Thursday, February 16, 2012

Mr. Beard's Regency Tour Day 16: Jane in 855 words--A Brief Biography of Jane Austen

Welcome to my continuing series on late Georgian/Regency England. If you haven't a clue what I'm talking about, please check out this post.


In recent decades, many people's interest in the Regency and late Georgian period has been kindled by exposure to the works of Jane Austen. Many people, even if they haven't read her work, have at least seen a movie or television adaptation.

Who was the woman behind Darcy, Lizzie, Emma, Elinor, and so many other characters who have fused themselves into the cultural consciousness of the English-speaking world (and Colin Firth's career)? Here, I present a brief biographical sketch of Miss Jane Austen.

Jane Austen was born December 16, 1775 in the village of Steventon in Hampshire to George and Cassandra Austen. She was the seventh of eight children, and the second girl. Jane's father was a clergyman and scholar of modest means but still of some gentility. Much like Lizzie Bennett, Jane was close to her father and he encouraged her, along with all of his children, to be proud of learning and reading. Unlike Mrs. Bennett, however, Jane's mother was a woman of wit.

In 1783, Jane and her sister (also named Cassandra) were sent off for education at the hands of one of their aunts. Though they briefly returned home, they were again sent off, for a year, to a boarding school in Reading, Berkshire. As girls, they were instructed in the subjects considered appropriate for their gender, such as French, music, and dance.  

Jane and Cassandra were very close. Both would remain unmarried throughout life. Some of their letters to each other have survived, allowing unusually direct insight into the mind and personality of Jane Austen. Many more could have perhaps survived, but unfortunately for us, following Jane's death, her sister destroyed and edited many letters, apparently in an attempt to protect the privacy of her beloved younger sister.

When the sisters returned home from boarding school, their education was not as limited in scope. Their father had access to a rather sizable library, which he encouraged all his children, including his daughters, to utilize. The family amused themselves with the writing of stories, the performance of plays, and other creative endeavors. Jane grew up in a near perfect environment to encourage her interest in writing. 

By 1793, she'd already produced a collection a work, now commonly called her Juvenilia. Though the various pieces of work in this collection lack the sophistication of her later work, her wit and keen eye for the social foibles of the time was already obvious.

Over the next several years, she would also produce First Impressions, the original draft of what would later become Pride and Prejudice.

Jane's father retired somewhat abruptly in 1800 and moved the remaining non-married family to Bath. The city would play a key role in two of her later works, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. Given how she didn't always present the social elites of Bath in a positive light, one wonders about the kind of people she encountered. Surviving evidence from her letters clearly indicates that Jane had a very low tolerance for superficial, pompous, and witless people. Her disdain for at least some aspects of the Bath social scene is quite in evidence in a letter she wrote on May 21, 1801:

"... Our party at Ly. Fust's was made up of the same set of people that you have already heard of -- the Winstones, Mrs. Chamberlayne, Mrs. Busby, Mrs. Franklyn, and Mrs. Maria Somerville; yet I think it was not quite so stupid as the two preceding parties here."

As noted above, Jane Austen remained unmarried her entire life. This is not to say she never had the opportunity. In 1802, there's some indication she was to marry a man of decent means, but for some reason never went through with it. There's not clear evidence of why she decided not to marry the man, but some evidence in her letters suggests that she may simply have not wanted to marry a man she did not genuinely love.

Her beloved father passed away in 1805. Without his income, Jane, her sister, and mother were forced to rely on the Austen brothers for support until the Austen women were finally settled in a cottage near the property of one of the Austen brothers (the living arrangement has echoes of the Dashwood women in Sense and Sensibility).

Though Jane, with the aid of her brother Henry, had sold a copyright for an early work to a publisher, the man made little effort to actually publish her work. Thus, her first attempt at publishing a novel was a failure and the work remained tied up in copyright issues due to her inability to pay the publisher back the initial advance due to her precarious financial situation at the time.

Despite the issues with her initial publishing attempt, the publishing of Sense and Sensibility in 1811 went more smoothly Again, her brother Henry helped facilitate her contact a publisher. The book was released to favorable reviews and commercial success. First Impressions was fully reworked into Pride and Prejudice and published in 1813. Mansfield Park followed in 1814 and Emma in 1815.

Jane became ill in 1816. To this day, it's not clear the nature of her illness, and a wide variety of diseases have been suggested. Her health would decline over the next year until she finally died on July 18, 1817 at the age of forty-one.

Henry and Cassandra would see to it that her completed Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were posthumously published. Ironically, Northanger Abbey was completed years before in 1803, making it the first Austen novel completed publication. When I mentioned an "early work" being tied up in copyright, it was the earlier version of the novel, then called Susan. The copyright was reacquired for a modest sum in 1816.

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