Many of those around her influenced Jane Austen, but Henry Austen’s and James Austen’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 amateur 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.
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.
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.
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.
Despite these particular influences on Jane Austen, her brothers exercised other effects upon her career. One of those was their involvement in student periodicals. In the late 1700s several examples of student journalism sprang up. Eton College had its Microcosmopolitan, Westminster School had The Flagellant, St. Mary Magdalen College had Olla Podrida, St. John’s College had the Loiterer, etc. Three of these efforts were later collected into volumes: Microcosmopolitan, Olla Podrida, and the Loiterer (which was edited by James Austen). These periodicals covered a wide variety of topics: manners, drinking, epitaphs, superstition, fashion, entertainment, etc. Some serious topics appeared as well. There were pieces on Parliament, the war, education, religion, poetry, fiction, etc.
Literary criticism was a staple of these periodicals. One often finds criticism of the novel as a literary form. There were serious discussions regarding the change in style = movement from the epistolary novel – the rise of sentimental fiction – the use of irony and satire. These young journalists were well read men. James Austen, for example, took offense at the predominance of sentimental fiction in the circulating libraries of the time. Henry Austen spoke out against the French influence upon the genre. “What I here allude to, Sir, is that excess of sentiment and susceptibility, which the works of the great Rousseau chiefly introduced, which every subsequent Novel has since foster’d and which the voluptuous manners of the present age but too eagerly embrace.” (The Loiterer, No. 47)
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 (2006, pages 356-362) suggests that the letter may have been inspired by Jane’s voice in her brothers’ ears rather than her actually writing the letter. The letter turns sentimental fiction upon its head. “Sophia Sentiment” encourages the editor (James Austen) to publish more sentimental fiction.
“Let us hear no more of your Oxford Journals, your Homelys and Cockney: but send them about their business, and get a new set of correspondents, from among the young of both sexes, but particularly ours; and let us see some nice affecting stories, relating the misfortunes of two lovers, who died suddenly, just as they were going to church. Let the lover be killed in a duel, or lost at sea, or you may make him shoot himself, just as you please, and as for his mistress, she will of course go mad; or if you will, you may kill the lady, and let the lover run mad; only remember, whatever you do, that your hero and heroine must possess a great deal of feeling, and have very pretty names.” (The Loiterer, No. 9)
Ironically, in Henry evaluation of sentimental fiction he writes a tongue-in-cheek response: Let her avoid love and friendship as she wishes to be admired and distinguished. (The Loiterer, No. 27) Li-Ping Geng says in Persuasions, No. 31 (pages 167-168), “Sophia (meaning “wisdom” in Greek) is a pretty name but also an ironic one. Further, it si the name given to a protagonist, in Jane Austen’s “Love and Freindship,” who is “all Sensibility and Feeling,” a heroine who is recognized as “most truly worthy of the Name” by the equally sentimental Laura, herself possessed of “[a] sensibility too tremblingly alive.
“The spirited playfulness and the cheeky style, consistent with what we see in Juvenilia, seem to exclude James from the authorship. The letter’s somewhat crude irony resembles very much that seen in Henry Austen’s satirical contributions, but the charming temperament and feminine tone seem to point to the hand of Jane, who was more than capable of it at the precocious age of thirteen and who was at the time actively engaged elsewhere in mocking the rampant literary bias.”