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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

On this day in 1808. . .

Ninetieth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.

Jane Austen had six brothers, but one of them—George, the second-oldest Austen child, born nine years before Jane, in 1766—barely appears in the biographical record. Stray remarks in his parents’ letters suggest that he had an intellectual disability of some kind, apparently coupled with epilepsy; by the time Jane Austen was four, and perhaps much earlier, he had been sent away to live with a paid foster family in a nearby village. It’s not clear whether his parents or siblings ever visited him there, and when he died at the age of seventy-one, none of his surviving family members seems to have attended the funeral.


Jane Austen never mentions her brother George, or any aspect of this sad story,* in her novels or letters. But some scholars detect his shadowy presence in the letter she finished writing to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 215 years ago today (#63 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


Jane, at home in Southampton while Cassandra visits Austen relatives in Kent, is reporting on the previous night’s socializing with friends-of-friends, among them a Mr. Fitzhugh, “very much the Gentleman.” The “poor Man, is so totally deaf, that they say he c[oul]d not hear a Cannon, were it fired close to him,” Austen reports. “Having no cannon at hand to make the experiment, I took it for granted, & talked to him a little with my fingers, which was funny enough.—I recommended him to read Corinna.”


Talking with fingers? And proficiently enough to recommend a novel by Madame de Staël? To some readers, this throwaway remark suggests that Jane Austen was familiar with sign language, which, in Britain, dates back to the sixteenth century. And why would she have learned sign language? Perhaps to communicate with a hearing-impaired older brother!


To me, this interpretation has always felt like a stretch: We don’t know that George Austen’s disabilities included deafness, and Austen’s letter doesn’t make clear whether the finger-talking she refers to is a formal system of signing or just a set of random conversational gestures that anyone might use. (Naturally, this uncertainty didn’t stop the makers of Becoming Jane from giving us a glimpse of Austen signing companionably with . . . her brother George.)


Still, given how disturbing George’s treatment seems to twenty-first-century eyes, there’s something comforting about imagining a Jane Austen who had once cared enough about her disabled sibling to learn how to communicate with him. Of course, just because it’s comforting doesn’t mean it’s true.


* See here and here for scholarly efforts to set George’s story in the context of both eighteenth-century treatment of the disabled and the Austen family’s own history.


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