Christmas is the time of year when we put the trials of daily life behind us to spend time with our family. The past traditions of gathering around the piano or reading stories and poems have moved onto the modern tradition of gathering around the television, with Austen’s period dramas often a family favourite. It’s not hard to see where Jane Austin found her inspiration for her novels, with a life of heartbreak, tragedy and financial hardship but with strong family ties till the end.
Jane Austen was born in December 1775 in Steventon Hampshire, to parents George Austen and Cassandra Leigh. George was a clergyman and a descendent of woollen manufacturers who had elevated the family to the ranks of the gentry. The Leigh’s were a prestigious family with ancestral links to the aristocracy. George and Cassandra were married in 1764 in Bath, Somerset and had 8 children in total.
Out of her six brothers Jane appears to have been closest to Henry and also had a very close relationship with her sister Cassandra. Jane and Cassandra were sent away to Oxford in 1783 to be educated by Mrs Ann Crawley, and travelled with her to Southampton where Jane became seriously ill with Typhus and nearly died. As a result of the illness and the cost of sending both daughters to school, George Austen decided to bring the girls back to Steventon and educate them at home. They had free access to his vast library and were bought expensive paper and materials to encourage them to write.
From this time on Jane was never separated from her immediate family. Her brother Henry was originally a banker and later became an Anglican clergyman. From his varied occupations he had a large circle of friends from very different backgrounds, which Jane would also have come into contact with. This mix of different people may well have influenced Jane’s outlook on life and her writing.
By 1800, George had retired from his ministry and the family relocated to Bath. Jane received her first marriage proposal in December 1802 from a family friend in Basingstoke, Harris Bigg-Wither. Evidence suggests that she was not very keen on Harris but accepted the proposal as he was heir to extensive family estates, and this would ensure financial security for her own family. However she had a change of heart and withdrew her acceptance the next day. Her father George died in January 1805, leaving Jane, her mother and sister in a difficult financial situation. They left Bath and moved in with Jane’s brother Francis in Southampton.
Jane’s other brother Edward had been adopted by a wealthy cousin, Thomas Knight, when he was 16 and subsequently inherited two large estates and a great deal of wealth. In 1809 he offered his mother and sisters a large cottage within the Chawton House estate in Hampshire. It was at Chawton that Jane was most productive and published four of her novels. Sense and Sensibility in 1811, Pride and Prejudice in 1813, Mansfield Park in 1814 and Emma in 1815. The novels Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were published after her death in 1817.
"The only man that caught her eye was Tom LeFroy, however his family intervened and he was kept away from the Austens..."
Jane never married and the only man that ever seemed to have caught her eye was Tom LeFroy (right). He was a nephew of her neighbours at Steventon and visited in December 1795. The pair became very close and spent a great deal of time together. Tom had very little money at this time and had just finished a university degree funded by his great uncle in Ireland. He was supposed to be moving on to London to train as a barrister, so his family intervened in the friendship and sent him away in January. He did return to Hampshire on occasion but was kept away from the Austens. Tom LeFroy can be found on the Lincoln’s Inn Admissions 1420 -1893, with an entry recorded in October 1793, available on CD at GenealogySupplies.com.
After many months of illness at Chawton, Jane was taken to Winchester for treatment by her brother Henry, but died there in July 1817, aged 41. Her will can be seen in the PCC Wills collection on TheGenealogist.co.uk. We have at present over 140 years of wills available online with nearly 700,000 records, and this will shortly be expanded to cover all years.
Other records of Jane's siblings can also be found on TheGenealogist. Edward Knight is present on census records for 1841 and 1851. Cassandra and Henry can be seen together on the 1841 census in Hampshire. Francis is also present on the 1841 and 1851 census. We have complete census records available for England and Wales from 1841 to 1901.
Francis and Charles both pursued a career in the Navy and reached the rank of Admiral. They are both mentioned online in the 1822 Navy List as Captains, and also receive many references in the 1850 Navy List as Admirals. There are currently 22 Navy Lists available on TheGenealogist, ranging from 1822 to 1944. The 1850 Navy List shows that Francis received a medal in 1800 for capturing a French ship and another during the Battle of Domingo 6th February 1806. He was awarded the Order of the Bath, and is recorded in the Knights of England 1127 to 1904, also available online with all Personal Plus, Gold and Diamond Premium subscriptions.