Many of those around her influenced Jane Austen, but Henry’s and James’s influences were profound. Most of Austen’s biographers believe that Henry was Austen’s favorite brother and James her least favorite.
James Austen was the eldest of the Austen clan, a youth with a quick mind and a love of the classics. Matriculating to Oxford at age 14, James remained at the school for eleven years. James enjoyed writing poetry, and the Austen family encouraged him to do so. As entertainment, the Austen family often acted out ammeter theatricals. Reportedly, James composed metrical prologues and epilogues for these “family” plays. Many believe these efforts by the eldest Austen had a profound effect on one of the youngest, Jane.
Six years James’s junior, Henry joined James at Oxford in 1788, and in 1789, the brothers began producing a weekly periodical, called The Loiterer, which contained a series of fashionable essays. James and his friends provided the majority of the essays; however, Henry became quite adept at the occasional piece of fiction. Henry used “stock” characters and situations – those commonly found in the fiction of the day. The brothers continued their efforts for 60 consecutive weeks – quite an undertaking for the time.
Some biographers suggest that Jane Austen wrote one of the letters published in The Loiterer. The letter expressed an objection to the lack of a female perspective in the articles published in the weekly periodical. It was signed “Sophia Sentiment.” It is said that the issue containing the letter supposedly written by Jane Austen (issue 9) was the only one to be advertised for sale in North Hampshire, where the Austen’s lived. The other issues were for sale at Oxford and in London. In the Cambridge University Press collection of Austen’s Juvenilia, Peter Sabor suggests that the letter may have been inspired by Jane’s voice in her brothers’ ears rather than her actually writing the letter.
James’s poetry efforts dwindled as he settled into the life of a country clergyman. As the heir to his wealthy, childless uncle, James Leigh Perrot, James Austen’s future was solid. After leaving Oxford, James became Rector of Steventon (rather than his father’s curate at Deane). He married twice – the second marriage bringing him two children, but gave him a wife with whom he was generally thought to be disappointed. We have no records of James’s poetry from 1789 to 1805.
Henry is well known among Austen scholars as Jane’s “man of business,” acting as her agent in arranging the publication of Austen’s novels. He managed to convince Thomas Egerton, who coincidentally had published the Austen brothers’ efforts with The Loiterer, to take a chance on a piece of fiction. Egerton specialized in pieces of military history, so this was a different track for the publisher. In 1811, Egerton published Sense and Sensibility, by a Lady. Henry likely advanced the £180 upfront fees for printing and advertising for the novel.