Jane Austen’s Disabled Brother George Austen

Jane Austen’s disabled brother George Austen was born on 26 August 1766 at Deane, to George and Cassandra Leigh Austen. George Jr. was their second oldest son and was named for his father. He was baptized immediately after his birth but not christened until Monday, 29 September. His godparents were a Mrs. Cockell of whom little is known, Tysoe Saul Hancock (husband  Philadelphia and father of Eliza de Feuillide), and the Reverend Dr. James Musgrave, rector of Chinnor and maternal cousin of Cassandra’s.

George Austen and Cassandra Leigh Austen family tree. Author’s collection. Click to enlarge.

Around three months of age George Jr, was weaned and sent out for dry nursing to the Littleworth family. It was a common practice at the time and would have lasted until he was about one-and-a-half years old. During this time, he began to teeth and suffered fits. This was something that some children experienced when teething and something his parents likely hoped he would grow out of it. Unfortunately, he did not, even though he would at one point not have a fit for year.

People soon noticed other issues with Jane Austen’s disabled brother besides the fits. It became obvious that he could not speak, and some historians allege 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. In Jane’s letter dated 28 December 1808 she states:

“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.”[1]

George Jr.’s father once stated that he had low intellect, which has resulted in many people believing he was epileptic as that is a common secondary symptom in people with intellectual disabilities. Although George Jr. may not have been diagnosed with epilepsy at the time, throughout ancient history, the disease was thought to be a spiritual condition, some sort of malevolent manifestation caused by evil spirits or a punishment for sinning, and people with it were stigmatized, shunned, or even imprisoned.

George Austen. Author’s collection.

The Enlightenment helped to eliminate some of these beliefs, but it didn’t completely relieve them as doctors still could not cure epilepsy and they were unsure what caused it. The malady was often called the “Falling Sickness,” but six years after George Jr.’s birth, in 1772, epilepsy was the general term used. At this time, it was also defined in the following manner:

“The Epilepsy is a disease of the convulsive kind, returning periodically, affecting the extremities with various and irregular motions; every sense, as well as the faculties of the mind, for a certain time are altogether obliterated.”[2]

To further describe the disease one 1772 medical book noted that often before an attack, the person noticed some sort of “stupor” or “swimming” in the head. The person’s vision was then affected, saliva was emitted, and a “loss of sense” took place. The following then happened:

“Violent convulsions seize the whole body, the muscles of the face being differently distorted, seem to express different senses of the mind, as those of grief, joy, anger, love, &c. there is also a violent grinding or grating of the teeth takes place, to such a degree as sometimes to destroy part of their extremities; it is not unusual for the tongue to protrude a little out of the mouth, and the closing of the jaws frequently cause the teeth to cut it exceedingly; a livid appearance of the lips and under parts of the eyes takes place, which, in a short time, runs over the whole face; the palpebrae of the eyes are irregularly moved, but never are so far constricted as to cover all the white; the mouth is dry, sparm prevailing in the beginning, afterwards it pours forth its saliva, the sparm not being solved; respiration is performed with the greatest difficulty and labor, as if a person was actually under efforts of strength, and the hands are clinched with great force, neither are the heart and arteries free from distress, the pulsations of which are at first quick and small, in a short time they become full and slow, not having their proper force, and can scarcely be numbered, wanting their regular order; after this the venis of the face, also the precordia and abdomen begin to swell the excretions are also considerably disturbed, for instead of saliva, which was before very profusely secreted, a foam arises in the mouth, also stools, urine, sweat and semen, are spontaneously evacuated, in an excited system, endued with great sensibility; vomiting also happens sometimes.”[3]

Among the popular cures of the time was a remedy of mistletoe, which was noted in an encyclopedia of 1777:

“The virtues of mistletoe seem of the most efficacy in the epilepsy; against which some will have it a specific. Dr. Colbatch has written expressly to prove it such. It has been also prescribed in apoplexies, lethargies, and vertigoes, and worn about the neck, to prevent convulsions, and ease the cutting of their teeth.”[4]

In 1806, several remedies for epilepsy and convulsive disorders were published. One suggested remedy was using both the leaves and flowers of the orange tree. However, the leaves were alleged not to be as effective as the flowers: Supposedly of fifteen patients given orange tree flowers, nine were relieved whereas only one patient was helped by the leaves.

Although it is unclear what remedies if any Jane Austen’s disabled brother was given, his parents did quickly learn that they needed to deal with their son’s problems head-on. Mr. Austen and his wife were also not the type to complain. Mr. Austen never did and, in fact, he only mentioned the condition of his nearly 4-year-old son to his sister-in-law, Susannah Walter, once. It was in a letter dated 8 July 1770:

“I am much obliged to you for your kind wish of George’s improvement. God knows only how far it will come to pass, but from the best judgement I can form at present, we must not be too sanguine on this head; be it as it may, we have this comfort, he cannot be a bad or a wicked child.”[5]

George Jr.’s mother also knew what it was like to have a disabled relative. Her brother, Thomas Leigh, had problems, and, as was customary at the time, he had been sent away from home and placed with Francis Cullum in Monk Sherborne. George Jr. would eventually go to live with his uncle there too, and Cassandra probably knew beforehand that would happen to him. Like her husband she also once remarked to Susannah about her son. Cassandra’s comments happened a few months after her husband’s in December of 1770:

“My poor little George is come to see me to-day, he seems pretty well, tho’ he had a fit lately; it was near a twelvemonth since he had one before, so was in hopes they had left him, but must not flatter myself so now.”[6]

Jane Austen's disabled brother - Cassandra Leigh

Cassandra Leigh Austen. Public domain.

Another mention of Jane Austen’s disabled brother and his associated problems were made when he was six years old. His godfather Hancock wrote:

“That my brother and sister Austen are well, I heartily rejoice … but I cannot say that the News of the violently rapid increase of their family gives me so much pleasure … especially when I consider the case of my godson who must be provided with the least hope of his being able to assist himself.”[7]

It is unclear how much time George Jr. spent with his family over the years. However, he was ten by the time Jane was born on 16 December 1775. She probably never got to know him as it was around 1779 when she was about three that the thirteen-year-old went to live permanently with his disabled uncle at the Cullums. That was also the same year that the Cassandra’s last child was born. Cullum would take care of George Jr. until he died in 1834, after which his son (also named George) became responsible for George Jr.

At the time that Jane Austen’s disabled brother lived, there were few asylums for the mentally ill or disabled and so such individuals might be placed in prison or workhouses, sometimes called poorhouses. Workhouses were all-purpose institutions that were publicly maintained by local governments but dictated by national mandates. They offered employment in exchange for support and housing, and relief was supervised by a parish committee that was headed by an overseer, who then determined how to administer the aid. In addition, the relief given varied from parish to parish.

Neither prison nor workhouse adequately addressed the issues related to those who inhabited them. This was particularly true of the disabled, and so the most preferred form of care during this period was for them to stay with their families. To make it more attractive, parishes also paid “allowances to families to continue caring for dependent relatives within the household.”[8] Only when a family was unwilling or unable to care for a disabled relative was the person sent out, although parishes did also place the disabled with those in the parish that needed financial aid, thereby solving the problem for both the disabled and the destitute.

Jane Austen's disabled brother - detail from possible Austen family.

Detail from possible Austen family drawing. Courtesy of janeaustensequels.com.

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. Someone with a mental disability was also called an “imbecile” or an “idiot,” with imbecile denoting a less degree of disability than an idiot. In addition, those who behaved or looked differently from the norm were often viewed as some sort of freak, and many who suffered an unusual physical ailment or disfigurement ended up in one of the fairs, carnivals, exhibits, or sideshows that were popular during this era.

Although George Jr.’s removal from the Austen family may seem harsh today, at the time it may have been the more pragmatic and the preferable thing to do. He enjoyed permanent paid care in the company of his disabled uncle at the Cullum’s, and he lived out his life in relative comfort, because from all indications the care he received was performed by loving guardians. However, after George Jr.’s removal from the Austen family none of the Austen’s visited him. No one knows how this affected him or if the stoppage of visits were done because they were considered the best thing for George Jr.

Despite not seeing George Jr., the Austen family did continue to care financially for him throughout the remainder of his life. Jane never mentioned him in her letters, and, in addition, once he left home, mentions of him by his mother seemed to stop. When Cassandra died in 1827, she noticeably left him out of her will, and, moreover, when her brother, James Leigh-Perrot, died, although he left money to his sister’s children upon his wife’s death, he did not name George Jr. as one of the recipients.

It ultimately became the wealthy Edward who shouldered the financial burden for his older brother after his parent’s death. Edward was born a year after George Jr. and was adopted by Thomas Knight II when he was twelve years old. Perhaps, the costs associated with George Jr.’s care were one of the unspoken considerations related to Edward being adopted. When Edward became financially responsible for George Jr., he ensured that his brother would have money to sustain himself if he died before him. However, that would not be necessary.

Jane Austen's disabled brother George Austen - Picture of Edward Austen

Edward Austen Knight around 1788. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Jane Austen’s disabled brother George Jr. died 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. He was completely left out by Caroline Austen in her 1867 memoir as she claimed that Edward was Jane’s second brother. James Edward Austen-Leigh (the son of Austen’s eldest brother, James) repeated the same error in his 1872 memoir, and in Goldwin Smith’s 1890 Life of Jane Austen, he erroneously claimed Jane only had five brothers. In fact, for many years, historians and memoir writers completely ignored George Jr. It seemed as if he didn’t exist at all, which was perhaps made worse by the fact that he is the only Austen sibling for whom no image exists.

Historians of the twentieth century would also remark on Jane Austen’s disabled brother being absent in Austen history. By then, however, sensitivity about disabilities had greatly increased. The mentions made by twentieth century historians at the time often perceived the Austen family to have a lack of concern for George Jr. In some cases, they would be excessively harsh and even vilify the Austen family. One case worth mentioning involves a twentieth-century historian who wrote in 1998 a rather melodramatic ending to George Jr.’s life while also implying that the Austen family did not love him:

“Less than twenty miles away [from Jane’s grave], Jane’s brother George was laid to rest in an unnamed grave in the churchyard of All Saints church, Monk Sherborne. In death, as in life, he was to be forgotten, his remains unmarked by any stone. Only George Cullum was in attendance at George Austen’s death. It was he who noted for the death certificate that George Austen was ‘a gentleman’.”[9]

References:

  • [1] Deirdre Le Faye, ed., Jane Austen’s Letters, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 160.
  • [2] W. Threlfal, Essay on Epilepsy. In which a new theory of that disease is attempted, etc (Z. Stuart, 1772), p. 6.
  • [3] Ibid. p. 8–9,
  • [4] G. S. Howard, The New Royal Cyclopaedia, And Encyclopaedia; or Complete Modern and Universal Dictionary Arts and Sciences v. 3 (London: Alex, Hogg, 1788), p. 1406,
  • [5] R. A. Austen-Leigh, Austen Papers, 1704-1856 (Colchester: Ballatine, 1942), p. 23.
  • [6] Ibid. p. 27.
  • [7] M. Veevers, Jane and Dorothy: A True Tale of Sense and Sensibility:The Lives of Jane Austen and Dorothy Wordsworth (New York: Pegasus Books, 2018), p. 11.
  • [8] D. Wright, “Learning Disablity and the New Poor Law in England, 1834-1867,” Disability & Society, no. 15.5 (2000): p. 733.
  • [9] D. Nokes, Jane Austen: A Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), p. 526.

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