Turned out in a trim red woolen riding habit, Cassandra Leigh must have cut a striking figure when she married George Austen in 1764 at the age of twenty-four (Le Faye, Family Record 12). Like her future daughter’s most famous heroine, she was known for her sparkling repartee, with an elder sister (another Jane) who was the reputed beauty. In addition to her wit and multi-purpose wedding dress (later to become a house-cleaning frock and finally hunting pinks for her youngest son), Leigh brought to her marriage prestigious family connections at Oxford University, a modest dowry, and an ancient lineage of aristocratic forebears—many of whom had suffered from intellectual disabilities and insanity (Byrne 19). Of her two brothers, James would inherit a fortune when adopted as a teen by rich and childless relatives; Thomas’s only inheritance would be his family’s recurring legacy of mental disabilities and a home with carers in another parish. A running record of mental illness in a potential bride’s family could damage her marriage prospects, even while factoring in another brother who was a wealthy landowner. Ironically, on the other hand, too much intellectual sharpness in a bride could also be considered a hindrance.
Yet not, it seems, by the Reverend George Austen, who realized that he and his parish could benefit from an intelligent and pragmatic wife, herself the daughter of a successful rector (Le Faye, Family Record 8). Though neither brought much money into the marriage, both had extremely wealthy relatives with whom they stayed in touch and who were willing to provide assistance: George Austen’s cousins the Knights had presented him with the parish living at Steventon; Cassandra’s brother James Leigh-Perrot and his wife had no children to inherit their fortune. The young Austens also had ambition and abilities: in addition to his duties as an active parish clergyman, Mr. Austen stepped in as steward for his absentee landlord’s estate; tutored and boarded at the rectory students headed for Oxford from wealthy families; and farmed as much of his acreage as he could to feed his growing household. Mrs. Austen, in the meantime, was busy maintaining the rectory’s vegetable gardens, dairy, chicken yard, piggery, and beehives, while overseeing both the ale brewing and their few rustic servants as well as acting as matron for her husband’s lively students (Le Faye, Country Life 21). During all this activity she produced an Austen annually for the first three years of their marriage, followed by an additional five, more mercifully spaced: James in February 1765, George in August 1766, Edward in October 1767, Henry in 1771, Cassandra in 1773, Jane in 1775, Francis (Frank) in 1774, and Charles in 1779 (a pivotal year for the family’s future).
Pairing off in their adolescent destinies, all eight lived to adulthood (unusual for the time): Cassandra and Jane attended school away from home for a few years as young girls, then returned to help Mrs. Austen and eventually begin the social rounds that introduced them to the few local bachelors available; James and Henry attended St. John’s College at Oxford as “founder’s kin” to prepare to enter the church; Frank and Charles, at an early age, both joined the Navy. George and Edward, however, the “adopted” Austens, were removed as children from the tight-knit Hampshire household to live permanently away from their family—Edward to become the heir to wealthy cousins and George, who was mentally or physically disabled, to live with carers in a nearby village. In a day when the government provided neither retirement pensions nor financial assistance to families for the care of the disabled, the private placement of their son George—an informal adoption—would offer the Rev. and Mrs. Austen, a poignant solution. This essay examines the disparate fate of the two adopted Austens.
In 1779, a few months after their last child, Charles, was born, the Rev. Austen’s wealthy and newlywed cousins, Thomas and Catherine Knight, stopped by the Steventon parsonage for a visit. They were so taken with affectionate, blond-haired Edward’s “personal beauty” that they asked if the boy could come with them for the rest of their wedding trip. Ever the scholar, Edward’s father worried that “Neddy” might fall behind in his Latin, but Mrs. Austen said simply, “I think, my dear, you had better oblige your cousins, and let the child go” (Family Record 43). As his parents waved Edward good-bye, however, it is doubtful they thought of him as the fabulously wealthy couple’s future heir: Catherine was in her twenties; Thomas, though older, was still healthy and (as we may assume) eager to produce an heir. But as they were some of the most prominent landowners in Kent, any connection that helped them remember their Austen cousins back in Hampshire would be valuable.
Following four fruitless years of trying to start a family, however, the Knights finally decided to adopt their young cousin, already a frequent visitor to their Godmersham estate. Although formal adoption procedures would not be codified into English law until 1926 (Walker), a somewhat more structured “adoption” was often practiced among prominent families with an estate or two to pass along, in which the adopted child would be named in the will as heir (Collins). Nor were such practices unprecedented: “When periodically faced with a lack of a male heir, the Knight dynasty perpetuated the family name and kept estates intact by importing heirs from among remote cousins” notes Christine Grover. Even those adoptions could be tenuous (as Austen points out in The Watsons), leaving the formerly designated young person in dire straits. Yet this lack of legality had its benefits: “One of the ways in which the inheritance laws of England adversely affected intra-family relations consisted in their deplored tendency to make the eldest son disobedient and arrogant in his attitude to his father,” observes Zouheir Jamoussi in his detailed study on primogeniture (43). Adopted heirs, however, knew that their status could change at a moment’s notice, which was an excellent motivation for good behavior—a point Edward understood. When the Knights decided to send him on the continental “grand tour” rather than to Oxford, he kept a careful journal and returned four years later with his one extravagance—a full-length oil portrait commissioned in Rome and now hanging in Chawton House (Family Record 52).
Edward then settled down to managing the Knight properties, no small task. In Pride and Prejudice, Bingley is rich with £5,000 a year, Darcy fabulously so with £10,000—but the Knights’ wealth totaled both together almost £15,000 annually (Fergus 5)—or nearly $1,500,000 in 2021. Thomas Knight died in 1794; and four years later, Catherine Knight handed over her interest, granting Edward full title of the estates, spread across five counties (Slothouber, “Dear, Beautiful Edward”). Upon her death in 1812, Edward, as stipulated, assumed the name of Knight, fighting back distant challenges to his inheritance (Collins), while continuing to care for his own widowed mother, since 1809 living with her daughters in the house of his former steward in Edward’s Chawton estate in Hampshire. As Mrs. Austen observed accurately, Edward “has a most active mind, a clear head, & a sound Judgement, he is quite a man of Business” (qtd. in Family Record 53).
“A clear head”: this sadly ironic description would haunt the future of George, the other adopted Austen, as well. For as Edward had repeated the fate of one Leigh uncle and been adopted by wealthy relatives, so George, struggling with significant neurological impairments, would follow (literally) in the footsteps of the other Leigh uncle, Thomas (1747–1821), Mrs. Austen’s brother. Both Thomas Leigh and George Austen were cared for by the Cullum (or Colham) family in Monk Sherborne, Hampshire. George’s disability was obvious early on. In 1770, when George was four, the Rev. Austen wrote to his sister-in-law: “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 wicked child” (Austen Papers 23). Around the same time, Mrs. Austen wrote to another relative, “My poor little George is come to me today. He seems pretty well, though he had a fit lately; it was near a twelve-month since he had one before, so was in hopes they had left him, but must not flatter myself so now” (26–27). Two years later, the Rev. Austen’s brother-in-law Tysoe Saul Hancock responded to a letter from his wife: “I cannot say that the News of the violently rapid increase of [the Austen] family gives me . . . much pleasure; especially when I consider the case of my godson, who must be provided for without the least hopes of his being able to assist himself” (66)—and for whom, in case George’s parents died, Hancock could be responsible.
From Mrs. Austen’s remarks, some historians conclude that her little boy had, by 1770, already gone to live with the Cullums (Worsley 38–39; Nokes 43). Her mention of “fits” or seizures indicates epilepsy or possibly cerebral palsy, which can involve “abnormal brain development or damage to the developing brain [and] problems with movement and posture, [as well as] intellectual disability; seizures; problems with vision, hearing, or speech; changes in the spine (such as scoliosis); or joint problems” (“What is Cerebral Palsy?”). Yet the number and strength of these symptoms vary, and as a child, George may have been able to remain with his family until onset of puberty, when hormonal changes could affect his behavior. It is even possible that, like artist Christie Brown in the movie My Left Foot, George may have had a sharp intellect, which he could not communicate because of his speech-incapacitating muscle spastics. (Oddly enough, the first student accepted at the rectory in 1773 was Lord Portsmouth’s son, reported to be “slow” and “eccentric” with a serious stammer. A year earlier, Mrs. Austen had written that she had “all four” of her children at home with her [Austen Papers 28], so the Austens may have been caregivers for one neurologically challenged child, even as they considered what to do with their own [Byrne 20–21].)
Also around this time, Mrs. Austen’s uncle Theophilus Leigh, sometime Vice Chancellor of Oxford University and for six decades head of Balliol College (Jones 121), is reported to have seen George at the Hampshire rectory (Honan 24)—indicating that, though they may have mentioned George little once the Cullums took over his care, the Austens did not seem intent on hiding him from the extended family. Biographer Claire Tomalin thus estimates the date of George’s removal to Monk Sherborne as 1779 and suggests that, when James later assumed his father’s living in Steventon, Mrs. Austen may have visited George while staying with James (27, 191).
The last direct mention of George in Austen family correspondence comes nine years later. In 1788, the Rev. Austen’s sister Philadelphia wrote, concerning her own little grandson’s similar struggles:
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. (Le Faye, Outlandish Cousin 85)
The two-year-old son of lively Austen cousin Eliza de Feuillide, Hastings had been born in France as his mother, married to a French count, attempted to leave the increasingly chaotic country—and almost certainly gave birth to Hastings prematurely (73), a known factor for cerebral palsy. (Cerebral palsy is also indicated by the other symptoms listed by his grandmother, especially his weak feet.)
For such conditions, during the eighteenth century, sea water (for both ingesting and immersion) and sea air were advertised as “anti-spasmodic” (Darcy); so Hastings and his mother spent a wet and cold winter at Margate in 1791—during which she wrote about one bright moment when her mother had succeeded in teaching Hastings his letters (Le Faye, Outlandish Cousin 99). In fact, twenty years earlier, a finger alphabet for the hearing impaired had been developed in France and spread throughout Europe (Jay). If these were indeed Hastings’s “letters,” the family at the rectory, fond of the boy, could have learned them too, as his mother searched for any sign of his improvement in the healthy rural setting. Despite their efforts, however, Hastings died in 1801 at fifteen and was buried beside his grandmother in London (Le Faye, Outlandish Cousin 159).
A final, indirect reference to George Austen may have appeared a few years later, when his sister Jane wrote to Cassandra in 1808 after a local call: “[the] poor man, is so totally deaf, that they said he cd not hear a Cannon, were it fired close to him; having no cannon at hand to make the experiment, I took it for granted, & talked to him a little with my fingers, which was funny enough” (27–28 December 1808). Scholars have debated whether this talking with her fingers might indicate that George did indeed stay with his family past the age of four, to that of thirteen, when Jane Austen would have been a toddler. His sister could also have picked up this ability while visiting him and James with her mother or during visits by her cousin Eliza with little Hastings. It remains a possibility, though difficult to determine with any finality. Biographer Park Honan conjectures that Austen may have communicated with her brother George in this way (24).
The similarity of Hastings’s and George’s conditions, compared with the striking dissimilarity of parental care, has stimulated another ongoing discussion: Hastings’s mother refused to allow him to be separated from her and focused entirely on his well-being and recovery, while the Rev. and Mrs. Austen shipped off their disabled son to caretakers and apparently rarely or never saw him again. As Patricia Ard points out,
What Le Faye has described as the “close-knit and affectionate’’ nature of the Austen family . . . 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. . . . 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.
As Ard also notes, Henry Austen, who later married Eliza, seemed fond of his stepson/cousin and paid him attention that his brother possibly never received.
The early Victorian Austens writing immediately afterwards did little to counteract this impression of the family’s “out of sight, out of mind” attitude, which in turn influenced succeeding biographers: James Edward Austen-Leigh, who had inherited the Leigh-Perrot fortune and surely knew of his father’s visits to Monk Sherborne, listed only five Austen brothers in his 1871 memoir of his aunt (16–17)—an exclusion that continued throughout the nineteenth century. In 1891, Harvard scholar Oscar Fay Adams stated, in his “more or less imperfectly written” tribute to Austen, that “the three eldest children were . . . James, Edward, and Henry Thomas” (20); in 1906, another family biography, Jane Austen’s Sailor Brothers, omitted George (Worsley 38). In 1927, George did get a brief and erroneous notice by literary critic R. Brimley Johnson, who described him as an “invalid” (which ironically can be read either as in-valid or invalid) who “died young” (68, 167). Austen scholar R. W. Chapman in his 1949 published lectures states the year George was born but not when he died: Chapman is also one of the first to suggest George’s connection with Austen’s knowledge of “the dumb alphabet” (9). With little information on George available even now, some current biographers, such as David Nokes, still try to fill in the details of George as a living, breathing human being as best they can (521–24). The producers of Becoming Jane not only brought George to (fictitious) life at the Hampshire rectory but to young adulthood so that he could act as his literary sister’s confidant. (George was portrayed by partially deaf Irish actor Philip Culhane [International]).
Yet because Austen-Leigh and other biographers ignored George Austen, does that mean his immediate family did so too, once he was with the Cullum household? A close examination of the historical and family context suggests that such a conclusion by critics may not be entirely accurate. At the very least, it can be said that the Rev. and Mrs. Austen must have had conflicting emotions as they made their decision concerning their next-to-oldest boy. As spiritual leaders of the parish, and as their own sense of decency dictated, they had to show especial compassion to the less fortunate. As a vicar’s family, they were also placed so that they could interact socially with local landowners, broadening considerably the potential for rich, or at least comfortable, marriages for their children, especially their attractive, well-read, well-mannered (but dowerless) daughters, who could participate in the local round of calls and balls that were the working mechanics of the marriage market. To have it widely known that the Austen family also had a son struggling with serious mental disabilities could undo these essential social advantages for the other Austen children.
On the other hand, Mrs. Austen had been able to marry, if not “up,” at least within her own social level—and a man whom she much respected (a high standard). Nor did the reputation of the Leighs seem to suffer later from the fact that one of their children had neurological impairments—possibly because the most exalted household in the land, the royal family, had also had to deal with mental disabilities in the head of that family and of the kingdom itself, George III. Even the name of the period in which Jane Austen published focuses attention on this fact. A regency (1811–1820) was declared when the Prince Regent, as replacement for the sovereign, stepped in to manage court and country.
Even several years before the Regency, attitudes toward treating mental disabilities began to change. In 1796 Retreat House, a center of compassionate care “designed to replicate the family home” and run by Quakers, opened in rural York, the direct result of a Friend dying in the city’s insane asylum. While local funds were sometimes designated to help families care for their physically and mentally disabled household members, the amount varied from parish to parish, so families who could afford to do so usually boarded their loved ones in another home. Not until later in the nineteenth century would large, designated care facilities become widely available (McAdam).
In neither 1770 nor 1779 were there many options open to the Austens for George’s care. If he was moved in 1779, Mrs. Austen, nearing forty, would have just added another boy to an already teeming household; George would have been turning thirteen, when his increased physical strength and more pronounced mental difficulties could make his staying at the rectory with other boys complicated. Boarding him out, though expensive, might have seemed the best solution; nor would his parents have to make extensive inquires for an appropriate home to take him in, for the highly respected Cullums had taken competent care of Mrs. Austen’s brother for many years. Thus, if George and Edward did leave home in 1779 (one permanently and the other temporarily), it might have seemed to the kindly but pragmatic Mrs. Austen as much a godsend as a gut-wrench. Had she been a widow with a mother who doted on George, and he her only child, it is reasonable to speculate that she might well have made decisions similar to those of her sister-in-law’s daughter, Eliza. But that was not her situation. (If George indeed remained at home until the age of thirteen, it indicates some intentional effort to keep him there, especially when the option to send him to the Cullums was a solution so near at hand.)
After George had moved in with the Cullums, however, Mrs. Austen’s decision is more open to criticism. She could have visited Monk Sherborne from the rectory in Steventon. We know that her eldest son James visited the Cullums from his adjoining parish to pay for George’s care (Nokes 142, 522). We also know the two parishes, on the other side of Basingstoke, were neither far away, nor yet easily accessible. A dozen miles of rough road would have required the hire of horses and most likely that of a carriage, for the Austens had kept such equipage (with no animals to pull it) only for a brief time. Inevitably, questions concerning the rectory’s demanding domestic affairs during Mrs. Austen’s absence would arise. Her daughters were either very young or not yet born, and servants scant, rustic, and not always reliable. Nor was the disruption of her own household alone to be considered but disruption to that of the Cullums as well, who must certainly have had an established routine of care for both her son and her uncle—which a visit from Mrs. Austen could upset, practically and emotionally, for all concerned. To stay away, then, involved complex elements of both kindness and convenience.
On the subsequent issue of correspondence the family is also vulnerable: “The maternal concern voiced in the December 1770 letter . . . seems to have markedly dissipated over the decades that George lived apart from Austen family life,” observes Ard. “Tellingly left out of his mother’s will at her death in 1827” (Ard), George was also left out of the will of his mother’s brother James Leigh-Perrot, who bequeathed future monies through his wife’s estate to the rest of the Austen children on his wife’s death (Austen Papers 334, 332–33). And of course, as Deirdre Le Faye notes, “He is not mentioned in Jane’s letters” (Letters 487).
A more accurate addendum, however, might be that Austen does not mention her brother in her surviving letters, massively culled by Cassandra. Among her siblings, Charles referred to “our unfortunate uncle,” who resided with George (Austen Papers 252); James, as we have noted, visited him regularly when he paid the Cullums; and when Mrs. Austen died in 1825, leaving her stocks to be distributed among all her surviving children except George, Edward signed his share over to his disabled brother by name, stipulating that it was “for the use of my brother George, being his full share of the £3,350 Old South Sea Annuities” (Austen Papers 334) and implying a wrong being righted: “his full share” (my italics). It may be more accurate to note that the Austen siblings rarely, rather than never, mentioned their disabled brother. Moreover, his comfort and care do appear to have been on their minds. Until George’s death in 1838 at seventy-one, the Cullum family received £15 (about $1000 today) quarterly for his care, plus reimbursement for other expenses, including, in 1836, a “hat for Mr. G. Austen” (Hurst 348). Edward provided funds beginning in 1805 on the death of their father; James delivered these until he died in 1819 (Nokes 526). Family friend William Digweed (who leased Steventon Manor House from Edward) then took over delivering the money to the Cullums’ brick home, still standing today (Hurst 348–51).
In 1837, during George’s final year, he received another handsome hat (beaver, costing ten shillings or about $50), as well as two new pairs of shoes—a possible indication of swollen feet and of the encroaching heart condition that was to kill him. His medical care was provided by Charles Lyford (whose cousin had treated Jane Austen twenty years earlier) and included at least sixteen visits and, on eighteen occasions, medication. As George entered his closing days in early 1838, Lyford’s visits increased to about every other day, and local women were engaged to sit by George’s bedside. He died at 4 a.m., January 17, 1838 (Slothouber, “What a Dreadful Day” 36).
By then, James Austen had been dead for twenty years; whether William Digweed visited George in his stead is unknown. The rest of the Austen siblings were elderly and scattered. It rested with Charles Cullum to show a final sign of respect by listing George Austen as “gentleman” on his death certificate. As parish clerk, Charles’s father, Francis, might have insisted on a simple grave marker, but he had died four years earlier and no order for a headstone arrived from Edward in Kent (the cost of which must have been beyond Charles’s means). In a symbol of his shadowy existence for seventy-one years, then, George was buried in an unmarked grave, within the parish churchyard where his friend and caretaker Francis Cullum had once presided and now himself resided (Nokes 526). And so they rested together.
Over the years, the ironically different fates of the two adopted Austens must have sometimes discomfited their intelligent and moral parents: the seriously disabled son, George, sent away because they could not take good care of him, and handsome Edward, sent away because in future he might very well take good care of them. But when the boys’ father died in 1805, followed by his disabled son in 1838, government financial assistance for the elderly and for those with physical and mental disabilities was still many decades distant, so families continued to try to do the best they could with what they had. Many, sadly, were not as fortunate as the Austens, the close-knit family with faith, ambition, abilities, and very wealthy relatives.