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Posts Tagged ‘Letter from George Austen to son Francis’

Inquiring readers: WordPress has changed its editor, and I am still wrestling with the changes, especially on different computers – Mac and Android. You can see it in the changes in spacing and font. I am also experiencing internet connectivity problems. For these reasons, this post is published 4 days later than I intended. When we celebrated Father’s Day in the U.S., I thought of my beloved father and of his dry wit, which influenced my love for Austen and her novels (especially of Mr Bennet’s comments in Pride and Prejudice that reminded me of my father’s droll, but gentle humor). As I pondered the connection, I asked: “How did Jane Austen’s father influence her writing?” Here is my very short analysis.

Jane Austen was born on December 16th in 1775 on a bitter cold day in Steventon, a village in Hampshire. One day after her birth, her father, the village’s pastor, wrote a family member about his 7th child (out of 8) and second daughter:

“You have doubtless been for some time in expectation of hearing from Hampshire, and perhaps wondered a little we were in our old age grown such bad reckoners but so it was, for Cassy* certainly expected to have been brought to bed a month ago: however last night the time came, and without a great deal of warning, everything was soon happily over. We now have another girl, a present plaything for her sister Cassy** and a future companion. She is to be Jenny…” (Lane, 63). (*His wife, Cassandra; **His daughter.)

George Austen

One senses a father’s pride in the tone of this letter, as well as George Austen’s pleasure that Cassy, the only girl among his six children, and almost three years older than *Jenny*, would have a sister as a playmate. 

Reverend George Austen baptized his new daughter on December 17th in his home, as he had done with his other children. While Mrs Austen rested during her lying in, he wrote notes announcing the birth to friends and acquaintances. As far as we know, this was the last time that he called his newborn Jenny.  On April 5th, baby Jane was formally christened in St. Nicholas church. She was named after her godmother; her two aunts – Mrs Cooper and Mrs Leigh Perrot – and her maternal grandmother. 

Despite the high infant mortality rate during this era, the Austens sent their babies to “a good woman at Deane” three months after their births. This custom was commonly practiced at that time.  Cassandra Austen visited her babies daily in the nearby village, until they returned to the family fold at around 18 months of age. The reasons for this custom can be found in the following article on Breast Feeding in the Early 19th Century on this blog. 

A loving father and mother:

George and his wife were equally hard working parents who provided a stable and often joyful childhood for their children, except perhaps for the physically disabled George, who might have suffered from epilepsy. (His condition is more fully discussed in this article by Geri Walton: Jane Austen’s Disabled Brother George Austen. 

Early childhood and an education at home

Once the infants were returned to Steventon Parsonage, the parents took over raising their children. By all accounts, the Austen family was close-knit. After baby Jane’s return to the family fold, her parents’ teachings and examples during her formative years modeled intellectual, creative, and practical activities in a comfortable home and rural setting. 

“She was apparently a tomboy as a child, preferring to play cricket and roll down hills with her brothers than play ‘girls’ games, much like the character of Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey.” (Ivins, p 2.)

Book cover with image of a family with two parents and six childrendancing, with carpet rolled up and one of the girls playing piano.

Mrs Hurst Dancing book cover from Amazon books. The image shows a family of 8 dancing inside a drawing room, with the carpets rolled up.

Many facts exist about the timeline of Rev George Austen’s life, but what was his relationship with his family, and, in the interest of this article, with his famous daughter?  From an early age, George Austen led a hard-scrabble life. He lifted himself up through extraordinary intelligence and industry.  

Young Jane and her sister learned about history, literature, and the classics from their father and brothers. George’s library consisted of 500 volumes, an enormous (and expensive) number for a mere country parson. Shades of Mr Bennet! The library contained both classical books and novels, the latter of which were first frowned upon by academics and traditionalists, but were read with enjoyment by the Austen family. 

“…most of [the sisters’] education was undertaken privately at home, where their father, Reverend George Austen, supplemented his clerical income by taking boy pupils as boarders. It is likely that the Austen sisters benefited from their father’s library and from his informal instruction. We do not know whether or not they also sat in on any of the boys’ classes.” – Sutherland, British Library

Boarding school and “formal” education:

Jane and Cassandra acquired some formal education, although there were no expectations that their education would be as rigorous as their brothers’.

“In 1782 at the age of 7 Jane Austen went to school for the first time. Theories [conjecture] that she wanted to go to school because her elder sister Cassandra was being sent to Mrs Cawley’s school in Oxford to accompany their cousin Jane Cooper who was being sent there.” – Jane Austen Went to School

In 1783, Jane, Cassandra, and their cousin Jane Cooper caught an infectious disease spread by troops returning to Southampton. The three became quite ill. Jane Cooper sent a letter about the situation to her parents, who informed the Austens. Alarmed, Mrs Austen and Mrs Cooper immediately traveled to the school to retrieve their daughters. Mrs Austen nursed Jane back to health, but sadly Mrs Cooper caught the disease and died from it.

In the following three years, Jane and Cassandra continued their education at home. Then, when Jane was ten, the girls set off again to school, one that seemed similar to Jane’s description of Mrs. Goddard’s school in Emma:

“Mrs. Goddard was the mistress of a school — not a seminary, or an establishment, or anything which professed, in long sentences of refined nonsense, to combine liberal acquirements with elegant morality, upon new principles and new systems — and where young ladies for enormous pay might be screwed out of health and into vanity — but a real, honest, old-fashioned boarding school, where a reasonable quantity of accomplishments were sold at a reasonable price, and where girls might be sent to be out of the way, and scramble themselves into a little education, without any danger of coming back prodigies. Mrs. Goddard’s school was in very high repute, and very deservedly; for Highbury was reckoned a particularly healthy spot: she had an ample house and garden, gave the children plenty of wholesome food, let them run about a great deal in the summer, and in winter dressed their chilblains with her own hands.”

The school Jane and Cassandra attended between the spring of 1785 and December of 1786 was the Abbey School in Reading (remarkably still a girl’s school today https://theabbey.co.uk), where the curriculum included writing, spelling, French, history, geography, needlework, drawing, music and dancing – subjects that were considered essential for a girl’s education during the girls’ formative years to prepare them for attracting a husband and running a household. Few roads for women in Austen’s time led to higher education, travel abroad, or a career.

Unlike most of their female contemporaries, Jane’s and Cassandra’s education did not stop when they returned to Steventon. In fact, they were exposed to a wider variety of topics, subjects, and intellectual skills than they would have encountered in boarding schools. In addition:

“[Jane] was not denied “unladylike” material; she mentioned Henry Fielding’s bawdy novel Tom Jones in one of her letters and wrote that the Austen family were “great novel readers and not shamed of being so.” – Sullivan, (p180).

Early writing

Jane wrote her Juvenilia between 12 – 18 years of age as “gifts to her family” (Ivins). She frequently read these short, hilarious pieces of fiction to her siblings, parents, and friends. An early draft of Pride and Prejudice (First Impressions) was a particular favorite of her audience and remained so for years. Importantly, Rev. Austen encouraged her writing. In later years Cassandra recalled Jane reading from Elinor and Marianne (later Sense and Sensibility) before 1796. These carefree times in the Austen family’s social lives were filled with laughter, games, riddles, plays, readings, and intellectual discussions.

“…the relationship of Jane Austen with her own father seems, from what remains of her correspondence, to have been a good one. John Halperin characterizes him as a gentle, scholarly man, a good teacher and an excellent classical scholar. It was he who gave his daughter her literary education, and he who took sufficient interest in her work to offer her first novel to a publisher.” (Gibbs).

Despite their loving relationship, Austen’s six major novels described deeply flawed fathers with a variety of issues: Sir Walter Elliot was a snob and a spendthrift (P); Mr Woodhouse was a fearful hypochondriac whose neediness bound his youngest daughter to their home (E); General Tilney, another snob, was a truly nasty man all around (NA); and Mr Henry Dashwood (SS) left the financial fate of his second wife and daughters to the mercy of his weak-willed son and heir for lack of planning and foresight. 

Sir Thomas Bertram’s fathering skills in Mansfield Park were more nuanced. While he wasn’t a model father, his understanding and insights changed. The growth of his character is one of many reasons why Mansfield Park is considered by many to be Jane’s masterpiece.

I have reserved Mr Bennet (PP), for last. When I was fourteen his character delighted me – his witticisms, his criticisms of his silly wife and three younger equally silly daughters, and his close relationship with Jane and Elizabeth, who I adored, all had my approval. But then I grew up and saw him in a different light.

In my mature years I saw a man whose wit and sarcasm hid an underlying cruelty. He was a husband who made fun of his wife; who favored two daughters above three others; a man who bought extremely expensive books, but who failed to set a portion of that expense aside for future investments for his wife and daughters. I now see a man who retreated from daily reality and, for all his intellectual curiosity, was generally lazy. 

Even after Mr Wickham compromised his daughter, Lydia, and after Mr Darcy did everything in his power to rectify the situation, including providing the shameless couple with a yearly income, Mr Bennet quipped to Elizabeth:

“I admire all my three sons-in-law highly,” said he. “Wickham, perhaps, is my favourite; but I think I shall like your husband quite as well as Jane’s.”

That statement put the nail in the coffin to my youthful admiration of this father. 

George Austen’s support:

George Austen was proud of all his children. He actively supported Jane’s talents as a writer and encouraged her from childhood and on. In a letter to publisher Thomas Cadell, Jr., who was a partner in the firm that had published Fanny Burney’s novels, he proposed to submit her completed manuscript of First Impressions. George’s letter, written in November, 1797, offered “A Manuscript Novel, comprised in three Vols., about the length of Miss Burney’s Evelina.” Cadell, Jr. returned the letter unopened, and so the manuscript languished for 16 years.

Edward’s gift, and the fortuitous consequences of Cadell’s rejection:

George Austen’s sudden death in Bath on 21 January 1805, when Austen was nearly 30, placed his female family in uncertain circumstances. All the brothers, except for George, contributed enough funds towards their mother’s and sisters’ upkeep to relieve some of their financial burdens. Nevertheless, Jane’s creative writing suffered as her female family sought a permanent place to land after George’s death. In 1809, the group found a permanent home in Chawton Cottage, a house that Jane’s brother, Edward Austen Leigh, had refurbished for them.

Black and white pen and ink drawing of the cottage by Ellen Hill

Chawton Cottage by Ellen Hill

The move to Chawton Cottage created a perfect storm of creativity and success for Jane. Thanks to Edward, she returned to the rural countryside she loved, and once again her talent and creativity flourished. First on her to-do list was to rewrite Sense and Sensibility. A publisher had not rejected this manuscript and she sensed its commercial value. After its modest success, she turned to her other novel, First Impressions, the family favorite which had languished unpublished. We have no way of knowing how often Jane revised this beloved story, which, like Sense and Sensibility, started out as an epistolary novel. What we do know is that the finished product, renamed Pride and Prejudice (published in 1813), was well received. The book retains its literacy rock star status to this day.

I have no doubt that George Austen’s unshakable faith in Jenny’s brilliance as an author contributed to her success. His gift was his consistent confidence and encouragement in nourishing her spectacular talent. Well done, George!

______

Articles from this blog:

Online Articles

Gibbs, C. (1986) Absent Fathers: An Examination of Father-Daughter Relationships in Jane Austen’s Novels (Persuasions #8. JASNA. PDF Downloaded 6/26/21: http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/printed/number8/gibbs.pdf

Sutherland, K. (2014) Female education, reading and Jane Austen, British Library. URL Downloaded 6/26/21: https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/female-education-reading-and-jane-austen

Books

Grey, J.D. (1986) The Jane Austen Companion (with A Dictionary of Jane Austen’s Life and Works by H. Abigail Bok (U.S.). Macmillan Publishing Company.

Lane, M. (1997) Jane Austen’s Family: Through Five Generations (Paperback reprint (U.K.) St. Edmundsbury Press, Ltd.

Hannon, P. (2007) 101 Things You Didn’t Know About Jane Austen: The Truth About the World’s Most Intriguing Literary Heroine (U.S.). Fall River Press.

Ivins, H. (2010) The Jane Austen Pocketbook Bible (1st ed. U.K.). Crimson Publishing.

Mingay, G & Sperling, D. (1981) Mrs Hurst Dancing And Other Scenes from Regency Life 1812-1823 (U.K.). Victor Gollancz Ltd.

Sullivan, M.C. (2007) The Jane Austen Handbook: Proper Life Skills from Regency England (U.S.). Quirk Books.

https://www.amazon.com/Hurst-Dancing-Scenes-Regency-1812-1823/dp/0312551290

 

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“Memorandums for the use [of] Mr. F. W. Austen on his going to the East Indies Mids[hip]man on board his Majesty’s Ship Perseverance Cap: [Sm]ith Decr. 1788”

Thus begins a letter from Jane Austen’s father to her older brother Francis. Francis, who Jane called Frank, went to sea at age 14. He had been at the Royal Naval Academy in Portsmouth (home town of Fanny Price of Mansfield Park) for two and a half years.

Photo 1 Lieutenant Francis Austen

Lieutenant Francis Austen, 1796, about eight years after his father sent this letter

Their father had written to Francis regularly at school. He now felt that his son needed to know more about subjects “of the greatest importance”—his relationships with God and with people.

Francis apparently treasured this letter. There is even fire damage on some of the folds, since he had it with him on shipboard. It was found among his papers when he died at age 91.

His descendants quoted much of the letter in the book Jane Austen’s Sailor Brothers. However, they did not quote the second paragraph. Instead they summarized it as “some well-chosen and impressive injunctions on the subject of his [George Austen’s] son’s religious duties.” (They also left out a few later parts of the letter, such as George telling his son to keep himself clean and take care of his teeth!) We can learn a lot about the Austen family’s religious beliefs and practices from the missing second paragraph.

The “Memorandums”

At the end of the first paragraph, George Austen says his son’s own “good sense & natural Judgment of what is right” will guide him in specific circumstances. Then he writes with more general advice:

“The first & most important of all considerations to a human Being is Religion, or the belief of a God & our consequent duty to him, our Neighbour, & ourselves – In each of these your Catechism instructs you, & for what is further necessary to be known on this subject in general, & on Christianity in particular I must refer you to that part of the Elegant Extracts where you have Passages from approved Authors sufficient to inform you in every requisite for your belief & practice. To these I refer you & recommend them to your frequent & attentive perusal; observing only on this head, that as you must be well convinced how wholly you depend on God for success in all your undertakings, you will easily see that you are bound in interest as well as duty regularly to address yourself to him in Prayer, Night & Morning; thankfully acknowledging the Blessings you have received already & humbly beseeching his future favor & protection. Now this is a Duty which nothing can excus[e t]he omission of times of the greatest hurry will not hinder a well dis[pose]d mind from fulfilling it – for a short Ejaculation to the Almig[ht]y, when it comes from the heart will be as acceptable to him as the most elegant & studied form of Words.” (The parts in [brackets] are damaged areas of the letter.)

Photo 2 Rev. George Austen 1763

Reverend George Austen, rector of Steventon and Deane

Jane and Francis Austen grew up in a very religious household. Their father was a clergyman, a priest in the Church of England. Some clergymen at this time saw their job simply as a source of income, and did the minimum they could. In Mansfield Park, Henry Crawford assumes that Edmund Bertram will be such a clergyman. But Edmund is determined to live among his people and set a good example for them—as George Austen actually did in his parish.

Religious Duties and the Catechism

Reverend Austen begins by telling his son that religion is the most important thing in life. Jane Austen echoes this belief in Mansfield Park. Edmund says that the clergy “has the charge of all that is of the first importance to mankind, individually or collectively considered, temporally and eternally . . . the guardianship of religion and morals, and consequently of the manners which result from their influence.” (Italics added.) Religion meant religious practices and teachings; morals (which Austen also called “good principles”)  were inward knowledge of right and wrong, based on religion; and manners were outward actions towards other people (not just politeness).

Rev. Austen similarly defines religion as “the belief of a God & our consequent duty to him, our Neighbour, & ourselves.” In other words, religion includes both what people believe and how they act based on their beliefs.

He says the Catechism teaches these duties. Frank and Jane would have memorized the Catechism from the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer. In it, the child recites the Ten Commandments, which teach a person’s duty towards God and towards their neighbour.

Photo 3 Book of Common Prayer Cover page

The Book of Common Prayer, 1762, which includes the Catechism that George Austen refers to

When the child is asked what his duty is toward God, he responds,

“My duty towards God, is to believe in him, to fear him, and to love him with all my heart, with all my mind, with all my soul, and with all my strength; to worship him, to give him thanks, to put my whole trust in him, to call upon him, to honour his holy Name and his Word, and to serve him truly all the days of my life.” (This is considered to be a summary of the first four of the Ten Commandments.)

The child is then asked what his duty is toward his neighbour. He answers,

“My duty towards my Neighbour, is to love him as myself, and to do to all men, as I would they should do unto me: To love, honour, and succour my father and mother: To honour and obey the King, and all that are put in authority under him: To submit myself to all my governors, teachers, spiritual pastors, and masters: To order myself lowly and reverently to all my betters: To hurt no body by word or deed: To be true and just in all my dealings: To bear no malice nor hatred in my heart: To keep my hands from picking and stealing, and my tongue from evil-speaking, lying, and slandering: To keep my body in temperance, soberness, and chastity: Not to covet, nor desire other men’s goods; but to learn and labour truly to get mine own living, and to do my duty in that state of life, unto which it shall please God to call me.” (This section is based on the last six of the Ten Commandments.)

Jane Austen refers to some of these duties in Sense and Sensibility. When Marianne Dashwood repents of her failures, she says, “Whenever I looked towards the past, I saw some duty neglected, or some failing indulged.” She has failed in her duties to love her neighbour as herself and “to hurt no body by word or deed,” as the Catechism says.

The Catechism refers to one’s “betters” and one’s “state of life.” In Austen’s England, each person was believed to have a specific God-ordained place in society.  George Austen later advises his son on the “three Orders of Men” he will encounter: his superior officers, his “Equals,” and his “Inferiors.” He recommends treating them with respect and kindness.

The Catechism doesn’t specifically address our duty “to ourselves,” as George Austen says. However, it does say “To keep my body in temperance, soberness, and chastity.” That means to care for oneself by not eating or drinking too much or indulging in sex outside of marriage. Later in the letter Rev. Austen says that Frank already knows that soberness is important for his health, morals, and fortune.

George Austen probably thought that doing our duty to God and to man would also be a way of doing our duty to ourselves. The Austens were familiar with Thomas Secker’s Lectures on the Catechism, which Jane Austen owned. The introductory lecture states that “the happiness of all Persons depends beyond Comparison chiefly on being truly religious.” Rev. Austen also points out that if Frank treats others well it will add to his “present happiness & comfort” as well as his “future well-doing.”

Elegant Extracts

Rev. Austen told his son to read Elegant Extracts frequently and attentively.  It contained “approved Authors sufficient to inform you in every requisite for your belief & practice.” Elegant Extracts was a large schoolbook with a wide variety of selections from books and essays. The first section contained 135 “Moral and Religious” writings (in the second edition, 1784). More than 40 were from sermons by Hugh Blair.

Photo 4 Elegant Extracts

Elegant Extracts: This 1784 edition is probably the one Francis Austen owned.

Hugh Blair was a Scottish Presbyterian minister whose books of sermons were very popular. Jane Austen enjoyed reading sermons, as many people did in that time. Clergymen often read other men’s sermons from the pulpit. In Mansfield Park, Mary Crawford says a preacher should have the sense to preach from Blair’s Sermons rather than writing his own. (Blair also wrote a book on rhetoric which is mentioned in Northanger Abbey. It is quoted extensively in the introduction to Elegant Extracts.)

Blair’s first entry in Elegant Extracts emphasizes that those in any “station of life” who work hard and do right will prosper. However, those who seek only their own amusement will end up miserable. Other extracts address topics like contentment and cheerfulness.  In his letter, George Austen also stresses these themes.

It seems surprising that Rev. Austen recommended Elegant Extracts for religious instruction rather than the Bible. However, some Christian groups in Austen’s time interpreted the Bible in ways that did not fit the Austens’ orthodox Anglican faith. Therefore he may have preferred that Frank read “approved” interpretations. Or perhaps he thought his 14-year-old son might more easily understand Elegant Extracts, which was intended for schoolboys.

Prayer 

Finally, George Austen gives Frank specific instructions on prayer.

  • Why should Frank pray? Because he depends completely on God for any success in whatever he does; he needs God’s help. The Catechism also says that people need God’s grace to keep his commandments. It gives the Lord’s Prayer as a way to ask for that help.
  • When should he pray? Every night and morning, even in “times of the greatest hurry.” The Church of England follows a liturgy. Sets of prayers are read each day, along with Bible readings that change throughout the year. Austen’s family probably read “Morning Prayer” and “Evening Prayer” together daily from The Book of Common Prayer. These also include the Lord’s Prayer, which is at the end of each of the prayers Jane Austen herself wrote.
  • How should he pray? When he can’t pray from the prayer book, his father tells Frank that a brief cry to God from his heart will be just as acceptable as the formal words of the prayer book.
  • What should he pray for? He should give thanks for the blessings he has received in the past, and ask God for favor and protection in the future. This is also a way of doing his “duty to God” as the Catechism states.

 

Photo 5 Vice Admiral Sir Francis Austen

Vice Admiral Sir Francis Austen, later Admiral of the Fleet

Francis Austen went on to great honors in his profession, becoming Senior Admiral of the Fleet shortly before he died. He was known as a very religious officer, who never swore or allowed others to swear. His ships were considered “praying ships,” and he was known as “the officer who knelt in church.” He apparently took his father’s example and advice to heart.

__________

With grateful acknowledgment to Deirdre LeFaye, who provided a transcript of George Austen’s letter, and to Admiral Sir Francis Austen’s great-great-granddaughter, who gave permission to reproduce this section of the letter.

About Brenda S. Cox:

Brenda S. Cox writes at brendascox.wordpress.com on “Faith, Science, Joy . . . and Jane Austen!” She is working on a book entitled Fashionable Goodness: Christianity in Jane Austen’s England.

Sources and Further Reading

Jane Austen’s Sailor Brothers by J. H. Hubback and Edith C. Hubback, 1906.  www.mollands.net/etexts/jasb/jasb2.html   Available at mollands.net, at google books, and at archive.org . You can read most of the letter in this book.

Elegant Extracts by Vicesimus Knox. London: Charles Dilly, 1784. 2nd edition. archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.94215/. The Blair quote is from extract 26.

The Book of Common Prayer. Cambridge: Baskerville, 1762. books.google.com/books/about/The_Book_of_Common_Prayer_and_Administra.html?id=_sYUAAAAQAAJ The Catechism is on p. 359 ff. of this scanned file.

Lectures on the Catechism, by Thomas Secker. London: Rivington, 1771. archive.org/details/lecturesoncatech01seck/page/n13

“Reading Prayers: The Book of Common Prayer.” brendascox.wordpress.com/2019/01/03/reading-prayers-the-book-of-common-prayer/

“Jane Austen Faith Word: Duty, and Anne Elliot” brendascox.wordpress.com/2018/03/08/jane-austen-faith-word-duty-and-anne-elliot/

Marianne Dashwood’s Repentance, Willoughby’s ‘Repentance,’ and The Book of Common Prayer.“ Persuasions On-line Winter 2018. jasna.org/publications/persuasions-online/volume-39-no-1/cox/

“Jane Austen’s Sailor Brothers: Francis and Charles in Life and Art,” by Brian Southam. Persuasions 25. jasna.org/publications/persuasions/no25/southam/

“Sir Francis William Austen: Glimpses of Jane’s Sailor Brother in Letters” janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/2009/10/08/sir-francis-william-austen-glimpses-of-janes-sailor-brother-in-letters/

“Jane Austen’s Seagoing Brothers, Francis and Charles” https://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/2011/12/21/janes-seagoing-brothers-francis-and-charles/

Jane Austen: The Parson’s Daughter by Irene Collins. London: Hambledon, 2007. amazon.com/dp/1852855622/

Praying With Jane by Rachel Dodge. Bloomington, MN: Bethany House, 2018. amazon.com/dp/B07D6Y5P14/

 

 

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