Jane Austen was born on 16 December 1775 at the Steventon rectory to the Reverend George Austen and his wife Cassandra Leigh. Her life would be short for she was just 41 years old when she died in Winchester on 18 July 1817. However, her accomplishments would be long remembered.
Jane was the youngest girl and the second youngest child in a family of eight. Today her family may seem large, but at the time there were much larger families. For instance, Marie Antoinette‘s mother, Maria Theresa, who served as the only female ruler of the Habsburg dominions, gave birth to sixteen children. Closer to home was a Mrs. Banting of Gloucestershire. In February of 1798 she “safely delivered … a daughter, being the thirty-second child by the same husband.”
Jane’s siblings – James, George, Edward, Henry, Cassandra, Francis, and Charles – would help shape her life, just like she would shape theirs. James was the oldest and he was ten when Jane was born. He would go to succeed his father at Steventon, and he and his younger brother Henry would vie for the attentions of their attractive cousin, Eliza de Feuillide, who would fascinate them with her continental lifestyle and lively personality.
Of all Jane’s brothers she perhaps knew George the least because he was sent away when she was about three years old. George suffered epileptic fits and it eventually became obvious that he could not speak. Some historians allege that he was deaf and dumb. Moreover, Jane would later mention using sign language in a letter to Cassandra, which some Austenites suggest she learned so that she could communicate with her disabled brother.
Edward was affectionately called “Neddy” and was said to be adored and loved by all the relatives who stopped by at the Austen house. Perhaps, that was also why he was adopted by rich relatives, Thomas Knight II and his wife, Catherine Knatchbull. Edward would lead a fairytale life and live with them at their estate called Godmersham Park.
Although Edward may have had a magical life, it was Henry that Jane Austen thought of as her favorite brother. He was tall, witty, and charming, and the competition between him and James for his cousin Eliza would fall in his favor. In addition, Henry became Jane’s executor and is the person who appended a “Biographical Notice of the Author,” to Jane’s posthumously published Northanger Abbey and Persuasion in December 1817.
Cassandra, named for her mother, was Jane’s only sister and the fifth Austen child. She and Jane were very close. Both girls loved the arts. Jane would write, and Cassandra, who was an amateur watercolorist, would paint. She produced a series of circular illustrations of British monarchs for 16-year-old Jane’s manuscript The History of England. (Jane’s wrote her book to make fun of Oliver Goldsmith’s History of England that she was forced to read at school.) Cassandra also completed two paintings of Jane: One in 1804 showing Jane seated by a tree facing away and another incomplete frontal portrait in 1810, which at least one relative said was “hideously unlike” Jane.
Francis, liked Edward, earned a nickname. It was “Fly” and came about because he was constantly on the go. At the age of twelve he was enrolled in the Royal Naval Academy at Portsmouth. He spent his in life in the navy, distinguished himself, and was promoted to Admiral of the Fleet in 1863.
Jane was born next and then her baby brother Charles. He was the last and youngest of the Austen clan. He was four years younger than Jane but seems to have been influenced by his older brother Francis because like him he embraced a naval career and became an admiral in 1846. Unfortunately, while on active duty in Burma in 1852, he caught cholera and died, just like the famous French socialite, Madame Récamier.
Life at the Steventon rectory was busy and although Jane Austen had plenty of chores, such as washing, cooking, and mending, she also had time to read. Luckily, she was a voracious reader and remembered most of what she read. When not reading, she like to spend her time writing fiction to entertain her family. She experimented with her writing between the ages of 12 and 18 producing such handwritten works as:
- Volume the First – A compilation of sixteen short sentimental fiction works that appears in a variety of genres (stories, verses, playlets, and moral fragments).
- Volume the Second – Jane experimented with the epistolary style in this volume and among the most interesting of her stories was “Love and Freindship,” as spelled by Jane, who also misspelled niece, always writing it as neice.
- Volume the Third – This volume contained two stories, “Evelyn” and “Catharine; or, the Bower,” that Jane dedicate to her close friend, “Miss Mary Lloyd.”
The more Jane wrote the more she decided she wanted to be writer. Before long she was able to demonstrate that she understood fiction: how dialogue operated, how characters needed to interact, and how plots needed to be constructed. She also realized that she could create works that were not only entertaining but also stimulating and interesting.
In 1794 she began writing novels in the epistolary style, a form that was highly popular at the opening of the eighteenth century but fell out of favor towards the end of that century. Jane wrote three epistolary works and may have chosen this style because her favorite novelist, Samuel Richardson, used it. The novels were Lady Susan (1794 and 1795), Elinor and Marianne (1795), and First Impressions (1796).
Richardson, however, was not the only writer to influence Jane Austen, as so did French writer and educator Madame de Genlis. She had served as lady-in-waiting to the Princesse de Lamballe’s sister-in-law, Louise Marie Adélaïde de Bourbon, who had married the Duke of Orléans. Although Jane never met Madame de Genlis, she was familiar enough with her works to mention her in Emma stating:
“She has had the advantage, you know, of practising on me . . . like La Baronne d’Almane on La Comtesse d’Ostalis, in Madame de Genlis’ Adelaide and Theodore, and we shall now see her own little Adelaide educated on a more perfect plan.”
Madame de Genlis was hired by the Duke of Orléans’ in 1782 to be governess to his son, the future Louis Philippe I, King of the French. She published Adelaide and Theodore a year later. This epistolary novel provided letters on education that contained “all the principles relative to three different plans of education; to that of princes, and to those of young persons of both sexes.”
During her lifetime, Jane published four well received novels:
- Sense and Sensibility (1811) that was based on Elinor and Marianne.
- Pride and Prejudice (1813) that was based on First Impressions.
- Mansfield Park (1814).
- Emma (1815).
All but Pride and Prejudice, were published “on commission,” meaning that Jane had to assume the financial risks for them. These books were written anonymously or “By a Lady” and luckily all proved favorable and were well received by reviewers and popular with readers. Jane Austen quickly sold the copies she ordered and made money. For instance, she profited by £140 on Sense and Sensibility.
It was also not long before Jane Austen learned that she was a popular author. However, she had remained tight lipped about it and shared this secret only with family: parents, siblings, and their spouses. Word leaked out because of others, like her brother Henry who was so proud he sometimes slipped. Little by little word was getting around that Jane was the writer of the popular novels.
Among those who discovered her identity was the Prince Regent. He had bought Sense and Sensibility for 15 shillings from Becket & Porter on 28 October 1811 (two days before it was publicly advertised), and although he was one of her biggest fans, the feelings she had for him was not mutual. She disliked him because of his disreputable and immoral ways.
Jane’s brother Henry had been attended by the Prince’s doctor when he was sick, and Henry let slip that Jane was in town on business. The doctor knowing that the Prince Regent was fan then relayed this juicy bit of news to him and the Prince Regent promptly invited Jane to visit. She had to go and when it was hinted that she should dedicate Emma to him, she had to do that too, but she did it with no pleasure. Jane’s favorite nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh relayed the incident:
“[The doctor] informed her one day that the Prince was a great admirer of her novels; that he read them often, and kept a set in every one of his residences; that he himself therefore had thought it right to inform his Royal Highness that Miss Austen was staying in London, and that the Prince had desired Mr. Clarke, the librarian of Carlton House, saying that he had the Prince’s instructions to show her the library and other apartments, and to pay her every possible attention. The invitation was of course accepted, and during the visit to Carlton House Mr. Clarke declared himself commissioned to say that if Miss Austen had any other novel forthcoming she was at liberty to dedicate it to the Prince. According such a dedication immediately prefixed to ‘Emma,’ which was at that time in the press.”
She devised a perfunctory and unenthusiastic dedication that reads:
“To his Royal Highness, the Prince Regent, this work is, by His Royal Highness’s Permission, most Respectfully Dedicated by his Royal Highness’s Dutiful and Obedient Humble Servant, THE AUTHOR.”
By 1816, Jane Austen was not feeling well but continued to work. She ignored the warning signs until about mid-year when she found she could no longer overlook how she felt and she finally put down her pen for the last time on 18 March 1817, which she noted. By mid-April she was confined to her bed and then she died three months later, on 18 July 1817, in Winchester. Her brother Henry arranged for her to be buried in Winchester cathedral in the north aisle of the nave and her brother James composed the epitaph for the slab that would mark where she would be laid to rest:
“In memory of Jane Austen, youngest daughter of the late Revd. George Austen, formerly Rector of Steventon in this County. She departed this life on July 18, 1817 aged 41, after a long illness, supported with the patience and hope of a Christian. The benevolence of her heart, the sweetness of her temper, and the extraordinary endowments of her mind, obtained the regard of all who knew her, and the warmest love of her immediate connexions. Their grief is in proportion to their affection: they know their loss to be irreparable, but in their deepest affliction they are consoled by a firm, though humble, hope that her charity, devotion, faith, and purity have rendered her soul acceptable in the sight of her Redeemer.”
No one knew for years what caused Jane Austen’s death. In 1964 Sir Vincent Zachary Cope, an English physician, surgeon, author, historian, and poet proposed that she died from Addison’s disease, which was not identified as a disease until almost 40 years after her death. It was Thomas Addison, a British physician, who described the condition in 1855 noting that it was a long-term endocrine disorder in which the adrenal glands do not produce enough steroid hormone. However, Jane’s final illness is often described as being the result of Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
After Jane’s death, her brother Henry gave Lady Susan the title of Northanger Abbey and retitled The Elliots to Persuasion. This was then sold as a two-volume set and published a day after her birthday in 1817. Henry also wrote the “Biographical Notice” and listed her name as the author, which likely also encouraged sales. A third book published posthumously was Lady Susan in 1871.
Jane seemed to be forgotten for a time but after she was re-introduced by her favorite nephew in his, A Memoir of Jane Austen, published in 1869, people once again became interested in her novels. They were then re-issued. Suddenly everyone was talking about Jane Austen. For instance, in 1878, the French critic Léon Boucher described her as “genius,” in his essay Le Roman Classique en Angleterre. A mania for Jane in the 1880s also erupted that was described as “Austenolatry” by critic Leslie Stephen.
Since that time Jane has remained popular and now “Janites” enthusiastically read her works and devote themselves to learn everything about her. They quote her best lines: “I have no notion of loving people by halves; it is not my nature”; “I do not pretend to set people right, but I do see that they are often wrong”; and, of course her most famous line from Pride and Prejudice, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in the possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
I think Jane would surely appreciate how much her writing is valued today and how her novels still inspire people two centuries after the fact. Their popularity has caused them to be turned into sequels, prequels, movies, stage plays, and television adaptions. Perhaps, what has transpired is exactly what Jane always wanted. After all, in 1796, she stated to her sister Cassandra:
“I am very much flattered by your commendation of my last Letter, for I write only for Fame, and without any view to pecuniary Emolument.”
-  Mercury Derby, “Derby. February 7.,” February 8, 1798, p. 4.
-  J. Austen, Emma: A novel (London: G. Routledge & Company, 1857), p. 305.
-  S. F. de Genlis, Adelaide and Theodore, Or, Letters on Education: Containing All the Principles Relative to Three Different Plans of Education, to that of Princes and to Those of Young Persons of Both Sexes (London: T. Cadell, 1788), title page
-  J. E. Austen-Leigh, A Memoir of Jane Austen (London: Richard Bentley and son, 1882), p. 111.
-  J. Austen and R. B. Johnson, Novels and Letters v. 7 (New York: Society of English and French Literature, 1816), p. v.
-  O. F. Adams, The Story of Jane Austen’s Life (Chicago: A. C. McClurg, 1891), p. 220.
-  D. Le Faye, Jane Austen’s Letters, 3rd (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 3.