Jane Austen's life resembles her novels — at first glance they seem to be composed of a series of quiet, unexceptional events. Such an impression is supported by the comment of her brother, Henry, who wrote after her death that her life was "not by any means a life of event." Similarly, her nephew James added in a biography published fifty years later that "Of events her life was singularly barren: few changes and no great crisis ever broke the smooth current of its course." However, just as readers find that the complexity of Austen's novel lies in its characters and style, those studying Austen herself discover that the events of her life are secondary to her compelling personality, quick wit, and highly-developed powers of observation. The fact that Austen's life lacked the drama that other authors may have experienced in no way detracted from her skill as a writer. In actuality, Austen's lack of "extraordinary" experiences, as well as of a spouse and children, probably made her writing possible by freeing her time to work on her books. Additionally, because her books were published anonymously, Austen never achieved personal recognition for her works outside of her sphere of family and friends. Such anonymity suited her, for, as literary critic Richard Blythe notes, "literature, not the literary life, was always her intention."
Born on December 16, 1775, Jane Austen was the seventh of eight children born to George and Cassandra Austen. The family lived in Steventon, a small Hampshire town in south-central England, where her father was a minister. The Austens were a loving, spirited family that read novels together from the local circulating library and put on home theatricals. It was for the family circle that Austen first wrote high-spirited satires — some of which later became novels after numerous and careful rewritings.
Out of her seven siblings, Austen was closest to her only sister, Cassandra. From 1783 to 1785, the two girls attended schools in Oxford and Southampton and the Abbey School at Reading. When the Austens could no longer afford the tuition, Jane and Cassandra returned home to read extensively and learn from their family how to speak French and Italian and play the piano. Most accounts agree that the Austen daughters were pretty and enjoyed the slightly limited but interesting round of country parties described in Austen's novels.
When Austen was twenty, she met Tom Lefroy, a young Irishman visiting his uncle in Hampshire. Seeing that the two young people were on the verge of an engagement, Lefroy's family sent him home rather than letting him attach himself to someone as poor as a clergyman's daughter. Austen's second brush with marriage occurred at age twenty-seven, when the wealthy Harris Bigg-Wither proposed and Austen accepted. The next morning, however, Austen changed her mind, giving up the wealth and security inherent in such a match because she did not love him. Although Austen never married, the emphasis of courtship and marriage in her novels demonstrates the impact that these experiences had on her and her interest in love and marriage.
From 1796-1798, Austen wrote her first three novels — Northanger Abbey (originally titled Susan), Sense and Sensibility (originally titled Elinor and Marianne), and Pride and Prejudice (originally titled First Impressions) — but none was published until later. Northanger Abbey, which was published posthumously in 1818, satirizes the Gothic novels that were popular at the time by presenting a heroine whose overactive imagination and love of Gothic novels lead her to see mysteries where none exist when she stays at Northanger Abbey. In Sense and Sensibility, published in 1811, Austen examines the contrast between two sisters who represent reason (sense) and emotion (sensibility) as they deal with being forced to live on a meager amount of money after their father dies. The threat of a father's death causing a reduced income also overshadows two sisters in Pride and Prejudice, which was published in 1813. In Pride and Prejudice, however, that threat of genteel poverty is still just a threat rather than a reality, and Austen focuses instead on how pride and first impressions can lead to prejudice.
In her early writing, Austen began to define the limits of her fictional world. From the first, there was a steady emphasis on character as she consciously restricted her subject matter to a sphere made up of a few families of relatives with their friends and acquaintances. She deliberately limited what she wrote about, and her work gains intensity and beauty from its narrow focus. In her books, there is little connection between this upper-middle class world and the strata above or below it, or consciousness of events external to it. It is, in fact, the world in which typical middle-class country people lived in early nineteenth-century Britain. The family is at the core of this setting and thus the maneuverings that lead to marriage are all-important, because matrimony supplies stability, along with social and economic continuity.
In 1800, Austen's father decided to retire and move the family to Bath, a sea resort. Moving from the home she loved was difficult for Jane, especially because the family lived in several different places until 1809, when Mr. Austen died. During that period of nine years, Austen did not write. After her father's death, Austen and her mother and sister moved to Chawton, a country town where Austen's brother lent the family a house he owned. There Austen was able to pursue her work again, and she wrote Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion.
Published in 1814, Mansfield Park tells the story of Fanny Price, a girl from a poor family who is raised by her wealthy aunt and uncle at Mansfield Park. The book focuses on morality and the struggle between conscience and societal pressures and is considered by some critics to be the "first modern novel." In Emma, published in 1816, Austen introduces Emma Woodhouse, the "handsome, clever, and rich" heroine who fancies herself a matchmaker. Her efforts at bringing people together, however, result in teaching her humility and her own discovery of love. Critics praise Emma Woodhouse as being Austen' most complex character, while readers find that they either love or hate Emma's story. Austen's final completed novel, Persuasion, was published posthumously in 1818. It deals with the broken engagement of Anne Elliott and Captain Wentworth and their second chance at love eight years later. Critics comment on the book's "autumnal feel" and note that Anne Elliott is not only Austen's oldest heroine, but also the one with the least self-confidence.
Death and Legacy
Austen lived the last eight years of her life in Chawton. Her personal life continued to be limited to family and close friends, and she prized herself on being a warm and loving aunt as much as being a successful novelist. A sudden illness, possibly Addison's disease, made her stop work on the novel Sandition, and she died in 1817.
After her death, during the nineteenth-century romantic period, Austen was often looked upon with begrudging admiration, as her elevation of intelligence over feeling contradicted the romantic temperament. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, however, Austen's reputation rose considerably, and she gradually gained an enthusiastic cult of admirers that were known as the "Janeites." In America, Austen was little known before 1900, but by mid-century she was receiving more critical attention there than in England. In the last decades of the twentieth century, Austen and her works received considerable attention from the general public: Most of her novels were adapted into films, modern novelists wrote sequels to Pride and Prejudice and endings to Sandition, and a mystery series was even developed with Jane Austen herself as the heroine.