PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.34, NO.1 (Winter 2013)

George Austen’s Absence from Family Life: The Shifting Biographical Response

Patricia M. Ard


Patricia M. Ard (email: is a Professor of Literature at Ramapo College of New Jersey, where she teaches a course on Jane Austen.  She previously published an article in Persuasions On-Line concerning America’s influences on Austen and has also published on Charles Dickens and Mary Peabody Mann.


in her introduction to the revised and expanded Jane Austen: A Family Record, Deirdre Le Faye notes, “Perhaps more than any other writer, Jane was so much a product and a part of her family that neither her life, her letters nor her works can be properly understood without reference to the lives of the rest of the Austens” (xii).  Jane Austen’s older brother George, the second child born to George and Cassandra Austen, was disabled, spending virtually his entire life on a Hampshire farm, apart from his family.  How do we understand that part of Jane Austen’s family background?  Former Modern Language Association president Michael Bérubé, who has published extensively on the intersection of disability studies and literature, has urged that “the implications of disability studies for the humanities” be considered (MLA).  In this article I consider one possible implication of disability studies for Austen scholarship by using the known facts of George’s life to analyze changing patterns in the biographical commentary on him.  By doing so, I hope better to understand a sibling of Jane Austen about whom relatively little has been written.  Since other members of Jane Austen’s family were disabled, I will also consider their fate in relation to George’s and in the context of the approach to disability in England in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  Such an analysis requires a reevaluation of the Austens’ decisions regarding their son’s care.  Fortunately, scholars increasingly feel it is “rewarding to challenge restrictive readings of Austen biography,” making a more critical view of George’s parents’ actions part of new directions in Austen studies (Upfal and Alexander).


What Le Faye has described as the “close-knit and affectionate” nature of the Austen family (xii) is a view so universally held that it seems almost churlish to recall that the Austens sent away their second son George to live permanently with paid caretakers, where he was rarely if ever visited.  George remained with the Cullum (or Culham) family in Monk Sherborne—first Francis and Elizabeth and then their son and daughter-in-law Charles and Mary Ann—until his death at age seventy-one (Hurst 348-49).  The very closeness of the Austen siblings, so frequently commented upon, is in marked contrast to George’s separation and isolation from the Austen family.


George Austen’s life


A review of the basic facts of George’s life will assist this discussion.  He was born on 26 August 1766 at Deane, where his parents, George and Cassandra Leigh Austen, were living while the nearby Steventon rectory was being renovated for the young rector and his wife (Family Record 19).  He was his parents’ second child and second son.  George was baptized immediately and christened later, on September 29.  His godparents were Tysoe Saul Hancock, husband of George Austen’s sister Philadelphia; the Rev. Dr. James Musgrave, one of Cassandra’s cousins; and a Mrs. Cockell, about whom little is known (19-20).  Like the other Austen children, he was sent at three months to local foster care (19).  The Austen children customarily returned to the household at about one-and-a-half years of age (Tomalin 7).  By at least age three, however, George had had a “fit,” and at four he had another (Austen Papers 27).


Two passages in letters written by George’s parents are key to any analysis of his condition; I quote them here in brief.  In a letter of 8 July 1770 to his sister-in-law, Mrs. Susannah Walter, George notes of his same-named son, “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” (Austen Papers 23).  Why can’t he be “bad” or “wicked”?  The most logical inference is that George showed signs to his father of intellectual disability.1


Echoing the concern about four year old George’s lack of improvement voiced by her husband, by December of that same year Mrs. Austen also writes to Susannah Walter:  “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” (Austen Papers 27).  The first half of the passage—“he seems pretty well”—is undone in the second half—“a fit lately.”2  Since Cassandra had a disabled brother, Thomas Leigh, who had been sent away from home, she had intimate knowledge of what probably lay in store for her son—and, in fact, would place George with the same family.  The era of “large residential hospitals” in England for those with either mental or intellectual disabilities would not begin in earnest until the late 1840s (Bolt et al. 4).  The Austens were following a private custodial route for a disabled family member, still common in this earlier period (Gabbard 100-01).


By 1772, writing about the 1771 birth of the Austens’ fourth child Henry, Tysoe Hancock expresses discomfort at the increase of the Austen family considering that George, his godson, “must be provided for without the least hopes of his being able to assist himself” (Austen Papers 66).  So by the time George was six, it was obvious he could not be educated to enter a profession like his brothers or even be able to earn his living at a trade.


The exact nature of George Austen’s disabilities is unknown.  Biographers have listed various possibilities, including epilepsy, low intellect, deafness, muteness, and cerebral palsy.3  Epilepsy is “one of the most common secondary disabilities” in people with an intellectual disability (Corbett; see also Batshaw 296).  So, in fact, the two most reliable observations about George’s disability—his father’s suggestion of his low intellect and his mother’s statement that he was subject to fits—are not contradictory.


How much George was at home or kept in foster care before his permanent removal to Monk Sherborne with the Cullum family is not known.  But in a November 1772 letter Mrs. Austen states she has “all four” of her children at home with her, which would have included George, then six (Austen Papers 28).  Claire Tomalin speculates that George may not have been permanently removed to the Cullum family until 1779.  That was the year he turned thirteen, the year that the last Austen child, Charles, was born, and that Jane, in December, would have been four (28).


The maternal concern voiced in the December 1770 letter, however, seems to have markedly dissipated over the decades that George lived apart from Austen family life.  Tellingly left out of his mother’s will at her death in 1827, it was up to his younger, wealthy brother Edward to assign his own maternal inheritance to George for his continued maintenance (Austen Papers 334).  He was also left out of the will of his mother’s brother Leigh-Perrot, who bequeathed future monies through his wife’s estate to the rest of the Austen children to follow his wife’s death (Austen Papers 332-33).  And of course, as Deirdre Le Faye notes, “He is not mentioned in Jane’s letters” (Jane Austen’s Letters 487).


George died of dropsy on 17 January 1838 at age seventy-one.  While dropsy is an “obsolete” diagnosis, since the term merely means “an abnormal accumulation of fluid,” its “major underlying causes . . . are congestive heart failure, liver failure, kidney failure, and malnutrition” (Estes).  We do not know exactly which of these conditions killed George.  No member of his family is recorded as attending his burial (Nokes 526).


Changing biographical commentary on George Austen and his disability


So complete was the Austen family’s desire or willingness to forget the existence of George that he is left out of some of the early biographies.  In Caroline Austen’s 1867 Memoir of her famous aunt she states, incorrectly, that Edward was Jane’s “second Brother” (166).  James Edward Austen-Leigh repeats the error in his 1871 Memoir (16).  Goldwin Smith’s 1890 Life of Jane Austen refers to her “five brothers” (13) when of course there were six.  Constance Hill in her 1902 Jane Austen: Her Homes & Her Friends does the same (49).  In the biographical portion of Jane Austen and Her Art (1939), Mary Lascelles also leaves George out, skipping in the discussion of Jane’s siblings from James directly to Edward (3).  Ivor Brown’s Jane Austen and Her World (1966) states incorrectly that “Jane had five brothers, two of whom became admirals in the British Navy” (5).  And a 1996 video on Austen in the Great Authors Series, still available in many libraries, equally leaves George out entirely.  These mid and late twentieth century biographies illustrate how some modern scholars accepted—even collaborated in—the Austens’ treatment of George.  That he is the only Austen sibling for whom there is no image of any sort available reinforces his erasure.


Since so little is known of him, most mentions of George in biographies that do include him are understandably short.  And since a principal purpose of biographers is to include those who significantly affected the subject, it could be argued that brief or passive voice mentions of George are understandable since Jane had only early contact with him.  The passive voice in the short biographical mentions of George, however, allows the active decisions by the Austen parents to be elided, a middle stage between ignoring him altogether and directly addressing the difficult issue of his removal from the life of the family.  In his 1975 Masters of World Literature biography of Austen, Douglas Bush writes, “The second son George . . . had some disability which apparently allowed him no place in family life” (17).  In his 1978 biography of Jane, David Cecil writes:  “Another son, George, born 1766, does not come into the story; he was mentally defective” (29).


In his mention of George Austen, Park Honan in a 1987 biography notes that Mrs. Austen’s brother Thomas was “placed at nearby Monk Sherborne” and that “George would soon join his uncle” (24).  In Jane Austen in Context (2007) Janet Todd states he was “farmed out to a village family” (4).  And Le Faye writes in her brief biographical indexing of George in the Letters that he “was never able to take his place in the family circle” (487).  For a brief time, George did arguably have a place in the family.  Once boarded with the Cullums, however, he was purposefully forgotten.  For while George Holbert Tucker in his A History of Jane Austen’s Family (1998) mentions that George was placed with “some kind local family, where he could be visited by members of his own,” there is no evidence available that he ever was visited (116).


Recent biographies generally reflect the culture’s increased sensitivity to issues of disability.  Most attempt, however briefly, to analyze more critically the decision of Jane’s parents to permanently remove George from family life.  But David Nokes remains one of the few biographers to deal at length with George.  Nokes’s novelistic approach to Jane’s life, with a biographical purpose that seeks psychological insight, allows him to move beyond the little known facts and marks a definitive change in discussions of George.


In his 1997 Austen biography, Nokes compares the outpouring of family love surrounding Jane’s death with the loneliness of George Austen’s life and death on the Cullums’ farm in Monk Sherborne.  Referring to George Austen and Thomas Leigh from the imagined vantage point of the two men’s families, Nokes writes:  “Neither the Austens nor the Leighs cared to be reminded of the existence of these imbecile relatives.  There were no fond enquiries after their welfare, no cheerful visits to relieve the monotony of their daily routine” (522).  Nokes’s treatment suggests the two men were an embarrassment to their families.  Thomas Leigh died in 1821, leaving George alone on the farm with the Cullum family until his death in 1838.  Nokes tallies the many thoughtful gestures surrounding Jane’s death compared with the grave in Monk Sherborne, “unmarked by any stone,” to which George Austen was consigned (526).  By doing so, Nokes provides one of the few extended analyses of the Austen family’s treatment of their son and brother George.  While it may be unfair to judge the behavior of the Austens and even biographers by twenty-first century standards, to ignore these biographical changes entirely would not be appropriate.


Claire Tomalin’s brief discussion of George’s disability and the Austens’ movement of him into private home care vacillates between understanding and criticism.  She points out that George’s placement spared him the ignominy of so many intellectually disabled people of the period, who fell into wells or the path of traveling coaches (28).  But in her 1998 biography she also sympathetically humanizes him by imagining him as a child “joining in the village children’s games” and notes the lack of family visits (9, 29).  Her treatment of George represents a new uncertainty for current biographers as to how to parse the Austens’ decisions.  Like the Austens placing their children in foster care when very young, the decision to disconnect George from family life increasingly strikes contemporary readers as cold, leading to changes in the references, however brief, to George.


In her 2013 biography of Jane, Paula Byrne notes that “[t]he story of George Austen remains shadowy” and tries, like Tomalin, to give a balanced assessment of his parents’ decisions regarding him (19).  She specifically notes criticism of his removal but posits that since in the period “the mentally ill were confined to workhouses, poorhouses and prison,” George at least enjoyed a better fate (18).  Both Byrne and Tomalin are willing to give the Austens the benefit of the doubt.  But an examination of another disabled Austen relative suggests that other options for caring for a family member with a disability were possible in the period.


Hastings de Feuillide


As noted, Jane’s maternal uncle Thomas Leigh was also sent away to live on the Cullums’ farm.  Little is known of why Thomas was placed with the Cullum family.  While the nature of her younger brother’s illness was not known, David Nokes speculates that Mrs. Austen “could still vividly recall his unavailing infant struggles to form a syllable or pronounce even the simplest of words” (25).  Thus, the decisions regarding George may have been influenced by the earlier Leigh family decisions concerning Thomas.


Jane’s sister-in-law Eliza de Feuillide, however, would take a homecare approach to her disabled son, Hastings, whose father was Eliza’s first husband, Jean Capot de Feuillide.  Eliza married Jane’s brother Henry in 1797 after her French husband was guillotined during his country’s Revolution.  Henry Austen thus was Hastings’s stepfather, and the boy lived with the couple until his death in 1801.


Born on 25 June 1786 Hastings died at age fifteen (Le Faye, ‘Outlandish’ 159-160).  In her many epistolary references to her son, Eliza usually strove for optimism.  We get a rare view of his disability in a letter from Eliza’s cousin Phylly Walter.  The cousins were close, and Phylly was visiting with Eliza, Eliza’s mother, and Hastings in the summer of 1788.  In a letter of 23 July 1788 to her brother, Phylly’s description of two-year-old Hastings echoes similar sentiments expressed by Jane’s mother when George was very young:


Poor little Hastings has had another fit; we all fear very much his faculties are hurt; many people say he has the appearance of a weak head:  that his eyes are particular is very certain:  our fears are of his being like poor George Austen.  He has every symptom of good health, but cannot yet use his feet in the least, nor yet talk, tho’ he makes a great noise continually.  (Austen Papers 130)


The symptoms described, of developmental delays in walking and talking, combined with the “fit” and the “fear” that the fit indicates an intellectual disability, were indicative of a disabled child.  Hastings de Feuillide, however, remained with his mother until his early death.  Her letters during his lifetime are replete with references to her love for him as well as to attempts at a cure.  In December, 1797 she writes to Phylly that “Hastings was taken so very ill that I thought I must have lost him. . . . He is now thank God much better” (LeFaye, ‘Outlandish” 149).  Yet two years later she admits to Phylly that his fits “have hitherto baffled all the aid of medicine” (‘Outlandish’ 157).  When doctors recommended “Sea bathing & Sea air” as possible cures for her son, she visited several seaside resorts with him or arranged for close friends to take him when she was required elsewhere (145, 147).  Again, her efforts to secure a cure for Hastings’s likely epilepsy are in contrast to the actions of the Austens.


Of course, Hastings was Eliza’s only child, and she did not have a boarding school to manage as did the Austens, who took in pupils for extra money.  The immensely practical nature of Jane’s mother Cassandra, her unusual custom of placing even all her healthy children when young with a local family for over a year, as well as the Austen family’s particular focus on intelligence and class status, all weighed against George Austen’s remaining with or entwined with his family.


Ironically, since Eliza married Henry Austen, her husband must have taken care of his stepson to some extent, a role he never was asked to take on for his own brother.  Other seizures followed for Hastings until he died in 1801.  Eliza buried him in Hampstead next to his grandmother—where Eliza herself would be buried (Tomalin 187, 237).  His inscribed tombstone, adjacent family plots, and mourning mother are, again, in stark contrast to the Austens’ treatment of George.


Other disabled in Austen’s life


These three members of Jane Austen’s family—Thomas Leigh, George Austen, Hastings de Feullide—were part of a community of disabled people in Britain.  Close to home, a student who boarded with the Austens developed a disability.  Lord Lymington was “between five and six years old” when in 1773 he became a student in the Austen household.  But in December 1773 Mrs. Austen wrote to her sister-in-law, Mrs. Walter, that he had left the school, due to fear on his mother’s part:  “His mamma began to be alarmed at the hesitation in his speech, which certainly grew worse,” she wrote, “and is going to take him to London in hopes a Mr. Angier (who undertakes to cure that disorder) may be of service” (Austen Papers 29-31).  Like Eliza de Feuillide with Hastings, despite the slim chances of true “cures” for her child’s disabilities, Lymington’s mother was searching for one.4


The precarious status of the disabled in the Austens’ world was reflected even in that of the reigning monarch, King George III, who was king from 1760 until his death in 1820.  Despite all the resources of medical personnel and unlimited funds available to him, the king suffered over many years with what is believed to have been porphyria, an illness which cruelly combined severe abdominal and other pains with “profound mental derangement” (Cox et al. 332).  He had five major bouts with these symptoms before his son took over as Regent in 1811, with one of the more severe episodes from October 1788 to February 1789 (332).  Some “treatments” he received were essentially torture—a fate that George Austen was at least spared.


Did George Austen miss his family?  Was the removal to the Cullums’ farm traumatic for him?  He was probably somewhere between six and thirteen at the time of his permanent removal, an age where he had already experienced family life with parents and siblings.  Any child would be affected by such a removal, since it was apparently not ameliorated by regular and loving parental and sibling visits.  Since Jane had no participation in the initial decisions regarding him, we can only wonder with Maggie Lane, “What did Jane know . . . and feel about” her brother George? (28).  We can also wonder if this family drama can be discerned in her fictional world.  While that issue of her brother’s impact on her fiction is not the focus of this essay, at least one of her biographers believes the answer is yes.  David Nokes suggests that Austen’s portrayal of the deceased, failed Musgrove brother Richard in Persuasion—the problem boy sent away to sea—might have been influenced by George, Jane’s own problematic brother (524).


George and Cassandra Austen’s decisions regarding George’s care no doubt assisted them in maintaining if not improving their class standing and that of their other children.  They had sent Jane and Cassandra away to school (Walker) and allowed Edward to be adopted away from the family, for similar reasons.  The “social stigma of mental disability” (Bérubé, “Disability” 571) was “contained” at the Cullum farm (Bolt et al. 4).  If, as Lennard Davis suggests, one model of disability is that “no inherent meanings attach to physical difference other than ones assigned” by society (506), the Austens obviously assigned a negative meaning to George’s differences, and to his remaining a public part of their family.


Disability studies allow readers and scholars of Jane Austen to reclaim her brother George.  We can place his disability in the context of others like him during his lifetime, and we can write about his emotional, as well as physical, abandonment by the Austens in a more critical fashion and of the nature of his disability in a more aware one.  Regardless of how a particular biographer or scholar chooses to view George and Cassandra’s treatment of their son, the Austens’ active decisions regarding him should be directly acknowledged, however briefly, and not glossed over.  And of course no Austen biographer should ever again write George out of the family.  While no portrait and none of George’s words have come down to us, we can at least make him more visible by reinstating him as, indeed, one of Jane Austen’s brothers.5





1. “Intellectual Disability” is the term the American Psychiatric Association has adopted in the 2013 edition of the influential Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders for a condition “with onset during the developmental period that includes both intellectual and adaptive functioning deficits in conceptual, social, and practical domains” (33).  I use this term throughout.


2. The reference to “fits” in Mrs. Austen’s December 1770 letter suggests epilepsy.  The Oxford English Dictionary points out the term epilepsy was used as early as the sixteenth century, and that Shakespeare uses it in Othello:  “My Lord is falne into an Epilepsy, / This is his second fit” (4.1.48-49).  While there are now drugs to control seizures, not all who suffer from the disease respond to them, and much is still unknown about the condition (Wyllie 66).


3. Many scholars have speculated that a cryptic comment by Jane in a letter raises the possibility that she was using sign language learned for her brother George.  In that 27/28 December 1808 letter to Cassandra from Southampton, Jane refers to meeting a group of people, including a Mr. Fitzhugh, who “is so totally deaf” and of whom Jane says she “talked to him a little with my fingers.”  But as Paul Poplawski notes, it “does not necessarily follow” that this passage means Jane knew sign language (64).  Jane could merely have used her hands to communicate with the deaf man in a most general sense.


4. See also Byrne (20-21) for more on Lymington.


5. I am grateful to Ramapo College student Jacqueline Thomas for research assistance in preparing this article.



Works Cited


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Batshaw, Mark L., and Bruce Shapiro.  “Mental Retardation.”  Children with Disabilities.  Ed. Mark L. Batshaw, M.D.  5th ed.  Baltimore: Brookes, 2002.  287-305.

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Brown, Ivor.  Jane Austen and Her World.  New York: Walck, 1966.

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Estes, J. Worth.  “Dropsy.”  The Cambridge World History of Human Disease.  Cambridge: CUP, 1993.  689-96.

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Gabbard, D. Christopher.  “From Custodial Care to Caring Labor: The Discourse of Who Cares in Jane Eyre.”  The Madwoman and the Blindman: Jane Eyre, Discourse, Disability.  Ed. David Bolt, Julia Miele Rodas, and Elizabeth J. Donaldson.  Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2012.  91-110.

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Hurst, Jane.  “Poor George Austen?”  JAS Collected Reports 2001-2005: 348-51.

Lane, Maggie.  “Jane’s Forgotten Brother.” Jane Austen’s Regency World 52 (July/Aug. 2011): 24-28.

Lascelles, Mary.  Jane Austen and Her Art.  Oxford: OUP, 1939.

Le Faye, Deirdre.  Jane Austen: A Family Record.  2nd ed.  Cambridge: CUP, 2004.

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

Nokes, David.  Jane Austen: A Life.  New York: Farrar, 1997.

Poplawski, Paul.  A Jane Austen Encyclopedia.  Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1998.

Smith, Goldwin.  Life of Jane Austen.  London: Scott, 1890.

Todd, Janet, ed.  Jane Austen in Context.  Cambridge: CUP, 2005.

Tomalin, Claire.  Jane Austen: A Life.  New York: Vintage, 1999.

Tucker, George Holbert.  A History of Jane Austen’s Family.  Phoenix Mill: Sutton, 1998.

Upfal, Annette, and Christine Alexander.  “Are We Ready for New Directions? Jane Austen’s The History of England & Cassandra’s Portraits.”  Persuasions On-Line 30.2 (Spr. 2010).

Walker, Linda Robinson.  “Why Was Jane Austen Sent away to School at Seven? An Empirical Look at a Vexing Question.”  Persuasions On-Line 26.1 (Win. 2005).

Wyllie, Elaine.  The Cleveland Clinic Guide to Epilepsy.  New York: Kaplan, 2010.


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