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“Excluded and Forgotten”: Understanding the Life of George Austen through the History of Intellectual Disabilities

THE LIVES OF PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES are often lived in the shadows.  Since Western society tends to define people in terms of what they cannot do, individuals with intellectual disabilities are often seen as incapable of full participation in many of life’s most fulfilling endeavors.  The England of Jane Austen’s era exemplified this exclusionary social organization.  It is of course now well known that Jane Austen’s elder brother George, most likely had an intellectual disability that resulted in his removal from family life.  Knowledge of George’s existence, however, remained absent from Austen scholarship for decades after Jane Austen’s death.  Austen biographer David Nokes describes George as “excluded and forgotten” (525), and this characterization unfortunately appears to be the proper one when considering the facts of George’s life.  As a baby, George was sent away for care by a village family, just as the other Austen children spent their first years.  In early childhood, however, he began to have “fits” or seizures; today, he would probably receive a diagnosis of an intellectual disability as well as cerebral palsy or epilepsy (Ard).  George’s maternal uncle Thomas had a similar disability, and both lived in the paid care of the Culham family in the village of Monk Sherborne, less than ten miles away from the Austen family’s residence in Steventon.  Despite this short distance, it is not evident that members of the Austen family ever visited George after his removal from the family, which Tomalin speculates was at the age of thirteen.  George was the only Austen son left out of his mother’s will; at his death in 1838 he was laid “to rest in an unnamed grave” with only his paid caretaker “in attendance” at his funeral (Nokes 525).

While this separation is troubling to a modern reader, one must consider the Austens’ treatment of George in the context of Jane Austen’s world.  During that era individuals with disabilities often struggled to retain fundamental levels of personal autonomy.  That said, the Austens’ own family history allows us to question whether George’s removal from the family was unnecessarily harsh.  Jane’s cousin and eventual sister-in-law Eliza de Feuillide had one child, a similarly disabled son, who remained in his mother’s devoted care for all of his short life.  Eliza’s son, Hastings, like George, suffered from fits or seizures and had “developmental delays in walking and talking” (Ard).  These symptoms indicate that, like George, Hastings may also have had an intellectual disability.  Unlike George however, Hastings lived with his mother until his death at the age of fifteen.  This disparity in treatment naturally leads one to question the Austens’ decision to delegate George’s care to outsiders.  Why did Hastings de Feuillide remain with his family while George was sent away?  The treatment of individuals living with intellectual disabilities in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England was equally mixed.  Such individuals could suffer greatly, sometimes enduring legal confinement in prisons or workhouses; yet there were also some surprisingly progressive attitudes toward people with disabilities.

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In a 1770 letter to his sister-in-law, Jane’s father, the Reverend George Austen, referred to the family’s growing awareness of their son’s disability, ruefully claiming, “We have this comfort, he cannot be a bad or wicked child” (qtd. in Tomalin 9).  George Austen’s reference to his son’s perpetual innocence obviously lacks a nuanced knowledge of intellectual disabilities.  However, this circumspect characterization of his son’s disability does not exemplify the common terminology utilized in England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. 

During Jane Austen’s lifetime the terms used in discussing individuals with intellectual disabilities were idiot and imbecile.  While this terminology seems incredibly harsh to modern sensibilities, these were in fact the medical and legal terms applied to people with disabilities.  Additionally, while a modern reader may assume these words to be near synonyms, denizens of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries would have understood a distinction in meaning between the two.  Imbecility “implied a lesser degree of [intellectual] handicap” (Hirst and Michael 148) while idiocy had these characteristics:  “the condition should be present from birth or shortly after, and it should be a permanent, irreversible state incapable of cure, and therefore, unlike mental illness, there was no possibility of ‘lucid intervals’” (Hirst and Michael 147).  Since George Austen was rarely discussed by his family in the surviving written correspondence, we will never know whether the Austens came to understand his disability in terms of these shades of meaning.  Both imbecility and idiocy could require that an individual receive additional daily support and care from the family or community. 

Choosing to delegate George Austen’s care to paid guardians, the Austens undertook a life-long financial burden, one that was assumed by their son Edward Austen (later Knight) upon the Reverend George Austen’s death (Slothouber 53).  Many other families could not afford this type of paid care for relatives with disabilities.  For such individuals, the importance of social welfare in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries cannot be understated. 

During Austen’s lifetime social services for individuals in need were provided through what is commonly known as the “Old Poor Law,” also known as the Elizabethan Poor Law, a national mandate for poverty relief instituted in the 1600s.  The dissolution of the monasteries and other religious houses at the time of the English Reformation “left a vacuum” in terms of poverty relief that private philanthropy could not fill (Kelly and Ó Gráda 343).  This change in one of England’s most basic social structures, combined with the growing poverty of the period and the increasing optimism about the government’s ability to effect meaningful change, led to the 1598 passage and 1601 reauthorization of the Act for the Relief of the Poor (Slack 10).

While the Poor Law had been in effect for over two hundred years by the time of the Regency, its basic structure remained largely the same.  Relief of the poor was primarily a local concern dictated by nationally-imposed mandates.  The Poor Law was “mandatory” in England and Wales, while other parts of the kingdom were left to local relief measures (Borsay 20).  England and Wales were divided into 13,000 ecclesiastical and civil parishes (Wright 733).  The landowners in each parish were responsible for setting the poor rate, a percentage of taxable income that was to be set aside for those in need.  The process of administering relief was supervised by the parish vestry committee, with particular power given to a local overseer, elected by the parish, who determined how aid was to be administered.  The amount of poverty relief varied greatly from parish to parish but can be broken down into two main types.  The impotent poor, or those who could not work, a class that included many individuals with intellectual disabilities, received a regular welfare payment.  These rates were set once a year and could vary according to social class and issues of morality.  For example, widows were likely to receive a higher payment.  The Poor Law also accounted for the needs of the able-bodied poor or those able to work, which again, also included individuals with intellectual disabilities.  These payments, known as emergency payments, were delivered in periodic lump sums (Slack 1995; Craig 2013). 

Poor Law relief played an indispensable role for many persons with disabilities.  During Jane Austen’s lifetime, the preferable option for care of individuals with disabilities seems to have been leaving them with their families.  Many parishes would even pay “allowances to families to continue caring for dependent relatives within the household” (Wright 733).  If the family was unable or unwilling to care for a dependent relative with disabilities, boarding the individual out in the community was also available via the parish relief system.  Interestingly, the parish often utilized another person who needed Poor Law relief in securing care for people with disabilities.  The caregiver would be paid for attending to the dependent, thus providing a form of relief for both parties. 

As the distinction between the categories of idiot and imbecile indicates, many individuals with intellectual disabilities were able to work but simply required additional care and supervision.  For those individuals, the boarding out relationship could have been defined as a labor relationship between the parties.  This arrangement was particularly popular in agricultural settings, which provided many job opportunities for people with intellectual challenges.  Those individuals with greater intellectual capacity and social skills often took positions in household service.  With George Austen’s propensity to experience “fits” or seizures, it is unclear whether he could have maintained a job.  Additionally, as the Austens were paying for his care, regular work probably would not have been expected. 

David Hirst and Pamela Michael note the numerically significant practice in mid-nineteenth-century Wales of females with disabilities being boarded out to male heads of household as a possible indication of “the practice of boarding with farmers as domestic or farm servants” (154).  To modern sensibilities, this situation appears troubling.  The first question that comes to mind is whether wages were paid to the individual laboring for her or his guardian.  According to Dr. Hirst, there is no indication that these individuals received payment for their work.  Instead, under Poor Law protocols, the payment from the parish would have gone directly to the head of household providing lodging and supervision to the person with disabilities.  These social services would “probably. . . [be] considered sufficient” payment for whatever work the individual with disabilities provided (Hirst). 

The second concern most likely apparent to modern sensibilities is the potential for abuse in such arrangements.  Some individuals unfortunately were “cruelly treated or exploited for their labour” by their custodial supervisors (Hirst).  The poor adaptive skills of many individuals with intellectual disabilities could also lead to an inability to adequately judge dangerous social situations.  Hirst and Michael note one situation, though occurring some years outside the Georgian period, that nonetheless speaks to the danger that individuals with disabilities could face in boarding out scenarios.  An “imbecile” woman working at a lodging house in South Wales, needed “‘much and constant watching to prevent her from intimacy with men’” staying at the house (qtd. in Hirst and Michael 156).  Despite these potential dangers, laboring on a farm or in a service role provided “a less repressive and monotonous environment than the workhouse” (Hirst).  Additionally, as may have been the case with George Austen, boarding out with individuals in the community, instead of being housed in an institutional setting, provided a “familiar” and comfortable environment for many individuals with disabilities (Hirst).  These situations enabled them to be supported in an environment that provided both regular socialization and communal membership.

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While George’s removal from his family and other boarding-out situations may seem severe, such arrangements could actually prove preferable for individuals with disabilities, in light of their other option: the parish workhouse.  For individuals who were unable to care for themselves or find assistance through other means, the parish workhouse often became the sole source of shelter.  Like most aspects of the Poor Law, the quality of workhouses varied from parish to parish.  Some parishes had buildings built specifically to serve as workhouses, such as the one in the parish of St. James, Winchester.  As Hitchcock details, the workhouse at St. James was a “purpose built” structure, described as a “Spacious Brickhouse,” and was one of the larger workhouses existing at this time (168).  The structure, which could hold about 800 individuals, was divided into eight wards for men, women, boys, girls, and even “Lying-in-Women” (168).  In contrast to the specialized building at St. James, the workhouse in the parish of Ilfracombe in Devon was tiny.  A multipurpose building that also periodically served as a temporary jail, the workhouse at Ilfracombe “lodged 22” individuals at its most occupied (174).  No matter how small or large a workhouse might be, most people dreaded the prospect of living in such an institution.  Admission into the workhouse required relinquishing one’s autonomy.  One’s clothing, possessions, diet, and daily schedule became the provision of the parish and the workhouse master.  This obtrusive degree of control meant that the population of workhouses largely consisted of society’s most vulnerable populations:  women, children, the infirm, and individuals with intellectual and physical disabilities (193).  Individuals with any modicum of economic power stayed out of the workhouse if possible.  For individuals with disabilities, the prospect of the workhouse was particularly grim. 

One must consider the probable situation of those persons with disabilities who found themselves inmates of parish workhouses.  Being in the workhouse meant that individuals had little or no ability to support themselves through work.  Individuals with significant intellectual differences often require relatively great amounts of care and supervision to perform what for typically functioning individuals would be deemed basic tasks, such as routine personal hygiene.  Unfortunately, such careful supervision would not have been provided in workhouse environments.  Inmate populations were often not segregated, and individuals were mixed together without much concern for health or safety, meaning that “the old, the weak and very young were thrown together in a confusion of communicable diseases and volatile personalities” (Hitchcock 177).  While some parishes, such as St. James’s, were better equipped to run their workhouses, many facilities were plagued with deplorable conditions that no person should be subjected to, least of all vulnerable populations.  Many workhouses were infested with vermin and unable to provide their inmates with healthful diets, thus allowing illness to more easily spread among a crowded populace. 

Of more concern than the unhygienic living environments was the vulnerability inherent in the lack of supervision given to inmates with disabilities.  Although there were supposed to be strict rules regarding individuals leaving the workhouse, Hitchcock found many of these rules to be intermittently enforced (191).  This lack of enforcement is troubling for two reasons.  First, there were common complaints that individuals who left the workhouse often engaged in drinking and would return inebriated.  In an environment with little to no supervision, who protected individuals with disabilities from fellow inmates?  Secondly, people with disabilities could also enter into the community unsupervised.  What were the dangers, both environmental and personal, for these individuals who required significant supervisory care? 

Even if they remained under the limited supervision of the workhouse, individuals with disabilities also faced abuse from authority figures.  While they were supposed to be supervised by the parish councils, masters and mistresses of workhouses had the discretion to punish inmates as they saw fit.  One particularly troubling mode of punishment was known as the dark hole and involved a “small room, just too small either to stand or lie in, . . . in which inmates were confined for hours or days at a time, being fed bread and water through the grate” separating them from the rest of the workhouse population (Hitchcock 182).  This mode of punishment may have been frequently used for inmates with disabilities.  Individuals with intellectual disabilities often have difficulty self-regulating their behavior:  one order from the St. Olaf workhouse on Hart Street in London dictates that the dark hole was constructed for “the better security and confinement of such persons as may be so unfortunate to lose their senses, . . . and for confining disorderly & Unruly Persons” (qtd. in Hitchcock183).  Unfortunately, this mandate most likely directly affected inmates at St. Olaf who were living with significant intellectual disabilities.

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While George Austen remained in communal care for almost the entirety of his seventy-one years, as Britain became more industrialized after Jane Austen’s lifetime, a definite shift from community and familial care to institutional care occurred for many dependent individuals with disabilities.  A major revision in the Poor Law occurred in 1834.  One of the goals of this revision was to make receiving assistance less accommodating and slightly more punishing in nature.  For many parishes, the focus of relief became deterring people from seeking assistance.  Additionally, relative advances in science and psychology also led to an increased drive towards institutional treatment in asylums and hospitals for those individuals who did not fit the expected norms of social and intellectual behaviors.  Unfortunately, persons with disabilities “occupied a conspicuously devalued place” when it came to this shift in treatment (Wright 736).  Care for individuals in asylums and hospitals was primarily reserved for those individuals whom doctors deemed curable.  Obviously, having an intellectual disability is not a curable or treatable condition, as a mental illness might be; thus placement for persons with disabilities in hospitals or asylums was not prioritized. 

Some peolple with disabilities were more likely to be placed in asylum care, however.  Individuals determined to be dangerous to themselves or others would generally qualify for admission to asylums.  Additionally, even though in the eyes of the law there were distinctions between individuals with different intellectual disabilities and those suffering from what was termed “lunacy,” any individual whose disability was severe enough to cause extremes in behavior was legally able to be confined.  The 1714 law, The Act for . . . the More Effectual Punishing such Rogues, Vagabounds, Sturdy Beggars, and Vagrants, and Sending them Whither They Ought to be Sent, “authorizes two or more Justices of the Peace to secure the arrest of any person ‘furiously mad and dangerous,’ and have that person ‘safely locked up, in such secure place’ so long as ‘such lunacy or madness shall continue’” (Porter 118).  While the amending of this law in 1744 specifically included the terminology of lunacy, it was also applicable to individuals who were “so far disordered in their Senses that they may be dangerous to be permitted to go Abroad” (qtd. in Porter 118).  This late eighteenth-century addition to the law would have covered individuals with severe disabilities even though they would not have been classified as lunatics. 

While the law allowed authorities to confine individuals with disabilities, it did not actually mandate facilities in which to house these individuals.  It was not until 1808 that parish authorities were “empower[ed]. . . to establish asylums, nor until 1845 [that] Parliament require[d] counties to found them” (Porter 117).  One must then ask where these individuals with significant disabilities were housed, if asylums were not mandated by the government until the mid-nineteenth century.  As previously discussed, many parishes simply placed these persons in the fairly unsupervised environment of workhouses.  Another solution to this problem involved placing persons with disabilities in prisons.  Like the parish workhouses, prisons were ill suited to the needs of individuals with significant disabilities.  A contemporary report by John Howard claims that “idiots and lunatics [housed in prisons] . . . serve for sport to idle visitants; . . . where they are not kept separate [they] disturb and terrify other prisoners.  No care is taken of them” (qtd. in Porter 119).  This treatment was unfortunately not much different from that experienced by many individuals housed in “proper” asylums. 

Despite the lack of mandate for asylums, some did arise in both the public and private sectors.  One of the most notorious, the Bethlem Royal Hospital or Bedlam, became operational at the end of the fourteenth century.  Founded as a priory for the Order of St. Mary of Bethlehem, it remained England’s only public asylum for many years (Porter 122) and is the place where many poor individuals with disabilities found themselves.  Even in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, “Bedlam became a byword for man’s inhumanity to man, for callousness and cruelty” (Porter 123).  It was not an environment capable of or even interested in caring for individuals with disabilities.  Accounts from former patients and popular reformers note the poor diet that was provided, the unsanitary bedding, and vermin infestations.  Individuals with significant disabilities often have trouble managing self-care needs without guidance, so one can only imagine the quality of life in Bedlam for many of these patients.  In addition to the poor environment, many patients at the asylum were subjected to brutal, inhumane treatment from their caretakers.  Borsay says that “restraint was widely practiced” at the asylum, and various accounts relate that patients could be restrained for days and even weeks at a time (70).  In addition to being restrained in shackles and other mechanisms, patients also suffered physical and sexual abuse at the hands of the very people who were supposed to be protecting them from danger (Borsay 70).

In contrast to the documented horrors of Bethlem, the York Retreat, founded by the Society of Friends in 1796, offered a supportive environment for its patients.  The York Quaker group opened the asylum after the wife of a member died under mysterious circumstances at the York Voluntary Asylum (Borsay 69).  In contrast to Bethlem’s location in the city of London, the country setting of the York Retreat was idyllic:  “surrounded by spacious grounds with woodland, gardens, orchards and walks, the Retreat was designed to replicate the family home” (Borsay 69).  The philosophy guiding the operation of the retreat truly illustrated the core Quaker values of “a spiritually close community . . . and every Friend’s duty to lead a life of simple, rational self-control” (qtd. in Porter 224).  Run for many years by the Tuke family, prominent Quakers, the patients were understood to be children who needed to be educated in the ways of behavioral and emotional self-regulation.  The founding patriarch of the Retreat, William Tuke, stated that “there is much analogy . . . between the judicious treatment of children, and that of insane persons” (qtd. in Porter 223).  The Retreat’s therapeutic goal was to educate patients to express typical behavior, and the Tukes believed patients “quickly perceive, or if not, they are informed on the first occasion, that their treatment depends in great measure, upon their conduct” (qtd. in Porter 224).  This respectful and complex understanding of intellectual disability and mental illness was truly progressive for the time period.

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While much of the historical record deals with the care of persons with disabilities requiring Poor Relief, there were also more economically comfortable families with members who had intellectual disabilities.  Austen’s novels center on this economic group yet never touch the issue of disability, despite its prominence in her own family circle.  If members of prominent families required institutionalized care, they were placed in private asylums.  In contrast to public asylums like Bethlem, private asylums were much smaller.  Unfortunately, very little survives in the historical record about these asylums, and this lack of record is a direct result of their goal—discretion drove their administration.  Many prominent families did not want public knowledge of disabled relatives because it would potentially harm the family’s social standing:  “thus prudence dictated to them not to keep detailed case-records, . . . resist[ing] what by then were their statutory obligations of maintaining full records, clearly to meet the wishes of patients’ families for anonymity” (Porter 138).  Evidence of private asylums survives largely thanks to advertising that took place to support the growing economy of private asylums in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  While history may not record who the patients were, these advertisements provide some insight into how patients were treated.  They also demonstrate that the asylums competed for patients and sought to make a profit.  Families were charged on a sliding scale.  In 1800, members of the growing middle class could be expected to be charged “about a guinea a week” for the most basic services, while families with more disposable income could pay much more to “receive special treatment (plusher rooms, greater attendance, rich diet, or, perhaps, greater secrecy)” (Porter 142). 

An interesting situation arose for prominent families who had firstborn children with disabilities legally entitled to hold familial lands and other assets.  Records from the Court of Chancery indicate that families brought cases before the court to ascertain whether heirs with intellectual disabilities were able to manage family estates.  The court’s job was to decide whether an individual was of sound mind and could manage the family estate; the determination appears to have been made on practical grounds.  In a case Porter details from 1743, the individual with a disability said that the jurymen asked him such questions as “what a Lamb, and what a Calf was called at one, two and three Years old.  They gave me a Sum of Money to tell” (113).  The individual claimed he was not allotted proper time to answer.  The jurymen’s questions appear to center on skills necessary to the successful running of an estate.  Porter says there is an “impression of pragmatism by the Court in deciding” this case and others (113). 

Pragmatism may have also been the basis of the Austen family’s decision to surrender care of their son and brother.  The Austens’ treatment of George can seem cruel, especially when measured against Eliza de Feuillide’s treatment of her similarly disabled son.  However, when considered in the larger context of Jane Austen’s era, George’s life, spent with his disabled uncle, in the care of the Culham family of Monk Sherborne, may have been one of the kinder options available to the Austens.  While there were many individuals with intellectual disabilities who lived with and participated in the everyday lives of their respective families, boarding out these individuals in the community was also a common practice.  It is impossible to know whether George suffered emotional distress because of his removal from his family, but he did not suffer the fate of many others living with disabilities, who found themselves completely abandoned in parish workhouses or public asylums.  This historical study of intellectual disability during Jane Austen’s lifetime demonstrates that the Austens were a complex and nuanced family.  While we may not fully understand why George could not remain with his family, this study can place the Austens’ decision in its proper context.  In the two hundred years since Jane Austen’s death the understanding and treatment of individuals with disabilities has significantly changed, ensuring that George and those like him are no longer “excluded and forgotten.”

Works Cited
  • Ard, Patricia M.  “George Austen’s Absence from Family Life: The Shifting Biographical Response.”  Persuasions On-Line 34.1 (2013).
  • Borsay, Anne.  Disability and Social Policy in Britain since 1750: A History of Exclusion.  Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2005.
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  • Hirst, David.  E-mail to the author.  15 June 2015.
  • Hirst, David, and Pamela Michael.  “Family, Community and the ‘Idiot’ in Mid-Nineteenth Century North Wales.”  Disability & Society 18.2 (2003): 145-63.
  • Hitchcock, Timothy V.  “The English Workhouse: A Study in Institutional Poor Relief in Selected Counties, 1696-1750.”  Diss. U of Oxford, 1985.  Web.  http://ora.ox.ac.uk/objects/uuid:57a30e82-1101-4b09-ab83-8e8e271c77f4.
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  • Nokes, David.  Jane Austen: A Life.  Berkeley: U of California P, 1998.
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  • Slothouber, Linda.  “‘Dear, Beautiful Edward.’”  Jane Austen’s Regency World Mar./Apr. 2015: 52-53.
  • Thomas, E. G.  “The Old Poor Law and Medicine.”  Medical History 24.1 (1980): 1-19.
  • Tomalin, Claire.  Jane Austen: A Life.  New York: Vintage, 1999.
  • Wright, David.  “Learning Disability and the New Poor Law in England, 1834-1867.”  Disability & Society 15.5 (2000): 731-45. 
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