Persuasions Occasional Papers No. 1, 1984 Pages 9-12
HENRY AUSTEN: JANE AUSTEN'S "PERPETUAL SUNSHINE"
by J. David Grey
"It will be a great pleasure to be with him, as it
If thanks for Jane Austen's works be owed to anyone but the author herself, they are owed to her favorite brother, Henry. Living in London during her most productive years, he served as her literary adviser and was, to a far larger extent than is generally known, responsible for the appearance of all six novels. In the "Notice" he prefixed to the posthumous publication of her last two works, Henry furnished the only biographical material that was to be made available for more than 50 years after his sister's death.
Henry Thomas Austen, the fourth son of George and Cassandra, was born in Steventon in
June, 1771. In a letter written
shortly after Jane's birth four years later, George Austen accurately predicted
the closeness that was to develop between Jane and Henry: "She is to be
Jenny, and seems to me as if she would be as like Henry, as Cassy is to Neddy."2
all the Austen children, Henry benefited from an early and superior education at
home. As a child, he translated
Horace and participated in the private family theatricals. In 1788 he matriculated at St. John's College, Oxford, and
while there contributed nine essays to the weekly periodical, The Loiterer (1789-90) which had been founded by his older brother
writings lack the witty genius of his sister's contemporary Juvenilia3
but are only slightly less amusing. Most
can be taken as homilies, early indicators of his eventual clerical profession:
an apologia for a wasted life; criticism of the abuse of heraldry; half-hearted
support for the theories of education promulgated by Rousseau and Mme. de Genlis;
advice to the victims of husband-seekers; the folly of relying on first
impressions; the results of marriage for pecuniary interests.4
1787 Henry spent a month with his cousin Eliza Hancock (who had married the
Comte de Feuillide) at her residence in Orchard Street, London.
The following year she visited James and Henry at Oxford and, in a letter
to her cousin Philadelphia Walter, remarked on Henry's handsome appearance and
called him "tonish."5 After her husband was guillotined in 1794 Eliza stayed with
the Austens in Steventon and, consciously or unconsciously, began to woo both
brothers simultaneously. Henry
eventually won her hand even though he was ten years her junior.
His success was probably helped along by two factors: James had only
recently become a widower and, much more abhorrent to the liberated Eliza, was a
clergyman. The ceremony took place
at Marylebone Church in London, 31 December, 1797.
The fact that the wedding did not occur at Steventon may indicate that
the family viewed the marriage as less than felicitous.
had received his Masters Degree from Oxford the previous year and had joined the
Oxford Militia, rising to the ranks of lieutenant, adjutant, and captain before
resigning his commission in 1801. During
the short-lived period of peace provided by the Treaty of Amiens (1802), Henry
and his wife visited France in a vain attempt to recoup Eliza's losses at the
Comte's estate in Guienne. All too
soon the truce ended and they were forced to flee the country.
Thanks to Eliza's command of the French language, they escaped with their
1803 and 1804 Henry and Eliza joined his parents and sisters, who were at that
time living in Bath, for holidays at Lyme Regis.
In January of 1805 the Reverend George Austen died, leaving his wife and
two daughters in dire financial straits. Just
starting in the banking business, Henry contributed £50 a year to their support
and claimed he would "do as much as long as [his] precarious income
remains."6 Later his
mother confessed, in a letter written in 1820 to her sister-in-law Jane Leigh-Perrot,
that this amount had been withdrawn by her son after his bankruptcy in 1816.7
and two associates had founded a banking institution in London sometime between
1804 and 1806. Austen, Maunde and
Tilson of Covent Garden flourished and enabled Henry and Eliza to move from
Brompton (where Jane Austen had found the quarters cramped during a visit in
1808) to a more fashionable address and larger house at 64 Sloane Street.
Jane's visits here in 1811 and 1813 were happy events, filled with
parties, theatre-going, and the business of publishing Sense and Sensibility and Pride
brought both good fortune and tragic loss.
Uncle Leigh Perrot and his brother, Edward (Austen) Knight, helped to
secure Henry's appointment as Receiver-General for Oxfordshire.
His happiness was marred, however, by Eliza's death after a painfully
debilitating illness. Henry soon moved to quarters over the bank at 10 Henrietta
Street and, later, back to Chelsea, 23 Hans Place.
was entertained at both establishments. In
1815, on her visit to Hans Place during negotiations for new editions of her
first three novels and the publication of Emma,
Henry became seriously ill. Fortunately,
he recovered; it was through a connection of his attending apothecary that Jane
was invited to visit the Prince Regent's library. She did so somewhat reluctantly but later dedicated Emma
to the Prince.
Waterloo (1815) England's economy was depressed and Henry's bank was forced into
bankruptcy. Henry's last task
before leaving London was to buy back the manuscript of "Catherine" (Northanger
Abbey) from the publisher, Crosby, to whom he had sold it in 1803.
Crosby obviously did not realize that the anonymous "Lady"
author was the woman who had written Pride
third and final career began in December, 1816, when he took oders at Winchester
or Salisbury (the exact place is uncertain).
Jane lived long enough to hear him preach at the village church in
Chawton. She had always considered
him an eloquent speaker and now informed a nephew that he wrote "very
favorite brother and the member of the family who had had the most influence in
furthering her literary ambitions was in constant attendance throughout the
final two months of her illness in 1817. He,
Cassandra, and Henry’deceased wife's confidential secretary, Mme.
Bigeon, were the only names mentioned in Jane Austen's will.
in 1817, Henry arranged for the publication of Northanger
Abbey and Persuasion and
introduced the four volumes with his "Biographical Notice of the
Author." Elizabeth Jenkins, in
her comprehensive biography of Jane Austen, gives a good description of Henry's
naturally solemn manner of writing, the fact that the essay was itself an elegy,
and that the convention of the time prevented his putting before the public that
sort of intimate portrait which, in conversation, no one could have given so
well as he, have made his description of so dated a nature, that only the
extreme interest of the subject makes it possible for us to read it with any
degree of intelligent participation.9
This is an accurate appraisal.
Nevertheless, the "Notice" gave the reading public the only
biographical information on Jane Austen that it was to have until the
publication of a memoir, in 1870, by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh.
the next few years Henry served as Curate at Chawton, Chaplain to the British
Embassy at Berlin,10 and
as Rector of Steventon until his nephew, William Knight, was qualified to accept
that living. In 1822 Henry was
licensed to the cure of Farnham and, two years later, he was appointed Perpetual
Curate at Bentley. From 1823-27
Henry also served as Master of the Free Grammar School in Farnham. While at Bentley he was only six miles from his mother and
sister, Cassandra, at Chawton and either lived with them, or made frequent, long
visits, until Mrs. Austen's death in 1827.
had remarried in 1820. His wife was
Eleanor Jackson, a long-standing acquaintance of the family.
Cassandra considered her "an excellent wife" but noted that she
suffered from poor health.11
his resourcefulness and many occupations and preoccupations, Henry never
rebounded financially from his losses in 1816.
Debts of £800 and £400 are mentioned in letters to his nephew, James
Edward, in 1828 and 1832. In the
latter year he and Cassandra sold, to Richard Bentley, the copyright of Jane's
five novels (the firm already owned the rights to the sixth) for £250 "& two copies of the work."12 The
famous "Bentley Editions" were published in 1832-33 and the works were
made available to an ever-increasing readership for the first time since their
retirement in 1839 was rendered at least partially possible by the legacy he
received after the death of his aunt, Mrs. Leigh-Perrot.
He afterwards spent some time in France (for his wife's health?) and died
of gastritis, in 1850, at Tunbridge Wells. He is buried there in Woodbury Park Cemetery.
was the handsomest of his family and, in the opinion of his own father, also the
most talented. There were others
who formed a different estimate, and considered his abilities greater in show
than in reality; but for the most part he was greatly admired.
Brilliant in conversation he was, and, like his father, blessed with a
hopefulness of temper which in adapting itself to all circumstances, even the
most adverse, seemed to create a perpetual sunshine.
The race, however, is not all to the swift; it never has been, and though
so highly gifted by nature, my uncle was not prosperous in life.13
I with a Footboy once was curst,
Whose name when shortened made my first.
He an unruly rogue was reckoned
And in my house oft raised my second.
My whole stands high in lists of fame,
Exalting e'en great Chatham's name.14
1Jane Austen’s Letters to Her
Sister Cassandra and Others, ed.
R.W. Chapman, 2nd ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1959), p. 365
(Letter dated "3 November 1813").
2R.A. Austen-Leigh, ed., Austen Papers: 1704-1856 (Privately printed: Spottiswoode,
Ballantyne & Co., Ltd., 1942), p. 33.
3One of the longest of these juvenile pieces, Lesley
Castle (1792), was dedicated to Henry.
4James Austen, ed. The Loiterer: A Periodical Work (Dublin: Byrne & Jones, 1792).
p. 468. Letter dated "16
9Jane Austen (London:
Victor Gollancz, Ltd., 1938), p. 347.
10A series of lectures on Genesis, which he delivered
in Berlin, was published.
11Eleanor Austen published a Catechism in 1881.
She outlived Henry by more than three decades.
12Austen Papers, pp. 286-287.
13A quotation from his niece, Mrs. Lefroy, in: William
and Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh, Jane
Austen: Her Life and Letters (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1913), p. 49.
Written a Hundred Years Ago by lane Austen and Her Family
(London: Spottiswoode & Co., 1895), p. 24.
H.A.'s contribution to the slim volume is headed "XV." The