by Gracelyn Anderson
Jane Austen entered the world fashionably late by one month on December 16, 1775, as one of the seven Austen children. The Austens resided in a parsonage in Steventon, England, and started a small school for boys in their home to provide extra income along with working their usual occupations. Although Jane’s family was constantly working to make a living, her early life was far from dull. As Meredith Hindley writes in her article ‘The Mysterious Miss Austen’: “From an early age, Austen’s world was full of boyish antics, bawdy humor, and outdoor exploration.” Jane had a natural tomboyish instinct, which she picked up from her five brothers.
At age seven, Jane and her sister Cassandra were sent to a girl’s school in Oxford, but it was short lived as they returned home a year later when sick with typhoid. Another year passed and the Austen girls enrolled at Mrs. La Tournelle’s Ladies’ Boarding School in reading, but stayed only for a year. As Hindley writes: “Austen’s experience, however brief, left her with little regard for girls’ schools. In Emma, she writes scathingly of schools that ‘professed, in long sentences of refined nonsense, to combine liberal acquirements with elegant morality upon new principles and new systems-and where young ladies for enormous pay might be screwed out of health and into vanity.’”
Most of Jane’s education came from her father’s library and her lively and affectionate family circle. Jane used the library frequently, reading book after book and writing extensively. Mr. Austen encouraged Jane’s interest in writing and bought her expensive paper and pencils, even though he needed to save every penny. The entire family also put on home productions, adding to Jane’s dramatic experience, which would prove a help in later years when becoming an author. As Renee Warren has written: “One can only assume that it was in these excersises that the true talent of Jane Austen was being nurtured-through observation, improvisation, acting and participation.” Most of all, it was the world that Jane drew from to write. Her early experiences in life paved the way for the her well-known works.
By the age of nineteen, Jane Austen had begun working on “Elinor and Marianne,” which would later become Sense and Sensibility. Jane had been fearlessly experimenting with writing up to the point when she began her first novel. Jane acquired firsthand experience with the cruelty of a world dictated by money over love (much in evidence in her novel Sense and Sensibility) when she fell for a twenty year old Irishman named Tom Lefroy during the Christmas season of 1795-1796. In one of her letters to Cassandra, she confessed her love and feelings about him. In another letter to follow a week later, she wrote that she dreaded seeing him at a dance they were both to attend. Whatever understanding there may have been between them, the matter was allowed to go no further, and Lefroy would later marry an heiress.
Although Jane never married, she was received an unexpected proposal in 1802. Jane’s friends decided to play matchmaker, putting Jane and their younger brother, Harris, together. While he was an educated and sweet man, five years her junior, he was socially awkward. Jane was flattered and agreed to the proposal at first, but after she slept on it for a night, she reconsidered and refused his hand.“She esteemed him, she was honoured by his proposal, but on thinking it over she realized that esteem and respect were not enough, and that she would not be behaving fairly or rightly towards him if she accepted the offer of his hand,” as her biographer Claire Tomalin puts it. Jane remained single for the rest of her life.
Jane Austen was destined for writing. She began “First Impressions” otherwise known as Pride and Prejudice in the autumn of 1796, little guessing that two centuries later it would remain one of the most popular books in the English language. As the Jane Austen Centre’s Jenni Waugh notes: “Her greatest work in terms of popularity has to be Pride and Prejudice. Not only is it the book most of our visitors cite as their favourite when asked, but it was also voted the book the nation can’t live without in 2007, while in 2013 it topped the list of teachers’ favourite books (as compiled by the Times Educational Supplement).” In the years 1795 to 1799, Jane wrote early versions of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Northanger Abbey. It is, as Hindley notes, “an extraordinary period of productivity, particularly given that she was still in her early twenties. That makes the dearth of writing over the next decade a bit of a puzzle. The letters that survive don’t hint at writer’s block or a lack of interest in writing. Instead, they reveal a life in a constant state of upheaval.”
By 1803, Northanger Abbey was offered to a London publishing company for ten pounds and even after a small advertisement, the novel never appeared. Jane moved on and decided to begin “The Watsons.” Her father died in 1805 and so Austen put “The Watsons” aside for good, due to its parallels to her own life. In July of 1809 she left to Chawton, a small town outside of London to live in a cottage. This cottage provided the environment in which she could write again and she began revising Sense and Sensibility promptly. Finally in 1810, Thomas Egerton of the Military Library agreed to publish Sense and Sensibility. Though she retianed copyright, Jane was obliged to cover the costs of printing and distribution. Egerton published the novel that October. An advertisement appeared in the Morning Chronicle not long after, announcing “A new novel by a lady.” She would make little from the work, but was inspired by the satisfaction of knowing the book was being read and and acclaimed.
Society became as fascinated by her exemplary, quiet life as by her novels. Soon Egerton wanted another book, and so she began editing “First Impressions,” changing the title to Pride and Prejudice because the original had already been used. “P. & P. is sold.—Egerton gives £110 for it.—I would rather have had £150, but we could not both be pleased, & I am not at all surprised that he should not chuse to hazard, so much.—It’s’ being sold will I hope be a great saving of Trouble to Henry, & and therefore must be welcome to me,” she wrote in November of 1812. Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813 with reviews highly favourable. More books followed, including Mansfield Park in 1814 and Emma in 1815. But while working on Persuasion, Jane’s health started to decline. By the spring of 1817 she was completely bedridden, and on July 18 she passed away. Her exact cause of death remains a subject of speculation, but most accounts favour Addison’s disease. Her final novel, “Sanditon,” was left unfinished, but two other completed novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, were published in December of 1817.
Jane Austen died never guessing the extent of her posthumous success. She received little for her works and was not widely appreciated. However, in the modern age, she is esteemed as one of the greatest authors of all time. As Helen Lefroy writes: “Perhaps Austen was so ahead of her time, she couldn’t be completely understood by her contemporaries. Austen knew her characters went against the grain and that she was out of step with her times. It is a shame Austen never got to see her legacy. We buy into her work to such an extent that there is an endless stream of film and TV adaptations, sequels, prequels, mash-ups and homages.”
Jenni Waugh adds: “Any author who’s still read as widely as Jane is 200 years after their death must be fairly good! Specifically, a couple of things which make Jane such a great author, in my opinion, is that she was a great observer of people, and she wrote characters and stories which are still recognizable and relevant today. Women may no longer be reliant on marrying well in order to save themselves from destitution, but we all know a Mr Collins who always says the wrong thing, or a Mrs Bennet who is always ill, or an Emma Woodhouse who insists on knowing just what is best for everyone! Her stories too, being based on love and romance, will be relevant for as long as love and romance is a part of our lives. It’s impossible to list all of the reasons that Jane is such a great author, but one thing which most of her readers can agree on is that she brings joy to their lives. At the Jane Austen Centre our main focus is to promote Jane Austen’s legacy, and also to tell our visitors about the influence which the city of Bath had on Jane’s writing. Each year we have 130,000 visitors from countries all around the world. In terms of where our visitors mainly come from we don’t have exact numbers, but around 60% are from the UK, then the most common nationalities of our visitors are (in descending order) American, French, Australian and Italian.”
Often romances are considered just for women, but her works are so brilliant they transcend such artificial boundaries. Deidre Lynch, who lectures in English at the University of Toronto, observes: “One curious thing is that 100 years ago Austen was read mostly by men. Now it’s a woman’s thing because of the way the films have been marketed.’” “Also read again and for the third time at least Miss Austen’s very finely written novel of Pride and Prejudice,’ wrote Sir Walter Scott in March 1826. Scott was known for sweeping historical romances, but he also valued Austen’s limited canvas. ‘That young lady had a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The Big Bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting, from the truth of the description and the sentiment, is denied to me. What a pity such a gifted creature died so early.” As Lefroy notes, contemporary male readers “were surprised that such a clever book could have been written by a woman.”
Jane Austen matters not only because she was a woman in a time when it was by no means easy for a woman to earn her living by her pen, but because she was the most honest writer of the time. She wrote of the hardships women experienced in her time and also what thoughts were provoked and how different people dealt with them. Lefroy writes: “Critics accuse Jane of being obsessed with money and rich relations. But both were a necessity in the society of which she belonged.” She wrote of first impressions, she wrote of financial difficulties, she wrote of men who used women, she wrote of men who dearly loved women, she wrote of women like snakes, she wrote of true heroines, she wrote of that annoying cousin or the embarrassing member of that family in social settings. She wrote the real, she wrote the gritty, but she worked it in a way that was enjoyable to read. “Each generation have looked for their own reflection in the novels, admiring and rejecting, cutting and pasting as fashion demands,” as Amanda Vickery puts it. “Everyone recognises the situations she deals with,” notes Lefroy. “She showed that a writer doesn’t have to go to big, topical or historical themes in order to be relevant: there’s plenty of human material right in front of you.” Jane Austen matters and will continue to matter for centuries because she writes honestly, and people will always find the truth about themselves, their acquaintances and their situations in her pages.
Hindley, Meredith: “The Mysterious Miss Austen.” Humanities, 2013
Lefroy, Helen: Jane Austen. Stroud: The History Press, 2011
Tomalin, Claire: Jane Austen: A Life. New York: Vintage , 1997
Vickery, Amanda: “200 years on, why Jane Austen’s lovers find new reasons for their passion.” The Guardian, 17 Dec. 2011
Warren, Renee: “Jane Austen Biography.” Jane Austen, 10 Jan. 2017
Gracelyn Anderson is a fifteen year old student who enjoys writing whenever she has a free moment. She plans on going to college to study screenwriting and directing. Jane Austen’s works have been a great influence on her writing and she hopes to leave a legacy as impactful as Miss Austen’s.