb Barnum’s 2012 interview with Mr. Dunning for Jane Austen in Vermont, An Interview with Ron Dunning on his Jane Austen Genealogy ~ The New and Improved Jane Austen Family Tree!

Also, click on this link to Sir Thomas More and Jane Austen  on this blog by Ronald Dunning.

Notes

. The Complete Baronetage, ed. G. E. Cokayne, pub. William Pollard & Co. Ltd., Exeter, 1902. Vol.2, p.177

  1. With the permission of the Oxfordshire History Centre. St Giles, Bletchingdon, parish registers. Ref. PAR36/1/R1/2.
  2. Annual Report, 1985: ‘William Walter – An Investigation by Gilbert Hoole and William Jarvis’
  3. Ancestry.com. St Owen’s, Hereford;  Family History Library Film Number 1041600
  4. Gloucestershire Archives. St John the Baptist, Gloucester, parish registers. Ref. P154/9 in 1/5
  5. With the permission of the Kent History and Library Centre, ref. P371/1/A/4
  6. Annual Report for 2010, p.79, ‘Jane Austen’s Grandparents: William and Rebecca Austen.’  The marriage was listed in at least three registers of Clandestine Marriages, held at The National Archives in Kew: RG7/67, RG7/85, and RG7/403.
  7. Annual Report for 2009, p.71, ‘Jane Austen’s Family in the Centre for Kentish Studies, Maidstone;’ Mark Ballard and Alison Cresswell. Kent History and Library Centre, ref.  KHLC U1000-18 C1-12

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: