Editor’s Note: This article on Jane Austen is the first in a new ongoing series at Anglotopia about great British historical figures called Great Britons. We have twelve already written and if they’re popular, we will continue with the series. We plan to publish one a week on Wednesdays.
Key Facts about Jane Austen
- Born December 16, 1775, died July 18, 1817 (aged 41)
- Considered transitional in the development of the modern English novel
- Only became famous long after her death
- Has developed near-cult status among her many fans
A Short Biography of Jane Austen
Jane Austen was born and lived her whole life among the lower ranks of the gentry. The English gentry were and to some extent still are part of the upper middle-class, distinguished by the possession of country homes and often surrounding land leased to farmers. They differ from the nobility who have titles, large estates and considerable wealth. The gentry usually enjoy comfortable lives and private educations but often lack significant wealth or power. Uncorrupted by the struggle for power they represent a gentler, kinder English class of refined manners, charity and modest learning.
It was of these people that Jane Austen wrote. Her novels involve generally kind, polite people who fall in love and while tugging at the strings of convention rarely break with it. Her main theme was the need for women to marry for the sake of social and economic security and the personal issues this raised. So her work strikes a chord with modern middle-class women who balance independence and family while still cherishing romantic love.
Jane’s father George spent most of her life as a pastor at the Anglican church of Steventon, Hampshire. He also farmed and took three or four boys at a time into his house where he tutored them. This was a time when schooling was not a state responsibility. Jane had six brothers and one sister. The two sisters never married and they must have seen the advantages and opportunities their brothers had compared to themselves.
Just as her father took in children to educate, so Jane, when aged seven, and her sister Cassandra, who was two years older, were sent away to the home of a Mrs Ann Cawley who lived in Oxford and later in Southampton. Both became ill with typhus and Jane almost died, so she returned home but was sent – again with her sister – to boarding school in 1785. They only spent one year at school before return home because her family could not afford to any longer pay for their education. The rest of Jane’s education was acquired through reading from her father’s library and that of a wealthy uncle, Warren Hastings. Her father encouraged her writing and drawing and bought expensive paper and equipment for both her and Cassandra. She spent the rest of her life living in her parent’s homes.
One attribute of the gentry was tolerance and good manners, so ideas seem to have been freely debated in the house. As was common before radio and television, the family entertained itself by the children putting on plays and performances, so by 1787, while still in her early teens, Jane began writing poems, stories and plays for family amusement.
In these early writings she shows a satirical side, writing parodies of the history books she had read and of the novels of sensibility popular at the time. Novels of sensibility emphasized the emotions of the characters, rather than plot and were meant to be models for the proper way to show feelings, at that time an important social skill.
In 1800 her father, by then seventy, decided to move the family to a house in Bath, and being near the coast summers were spent at the sea-side. In 1805 her father died and her mother, Jane and Cassandra were left as the household since all her brothers were now married and had their own homes.
While her father was alive Jane lived the typical life of a single young woman of her class. She passed her time playing piano, sewing, directing servants, caring for sick and pregnant female relatives and writing letters. She loved to attend dances, which were a common social activity of the time and a place for young women to meet prospective husbands. However Jane seems to have had few romantic involvements. There was a brief interest in a Thomas Lefroy who was however too poor to be a suitable husband. Later there was a mysterious possible romance with an unknown man who died suddenly. She did at one time accept a proposal from a Harris Bigg-Wither, but changed her mind the following day.
With the death of her father the three women had a much-reduced income and became dependent on support from her brothers. In 1806 they moved from Bath to Southampton, to be near her brothers Frank and Charles who were in the navy and based at nearby Portsmouth.
Jane had already sold one of her novels – Northanger Abbey – in 1803, for £10. In 1811 she sold Sense and Sensibility, with the author named as ‘A Lady’. She made £140 from the first edition. She received favourable reviews and the novel became fashionable to read. This was followed by Pride and Prejudice and in 1814 by Mansfield Park. Her brother Henry lived in London and acted as an informal literary agent for her. He was well-connected and through him Jane mixed in social circles that would otherwise have been outside her social milieu.
In 1815 she published Emma, but this was not as well received as her earlier novels had been.
During 1816 she became ill and had to abandon work on her latest novel – Sanditon. By the middle of 1817 she was moved to Winchester where on July 18 she died, aged 41. The cause of her death has been variously described as Addison’s disease, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, bovine tuberculosis and Brill-Zinsser disease.
He brother Henry arranged for her to be buried in Winchester Cathedral. He also arranged for her novels to be re-published and revealed who she was in a prologue.
Jane Austen’s Legacy
Jane’s novels were continuously in print from the 1830’s on. However they did not conform to Victorian tastes, which favored Dickens and George Elliot. It was not until the 1880s, with the publication of a memoir of her life, that her popularity grew. This popularity developed into the first ‘subculture’ – perhaps best defined as people who were obsessed with every detail of the life and work of someone.
The term Janeites was and still is used to describe these people, who read her works repeatedly, have teas and costume balls, take pilgrimages and attend readings. The term is usually meant in a derogatory way.
However unlike most other subcultures, Jane Austen is read and studied in Universities and discussed at a serious academic level as an important pre-cursor of the modern novel, which broke with both the 17th century style of writing novels as an exchange of letters (epistolary novels) and the novels of sensibility.
Jane Austen Sites to Visit Today
Her house in Chawton, Hampshire where she spent the last eight years of her life is a museum. (We’ve been there, it’s worth a visit).
There is an annual Jane Austen festival in the city of Bath. A house where she lived in Bath can be seen. The whole city is Regency style and very evocative of the period. (We can’t really recommend the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, it’s not really worth a visit).
Chatsworth House, Derbyshire can be visited. It is mentioned in Pride and Prejudice and is often used as the location for ‘Pemberley’ in film and TV adaptations.
Steventon and the village Jane was born in can be visited, but the rectory where she lived has been demolished.
There is a plaque in Winchester Cathedral where she is buried.
Further Jane Austen Research
Films of Austen novels include: Pride and Prejudice starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier (1940); Sense and Sensibility starring Emma Thompson (1995); numerous BBC productions which closely follow the text, including the mini-series Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle.
All her books, including incomplete works completed by other family members are in print.
There are many biographies of her too numerous to mention and books covering life during the Regency period.
The Real Jane Austen – BBC – 2002 – 1 Hour
Pride and Prejudice: Having a Ball – Throwing a Jane Austen Ball – 90 Minutes
Jane Austen’s Life – 1 Hour