Young Jane Austen: the “Writer of the Family”?

The oldest brother of Jane Austen is a minor, yet intriguing figure in her life story. Twelve years older than Jane, as a young man James wrote poetry, essays, and theatrical pieces. Their mother Mrs. Austen — literary herself, who as a child was declared the poet of the family — apparently seemed to feel that James was the writer of the family.

James Austen as a young man. Source: Wikimedia Commons

James Austen as a young man. Source: Wikimedia Commons

And: more than one Austen biographer has commented that James was her favorite child.

And: quite a few biographers repeat sentimental Austen lore that James very early, very actively, directed young Jane’s choice of reading material.

And: James was said to be Jane’s least favorite brother among the panoply of six.

And: Jane’s relationship with her mother is thought to have been tense, conflictual.

Jane Austen's mother

The redoubtable Mrs. Austen. Source: Wikimedia Commons

All these disparate elements, these interesting little tidbits, made me wonder, in researching and writing my Young Jane Austen: Becoming a Writer, if Jane’s creative development as a girl was, in fact, partly fueled by these complex — and not always positive — family dynamics.

Thus, this little chapter in Young Jane Austen, one of twenty in which the significant events of Jane’s childhood are highlighted, and presented as if through her youthful perspective:

Christmas was always a delightful time, but this year brought a fascinating new delight. James was home, and announced that he and his brothers and their friends were going to put on a play! It was a thrilling story called Matilda, and James even wrote a new beginning and ending for it.

How exciting to watch the rehearsals, lively with laughter and squabbles. And what fun to finally sit in the dining parlor and see the actors, splendid in their costumes, saying their lines so well — and to be spellbound by the tale of murder and swordfights, trickery and true love, as it unfolded before your eyes!

Everyone told James how much they liked what he had written and made a great fuss over him, and about the essays and poems he had been composing, too, which he had been reading aloud to the family in the evenings. Mama declared that he was the writer of the family. It was as if, Jenny thought, he had pulled a sword from a stone. Or, rather, a pen from a stone.

And could there be only one writer in a family?

Mama wrote letters — many letters — and also very funny, clever verses.

Papa wrote letters as well, and the sermons which he gave on Sunday.

Weren’t they writers too?

It was something else to puzzle over.

James Austen: an illustration by Massimo Mongiardo in Lisa Pliscou's "Young Jane Austen: Becoming a Writer"

The writer of the family?

And: with James being ordained as a clergyman when Jane was thirteen, I couldn’t help but wonder if he recommended to her Fordyce’s sententious Sermons to Young Women (which makes a funny appearance in Pride and Prejudice) once too often . . . and ended up being slyly, indelibly, lampooned as the pompous clergyman Mr. Collins. With Jane — the real writer of the family — getting the last, triumphant laugh.

This post appears with the kind permission of the Book Rat, where it originally appeared.