Special Supplement, Heroes of History

Interesting facts about Jane Austen

Published : 18 Jul 2019 06:20 PM | Updated : 06 Sep 2020 10:23 AM

Jane Austen’s life was saved by her cousin

In 1783 Jane’s parents, the Revd George Austen and his wife Cassandra, decided to send Jane’s sister, also called Cassandra, to Oxford with her cousin Jane Cooper, to be tutored by a Mrs Ann Cawley. This was probably to reduce Mrs Austen’s workload, for as well as caring for five boys of her own she had to look after several boys who lived at the rectory while being tutored by her husband.

Jane, then aged seven, was devoted to her sister and would not be separated from her, so she went to Oxford as well. A few months later Mrs Cawley moved house to Southampton, taking the young girls with her. While there Cassandra and Jane became very ill with what was then called “putrid sore throat” – probably diphtheria [a potentially fatal contagious bacterial infection that mainly affects the nose and throat].

Jane was so ill that she nearly died, but Mrs Cawley, for some inexplicable reason, made no attempt to alert her parents. The young Jane Cooper took it upon herself to write and inform her aunt that Jane’s life was in danger. Without delay Mrs Austen and her sister Mrs Cooper set off for Southampton to rescue their daughters, taking with them a herbal remedy that would supposedly cure the infection.

The Austen sisters recovered under their mother’s care at home but tragically Mrs Cooper caught the infection and died soon afterwards at her home in Bath. The three girls never returned to Mrs Cawley.

Without her cousin’s timely intervention Jane Austen would almost certainly have died and the world would have been deprived of her outstanding talent.

Jane Austen had a little-known brother

The first biography of Jane Austen, which was written by her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh in 1869, gives the impression that she had only five brothers: James, Edward, Henry, Frank and Charles. There were, however, six sons in the Austen family – George was the second child of Revd Austen and his wife. He was also largely omitted from family memoirs.

George, who was born in 1766, suffered from epilepsy and learning difficulties and was probably deaf too. For this reason he did not live with his family – he was instead looked after by a family who lived in the village of Monk Sherborne, not far from Steventon Rectory where Jane was born and where she grew up.

The Austens made financial provision for George and visited him regularly, but he was not truly part of their lives. Apart from a few early letters that mention George and reveal his parents’ concern for him, he was not mentioned in later correspondence or in any of Jane’s letters.