Two of Jane Austen’s brothers were students at the University of Oxford. Felicity Day explores university education, Georgian style
In Jane Austen’s lifetime Oxford and Cambridge were the only universities in England. Although there were others on the continent and several in Scotland, these two remained the most obvious choice for a young man’s – always a man’s – further education. Of course, university was only for the minority; as few as two hundred freshmen were entered at Oxford each year during the 18th century, and among them were two of Jane’s brothers, James and Henry.
Not all their fellow undergraduates went up to Oxford with the intention of securing a qualification; the majority of those with an assured and comfortable future ahead of them as gentleman landowners never even took a degree. Their period of residence at university was much more about making connections with others of the same social standing and learning to live independently as men of leisure. But a degree was nonnegotiable for those wanting or needing to enter one of the professions.
About 60 per cent of Oxford undergraduates studying for the bachelor of arts degree in the 18th century went on to join the clergy, and it was for this reason that James and Henry Austen were sent to continue their education there. The cost of university was prohibitive for many, and in families of the Austens’ class only sons intended for the church, or perhaps the law, would have been sent up, and even then only sons who had a realistic prospect of obtaining a living thereafter. Other sons, such as Jane’s younger brothers Frank and Charles, would have been expected to enter a profession that did not require a prolonged education, in their case the Navy.
Fortunately for the Austens though, there were no fees to pay for either James or Henry. On Mrs Austen’s side the family were related to Sir Thomas White, a former Lord Mayor of London and the founder of St John’s College, Oxford. In recognition of the sacrifice that White had made by leaving his fortune to the college, St John’s provided six scholarships for ‘founder’s kin’, those who could prove descent from his family. James and Henry benefited from these scholarships, both attending St John’s, which was incidentally also the alma mater of their father, the Rev George Austen. Their mother also had extensive connections at Oxford; her father was a former fellow of All Souls and had held a college living, and her uncle was Master of Balliol College for 50 years.
James Austen matriculated at Oxford in July 1779 aged just 14. Although there were no restrictions on age, this was still remarkably young. Even thirty years earlier his father had not matriculated until the age of 16, and by this time in the century the average age of a freshman was closer to 17. However, James was a studious boy, the scholar of the family, and no doubt he benefited from some intensive tutoring from the learned Mr Austen. Henry was older by the time he matriculated, first going up to Oxford in July 1788 aged 17. He had probably been hampered by the need to wait for a founder’s kin scholarship; there could only be six at the college at any one time, so he was obliged to wait until one of the present incumbents either graduated, left to marry or died.
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