I recently finished watching the popular Netflix series The Crown, which is based on Queen Elizabeth’s life. If you have seen the series, you will recall that the Queen had two disabled cousins who were sent to live in a group home and were largely forgotten. By today’s standards, it’s unusual to send your children away to be raised by other families, but this was fairly common in the past.
Like the queen, Jane Austen had two brothers who didn’t have typical relationships with the Austen family, but their reasons for this were very different. One was the third eldest child, Edward.
Jane’s father earned his living as a clergyman and had been given his living by a wealthy relative, Thomas Knight. When Mr. Knight married Catherine Knatchbull, they dropped by the Austen’s home where the couple met an eleven-year-old Edward.
He was a sweet, charming boy, and Catherine asked if the child could accompany her and her new husband on the remainder of their honeymoon. Impressed by the child during this trip, the couple invited him on more of their family holidays. After a few years when the couple remained childless, they asked to adopt the boy. The Austens agreed, and upon Mr. Knight’s death, Edward Austen Knight inherited a sizable fortune. It was on one of Edward’s estates that Jane lived her final years.
Jane’s second eldest brother, George, was not as fortunate. George was disabled, had learning disabilities and epilepsy, and may have been deaf. Although the Austens provided financial support and visited him, he was sent away to be raised by another family better able to care for him. George was never mentioned in letters. In fact, in the first biography on Jane Austen, he was never acknowledged.
Sometimes, I think about writing a novel where Jane Austen’s characters live out some of the events of Jane’s life. Can you imagine Lady Catherine going to Charlotte Lucas Collins and asking to adopt her son? Or Elizabeth Bennet anonymously publishing novels that go on to become widely popular?
I see a little of this happening in Jane’s own novels. It is said that she based Fitzwilliam Darcy on her own personality and Elizabeth Bennet’s personality on Thomas Lefroy. But that isn’t the only influence her real life had on her fiction. Lefroy may have been Austen’s first love, but any romance they might have had was dashed because he was not allowed to marry below his social standing. When things started to heat up between Austen and Lefroy, Lefroy’s relatives saw to it he was taken far away from her. Doesn’t that sound a little like the set up of Bingley’s romance with Miss Bennet?
Wouldn’t it be interesting to put Darcy and Elizabeth in a situation like that or switch the two main characters’ personalities? Or what if we had Mary sent away to live with another family because she was born with a disability? There are so many options, and the lovely thing about fiction is that everyone could still get a happy ending. What do you think would be a fun novel twist that is based on Jane Austen’s actual life?