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Saturday, November 6, 2010

Jane Austen and The Oxford Connection

During my trip to the UK, I stayed with my brother in Oxford. Through family connections, Oxford was also a place familiar to Jane Austen in many ways.

Jane Austen’s father and two of her brothers, James and Henry, studied at Oxford. Her father, and later James, became Fellows of St John’s College.

Jane’s maternal grandfather, Thomas Leigh, was a Fellow at All Souls College (below).

Thomas Leigh’s brother, Theophilus, was President of Balliol College (below) in the early 18th Century.

                                                           From the Balliol College website:

In the spring of 1783, when Jane was just seven and Cassandra was ten, the sisters were sent to a boarding institution in Oxford. Being so young, Jane was probably sent there as a companion to Cassandra. At the time, Theophilus Leigh was President at Balliol and James was resident at St John’s, and could chaperone the girls.  The sisters were tutored in Oxford by a Mrs Ann Cawley, who was the widow of the former Principal of Brasenose College. Mrs Cawley was in the family – her brother, Dr Cooper, was married to Jane’s Aunt. Jane Cooper, Jane’s cousin, accompanied the sisters to Oxford.  


Oxford appears to have been a gloomy place for young Jane to stay in. Mrs Cawley is said to have been “stiff and solemn” in her approach, imposing petty rules and regulations on the girls. James took the girls sightseeing through “dismal chapels, dusty libraries, and greasy halls than Jane at least could bare to remember” . Later, Jane described the experience, saying “it gave me the vapours for 2 days afterwards”. Luckily the girls were soon moved to another boarding school, which is another story altogether…

Oxford certainly influenced Jane in many ways, indirectly if not directly. With limited formal education, Jane learnt literature from her father and poetry from James, both Oxford scholars. As suggested by Issawi, her vivid style of writing may have been influenced by The Loiterer, the weekly periodical edited by James and Henry between 1789-90, while they were at Oxford.


What is interesting is that many of Jane’s prominent male characters,  all clergymen, went to Oxford: Edmund Bertram, Henry Tilney, James Morland and Edward Ferrars. These are all respectable characters with strong moral values.

In Sense and Sensibility (Chapter 19), Edward describes his unfashionable choice of profession, saying “I was… entered at Oxford and have been properly idle ever since."

In Mansfield Park (Chapter 28), “Fanny proceeded in her journey safely and cheerfully, and as expeditiosly as could rationally be hoped in the dirty month of February. They entered Oxford, but she could take only a hasty glimpse of Edmund's college as they passed along”. Fanny, of course, admired Edmund for his choice of profession and was excited to see where he studied to become a clergyman.


Oxford must have left an impression on Jane, as in 1816, Jane wrote to her nephew Edward, persuading him to go to Oxford. “You must go to Oxford…a little change of scene may be good for you”, she wrote.

I can only conclude that you must go to Oxford, if you wish to know Jane Austen better!

Austen-Leigh, J. E. (2002). A Memoir of Jane Austen and Other Family Recollections. Oxford World Classics.
De La Faye/Austen-Leigh, W. (2004) Jane Austen - A Family record. CUP. 
Issawi, C. (1983). Jane Austen, Oxford and Cambridge: Pride and Prejudice. Persuasions. Jane Austen Society of North America.


  1. I am mad for Mansfield Park, largely because reading about Edmund was like reading about my own son, who, as it happens, currently is attending seminary. Their personalities are so similar {Which is also a reason for my argument with the current notion that Fannie and Edmund are unrealistically or impossibly portrayed. I know that to be untrue, and entirely possible.} As an undergraduate my son spent a 'semester abroad', as they called it, studying Church History at Oxford . . . We visited. {Yes, maybe I am bragging.} :) I referred to our trip my Jane Austen Pilgrimage. You have filled in a lot of blanks for me, {that I didn't even know were there} and made my trip even more wonderful . . . I wouldn't have thought that was possible! Thank you!

  2. Oxford is lovely, Anna and full of stories real and imagined.From Chaucer to Phillip Pullman, authors have found grist for their ideas. The first college is over a thousand years old.

    Is your brother a student at Oxford or does he work there?

    All the best,

  3. @Debbi: How interesting to read about your son. Only goes to show how timeless Jane Austen's characters can be.
    Must have been lovely to study at Oxford!

    @Tony: My brother works in Oxford but has also applied to study there... keeping fingers crossed for him ;-) Such a lovely place to stay.

  4. Thank you for this lovely tribute to the Austen family connections to Oxford. Your pictures are wonderful. I have not had the pleasure of visiting Oxford, but after Chawton, it is top on my list. It is such beautiful city.

  5. Thank you for your comment, Laurel Ann! You should definitely visit Oxford! A lovely city for plenty of history.


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