Coming from Hampshire myself I think of Jane Austen as quite a local hero. I am one of countless people who have grown up reading her books, watching the adaptations (I think I have seen three different versions of Pride and Prejudice) as well as the updated versions. The settings and the characters are so compelling and, of course, the tales of love, misunderstandings, embarrassment and money troubles are situations we can all relate to.
The wonderful variety of our collections at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust means that we have documents relating to so many other writers, poets and other surprising and interesting people. We look after the archive of the Leigh family and within this there are documents relating to Jane Austen.
Through her mother, Cassandra, Jane Austen was related to the Gloucestershire Leighs, who lived at Adlestrop from the mid seventeenth century. Her mother’s father (Jane’s maternal grandfather), Thomas, was the son of Theophilus Leigh and Mary Brydges (his second wife).
Thomas became the Reverend Thomas Leigh, rector of Harpsden in Berkshire. He married Jane Walker (whose mother was Jane Perrot) and they had three children, James, Cassandra and Jane. Cassandra married George Austen. They had two daughters, Jane, the writer, and Cassandra, who drew a rare portrait of her sister. They also had five sons.
Jane’s maternal uncle, James Leigh, inherited the Northleigh estate and fortune through the Perrot connection, and added Perrot to his name. James died in 1774, the year before Jane was born, leaving a 9-year-old son, James Henry. The Reverend Thomas Leigh, not Jane’s grandfather, but the son of William Leigh and Mary Lord of Adlestrop, was one of his guardians.
When Edward Lord Leigh became insane, and then died in 1786, the Stoneleigh estate passed to Mary, Edward’s sister, for life, to revert after her death to the nearest male relative. Contenders were Jane’s uncle, James Leigh Perrot, her cousin, James Henry Leigh and her mother’s cousin, also Rev Thomas Leigh, guardian of James Henry Leigh.
Negotiations concerning the inheritance began when Jane was just 11. Eventually the estate was settled on Thomas Leigh.
Jane visited Stoneleigh Abbey in 1806 during a few short weeks between her residence in Bath and the home she took with her brother in Southampton. On 2 July 1806, the very day Mary Leigh died, Jane, her sister Cassandra and their mother left Bath after five years of living there. Her father had died in 1804, leaving the women with limited income. They had to move to ever cheaper lodgings and lost some of their social status as a result.
They were to live permanently with Jane’s brother, Francis, when he returned from honeymoon, but in the meantime went to stay in Staffordshire with Jane’s cousin, Edward Cooper, who had been given the living at Hamstall Ridware by Mary Leigh. (Edward Cooper was the son of Jane Leigh, Jane’s Aunt, and Edward Cooper). On the way they spent some time at Clifton, and with their Leigh relatives at Adlestrop. They then stayed at Stoneleigh Abbey with Thomas Leigh for about five weeks. While they were there they visited Combe Abbey, Warwick Castle and Kenilworth Castle.
Jane probably used Stoneleigh Abbey as inspiration for some of the descriptions in her novels, It was a building of great antiquity with a gothic facade to one side and a modern part on the other. It had a large park with woods and a river. No doubt she also used the eccentricities of her fellow guests to good effect.
Within the Stoneleigh collection there is a document which lists various members of the family who are gifted rings, brooches and bracelets following the death of Mary Leigh in 1806. Miss Jane Austen is on the list.
We also have a letter from Jane's brother, Henry Austen, from 8 October 1817 which says, "On reverting to the letter, which you kindly wrote to me in acknowledgement of mine communicating to you the death of my dear sister Jane, I perceive from its address that you are not aware of my having enterd into the best of all professions"
Henry was Jane's older brother and the two siblings were close. This brief mention of Jane is the only one in a letter which mainly focuses on Henry's "destitute situation".
"As it has pleased God to take away all that he had lent me, it is my duty to tell the truth. My insolvency was occasioned by the egregious folly of my partners in a Country bank who dissipated £10000, and by the unexampled treachery of the Marquess of Hastings ... who has defrauded me of £6000."
Henry's apparent woes bring to mind many of the circumstances behind the characters in Jane's novels and why inheritance often played a part in these stories. It also shows that whilst had prestigious family connections, the line of inheritance did not favour the Austens and they were very much the poor relations with a more humble experience of life at this time. It is these circumstances which contributed to the rich tapestry of characters and stories which Jane was able to weave into her books.
communicating to you the death of my dear sister Jane
These documents, the rest of the Stoneleigh collection and the rest of our collections can be viewed and researched in our Reading Room, take a look at our opening times and details on visiting.
Many thanks to Helen Williams for her assistance with research for this blog using Gaye King's chapter in Stoneleigh Abbey: The House Its Owners, Its Lands edited by Robert Bearman.