James Austen was the oldest child of George Austen and Cassandra Leigh. George was the rector of the Anglican parishes at Steventon and nearby Deane, and it was while George and Cassandra were living at Deane that she gave birth to James on 13 February 1765. A few weeks later, on 17 March, James was publicly christened. His godparents were Francis Austen (his father’s uncle), Jane Leigh (his maternal grandmother) and James Langord Nibbs, Esq. As was customary for Cassandra, James was kept at home for several months before he was placed with Elizabeth Littlewood, a woman who lived nearby and dry-nursed him for twelve to eighteen months.
James Austen’s birth would be followed by more children — George, Edward, Henry, Cassandra, Francis, Jane, and Charles — and with all the children, life in the Austen home would be wonderful. George and Cassandra were supportive of their children and they encouraged and appreciated them. Although the boys hunted, fished, and rode horses, they also participated in intellectual and literary discussions, including discussions about others who might not share their political or social views. Part of the reason for such open discussions was because George had been educated at St. John’s College, a constituent college of the University of Oxford, where he displayed strong academic abilities.
James Austen was a gentle sweet child and became his mother’s favorite. By the time Jane was born he was ten years old. However, this big age difference between the two did not mean that they had a distant relationship. Jane was close with all her brothers, and, of course, extremely close with her only sister, Cassandra.
From a young age James excelled at writing and poetry. In fact, even though Jane became the famous writer in the Austen family, it was James who was always considered the most talented writer. He was also intellectual, studious, and ambitious and George and Cassandra had big plans for him. They wanted him to become an Anglican minister just like his father, and, therefore, at the age of fourteen, he was sent to his father’s alma mater at Oxford and matriculated at St. John’s College.
During his time at Oxford James Austen wrote several things, including “An Elegy, written at Kintbury Berks addressed to F.C.F.,” “The Hermit,” and, in May of 1785, “Sonnet, upon leaving oxford this afternoon.” In 1789, James also joined with his younger brother Henry in founding The Loiterer, a humorous weekly periodical that focused on university matters of interest to students at Oxford. Publications lasted for about a year but subscriber payments did not cover the cost of publication and so it closed. James was sorely disappointed and never again attempted to publish anything.*
Around the age of 21, in early November of 1786, James Austen set off to visit his cousin, the Countess Eliza de Feuillide. She was the daughter of George Austen’s sister Philadelphia and was four years older than James. She had married a Count and French Army Captain, Jean-François Capot de Feuillide, in 1781, and James planned to visit her family in the south of France even though she was going to England. James set off on his trip but became windbound in Jersey, which delayed his trip for nearly a month. So, when Eliza arrived at Steventon on Thursday 21 December 1786, James had still not arrived in southern France and did not do so until perhaps around the 31 of December, when Eliza’s husband greeted him.
By November of 1787 James had returned home. It was also around this same time that certain entertainments began to absorb the Austen family’s time. The entertainment was amateur theatricals, and Eliza mentioned how they were being planned and performed by the Austen family for Christmas of that year. Here are the details:
“Private theatricals were in high favor at Steventon, the young people’s summer theatre being the barn, and the family dining-room constituting their winter one. The principal feminine roles in these representations were always taken by the countess; and the prologues and epilogues were written by James Austen, who soon declared them to have been exceptionally vigorous and amusing. The first of these dramas were acted before a very limited audience … when Jane was not far from twelve years old, and the last when she was fifteen.”
Amidst all the Christmas cheer, James was also ordained a deacon at St. David’s Cathedral in Pembrokeshire on 19 December. He was also busy in other ways too. Between 1789 and 1790 he remained in residence as a Fellow at St. John’s. While there he took drawing lessons from John Malchair, a German-born watercolor-artist, violinist, and the University’s drawing master. However, one well-known Jane Austen historian and scholar, Irene Collins notes:
“James meanwhile, appeared to have lost some of the interest in literature which had formed his bond with Jane. He had been priested at Oxford in the summer of 1789 but, far from following in his father’s footsteps as ‘a scholar and a gentleman’ as might have been expected, his ambition seemed to be to become a pluralistic parson, hunting, wining, and dining with the elite of the neighbourhood. Early in 1790 he became curate at Overton, with the opportunity of moving into its ‘very small vicarage house’, the vicar being either non-resident in the parish or living in some grander house on the outskirts of the town. James had been interested in sport ever since he was a boy. At Overton he seized the opportunity to hunt the red deer in company with the Prince of Wales in the woods around Kempshott Park.”
Life seemed good to James as he wined, dined, and hunted. He also met Anne Mathew, whom he courted and then married on 27 March 1792 at Laverstoke. She was the daughter of Lt. General Edward Mathew and Lady Jane Bertie. She was also described as having “a good deal of nose,” although she was also said to be elegant, thinned bone, and pale with amazing large, dark eyes. The marriage was conducted by James’ father and witnesses to the marriage were Anne’s brother, Brownlow Mathew, and her brother-in-law David.
The newlyweds began life renting the Court House at Overton and then moved to the parsonage at Deane. From the start they were not necessarily thrifty: James kept a pack of harriers for his all-important hunts and Anne maintained a closed carriage. Moreover, James was busy spending money to set up his household. He bought kitchen equipment, a looking glass, an 8-day walnut clock, an armchair, and other such things, so that soon the young couple had overspent their funds. In fact, by 13 May his account with John Ring of Basingstoke totaled £172.8s.4-1/2d., and when he finally paid off his account with Ring on Wednesday 5 September it totaled £200.15s.
A little of over a year after their marriage, James and Anne had a daughter. She was born on 15 April 1793 and they named her Jane Anna Elizabeth, but she was better known among the family as Anna.** James’ mother was there to assist at the birth having walked from Steventon to Deane. In addition, to help the James and his wife out financially, Anne’s father purchased the chaplaincy of the 86th Regiment in February of 1794 for his son-in-law, which James gladly accepted and retained until September 1796.
The winter of 1794-1795 was extremely severe. Temperatures dropped below zero and rivers everywhere became frozen solid. It seemed as if the weather could not get worse, but then in February a sudden thaw happened, and great floods occurred during February and March. Newspapers reported on the damages caused by the thaw and one of the Austen’s neighbors wrote to her friend noting the flooding problems in their immediate area:
“[A]s you live on the top of a hill, I will not ask you how you like floating on the Waters, & as we live on the Side of a one, I cannot tell you from Experience, but our neighbours say they rather like the Ground floor than the upper apartments, Mr Austens family did not descend for two days, Mr James Austen lost 2 fat pigs, one poor farmer had but 60 Ewes, & above 20 were drownd, Corn carried out of the Barns, & numberless Accidents did the sudden thaw create.”
Everything then dried out and life seemed righted. Or least it did temporarily. Unfortunately, and unexpectedly, on 3 May, Anne sat down to dine. She was stricken afterwards and died within a few hours. Perhaps the cold winter had weakened her, although the doctor who called claimed her liver had ruptured. She was buried on Monday 11 May 1795 at Steventon.
Anne’s death left James all alone to raise his daughter. The 2-year-old missed her mother so desperately that she was constantly asking for her. Bereft himself and unable to console his child, James took Anna to Steventon where his parents and sisters comforted her and then helped with her upbringing.
After some time, James Austen began to think about remarrying. His thoughts at first settled on his cousin Eliza de Feuillide. She had become a widow after her husband was guillotined on 22 February 1794 during the French Revolution. James courted and proposed to her, but she was too indecisive, and he soon focused on someone else. Eliza mentioned this someone else in a letter dated December of 1796:
“James has chosen a second Wife in the person of Miss Mary Floyd*** who is not either rich or handsome, but very sensible & good humoured – you have perhaps heard of the family for they occupied my Uncle’s house at Dean six or seven years since and the eldest Sister is married to Mr. Fulwar Fowle who is Brother to Cassandra’s intended; Jane seems much pleased with the match, and it is natural she should having long known & liked the Lady.”
Mary was the younger sister of Jane’s dearest friend Martha Lloyd. Mary and Martha were daughters of Reverend Noyes Lloyd of Bishopstone and his wife, Martha Craven. They had two other children beside Mary and Martha, another daughter and a son. Unfortunately, a smallpox epidemic killed the son and Martha and Mary were scarred for life. After Reverend Lloyd died in 1789, the family lived for two or three years in the parsonage at Deane, and, it was during this time that Martha and Mary forged lifelong friendships with Cassandra and Jane.
James and Mary wed on a cold winter’s morning on 17 January 1797 in Hurstbourne Tarrant, Hampshire. Soon after the marriage, Jane’s praise for Mary disappeared. Mary had little self-confidence and was always plagued by the memories of James’ first wife Anne. In addition, she resented his daily habit of visiting his mother at Steventon as noted in a letter by Jane to her sister Cassandra on 27 October:
“James called on us just as we were going to Tea, & my Mother was well enough to talk very chearfully to him, before she went to Bed. … 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.”
Even if Mary acted petty at times, James Austen seemed remarkably happy and content, which eventually resulted in the couple having 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, eventually, according to some people, not even loving her.
As to his marriage to Mary, Jane always thought that his relationship with her changed him for the worse. After one of his visits she wrote to Cassandra stating:
“I should not be surprised if we were to be visited by James again this week; he gave us reason to expect him soon; … I am sorry & angry that his Visits should not give one more pleasure; the company of so good & so clever a Man ought to be gratifying in itself; — but his Chat seems all forced, his Opinions on many points too much copied for his Wife’s, & his time here is spent I think in walking about the House and banging the Doors, or ringing the Bell for a glass of Water.”
At the age of thirty-six, James took his father’s place at Steventon. Jane was visiting the Lloyd’s when her father decided to resign in favor of his son in late November or early December of 1800. Apparently, “Mr. Austen ‘was always rapid both in forming his resolutions and in acting on them.” Some said Jane was extremely unhappy about the decision to move but before the move she seemed to accept it and wrote:
“I get more & more reconciled to the idea of our removal. We have lived long enough in this Neighbourhood, the Basingstoke Balls are certainly on the decline, there is something interesting in the bustle of going away, & the prospect of spending future summers by the Sea or in Wales is very delightful. … It must not be generally known however that I am not sacrificing a great deal in quitting Country — or I can expect to inspire no tenderness, no interest in those we leave behind.”
James Austen always enjoyed country life and the solitude it offered. Now he would be living in the family home and presiding over his father’s flock. It seemed like an ideal situation to him. Mary could hardly wait to settle in at Steventon. She had never been a favorite of the Austen family, and never been known for possessing tact, which she did not display now. In fact, she hurried the Austen family out and then watched as George sold off his belongings, including his extensive library and Jane’s beloved pianoforte.
George and his family left the rectory in early May, and James and his family moved into Steventon on Friday 8 May. James was now serving as curate and rectory locum tenens. Later, when James would replace his father as rector, one Austen historian, Jocelyn C. Cass noted:
“It is also noticeable that, after James became the incumbent, the registers are less well-kept and the number of those doing duty for the rector increases. James was not the man his father had been.”
After the move, George enjoyed good health for about two years but then found the remaining three years of his life fraught with health problems. He died on Monday, 21 January 1805. An express was immediately sent to his son James who arrived the following morning before 8am. In addition, Jane wrote a letter to her brother Francis stating:
“I have melancholy news to relate … I wish I could better prepare You for it. — But having said so much, Your mind will already forestall the sort of Event which I have to communicate. – Our Dear Feather has closed his virtuous and happy life, in a death almost as free from suffering as his Children could have wished. He was taken ill on Saturday morning, exactly in the same way as heretofore, an oppression in the head with fever, violent tremulousness, & the greatest degree of Feebleness. The same remedy of Cupping, which had been before been so successful, was immediately applied to — but without such happy effects … The attack was more violent, & at first he seemed scarcely at all releived by the Operation. — Towards the Evening however he got better and had a tolerable night, & yesterday morning was so greatly amended as to get up & join us at breakfast as usual, walk about with only the help of a stick, & every symptom was then so favourable that when Bowen saw him at one, he felt sure of his doing perfectly well. — But as the day advanced, all these comfortable appearances gradually changed; the fever grew stronger than ever, & when Bowen saw him at ten at night, he pronounc’d his situation to be most alarming. — At nine this morning he came again — & by his desire a Physician was called; — Dr. Gibbs — But it was then absolutely a lost case —. Dr. Gibbs said that nothing but a Miracle could save him, and about twenty minutes after Ten he drew his … last gasp.”
Funeral services were held six days later, on Sunday, and George was buried at St. Swithin’s Church. A simple slab marked his resting place. James left Bath two days after extremely saddened by his father’s passing. He went home to his family and officially became rector of Steventon on 14 February and was inducted twelve days later.
Life continued to march forward. Eliza married James’ brother, Henry Thomas Austen, in December of 1797, and, after the marriage, she and Jane became close. So, when Eliza fell ill between the fall of 1811 and spring of 1812, Jane was there, and when Eliza died on the evening of 25 April 1813, Jane was at her bedside. Eliza was buried in the North London cemetery of St John-at-Hampstead in the same grave as her mother, who had died from breast cancer.
The Austen family would suffer another loss of a beloved family member a few years later. Jane began feeling unwell in early 1816 but ignored it. By mid-year her decline was obvious, and it would just get worse. As her illness progressed, she lacked energy and had difficulty walking. The last time she put down her pen, she noted the date of 18 March 1817 and in mid-April she found herself confined to bed. On 18 July 1817 at about 4:30am, she passed away at age 41 from Addison’s disease.
The Austen’s were greatly affected. James Austen had been called to his sister’s bedside soon after she died, and he was as grief stricken as his younger siblings. For years he had been suffering digestive complaints, and he would experience a flare-up severe enough that when Jane’s funeral was held on 24 July at Winchester Cathedral, he found himself too ill to attend. Instead, his son Edward went in his place. Despite his absence, James turned his grief into a poem, an elegy, in honor of his younger sister. It in part read:
- “In her (rare union) were combined
- A fair form & fairer mind;
- Hers, Fancy quick & clear good sense
- And wit which never gave offence;
- A Heart as warm as ever beat,
- A Temper, even, calm & sweet:
- And to one line she ever wrote
- Which dying she would wish to blot;
- But to her family alone
- Her real, genuine worth was known.”
Fifty-four-year-old James would not survive his beloved sister Jane long. A year and a half after her passing, he died on a frosty, cold Monday on 13 December 1819. He was buried at St. Nicholas in Steventon five days later. A plaque in his honor can be found in the church.
*Today, The Loiterer is most remembered for a letter that seems likely to have been written by 13-year-old Jane Austen under the pseudonym of “Sophia Sentiment,” a frivolous and uniformed reader who criticized The Loiterer editors for ignoring the interests of women.
**Anna would later become a Lefroy when she married Benjamin on 8 November 1814.
***Floyd was the alternative spelling at the time for Lloyd.
-  O. F. Adams, The Story of Jane Austen’s Life (Chicago: A. C. McClurg, 1891), 26
-  I. Collins, Jane Austen: The Parson’s Daughter (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 1998), 99
-  D. L. Faye and W. Austen-Leigh, Jane Austen: A Family Record (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 71
-  D. L. Faye, and W. Austen-Leigh, 90
-  D. L. Faye, ed., Jane Austen’s ‘Outlandish Cousin’: The Life and Letters of Eliza de Feuillide (London: The British Library, 2002), 134
-  Deirdre Le Faye, ed., Jane Austen’s Letters, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 16
-  ibid., 121
-  O. F. Adams, 78
-  D. Le Faye, ed., 68
-  J. C. Cass, “In Defense of George Austen,” Journal of the Jane Austen Society of North America, http://www.jasna.org/assets/Persuasions/No.-16/cass.pdf, 59
-  D. Le Faye, ed., 95–96
-  D. L. Faye, and W. Austen-Leigh, 257