Austen, Jane (1775–1817)
Austen, Jane (1775–1817)
British novelist whose domestic satires of 19th-century British gentry with their witty and astute depictions of human nature are literary classics, which continue in print and in film, enthralling modern readers. Name variations: Jennie. Pronunciation: AWsten. Born Jane Austen on December 16, 1775, in the village of Steventon, England; died on July 18, 1817, in Winchester, England, probably of Addison's disease; daughter of George Austen (a cleric) and Cassandra (Leigh) Austen; attended boarding school for girls in Oxford, then Southampton, run by Ann Cooper Cawley , 1783, and the Abbey School in Reading, 1784–1786; never married; no children.
Lived with her family in Steventon (1775–1801), Bath (1801–06), Southampton (1801–09), Chawton (1809–1817); shortly before her death moved to Winchester for medical care; published her first novel (1811).
Sense and Sensibility (1811); Pride and Prejudice (1813); Mansfield Park (1814); Emma (1815); Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (1818); Lady Susan and the Watsons (1882); Love & Freindship [sic] and other Early Works (1922); Fragment of a Novel Written by Jane Austen January-March 1817 (Sanditon, 1925); Plan of a Novel according to Hints from Various Quarters (1926); Volume the First (juvenilia, 1933); Volume the Third (juvenilia, 1951); Volume the Second (juvenilia, 1963).
On Thursday morning, July 24, 1817, Jane Austen was buried in the center of the north aisle of her beloved Winchester Cathedral in a private ceremony held early to avoid disrupting the 10 o'clock services. As custom dictated, only men were in attendance—three brothers and a nephew. Jane's sister and lifelong companion Cassandra remained behind in the lodging they had shared. Earlier she had watched the mournful procession from an upper-story window, "I watched … the length of the street; and when it turned from my sight … I had lost her for ever." Jane Austen was 41.
The words that the Austen family caused to be inscribed on the tomb's black marble slab paid tribute to the "benevolence of her heart" and "the sweetness of her temper." Ignored were her authorship and her caustic wit. The novels were published anonymously during Jane's life-time—the frontispieces bore the coy attribution "By a Lady." And yet, the steady growth of Jane Austen's fame, the continued reissue of her novels to this day, and the durable appeal of her understated humor and her light satire of the 19th-century English gentry attest to the wisdom in Edmund Wilson's remark that only Shake-speare's and Jane Austen's reputations prove impervious to changes in taste and literary fashion.
Jane Austen was born on December 16, 1775, in the village of Steventon, Hampshire. The seventh of eight children, the younger of two daughters, she grew up among the parsons and squires, naval and army officers, Oxford and Cambridge fellows whom she would later satirize with gentle humor in her novels. Her father, George Austen, a conventional 18th-century cleric-scholar, had attended St. Johns, Oxford, where he later became a fellow. In 1764, he married Cassandra Leigh , the youngest daughter of Rev. Thomas Leigh, Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford. His bride boasted aristocratic relatives in the Leighs of Stoneleigh Abbey, Warwickshire; she was also the niece of Theophilius Leigh, master of Balliol for more than a half-century. By the time of their marriage George Austen was himself comfortably situated, thanks to the generosity of two kinsmen. He was given the living of Steventon (the revenue from the church) by Thomas Knight, a wealthy landowner whose son would later adopt George Austen's third son, Edward, as his heir; his uncle, Francis Austen, a wealthy solicitor who had provided for George Austen after he was orphaned at age nine, had given him the living of Deane. These revenues combined with the monies from farming some of his land and tutoring private pupils resulted in a respectable annual income of £600.
The Steventon rectory would be Jane's home for the next 25 years. During her childhood, the seven-bedroom parsonage was home for the seven children—the second son, George, suffered from some sort of handicap and lived elsewhere—and her father's private pupils. Of necessity, Jane shared a bedroom with her sister Cassandra, a practice they continued for most of their lives. And room was always found for visiting relatives—among them the family of Mrs.
Austen's sister, the Coopers, and George Austen's sister, Philadelphia Hancock , and her daughter Eliza . Eliza had grown up in French society and married a French noble in 1781 when Jane was six. In 1794 during the French Revolution, he was guillotined; Eliza would later (in 1797) marry Jane's brother Henry. She must have fascinated a young Jane growing up in a small English village.
Jane Austen's formal education was brief, desultory, and, at one point, almost fatal. In 1783, Jane, her sister Cassandra, and their cousin, another Jane (Cooper) , were sent to a girls' boarding school in Oxford run by Mrs. Cawley, a family connection. Although Jane was rather young to be sent away to school—she was only seven—her emotional ties to Cassandra were so strong that Mrs. Austen decided not to separate them. She once remarked that if Cassandra were going to have her head cut off, Jane would insist on sharing her fate. Shortly after the girls were enrolled, the school was moved to Southampton; there all three girls came down with "putrid fever" (probably either diphtheria or typhoid). For some reason, Cawley neglected to inform the girls' parents; however, after an already homesick Jane Cooper managed to get a letter to her mother, Mrs. Austen's sister, the two women descended on the school and removed their daughters. Jane Austen was very ill and almost died; her aunt, Mrs. Cooper, caught the infection from her daughter and died of it.
Next—1785—Jane and Cassandra were sent to a girls' boarding school in Reading called the Abbey because it was built on the ruins of a medieval monastery. While less dangerous to the girls' health, it was educationally ineffectual. Mrs. Latournelle , who ran the school, was memorable mostly for her cork leg. Supervision was lax and lessons were casual. The girls spent much of their time gossiping in the gardens. In 1787, George Austen decided to bring his daughters home. By then, his son James was at Oxford and Frank was at the Naval Academy in Portsmouth; Edward, already adopted by the Knights, was on the Grand Tour. Only two boys, Henry and Charles, continued to live at home. (Henry would soon join James at Oxford; in about four years Charles would leave for the Naval Academy.) Jane and Cassandra continued to share a bedroom but were now given an adjacent room as a combination sitting and dressing room. Here Jane wrote her first short pieces of fiction.
Though what passed for Jane's formal education was over by the time she was 11 years old, her intellectual horizon was considerably broader than that of most women of her social class. The usual emphasis was on acquiring the traditional female accomplishments of drawing, music, and needlework—with perhaps smatterings of foreign languages. Jane knew French along with some Italian. She enjoyed the piano and played it throughout her life, but shared neither Cassandra's passion for, nor ability in, drawing and watercolor. (The only authenticated portrait we have of Jane is a sketch by Cassandra.) But her education, which was completed at home, went beyond the norm. Following her brothers' reading suggestions, she read widely in history and in both classical and contemporary literature in her father's library, which contained 500 volumes in 1801. Perhaps more important for her subsequent development as a novelist, the Austens also subscribed to local circulating libraries, from which they frequently obtained the most recent novels. They obviously did not share the contemporary notion that novels would exert undesirable influences on the imaginations of susceptible young ladies. According to Jane, the Austens were "great novel readers, and not ashamed of being so." Indeed, the Austens often read aloud to each other; George Austen was supposed to have had an especially pleasing voice. They also staged their own amateur theatricals in a barn during the summer, moving into the dining room during the winter months.
The Austens were of consequence in local society, not only because George Austen was the parson, but also because he was regarded as the social representative of his kinsman Thomas Knight, who, though the chief landowner of the district, lived elsewhere. After Jane's coming out when she turned 16, she attended the usual social events—dinners, dances, musical evenings. During the winter, formal dances were held once each month at the Basingstoke Assembly Rooms; informal dances were often held at friends' homes with the music provided by one of their number playing the piano. She often visited friends and relatives in London, Bath, and Southampton, where she attended plays and dinners. As her brothers married and had children, she enjoyed the company of a growing number of nieces and nephews during her visits.
That neither Jane nor Cassandra married was in part the result of circumstance. Thomas Craven Fowle, to whom Cassandra was engaged in 1795, died of yellow fever in 1797 while serving as a military chaplain in the West Indies. He left his bereaved fiancée a legacy of £1,000. Jane had several suitors, including a flirtation in 1796 with Tom Lefroy, a future chief justice of Ireland, who recalled in his old age his "boyish love" for Jane. Their flirtation ended when his aunt and Jane's good friend, Mrs. Anna Lefroy , recognized that her impoverished nephew was in no financial position to marry and cut his visit short in order to prevent any more "mischief" between the two.
It was during Jane's late teenage years that the fiction writing in which she had been indulging in her sitting room began to show signs of her later remarkable talent. By 1793 or 1794, the short stories and comedies that she wrote for the family's amusement had evolved into a short epistolary novel called Lady Susan. Early versions of her later novels followed—Eleanor and Marianne (later Sense and Sensibility) and First Impressions (later Pride and Prejudice). We may assume that George Austen was not unaware of his daughter's talent; in November 1797, he offered First Impressions to the publisher Cadell, who rejected the manuscript without having read it. By then Jane was at work on Susan (Northanger Abbey), which she completed no later than 1799.
In 1800, Jane returned from a stay with friends in Ibthrop to learn from her mother that George Austen, who was almost 70 years old, had decided to retire to Bath and turn over the Steventon rectory to his eldest son, James. That Jane responded to the news by fainting suggests that neither she nor Cassandra, the only children still living at home, had been told that their father was contemplating uprooting them from the only world either of the young women had ever known. Naturally, as dependent daughters, they had no choice in the matter. Jane's initial dislike of Bath only increased following the family's relocation. Even so, she cannot be said to have led a solitary life. She took part in Bath society and continued her occasional visits to relatives and friends. During a family seaside holiday in either 1801 or 1802, Jane met a somewhat mysterious suitor, who, according to stories passed down in the family, fell in love with Jane and promised to visit the family in Bath. The attraction seems to have been mutual, and even Cassandra appears to have approved. But instead of the stranger's visit, Jane soon received word of his death. Around that same time, on an evening in 1802, Jane received and accepted a marriage proposal from Harry Biggs Withers, whose sisters were friends of Jane and Cassandra. Biggs Withers was his family's heir and was about to become a cleric. Although at 21 he was six years younger than Jane, she accepted his proposal. The next morning, however, she announced that she had changed her mind. The two Austen sisters prevailed upon their brother James to escort them back to Bath immediately, thus escaping a socially embarrassing situation.
The abortive sale of Susan (later Northanger Abbey) in 1803 to the publisher Richard Crosby for the sum of £10—he advertised the novel but then did not publish it—and Jane's inability to complete The Watsons, which she began in 1804 and abandoned in 1805, marked the end of Jane Austen's early productive phase and the onset of an extended period of literary inactivity. She was entering a difficult time in her life. Condemned to live in a town she increasingly disliked, surely disillusioned at being deprived of the satisfaction of her novel's publication, she was soon rocked by tragedy among her friends and family. In December 1804, she learned that her dear friend, Anna Lefroy, had died as the result of a fall from a horse. A month later, in January 1805, her father died. The emotional blow of George Austen's death was compounded by the severe financial hardship that it brought in its wake. Deprived of his income, Mrs. Austen and her daughters had only the £210 deriving from Mrs. Austen's annuity and the interest on Cassandra's legacy from Tom Fowle to support them. Severely straitened circumstances were avoided only because Jane's brothers agreed to contribute specific yearly amounts and thus raise Mrs. Austen's annual income to roughly £450. In April, Martha Lloyd , an old friend of the family and their brother James' sister-in-law, moved in with them. She brought her own small income. Even so, in 1806, the women moved to Southampton in order to share first lodgings and then a house with Jane's brother Frank and his new bride. Although Jane considered the move from Bath a "happy escape," as she later wrote Cassandra, they still lacked a permanent home. That source of insecurity ended only in 1809, when Jane's brother Edward offered them a six-bedroom "cottage," in the village of Chawton in Hampshire, which was only about a mile from Edward's Hampshire estate and near Steventon, where brother James now served as the local rector.
She sat musing on the difference of woman's destiny.
—From Jane Austen's Emma
Jane Austen had written nothing since putting aside The Watsons in 1805, but now, with the return to familiar surroundings and the small country society of family and friends, she picked up her pen again. In the general sitting room, where, according to her nephew, a creaking door warned her of imminent intrusion, she began revising manuscripts that she had laid aside a decade before. Of Eleanor and Marianne she made Sense and Sensibility; First Impressions became Pride and Prejudice. Sense and Sensibility, which she published anonymously at her own expense in November 1811, was an immediate success. After completing the revision of Pride and Prejudice, Jane began working on
Mansfield Park in 1812. Pride and Prejudice appeared in January 1813, and second printings of both Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice were issued later in that same year. She received, however, no additional income from the second edition of Pride and Prejudice—she had sold it outright for £110. Mansfield Park, which appeared in 1814, sold out in six months. By then Jane was already at work on Emma, which came out in December 1815.
Despite the success of her novels (only the second edition of Mansfield Park in 1816 showed disappointing sales), Jane Austen receive little money and less fame as a result of her fiction. She made £150 from Sense and Sensibility in 1811; from her later novels, she realized a total of £700. As for her anonymity, the customs of the time, to which Jane Austen firmly adhered, prescribed that ladies of good breeding shun the limelight. It was not until 1813 that word of her authorship spread beyond the family circle, and even then only a few knew to whom the attribution "By a Lady" actually referred. One, interestingly enough, was an ardent fan: the prince regent, later George IV, kept a set of her novels at each of his houses. At his request—in regal terms, he granted her permission—Emma was dedicated to him. The larger reading public would only come to know the author's name after her death, when her brother Henry, who supervised the posthumous publication of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, appended a biographical note identifying Jane Austen as the author of these and previous novels.
By 1816, Jane was seriously ill. Even so, in August she managed to finish Persuasion, which she had begun a year earlier. In that same year, through the emissary of her brother Henry, she bought back the rights to Susan and revised it under a new title, Northanger Abbey. In January 1817, she began Sanditon but abandoned it in March; she grew increasingly weak as her health declined. Diagnosed as suffering from "bile," she probably had Addison's disease, which, at that time, was fatal. In May 1817, at the suggestion of her doctor, she moved to Winchester to be near a surgeon named Lyford who enjoyed considerable reputation. There, in lodgings in College Street,
nursed by her sister Cassandra and attended by her brothers, James and Henry, she died on July 18, 1817, at age 41. Six days later, she was interred in her beloved Winchester Cathedral.
Austen, Jane. Jane Austen's Letters to her sister Cassandra and Others. Collected and edited by R.W. Chapman. London: Oxford University Press, 1952.
Austen-Leigh, James Edward. Memoir of Jane Austen. Introduction, Notes, & Index by R.W. Chapman. 1870 (available in many editions).
Cecil, David. A Portrait of Jane Austen. NY: Hill and Wang, 1978.
Halperin, John. The Life of Jane Austen. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984.
Laski, Marghanita. Jane Austen and her World. NY: The Viking Press, 1969.
Austen, Jane. My Dear Cassandra: The Letters of Jane Austen. Edited by Penelope Hughes-Hallett. NY: Clarkson Potter, 1991.
Nokes, David. Jane Austen: A Life. NY: Farrar, Straus, 1997.
Tomalin, Claire. Jane Austen: A Life. NY: Knopf, 1997.
Tucker, George Holbert. Jane Austen, the Woman. Some Biographical Insights. NY: St. Martin's Press, c. 1994.
related media—a selection:
"Emma" (sound recording; 205 min), performed by Anna Massey , abridged by Ursula Wood , Norton, distributed by Audio-Forum, 1979.
Clueless, starring Alicia Silverstone , a movie freely adapted from Emma, 1995.
Emma, starring Gwyneth Paltrow , by writer-director Douglas McGrath, 1996.
"Mansfield Park" (VHS; 261 min), BBC Video, 1987.
"Persuasion" (sound recording; 260 min), performed by Alison Fiske, abridged by Donald Bancroft, Norton, distributed by Audio-Forum, 1979.
Persuasion, movie starring Amanda Root and Susan Fleetwood, directed by Roger Michell, 1995.
Pride and Prejudice, starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier, screenplay by Aldous Huxley, directed by Robert Z. Leonard, Loew's, 1940.
"Pride and Prejudice" (sound recording; 57 min), read by Claire Bloom, 1958.
"Pride and Prejudice, or, First Impressions" (VHS; 226 min), BBC production, starring Elizabeth Garvie and David Rintoul, directed by Cyril Coke, 1985.
"Pride and Prejudice" (6 hour) BBC production, starring Jennifer Ehle ; adapted by Andrew Davies and directed by Simon Langton, 1996.
"Sense and Sensibility" (VHS; close captioned; 174 min), starring Irene Richard and Tracey Childs, BBC Video, CBS/Fox Video, 1987.
"Sense and Sensibility" (sound recording; 56 min); read by Claire Bloom, 1979.
Early editions, miscellaneous and collateral materials including translations, critical studies, works by Jane Austen's contemporaries, background literature about her life and times, and audiovisual representations located in the Henry and Alberta Hirshheimer Burke Collection, Goucher College, Baltimore, Maryland.
Letters and manuscripts, Pierpoint Morgan Library, New York.
Carole Shelton , Adjunct Professor of History, Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro, Tennessee