36 free quilt blocks, one a week with a guide to Jane Austen's England and posts about the people in her life.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Block 14: Home Comfort for George Austen II

Block 14: 
Home Comfort for George Austen II by Bettina Havig

Phrenology was a Victorian fad, explaining personality by head bumps.
Understanding origins of retardation, autism or insanity was just as fanciful.

The Austen’s second son George, born in 1766, showed signs of a handicapping condition from a young age. He lived into his 70s so the unknown condition did not impair his physical health significantly but he was intellectually disabled. His father philosophized, “We have this comfort, he cannot be a bad or a wicked child.”

All the Austen babies of Jane's and George’s generation were handed over to women hired to nurse them, wean them and return them to the family in their second year. Patricia Ard’s analysis of George’s condition indicates he returned home but was boarded out again permanently when he was about 13 and his youngest sister Jane was four years old.

All Saints Church in Monk Sherborne. 

George’s Uncle Tom was a resident of the same home near the village of Monk Sherborne. Cassandra Leigh Austen’s brother Thomas Leigh had a similar vague but debilitating condition referred to as “imbecility”. The Cullum (Culham) family seems to have cared for disabled boarders in what we might call a sheltered living situation.

Monk Sherborne (pink star) was not far from Steventon

There is speculation that Reverend George Austen’s youngest sister also had a developmental disorder. His neice Eliza Hancock de Feullide’s son was certainly disabled. Hastings de Feullide died at 13 after years of concern. Both George and Hastings had “fits” so we can assume they had seizure disorders.

Home Comfort by Becky Brown

As a former Special Education teacher specializing in young children, I have seen enough causes of mental retardation to realize the folly in speculating on the nature of the conditions based on the family’s written accounts. Seizures can be the cause of retardation or a secondary effect of another genetic or accidental condition. Whether handicaps across Austen-Leigh generations were related or just unlucky coincidence remains unknown.

Bethlehem (Bedlam) Asylum in the 1740s

But accounts of George II and his cousin Hastings can tell us something about the treatment of people with special needs in Jane Austen’s England. The younger George rarely figures in family letters or memoirs. He boarded with the Cullums and if not forgotten, then was not discussed. The Austens had few options in the 1770’s. If they felt they could not care for him because of his behavior or the shame in his condition, they might have institutionalized him. We can imagine that, then as now, a small residential setting was a more humane option.

Home Comfort by Dustin Cecil

“Lunatic Asylum”

When I began teaching special education in the late 1960s, attitudes towards handicapped people were changing, but I often counseled parents to ignore the advice of doctors and relatives and keep their disabled children at home, where the community could provide them support in the form of a good education and a future adult living situation. A child would not, as parents were often told, be “better off with her own kind” but would thrive in her own family. Part of that counseling was assurance that we would help, not only with the child's behavior and education, but also with the social stigma of raising a different child.

A “Paralytic Woman” in a wheel chair, 1821,

frightening the passersby

Two hundred years earlier George and Cassandra Austen had no one to assure them they would not be shunned. Families with handicapped members faced ridicule and a drop in social status. Relatives were considered unmarriageable for the well-founded fear that insanity and retardation were hereditary. If one had a handicapped brother, uncle or cousin it was best to keep it quiet (Jane had all three).

Fashion Plate 1809

Eliza de Feullide, on the other hand, was rarely influenced by what others thought. She and her second husband Henry Austen raised Hastings at home. Eliza enthused about his progress, whether imaginary or not. She adored her only child (she’d had miscarriages) and if her family encouraged her to send the boy to board with the Cullums, she ignored the advice with confidence.

Home Comfort by Becky Brown

Austen biographer Dierdre Le Faye describes George Austen II as unable “to take his place in the family circle,” so the pattern Home Comfort can remind us of the family’s heartbreak.

BlockBase #1932

The nine-patch was given the name by Comfort magazine in the early 20th century.

Cutting a 12” Block

A - Cut 8 squares 3-3/8”. Cut each in half with a diagonal cut to make 2 triangles.

You need 16 triangles.

B – Cut 8 rectangles 3” x 2-1/2”.

C – Cut 1 square 2-1/2”.

D – Cut 4 squares 4”.


Read Patricia M. Ard's essay George Austen’s Absence from Family Life: The Shifting Biographical Response by clicking here:

And a summary of current speculation on etiology (causes) at the Austen Blog:


  1. Wherever you were working in special ed back in the day, it sounds like the families who worked with you were pretty lucky to have you.

  2. This has really gripped my heart as I read about the historical perspective on profoundly handicapped persons. My first born child was born with only half her brain developed as a result of a stroke during the 8th week of gestation. I felt very much alone in those days in the 1970's. We were advised to place her in a institution but chose to keep her at home with us until she was 5 years old and required nursing care until her death a few months later. To bring closure and healing to that era in my life, I wrote her story and am about to have it published now 35 years later. As a result of this experience, I came to know that God knew what was going on in my life, God chose me to be the mother of a special child and God had a plan for my life. Thank you Jesus.