This is the last of my series of blogs, Five things you might not know about Jane Austen.
Like most educated women of her time Jane Austen knew some French and Italian. But she knew another language, a far more unusual one. What was it?
She tells us in her own words, in 1808 she was living in Southampton and on December 27 she wrote to her sister, who was staying with their brother in Kent. In her long letter she mentions a visit they had made.
‘We spent Friday evening with our friends at the boarding-house, and our curiosity was gratified by the sight of their fellow-inmates, Mrs. Drew and Miss Hook, Mr. Wynne and Mr. Fitzhugh; the latter is brother to Mrs. Lance, and very much the gentleman. He has lived in that house more than twenty years, and, poor man! is so totally deaf that they say he could not hear a cannon, were it fired close to him; having no cannon at hand to make the experiment, I took it for granted, and talked to him a little with my fingers, which was funny enough. I recommended him to read “Corinna”.’
So there it is, Jane Austen could sign, she knew what was probably an early version of British Sign Language which had been developed in the late eighteenth century, and was already being taught to deaf people of all classes through several schools. The question then arises, how did she come to know sign language?
One possibility is that she learnt, as do many hearing people do today, to communicate with a relative. In her case her brother George, little is known about him. He was born in 1766, ten years before Jane, and like her and her other siblings, was placed with a wet-nurse in the village of Steventon immediately after birth. However he never returned to live with his family and the majority of references to him are concerned with his care. He was clearly mentally or physically disabled and the fact that Jane Austen could sign suggests that he was either deaf or couldn’t speak.
What is perhaps less surprising than Jane Austen holding a conversation in sign language, is that she takes the opportunity to suggest something to read!
Finally, if anyone doubts that sign language is a real language, British Sign Language was officially recognised as a minority language in 2003.