A Jane Austen biography
Jane Austen (1775 – 1817) – Novelist
Jane Austen was born on December 16, 1775, the year of the American Revolution. The place was Parsonage House of Steventon, in Hampshire. Her father George Austen was an orphan who was adopted by his uncle Francis Austen. George attended school and then became a member of the clergy in Oxford. Later in the years, he was an embellished rector. He married Cassandra Leigh, a young and beautiful woman who belonged to a higher social class than George Austen. They had seven children.
James and Henry grew up to join the footsteps of their father and joined the Parish. Edward was adopted by Austen’s childless uncle. He was awarded the title Knight and stayed in Chawton where Jane, too, spent her later years.
Cassandra was her only sister. She was her best companion. They did everything together, “If Cassandra’s head had been going to be cut off, Jane would have hers cut too”. Jane, resembling her father, was born with hazel eyes and curly hair. Frank and Charles, who were the youngest, earned a reputed place in the navy as admirals, in later years.
As young kids, Austen and Cassandra went to school along with their elder cousin Jane Cooper. They were schooled at Mrs. Cawley’s School. Their school was situated near the port of Southampton. The port made them susceptible to a fever that was transferred by the troops.
The Abbey School at Reading helped her cultivate her spelling skills. It also helped her come to par with her feminine roles. Here she honed her skills of needlework. By the end of 1876, her father brought her home. It was the end of her formal education.
After their return, George Austen decided to educate his daughters himself. He opened the gates of his library for his daughters at the time when women were constrained to hats and fancy lace dressing rooms. An adolescent Jane was introduced to the writings of Shakespeare, Samuel Johson, bawdy novels of Smollett, Richardson, and Fielding.
“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! — When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.”– Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
As flamboyant as the novels she read were, her hobbies too were on similar lines. Records from her letters written during her stay at Devon pointed out that she fancied sea bathing. Jane also showed a liking for a bathing machine, a wooden hut positioned upon moveable wheels drawn by horses. Young ladies often relished this conservative bath. When not attending to lady duties, Jane enjoyed practicing Pianoforte. But the one hobby that quenched her insatiable soul was writing.
During one of the Christmas holidays, her cousin Eliza paid a visit to their Steventon house. Her wintry spirits were uplifted by Eliza’s joyous stories. She carried along with her experiences of opera plays. The colorful costumes, the dialogues exchanged, the setting of the scenery, all fascinated Jane’s pious mind. Jane started developing an interest in writing and literature from the age of twelve.
Her first compilation was Juvillena. She has dedicated poems, verses, and prose to her family members, friends, and her brother James’s firstborn too. Three notebooks found in her archives, named Volume I, II, and III were diaries gifted by George Austen to her. She filled these diaries with her spiffed words and neat rhymes. They have been lauded for her exceptional writing skills.
Jane wrote in a peculiar form. It was humorous, the style was satirical. She often pointed out the intricacies of life during the 18th century. One can see the skill of letter writing being highlighted in most of her novels. As a Georgian Lady, letter writing was used as both a form of communication (ones she exchanged with her sister and family) as well as entertainment ( seen in her novel writing).
The themes of most of her novels included domestic life, marriage, and courtship. In the beginning, her writing was constrained to goody two shoe rhymes. Epigrammatic letters written to her family members can also be found in her archives. Later with age and change in her environment, her writings showed sardonic hues.
The theme of a happily married life exhibited in her famous Pride and Prejudice seemed strange in real life. She had mild romantic flirtations with a few. She was indulged romantically with a young Irish man named Tom Lefroy. Jane was charmed by the young man.
In one of the letters exchanged between Jane and her sister Cassandra, she mentions him as a “very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man.” According to rumors, his education had been funded by his rich uncle. This required him to leave the place. And he was later married off to a rich heiress. He pursued his career in politics thereafter.
Later, somewhere in her early thirties, Jane allegedly declined the wedding proposal of Harris Bigg Wither. He was one of her very close friend’s brothers. She first agreed to his proposal. The next day she quickly left the place in a hurry by dragging Cassandra along. The reason was unknown.
In early 1801 George Austen decided to retire. He selected Bath as his haven. Unmarried women who neared their age were addressed as “Old Maids”( Stigma related to not fulfilling her female roles). Bath during those times was a gateway to allure matches for unmarried women. One can only guess, an old George thought of Bath as a last resort to get his daughters who were nearing their marriage age. At Bath, however, Jane felt even more trapped. She failed to write for four years during her stay there.
Devon was an escape from the ear-splitting life at Bath. Jane’s regular visits to their Devon house for vacation made life better, especially with the meeting of an unknown handsome man. In one of the letters Cassandra wrote to Caroline Austen in later years, she mentions that Jane truly fell in love with that man. Alas, he died due to unforeseen conditions.
“Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.”– Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Nonetheless, in the summer of 1802, she had started compiling her manuscript for the novel Susan. She used a pen name under the disguise of Mrs. Ashton Dennis, which she used to sign as MAD. When she sent the publisher Crosby and Co her manuscript to publish it, he declined it. When asked to return the manuscript he said he would do so after she paid him a fee of Euro 10. Jane didn’t make enough money that time. Hence, she was unable to get her manuscript back.
Jane Austen’s literary career was reinforced by her Brother, Henry. He lived in Chawton. This is the same place the Austen Girls had shifted after their father’s demise. Henry helped her promote and sell her books to publishers. It was Henry and his wife Eliza who helped Austen publish her first novel in 1811, Sense and Sensibility. This novel acclaimed her profits and with this, her professional writing kicked off.
It is acclaimed that her real identity was never revealed in any of her four novels. As an emerging writer, Jane was often anxious about her writings. She had been advised to guard her novel writing as a secret. The kind of stories she wrote was looked down upon as a form of literature during the 18th century, especially her novel Mansfield Park. It was viewed to be too egocentric, and controversial.
But Henry did make it a point to introduce her sister to the literary meets. Though a secret, the peers of the realm were introduced to this stoic female writer. Henry proudly discussed her writings. But a timid Jane usually withdrew away from attention.
Her famous Novel Emma, as boastful as the protagonist has been, the backstory too was an interesting one. Before its publication, in 1815 Henry fell quite ill. One of the doctors who attended to him was close to Prince Officials. Henry did get better. As a token of appreciation, she was informed that the Royal enjoyed her initial writings.
It isn’t what we say or think that defines us, but what we do.– Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility
Thus, a special page dedicating her royalty to his highness was created. Jane quickly made arrangements to personally cater to the presentation copies. They were weaved in scarlet leather with the seal of Prince’s feather on the spine.
Later towards the end of 1816, her health took a toll. In letters exchanged between close family members, Jane complained of frequent rheumatic pains and lethargy. However, this didn’t stop her from writing. She completed the drafts of Persuasion. She also revised her novel, Northanger Abbey. Henry also bought her rights for the manuscript of Susan from Crosby and Co.
However, Jane couldn’t live through seeing her two novels getting published. She died on July 18, 1817, of an unknown disease that showed tuberculosis-like symptoms. Some modern scholars have read letters that she exchanged complaining about her health issues. They confirm that she died of an autoimmune disease called Addison’s Disease.
This time her family added an author’s note in which they introduced the real Jane Austen. One is left to ponder whether the description Henry added fits best to the real Jane or was it merely the way her family members viewed her to be as. Nonetheless, it’s her writings that have touched the hearts of readers and continue to do so.
- Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin, Vintage, 1999
- Jane Austen at Home: A Biography by Lucy Worsley, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2021
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- jane-austen: from A Memoir of Jane Austen