Jane Austen Biography
Jane Austen is widely considered one of the greatest British authors of all time. She has had her critics over the centuries, but they are few compared to the overwhelming acclaim for the remarkable nature of her literary art. Her brilliant, witty, elegantly crafted fiction is hailed as marking the evolution from 18th century neo-classic literature to 19th century romanticism. Yet, as illustrious as her work is generally agreed to be, her private life was far from extraordinary or glamorous.
She was born on December 16, 1775. Her father was Reverend George Austen, the Oxford-educated clergyman of a modest rectory in the village of Stevenson in Hampshire. Her mother was Cassandra Leigh Austen, apparently of a higher social rank than her husband, of minor gentry even. She embraced the simple domestic life of a clergyman’s wife while also mingling with the gentry class and teaching her children the propriety of the day. Her father also held numerous ties to fashionable society, the extended family network allowing the Austen children to learn of politics and culture beyond their immediate circle. Jane was one of eight children blessed to the Austen family, born in the following order: James, Edward, Henry, Cassandra, Francis, Jane, George, and Charles. By all accounts the siblings were close and her childhood was a happy one. They were largely educated at home by their father, who also tutored other children in the community, the Stevenson parsonage doubling as a private boarding school. Her father also tenant-farmed the family’s land, enjoying a fair financial security if far from rich. Jane was closest to her sister Cassandra, the only other Austen daughter. Together they would briefly attend boarding school, in 1785 in Reading, but received no other formal education, such an extravagance not considered necessary for women in those days. Nonetheless, she would be taught better than most ladies of the time by her father and the wealth of books he owned in his extensive library.
Note: The above drawing is of Stevenson rectory as drawn by Jane’s niece Anne; the one to the right is all that is left of where the rectory once stood, it razed in 1820, but you can see the countryside she so adored.
It is highly unlikely that her parents ever expected her to become a published author, careers for women not common, but they did encourage their children to express themselves. For amusement the Austen siblings would write and perform plays and charades. An adolescent Jane wrote a number of poems, short stories, family skits, jokes, verses, and other prose. These early scribblings dating from 1787 to 1793 are often referred to as her “juvenilia” and have survived in three manuscript notebooks later published as Volume the First, Volume the Second, and Volume the Third. In her late teens and early twenties, she began writing the preliminary novels that would earn her fame.
Very little in the way of clear details are known of her personal life. The bulk of her letters were either lost or destroyed after her death. Apparently she loved the country with long walks and her many friends. Dancing was an activity frequently enjoyed, but it seems that overall she led the quiet life of a clergyman’s daughter. Her brother George was reportedly mildly retarded, or the victim of some other unknown handicap, but little is known of him as the family never spoke publicly of him. Her romantic entanglements, although the stuff of speculation and movie productions, are largely a mystery. A Memoir of Jane Austen, written and published in 1869 by her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh is the closest we have to a legitimate biography, but the holes exist even in this family-generated reminiscence by second and third-generation ancestors. Bare facts must be separated from the wild suppositions!
The intellectual, creative environment of the Austen household in Stevenson was a very stable one until 1801 when Jane was 25 years old. Reverend Austen announced his retirement – leaving the rectory to his son James – and moved to Bath with his wife and two daughters. For four years, until her father’s death, Jane dwelt in Bath. She is said to have disliked the confines of town life, missing the country greatly. In 1805 Reverend Austen passed away, leaving a widow and two daughters with little inheritance who were then forced to rely on the charity of the Austen sons. For a short time they lived in Southampton with brother-Frank, a naval admiral, but moved frequently. There were occasional sojourns in London with her brother Henry, Jane apparently taken with the theatre, art exhibitions, and balls. However, money was a serious issue, a crisis that brought much unhappiness to this period of Jane’s life. Her writing all but ceased. Although vague, it seems that she did accept the marriage proposal of the wealthy Harris Bigg-Wither, only to renege on the agreement the very next day. There are also other contradictory stories of failed romantic relationships during this time, but the nature of her stories dealing with love provide evidence of some personal knowledge in the subject. It was clearly a topic, with all the accompanying social stigmas attached, that weighed heavily on her mind.
Whatever the case, it is agreed that when the ladies relocated to a cottage gifted by their brother Edward in 1809, life undertook a positive change. It was at the Chawton cottage in the Hampshire countryside (right) that Jane’s inspiration to write took hold again. For over seven years they would dwell here and she would revise her previously written works and create new ones. Her forays into the serious business of publishing her writings met with success as well during these years, but had in fact begun earlier. In 1797 her father sent a letter of enquiry to Thomas Cadell, a London publisher, regarding First Impressions, (later to be Pride and Prejudice) but the letter was returned unopened and declined. In 1803 Henry submitted Susan (later to become Northanger Abbey) to London publisher Benjamin Crosby, who did buy the copyright but then never fulfilled his promise to print it. Henry continued to act as her literary agent, approaching another London publisher, Thomas Egerton, with the manuscript of Sense and Sensibility in 1811. It became her first published novel, released in October, 1811 to favorable reviews and financial success. So much so that Mr. Egerton next published Pride and Prejudice in 1813, putting more time and money into the marketing. It paid off, the novel an instant success with both critics and the public. This time he was rapid in haste, publishing Mansfield Park the next year. It was not as favored by the reviewers, but the readers snapped it up in droves. In fact, Mansfield Park would become her best selling work at that time.
In an effort to increase her potential, Jane left Egerton for a more well-known publisher, John Murray. Emma was released in 1816. Through it all Jane continued to write while living her quiet life at Chawton. All of her novels were published without her name attached – only noted as “By a Lady” – and although many knew she was the author, including the Prince Regent himself who was an enormous fan and had Emma dedicated to him, she primarily kept her anonymity. Tragically the modest financial gains from book sales would be negated when Henry’s banking ventures failed that same year. The fortunes of all the Austens were affected, a true financial crisis ensuing. Additionally, Jane was afflicted with what is now suspected to be Addison’s disease. Despite their combined troubles, Jane did complete Persuasion as well as beginning a new work that was never finished. Henry also managed to finally buy back the copyright of Susan from Benjamin Crosby.
Jane Austen died in her sister Cassandra’s arms on July 18, 1817 at the age of 41. She is buried in Winchester Cathedral. Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were published posthumously in December of 1817 with a ‘biographical notice’ written by Henry identifying Jane Austen as the author of all her books. Never have any of Jane Austen’s novels been out of print since her death.
She never wrote a memoir or sat for an interview or recorded her personal musings on life and romance. Shades of the person and her beliefs can perhaps be gleaned from her work, but even there are mysteries. Her heroines were all strong, intelligent, and witty, and they came from very different backgrounds and circumstances. Yet all sought true love and happiness in an era when women were vulnerable with marriage the sole option in most cases. Ironically Jane never found true love, or chose to deny it, and perhaps this is to our benefit. Naturally her novels are filled with social commentary, history, morality, ethics, and far more than sheer romance. Nonetheless, there can be no doubt that themes of relationship, both familial and marital, were important to her. She has left her legions of readers down through the centuries with the fanciful notion of enduring love amid the realities and hardships of life.
Thank you Jane.