Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

George Austen and the Proctors' Revolt

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

George Austen and the Proctors' Revolt

Article excerpt

JANE AUSTEN'S FATHER is acknowledged as one of the greatest influences on her writing, yet despite his encouragement for her wickedly unconventional juvenilia he has been seen as a conventional man. Irene Collins's latest study of George's influence includes the important emphasis on his mid-century Oxford education, based on the growing recognition of the currency of Enlightenment thought in the University and in the Anglican Church (Young 4-15). Many of the characteristics attributed to George Austen, however, are still based on generalisations about what might be expected of a "stolid," Oxford man of the established Church, including prejudices against foreigners, Dissenters, and Catholics and a generally conservative viewpoint on the hierarchical principle in the home and in society (Collins 57; 67-68; 75). He is seen as the product of Tory Oxford, where passive obedience to the powers that be was valued paradoxically as a mark of disaffection to the reigning Hanoverians and the "Revolution" Whigs. Some recent studies of Jane Austen have not scrupled to call her a Jacobite, basing this partly on a supposed reverence for her Jacobite Leigh forbears (Burgess; Tuite). A prominent episode in her father's Oxford career, however, sees him a member of a "New Interest" Whiggish group led by Theophilus Leigh, Master of Balliol and uncle of his future wife. Oxford University archives show him signing a protest against the procedures of Convocation, the University's governing body, whose perpetrators were threatened with punishment. In 1759 he crossed swords with William Blackstone, Vice-Chancellor Thomas Randolph and the University Tory establishment when, with his fellow-proctor William Wright of Merton College, he used the Proctors' Veto to hold up their modifications of the Laudian Statutes which had regulated the University since 1636. Historians see this as an attempt to obstruct one of the most important University reforms of the century (Sutherland 191-93). The records, however, show a different story. Blackstone's innovations favoured his own career and increased the power of the executive to the detriment of the wider body of the university. George Austen and the Leigh group worked against old Tory authoritarianism and exclusiveness. In the country as a whole the "proscription" of Tories was being alleviated, and in the government of the University they wished to see wider deliberation in rational discussion. It was an ideal which they saw in the original formation of the Laudian Statutes and fitted the spirit of independence, liberty, and free enquiry which they thought belonged to an educational institution.

Austen saw the Leigh group in action during the Oxfordshire County Election of 1754., the year he received his M. A. They supported Whig challengers to the Tory incumbents whose propaganda, orchestrated by Blackstone, rode on a wave of anti-semitism provoked by a bill enabling the naturalization of immigrant Jews. Leigh's independent group held themselves equally aloof from "official" Whig efforts to implicate the Tories in a Catholic, Jacobite plot (Robson 80; Ward 193-99). Other prominent members of this oppositional group were the great Hebrew scholar Benjamin Kennicott, who outspokenly attacked Hutchinsonianism with its creed of passive obedience, and Thomas Fry, later famous as a supporter of "Wilkes and Liberty" in the University. George, who kept in touch with his Oxford contacts while teaching in his old school of Tonbridge, was invited back to St. John's College as chaplain by Thomas Fry in 1758, the year alter Fry was elected Master.

Austen was immediately in the thick of political action. The group met together to propose Richard Trevor, Bishop of Durham, as candidate for the Chancellorship election in 1759 against two Tory candidates. (1) Blackstone was active in the Tory campaign and achieved the election of the Duke of Westmorland. At Westmorland's inauguration the old Oxford Jacobite William King orated with such vigour that Dr. …

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