Life Stories from St John’s: the famous & the forgotten

MS 279 & George Austen

MS 279: Letter from Rev. George Austen to (possibly) Thomas Cadell (Hampshire, 1797)

St John’s Student Admissions

Oxford University is undeniably an institution that served the privileged minority for centuries. Despite changes in admissions across the colleges in the mid-19th century, Oxford remained the almost exclusive domain of undergraduates from a small number of public school for at least another hundred years.

St John’s was one of Oxford’s most closed colleges in terms of admissions until 1861, when it was forced to open up both undergraduate and postgraduate scholarships. It took another 20 years for those changes to be recorded and confirmed in the College Statutes in 1881 (Tyack 2000, pp. 12-13). Before then, as outlined by Costin (1958, p. 2), the College Statutes from 1566 determined the College’s admissions policy, stipulating that 50 scholars (today’s undergraduates) were to be recruited from only five schools: Tonbridge (1), Bristol (2), Coventry (2), Reading (2), and London’s Merchant Taylors’ School (at least 37 places). Preference was also given to the so-called Founder’s kin (6), applicants who could trace their ancestry back to the colleges’ founder (Costin, p. 2).

Reverend George Austen

One 18th-century recipient of the place from Tonbridge School was George Austen (1731–1805), father of the novelist Jane Austen. When George (and his sister) became penniless orphans, cast off by their stepmother, he was lucky to be taken in by his rich uncle Francis Austen (Collins 1998, p. 3). Francis paid George’s school fees at the prestigious Tonbridge School (founded in 1553 and boys only to this day). He went on to join St John’s College in 1747, taking his BA degree in 1751 and even teaching Classics at St John’s for a while (Collins 1998, p. 3).

Portrait miniature of Rev. George Austen (1731-1805) Image courtesy of Jane Austen’s House, Chawton (JAHM 319)

Had it not been for George’s fortune to be cared for by a rich relative interested in fostering his education, English literature would have been the poorer for it. Austen met his future wife Cassandra Leigh (1739–1827) in Oxford, whose father was a fellow of All Souls College (Collins 1998, p. 6). After St John’s, he pursued a modest clerical career, the income of which he substituted by opening a boarding school for boys in his house, and by selling produce from his garden (Collins 1998, pp. 13, 23).

The Letter to Thomas Cadell

George Austen wrote the letter displayed here on 1 November 1797 and most likely addressed it to the bookseller Thomas Cadell the Younger (1773-1836).

In support of the literary efforts of his daughter Jane, Rev. Austen enquired about a possible publication of a ‘manuscript novel, comprised in three volumes about the length of Miss Burney’s Evelina’, asking if Cadell would ‘choose to be concerned in it; what will be the expense of publishing at the Author’s risk’, and what the advance would be should he chose to publish it. As the note on the top of the letter records, the request was declined by return of post.

MS 279, folio 1r: Letter by Rev. George Austen to Thomas Cadell the Younger Steventon near Overton, 1 November 1797

The novel in question was eventually published anonymously as Pride and Prejudice in January 1813; a second edition followed in the same year. It was Jane Austen’s second publication after Sense and Sensibility (1811), which had also been published anonymously.

St John’s College & the Austens

Two of Jane Austen’s brothers, James and Henry Thomas, also attended St John’s College, matriculating in 1779 and 1788, respectively. In contrast to their father, they joined the College as Founder’s kin. Mary Bridgman, the sister of Thomas White, was the seven times grandmother of the Austen children on their maternal side.

In early 1783, Jane Austen, then seven years old, and her sister Cassandra were sent to a boarding school in Oxford. Their brother James, resident at St John’s at the time, took them on a sightseeing tour, which must have included St John’s College. Jane was not impressed (Collins 1998, p. 33). She may have been the author of a satirical letter written under the name ‘Sophia Sentiment’ for The Loiterer, an Oxford student periodical published by the two Austen brothers. This satirical letter dated 28 March 1789 includes the following complaint: ‘I never, but once, was in Oxford in my life and I am sure I never wish to go there again—they dragged me through so many dismal chapels, dusty libraries, and greasy halls, that it gave me the vapours for two days afterwards.’ The ‘vapours’ was a term commonly used in the 18th century to denote a number of mental states, including ‘depression of spirits’ (Oxford English Dictionary).

Jane Austen Letters at St John’s College

The College also holds five letters written by Jane Austen (1775-1817) to her niece Anna Austen (1793-1872), the daughter of James Austen. All letters were written in her cottage in the village of Chawton (Hampshire) in August and September 1814. The house is open to the public as Jane Austen’s House Museum, exhibiting (among other items) the writing table at which she is likely to have written those letters.

In the letters, Jane Austen (now a successful, published novelist) offers literary advice to Anna, who had started her first attempt at writing. Jane comments on what she likes about Anna’s writing samples and offers suggestions for improvements. The letters contain some of Jane Austen’s only comments on literary matters. Jane’s letters have been transcribed and digitally edited together with that of George Austen by two of St John’s College’s Library Graduate Trainees at the Taylor Editions (https://editions.

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