PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.30, NO.2 (Spring 2010)

“Three or Four Families”: Suggestions for New Directions in Biographical Research

Deirdre Le Faye


Deirdre Le Faye (email: has researched the life and times of Jane Austen for the last forty years.  She has published the definitive factual biography, Jane Austen: A Family Record, plus a new edition of Jane Austen’s Letters, several other books, and numerous scholarly articles on Austenian topics.


“You are now collecting your People delightfully, getting them exactly into such a spot as is the delight of my life;—3 or 4 Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on.”  This is now a thoroughly hackneyed quotation from Jane Austen’s letter of 9-18 September 1814 to Anna Austen, but one that can survive further repetition—not, in this essay, in the way of literary criticism, but in the very literal way of considering how far Austen’s own life matched the plot structure she suggested to her niece.  Furthermore, consideration can be given to identify what new directions still remain for future Austenian biographers to explore.


Ever since Jane Austen’s nephew, the Reverend James Edward Austen-Leigh, published his brief Memoir in 1870, biographical material has proliferated—nowadays there is a new biography almost every other year—and the flow shows no sign of abating.  Lord Brabourne published the first collection of her letters in 1884, followed by Chapman’s editions in 1932 and 1952, and my own complete collection was published in 1995.  The Hill sisters, Constance and Ellen, published the first guide-book to “Austen-land” in 1902, and there are now many other short topographical works dealing specifically with the places where Austen lived or visited, inviting readers to follow in her footsteps.  There have been several bibliographies:  Keynes’s in 1929, Chapman’s in 1953, and David Gilson’s great work in 1982, which subsumes Keynes and Chapman, lists all Austenian studies up to 1978, and is an essential tool for any serious researcher.  In America, Barry Roth and Joel Weinsheimer published an annotated bibliography in 1973, continued by Roth in two further volumes covering 1973-1983 and 1984-1994, and annual lists thereafter in Persuasions and Persuasions On-Line, up to 2008; these volumes, however, are not available in the UK.  In 2006, I published A Chronology of Jane Austen and her Family, 1600-2000, which lists some 15,000 facts drawn from original sources.


There are various publications by and about members of the Austen family.  John Henry Hubback and his daughter Edith Charlotte (later Mrs. Francis Brown) collaborated in writing the first of these, Jane Austen’s Sailor Brothers (1906), dealing specifically with the lives of Francis and Charles, but bringing to light hitherto unknown letters from Austen herself.  The uncle-and-nephew collaboration of William and R. A. Austen-Leigh produced the first attempt at a proper biography, Jane Austen, her Life and Letters, in 1913, and the latter compiled Austen Papers 1704-1856 in 1942, which still contains seminal information.  Caroline Austen’s essay My Aunt Jane Austen was used by James Edward Austen-Leigh in his Memoir, and was printed in its own right in 1952 by the Jane Austen Society, showing how heavily he had relied upon it for his work; the Society also published Caroline’s own Reminiscences in 1986.  Anna Lefroy, too, provided her brother with information for his Memoir, and I have published her letters in articles and in A Family Record.  The late George Holbert Tucker, in his A Goodly Heritage: A History of Jane Austen’s Family (1983), was the first person to think of writing separate essays on each member of Austen’s immediate family circle, and in recent years other researchers have continued to take this approach, with updating studies on aspects of the lives of her brothers, these articles being published in the annual Reports of the Jane Austen Society.  There have also been separate biographies of Austen’s cousin Eliza de Feuillide, and of her favorite niece Fanny Knight, as well as the publication of the poetry and verses written by the Austen family in general, and by James and his son James Edward in particular.  All of this material fills in the background details of Austen’s own life.


Despite all these biographical studies, Austen herself remains something of an enigma, mainly because she kept no diary or journal in which to record her private feelings and opinions, and nobody, not even Cassandra, kept a Boswell-style record of her sister’s daily life.  This is why biographers—and now film-makers—keep trying to pin down her image by re-interpreting the facts about her life as given in her letters and, to a lesser extent, in her novels.  The difficulty here is that so few of her letters survive—only 160 out of a possible total of 3,000 written during her adult lifetime—so unless and until more letters come to light from boxes in dusty attics, our next best source of information must be the letters and other documents of those people who knew the Austens.  Even a cursory glance at Austen’s own letters shows how much local gossip she passes on to Cassandra about their friends and neighbors, whether in Hampshire or Kent.  Is it possible, then, that these neighbors—the three or four or more families in country villages—likewise gossiped to each other about the Austens?  One might even pose the question that has so preoccupied makers of biographical films in recent years:  if Austen could take a limited group of characters in static locations and plan their actions so that her novels would end with marital happiness, why did not her own life follow the same track?  Why did the families close to Steventon and Deane not provide a husband for her?  Who, indeed, were these families whose own family archives may provide further information about the Austens, about Jane herself?


At Steventon, for some twenty years throughout Austen’s early life, Mr. Austen had taken in pupils, a succession of teenage boys, sons of old friends, to tutor them for university entry, and this domestic propinquity did result in Cassandra becoming engaged to Tom Fowle.  Some people thought that John Willing Warren had developed an interest in Jane (letter of 14-15 January 1796), but she was certainly not interested in him (20-21 November 1800).  At Steventon Manor House, nearest neighbors to the Rectory, the Digweed family had five sons—John, Harry, James, William, and Francis—all born between 1766 and 1781.  The Digweeds were only tenant farmers, not landowners, but nevertheless wealthy, and any one of these sons would have been quite an appropriate match for the daughters of a not-very-well-off country parson.  At one time Jane joked that James Digweed was one of Cassandra’s admirers (8-9 and 21-22 January 1801); but he and his brothers all chose their wives elsewhere, in other Hampshire villages.


In Mr. Austen’s other parish of Deane, Squire Harwood had three sons, again all of a suitable age to match the Austen girls.  However, the Reverend John, the eldest, was the unsuccessful admirer of Elizabeth Bigg from Manydown, who married the Reverend William Heathcote; when she was widowed young he would have renewed his courtship had it not been for inheriting his father’s debts, which meant he was too poor to marry anyone.  The second Harwood son, Earle, seems to have been a loud-mouthed quarrelsome boor—somewhat in the John Thorpe style—who joined the Royal Marines, then viewed as a rather low-grade branch of the armed services; he married a Devon girl of doubtful reputation, travelled abroad on active service, eventually returned home to Deane and died in 1811 aged only 38.  In her letter of 16 February 1813 Austen dismissively referred to the youngest son, Charles, as “thick-headed.”


In the spring of 1789 the Lloyd family—widowed mother and two daughters—came to live in Deane parsonage, and this neighborly contact did indeed lead to James Austen finding his future wife, marrying Mary Lloyd in 1797.  Also living in the parish of Deane were the Bramstons of Oakley Hall, a youngish couple but childless; Mrs. Bramston was one of the daughters of the Chute family of The Vyne in nearby Sherborne St. John, and her younger brother, the Reverend Tom Chute, might well have been a suitable match for Jane.  However, she seems not to have liked the Chute family very much; and in any case Tom later left The Vyne and spent much of his life at another of the Chute estates, in Norfolk, remaining unmarried to his dying day.


At Ashe the incumbent was the Reverend George Lefroy, who came to the parish in 1783 with his clever, elegant wife and several children, including one daughter Lucy and sons George, Edward, and Ben.  The Lefroys’ Irish nephew Tom, older than his cousins, made his brief appearance here in the winter of 1795-96.  Had both he and Jane come from richer families, their Christmas-holiday flirtation might have been allowed to develop into some deeper relationship.  Biographers and writers of screenplays have imagined how the successful culmination of this brief flirtation might have fulfilled Austen’s later script for a happy ending to her own romantic novel.  It is now well known, however, that the elder Lefroys sent Tom away before any engagement could be suggested.  Also in the Ashe neighbourhood were the Portal family, with son John and his cousin the Reverend Benjamin, but although Austen danced with them, and although Benjamin in particular was one of James Austen’s university friends, no romance ever occurred.


Manydown, near Basingstoke, was the home of the Bigg-Wither family, with five daughters and one surviving son, Harris, who is now famous for having been engaged to Jane for one night in December 1802.  No one will ever know why she first accepted his proposal and then retracted her acceptance the following morning, but it could be significant that she commented in her letter of 8-9 November 1800:  “Harris seems still in a poor way, from his bad habit of body; his hand bled again a little the other day, & Dr Littlehales has been with him lately.”  One of Harris’s descendants admitted in the Bigg-Wither family history (57-58) that he was quick-tempered and had a bad stammer, so it may well have been that, although Jane could like him as the younger brother of her good friends Catherine and Alethea Bigg, she could not bring herself to marry him.


Further afield, at Dummer, was the large Terry family.  The Terry daughters Jane and Eliza married respectively Harry Digweed and Charles Harwood, so they could be said to fulfil the Emma plot situation.  The two eldest sons, Stephen and Michael, might have been considered eligible for the Austen girls, but Stephen married outside Hampshire.  Years later, Michael was briefly engaged to Austen’s niece Anna; and Anna’s daughter subsequently described him as being as stupid as Mr. Rushworth or Mr. Collins (Family Record 182).  Lord Dorchester and his family lived at Kempshott Park, near Basingstoke, from 1795 onwards; the Mildmay baronet family were at Dogmersfield; and the Jervoise family—whom Austen described in a letter of 21 January 1799 as “apt to be vulgar”—were at Herriard.  All these people attended the assembly balls in Basingstoke, where Austen met them and mentioned them in her letters afterwards.


In Kent, Austen certainly saw several examples of marriages between a few families living in the same district:  in her brother Edward’s Godmersham circle, Eleanor Foote married Sir Brook Bridges of Goodnestone, Harriet Foote married Edward Bridges, and the Reverend George Moore married as his second wife Harriot [sic] Bridges.  In the summer of 1808 Edward Bridges had evidently proposed to Austen (letters of 7-9 October and 20 November 1808); there is nothing in her letters to give any clue as to why she rejected him, but perhaps by then, aged thirty-three, she simply felt comfortable in remaining single.  Others, however, were still hoping to matchmake for her:  in 1808, when Mrs. Austen and her daughters were planning to move to Chawton, Mrs. Knight seems to have thought Jane ought to marry the bachelor rector there, Mr. John Papillon.  This prompted Austen’s wry comment to Cassandra in her letter of 9 December 1808:  “I am very much obliged to Mrs Knight for such a proof of the interest she takes in me—& she may depend upon it, that I will marry Mr Papillon, whatever may be his reluctance or my own.—I owe her much more than such a trifling sacrifice.”  Even as late as 1811-12, when Austen would have been thirty-six or thirty-seven, brother Henry’s London lawyer William Seymour was contemplating proposing to her, and although formally asking Henry if he might pay his addresses to her, in the end he never did (Le Faye, “Laggard Suitor”).


So for all Austen’s planning of happy endings for her deserving heroines, and the examples of local courtships and marriages which she saw in progress around her, for whatever reasons she was never able to find such an ending for herself, either in country villages or busy cities.  It is this lack of knowledge of her private life that is so frustrating for biographers and that makes the absence of diaries and journals so particularly unfortunate.  The next best thing that can be hoped for—in the absence of any further letters from Austen herself—is that these Hampshire neighbors, these Godmersham neighbors, all the other contemporary residents in Bath and Southampton, may have left their own letters, diaries, journals or other documents in which the Austen family in general, and perhaps Jane in particular, are mentioned and possibly even discussed.  New researchers should therefore follow up all the names mentioned in the biographical index to my edition of the Letters, and check in County Record Offices to see if any of them left family archives.  There is also still much more work to be done in searching the Austen-Leigh and Knight archives (both in the Hampshire Record Office, Winchester), the Brabourne archive (Centre for Kentish Studies, Maidstone), and Mrs. Austen’s Leigh family archive (Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Stratford-on-Avon).  Apart from personal documents, newspapers, tradesmen’s order books, banking accounts, and town rating books can all provide unique original information regarding the life of the Austens.  With all the benefits of the International Genealogical Index, census returns, information from Google on the web, microfilms and photocopies widely available from Record Offices, even those researchers who do not live in the United Kingdom can still find new information if they are willing to look for it.


Finally, I would hope that some person or persons with access to a research library will take up the task of providing bibliographic studies year by year, and publishing these in both the United Kingdom Jane Austen Society’s Reports, and in JASNA’s Persuasions and Persuasions On-Line.  Furthermore, whether we are inside or outside academia, professional scholars or amateur enthusiasts, is not important—we should all join our respective Jane Austen Societies, and by so doing keep in touch with latest research and be able to share our collective knowledge with the ever-growing numbers of her readers throughout the world.



Works Cited


Austen, Jane.  Jane Austen’s Letters.  Ed. Deirdre Le Faye.  Oxford: OUP, 1995.

Austen-Leigh, James Edward.  A Memoir of Jane Austen.  1870.  Rpt. in A Memoir of Jane Austen and Other Family Recollections.  Ed. Kathryn Sutherland.  Oxford: OUP, 2002.  1-134.

Austen-Leigh, Richard Arthur, ed.  Austen Papers 1704-1856.  London: privately printed by Spottiswoode Ballantyne, 1942.

Austen-Leigh, William, and Richard Arthur.  Jane Austen, Her Life and Letters: A Family Record.  London: Smith Elder, 1913.

Bigg-Wither, Reverend R.F.  Materials for a History of the Wither Family. Winchester: Warren, 1907.

Brabourne, Edward Hugessen Knatchbull-Hugesen.  Letters of Jane Austen.  London: Bentley, 1884.

Chapman, R. W., ed.  Jane Austen’s Letters to Her Sister Cassandra and Others.  Oxford: Clarendon, 1932; 2nd ed. 1952.

_____.  Jane Austen: A Critical Bibliography.  Oxford: Clarendon, 1953.

Gilson, David.  A Bibliography of Jane Austen.  Oxford: Clarendon, 1982.

Hill, Constance.  Jane Austen, Her Homes and Her Friends.  London: Lane, 1902.

Hubback, J. H., and E. C. Hubback.  Jane Austen’s Sailor Brothers.  London : Lane, 1906. Rpt. Stroud: Hodgkins, 1986.

Jane Austen Society, Chawton.  Collected Reports: 1 (1949-1965), 2 (1966-1975), 3 (1976-1985), 4 (1986-1995), 5 (1996-2000), 6 (2001-2005), and continuing annually.

Keynes, Geoffrey.  Jane Austen: A Bibliography.  London: Nonesuch, 1929.

Le Faye, Deirdre.  A Chronology of Jane Austen and Her Family 1600-2000.  Cambridge: CUP, 2006.

_____.  Fanny Knight’s Diaries: Jane Austen Through Her Niece’s Eyes.  Chawton: Jane Austen Society, 2000.

_____.  Jane Austen: A Family Record.  London: British Library, 1989; 2nd ed. Cambridge: CUP, 2004.

_____.  “Jane Austen’s Laggard Suitor.”  Notes and Queries ns 47 245.3 (Sept. 2000): 301-04.

_____.  Jane Austen’s ‘Outlandish Cousin’: The Life and Letters of Eliza de Feuillide.  London: British Library, 2002.

_____, ed.  Jane Austen’s Letters.  Oxford: OUP, 1995.

_____, ed.  Reminiscences of Jane Austen’s Niece Caroline Austen.  Chawton: Jane Austen Society, 1986, 2004.

Roth, Barry.  An Annotated Bibliography of Jane Austen Studies, 1973-1983.  Charlottesville: UP of Virginia 1985.

_____.  An Annotated Bibliography of Jane Austen Studies, 1984-1994.  Athens: Ohio UP, 1996.

Roth, Barry, and Weinsheimer, Joel.  An Annotated Bibliography of Jane Austen Studies, 1952-1972.  Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1973.

Selwyn, David, ed.  The Complete Poems of James Austen, Jane Austen’s Eldest Brother.  Chawton: Jane Austen Society, 2003.

_____.  Fugitive Pieces: The Poems of James Edward Austen-Leigh.  Winchester: Jane Austen Society, 2006.

_____.  Jane Austen: Collected Poems and Verse of the Austen Family.  Manchester: Carcanet, 1996.

Tucker, George Holbert.  A Goodly Heritage.  Manchester: Carcanet, 1983.  Reissued as A History of Jane Austen’s Family.  Stroud: Sutton, 1998.

Wilson, Margaret.  Almost Another Sister: The Story of Fanny Knight, Jane Austen’s Favourite Niece.  Maidstone: Mann, 1998.


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