The Real Jane Austen

Jane Austen died in 1817. In her forty-one years alive, she published four novels, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma, and two were published posthumously, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. She left Sanditon unfinished, and it promised to be quite different from her previous works, which have been described and criticized as both romantic, dull, witty, plotless, brilliant, complex, insightful, second only to Shakespeare and boring.

To millions of Janeites, however, the best way to describe her novels is only—only six novels, plus two unfinished novels, and her Juvenilia (early works).

Her novels are third person, chiefly from the viewpoint of the heroine; they always end happily with a marriage; they’re devoid of explicit sex but filled with rakes, cads and bounders; and the plots are simply driven by two people clearly meant for one another who still manage to deny their love for an entire book. The reader is rewarded, usually after considerably more than 100,000 words, with a single kiss (but only in the movie versions) and a wedding.

Jane was born to George and Cassandra Austen. Her father was a rector (Church of England priest) of the parish of Steventon in Hampshire, a southern English county. Jane had six brothers (James, George, Edward, Henry, Francis and Charles) and a sister, who was also named Cassandra.

Jane never married, although shortly before her twenty-seventh birthday, she famously agreed to Harris Bigg-Wither’s proposal and returned it the next day. The only sure romance in her life was with Tom Lefroy, who at the time was studying law under the sponsorship of a great uncle. The romance fell apart and Jane shows no great sorrow in her letter to her sister: “At length the day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy, and when you receive this it will be over. My tears flow as I write at the melancholy idea.”

Most detect a sarcastic tone, although perhaps her arch words disguise a true disappointment. Lefroy never proposed; it would have been an unsuitable match for him and had they married, who can say whether Jane would have pursued her career.

That career began early, encouraged by her father, his library and her perusal of it. She began early versions of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey while the family lived in Steventon, but in 1801 her father decided to retire and the Reverend Austen and his wife and two daughters moved to Bath in Somerset. The hot mineral baths of the resort town attracted the fashionable and the infirm and the city was also a marketplace where parents could hope to find their children suitable marriage partners.

For Jane, however, the move was a wrench from the home and the country she loved and to a city that she grew to dislike. With his death, Mrs Austen and her two daughters were in dire financial difficulties. Jane’s sister had income from the bequest of a fiancé who died before they could marry, and Mrs Austen had income from her family, but Jane had little to call her own. Fortunately her brothers contributed to the upkeep of the Austen women, but they remained largely homeless after George Austen’s death, constantly visiting friends and relatives, including the homes of Edward Austen Knight. It was this same Edward, the third child of George and Cassandra, who offered Chawton Cottage as a home to the Austen women in 1809.

If you’re wondering about Edward’s last name, it came about after he was adopted by wealthy relatives who saw in him the child they never had. Austen’s novels also had several examples of children raised in absentia by wealthy relatives (or relatively wealthier friends in the case of Jane Fairfax in Emma). Whatever grief or disruption or relief this caused Jane’s parents, Edward’s adoption provided an important safety net. Even before the death of Jane’s father, they often visited Godmersham Park, the home of the Knight family, and later Chawton House, Edward’s estate very near the cottage.

The offer of Chawton Cottage meant a return to Hampshire for the Austen women and for Jane it meant a return to writing. She revised Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice and gave them their final titles. With the financial help of her brother Henry, S&S was published in 1811. P&P followed in 1813.

In her lifetime, all her novels were published anonymously, first attributed to “By a Lady” and later as the author of the previous books. It wasn’t until Persuasion and Northanger Abbey that her identity was acknowledged.

The choice of keeping her identity secret was largely her own. She did see some financial success and critical acclaim in her lifetime, but her works lapsed out of print after her death, until they were revived in 1832. Since then, they have never been out of print and her fame has risen steadily. The Jane Austen Society of the United Kingdom, started in 1947, and the Jane Austen Society of North America in 1987, have contributed to her fame. Her novels have been made into movies, television serials and even computer games. Many authors have written continuations of her stories and have recast her characters as vampires, zombie slayers and detectives.

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