Jane Austen Biography
Jane Austen might be one of the most well-known names in British literature today, but during her lifetime, no one would have guessed that this proper daughter of an English clergyman could have possessed such ironic humor, keen insight, and biting wit regarding the social lives of those in her pre-Victorian era. No one would have guessed it, and indeed very few besides her family and close friends even knew. During the early 1800s, when Jane Austen was composing and publishing her works, fictional novels were frowned upon by some segments of society, and novels written by women were especially shunned. In fact, many of Austen’s works went to print with no name on the title page to avoid linking her to the negative stigma of female authorship. Although anonymity and lack of recognition and fame characterized her life, Jane Austen’s novels have since become celebrated, enjoyed, and studied for their humorous and pointed observations of societal life, lively character interaction, and detailed style.
Facts and Trivia
- Outside the room where Jane Austen would write, there was a swinging door that creaked. Austen refused to allow it to be fixed because the creaking gave her warning when anyone was entering the room, allowing her time to hide her work.
- The young Jane Austen preferred cricket and baseball to traditional girls’ games.
- Austen’s perfectionism and attention to detail caused her to edit and rewrite each of her novels at least twice.
- Letters saved by Austen’s sister and best friend, Cassandra, reveal that Jane experienced some mysterious romances (material for her novels, possibly?), though she never married.
- Austen’s career and life were cut short at the age of 42 when she died of Addison’s disease.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2386
Article abstract: Austen’s realistic rendering of dialogue and her satirical accuracy make her novels a matchless re-creation of upper-class English society in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Her novels owe their lasting popularity, however, to Austen’s understanding of human nature as it operates in everyday life.
Jane Austen was born December 16, 1775, in Steventon, Hampshire, England, the seventh child and second daughter of George Austen and Cassandra Leigh Austen. Her father was the reactor of Steventon and nearby Deane. A member of an old but poor family, he had been reared by a wealthy uncle, who educated him at St. John’s College, Oxford, where he was later a fellow. Austen’s mother was the daughter of a clergyman of noble ancestry, also an Oxford graduate and also a former fellow.
Although Jane and her older sister, Cassandra Austen, spent several years in schools in Southampton and Reading, their real education took place at home. The Austens loved words and books. The children could roam at will through George Austen’s impressive library. As they grew older, they staged amateur theatricals. The environment stimulated their curiosity, whether they were observing their mother’s experiments in farming or hearing their aristocratic French cousin talk about life in prerevolutionary France. With an ever-increasing family and a wide circle of friends, the Austen children had ample opportunity to analyze human motivations and relationships; it is not surprising that two of Jane’s brothers and her sister Cassandra all did some writing at one time or another.
The Austens also shared in remarkable good looks; Jane and Cassandra were sometimes called the best-looking girls in England. However flattering such comments may have been, it is true that Jane was a tall, slender brunette with brown, curly hair, hazel eyes, a good complexion, and a sweet voice. Although neither Jane nor Cassandra was ever married, it was not for lack of prospects. Indeed, both were engaged, Cassandra for some time, to a young clergyman who died in the West Indies, and Jane only overnight, to a family friend whom she rejected in the morning. There was evidently at least one other serious relationship for Jane, a holiday romance which was not pursued and which terminated when that young man, too, died.
Because Jane never left the family circle, her life has often been called uneventful. In fact, it was so busy that Jane had to snatch time to write. In addition to the normal social activities of her class, there were frequent visits to and from the brothers and their families, including lengthy stays by their children, several of whom were very close to their Aunt Jane. There were births, deaths, marriages, and remarriages; there was anxiety about Jane’s cousin, whose husband was executed in the French Revolution, and about two brothers, who were British naval officers. Thus, Jane was immersed in life, grieving and rejoicing with family members and friends, mothering nieces and nephews, worrying about the effect of her unstable times on those she loved. As one may note from her letters, she was also a perceptive observer of human behavior, unimpressed by pomposity, unfooled by pretense, and always alert to the comic dimension of human relationships.
It was this comic sense which first led Austen to writing. Her three notebooks collect jokes, skits, and rudimentary character sketches dating from the time she was eleven or twelve, along with a later comic history of England and a brief, unfinished novel named “Catherine.” By 1795, when she was twenty, Austen had produced “Elinor and Marianne” (which was later revised and published in 1811 as Sense and Sensibility). By 1797, she had completed “First Impressions,” which the publisher Cadell refused even to read but which, revised, became her most famous novel, Pride and Prejudice (1813). Although none of her novels was to be published until 1811 (six years before her death, when Sense and Sensibility made its public appearance), Austen was thus involved in her mature work before her twenty-first birthday. No longer a superficially amusing girl, she had become a serious woman of letters.
Austen’s literary reputation rests on six novels, four of which were published during the last years of her life and two posthumously. Because she revised and retitled her early works before she was able to find a publisher for them, it is difficult to trace her development. Evidently, after a work was rejected, she would put it aside, begin another work, and then later revise the earlier one. Her most famous work, Pride and Prejudice, for example, was the product of twelve or fourteen years; Sense and Sensibility took at least sixteen years and two revisions between conception and publication.
Austen’s creative maturity can be divided into two major periods. During the first, she wrote three novels and vainly attempted to get them published. During the second, she revised, completed, and published two of her early novels and wrote three more, two of which were published before her death. It was only during the last half dozen years of her life, then, that she received the recognition which her genius merited.
During her years at Steventon, Austen wrote the first version of what was to be her first published work. “Elinor and Marianne” was the story of two sisters whose lives were governed by two different principles. In every crisis, one tried to be sensible, while the other gave way to uncontrolled emotion. The theme was reflected in Austen’s revision a year or two later, when she changed the title to Sense and Sensibility. It was under the second title that the novel, again revised, was finally published in 1811.
During 1797, Austen completed “First Impressions,” which pointed out how foolish rash assessments of other people may be. Like Sense and Sensibility, this work told the love stories of two sisters; in this case, however, the prejudiced sister, with all of her faults, captures the reader, who can hardly wait for her to capture the proud nobleman. Tentatively, Austen’s father offered the manuscript to a publisher, but the publisher refused even to read it. Austen put it away. In 1809, she revised it, and in 1813, it was published as Pride and Prejudice, which is still one of England’s best-known and best-loved novels.
The third novel of the Steventon period, Northanger Abbey (1818; originally titled “Susan”), began as a satire of the gothic and sentimental novels which were so popular in the late eighteenth century. Like a gothic heroine, the central character is determined to find a murderer in the country house which she visits; her curiosity is interpreted as bad manners, however, and she very nearly loses the eligible man who had invited her. Yet Austen’s genius could not be confined in a mere literary satire, and like her other works, Northanger Abbey is a full-fledged commentary on morals and manners.
Northanger Abbey is also interesting because it was the first novel actually sold for publication. The publisher who bought it in 1803, however, evidently changed his plans, and six years later Austen paid him for its return. It was published the year after her death.
In 1801, George Austen suddenly decided to retire and to move his household to Bath, where he and his family lived until his death in 1805. Despite her reluctance to leave Steventon, Austen was fascinated with the famous watering place, which was the setting both for Northanger Abbey and for Persuasion (1818). Whether her inability to publish discouraged her or she continued to work on her earlier manuscripts is a matter of conjecture; at any rate, The Watsons, begun in 1804, was never completed (although its fragment was published in 1871 in J. E. Austen-Leigh’s Memoir of Jane Austen). In 1809, Jane, Cassandra, and their mother moved back to Hampshire, to a house in the village of Chawton, which had been made available to them by Jane’s brother Edward Knight. There Jane spent the remaining years of her life, years which at last brought her success. In 1809, Jane revised Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. Probably with the encouragement and help of her brother Henry Austen, who lived in London, in 1811 she found a publisher for Sense and Sensibility. Like all of her novels printed during her lifetime, it was anonymous. It was also highly successful. In 1813, it was followed by Pride and Prejudice.
Henry was too proud of his sister to keep her secret any longer, and in 1813 Jane had to acknowledge that she was known to be the author. By this point in time she had written another novel, Mansfield Park (1814), a serious work which deals with religious and ethical issues, particularly as they relate to clerical life. After its publication, she wrote Emma (1815), thought by many to be her best novel, even though Jane worried that her readers might dislike the spoiled, snobbish heroine. Drawing from the world of her naval officer brothers, Jane then wrote her final completed novel, Persuasion, whose noble but misled heroine had once rejected her true love, a navy captain. Tragicomic in tone, Persuasion has often been considered to be Austen’s most moving book.
Happy in her Chawton home, surrounded by family and friends, admired by public and critics alike, and inspired with her ideas for another novel, at the end of 1816 Austen seemed destined for years of happiness. She was struck down, however, with a debilitating and crippling illness. By March, 1817, she put aside her novel; by May, she had moved to nearby Winchester, where her physician lived; on July 18, she died. She was buried in Winchester Cathedral.
Jane Austen has often been praised because of what she did not do: She did not write about characters or scenes with which she was unfamiliar; she did not attempt a scope which might have been above her powers; she did not indulge in self-conscious digressions, as did Henry Fielding and his imitator William Makepeace Thackeray, which displayed the author and delayed the novel; and she did not permit herself errors in plotting.
The genius of this restraint has become even more fully appreciated with time. A child of the neoclassical period, she was determined to point out the virtues of moderation in a period which was increasingly infatuated with excess, the need for reason at a time when emotion was increasingly enthroned. She had observed life; she had found that only the classical standards, combined with Christian virtues, could direct one toward happiness. She also had observed that the real dramas of life were played out in the everyday world of ordinary people. People were annihilated as hopelessly at Bath as in battle; families were destroyed as suddenly by foolish marriages as by the guillotine. Therefore, her themes were as profound as human life itself.
That restraint which Austen counseled was exemplified in her work. Every character she introduced was essential to her plot and theme. Every scene and every authorial comment were so carefully pruned that no word could be omitted. Thus, perhaps more than any previous novelist, she understood the artistic heights to which the novel could rise, and while in theme she reflected the age of Samuel Johnson, in technique she anticipated the twentieth century.
Austen-Leigh, William, and Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh. Jane Austen, Her Life and Letters: A Family Record. London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1913. 2d ed. New York: Russell and Russell, 1965. This work by family members has been considerably augmented as later materials have become available. The seminal work of Austen biography, it includes a useful appendix with textual comments and a detailed genealogical chart.
Cecil, David. A Portrait of Jane Austen. New York: Hill and Wang, 1979. One of the most readable introductions to Jane Austen’s life and work. Cecil integrates biographical data, Austen’s own letters, and historical details in an attempt to place the writer within the society about which she is writing. Contains numerous color illustrations, including watercolors by Jane’s sister Cassandra.
Galperin, William H. The Historical Austen. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003. This study provides a fresh explication of Austen’s work. Galperin examines how Austen used her fiction to serve as a “social and political” tool.
Gill, Richard. Happy Rural Seat: The English Country House and the Literary Imagination. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1972. Although specifically a study of the English country house in early twentieth century fiction, Gill’s book includes an appendix on earlier literature which deals extensively with the works of Austen, particularly Mansfield Park. An essential work for anyone who wishes to understand the viewpoint of Austen and later English writers of her class.
Menon, Patricia. Austen, Eliot, Charlotte Brontë, and the Mentor- lover. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. An examination of how Austen, Eliot, and Brontë handled matters of gender, sexuality, family, behavior, and freedom in their work.
Pinion, F. B. A Jane Austen Companion: Critical Survey and Reference Book. London: Macmillan, 1973. Useful brief biography and separate analyses of the six completed novels, along with a commentary on Sanditon. Contains also an alphabetical listing of characters and places in the novels, a glossary of unusual words, appendixes, maps, and a number of black-and-white illustrations. A thorough, careful book.
Sherry, Norman. Jane Austen. New York: Arno Press, 1969. A brief, simple study for the nonacademic reader, Sherry’s book includes a short biography and critical generalizations on Austen’s work as a whole and specifically on each of the six completed novels. While the comments on her work are fairly standard, Sherry provides helpful illustrations drawn from the novels to support his points. Convenient for a beginning student of the novel form.
Wagenknecht, Edward. Cavalcade of the English Novel. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1943. A widely available survey which has useful chapters on the predecessors of the novel and brief but sound discussions of major writers. Reflects earlier attitudes toward Austen as a writer who was above all a lady and whose limitations should be stressed. Comments interestingly on her grotesque characters.
Wilks, Brian. Jane Austen. London: Hamlyn, 1978. A large, lavishly illustrated volume which depends heavily on quotations from the Austen letters for a rather rambling, episodic account of the writer’s life. Although, as the index indicates, Wilks’s work incorporates all of the major biographical details, his digressions are confusing for a reader who is looking for a clear chronology.
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