From the age of 11 Jane’s only formal education was acquired from the books in her father’s extensive library, and in conversation with her parents, brothers, and, in term time, the boarders. We know that she read widely from Shakespeare, Swift, Richardson, Fielding, Cowper, Crabbe, Burney, Dr Johnson and others. Her parents, both rational and logical people, trained their children to spot logical and emotional inconsistencies in their reading and their daily life.
Jane wrote her early pieces for the amusement of family and friends, and she put in shared jokes and allusions to real events in their lives. I love to imagine the evening circle with Jane reading out her imaginative and outrageous stories to an amused audience. How many people are lucky enough to have a university-educated father of the calibre of George Austen to guide their reading and efforts at writing!
That Christmas of 1786, the 11 year old Jane was re-united with cousin Betsy, another important influence in her life, and her informal education. Betsy was now transformed into the beautiful, elegant 25 year old Countess Eliza De Feuillide, whose husband was still in France. The Austen’s had borrowed a piano for her and she played for them every day. The whole family were captivated by Eliza, especially 15 year old Henry, tall and good-looking. Watching Henry and Eliza flirting made Jane aware of sexual attraction.
The next summer Eliza came again and their play in the barn featured two brothers vying for the part of the hero opposite Eliza; a covert romance going on under the guise of acting; young cousins pulled in to make up the parts; and another cousin pressured to play a part but refusing to do so. Sounds familiar? The family found it amusing to watch two young men making fools of themselves over their married cousin. Afterwards Jane wrote ‘Henry and Eliza’ in which a scene echoes their play. It was more than 20 years later that she wrote about the theatricals in Mansfield Park.