Jane Austen

(1775 - 1817)

"One doesn't read Jane Austen; one re-reads Jane Austen"

William F. Buckley, Jr

Early Years

Jane Austen was born on 16 December 1775 in the village of Steventon, Hampshire. She was one of the eight children of a clergyman, Reverend George Austen and his wife Cassandra. Austen grew up in a close-knit family, she was particularly close to her elder brother Henry, who would be instrumental in bringing the first of Jane Austen’s books to print. Whilst the family socialised with prominent middle-class families they were by no means well off - her father often took teaching roles in the local community to raise extra funds and even took up farming in his spare time to feed the growing family.

As was the family tradition, both Austen and her sister Cassandra were sent away from home when Austen was eight to be educated in Oxford at the school of Mrs Ann Cawley. Her formal education was not a success; Austen and her sister contracted Typhus (of which Austen nearly died) and in 1786 they both returned home as the family could no longer afford the fees. The remainder of Austen’s education took place at home. In fact she lived with her immediate family for the rest of her life.

Enjoying a close relationship with her father, Austen made full use of his extensive library, developing a life-long love of literature. She began to write as a teenager – initially poems and plays for her family's amusement, but later novels. Austen called her early work her Juvenilia and it shows a highly developed literary mind – her History of England, a parody of historical novels of the age, reveals an anarchic sense of humour. Whilst her epistolary novel Love and Freindship [sic], completed when she was only 11, is seen by literary scholars today as a classic pastiche of the hyperbolic romantic novels of the 18th century.

Love and Friendship

In her late teens and early twenties, Austen enjoyed a sociable and respectable life, visiting neighbours and attending country dances (she was noted to be an excellent dancer). In 1795 she met Tom Lefroy, the nephew of a neighbour. The two became close friends and spent a great deal of time together during his visits. In her letters to Cassandra, Austen admitted that they had fallen in love. Lefroy’s family disapproved of the relationship as they thought it would interfere with his studies to become a barrister. Austen’s family had nothing to offer the young man and his family in the form of a dowry, and as a result Lefroy was sent away and was prevented from seeing Austen ever again. He eventually completed his studies, becoming a renowned MP and the Lord Chief Justice of Ireland.

In 1801 Austen, her parents and Cassandra moved to Bath. Her father had decided to retire and so they had to leave the rectory in which they had lived for all of Austen’s life. Some have argued that Austen was so distressed by this change that she became depressed and stopped writing. It is true that the novels she was working on (among them Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice) progressed little whilst she was in Bath. However, it was more likely that having to care for her ailing parents in a new city consumed most of her time, leaving little space for writing.

While in Bath Austen received the only marriage proposal of her life. An old childhood friend, Harris Bigg-Wither, visited the family in 1802 having just finished a degree at Oxford. He was from a wealthy family, heir to a large estate and would have been able to support Austen and her family for the rest of their lives. However, he was not an attractive prospect to Austen: he was plain looking with a stutter and an aggressive manner. When he proposed marriage, Austen’s first response was to accept. But that night Austen, like one of her heroines, stayed awake reviewing her situation and in the morning she apologised and withdrew her acceptance. Her correspondence suggests that Austen, though tempted by the financial security of the marriage, would not think about an engagement unless she was in love. Unfortunately, no one ever asked her again.

In 1803 Austen’s brother Henry took Austen’s manuscript for a short novel entitled Lady Susan to a London publisher, Benjamin Crosby. He agreed to publish the work and paid Austen £10, however the work was never published and Austen could not afford to buy back the copyright. Austen’s father died in 1805. At the time Austen had started work on a story about an old man and his daughters, struggling in poverty. She abandoned this project after his death, as her family was plunged into similar circumstances. Her sister Cassandra and their mother were left with little money and moved house several times – staying with relatives and in rented cottages, supported by donations from Austen’s brothers.

After four stressful years, Austen’s brother Edward offered a solution to the family’s troubles by giving the three women a small cottage on his estate – Chawton House, Hampshire. Though small the cottage was to be a tonic to Austen and at the age of 33 she began to write in earnest.

Published Author

Jane's brother Henry, now working as her literary agent, helped her negotiate the publication of her first full novel, Sense and Sensibility, in 1811. Austen had to pay for the book to be published as well as a commission on sales, as a result Sense and Sensibility ate up almost a third of the household income. However, all 750 copies sold and she made a profit of £140 - £5,000 in modern currency - and it was soon reprinted.

The next novel, Pride and Prejudice, which she described as her 'own darling child' received highly favourable reviews and was a huge success, bringing much needed financial security to the family. Mansfield Park was published in 1814 and, although less critically praised, became the most successful of Austen’s books in her lifetime. Emma was published in 1816 and was dedicated to the prince regent, a keen admirer of her books. All of Jane Austen’s books were published anonymously during her lifetime.

In early 1816, Jane began to suffer from ill-health, probably due to Addison's disease. She travelled to Winchester to receive treatment, and died there on 18 July 1817. Henry arranged for Austen to be buried in Winchester Cathedral. Because she was still an anonymous writer the grave made no mention of her literary success.

Henry arranged for two more novels, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were to be published posthumously in 1817. He included a Biographical Note in each edition, naming for the first time Jane Austen as the author.

Interest in Austen’s novels declined after her death and she was out of print for years. However, in 1833 Richard Bentley published a complete collection of all her novels and they have never been out of print since. Unlike many authors, Austen’s lasting success has been founded on support of other writers, with Henry James, Walter Scott and Charlotte Brontë admiring and championing her novels to the public. She is now regarded as one of the most accomplished authors ever to write in the English language. Her works are constantly adapted for stage and screen, while the study of a Jane Austen novel is a requirement of the national curriculum of England, Wales and Northern Ireland – an honour awarded to no other novelist.

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