Come and Visit Edward Cooper, Jane Austen’s Evangelical Cousin.
As part of this year’s theme of At Home with the Austens the museum has on show, very kindly on loan, a portrait of Jane Austen’s cousin, Edward Cooper.
The portrait is by T. Barber and was painted in 1819. It shows him posing by a copy of the Holy Bible and with some of his sermons in his hand. Edward Cooper was an Evangelical Anglican minister and a noted writer of sermons and hymns. He published many volumes of his sermons, although it would appear from the evidence of her letters that Jane Austen did not admire all of them. She wrote to Cassandra Austen, her sister on the 8th September 1816 after receiving a copy of his latest publication:
We do not much like Mr Cooper’s new sermons;- they are fuller of Regeneration & Conversion than ever-with the addition of his zeal in the cause of the Bible Society.
Edward Cooper was the son of the Reverend Dr. Edward Cooper and Jane Leigh, who was Jane Austen’s mother’s elder sister. He was born on the 1st July 1770, and was educated at Eton and Queen’s College, Oxford. He graduated in 1792 and became a Fellow of All Souls. He was ordained and became curate of Harpsden, near Henley in Oxfordshire. On the 14th March 1794 he married Caroline, the only daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Lybbe Powys of Oxfordshire. In 1798 Edward was offered the family living of Hamstall Ridware in Staffordshire by the Honourable Mary Leigh of Stoneleigh Abbey in Warwickshire. Jane Austen noted in her letter to her sister, Cassandra dated 21st January, 1799 that:
We collect from his letter that he means to reside there, in which he shows his wisdom. Staffordshire is a good way off; so we shall see nothing more of them till some fifteen years hence, the Miss Coopers are presented to us, fine, jolly, handsome, ignorant girls….
Indeed, it was seven years later, after visiting Stoneleigh Abbey in Warwickshire in the summer of 1806, that Jane Austen was finally able to travel northwards to visit Edward Cooper and his family in Staffordshire. This was the furthest point north she was ever documented to have travelled.
Unfortunately, his relationship was Jane Austen does not, from the evidence of her mentions of him in her letters, appear to have been entirely happy. One of his most awful offences in her eyes was his habit of writing what she obviously considered to be tactless letters of condolence. After the death of her sister-in-law, Elizabeth Knight in 1808, she wrote to Cassandra:
I have written to Edwd. Cooper & hope that he will not send one of his letter of cruel comfort to my poor Brother…
( Letter to Cassandra Austen dated 15th October 1808 )
Deirdre Le Faye has speculated, in the Jane Austen Society’s Report of 2008, that this habit may have inspired certain aspects of Mr Collins’ character in Pride and Prejudice, in particular the episode where he sends a stern letter to Mr Bennet upon the news of Lydia’s elopement with Wickham becoming known. Be that as it may, we do hope that you might care to come and visit him the next time you come to the museum.