Being a Jane Austen Sibling: Her Brothers and Sister

Being a Jane Austen sibling meant being one of eight children in a family whose father was George Austen and whose mother was Cassandra Leigh. George was an Anglican rector who descended from wool manufacturers and rose to the lower ranks of the landed gentry and Cassandra was a member of the aristocratic Leigh family that originated in 1643 when Sir Thomas Leigh was created Baron Leigh, of Stoneleigh in the County of Warwick in 1643.

Detail from possible Austen family drawing. Courtesy of Jane Odiwe.

George and Cassandra married on 26 April 1764 in Bath, and it did not take long for them to start a family. On 13 February 1765 Cassandra delivered her first child, a boy named James born on 13 February 1765. He would be followed by seven more children, 5 boys and 2 girls: George Jr. (1766), Edward (1767), Henry (1771), Cassandra Elizabeth (1773), Francis (1774), Jane (1775), and Charles (1779).

James Austen – This Jane Austen sibling excelled at writing and poetry from a young age. It is interesting to note that although his sister became a famous author, he was the person who his family always considered to possess the greatest talent when it came to writing. He also entered the world of publishing while at Oxford and he and his younger brother Henry created a weekly literary periodical called The Loiterer. It was intended to showcase his writing and was aimed at Oxford College students.

James Austen. Author’s collection.

Besides writing, James also liked attending balls and in January 1796 Jane mentioned his penchant for dancing at them. She stated, “James danced with Alethea, and cut up the turkey last night with great perseverance.”[1] A few weeks later in a letter to Cassandra Elizabeth (her older sister) Jane remarked:

“Our party to Ashe to-morrow night will consist of Edward Cooper, James (for a Ball is nothing without him), Buller, who is now staying with us & I.”[2]

James was married twice, first to Anne Mathew on 27 March 1792. They had one daughter, Jane Anna Elizabeth, better known among the family as Anna. Anne died suddenly in May of 1795 probably from a ruptured liver. James then married Mary Lloyd, the younger sister of Jane’s dearest friend Martha Lloyd. Mary was different from Anne. She had little self-confidence and was always plagued by the memories of James’ dead wife. In addition, Mary resented James’ daily habit of visiting his mother at Steventon. This dislike was noted in a letter by Jane on 27 October 1798:

“James seems to have taken to his old Trick of coming to Steventon inspite of Mary’s reproaches, for he was here before Breakfast, & is now paying us a second visit.”[3]  

Despite some marital problems with Mary, this Jane Austen sibling seemed remarkably happy, and the couple eventually had two children, James Edward (1798) and Caroline Mary Craven (1805). Although it had been expected Mary would be a good mother to Anna, she never liked her, and James also paid little attention to his eldest daughter. In fact, according to some people, he came to not even love Anna.

In later years when Jane got sick, James was called to his sister’s bedside and when she died, he and his siblings were grief stricken. For years James had been suffering with digestive complaints, and he supposedly experienced a flare-up severe enough that when Jane’s funeral was held on 24 July 1817 at Winchester Cathedral, he found himself too ill to attend. Instead, his son Edward went in his place.

George Jr. – The second Jane Austen sibling was born on 26 August 1766 at Deane and was named George just like his father. Everyone expected him to be a healthy child but unfortunately, it was quickly discovered that as he began to teeth, he began to suffer “fits.” That was something that some children experienced, and it was hoped that George Jr. would grow out of the fits, but he did not although he did have one year free from them.

Having fits was not the only sign that something was wrong with George Jr. It soon became obvious that he could not speak, and some historians believe that he was deaf and dumb. Moreover, Jane would later mention using sign language in a letter to Cassandra, which some Austenites suggest she learned so that she could communicate with her brother. Jane’s letter with the mention of sign language is dated 28 December 1808:

“We spent Friday Eveng with our friends at the Boarding House, & our curiosity was gratified by the sight of their fellow-inmates. Mrs Drew & Miss Hook, Mr Wynne & Mr Fitzhugh, the latter is brother to Mrs Lance, & very much the Gentleman. He has lived in that House more than twenty years, & poor Man, is so totally deaf, that they say he cd not hear a Cannon, were it fired close to him; having no cannon at hand to make the experiment, I took it for granted, & talked to him a little with my fingers, which was funny enough.”[4]

In the late 1700 and early 1800s, any sort of disability or infirmity was generally looked upon negatively and families tended to keep quiet about such relatives because it might harm their social standing. George Jr.’s mother was already cognizant of this fact as she had a disabled brother named Thomas Leigh. As was customary at the time, he had been sent away from home and placed with Francis Cullum in Monk Sherborne. However, not everyone sent a disabled child away because Jane’s cousin, Eliza de Feuillide, kept her disabled son Hastings Jr. with her.

Jane probably did not know her brother George Jr. well. She was about three years old when her thirteen-year-old brother went to live permanently with his uncle at the Cullums. George Jr. remained with them until his death on 17 January 1838 at age of 71 from dropsy, an old-fashioned term for edema. No family members attended his funeral, and, by the 1860s, he was all but forgotten although that would change with time.

Edward – Whereas George Jr. had a sad life there was one Jane Austen sibling who lived a fairy tale. That was Edward. He was born on 7 October 1768 at Deane. He was blond-headed, sweet, and smart and it was his pleasing personality that helped change his life. That was because he captured the attention of a childless couple, Thomas and Catherine Knight.

Edward Austen. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

They first met Edward, who was affectionately called “Neddy,” while on their wedding tour in 1779. They so thoroughly enjoyed him they asked if he could accompany them on the remainder of their honeymoon. When the couple learned they could not have children their interest increased and around 1783 they made Edward their legal heir. Furthermore, when he turned 18 years old, they paid for him to take the Grand Tour, a tour through Europe that first began in the 1640 and developed into a rite of passage for upper class Englishmen.

Edward married Elizabeth Bridges on 27 December 1791. Their first child born in 1793 was a girl christened Fanny-Catherine. They would have ten more children. Unfortunately, on Monday 10 October 1808, less than less than two weeks after Elizabeth gave birth to her last child, a boy named Brook John, she became violently ill and died within a half hour. The doctor was stumped as to her sudden demise and Edward was inconsolable at the unexpected loss of his wife. In fact, Jane remarked on her brother’s immeasurable grief and imagined the sad scene:

“I see your mournful party in my minds’ eye under every varying circumstance of the day;—& in the Eveng especially, figure to myself its’ sad gloom—the efforts to talk—the frequent summons to melancholy orders & cares—& poor Edward restless in Misery going from one room to the other—perhaps not seldom upstairs to see all that remains of his Elizabeth.”[5]

A few years later Thomas died and although he initially left everything to his wife Catherine, she gave Edward the Godmersham Park estate while she was still alive. It was a palatial estate that had summerhouses and a hermitage. Edward also later inherited the estates of Chawton and Steventon. Nonetheless, there was a stipulation that resulted in Edward and his family having to change their last name to Knight in 1812. When it happened, Fanny Catherine was extremely unhappy about the name change and wrote in her diary:

“Papa changed his name … with the will of the late Mr. Knight and we are therefore all Knights instead of dear old Austens. How I hate it!!!!!!!”[6] 

Edward will always be remembered as a good father, husband, uncle, brother, and son. He brought his sisters and mother to live at Chawton and helped to financially support them. In addition, he also financially cared for his brother George Jr.

Edward died at the substantial age of 84. He never remarried and was looked after by his daughter Fanny-Catherine and a sister-in-law. Moreover, he had always led a healthy lifestyle and died peacefully in his sleep of old age on 19 November 1852.

Henry – This Jane Austen sibling was four years younger than his brother Edward and four years older than Jane. Henry was born in 1771 and has gone down in history as being Jane’s favorite brother. In addition, he was said to be very handsome, very tall, and very witty. It was these traits that helped him capture the attention of his married cousin, Eliza de Feuillide, ten years his senior. After her husband died by guillotine in France, he went on to compete with his brother James for her hand. He eventually won her over partly because he was an extrovert and optimist and their personalities meshed well, which allowed them to enjoy lively and fun-filled conversations.

Jane Austen sibling - Henry

Henry Austen. Public domain.

Still it came as surprise to the Austen family when they married. “Their marriage took place by special license on the last day of 1797 at the oblong brick building of St. Marylebone Anglican parish church that had been built in April 1742.”[7] Although their married life seemed to have its ups and down over the years, it was known they were in love when they married.

Like James, Henry went to school at Oxford. He graduated with an M.A. in 1796 and joined the militia. He went on to become an army agent and later a banker. Unfortunately, Henry was not the best businessman and three years after Eliza died on 25 April 1813, he declared bankruptcy.

This Jane Austen sibling also served as Jane’s literary executor after her death in 1817 and was the first to write a brief biography of her. It appeared in the Northanger Abbey and Persuasion four-volume set published posthumously. He not only offered the first basic details about his sister’s life but also provided some interesting insights:

“Of personal attractions she possessed a considerable share. Her stature was that of true elegance. It could not have been increased without exceeding the middle height. Her carriage and deportment were quiet, yet graceful. Her features were separately good. Their assemblage produced an unrivalled expression of that cheerfulness, sensibility, and benevolence, which were her real characteristics. Her complexion was of the finest texture. It might with truth be said, that her eloquent blood spoke through her modest cheek. Her voice was extremely sweet. She delivered herself with fluency and precision. Indeed she was formed for elegant and rational society, excelling in conversation as much as in composition. In the present age it is hazardous to mention accomplishments. Our authoress would, probably, have been inferior to few in such acquirements, had she not been so superior to most in higher things. She had not only an excellent taste for drawing, but, in her earlier days, evinced great power of hand in the management of the pencil. Her own musical attainments she held very cheap. … She was fond of dancing, and excelled in it. … Though the frailties, foibles, and follies of others could not escape her immediate detection, yet even on their vices did she never trust herself to comment with unkindness. … Faultless herself, as nearly as human nature can be, she always sought, in the faults of others, something to excuse, to forgive or forget.”[8]

After Eliza’s death Henry spent the remainder of his life thundering on Sundays at Chawton and pursuing “his calling in the church, even becoming ‘zealous’ in the gospel.”[9] He served as the Steventon rector from December 1819 to 1822 and married Eleanor Jackson in 1820. He then served as the Farnham curate in Surrey from 1822 to 1827 and was also curate near Alton in Hampshire from 1824 until 1839. He spent his last years at Colchester, Essex, and Tunbridge Wells, which is where he suddenly died on 12 March 1850. He was buried at the Woodbury Park Cemetery.

Cassandra Elizabeth – This Jane Austen sibling was just two years older than her little sister and named for their mother Cassandra. When Jane was born it was also expected she would be a “future companion” to Cassandra Elizabeth. Jane was greatly attached to her older sister and their mother once commented that if Cassandra had her head chopped off, Jane would have hers chopped off too. Despite their closeness of the two sisters, they were somewhat different in personality:

“They were not exactly alike. Cassandra’s was the colder and calmer disposition; she was always prudent and well judging, but with less outward demonstration of feeling and less sunniness of temper than Jane possessed. It was remarked in her family that ‘Cassandra had the merit of having her temper always under command, but that Jane and the happiness of a temper that never required to be commanded.”[10]  

Silhouette of Cassandra. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Both Cassandra Elizabeth and Jane were sent to Mrs. Cawley’s school in 1783 for an education. However, they returned home after they caught typhus. They were also tutored at home where they studied drawing and piano. Cassandra Elizabeth’s interest in art resulted in her producing two drawings of her sister Jane, one in 1804, which is a back view of her seated by a tree, and the other an incomplete frontal portrait that dates to around 1810 that was declared by a family member as “hideously unlike” Jane in appearance.

Jane Austen Sibling - portrait by Cassandra.

Unfinished portrait drawn by Cassandra of her sister Jane. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

Cassandra Elizabeth never married but was once engaged to Reverend Tom Fowle. Their engagement happened in 1792 but because of financial reasons they had to wait to be married and in 1796 Fowle traveled to the West Indies. There he served as Chaplain to his cousin, Lord Craven, who had been sent there with his regiment to defend British interests. Unfortunately, around the time Fowle was expected to leave, he contracted yellow fever and died.

Although Cassandra Elizabeth was not married to Fowle, she might as well have been his wife. She maintained that she would never fall in love again and was strangely calm after his death. As time passed, she maintained she had no wish to marry and thereafter remained a spinster and served as a beloved aunt to her many nieces and nephews.

Cassandra Elizabeth had a stroke in March 1845 while on a trip to see her brother Frank. He was about to depart to take command of the Royal Navy’s North American Station and so she moved in with her brother Henry, who was living near Portsmouth at the time. He took care of her until her death on 22 March 1845 at the age of 72. She was buried next to her mother at the St. Nicholas Church.

Francis – The next Jane Austen sibling born was a curly-haired boy named Francis but referred to as Frank and called “Fly” by his family. He became interested in the navy and entered the Royal Navy Academy Portsmouth at the tender age of 12. He went on to have a distinguished naval career and was promoted in 1863 to Admiral of the Fleet.

Jane Austen sibling - Francis

Francis “Frank” Austen. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

He was also involved in the French Revolutionary Wars. As commanding officer of the sloop HMS Peterel, he captured some 40 ships, was present at the capture of a French squadron, and led an operation when the French brig Ligurienne was captured and two others were driven ashore off Marseille.

In July 1806 Francis wed Mary Gibson, the eldest daughter of John Gibson. Like Edward and his wife, they had a large family with ten children. Unfortunately, Mary died while giving birth to her eleventh child, which also died soon after. Five years later, Francis remarried Jane’s dearest friend and confidante Martha Lloyd, Mary Lloyd’s sister. They married on the anniversary of Francis’s first marriage and lived together twenty years before Martha died in 1848.

A description of Francis in his later years was once given by one of his grandsons:

“quite a short man, about 5ft. 6in. or 5ft. 7in., of dignified manner, with perhaps more reserve in it than he himself realized. He walked with a slight stoop, but he must have been in as strong health as are most men of sixty, and his eyesight was still that of a sailor, keen to distinguish objects at a great distance, while his hearing was also quite good.”[11]

Francis was the last Jane Austen sibling to die despite not being the youngest. He did so after having survived Martha by 18 years. His death happened at his home in Portsdown Lodge at Widley in Hampshire on 10 August 1865. He was buried in the churchyard at St. Peter and St. Paul, Wymering, Portsmouth.

Charles – The last Jane Austen sibling born was four years younger than Jane and was christened on 23 June 1779. He followed in the footsteps of his brother Francis entering the same Portsmouth naval academy his older brother had and doing so at the age of twelve. As Charles grew older, some people thought him handsomer than Henry. Perhaps it was because at the age of twenty he “had adopted the modern style of cutting his hair short and wearing it unpowdered, a departure from tradition of which his brother Edward rather disapproved.”[12]

Jane Austen Sibling - Charles

Charles Austen. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In 1806, Charles became engaged to Frances “Fanny” Palmer described as “pink, plump … [with] beautiful, rich golden hair.”[13] They married in 1807 in Bermuda. When the Austen’s met her, they seemed enamored and several of the younger generation mentioned they greatly admired her.

Despite being married, Charles was a man of the sea and because of that his visits to see his Austen relatives was rare. In fact, they were many years apart as noted by Cassandra in a letter to her cousin:

“My Brother Charles & his Family spent one week with us during Eliza’s visit & they all left us together last Thursday. After an absence from England of almost seven years you may guess the pleasure which having him amongst us again occasion’d. He is grown a little older in all that time, but we had the pleasure of seeing him return in good health & unchanged in mind. His Bermudan wife is a very pleasing woman, she is gentle & amiable in her manners & appears to make him very happy. They have two pretty girls. There must be always something to wish for, & for Charles we have to wish for rather more money. So expensive as every thig in England is now, even the necessaries of life, I am afraid they will find themselves very very poor.”[14]  

Fanny gave birth to her and Charles’ fourth daughter on 31 August 1814. Unfortunately, complications set in, and she died on 6 September with baby dying two weeks later. As a navy man Charles had to go to sea and so the care of his three daughters fell to his in-laws. The girls were sent to live with their Palmer grandparents at 22 Keppel, Street in Bloomsbury and their spinster aunt Harriet took over their supervision and care.

Perhaps, because of Harriet’s mothering skills Charles married her on 7 August 1820. At the time, their marriage was contrary to church law and many in the Austen family were unhappy about their union. Francis’ mother also thought Harriet a disagreeable person, Anna remarked that she did not like her but could not figure out why, and James’ son described her as “plain & sour.” Yet, despite all the negativity she and Charles would have four more children and some in the Austen family would mention that she had “good principles,” “good sense,” and was an “attentive mother.”

In 1826, Charles was appointed commander of the frigate Aurora that was engaged in suppression of the slave trade in Jamaica. He then became a flag-captain on the Winchester and was stationed in North American and the West Indies. Unfortunately, it was during this time that a gale struck, and the mast of his ship fell across his chest. It took some time, but he finally fully recovered.

Charles then went on to receive a promotion in 1846, and in 1850 was appointed commander-in-chief in the East Indies and China Station. It was during that command that tragedy struck on 8 October 1852. Charles died of cholera just like the French socialite Madame Récamier had three years earlier. Charles’ death happened while he was in Irrawaddy River in Burma and so he was buried in Trincomalee, the administrative headquarters of the Trincomalee District and major resort port city of Eastern Province, Sri Lanka.

When it came to remembrances of Charles, Anna was one of the last to have recorded her thoughts of this youngest Jane Austen sibling. She did so after seeing him when he left England for a final time. Besides stating that he was “remarkable” and “sweet,” she also mentioned:

“When the Admiral left England in February (though in the 71st year of his age) his tall, erect figure, his bright eye & animated countenance would have given the impression of a much younger man; had it not been for the rather remarkable contrast with his hair, which, originally dark, had become of a snowy white.”[15]

References:

  • [1] D. Le Faye, Jane Austen’s Letters, 3rd (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 3.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 4.
  • [3] Ibid., p. 16.
  • [4] Ibid., p. 160.
  • [5] Ibid., p. 149.
  • [6] D. Le Faye, W. Austen-Leigh and R. A. Austen-Leigh, Jane Austen: A Family Record (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 192–93.
  • [7] G. Walton, Jane Austen’s Cousin: The Outlandish Countess de Feuillide (Yorkshire: Pen and Sword History, 2021), p. 135.
  • [8] I. Littlewood, ed., Jane Austen Critical Assessments (Mountfield: Helm Information, 1998), p. 38–39.
  • [9] G. Walton. 2021, p. 187.
  • [10] D. Le Faye, W. Austen-Leigh, and R. A. Austen-Leigh. 2004, p. 81.
  • [11] Ibid., p. 266.
  • [12] Ibid., p. 113.
  • [13] Ibid., p. 161.
  • [14] Ibid., p. 187.
  • [15] Ibid., p. 265.

Oh hi there 👋
It’s nice to meet you.

Sign up to receive awesome content in your inbox, every month.

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.

Leave a Comment