Penelope Friday on George Austen
By Emmeline Burdett and Penelope Friday
A few months ago I was reading an article in Jane Austen’s Regency World magazine, that told the story of the novelist Jane Austen’s disabled brother George. I’d heard about George before: he featured in the 2007 film Becoming Jane, starring Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen, and the film suggested both that the siblings had a relatively close relationship, and that George was the reason that his sister knew sign language. More darkly, other sources have shown that George was not included in his family tree, as though he had not existed at all. The article in Jane Austen’s Regency World magazine was written by Penelope Friday, a disabled writer whose website is https://penelopefriday.com. I interviewed Penelope Friday for Public Disability History.
|Figure 1 - George and Jane Austen from the 2007 movie "Becoming Jane". Credit: https://janeausten.co.uk/blogs/jane-austen-life/george-austen?currency=eur .|
1. What year was George Austen born?
He was born on 26 August 1766.
2. What was the nature of his impairment?
This sounds like it should be an easy question to answer, but it really isn’t. The quick answer is that no one really knows. He appeared fine at his birth, but as he grew older it became clear that he was not developing the same way as other children. He had fits as a young child, and may have been epileptic, though this isn’t certain. He was unable to speak, and many biographers have speculated that he was deaf - but if he was profoundly deaf from birth, his disabilities would surely have been picked up very early in life.
He was certainly unable to care for himself - his Godfather, Tysoe Saul Hancock, wrote that George “must be provided for without the least hopes of his being able to assist himself.” But although it is clear that the family believed him to be intellectually disabled, whether George’s problems were due to physical disability, intellectual disability, or even neurodifference, it is impossible to say for sure. Clare Tomalin, who has written a biography of Jane Austen, suggests that George might have had cerebral palsy, a physical disability which also sometimes comes with intellectual disabilities also, though not always. It’s also possible, though, that he had autism, and his lack of speaking was due to that; that he was, in fact, perfectly intelligent, despite the family’s beliefs, and just incapable of communicating with them. Which is, to be honest, a terrifying thought.
3. Why was George Austen sent away from home?
George Austen was born in a time when having a disabled child was a bit of a shame upon the family - and also, for a large family like the Austens, it would have been extremely difficult to look after someone with such severe disabilities whilst also giving all of the other children the care they needed. When his parents realised he was disabled and had no hope of recovery, he was sent to live with the Cullum family, who already cared for his mother Cassandra’s disabled brother Thomas. Sadly, they then rarely spoke of him or visited him, something some biographers have criticised them extremely strongly for; however, they did make sure that George was settled in a comfortable home and that it was paid for throughout his life - and he lived until the age of 71, considerably longer than Jane Austen herself.
4. What beliefs existed in England about disability during George Austen’s life – particularly during his early life?
Beliefs about disability were quite backward at this time. There was an idea that disability was due to either personal or ancestral sin (“the sins of the father…”) which might explain why the Austens were quite keen to have George kept away and never spoken of: as a clergyman, George Austen Sr would not have wanted any suggestion that he was sinful and that his disabled son was proof of this to get around. It was also seen as a sort of moral failing.
There was a belief that people with disabilities were a burden on society and they were often institutionalised so that they were kept out of sight of ‘normal’ people, and to make them as little of a drain on resources as possible. It was of course believed that they couldn’t possibly be of any use in society - and there was very little understanding of the breadth of disabilities, and their different natures.
Some disabilities were believed to be contagious, so others would shy away from those who were disabled in case it ‘passed’ to them too.
5. Tell us about Eliza de Feuillide and her disabled son Hastings. Who were they, and how did Feuillide’s treatment of her son differ from the Austens’ treatment of George?
Eliza de Feuillide was the daughter of George’s Godfather, Tysoe Saul Hancock, and George Austen Senior’s sister Philadelphia. She treated her son, Hastings in a very different fashion to the Austens’ treatment of George. Hastings was also known to have learning difficulties and seizures, having been born prematurely. However, rather than sending him away, Eliza chose to keep him with her for the entirety of his short life – sadly, he died at the age of fifteen – and cared for him at home, looking after his needs herself (albeit with, presumably, the help of the servants in her house).
6. Do you think it is important that disabled people should be the ones to tell George’s story? Why/why not?
I do think that it is important because I think we can bring an understanding to his life and make him more of a real person rather than just a shadowy part of Jane Austen’s life. The more I looked into George Austen’s life, the more intrigued I became about this man, whose disabilities were in fact so vague that it was almost troubling. The fact that someone who was only really born 250 years ago, and to a family about whom there is plenty of information, could be such a shadowy figure that it is impossible to say whether he was physically or intellectually disabled, or even neuroatypical and disabled by the different way in which his brain worked - it’s sad and it’s scary.
And I do feel that abled historians have just assumed things about George based on how he was treated that actually have no basis in fact when you look more closely into the details - such as his supposed deafness, for example, or that he was intellectually disabled. Certainly he did not speak, and this is often linked to deafness, but as far as I can research, there is nothing which says for certain that he was deaf. And although his family believed him to be intellectually disabled, in the time they were living, if a person did not speak or write, that would be enough to make them considered intellectually disabled, whether they were or not. Whether abled historians don’t have the knowledge, or don’t care enough to push through this to explore more deeply, I don’t know, but I think it makes the role of disabled researchers more important.
7. What do you think is the purpose of disability history (e.g., giving a more rounded picture of the past/ challenging current ideas about disabled people, etc.).
I think we can bring the stories of disabled folk of the past to life in a way that they haven’t been in the past, and give a good understanding of the ways views have changed on disability - and the distance they still have to go. By looking back, we can learn about new people who have been overlooked by other researchers because they were not considered interesting enough, as disabled people, to be written about. But also, by looking back, we can use that information to look forward, and to try and understand the lessons that history is trying to teach us.
Dr Emmeline Burdett is an independent researcher.
Penelope Friday is a multi-published, award winning writer, with a special interest in Jane Austen and the Regency Period. Zie is the author of two novels set in the early nineteenth century, as well as writing regularly for Jane Austen’s Regency World Magazine. Hir website can be found at Penelopefriday.com.
Burdett, Emmeline & Friday, Penelope (2023): Penelope Friday on George Austen. In: Public Disability History 8 (2023) 2.