Jane Austen: A Biography

By Karli Hall (appearing as Elizabeth Bennet in BYU’s Pride and Prejudice)

Jane Austen, 1775-1817

Jane Austen, 1775-1817

Jane Austen was born on December 16, 1775, at Steventon Rectory in Hampshire, the seventh child of a country clergyman and his wife, George and Cassandra Austen, both members of gentry families. After a few months at home, her mother placed Jane with Elizabeth Littlewood, a woman living nearby, who nursed and raised her for a year or eighteen months. She was primarily educated at home, benefiting from her father’s extensive library and the schoolroom atmosphere created by Mr. Austen’s live-in pupils. Her closest friend was her only sister, Cassandra, almost three years her senior. In 1783, according to family tradition, Jane and Cassandra were sent to Oxford to be educated by Mrs. Ann Cawley and they moved with her to Southampton later in the year. Both girls caught typhus and Jane nearly died. Austen was subsequently educated at home, until leaving for boarding school with her sister Cassandra early in 1785. The school curriculum probably included some French, spelling, needlework, dancing and music and, perhaps, drama. By December 1786, Jane and Cassandra had returned home because the Austens could not afford to send both of their daughters to school.

Austen acquired the remainder of her education by reading books, guided by her father and her brothers James and Henry. George Austen apparently gave his daughters unfettered access to his large and varied library, was tolerant of Austen’s sometimes risqué experiments in writing, and provided both sisters with expensive paper and other materials for their writing and drawing. According to Park Honan, a biographer of Austen, life in the Austen home was lived in “an open, amused, easy intellectual atmosphere” where the ideas of those with whom the Austens might disagree politically or socially were considered and discussed. After returning from school in 1786, Austen “never again lived anywhere beyond the bounds of her immediate family environment”.

Though Austen lived a quiet life, she had unusual access to the greater world, primarily through her brothers.  Francis (Frank) and Charles, officers in the Royal Navy, served on ships around the world and saw action in the Napoleonic Wars. Henry, who eventually became a clergyman like his father and his brother James, was an officer in the militia and later a banker.  Austen visited Henry in London, where she attended the theater, art exhibitions, and social events and also corrected proofs of her novels.  Her brother Edward was adopted by wealthy cousins, the Knights, becoming their heir and later taking their name.  On extended visits to Godmersham, Edward’s estate in Kent, Austen and her sister took part in the privileged life of the landed gentry, which is reflected in all her fiction.

Godmersham Park, the estate of Jane Austen's brother, Edward Austen-Knight.

Godmersham Park, the estate of Jane Austen’s brother, Edward Austen-Knight.

As a child Austen began writing comic stories, now referred to as the Juvenilia.  Her first mature work, composed when she was about 19, was a novella, Lady Susan, written in epistolary form (as a series of letters).  This early fiction was preserved by her family but was not published until long after her death.

As Austen grew into adulthood, she continued to live at her parents’ home, carrying out those activities normal for women of her age and social standing: she practiced the pianoforte, assisted her sister and mother with supervising servants, and attended female relatives during childbirth and older relatives on their deathbeds. She sent short pieces of writing to her newborn nieces Fanny Catherine and Jane Anna Elizabeth. Austen was particularly proud of her accomplishments as a seamstress. She also attended church regularly, socialized frequently with friends and neighbors, and read novels — often of her own composition — aloud with her family in the evenings. Socializing with the neighbors often meant dancing, either impromptu in someone’s home after supper or at the balls held regularly at the assembly rooms in the town hall. Her brother Henry later said that “Jane was fond of dancing, and excelled in it”.

After finishing Lady Susan, Austen attempted her first full-length novel — “Elinor and Marianne.” Her sister Cassandra later remembered that it was read to the family ‘before 1796’ and was told through a series of letters. Without surviving original manuscripts, there is no way to know how much of the original draft survived in the novel published in 1811 as Sense and Sensibility. Austen began work on a second novel, “First Impressions,” in 1796. She completed the initial draft in August 1797 when she was only 21 (it later became Pride and Prejudice); as with all of her novels, Austen read the work aloud to her family as she was working on it and it became an “established favorite”. Her father sent a letter offering the manuscript of “First Impressions” to a publisher soon after it was finished in 1797, but his offer was rejected by return post.

Jane's writing table, displayed at Chawton Cottage today.

Jane’s writing table, displayed at Chawton Cottage today.

During the middle of 1798, after finishing revisions of Elinor and Marianne, Austen began writing a third novel with the working title Susan — later Northanger Abbey — a satire on the popular Gothic novel. Austen completed her work about a year later. In early 1803, Henry Austen offered Susan to Benjamin Crosby, a London publisher, who paid £10 for the copyright. Crosby promised early publication and went so far as to advertise the book publicly as being “in the press”, but did nothing more. The manuscript remained in Crosby’s hands, unpublished, until Austen repurchased the copyright from him in 1816.

When Austen was 25 years old, her father retired, and she and Cassandra moved with their parents to Bath, residing first at 4 Sydney Place.  During the five years she lived in Bath (1801-1806), Austen began one novel, The Watsons, which she never completed.

In December 1802, Austen received her only known proposal of marriage. She and her sister visited Alethea and Catherine Bigg, old friends who lived near Basingstoke. Their younger brother, Harris Bigg-Wither, had recently finished his education at Oxford and was also at home. Bigg-Wither proposed and Austen accepted. As described by Caroline Austen, Jane’s niece, and Reginald Bigg-Wither, a descendant, Harris was not attractive — he was a large, plain-looking man who spoke little, stuttered when he did speak, was aggressive in conversation, and almost completely tactless. However, Austen had known him since both were young and the marriage offered many practical advantages to Austen and her family. He was the heir to extensive family estates located in the area where the sisters had grown up. With these resources, Austen could provide her parents a comfortable old age, give Cassandra a permanent home and, perhaps, assist her brothers in their careers. By the next morning, Austen realized she had made a mistake and withdrew her acceptance. No contemporary letters or diaries describe how Austen felt about this proposal.

In 1814, Austen wrote a letter to her niece, Fanny Knight, who had asked for advice about a serious relationship, telling her that “having written so much on one side of the question, I shall now turn around & entreat you not to commit yourself farther, & not to think of accepting him unless you really do like him. Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection”.

Chawton Cottage, where Jane Austen lived as an adult with her mother and sister Cassandra.

Chawton Cottage, where Jane Austen lived as an adult with her mother and sister Cassandra.

In 1809 Edward provided the women a comfortable cottage in the village of Chawton, near his Hampshire manor house.  This was the beginning of Austen’s most productive period.  In 1811, at the age of 35, Austen published Sense and Sensibility, which identified the author as “a Lady.” Pride and Prejudice followed in 1813, Mansfield Park in 1814, and Emma in 1815.  The title page of each book referred to one or two of Austen’s earlier novels—capitalizing on her growing reputation—but did not provide her name.

Austen began writing the novel that would be called Persuasion in 1815 and finished it the following year, by which time, however, her health was beginning to fail.  The probable cause of her illness was Addison’s Disease.  In 1816, Henry Austen repurchased the rights to “Susan,” which Austen revised and renamed “Catherine.” During a brief period of strength early in 1817, Austen began the fragment later called Sanditon, but by March she was too ill to work.  On April 27 she wrote her will, naming Cassandra as her heir.  In May she and Cassandra moved to 8 College Street in Winchester to be near her doctor.  Austen died in the early hours of July 18, 1817, and a few days later was buried in Winchester Cathedral.  She was 41 years old.

A watercolor of Jane painted by Cassandra, circa 1810.

A watercolor of Jane painted by Cassandra, circa 1810.

Sources:

“The Jane Austen Society of North America.” – About Jane Austen. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Jan. 2014. http://www.jasna.org/info/about_austen.ht.

“Jane Austen.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 18 Jan. 2014. Web. 25 Jan. 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jane_austen

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