Brothers of the More Famous Jane: The Literary Aspirations, Achievements, and Influence of James and Henry Austen

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JUST AS FRANK AND CHARLES commonly make a pair in Austenography--the sailor brothers, bringing knowledge of the war and the navy into the quiet domestic life of their sister, to the enrichment of her novels--so James and Henry Austen, though very different from one another in temperament and lifestyle, may be regarded as a pair: a pair of professional men living and working on the margin of the world of letters, with their own literary ambitions, abilities, and achievements. In a family adept at writing letters, charades, and light verse for their own amusement, only James and Henry (besides Jane) attempted serious authorship. In this essay I shall first establish the right of James and Henry to be regarded as literary men, looking at their personalities, their professional lives, and the range of literary texts they have left us. I shall consider to what extent their own ambitions were fulfilled, and examine some of the conflicting emotions roused in them by their sister's success. Her own fraternal feelings, as evinced by her letters, have led biographers to state categorically and repeatedly that Henry was her favorite, James the least favorite of her brothers. I hope to bring forward some evidence to modify this view. Along the way I shall ponder whether James and Henry helped inspire any of her fictional characters, always bearing in mind her own dictum that she was too proud of her creations to admit that they were only Mr. A or Colonel B. And lastly I shall investigate the role of these two brothers in shaping the view of Jane Austen, as a woman and a writer, that has come down to us through the centuries.

On 4 January 1820, a few weeks after the death of her eldest son, James, the eighty-year-old Mrs. Austen wrote a letter to her sister-in-law Mrs. Leigh Perrot in which she enters into a comparison between James and his brother Edward, whom she refers to as Mr. Knight. After describing Edward as "most kind and liberal" Mrs. Austen adds that he

is quite a man of business. That my dear James was not--Classical Knowledge, Literary Taste and the power of Elegant Composition he possessed in the highest degree; to these Mr Knight makes no pretensions. Both equally good, amiable and sweet-tempered. (Papers 264)

This letter is valuable to students of the Austen family in several ways, not least in that it establishes James as amiable and sweet-tempered, in the eyes of his mother at least, a judgment to bear in mind wben we come to consider Jane's own comments about her eldest brother. Mrs. Austen's letter also confirms James in the character of scholar and writer, not just in his promising youth, but throughout his life. Of his performance as a clergyman, it will be noticed, Mrs. Austen makes no mention, though it was his clerical role that for thirty years defined his place in the local community and society at large.

Mrs. Leigh Perrot had no need of this character sketch, since she had known James all his life; it was sheer indulgence on Mrs. Austen's part, for which she may be forgiven, having now lost two of her children, though it is notable that she did not think of mentioning Jane's literary powers. Many circumstances suggest that she was always most deeply attached to James, of all her children. It is quite common of course for proud parents to regard their firstborn as something of a genius in babyhood; and with high levels of parental attention and expectation, firstborns are indeed often high achievers, with a conscientious approach to life. James fits this pattern. He was a very satisfactory son for his scholarly father, having an aptitude for the classical studies that the Reverend George Austen was so well qualified to teach. By the age of fourteen, James bad matriculated at Oxford, where he remained, later as Fellow of his college, until 1790--eleven years.

This was the only period of his life when James was resident anywhere other than Hampshire--though Oxford terms allowed him plenty of time back at Steventon. …