Jane Austen Biography
Life and Times of English Author Jane Austen
Jane Austen's life was relatively short but it nonetheless produced a lasting legacy including six major published works.
Though it has only been relatively recently that her work has become mainstream - thanks in part to required readings in school, reproductions of her classical works at the bookstores and television and cinema productions covering her novels - the lure of the romantic period that Jane Austen created in the minds of her readers has resonated for decades. Her careful selection of characters placed in ordinary positions of their time, only to develop into a more dramatic situation by the turn of the last page, has kept readers revisiting these ageless classics time and again. Having read her works, one is left wondering who Jane Austen really was - how close were the predicaments in these works to her real life? What kind of woman was she in the world that she lived in? Did she ever find the love so elusive in her own novels?
Birth and Family Life
Jane Austen came into the world on December 16th, 1775. Born to Reverend George Austen of the Steventon rectory and Cassandra Austen of the Leigh family. She was to be their seventh child and only the second daughter to the couple. Her siblings were made up largely of brothers, which in some ways forced a close relationship with her elder sister, Cassandra (not to be confused with the mother whom also carried the name Cassandra - but further referred to as Mrs. Austen). In order of birth, the Austen children were as follows: James, George, Edward, Henry, Cassandra, Francis, Jane and Charles. Of all the brothers, it would be Henry to which Jane would form the closest bond with, playing the part of Jane's literary agent in the later stages of her writing.
Growing up, the Austen children lived in an environment of open learning, creativity and dialogue. Mr. Austen worked away in the rectory and also tried his hand at farming on the side to earn more money for the growing family. Additionally, he would take on teaching roles within the home to outside children for additional funds. The Austen children would all grow within this close-knit family with Jane herself forming an exceptional bond with her father.
In 1783, at the age of 8, Jane and her sister Cassandra were sent off to boarding school for their formal educations. Education would consist of the appropriate teachings of the time, which included foreign language (mainly French), music and dancing. Returning home, the rest of Jane's education centered mainly around what her father and brothers could teach her and, of course, what she could learn from her own reading. As Mr. Austen was part of the church, he kept a large collection of literature in his home library. This library was open to Jane and Cassandra as well and the two made extensive use of it in both reading and writing endeavors, with Jane taking the lead in both. Mr. Austen fed Jane's interest in writing by supplying his books, paper and writing tools to allow her to explore her creative side. By all accounts, life inside the Austen homestead was a casual environment where many an attempt at humor was made with some very good debating going on on the side.
It became quite common for the family to invest time and energy into making home-based productions of existing plays or writing and acting out their own creations. One can only assume that it was in these exercises that the true talent of Jane Austen was being nurtured - through observation, improvisation, acting and participation.
1787 arrived in time to see Jane start taking more of an interest in generating her own works and keeping them in notebooks for future reference. These collections consisted of stories and poems that allowed Jane to touch upon topics of interest and reflect the times. Collectively, these works became the Juvenilia and made up three whole notebooks. By 1789, Jane penned the dark, satirical comedy Love and Friendship, and began to lean towards writing seriously. Four years time would see her delve into play writing in the form of Sir Charles Garandison or the Happy Man, a comedy centered around the works she was forced to read in schools and consisted of six full acts. Unfortunately, the idea fell to naught and was abandoned for another idea that later became Susan, a novel told in the epistolary format - that is, a story told as a series of letters. Sometime before 1796, members of the Austen family recalled Jane completing the work entitled Elinor and Marianne to which she would then read aloud for the amusement of the Austen family.
In December of 1795, a nephew of nearby neighbors began placing several visits to Steventon. His name was Tom Lefroy, a student studying in London to be a barrister. Jane and Tom began spending much time with one another and it was noticed by both families. This marks the one documented instance of Jane Austen admitting to falling in love and spent a great deal of energy in writing to her sister Cassandra about their relationship. Unfortunately for the pair, the family of Tom Lefroy reviewed any forthcoming engagement as highly impractical as Tom was being supported externally by family members whilst he was in school and planning for his own practice. Jane herself, and her family for that matter, had no more to offer in the pairing. As such, Lefroy's family intervened and sent Tom away. Even when in town again, every effort to keep Tom from Jane was made and Jane was never to see her love again for the rest of her life.
First Impressions and Advancing a Writing Career
With their formal educations completed at the boarding school, Jane and Cassandra return home permanently and Jane sets out to pen the work First Impressions. Little did she know at the time that this single work would become her most popular and enduring piece, becoming the story now known as Pride & Prejudice. The first draft was completed sometime in 1799.
Always the supportive father, Mr. Austen takes a serious step to help his talented daughter succeed. With one of her works, he attempted to have the piece published through Thomas Cadell, a publisher based in London. The attempt fell flat as Cadell was quick to reject the work, not even bothering to open the package. It remains unknown if Jane knew of her father's attempt at assisting her in her career.
Jane returned to work on Elinor and Marianne, completing all revisions to the story by 1798. The revisions are quite substantial in that she removed the epistolary point of view of the storytelling and instituted a more traditional 3rd person. With the work up to her new standard now, she began serious work on Susan. Susan is the work that would go on to become Northanger Abbey. But before work on Susan was completed, Jane decided to revisit the short play she had attempted all those years before - Sir Charles Grandison or the Happy Man. In this go-round, Jane saw her first play to completion all while finding time to finish Susan.
The Austens Say Goodbye to Steventon
As with most Decembers in the Austen family history, the December of 1800 brought about some great news. Jane's father George announced that he was retiring from the clergy, an announcement that seems to take the Austen family by complete surprise. This meant that their stay in Steventon was all but over, much to the dismay of Jane, whom had formed an attachment to the one and only home she has known her entire life. Now at age 27, she and the entire Austen family moved to the town of Bath for the Austen parent's retirement life.
A Proposal of Marriage
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 continued working, 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 would 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.
Sense & Sensibility
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 by 1813.
Pride & Prejudice
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.
The Decline of Jane Austen
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 sought 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...
Read Pride & Prejudice
Read Sense & Sensibility
Read Mansfield Park
Read Northanger Abbey
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