5 Minute BiographiesAuthorsBorn in DecemberBorn in the 18th CenturyDied in JulyDied in the 19th CenturyLiteraturePodcast

Jane Austen

“Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection.” – Jane Austen

Jane Austen was born during one of the harshest winters on record, on 16 December 1775 in the small rural village of Steventon, Hampshire, England, which is about seven miles from the town of Basingstoke and due to the treacherous weather conditions it wouldn’t be until April the following year that she would be baptised in the local church.

Jane was the second daughter of George Austen who was the rector of the Anglican parish of Steventon and Cassandra Leigh who he had married after the death of her father on 26 April 1764.

Although George was descended from a well-respected family of wool merchants it was not his branch of the family that had inherited the fortune and the family had to contend with being quite poor, barely being able to survive on George’s annual salary and the promise of a small inheritance that Cassandra had brought to the marriage and whilst the 16th century Steventon rectory was being renovated the couple lived at the nearby Deane rectory. Whilst there Cassandra gave birth to three sons, James, George and Edward.

When Steventon was habitable, the family moved there in 1768 and the next child, Henry was born in 1771. In 1773 Cassandra was born followed by Francis, who was known as Frank in 1774 and then Jane in 1775.

Little is known about Jane Austen’s life, except for some letters that survived from the period. The first mention of Jane is in a letter which documents the return of Jane’s sister Cassandra from a visit with her cousin Thomas Leigh who lived in Bath in 1781.

In her younger years, Jane was known to be a regular churchgoer and socialised with friends and neighbours. She also read some of her compositions to the family in the evenings. In one of his letters, her brother Henry said that Jane enjoyed dancing.

Jane was, initially home-educated except for a short time when she was sent with her sister in 1783 to be taught by Mrs Ann Cawley in Oxford with the girls going with her when she moved to Southampton. However, both girls were sent home after catching typhus and were lucky to survive.

In 1785 the two sisters attended Reading Abbey Girls’ School, which was a boarding school run by Mrs La Tournelle, but they had returned home again by December 1786 because the family couldn’t afford the fees. This was the last time that Jane Austen would live anywhere without her family.

Between 1773 and 1796, Jane Austen’s father George had been supplementing his income through farming and through educating boys, often two or three at a time who also lodged at Steventon. It is thought that the rest of Jane’s education came from the textbooks that her father used to teach the boys along with help from her brothers. George even encouraged Jane’s early writing, often providing pens and paper whenever it was needed.  Another important part of Jane’s education was the plays that her family staged in the rectory barn, most of which were comedies and probably explain some of Jane Austen’s often satirical writing style. By her early teens, she had written three plays of her own.

From the age of 11 and into her teens Jane started to write more stories and compiled them into three bound notebooks which are now referred to as the Juvenilia. The three works, which she called Volume the First, Volume the Second and Volume the Third comprised about 90,000 words in 29 separate stories that parodied and exaggerated everyday life that Jane observed.

In 1791 Jane wrote a thirty-four-page manuscript entitled The History of England in which she parodied Oliver Goldsmith’s 1764 work History of England among others. The words were accompanied by thirteen watercolours painted by her sister Cassandra.  It wasn’t long after this that Jane Austen decided that she wanted to be a professional writer.

During the two years leading up to 1795, Jane wrote what many consider to be her most sophisticated work. It was a novel called Lady Susan in the form of a collection of letters that describe the exploits of the title character. Although completed, Jane never attempted to publish it and it would go unpublished until 1871.

Between December 1795 and January 1796, the twenty-year-old Jane Austen came across a young man, probably at a neighbourhood gathering called Tom Lefroy who had just graduated and was training to be a barrister. It became clear in her letters to Cassandra that Jane was fond of him but unfortunately, a permanent arrangement was never on the cards with the family sending him away to London. Although she never saw him again it became clear that future suitors couldn’t quite live up to the memory of him.

Between 1796 and 1798 Jane Austen worked on three manuscripts, Elinor and Marianne which would eventually become Sense and Sensibility, First Impressions, which became Pride and Prejudice and Susan, which became Northanger Abbey. The third of the three was offered to a London Publisher called Benjamin Crosby by Jane’s brother Henry. Crosby purchased the copyright for £10 but did nothing with it and it remained unpublished until after Jane bought the copyright back in 1816.

In December 1800 the family moved to Bath and details of Jane Austen’s life around this time is mainly speculation as for reasons unknown her sister Cassandra burned all of her letters. What is known is that she didn’t write much whilst there although it isn’t known why. Her social life could have left her with little time to do so, but some speculate that she became depressed after being moved away from the only home that she had ever known.

One thing that is known is that in 1802, Jane received her only proposal of marriage which, after initially accepting, soon declined. The suitor was the younger brother of friends who lived near Basingstoke called Harris Biggs-Wither and although the marriage would have offered many advantages, not the least of which was financial he has been described as someone who seems to have been very hard to like, let alone love. In 1814 after being asked for relationship advice by her niece, Jane wrote that anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection.

On 21 January 1805, Jane Austen’s father died suddenly and the family was plunged into a precarious financial situation, with the four brothers all pledging to make annual contributions for the benefit of their mother and sisters. The family spent the next few months moving around between rented accommodation in Bath, Stanford Cottage in Worthing and Southampton where they stayed with Frank and his new wife. They eventually settled in a large cottage in Chawton village which was part of Jane’s brother Edward’s Chawton House estate.

As women did not have the legal status to allow them to sign contracts at the time, Jane published four novels through her brother Henry with the publisher Thomas Egerton. Sense and Sensibility was published in October 1811 and received favourable reviews and the first edition had sold out by the middle of 1813 resulting in Jane making around £140. Her name never appeared on her books in her lifetime with Sense and Sensibility noted as being written ‘by a lady’ with all subsequent publications as being written ‘by the author of Sense and Sensibility’. In January 1813 Pride and Prejudice was published followed by Mansfield Park in May 1814 which sold out within six months, earning Austen more than she had earned with any of the others.

The fourth novel, Emma was published by John Murray in December 1815 and although it did well, the earnings from it were offset by a poorly performing second edition of Mansfield Park.

Around the same time, Jane had begun work on a new novel, called The Elliots, which would later be published as Persuasion and she had completed the first draft by July 1816. However, during the early part of 1816, Jane had been feeling unwell but had ignored the signs, wanting to get the first draft of The Elliots completed, but by the middle of the year, Jane’s health had started to slowly decline.

Dissatisfied with the first draft of The Elliots, Jane rewrote the final two chapters before moving on to a new work she called The Brothers, which was published in 1925 as Sanditon. She completed 12 chapters but, probably due to her health, she stopped writing on 18 March 1817, noting that she was turning every wrong colour and spending most of her time on the sofa.

As her illness progressed, Jane struggled to walk and generally lacked energy and was ultimately confined to bed.

In May, Cassandra and her brother Henry brought her for treatment to Winchester, but it was too late and Jane Austen died at the age of 41 on 18 July 1817. Thanks to Henry’s connections within the clergy, she was buried in Winchester Cathedral.

After her death, Cassandra and Henry Austen arranged for Persuasion and Northanger Abbey to be published and Henry composed a biographical note to accompany both novels in December 1817 in which for the first time he identified his sister as the author.

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