Steventon and beyond: education and early influences

George Austen, known as ‘the handsome proctor’ at Balliol College, was a reflective,
literary man, who took pride in his children's education.

Most unusually for the period, he owned more than 500 books and was forward thinking in encouraging his daughters to read widely.

Again unusually, when Jane’s only sister, Cassandra, left for school in 1782, she was accompanied by Jane, aged just seven. Their mother wrote of their bond, ‘If Cassandra’s
head had been going to be cut off, Jane would have hers cut off too
’.

The two sisters attended schools in Oxford, Southampton and Reading. In Southampton the girls (and their cousin Jane Cooper) left the school when they caught a fever brought to the city by troops returning from abroad. Their cousin’s mother died and Jane also contracted the illness becoming very unwell but, luckily for literary posterity, survived.

The girls’ brief schooling was finally curtailed due to constraints upon the family’s finances and Jane returned to the rectory in 1787 to begin writing a collection of poems, plays and short stories which she dedicated to friends and family. This, her Juvenilia, encompassed her early writings.

A History of England, perhaps the most celebrated of these early works, can be viewed online at the British Library website (www.bl.uk/onlinegallery). Even in this, one of Austen’s earliest texts, the reader glimpses the wit that was to come. The prose is peppered with phrases illustrating her flair for detached, literary anticlimax:
Lord Cobham was burnt alive,
but I forget what for
.’

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