Some of you may be familiar already with the Ancestry.com Jane Austen Family Tree created by Ronald Dunning. It is quite the amazing compilation of ancestors and descendants of “Dear Aunt Jane” – a resource for Austen fans and scholars alike the world over.
So we are happy to announce that Mr. Dunning has continued with his Austen genealogical work and his new and improved website is to be “unveiled” at the Jane Austen Society meeting tomorrow (21 July 2012) at the Chawton House Library [an article about the history of the website will appear in the next JAS Report] - details of the meeting are here:
The link to the new website is here:
where you will find new content, the complete transcribed text of the manuscript of Akin to Jane, and links to the original RootsWeb site noted above [see below for information on how best to access the data.]
Ron has been very kind to answer a few of my questions about how and why he took on this monumental research project, so hope you enjoy learning more about it – then you must take some time to search the database – it is great fun to poke around in when you might have an extra minute or two on any given day – you might even find that somewhere deep in the listings some of your very own relatives share a connection to Jane!
A hearty welcome to you Ron – with thanks for sharing with us the history of your website!
JAIV: What prompted you to get involved with this Austen family research project to begin with?
RD: I grew up in Toronto, a city, and a wonderful city it is, whose civilised history only goes back for two centuries. All of my grandparents were English, but the thought of having interesting ancestors would have seemed too ridiculous to entertain. My paternal grandmother was the sort who wrote regularly to every English member of her and my grandfather’s families, and was always nattering about their current situations. In 1972, aged 25, I left Toronto to find work as a classical musician, and the idea of going to England, where there would be a ready-made family, was deeply appealing. Just before my departure, my grandmother told me that we had some sort of connection with the Austens, though she didn’t know what.
We must have been almost the only branch of descendants who’d lost sight of it! I was pleased to be able to tell her, before she died, that Frank Austen [Jane's brother] was her great-great-grandfather. It was difficult to get much further back than that in the 1970s, so I gave up the search to get on with work, and to raise my own brace of descendants. In 1998 my wife bought a computer for our kids and, Luddite that I am, I grumbled and scowled in the background – till I thought that I might just see what it’s like.
I was soon drawn back to family history. The kids were old enough that they preferred neglect to parental attention, though we did meet occasionally to fight over whose turn it was to use the computer. At the time I thought that it would stand to reason that the Austen genealogy had been exhausted, so for the next five years I worked through the seven non-Austen great-grandparents’ lines, and just copied the charts in the backs of Jane Austen biographies.
When that was thoroughly exhausted I was addicted, and needed a fix! Simultaneously it became evident that the authors of the biographies had all copied the family charts from one another, and there was a lot further to go. In particular they mainly recorded the male lines, dishonouring the women. I’ve found that not just Cassandra Leigh but George Austen too had eminent ancestors, which means that their records go back, potentially, to the beginning of recorded history.
Now I have a lifetime’s supply of fixes, and in retirement, a full time job. Do not call it a hobby. And don’t say that I’m obsessed. Oh well, all right, perhaps I am. This study means a lot more to me than just a growing collection of names – it makes me feel organically connected, not just to the Austen family (and I don’t feel at all proprietorial about Jane) but to the whole of English history.
JAIV: Tell us something about Joan Corder and her manuscript, Akin to Jane – how and when and where did you first come upon it – what a find! – and why did she not publish her research?
RD: Joan Corder was born and lived through her life in the English county of Suffolk. She served as a young woman, during World War 2, in intelligence as a plotter, then moved back home to look after her widowed mother. She didn’t marry. Over the course of her life she became a distinguished herald and genealogist; Akin to Jane was her first big project.
It was to her enduring disappointment that she couldn’t interest a publisher – so only two copies of the manuscript were made. One was presented to the Jane Austen Society and can be seen at the Jane Austen’s House Museum at Chawton, where it has been, presumably, consulted by most if not all of Jane Austen’s later biographers.
With use, the manuscript has become increasingly fragile; people still visit the Museum to inspect it. My Austen cousin Patrick Stokes scanned the work to help preserve it for posterity, and it’s his scans that are displayed on the website. The museum curator is pleased that she can now refer interested parties to the web, and retire the original.
[Ron says on the website: “I would like to acknowledge and thank my Austen cousin, Patrick Stokes, who first brought the manuscript of Akin to Jane to my attention, and gave me a copy.”]
JAIV: What, of all the discoveries in your research, surprised you the most?
RD: So many discoveries! They constantly amaze, but no longer surprise. I’ve been making a list, and intend to write articles about them. Here is a sample and though many of them seem improbable, they are all true.
1. William IX, Duke of Aquitaine. William was a leader of the 1101 Crusade. He is best known today as the earliest troubadour – a vernacular lyric poet in the Occitan language – whose work has survived. Grandfather of Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Jane Austen’s 19th-great-grandfather.
2. Owain Glyndwr, Prince of Wales. Shakespeare’s Owen Glendower. Jane’s 13th-great-grandfather.
3. John King, Bishop of London, from 1611 (the year of the King James Bible) to 1621. John King ordained John Donne. Jane’s 4th-great-grandfather.
John King, Bishop of London (1611-1621)
4. Faith Coghill, the wife of Sir Christopher Wren. The 1st cousin once removed of George Austen.
5. Lizzie Throckmorton, the wife of Sir Walter Raleigh. A distant cousin of Cassandra Leigh.
[image from Peerage.com]
6. Katherine Leigh, the wife of Robert Catesby, the Gunpowder plotter, another distant cousin.
7. Both of Jane’s parents were descended from royalty. Cassandra was descended from John of Gaunt, the son of Edward III, so every previous English king, back to William the Conqueror, and some beyond, was her ancestor. For George we have to go back two generations further, to Edward I.
8. Some Scottish royalty – the real-life Duncan I of Scotland who was either murdered by his cousin, the real-life Macbeth, or killed in battle against him. Macbeth, as we know, succeeded him as King. Duncan was Jane’s 21st-great-grandfather.
9. By the way, we all know from Jane’s juvenilia that she “preferred” Mary Queen of Scots to Queen Elizabeth. Well – not only was she related to both, but in Jane Austen’s Sailor Brothers she is quoted favourably comparing her brother Frank with Queen Elizabeth.
JAIV: This is all wonderful! But I must ask, any real gossip – things hidden for generations?
RD: Ooh – I’d be banished from the family if I revealed any of those!
JAIV: Oh, but the story of Elizabeth and Herbert is quite an interesting one! All hidden from the family and worthy of a Victorian novel! – or at least akin to the writers of Victorian novels, as the lives of Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins can attest! [see below for the link!]
JAIV: Where do you go from here?
RD: I began the web project thinking that I would be producing a revision of Akin to Jane , but it eventually became obvious that the plan was unworkable. I want the reader to be drawn to my research, and not to think that Joan Corder’s work was the end of it. She managed to record a little over 300 of George and Cassandra Austen’s descendants, and gave ancestors no attention. My genealogical database contains more than 1200 descendants – that is, another 900 – and another ten thousand people, who include ancestors, collateral families, and families of social connections. The address of that, by the way, is
There is a link beneath each individual in Akin to Jane to that database, but in the long run I plan to organise things better. I’ll spend next winter learning the html to create a proper design (you won’t know it, but the current one is improper), and intend to do wondrous things with a sidebar. That will take care of technicalities. I have only just begun thinking beyond the current content, and have decided that I will add more original family history source material. I believe that one can jinx plans by talking about them too soon, so I’ll do that when I know that the material can be used.
JAIV: Is there a book in the works?
RD: I’m sorry. No book. Articles, yes. Though I’ve really enjoyed building the Jane Austen’s Family website, it has absorbed an immense amount of time – time taken away from research, my first love.
Thank you Ron for joining us here today! [well, really you are at the JAS meeting at the Chawton House Library, and I am here in Vermont, but we can pretend, can’t we?] - it has been delightful getting to know you via emails! and I very much appreciate you sharing all this with us. What a gift of research you have given the Jane Austen world…
Now Dear Readers, it is time for you to journey through these ancestry files, both those of Joan Corder’s Akin to Jane manuscript, now transcribed for all to see on the website, as well as the expanded genealogical research at the Ancestry.com site that Ron has lovingly put together over these past how many years?! Ron makes it clear that this is still a work in progress [isn’t everything?] and he will continue to make changes to the set-up and continuously add content. But it is best to just dive in and see all that is there – [as an aside, so please forgive the intrusion, I must say that I put in several of my family names (both my parents were born in England, so I knew there was a chance of some connection somewhere), and find that the mother of Sir Christopher Wren has my maiden name, and his wife, mentioned above [Faith Coghill] was a direct cousin to George Austen! – now I have some serious sleuthing to do to find the exact connection – but I have been quite annoying to friends and family these past few days since my discovery – and not sure in any given minute whether to sit down and write a Novel, or get out my drafting table and design a Cathedral – this genealogy stuff can be quite daunting!]
So back to the matter at hand – let’s head into the Austen genealogy: to begin, go first to the main page: where you will see these links:
1. Akin to Jane – Joan Corder’s original and transcribed manuscript – click on this and you will find these links:
- Jane Austen’s Family- Index of Names, and Lists: Corder’s notes on the Austen family, indexed by Austen family members, all surnames of the extended family – you will find links to:
1. Jane’s family and their descendants: George and Cassandra Austen; James Austen; George Austen; Edward Austen, later Knight; Henry Thomas Austen; Cassandra Elizabeth Austen; Francis William Austen; Jane Austen; and Charles John Austen
2. Index of people by surname: Austen Family; Austen-Leigh; Bradford, Hill and Hubback; Knatchbull; Knight; Lefroy and Purvis; and Rice
- Highlights page – oh! much here and much more to be added:
“There is good reason for the general reader to delve into this manuscript. One of Joan Corder’s informants, Miss Marcia Rice, who was 84 in 1954 when the work was written, was the granddaughter of Edward Knight’s daughter Elizabeth, and her husband Edward Royd Rice. Miss Rice wrote extensive memoirs of her family, which Joan Corder copied. Her recollections of her distant childhood were refracted through the most rosy of tinted spectacles; few could read those for her grandmother without needing the discreet use of a tissue. Here is a direct link to Elizabeth.
Please don’t stop with Elizabeth – Miss Rice didn’t. She left a wonderful record immortalising her entire Rice family, from aunts who could be quirky or intellectual, to uncles who could be courageous or reckless. For many of them there are links in the text to portraits. Be sure not to neglect reading Miss Rice’s personal memories, on page 115; and those following, on her great-aunt Marianne Knight.” –
- Heraldry – Eleven Coats of Arms: these are worthy of a website all their own!
- Joan Corder – author of Akin to Jane: information on the author of the original family tree.
- Author’s and Editor’s Notes: notes from both Corder and Dunning with explanations on how to use the Akin to Jane database and links to Dunning’s Roots Web database.
- Contact Me – Ronald Dunning: he would love to hear from you!
2. Recent Research – Ron’s explanation of his research that continues that of what is in Akin to Jane at the Jane Austen Family Tree website at RootsWeb:
3. Articles – there are three articles now, more to be added:
- “An Unconventional Love Match”
- “The Last Welsh Prince of Wales – Jane Austen’s Welsh Ancestry”
- “Latitude and Longitude”
Be sure to read all the extra links – these often explain the contents and how the database works; and do not miss all the illustrations that appear throughout the website:
Now the fun part: you really do need to explore – but I shall give you this start – the wonderful story noted on the “Highlights Page” above of Elizabeth Austen [later Knight], daughter of Jane Austen’s brother Edward, from her grand-daughter Marcia Alice Rice, as written for Joan Corder in 1953:
Image of Elizabeth Austen-Knight Rice and her husband Edward Royd Rice
and then this quite romantic tale that I mentioned above of another Elizabeth and her husband Herbert: Herbert was the last child of Fanny Catherine Austen Knight Knatchbull (Jane Austen’s favorite niece – quite the mouthful! – and later on they added Hugessen to the name!) - here we have a tale of a secret marriage, he and his wife Elizabeth living under an assumed name, Herbert never telling his mother, never telling his colleagues in Parliament, having many children – all right out of a Victorian novel! : you can find it here on the ancestry.com website:
and you can read Ron’s take on the story and his research here:
So just dig around – click on any link of interest – there are treasures to be discovered lurking behind those links! – whatever would Jane Austen make of all this do you think? – would she be absolutely appalled to discover she was related to Queen Elizabeth?? I now wonder after all if even I am related to Queen Elizabeth … and maybe you are too!
If you have any questions for Ron, please leave a comment here – he is happy to respond to any queries or suggestions…