Deborah Yaffe

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Six degrees of Austen

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 1 2016 01:00PM

For years, movie buffs have entertained themselves with a game called Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon: Start with Movie Actor #1, name a movie s/he’s appeared in with Movie Actor #2, and keep going until you find someone who’s appeared in a movie with the busy Mr. Bacon. Special prizes for connecting him to the least likely people in the fewest number of steps. (Play online at The Oracle of Bacon.)


Now you can play a version of this game with Jane Austen’s genealogy – or so I recently discovered when I stumbled across a fascinating web site called Kindred Britain, launched nearly three years ago by a Stanford University English professor. (How did I not hear of this project when it first went live? Beats me, but the internet is a big place.)


Kindred Britain is a database of nearly thirty thousand people living between the fifth and twenty-first centuries. They’re all connected via genealogical ties – sometimes close, sometimes tenuous and far-flung. The site applies modern networking theory to family trees, creating “a vision of the nation’s history as a giant family affair."


Although many famous Britons aren’t here – I searched in vain for Charlotte Bronte and Thomas Hardy – lots of others are, including many members of the Austen clan. (The selection process “involved as much sensibility as rigor,” the developers explain. For a truly comprehensive account of Austen's family tree, there's Ronald Dunning's invaluable Jane Austen's Family site.) Even in this subjective and incomplete form, Kindred Britain’s software allows you to play a strangely addictive version of the Bacon game, pairing Jane Austen with any name you like and watching as the kinship trail is laid.


I suppose it’s not that surprising to discover Austen just nine steps away from William Wordsworth, thirteen from Lord Byron or fifteen from Charles Darwin – in all cases, connected through her oldest brother, James Austen, whose first wife came from a prominent family and whose oldest daughter married into another one.


But seventeen steps from Rupert Murdoch? That one I didn’t see coming. (James, again, is the initial link in the chain: his first wife’s family eventually connects him to the first wife of Rupert Murdoch’s daughter’s ex-husband, who also happens to be a descendant of Sigmund Freud. And the first wife is now married to Princess Diana’s brother! Don’t you love this stuff?)


Incidentally, Kevin Bacon himself is in the Kindred Britain database (his wife, the actress Kyra Sedgwick, has some British ancestors. And did you know she was descended from the Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet? Just saying.). Turns out that, via the Sedgwick association, Kevin Bacon is connected to Jane Austen, too -- by twenty-five steps. Not quite as closely as Rupert Murdoch is, but still a lot more closely than I would have expected. It really is all relative.


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