A biography of the wonderful Regency novelist Jane Austen
|Jane Austen was born on the 16th of December 1775. She was daughter of George and Cassandra Austen, and she had six brothers and one sister. She was especially close to her sister, Cassandra, who was two years older than her. Jane grew up in the rectory in the village of Steventon in Hampshire, UK, where her father was the rector for the local Anglican parishes. |
The Austen children were encouraged to learn and think creatively. They read from their father’s extensive library, wrote, and put on plays and charades. To acquire a more formal education, Jane and Cassandra went to boarding school in 1783. In the autumn of that year, both girls caught typhus at school and Jane nearly died. For the next two years the sisters were educated at home before spending a year at a boarding school in Reading where they studied French, spelling, needlework, dancing, music and drama. By December 1786 the school fees were too high for George Austen to pay, so the sisters had to return home. Jane’s father ran a school to prepare the sons of the local gentry for university from the Steventon rectory. He tutored his own sons and daughters when they were at home.
Since her childhood, Jane scribbled stories in bound notebooks. In the 1790s, she started to craft her own novels. One early novella was Love and Freindship [sic], a witty parody of the romantic novels popular at the time. One of the aspects that she poked fun of in this story was the prevalence of sensibility, or romanticism taken to hysterical levels, which she later used as a theme in her novel Sense and Sensibility. Love and Freindship was told as an epistolary novel, meaning that it was written as a series of letters. This was a popular format for novels at the time. The next book that Jane wrote, The History of England, was a parody of historical writing. The book was accompanied by illustrations drawn by Cassandra.
Jane spent her time as a young woman helping to run the family home, playing the piano-forte, attending church, visiting neighbours and dancing in assemblies. It was at one of these dances that Jane began a flirtation with Tom Lefroy, an Irish relative of Jane’s friend Mrs. Anne Lefroy. Mrs. Anne Lefroy lived at Ashe Rectory, which is situated in a village near Steventon. Tom was taking a break from his law studies in London when he met Jane. However, there is no evidence that he ever proposed to her. He returned to his uncle’s house in London to continue his studies, and would go on to marry another woman and become a noted politician.
Although Jane never married, she did once accept a proposal from Harris Bigg-Wither, the brother of her friends Catherine and Alethea, only to turn him down the next day.
Cassandra too was unlucky in love as Tom Fowle, the man she became engaged to, died after catching an illness in the West Indies, where he had gone as a chaplain to his regiment.
Alongside the typical activities of a Regency rector’s daughter, Jane continued her budding career as an author. Her next epistolary story, Lady Susan, gave a witty account of a manipulative woman, paving the way for the social dramas of her later novels which often feature social climbing and manipulative characters cast in a humorous light. Elinor and Marianne, the story that would later become Sense and Sensibility, also began as a series of letters penned by Jane around 1789.
Aged twenty-one, Jane began First Impressions, a novel which her father offered to a publisher who refused it. Later, First Impressions would be revised by Jane and published as Pride and Prejudice. In her early twenties, Jane also worked on Susan, which was published as Northanger Abbey after her death.
When George Austen retired from the ministry in 1801, Jane moved to Bath with her father, mother and Cassandra. In 1805 Jane’s father died after a short illness. Mrs. Austen and her daughters were not left well off and spent the next few years moving from place to place, living in either the homes of various family members or in rented flats.
In 1809 Jane’s brother Edward, who had been adopted by the wealthy Knight family at the age of twelve, offered his mother and sisters a home in a cottage in Chawton, a Hampshire village that formed part of the estate that he had inherited from the Knight family. The cottage at Chawton is now the Jane Austen House Museum.
It was whilst living at Chawton that Jane started to anonymously publish her works. Between 1811 and 1816, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma were published.
In 1816, aged 41, Jane became terminally ill. Whilst the cause of her death is not known for sure, many people think that it may have been due to Addison’s disease — a debilitating condition arising from problems with the adrenal gland. Despite her illness, she continued her writing, starting a new novel called The Brothers, which would be published unfinished after her death as Sanditon.
Jane died on the 18th of July 1817 in Winchester, where she and Cassandra had gone to consult a renowned physician in a hope of finding a cure for Jane’s illness. Jane is buried in Winchester cathedral. Cassandra and Jane’s brother Henry instigated the publication of Jane’s novels Persuasion and Northanger Abbey after her death.
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