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The Witty and Wise Jane Austen: A Mini Biography

I love captivating novels that bring the past to life. Jane Austen wrote with astuteness, wit and accessibility that delights and informs.

Jane Austen, shown in Edward Austen-Leigh's memoirs, 1871.

Jane Austen, shown in Edward Austen-Leigh's memoirs, 1871.

“Aunt Jane was the general favourite with children; her ways with them being so playful, and her long circumstantial stories so delightful. Ah! if but one of them could be recovered!”

Memoir of Jane Austen, James Edward Austen-Leigh 1871.

Who Was Jane Austen?

Jane Austen (1775-1817) lived over two centuries ago but her words and characters still resonate with readers. She naturally employed humour to address the issues of Georgian life. Love, honour, social status and wealth were among her timeless themes.

Her nephew and niece, Edward Austen-Leigh and Caroline Austen, provided snapshots of her in their memoirs and her edited letters have been published. Sadly, we may never know exactly what Jane looked like. There were no contemporary portraits and later visualisations are based on her elder sister Cassandra’s sketches.

Jane Austen was born on the 16th December 1775 at the Steventon Rectory in Hampshire. She was the second daughter and the seventh child of the Reverend George Austen and his wife Cassandra Leigh. Jane’s brothers were James, George, Edward, Henry, Francis and Charles. The Austen children were born between 1765 and 1779. Sisters Cassandra and Jane were very close to each other and Henry, four years older than Jane, was her favourite brother.

Steventon Rectory.

Steventon Rectory.

Jane Austen's Talent Blossoms

As was customary, Jane was sent away to a wet nurse after her birth and she returned to her family home when she was just over one year old. The sisters attended boarding school but due to the expense their parents decided that the girls should continue their education at home. George Austen’s library was substantial and Jane had free reign to read and learn.

Her juvenile writings were encouraged by her father. She wrote The History of England by a Partial, Prejudiced and Ignorant Historian in 1791. This short work employed the sharp wit that became synonymous with her later work. Cassandra illustrated the book for her.

As an adult she continued to live at the rectory and made frequent visits to relatives who often asked her to help with childcare or nursing. She attended church, played the harpsichord, attended balls and she was an excellent seamstress. Jane read her latest written works to her family, normally receiving enthusiastic praise.

Between 1793 and 1795 Jane wrote Lady Susan. The remainder of the 1790’s was spent creating Elinor and Marianne, the first version of Sense and Sensibility; First Impressions, later titled Pride and Prejudice, and Northanger Abbey, a pastiche on novels of the era set in Bath.

A watercolour of Jane by Cassandra Austen, her elder sister.

A watercolour of Jane by Cassandra Austen, her elder sister.

Lady Susan, Tom Lefroy and Bath

George Austen attempted to get Jane’s novels published. Genteel women were not expected to conduct business. His endeavours proved unsuccessful. After much persistence, her brother Henry negotiated the sale of the copyright of Lady Susan to Benjamin Crosby, a London based publisher. He never published it and Jane bought back the copyright in 1816 for the £10 fee that Crosby had paid.

Twenty year old Tom LeFroy met Jane when he visited his aunt and uncle in Steventon in the winter of 1795-1796. Jane and Tom grew close but because of the disparity in their social standing marriage was deemed impossible. LeFroy was hastily sent away by his family who desired a more impressive match.

In 1800 George Austen retired and the family moved from Steventon to the Georgian city of Bath. Leaving her beloved home of twenty five years affected her deeply. Her creative output dwindled.

During the 1700's Bath became highly fashionable and had the attraction of healing spa waters. By 1800 there were many residents of the city who remained there to relive their heydays. The status conscious and preposterously vain Sir Walter Elliot in Persuasion (published posthumously in 1818) was presumably inspired by someone in Jane’s social circle in Bath. Jane reveals a city with a sinister, conniving underbelly that tarnishes the illusion of grandeur.

Map of England circa 1851. Steventon, Chawton and Winchester lie in Hampshire and Bath is in Somerset.

Map of England circa 1851. Steventon, Chawton and Winchester lie in Hampshire and Bath is in Somerset.

Peace and Productivity at Chawton

In 1802 she received a proposal of marriage from Harris Bigg-Wither. She accepted him but by the following morning she knew that she had made an error and she refused him, she could not marry without love. Jane never married, nor did her sister Cassandra.

When George Austen died in 1805 Jane set aside The Watson’s, a novel that she’d been writing since 1804 because its content was too similar to her situation and it upset her to continue.

Jane, her mother and sister moved several times in Bath to less grand addresses before relocating to Southampton to share a house with Jane's brother and navy man Francis Austen and his wife Mary. (Francis was eventually made Admiral of the Fleet, a prestigious role, when eighty one years old and knighted.)

In 1809 another brother, Edward Austen, who had inherited the Steventon living from George Austen, offered them a cottage in Chawton, Hampshire. Chawton suited Jane and she was remarkably productive, writing daily. Between 1810 and 1817 she revised her juvenilia and reworked First Impressions and Elinor and Marianne. She wrote Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion, which was originally titled The Elliots.

In 1811 Henry Austen arranged for Elinor and Marianne retitled Sense and Sensibility to be released by Thomas Egerton. It was a success, the first print run sold out by mid 1813. Pride and Prejudice was first published in early 1813 and a second edition was printed in October 1813 due to demand. When Mansfield Park followed in 1814 all copies were sold within six months. Each book was released anonymously “by a lady” or “by the author of...


The title page from Sense and Sensibility.

The title page from Sense and Sensibility.

Royal Approval and a Rich Legacy

Emma was published in 1816 by John Murray after Jane transferred from publisher Thomas Egerton. Emma features a dedication to the Prince Regent, later King George IV (1762-1830.) The prince’s librarian impressed on Jane that the Prince would favour (expected) a dedication to him in her novel. She did not like the Prince Regent but she acceded to his wishes. Her version of the dedication was not deemed to be effusive enough so another one was created to appease her publisher.

Jane fell ill in 1816 and the family moved to Winchester to seek medical treatment for her. In January 1817, despite her continuing mysterious illness, Jane started work on The Brothers which was later called Sanditon.

Jane succumbed to what is now believed to have been Addison’s Disease on the 18th July 1817. She was aged forty one. Jane was buried in Winchester Cathedral. Her sister survived her by twenty eight years and devotedly guarded Jane’s memory.

Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were published posthumously in 1818 and they contained a tribute from Henry Austen in which he revealed the identity of the writer of her now indisputably classic novels.

If you have only watched the movies and TV mini-series, please read the wonderful books of Jane Austen. She was a truly gifted woman.

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Joanne Hayle

Comments

Cheryl E Preston from Roanoke on July 29, 2021:

I read a book about her and watched it on a movie. I love Jane Austin.

fran rooks from Toledo, Ohio on July 29, 2021:

Joanne, great article on a lgend! Thanks for sharing.

Laal Khan on July 29, 2021:

A nice and informative article.I like it very much.

jandee on July 29, 2021:

Thanks for that lovely reminder of the works of Jane. She must be admired for her independence as well as her talent.

Joanne Hayle (author) from Wiltshire, U.K. on July 29, 2021:

I'm glad you enjoyed it:-) Thanks for reading!

Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on July 29, 2021:

Nicely presented. Thanks.

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