She knew nothing of the place or its ways, Jane told her, and might give a false impression. How strange Jane Austen might have found it to think of three others of her nieces making their way to live on that incomprehensible island, where French ideas of liberty fired the imagination not only of the poor and downtrodden, but also of members of the aristocracy and the landed gentry.
She might have been more puzzled still to learn that the children of convicted rebels, prepared to attempt the overthrow of the British establishment, would be the trusted friends of her family in Ireland.
Literary Festival explored Jane Austen’s Donegal connections
By the mid-nineteenth century, little remained of life as the Georgians had known it. Accepted levels of status in society were to be challenged: marches and demonstrations, demands for greater parity from the disgruntled, dissident or dispossessed would alarm the Knights of Godmersham, especially when such upheavals affected their source of income, or threatened the well-being of family members. Yet, none of it — the Peterloo massacre, the rise of Chartism, the debate over Catholic Emancipation — would prove as frustrating or as baffling as the struggle to understand what was happening in Ireland.
The Act of Union of Great Britain and Ireland, with which the new century began, did not bring an end to rebellion and discontent in Ireland. If anything, it signalled a new and more militant era.
May, Lou & Cass: Jane Austen's Nieces in Ireland
Much of its direct political power had gone at a stroke; later reform legislation … saw the bases of Ascendancy social and economic power wither away. Yet, the fact that her three nieces did, for their different reasons, decide to live there made events in Ireland of paramount importance to the family. Failures of the harvest and consequent famine; insurrections and evictions; land acts and Home Rule debates became, as the century progressed, of increasing interest. What they witnessed was, as she would have been the first to acknowledge, quite beyond her experience: Ireland could never be England, and England was what she and her family knew.
The extraordinary stories of these daughters of the house speak to the grace, courage and compassion instilled in them by their Georgian upbringing, and by the rare privilege of having Jane Austen as their aunt and early teacher. The values they learned in childhood at Godmersham and Chawton were to stand to all three, in their long years of exile in Ireland.
Children of the same family, the same blood, with the same first associations and habits, have some means of enjoyment in their power, which no subsequent connections can supply. From the distance of two hundred years and considering her acknowledged greatness as a writer, it may be difficult to appreciate that Jane Austen was a single woman for whom a place in the family had to be found.
The younger daughter and seventh of eight children born to the Reverend George Austen and his wife Cassandra Leigh, Jane had no money of her own.
This contented childhood at Steventon was interrupted only by an interlude at boarding school, where her parents made the curious decision to send her, at the age of six, with Cassandra. Surprisingly, this did not prevent her parents from sending both girls to yet another school in nearby Reading, from which they did not return until Jane was eleven years old.
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Yet, giving them an education may have been a matter of simple expediency to provide the girls with the means of earning a living. Neither their father, on the limited means of a clergyman, nor their mother, despite a well-connected family which included the Master of Balliol College, Oxford, could provide any guarantee of an inheritance, or even of a permanent home. If she did not marry well, or earn her living by another means, she would be poor throughout her life. With considerable strength of will Jane, like her heroine Elizabeth Bennet, declined at least one offer of a comfortable marriage from Mr Harris Bigg-Wither whom, though he was a neighbour and the brother of a dear friend, she could not love.
Edward was, within his own limits, a kindly brother to his sisters and mother. Sadly, it was by no means unusual, as Sense and Sensibility demonstrates, for brothers inheriting under the prevailing custom of primogeniture to overlook the unmarried or otherwise superannuated female members of their families. Her father, Edward Austen, was uniquely favoured among his siblings through his adoption by rich, childless relatives.
His good fortune would not seem out of place in fiction and, indeed, a similar device was used by his sister to explain the case of Frank Churchill in her novel, Emma. A distant cousin, Thomas Knight of Kent, the benefactor who owned the living, or parish, of Steventon which George Austen held, married Catherine Knatchbull in May A letter arrived from Godmersham begging that little Edward might be allowed to spend his holydays there — and proposing to send for him. What his own feeling may have been is not recorded. In , his fortunes rose further when his adopted mother invited him to move to Godmersham, proposing that she live in a smaller house in Canterbury.
With great fondness, she insisted.
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Sophia Hillan tells the fascinating story of Jane Austen’s Irish family
How the sisters ended up in Donegal during famine times reads like an Austen novel. Search Go. An Experimental Cook view more. Catherine was all eager delight; - her eyes were here, there, everywhere, as they approached its….