We received an e-mail from a Gentle Reader who had just learned of George Austen’s existence, was unable to find much information about him, and thought perhaps there was some sort of coverup going on. Well, there was, but but it happened a hundred years ago. We’re all about transparency these days in Austenland, if we’re not actively making stuff up. However, we thought it was not a bad idea to look through our books and see what information we could pull together about George Austen, Gentleman.
Jane Austen was the seventh of eight children of George Austen and Cassandra Leigh Austen. If you read some of the older biographies, you would be forgiven for thinking that Jane had only six siblings–five brothers and a sister. James Edward Austen-Leigh’s Victorian sensibilities unfortunately led him to leave one of Jane’s brothers out of his Memoir of his aunt: George, the second Austen son, named for his father. It is possible that Edward forgot all about poor George; he never lived with the Austens except for a few years of childhood, and Edward was writing the Memoir sixty years after Jane’s death and forty after George’s. In any event, it was only in the later part of the 20th century that Austen biographers acknowledged George’s existence, and because of the failure of his own or the following generation to mention him, there is not that much to tell.
George was born in 1766, and like his siblings, sent out to a neighboring cottage to be nursed until he was old enough to not need constant tending. Unfortunately, it became obvious early that he was not developing like most children. Jane’s surviving letters never mention George, but letters from various family members mention him. The Rev. George Austen wrote that he took comfort that his second son “could never be a bad or wicked child.” George’s godfather, Tysoe Saul Hancock, Mr. Austen’s brother-in-law, mentioned in a letter to his wife Philadelphia about “the case of my godson who must be provided for without the least hopes of his being able to assist himself.” It seems clear from these comments that the family considered George to be mentally deficient.
In 1770, Mrs. Austen wrote to another sister-in-law that three-year-old George had suffered a fit for the first time in a twelvemonth. It is unclear what she meant by a “fit”–it is possible, of course, that George suffered from epilepsy.
Mrs. Austen’s brother, Thomas Leigh, also had unspecified mental and/or physical problems. He was housed with a family named Cullam or Culham in the Hampshire village of Monk Sherborne, and eventually George was sent to live there as well. Short of actually keeping him in the family–and with seven other children to deal with, not to mention the boys being tutored by Mr. Austen, who also lived at Steventon, it is difficult to criticize the Austens for sending him away to be cared for–this might have been the best option, certainly better than sending poor George to some kind of public asylum.
Mr. Hancock’s daughter, Eliza, married and gave birth to a child who also had “fits” and did not develop like other children; he was slow to walk and talk. Eliza’s cousin, Philadelphia Walter, wrote to her brother that they feared Hastings would be mentally deficient like “poor George Austen.” Hastings, however, remained with his mother, who tended him loyally until his death at age fifteen.
Many scholars think that George Austen was deaf as well. In one of Jane Austen’s letters, she mentions talking to a deaf man “with my fingers,” that is, using sign language, so it is thought that perhaps Jane learned sign language to communicate with her brother. Deafness in itself was not enough to banish George to obscurity in a cottage, so if he was indeed deaf, it was in addition to other health problems, whether mental or physical or both. Austen biographer Claire Tomalin opines that George may have suffered from cerebral palsy, which often is accompanied by deafness, and certainly would have kept him from walking. It is horrifying to think that George, limited by physical problems, might have had a perfectly good mind, but was unable to communicate, and assumed to be mentally deficient–imagine having the brain of an Austen, and no way to use it! But all this speculation on George’s condition is just that: speculation. We know only that his family considered him to be unable to take care of himself.
At Mrs. Austen’s death in 1827, some stocks that she owned were sold and the proceeds divided among her living children, except, strangely, for George. Edward Knight, who was of course adopted by rich, childless cousins, did not need this money, and made it over to George to pay for his care.
Despite any physical problems that George may have had, he lived, like five of his siblings, a long life. He died of dropsy at Monk Sherborne in 1838, at age 72. On his death certificate, he was identified as a “gentleman.”
Tomalin, Claire. Jane Austen, A Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.
Tucker, George Holbert. A History of Jane Austen’s Family. Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing Limited, 1998.