By Brenda S. Cox
“I like first Cousins to be first Cousins, & interested about each other.”—Jane Austen, letter to Anna Lefroy, Nov. 29, 1814
Austen’s First Cousins
Jane Austen was closely connected to her three first cousins: Eliza, Edward, and Jane. (She had additional cousins from her father’s half-brother, William Hampson Walter, though she doesn’t seem to have been as close to them.)
Eliza: Her father’s sister Philadelphia had one daughter, lively Eliza Hancock de Feuillide. Eliza, whose first husband was guillotined in the French Revolution, later married Jane’s brother Henry.
Jane: Jane’s mother’s sister (also named Jane) married a clergyman, the Reverend Dr. Edward Cooper. They had two children, Edward and another Jane. That Jane, Jane Leigh Cooper, went away to school for a time with Jane and Cassandra Austen. Her letter home from Southampton told their parents that the girls were seriously ill with typhus. Mrs. Austen and Mrs. Cooper came and took them home. The girls all survived, but, sadly, Mrs. Cooper caught the illness and died. Jane and Edward Cooper spent a lot of time with the Austen family. Jane was even married at Steventon, to a naval captain, Captain Williams, who was later knighted. Charles Austen served under him in the Navy. Tragically, Jane Cooper, by then called Lady Williams, died in a carriage accident in 1798.
Edward: Edward Cooper, Jane Cooper’s brother, became a clergyman like his father. He is mentioned frequently in Jane Austen’s letters. In her first two existing letters (Jan. 9 and 14, 1796), she talks about his visit to Steventon with his young son and daughter.
Edward Cooper, Clergyman
Many of Jane Austen’s friends and relatives were clergymen (estimated at over a hundred, including of course her father and two of her brothers). She held strong opinions on church livings. When Edward got his living, she wrote (Jan. 21, 1799):
Yesterday came a letter to my mother from Edward Cooper to announce, not the birth of a child, but of a living; for Mrs. Leigh [a relative, the Hon. Mary Leigh, of Stoneleigh] has begged his acceptance of the Rectory of Hamstall-Ridware in Staffordshire, vacant by Mr. Johnson’s death. We collect from his letter that he means to reside there, in which he shows his wisdom.
Staffordshire is a good way off [about 140 miles]; so we shall see nothing more of them till, some fifteen years hence, the Miss Coopers are presented to us, fine, jolly, handsome, ignorant girls. The living is valued at £140 a year, but perhaps it may be improvable. How will they be able to convey the furniture of the dressing-room so far in safety?
Our first cousins seem all dropping off very fast. One is incorporated into the family [Eliza de Feuillide], another dies [Jane Cooper, Lady Williams], and a third [Edward Cooper] goes into Staffordshire.
Jane commented that Edward intended “to reside” at his living, which showed “his wisdom.” At this time, many clergy hired curates to serve their livings rather than residing in them and doing the work themselves. In Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas Bertram makes a strong statement about residing at one’s living:
“A parish has wants and claims which can be known only by a clergyman constantly resident, and which no proxy can be capable of satisfying to the same extent. Edmund might, in the common phrase, do the duty of Thornton, that is, he might read prayers and preach, without giving up Mansfield Park: he might ride over every Sunday, to a house nominally inhabited, and go through divine service; he might be the clergyman of Thornton Lacey every seventh day, for three or four hours, if that would content him. But it will not. He knows that human nature needs more lessons than a weekly sermon can convey; and that if he does not live among his parishioners, and prove himself, by constant attention, their well-wisher and friend, he does very little either for their good or his own.”–Mansfield Park, ch. 25
Austen also mentioned that Edward might be able to “improve” his living. That means he might increase his income by negotiating for higher tithe payments from the farmers or leasing extra farmland, as Austen’s father did. Edward Ferrars’s living in Sense and Sensibility is also “capable of improvement” (ch. 39). Cooper added to his income later by becoming rector of nearby Yoxall (much like George Austen, who served two adjacent parishes).
In 1801 Austen said Edward wrote to her after his wife Caroline had a baby.
I have heard twice from Edward on the occasion, & his letters have each been exactly what they ought to be–chearful & amusing.–He dares not write otherwise to me, but perhaps he might be obliged to purge himself from the guilt of writing Nonsense by filling his shoes with whole pease for a week afterwards.–Mrs. G. [Mrs. Girle, Caroline Cooper’s grandmother] has left him £100–his Wife and son £500 each. (Jan. 21, 1801)
It appears that while Jane thought of Edward as too serious, he was willing to write “Nonsense” to her.
Later that month, Edward invited the Austens to come visit his family at the parsonage in Hamstall Ridware. However, Jane says, “at present we greatly prefer the sea to all our relations” (Jan. 25, 1801). Her family had already visited Edward in 1799, when he was a curate at Harpsden. The Austens did visit the Coopers at Hamstall Ridware for five weeks in the summer of 1806, after going to Stoneleigh Abbey.
Jane seemed to have trouble keeping track of Edward’s children. Some of them died quite young. In 1811 she wrote, “It was a mistake of mine, my dear Cassandra, to talk of a tenth child at Hamstall. I had forgot there were but eight already” (May 29).
In 1808, when Jane’s sister-in-law, Elizabeth Knight, died, Jane wrote, “I have written to Edward Cooper, & hope he will not send one of his Letters of cruel comfort to my poor Brother” (Oct. 15). We don’t know what sort of “cruel comfort” Edward had written in the past. The one still-existing letter from Edward to Jane was written in 1817 and sounds heartfelt and kind. His friend and neighbor John Gisborne wrote that Edward was a great comfort to him in his son’s final illness. But perhaps Edward had taken the opportunity to preach some of his Evangelical ideas in a letter, and Jane and her family did not agree.
Edward Cooper believed and preached an Evangelical interpretation of the Bible. Many of his sermons were published in books, which were reprinted and read for many years, in a long series of editions. So even if Jane did not like them much, others did!
Next month we’ll look at what Edward’s Evangelical ideas were, what Jane Austen thought of his sermons, and why.
Do you make a deliberate effort to keep in touch with your first cousins, as Jane Austen did? How do you deal with it if you have disagreements with them? Is forgiveness an important part of your family relationships?
Brenda S. Cox has written a book called Fashionable Goodness: Faith in Jane Austen’s England, which she hopes will be available by the end of this year.
This post also appears in Jane Austen’s World.
For Further Reading
“Visiting Edward Cooper,” Gaye King, Persuasions 1987
“Hamstall Ridware: A Neglected Austen Setting,” Donald Greene, Persuasions 1985 (Includes a photo of the rectory where Jane and her family visited Edward and his family)
“Come and Visit Edward Cooper, Jane Austen’s Evangelical Cousin,” Jane Austen House Museum blog, Sept. 17, 2012 (includes Edward Cooper’s portrait)
Edward Cooper’s letter to Jane April 6, 1817 (article also includes commentary on the letter)
“Jane Austen in the Midlands,” scroll down for a section on Cooper.
If you want to read now about Edward’s sermons, see:
“Jane Austen and the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge,” Jocelyn Harris, Persuasions 34: 134-139.
“’Too Much Zeal for the Bible Society’: Jane Austen, Her Family, and the Religious Quarrels of Her Time,” Irene Collins, Jane Austen Society Reports, Collected Reports Vol. 6 (2001-2005): 21-38. This article explains the rivalry and cooperation between the Bible Society and the S.P.C.K. in Austen’s community, and Jane’s theological differences with her cousin Edward Cooper.
Deirdre Le Faye, Jane Austen: A Family Record, 2nd ed.
Deirdre Le Faye, ed., Jane Austen’s Letters, 4th ed.
Laura Dabundo, Jane Austen: A Companion
Irene Collins, “Displeasing Pictures of Clergymen,” Persuasions 18 (1996): 110. Collins says Austen’s correspondence refers to at least 90 clergymen, and her biographers could add many more.
Irene Collins, Jane Austen and the Clergy
John Gisborne and his daughter E. N. A., Brief Memoir of the Life of John Gisborne, Esq., to which are added, Extracts from his Diary (London: Whittaker, 1852), 114-115, 128, 227.