LAST MONTH WE LOOKED AT THE LIFE OF FANNY KNIGHT, ONE OF JANE AUSTEN'S MOST WELL-KNOWN NIECES. ALTHOUGH FANNY FEATURES PROMINENTLY IN DISCUSSION SURROUNDING JANE'S LIFE AND EXTENDED FAMILY, SHE WAS ONLY ONE IN A CROWD - JANE AUSTEN WAS AN AUNT TO OVER THIRTY NIECES AND NEPHEWS.
Of course, families tended to be larger due to a number of social and economic reasons in Jane’s time, so a family of this size was not unusual. The fact that both Jane and her only sister Cassandra were unmarried and childless was probably more atypical. Jane and Cassandra spent a lot of time with their young relatives and Jane herself seemed to relish her role as aunt in her familiar, gently ironic and occasionally sardonic way.
“Now that you are become an Aunt, you are a person of some consequence & must excite great Interest whatever You do. I have always maintained the importance of Aunts as much as possible, & I am sure of your doing the same now.--Beleive me my dear Sister-Aunt” (Mon 30 Oct 1815).
Jane wrote the above to her ten-year-old niece, Caroline, upon the occasion of Caroline herself becoming an aunt. Caroline’s elder sister, Anna Lefroy, had just given birth to her first child, Anna-Jemima.
Caroline, Anna, and their brother Edward (James Edward Austen-Leigh) were the children of Jane’s eldest brother, James. All three were inspired to try their hand at writing themselves and sought advice and feedback from Jane, who praised their efforts. ‘I wish I could finish Stories as fast as you can’, Jane wrote to Caroline on December 6, 1814. Caroline later reminisced about her aunt Jane telling them fairy stories and always emphasising how much more the children could learn from Cassandra, rather than herself (Hodge, 1972), though Caroline maintained that Jane had been her favourite aunt (Selwyn, 2010).
On November 30 1814, Jane wrote to a newlywed Anna with praise and constructive criticism on Anna’s novel-in-progress, beginning: ‘I have been very far from finding your Book an Evil I assure you; I read it immediately-& with great pleasure’. In response to one character being in love with an aunt, Jane claims it is a great compliment to aunts, and declares cheekily, ‘I dare say Ben [Lefroy, Anna’s new husband] was in love with me once, & [would] never have thought of You if he had not supposed me dead of a Scarlet fever’.
Sadly, Anna never finished her novel. Did marriage and childrearing stop Anna following in her aunt’s literary footsteps? We will never truly know.
Edward, however, continued to write throughout his life. As a young man, he was so impressed upon discovering his aunt was an author of well-known novels, that he wrote her a congratulatory verse:
To Miss J. Austen
No words can express, my dear Aunt, my surprise
Or make you conceive how I opened my eyes,
Like a pig Butcher Pile has just struck with his knife,
When I heard for the very first time in my life
That I have the honour to have a relation
Whose works were dispersed through the whole of the nation.
I assure you, however, I’m terribly glad:
Oh dear, just to think (and the thought drives me mad)
That dear Mrs. Jennings’s good-natured strain,
Was really the produce of your witty brain
That you made the Middletons, Dashwoods and all,
And that you (not young Ferrars) found out that a ball
May be given in cottages never so small.
And though Mr. Collins so grateful for all
Will Lady de Bourgh his dear patroness call,
‘Tis to your ingenuity really he owed
His living, his wife, and his humble abode.
Edward later went on to publish A Memoir of Jane Austen in 1869 with sufficient input from his two sisters and some of his many cousins. His book is full of compliments for his departed aunt:
"Many may care to know whether the moral rectitude, the correct taste, and the warm affections with which she invested her ideal characters, were really existing in the native source whence those ideas flowed, and were actually exhibited by her in the various relations of life. I can indeed bear witness that there was scarcely a charm in her most delightful characters that was not a true reflection of her own sweet temper and loving heart. I was young when we lost her; but the impressions made on the young are deep, and though in the course of fifty years I have forgotten much, I have not forgotten that 'Aunt Jane' was the delight of all her nephews and nieces. We did not think of her as being clever, still less as being famous; but we valued her as one always kind, sympathising, and amusing" (Austen-Leigh, 1869, p. 2)
We have no reason to doubt that any of Jane’s other nieces and nephews shared his sentiments regarding their beloved aunt, though they may have been interested to read some of her earlier comments about their behaviour as children!
Cassandra ‘Cassy’ Esten was one of Charles Austen’s daughters with his first wife Frances Palmer and Jane did not trouble to hide her opinions in letters to Cassandra when discussing her, writing that Cassy “ought to be a very nice Child - Nature has done enough for her - but Method has been wanting...She will really be a very pleasing Child, if they should only exert themselves a little.” (Sat 3 - Tues 6 July 1813). Only months later, Jane writes to Cassandra and again mentions Cassy: “I should be very happy in the idea of seeing little Cassy again too, did not I fear she wd disappoint me by some immediate disagreeableness...Poor little Love-I wish she were not so very Palmery-but it seems stronger than ever.-I never knew a Wife’s family-features have such undue influence” (Thurs 14 - Fri 15 Oct 1813).
Just before this, she had also written to Cassandra to bemoan her nephews. Jane was staying at Godmersham at the time, so we can assume the boys she spoke of were Edward Austen Knight’s sons. She begins by apologising: “As I wrote of my nephews with a little bitterness in my last, I think it particularly incumbent on me to do them justice now, & have great pleasure in saying that they were both at the Sacrament yesterday. After having much praised or much blamed anybody, one is generally sensible of something just the reverse soon afterwards. Now, these two Boys who are out with the Foxhounds will come home & disgust me again by some habit of Luxury or some proof of sporting Mania - unless I keep it off by this prediction.” (Mon 11 - Tues 12 Oct 1813).
How interesting it would be to know what they had done to make Jane write so bitterly in her previous letter! Alas, this previous letter was one of the documents destroyed by Cassandra before her death. Deirdre Le Faye (2011) suspects it was for this very reason that the letter was destroyed.
Of course, there is no evidence that the subjects of these comments ever knew about them; even if they did, there is no evidence they took them to heart. It is apparent that Jane loved her extended family, perhaps even more so due to her own lack of children. Her criticisms of her nieces and nephews and of her siblings’ parenting provides readers today with a fuller, more rounded image of her personality. Yes, she was a writer, a sister, a daughter, and a friend to many, but to more than thirty children, she was also their aunt, with all the love and joy and frustration that came with it!
© Emily Prince - Editor, Pride & Possibilities
Austen-Leigh, J. E. (1869). A memoir of Jane Austen. Reissued by Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Austen-Leigh. J. (1989). 'My Aunt, Jane Austen'. In Persuasions, #11, p. 28 - 36. Retrieved from: http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/printed/number11/austen_leigh.htm
Hodge, J. A. (1972). The Double Life of Jane Austen. Hodder and Stoughton: London
Le Faye, Deirdre. (2013). A chronology of Jane Austen and her family (2nd rev. ed.). Cambridge University Press.
Le Faye, D. (Ed.). (2011). Jane Austen’s Letters (4th ed.). Oxford University Press.
Selwyn, D. (2010). Jane Austen and Children. Continuum International Publishing Group: London
The Jane Austen Literacy Foundation works with the Jane Austen community and industry worldwide to raise funds to buy literacy resources for communities in need across the world. Reading and writing skills empower individuals to participate in society and achieve their dreams. Literacy gives a child pride and opens up a world of possibilities.
Image credit: BBC; WGBH Boston