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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, August 15, 2014

Old Uncle Francis Austen’s Fairy Godmother

In this further post about Henry Austen’s letter to JEAL that appears at the end of Chapter 1 of RAAL’s Austen Papers, I want to unpack some hidden (or at least, little noticed) significant history of the life of Old Uncle Francis Austen, who, as I’ve said, became the de facto patriarch whose largesse provided great benefits to JA’s branch of the Austen family.

“There (at Sevenoaks) my Father’s Uncle, old Francis Austen set out in life with £800 and a bundle of pens, as Attorney, & contrived to amass a very large fortune, living most hospitably, and yet buying up all the valuable land round the Town --marrying two wealthy wives & persuading the Godmother of his eldest son, Motley Austen, to leave to her said Godson a small legacy of £100,000 — He was a kind uncle too, for he bought the presentations of Ashe & Deane, that your Grandfather might have which ever fell vacant first — it chanced to be Deane. He left your Grandfather a legacy of £500, though at that time he had 3 sons married & at least a dozen grandchildren.”

First, please notice and admire RAAL’s inobtrusive but skillful biographical contextualizing. Chapter 1 up till Henry’s letter was all about the amazing testimony to indefatigable maternal determination and courage left behind by Elizabeth Weller Austen, JA’s paternal great grand mother, and mother of Francis Austen. So the segue is quite natural and seamless from her story to Henry Austen’s summary of the greatest fruition of Elizabeth’s dogged determination, which was the astonishing success achieved by her second son, Francis. Apparently she was able to send Francis out into the world “with L800 and a bundle of pens” and a legal education, and he then parlayed those assets into a huge fortune over the remaining 7 decades of his extremely long life (curiously almost the same nonagenarian lifespan as was enjoyed by his greatnephew Admiral Francis Austen) and paid it all forward, too.

My attention was caught initially by the huge incongruity of the three sums mentioned in rapid succession in the above passage, and my sense that Henry Austen was hinting that everything was not quite kosher about the way that Francis Austen amassed fortunes for himself and his son/namesake.  Let’s see if you agree.

First, we hear that Francis started out with 800 pounds--a relatively modest sum in hand starting out in life as a young lawyer. As you’ll recall, Francis , all his younger siblings, and his widowed mother Elizabeth Weller found themselves basically out in the cold, inheritance speaking, as Francis’s elder brother John Austen V received practically all of the large estate of their grandfather John Austen III.  Of course, we got NONE of that crucial background in JEAL’s Memoir, but the reason, I already pointed out, clearly was JEAL ran like hell far away from any suggestions in Austen family history of the two Austen family disinheritance injustices that JA covertly alluded to in S&S Chapters 1&2.

Anyway, second, we hear that somehow old Francis “contrived to amass a very large fortune” which allowed him to buy “up all the valuable land round the town”. Well, you might well wonder how exactly did Francis contrive to pull off this extraordinary financial coup?  The answer, I believe, lies in what I first learned about Francis earlier in 2014, which I blogged about here. It’s a key fact you hear about from precious few Austen biographers—Francis somehow became the attorney for a number of heavy hitting aristocrats in Kent, most of all the 3rd Duke of Dorset, the notorious John Sackville, who I first identified six months ago as a major (and negative) historical source for characters in various of JA’s novels:  
Here’s the most relevant part of that post of mine from March, 2014: 

“…As Pat Rogers noted, the Duke of Dorset was intimately involved during his entire lifetime with Jane Austen’s great uncle, Francis Austen, and also with his son, Francis-Motley Austen, both attorneys and local men of substance.  They were lifetime residents of Sevenoaks, and in many ways the role that both Francis and his son played for the Sackvilles of Knole seems to have been uncannily similar to the role played in the backstory of P&P by the senior Mr. Wickham who was steward to Mr. Darcy’s father at Pemberley.
Again, as with the Duke of Dorset as Darcy (and I just noticed the names Dorset and Darcy even sound alike!) make of it what you will, my point is that knowing this close personal connection between Jane Austen and the Duke of Dorset only makes all the allusions to him in the novels that much more likely, but also that much more subversive, as surely many members of Jane Austen’s family would not have been too thrilled to know that Jane Austen was skewering the greatest patron of her great uncle in not one but several of her novels! Now you begin to understand why Jane Austen would have concealed these subtexts as she did!”

So, it seems to me that Francis was one of those attorneys who managed to use his legal practice to earn more than legal fees-he was clearly a man of  some personal charisma, able to woo and win rich wives, able to maneuver himself into longstanding representation of very rich, influential clients. Old Uncle Francis had to have been a very very savvy, adept player, a man who in some ways reminds me of Lucy Steele, who uses her wits and fearless chutzpah to opportunistically maneuver herself to the top of the Ferrars family. I seriously doubt that old Uncle Francis got to where he got, by being a straight arrow and totally ethical practitioner of the law.

Now when I wrote the above about Francis and his boss the Duke of Dorset, I had not read Henry’s letter, and so it was news to me that one of old Francis Austen’s greatest financial scores came when he persuaded the (apparently) very wealthy Lady Falkland to leave 100,000 pounds-worth of property to her godson Francis Motley! I became curious to know the circumstances of that bequest, indeed, of how that great lady came to be named godmother to the second son of a lawyer—was that a common occurrence in the middle of the 18th century?  I’d guess not.

Lady Falkland, born Sarah Inwen, married, firstly, Henry Howard, 10th Earl of Suffolk; then married, secondly, Lucius Charles Cary, 7th Viscount Falkland in 1752. She died in 1776. So, her first husband died in 1745, she remarried in 1752, and her godson, Francis Motley Austen, was born in 1747, his mother having apparently died in childbirth.  

Google led me to a transcription of Lady Falkland’s Will—and here is the relevant verbiage, setting forth the disposition of her residuary estate after payment of some pecuniary bequests:

“After my debts and the said legacies are paid, all other my lands in the counties of Essex, Kent, Middlesex, Bedford, Cambridge, Lincoln, or elsewhere, and all my real and personal property, IN TRUST FOR MY SAID HUSBAND Viscount Falkland FOR LIFE, AND THEN to sell and pay thereout: [various additional pecuniary bequests totaling about 25,000 pounds, plus]  Sackville Austen, second son of said Francis Austen, 500L; John Austen, youngest son of said Francis Austen, 500L… RESIDUE TO FRANCIS MOTLEY AUSTEN, esq. absolutely. My executors to be said Lord Falkland, Francis Austen,  Esq. of Sevenoaks, Francis Motley Austen, esq. of Wilmington, co. Kent, and William Hucks, Esq. the son of Thomas Hucks, Esq….Proved 22 June, 1776, by Francis Austen, esq. and William Hucks, esq. two of the executors, power reserved to .Francis Motley Austen, esq. and Lord Viscount Falkland, the others, the said Lord Viscount Falkland consenting.”

Given that Lady Falkland wound up leaving the lion’s share of her estate to Francis Motley Austen, I have to wonder about the relationship in 1747 between the widow of an earl and her attorney, such that she would agree to be godmother to his son, and then, nearly 30 years later, treat that godson as if she had been her only child. Makes me wonder whether Francis Motley was her (biological) child, conceived and born while she was in between aristocratic husbands!

I get the feeling that this is exactly what Henry Austen is hinting at….and I also hear  irony in Henry Austen reciting, right after he has told the tale of Francis Motley Austen’s fairy godmother leaving him a “small”  amount of 100,000 pounds, the following:

“He was a kind uncle too, for he bought the presentations of Ashe & Deane, that your Grandfather might have which ever fell vacant first — it chanced to be Deane. He left your Grandfather a legacy of £500, though at that time he had 3 sons married & at least a dozen grandchildren.”

Given that old Francis Austen died a very rich man, and left a son who was also a very rich man,  I am not sure how generous a legacy of 500L was for a nephew, Revd. Austen, with eight children and not a large income. Was Henry hinting that old Francis could have done better by Henry’s dad?

And my final question is, why is it that I am the first Austen scholar to even talk about any of this?

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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