Now we come to the part of the story where Jane's novels meet real life. Enter the real life character in the form of Harris Bigg-Wither, a childhood friend of the family and of Jane's. Once again in the month of December - this time in 1802 - Jane receives her one and only known proposal of marriage from Mr. Bigg-Wither. Sensing the practical measure of both their situations, Jane agrees to the marriage. Bigg-Withers is due to inherit a sizeable amount of real estate and is well off. His one negative seems to be Jane's indifference to the man as a whole. She expressed no true love for him, no affection whatsoever, but the convenience of being provided for and for her family's future as well seemed to have dictated her acceptance of the proposal. In a turn very much like one of her penned characters, however, Jane revoked her acceptance the next day. In a letter to her niece some years later, a family member seeking relationship advice from Jane, Jane makes a pivotal comment in her writing that is a summary of many of her stories - her advice to the niece is simply not to wed if the affection is not there. This revelation is a shining insight into the mind of Ms. Austen, seemingly taken out of the very pages of one of her novels, where her heroines did not to marry for money or power, but for love.
In 1803, brother Henry visited a London publisher by the name of Benjamin Crosby to help push the Susan novel into publication. The copyright for the work is sold for 10 pounds to Crosby with the promise that the piece will be published. Unfortunately, Crosby never fulfilled his end of the bargain in any acceptable timeframe and a tug of war over control of the copyright will go on for some time. Nevertheless, Jane continues work, this time on a piece entitled The Watsons.
January 21st of 1805 brought about startling changes to the landscape of the Austen world. Beloved father George Austen - already falling quickly ill - died to the shock of the family. This period of time forced Jane to put off work on The Watsons indefinitely as the Austen family is thrown into a kind of crisis. The Austen brothers all agree to help support Mrs. Austen and her two daughters though the girls are forced to live an unsettled life of constant moving and renting out their living quarters. Eventually, the women move in with brother Edward who later offers a cottage on a nearby property to the girls. This cottage - known as Chawton cottage - would rejuvenate the 33 year-old Austen into a period which she will made great strides in her work, nearly as great as her younger years.
To begin with, Jane penned an angry letter to Benjamin Crosby, the publisher in London with a hold on the Susan copyright. Since the work had yet to be published by Mr. Crosby, Jane submits a new revised version of the novel to force Crosby's hand to either publish the work or return the copyright to her so she may find another, more willing, publisher. Crosby agrees to Jane's demand, though in a shrewd business move, allows Jane access to the copyright of Susan only if she can pay the equal 10 pounds back to him for it. With the Austen family financial future severely in doubt at this point, Jane was forced to decline the offer for the time being, leaving Susan out of her control for still more time.
Life in Chawton cottage proved to be a godsend for the women. Now fully settled in a quiet environment, Jane saw it fit to continue her work. Her sister and mother even acknowledged her talent and took away some of her required chores to allow her to work unfettered. This she did in a very private way, but still more productively than ever before.
Henry Austen, working on a burgeoning banking career on his own with help from his brother's investing, doubled as Jane's literary agent and approached London publisher Thomas Egerton with the manuscript for Sense & Sensibility. Egerton agreed to publish the piece and fulfilled his end of the deal. The novel is published in October of 1811 and comes out to favorable reviews. The piece is a financial success for the family, the first edition selling out completely by1813.
Egerton then took the manuscript of Pride & Prejudice and published this second work for public consumption in January of 1813. This time around, Egerton put a fair amount of time and money into marketing Jane's work and the novel was an instant success with the public and critics alike. The success is so great that a second edition of printing is quickly ordered by October.
Mansfield Park quickly followed, Egerton striking while the iron was hot. The piece was received in luke warm fashion by reviewers, but the public could not get enough of Jane Austen. Another modest monetary success greeted the Austen family. In fact, Mansfield Park, with all copies sold, became the best selling and most profitable of Ms. Austen's works at that time. In an effort to bring even more success to her novels, Jane left the services of Egerton in favor of a more well known London publisher, John Murray. Murray would be the final publisher to work with Austen before her untimely death.
Under Murray's watch, Emma, a second edition of Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published. Emma arrived with critical success, but the second edition printing of Mansfield Park is not so successful, basically negating the earnings Jane received from the former. At this time, the banking venture pursued by brother Henry failed, and along with it, the fortunes of brothers Edward, James and Frank. This left the Austen girls - and family for that matter - in a precarious financial position. Jane continued writing, even more dedicated to complete a working first draft of The Elliots, though this work would later be more recognized as Persuasion. It is at this time that Henry takes it upon himself to repurchase the copyright of Susan from Crosby & Company and does so for the 10 pounds originally paid. The title of the work, however, is now changed to Catherine which led some historians to believe that there may have been another novel out in print at the time with the same title of Susan.
At the beginning 1816, Jane noticed a decline in her health, but disregarded it in favor of continuing the works she started. With so much happening, Jane's health declined quickly with each passing day. Her family began to take note. Though progressively unwell, Jane maintained an upbeat attitude and played off her illness to family and friends, all the while rewriting the final two chapters of The Elliots to her liking. The piece is eventually finished and, by January 1817, Jane is hard at work on a new project entitled The Brothers. Twelve chapters of the work are completed before her illness takes a more serious toll on Jane. The simple act of walking at age 41 became a chore and energy was greatly exhausted performing the simple tasks of a given day. By April, Jane was confined to her bed and her work suffered as well.
In May of 1817, brother Henry and sister Cassandra looked to get medical help for their ailing sister. They escorted Jane to Winchester to seek medical treatment for an illness that - at that time - could not possibly have had a cure. On July 18th, 1817, Jane Austen died in Winchester and with her, she took the conclusions of her unfinished works. With his connections, Henry worked to have his sister buried at the Winchester Cathedral.
Not content with seeing her final completed works go unpublished, Henry and Cassandra worked at getting Northanger Abbey and Persuasion published through Murray as a set collection. Within this work, however, Henry penned a most endearing account of the author of the works - who at this point was still nameless to the world. He unveiled her as Jane Austen, connecting her to her work for the first time in her career.
In many ways, Jane Austen embodied the very strong-natured, head-strong women that were her stories. They came from different circumstances with different backgrounds, yet all sought the same thing in true love. It is an irony that such a thing eluded the great Ms. Austen herself, but perhaps to the betterment of her stories and ours. In the end, we are left with what are truly timeless pieces of art. Despite penning just six completed works, she has spawned a legion of followers that devour every word she wrote. In her life, and even after her death, but most importantly through her works, she has left all readers with the fanciful notion of love revealed, love enduring...