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Biography of Jane Austen (1775-1817)

Jane Austen Jane Austen

Jane Austen was born on December 16, 1775, at Steventon rectory in Hampshire, England. Her father, Reverend George Austen (1731-1805) was the rector at Steventon, and had married Cassandra Leigh Austen (1739-1827), a daughter of a patrician family, in 1764. Austen was the youngest daughter of the large, closely-knit family, with six brothers and one sister. She was particularly close to her sister, Cassandra, and her brother, Henry, who later became his sister’s literary agent.

When Austen was eight years old, she and Cassandra were sent to Oxford and then Southhampton to be educated. After an outbreak of typhus at the school, during which Jane nearly died, both girls returned home to continue their education. From 1785 to 1786, Austen and her sister attended the Reading Ladies Boarding School, where they studied French, spelling, needlework, music, and dancing. Forced to return home for economic reasons, Austen nevertheless continued to develop her literary mind under the guidance of her father, who maintained a large library and indulged his daughters with materials for writing and drawing.

Beginning in her teen years, Austen wrote poems, stories, and comic pieces for the amusement of her family. She compiled several of the pieces written between 1787 and 1793 into three bound notebooks, which are now referred to as Austen’s “Juvenalia.” Austen was also exposed to drama and comedy; the family's younger children often staged theatrical productions at home. As she continued her experiments in writing, Austen became adept at parodying the sentimental and Gothic style of eighteenth-century novels. Among her early works, one finds a comic novel with a deliberately misspelled title, “Love and Freindship”; a satirical “History of England”; and the epistolary work, “Lady Susan.” During this time, Austen also began to sketch out ideas for the novel that would later become Sense and Sensibility.

In 1795, while still living at Steventon, Austen met Tom Lefroy, the nephew of their neighbors. According to her letters to Cassandra, Austen spent a great deal of time with Tom Lefroy, and may have had romantic feelings for him. Unfortunately, a marriage between the two was impractical, and LeFroy’s family soon sent him away. After her brief romance with Lefroy, Austen began work on a second novel called First Impressions, which would later become Pride and Prejudice. Austen then began a serious revision of her initial sketches for Sense and Sensibility, as well as working on Northanger Abbey, a satire of the Gothic literary genre.

The Austen family resided at Steventon until 1801, when Reverend Austen announced his retirement from the ministry and then moved the family to Bath. Austen’s mixed feelings about moving from her childhood home were evidenced by her sudden lack of productivity as a writer: during her time at Bath, she only made minimal revisions to the draft of Northanger Abbey and started (and abandoned) a fourth novel.

While in Bath, Austen also received her only marriage proposal: from Harris Bigg-Wither, the younger brother of family friends and an Oxford graduate six years her junior. Although he was apparently unremarkable both physically and intellectually, his considerable fortune made him an attractive bachelor. Austen initially accepted, but changed her mind the following day and rescinded her promise. For Austen, turning down the marriage proposal was a significant decision, since marriage would have freed her from the embarrassing situation of being dependent on her family. The marriage would also have provided a home for Cassandra, and could even have helped her brothers in their efforts to secure better careers.

After her father's death in 1805, the rest of the family - Austen, her mother, and sister - had to move in with her brother Francis because of their unstable financial position. In 1809, they moved to a cottage at Chawton, where her wealthy brother Edward had an estate. Life in Chawton was much quieter than it had been in Bath, which gave Austen the opportunity to write more often. While living at Chawton, Austen also saw the anonymous publication of four of her novels: Sense and Sensibility in 1811; Pride and Prejudice in 1813; Mansfield Park in 1814; and Emma in 1815. In July 1816, Austen completed the first draft of her next novel, titled “The Elliots.” It would later be published as Persuasion.

In early 1816, Austen suffered an onset of illness that culminated in her death the following year. Most biographers believe that she suffered from Addison’s disease. Despite her illness, Austen continued to work on her writing, revising the ending to “The Elliots” and starting work on “Sandition.” She died on July 8, 1817, leaving “Sandition” unfinished, and was buried at the city’s famous cathedral. The two novels Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published posthumously as a set in 1817.

Austen’s novels, focusing on courtship and marriage, remain well-known for their satiric depictions of both late 18th century English society and its manners. She has remained one of the most studied and influential novelists of her time, largely because of her depictions of women during this period (known as the Regency period), but also for her ability to handle form, satire and irony. In 1833, publisher Richard Bentley published the first collected edition of Austen’s novels; since then, her works have been continually in print.

As with many great authors, however, Austen died before she was recognized. Although her novels were fashionable with prominent members of British society, including Princess Charlotte, the daughter of the Prince Regent, they were largely ignored by critics. In the twentieth century, Austen’s novels began to attract attention from literary scholars who approached the texts as serious academic studies. There have been more than 200 literary adaptations of Austen’s works in the twentieth century, as well as numerous film versions.

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