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Jane Austen

Jane AustenJane Austen was born on December 16, 1775, in Steventon, Hampshire, the seventh of eight children born to Cassandra Leigh and the Reverend George Austen. Her family consisted of five older brothers—James, George, Edward, Henry, and Frank—an older sister, Cassandra, and a younger brother, Charles. They were members of the lower rung of the landed gentry, Jane’s father being the rector of the local parish and a part-time tutor and farmer.

In 1783 Jane and her sister Cassandra, who was her closest friend and confidante throughout her life, were sent to be educated by Ann Cawley, first in Oxford and then Southampton. Both sisters contracted typhus later that year, and Jane nearly died. She was brought home for a time but was sent with Cassandra to a boarding school in 1785. Again, it only lasted a year before both girls returned home, this time because the Austens could no longer afford it. Jane resumed her education under her father’s guidance but mostly through reading the books from his extensive and eclectic library. Jane read voraciously—plays, histories, poetry, and novels. Among her favorites were the novelists Henry Fielding, Samuel Richardson, and Fanny Burney, and the poets George Crabbe and William Cowper. It wasn’t long before Jane began experimenting with composing works of her own creation.

George Austen not only allowed his daughters unlimited access to his large and varied book collection, he provided them with expensive paper and other accoutrements for writing and drawing (Cassandra’s favorite pursuit). Jane began to write stories, plays, and poems around the age of twelve, which she soon started reading to the enthusiastic audience of her family. (Twenty-nine of these early works were later collected by Austen in three bound volumes, in what would become known as the Juvenilia.) One of the pieces she wrote in her teens was the satiric History of England, a thirty-four-page manuscript that parodied popular histories of the period and was illustrated with watercolors painted by Cassandra.

By the age of eighteen, still living with her family in Steventon, Jane had decided to become a professional writer and devote her full energies toward that goal. In 1795, at the age of twenty, she completed a short epistolary novel, Lady Susan, the story of a scandalous young woman who seduces, manipulates, and betrays her victims. She subsequently began working on a full-length novel titled Elinor and Marianne, another narrative told in letters, which she read to the family prior to 1796. Although nothing remains of the original manuscript, Jane revised and reworked it over the years, abandoning the epistolary style for third-person narration, into her first published novel, Sense and Sensibility (1811).

Over the course of her life, Austen would frequently continue to rework her finished manuscripts—editing, adding, cutting, and rearranging them for later publication, as was the case with her 1796 work, First Impressions, which later became, after much editing and rewriting, Pride and Prejudice (1813).

It was also around the time of this prodigious creative output when Jane may have fallen in love with the young Irish law student Tom Lefroy. The nephew of neighbors, Lefroy had graduated from university and was visiting his relatives in Steventon during the Christmas holidays in 1795 before training as a barrister in London. Jane and Tom met at a social occasion and soon were spending considerable time with one another. But marriage was impossible, as neither had any money, and Tom’s family sent the young man on his way in January. They never saw each other again.

Jane later received (in 1802) a proposal of marriage from the younger brother of her friends Alethea and Catherine Bigg. A large, unattractive man almost totally lacking in manners and with a slight stutter, Harris Bigg-Wither had just completed his studies at Oxford and had set his sights on his sisters’ companion. Jane had known Harris since childhood, and a match between the two would have been financially advantageous to herself and her family. So, after hearing out his stammered request for her hand, she accepted. By the next morning, however, she realized what a terrible mistake she had made and withdrew her acceptance. It was Jane’s last and only offer of marriage. But, as she later wrote to a niece seeking advice, “Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection.”

Always Jane continued to write—new stories and revisions to existing texts. In 1798 she began work on a third novel, tentatively titled Susan, a parody of the English Gothic novel, which she finished about a year later and retitled Northanger Abbey. Her brother Henry, acting as her literary agent, sold the manuscript to a London publisher, Benjamin Crosby, for £10 in 1803. Crosby never released it, however, and the novel remained unpublished until 1818.

Announcing his retirement from the ministry in 1801, Jane’s father decided to leave Steventon and move the family to Bath, in the west of England. During this period, Jane continued to work on her fiction, but her productivity declined sharply, as she dealt with leaving the only home she ever knew, starting but never completing a new work (The Watsons), and in 1805 the unexpected death of her father, George, after a brief illness. The loss of their patriarch left Jane, Cassandra (who also never married), and their mother in precarious financial straits. Over the next few years, they lived in rented quarters or with various family members in Bath, Southampton, and elsewhere until finally settling in Chawton in 1809. Jane’s brother Edward offered them the use of his cottage there, part of his estate, Chawton House, and Jane would spend the next seven very prolific years living there.

In 1811 the London publisher Thomas Egerton released Jane’s first novel, Sense and Sensibility, published anonymously (“By a Lady”). Well reviewed and received by the public, the first edition sold out and became quite fashionable. It led to the publication in 1813 of her second novel, Pride and Prejudice, which would later become her most famous and beloved work. Authorship credited simply to “the author of ‘Sense and Sensibility,’” it was also well received and justified a second edition within the year. Mansfield Park followed in 1814, and although reviewers ignored it, this novel was her most popular to date.

Austen never achieved in life the kind of adoration that would come later, but she did have many admirers among the literary and social elite of her day, including Sir Walter Scott and the Prince Regent (the future King George IV)—though she was hardly an admirer of his. She had her detractors, as well, among them Charlotte Brontë and Ralph Waldo Emerson. But the modest success she achieved during her career made her work well-known in literary circles and the better-read segments of English society. It also afforded her a measure of financial independence in a world relatively indifferent to the fate of unattached women.

In 1815 Austen left Thomas Egerton and moved to the more prestigious London publisher, John Murray. Murray published Emma later that year and a second edition of Mansfield Park in 1816. Emma sold well, but the new edition of Mansfield Park did not, eating up all the profits she had earned from Emma. During her career, Austen published her books, with the exception of Pride and Prejudice, on commission—meaning that the publishers advanced her the costs of publication, taking a commission on any sales. But the risk of printing copies that did not sell fell squarely on the author. In Jane’s case it had usually also fallen upon her brother Henry. But when Henry’s bank failed in 1816, it put a crimp not only in the support he could give her publishing endeavors but also the support he lent the rest of the family.

While Austen was working on her new novel, The Elliots, in early 1816, she fell ill but continued to revise and edit the novel that would become Persuasion. By the time she finished her final draft of the novel in August, her decline was obvious. Despite her condition, she continued to write, beginning in January 1817 a new novel she called The Brothers (later titled Sanditon). By April she was confined to her bed, and by May, Henry and Cassandra brought Jane to Winchester for medical treatment. It was there that she died on July 18, 1817, at the age of forty-one. She was buried in the north aisle of the nave of Winchester Cathedral, where her grave marker can still be read—though it does not mention her career as a novelist.

It’s not known what disease Austen died of—medical science being what it was in 1817—though later historians have posited that it could have been Addison’s disease or bovine tuberculosis (from drinking unpasteurized milk); a recurrent form of the typhus Austen suffered from as a child, Brill-Zinsser disease also could have been a contributing factor. But, whatever the cause, she died much too young—a life and career cut tragically short.

Henry and Cassandra managed to have John Murray publish posthumous editions of Persuasion and Northanger Abbey (after Henry bought back the rights from Henry Crosby). Included in those editions was a biographical note by Henry, identifying publicly for the first time Jane Austen as the author. They sold well for a time, but by 1820, all of Austen’s works were out of print.

It wasn’t until 1832 that the publisher Richard Bentley bought the rights to Austen’s novels and brought them back into print, where they have remained continuously to the present day. Later generations would discover Austen’s genius—helped by the publication in 1869 of A Memoir of Jane Austen by James Edward Austen-Leigh, one of her nephews—and her reputation has only increased in the years since.

  • Novels

  • Other Works

    • Juvenilia (1787–1793, three volumes)
    • Lady Susan (1794, published in 1871)
    • The Watsons (1804, unfinished)
    • Sanditon (1817, unfinished, published in 1925)
    • Sir Charles Grandison (1793, adapted play)
    • Plan of a Novel (1815)
    • Poems (1796–1817)
    • Prayers (1796–1817)
    • Letters (1796–1817)