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 first born. He was reportedly a quick scholar with an aptitude for the classics. At age 14, James matriculated at Oxford, where he remained for eleven years. James was known within his family and among his friends for his efforts in writing poetry. During Jane’s early years (1782-1788), the family produced a series of amateur theatricals, of which we have documented proof. James composed metrical prologues and epilogues for these “family” plays – likely modeling for the youthful Jane the thrill of having her family’s adulation for her writing efforts.
Although he was six years James’s junior, Henry joined James at Oxford in 1788. In 1789, the brothers began producing a weekly periodical, which contained a series of fashionable essays, called The Loiterer. In fact, James and his friends provided the majority of the essays; however, Henry became quite adept at the occasional piece of fiction, which was included in the weekly issued. He used “stock” characters and situations – those commonly found in the fiction of the day. They continued their efforts for 60 consecutive weeks – quite an undertaking for the time.
Some biographers even suggest that Jane wrote one of the letters published in The Loiterer, which 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.