Learn Facts About Jane Austen
As critic Gary Kelly has observed, "Jane Austen is one of the few novelists in world literature who is regarded as a 'classic' and yet is widely read." Though her novels were by no means autobiographical, the facts of her life do shed light on her fiction -- and more importantly, they offer aspiring writers one model of how great works of literature are created.
- The seventh child of George Austen and Cassandra Leigh Austen, Jane Austen was born in Steventon, a village in southern England in 1775.
- In her lifetime she completed six novels, including Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion. Four of them were published before her death.
- Her father George Austen, a clergyman, also ran a school for boys in the family home and parsonage to supplement the family's income.
- Cassandra Leigh Austen was from a higher social rank than her husband and gave Jane Austen the sense of social class that underlies many of her novels. She did not seem to regret the fall in social standing, however, and was a cheerful wife and mother to the family.
- In 1783, Jane Austen and her older sister Cassandra went to be educated by their aunt Ann Cooper Cawley, the widow of the head of an Oxford college. From there, they went on to Abbey School, a boarding school for girls. Apart from these years, Austen was educated by her father.
- Austen honed her comic abilities by writing for her family, in particular, her older, Oxford-educated brothers, whom she admired intensely. Though the entire family was literary, only Austen would become a published novelist.
- An extremely shy girl, Jane Austen's family was the center of her world. Even at boarding school, she made few friends, preferring Cassandra's company.
- Austen gained her knowledge of life at sea -- important, for instance, in Persuasion -- through her brother Frank, who had a successful career in the British Navy and was closest in age to Jane.
- For her first love, Austen got a story worthy of one of her novels -- one that in fact has certain things in common with that of Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility. The object of her love, Tom Lefroy, was the Irish nephew of her close friend Anne Lefroy. Knowing that Tom would lose his inheritance if he married a "nobody," Anne Lefroy hurried Tom out of the country when the romance came to her attention. (Tom later became the Chief Justice of Ireland.)
- While fans of the movie The Jane Austen Book Club might be encouraged to think, "What would Jane do?" in times of romantic crisis, her pursuit of Tom Lefroy, which violated the social mores of her time, indicates that she might not be the best choice. Cassandra was the sensible one, striving to keep Jane in check. Before the romance was broken off, Jane wrote her a teasing letter, "You scold me so much in the nice long letter which I have at this moment received from you, that I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together."
- At least one biographer hints that Jane Austen's cousin Eliza, Comtesse de Feuillide, provided a model for Elizabeth Bennett's vivacity and wit, though some of her actions more closely resemble Mansfield Park's worldly Mary Crawford. While visiting the Austens -- leaving her husband at home in France with his mistress -- Eliza flirted with two of Jane's brothers, Henry and James, in the course of putting on a play for the family. (Eliza's husband was guillotined during the French Revolution; she would in fact later marry Henry Austen.)
- Austen's second notable romance occurred while the family was vacationing on the coast at Sidmouth in Devon in the summer of 1801. Austen apparently met and fell in love with a young clergyman, who made plans to meet the family again later in their travels (a good sign that he planned to propose). However, he died unexpectedly before he could join them. The incident strengthened the bond between the two sisters, as Cassandra had earlier lost her fiancé.
- Jane Austen wrote an early draft of Sense and Sensibility in the early 1790s and then revised it heavily before it was published in 1811. Likewise, sixteen years would pass between the time that her father first tried to get First Impressions published and the time that the novel appeared as Pride and Prejudice in 1813.
- Northanger Abbey was acquired by a publisher in 1803 but was not published until after Austen's death.
- Finances forced the Austens to leave Steventon for Bath, a change that upset Austen greatly. Some biographers assert that the situation hurt her writing, as she did not have a private place in which to write and was forced into Bath to socialize more than before.
- In Bath, Austen spent time with a known adulterer, who made better conversation than others provided in the superficial spa town -- and who had a fashionable open carriage. Their meetings distressed her aunt, but provided Austen with more fodder for teasing her sister: "There is now something like an engagement between us and the Phaeton, which to confess my frailty I have a great desire to go out in."
- Another romantic faux pas occurred when Jane Austen accepted a marriage proposal only to revise her decision the next morning. The suitor, Harris Wither, was six years younger than she, ill-mannered, and quick-tempered. Surprised by the proposal, she accepted on the spot, knowing that his wealth and position would mean security for her family. As her biographer, Park Noonan writes, "When Mr. Austen died their income would be so reduced that she, her mother and Cassandra might face penury. . . . to have said no to Harris Wither would have been patently foolish and very nearly selfish." Nonetheless, after a sleepless night spent considering her life as the future Mrs. Wither, she called off the engagement, creating something of a scandal and putting a lasting strain on the relationship between their two families.
- When her father died in 1805, Austen ceased work on a novel she'd begun entitled The Watsons. It was the only time in her life that she was not writing or revising something. After only a few months, however, Austen returned to a novella she'd begun earlier, Lady Susan.
- In 1806, Mrs. Austen, Jane, Cassandra, and a friend, Martha, left Bath, eventually settling together in a house in the village of Chawton. In the years that Austen lived at Chawton Cottage, she woke every morning, practiced the pianoforte before anyone else got up, cooked breakfast for the household, and then retired to write, free of further household duties. She apparently worked in a room that was both a hallway and a dining room, but the room had a squeaky door. Austen refused to have the door repaired, ensuring that she had notice of anyone's approach.
- The Chawton years were by far her most productive. She revised and published Pride and Prejudice (1813) and Sense and Sensibility (1811), and wrote Emma (1815), Mansfield Park (1814), and Persuasion, which, along with Northanger Abbey, was published posthumously. During her life, she earned about L684.13 in total from her writing.
- Around 1816, Austen began to suffer from a debilitating and painful illness, which was never diagnosed. Today it's believed to have been Addisons Disease, a tubercular disease of the kidneys. Cassandra was with her when she died in 1817 at age 41. She was buried in Winchester Cathedral.
- Almost a hundred years later, Virginia Woolf wrote about her, "Here was a woman about the year 1800 writing without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching. That was how Shakespeare wrote and when people compare Shakespeare and Jane Austen, they may mean that the minds of both had consumed all impediments; and for that reason, we do not know Jane Austen, and we do not know Shakespeare, and for that reason, Jane Austen pervades every word she wrote, and so does Shakespeare."
If you've never read Jane Austen, and curious about what her prose is like, you can read a short exchange from Pride and Prejudice in an article, "Examples of Third Person."