By Anne Flinders, dramaturg

Who was Jane Austen? Where and how did she live? With whom did she associate? How did she become a writer? And what is her legacy? Biographical information concerning Jane Austen is “famously scarce”, but we’ll try to answer at least a few of these questions.

Where did Jane Austen’s begin her life?

“There is nothing like staying at home for real comfort.” – Jane Austen

A portrait of Jane Austen, based on a watercolor by Jane's sister, Cassandra.

A portrait of Jane Austen, based on a watercolor by Jane’s sister, Cassandra.

Jane Austen was born on the 16th of December, 1775, in Steventon, Hampshire, England. She was the second daughter of a clergyman and his wife, George and Cassandra Austen, and the fifth of seven children. Jane and her sister Cassandra were educated mostly at home after a brief enrollment in a boarding school in Reading, England. She read extensively from her father’s library, practiced playing the pianoforte, and was engaged in the neighborhood society, attending parties and balls. Her brother Henry later said that “Jane was fond of dancing, and excelled in it”.

Who were her companions?

Although her brothers all left the family on reaching adulthood, Jane lived at home her entire life with her sister Cassandra and their mother. When her father retired from the clergy in 1800, the family moved to Bath, England. Mr. Austen died of a sudden illness in 1805 and the family’s financial situation was precarious. The three ladies moved around and about Bath in different locations for the next four years, until Jane’s brother Edward invited them to live in a cottage at Chawton, his estate in Hampshire.

When she was twenty years old, Jane may have enjoyed a brief romance with Tom Lefroy—a young university graduate from Ireland who had come to Steventon to visit his family. This romance was suspected from comments in Jane’s letters to Cassandra: “I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together.” Even in regard to her own interest in a young man she shows her ability to recognize and write irony and wit.

How did Jane Austen begin writing?

When she was a girl, Jane wrote short plays and works of fiction that her family would read aloud for amusement. She also wrote A Brief History of England, a parody of historical writers. Her writings were always funny, and always dealt with matters common to everyday life and the foibles of ordinary people. Even at a relatively early age, Jane was a keen observer of human weaknesses and strengths.

Jane Austen's writing table, on display at Chawton Cottage.

Jane Austen’s writing table, on display at Chawton Cottage.

Jane wrote a full-length novel, First Impressions, in 1796, completing the initial draft in August 1797 when she was only 21. Her father attempted to get the book published, but found no one who would accept the manuscript. However, Jane continued to write and revise her work. Her first novel, Sense and Sensibility, was published in 1811 and was well-received. Jane did not acknowledge herself as the author; the cover page simply read thus: BY A LADY. Jane immediately returned to working on First Impressions.

On 25 January, 1813, Pride and Prejudice, a major revision of First Impressions, was published and released. Again Jane retained her anonymity; the title page identified the book as written BY THE AUTHOR OF SENSE AND SENSIBILITY. The novel was popular; literary circles were talking about it; even the Prince Regent George IV enjoyed it and later asked that Jane dedicate one of her novels to him. Though she disliked the prince, she obliged.

Jane’s Adult Life

Jane Austen never married. She lived with her mother and sister Cassandra at Chawton Cottage, writing and engaging in society there. In 1816 she became ill, but continued to write. Her health worsened, and her sister took her to Winchester to seek medical help. Austen died in Winchester on 18 July 1817, at the age of 41. Jane wrote six novels in all, 2 of which were published posthumously.

JANE AUSTEN’S MAJOR WORKS

Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1815), Northanger Abbey (1818, posthumous), Persuasion (1818, posthumous)

“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.” – Jane Austen

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