Jane Austen was born on December 16, 1773, in the English village of Steventon, Hampshire. Steventon Parsonage, "tolerably roomy and commodious," was her home for twenty-five years.
She was fortunate in her parents. George Austen was a man of superior intellect and education who had gained a scholarship to St. John's College, Oxford, and had become a Fellow there. He was well able to direct his daughters' private studies and prepare his sons for the university. Jane's mother, Cassandra Leigh, was a slight, handsome, spirited woman with a talent for writing lively letters and commonsensical but amusing verse.
Although she was devoted to her six brothers, the center of Jane's life was her sister Cassandra, her elder by three years, whom she always believed to be wiser and better than herself. When Cassandra was sent to boarding school, Jane went too; she was young for formal education but would have been wretched without her sister. "If Cassandra were going to have her head cut off," their mother observed, "Jane would insist on sharing her fate." It was natural that the two sisters, coming at the end of a line of brothers, should draw closely together, and Jane's devotion to Cassandra was almost passionate in its intensity; she shared almost every thought and feeling with her sister, and the attachment lasted a lifetime.
Their brothers wielded a good deal of influence over the girls. James, the eldest, well read in English literature, helped to form Jane's reading taste. Edward, who made their childhood merry, left a sad gap when he was adopted by wealthy cousins and left Steventon forever. Henry, the least successful of the Austens, resided in London at one period of his life and was able to transact the necessary business with Jane's publishers.
The two younger brothers brought vicarious adventure into Jane's life. Francis and Charles both saw action in the British Navy, rose to be admirals, and carried their flags to distant stations. Francis, who reached the very summit of his profession, becoming Senior Admiral of the Fleet, may have been the model for the Edward Price of Mansfield Park as well as for the Captain Wentworth or the Admiral Crofton of Persuasion. Her seagoing brothers made Jane very knowledgeable about ships and seamen; no flaw has ever been found in her seamanship. She followed every step of her seafaring brothers' lives, devoured their letters, delighted in the gifts and souvenirs which they sent home, and questioned them endlessly when they were ashore.
Jane and Cassandra were educated chiefly at home. Higher education for women had not been discovered, however, and the Austen girls were not much better instructed than other young ladies of their day. Jane was especially skilled at needlework, in which she delighted. She was no artist, and only moderately musical; like her heroine in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet, "her performance was pleasing though by no means capital." She was an excellent French scholar and a fair Italian one.
Though it pleased her to call herself "ignorant and uninformed," and though she declared that she hated solid reading, Jane was well acquainted with the standard authors of her day and had a reasonable knowledge of English literature. Crabbe, Cowper, Johnson, and Scott were her favorite poets, though she set Crabbe highest.
She had at least one brief but happy experience of school life. Like their aunts before them, she and Cassandra were sent to the Abbey School adjoining the remains of the ancient Abbey of Reading. Discipline seems to have been relaxed because Jane and Cassandra, with their cousin Emily Cooper, were permitted to accept an invitation to supper in the local inn with Edward Austen and Edward Cooper. The Abbey School, lingering in Jane's memory, no doubt served as the model for Mrs. Goddard's school in Emma. The adjoining Abbey, with its past history and relics of ancient grandeur, may well have impressed the child Jane and later suggested some of the features of her own Northanger Abbey.
The future novelist grew up in an atmosphere of encouragement and approval. She was the darling of her home, and nothing she wrote was ever unkindly scrutinized. How soon she began to produce finished stories is not certain, but from a very early age her writings were a source of amusement and interest to her family. When she was about twelve, the young Austens developed a passion for amateur theatricals, and Jane kept them supplied with plays of her own composition.
Some of her copybooks, still extant, contain tales and plays written before she was sixteen. Dedicated with mock solemnity to some member of her family, they poke sly fun at the grandiloquent dedications then in fashion. Before long, her stories became burlesques of the sentimental romances and wildly improbable horror tales of the day. Jane's contempt for the state of mind which expected a mystery in everything was later exemplified in an incident in Northanger Abbey, when Catherine Morland, fired with curiosity, pulls out a bundle of dusty papers from an ancient cabinet, only to find them a roll of laundry bills.
The passing years brought few changes to the family in Steventon Parsonage. James, Edward, and Henry made their start in life, and the two elder ones married. Francis and Charles went into the navy. Cassandra took her place as the "Miss Austen" of the family, and finally it became Jane's turn to be, as she wrote to a friend, "grown up and have a fine complexion, and wear great square muslin shawls."
During the last five years of her life in Steventon, Jane wrote steadily. At least three of her best-known novels, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Northanger Abbey, were written during this period. It is difficult to understand how Jane managed to combine so much literary work with all her household and social occupations, and she herself sheds no light on the subject. She writes to Cassandra — telling her the smallest details of home life — without ever once mentioning the subject of her writing. It cannot have been from shyness because her own family knew of her stories, and her actual writing was all done in the family sitting-room.
However, there was still prejudice against women writers, so Jane was careful to keep her work a secret from the outside world. Callers at the parsonage were likely to find her doing embroidery or playing "spillikins." They did not suspect that Jane wrote on small pieces of paper which could easily be put away or covered with a scrap of needlework.
Pride and Prejudice was the first novel to be completed. She began it in October 1796, when she was twenty-one, and finished it ten months later. Her father, anxious to judge it fairly, set himself a course of reading in the contemporary novel. Six months later, certain of its quality, he wrote to Dodley, an eminent London publisher, offering to send the novel for consideration. The refusal was so definite, and so chilling, that the manuscript was laid away in an attic for eleven years.
Jane's philosophic disposition was proof against disappointment. She was already at work on Sense and Sensibility.
No one in the neighborhood suspected that there was "a chiel amang them, takin' notes." Jane Austen appeared to be pleasantly occupied with domestic duties and social life. Her parents were comfortably off; they had neighbors and cousins to entertain and visit. They kept a carriage and a pair of horses, although Jane and her sister sometimes trudged in pattens (high-soled overshoes) through the muddy roads to visit their friends in the nearby parish of Ashe.
It is rumored that Jane had a romance with a man she met while in Devonshire, but he died shortly afterwards. But devotion to Cassandra seems to have satisfied her, especially after the tragic ending to Cassandra's own love affair. The young clergyman to whom she was engaged, not being rich enough to marry, went out to the West Indies as chaplain to a regiment. He caught yellow fever on his arrival and died in a few days.
Settling, of her own choice, into spinsterhood, Jane soon took to wearing caps, the symbol of middle age. In a sketch made by Cassandra, she is shown wearing a small tulle cap. Short, round curls shade her forehead, and her expression is arch, intelligent, and lively. She seems amused by everything that is going on around her.
The first great change in her life came when her father, in failing health, conferred "the living" (property and income) at Steventon on his son, and moved to Bath with his wife and daughters. At first the thought of such a move was disturbing. But Jane, a determined optimist, was soon writing cheerfully to her sister: "I am becoming more and more reconciled to the idea of departure. We have lived long enough in this neighborhood; the Basingstoke balls are certainly on the decline; there is something interesting in the bustle of going away, and the prospect of spending future summers by the sea or in Wales is delightful." As Cassandra was away on a visit, and their mother was in delicate health, it was left to Jane to cope with the problems of transportation and house-hunting.
Until they found a house, they stayed with Mrs. Austen's married sister, Mrs. Leigh Perrot, and settled down to the staid routine of life in a spa. Bath was not new to Jane Austen, but its heyday, as described in Northanger Abbey, was over. The sleepy town suited her parents, but Jane found its small gaieties un-inspiring. She composed nothing of importance while she was there. She began only one story but did not finish it or even divide it into chapters. When she left Bath in 1801, she had nothing but this fragment to add to the valuable stock of writing which she had brought with her from Steventon.
After the death of Mr. Austen in 1801, his widow and daughters moved to Southampton, where a friend of Jane's, Martha Lloyd, came to live with them and was a source of great happiness to the little family. Their house was pleasant enough, with a garden for Mrs. Austen, but they never took root there, and Jane felt as little at home as she had in Bath. She wrote nothing during their stay.
When an opportunity of escape was offered, they took it eagerly. Edward, now a wealthy landed gentleman, offered them the choice of two estates — Godmersham Park, in Kent, and Chawton Cottage, in Hampshire. They chose the latter, a small house which was altered and fitted up to suit the four ladies. Jane settled in happily, little knowing that this was to be her last home.
The house was large enough for entertaining, and the Austens had many callers, friends, and relatives in the neighborhood. There was much coming and going. A clannish family, the Austens took pleasure in meeting as often as they could. Their brothers and their families were frequent callers, and all the young nephews and nieces looked upon a visit to "Aunt Jane" as a delightful privilege. "As a very small girl, I was always creeping up to Aunt Jane," a niece wrote after Jane's death, "and following her whenever I could, in the house and out of it. . . . She could make everything amusing to a child."
Settled in a real home again, Jane returned to her writing. Now she was working in the most pleasant of environments and under the best possible conditions. She had the continual companionship of Cassandra, the uncritical admiration of Martha Lloyd, and the kind of country life she delighted in observing.
In the summer of 1811, two years after the move to Chawton Cottage, Jane at last saw publication. Sense and Sensibility was at once appreciated by the public, and Jane, at thirty-six, was firmly launched on a career of authorship. But she was so modest and her expectations were so humble that she saved something out of her income to meet any possible loss. When she learned that her book had made a hundred and fifty pounds, she was as surprised as she was gratified.
The success of Sense and Sensibility encouraged her to submit Pride and Prejudice, which appeared in 1813. In love with her own heroine, she wrote to Cassandra, "I think her [Elizabeth] as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print, and how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least, I do not know."
Mansfield Park, the first of the novels written at Chawton, placed Jane Austen in the first rank of English writers. Twelve years of lying fallow had borne rich fruit; the long years of observation gave her added depth, subtlety, and variety. After the publication of this book, she began to fear that she might be written out, but the gallery of portraits in her next novel, Emma, shows no falling off.
Persuasion, the last of her novels, was finished in August 1816, but it was not published until after her death. It shows her at the peak of her powers. The families of Eliots, Musgroves, and Crofts, the little interests of Bath life, and the returning affection of Captain Wentworth for his former love, Anne Eliot, are touched with all the liveliness and delicacy which make Austen's novels incomparable.
But as Jane was writing the final chapters, she became ill. Gradually she grew weaker, and as spring came on, she went to Winchester to be close to her doctor. He was unable to help her, and she accepted her illness philosophically, even managing to amuse and cheer her worried family. In a letter written just before her death, she hopes that Cassandra has not been made ill by her exertions. "As to what I owe her," she says, "and the anxious affection of all my beloved family on this occasion, I can only cry over it and pray God to bless them more and more."
Jane Austen died peacefully on July 18, 1817, in her forty-second year. She was buried in Winchester Cathedral. Some years later, when a gentleman was visiting the cathedral, he asked to be shown Miss Austen's tomb, and the verger said: "Pray sir, can you tell me whether there is anything remarkable about this lady? So many people want to know where she is buried."
Today there are few people who do not know Jane Austen. She has become a classic. Fresh editions of her work are continually being issued. Her novels are enjoyed by thousands of readers who owe to her some of the happiest hours of their lives. Small wonder that when young writers hopefully ask what author they should study, the reply is invariably the same — Jane Austen.