Jane Austen the Novelist: 25 Facts You Might Not Know

There may be some things about Jane Austen the novelist that you might not know. To help get you up to speed here are twenty-five facts about her.

Fact 1: Jane Austen was born on 16 December 1775 in Steventon, a rural village with a small population located in north Hampshire, England situated about 7 miles south-west of Basingstoke, between the villages of Overton, Oakley, and North Waltham.

Jane Austen the novelist

Jane Austen the novelist on the English 10-pound note. Public domain.

Fact 2: Jane was the seventh of eight children born to George Austen (a rector) and Cassandra Leigh, who belonged to the gentry as part of the aristocratic Leigh family. Jane had five older brothers, James, George, Edward, Francis, and Henry, one older sister, Cassandra, and one younger brother Charles.

Fact 3: Jane’s brother George suffered epileptic fits and it eventually became obvious that he could not speak, and some historians allege that he was deaf and dumb. He was sent away when Jane was about three years old and went to live with his “Uncle Thomas Leigh, who had also exhibited problems and who had been placed under the care of Francis Cullum in Monk Sherborne years earlier.”[1] You can learn more about George and his life by clicking here.

Fact 4: Jane’s parents valued a good education even for their daughters and so despite it not being compulsory for females to attend school both Jane and Cassandra were sent away to boarding school in Oxford. It happened in 1783, when Jane was seven and Cassandra was ten. The school was run by Ann Cawley, the sister of Mrs. Austen’s brother-in-law. While the girls were there, measles broke out and so Cawley moved her school to Southampton but school there lasted only a few weeks. Returning troops from Gibraltar, who had been living at sea in cramped and unsanitary conditions, caught typhus fever. When the troops landed in Southampton it wasn’t long before Cassandra and Jane caught it. Jane was particularly ill, almost died, and it took about a year for her to recover. To learn more about typhus in Jane Austen’s day, click here.

Fact 5: Jane’s sister Cassandra was her closest friend and Jane adored her. In fact, they were so close their mother once said, “if Cassandra’s head had been going to be cut off, Jane would have hers cut off too.”[2] This was also one reason why a young Jane went with Cassandra to boarding school.

Silhouette of Cassandra Leigh Austen. Public domain.

Fact 6: Balls were a popular pastime for those living in the Steventon area. Jane Austen mentioned the Assembly Balls that she attended in Basingstoke, a market town that was about 9 miles from Steventon. When attending these events, she often stayed with her great friends Catherine and Alethea Bigg. They lived at Manydown Park, about six miles from Steventon.

Fact 7: Jane Austen and her family also loved to perform theatricals at Steventon, and they were said to have taken “great pains” to ensure these were splendidly dramatic. Jane’s fascinating cousin, Eliza de Feuillide, who was the daughter of Tysoe Saul Hancock and Philadelphia Austen, wrote about the theatricals stating:

“My uncle’s barn is fitting up quite like a theatre and all the young folks are to take their part. The Countess is Lady Bob Lardoon in the former and Miss Tittup in the later. They wish me much of the party and offer to carry me, but I do not think of it. I should like to be a Spectator, but am sure I should have the courage to act a part, nor do I wish to attain it.”[3].

Fact 8: Jane Austen the novelist wrote Emma, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility. These novels all had two things in common when it came to what happened in them. There was always a ball and there was always some sort of outing or picnic. Additionally, there was one novel, Mansfield Park, that contained a surprisingly dirty joke. In the book Mary Crawford says, “Certainly, my home at my uncle’s brought me acquainted with a circle of admirals. Of Rears and Vices I saw enough. Now do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat.”[4] Supposedly the “Rears and Vices” was a reference to the navy’s reputation for sodomy.

Fact 9: The heroines in Jane Austen’s books might be a lot younger than you think. Here is a list of the ages of some of her characters:

Catherine Morland was 17.
Elinor Dashwood was 19.
Emma Woodhouse was 20.
Fanny Price was 18.
Lizzie Bennet was 20.
Marianne Dashwood was 16.

Fact 10: All but Pride and Prejudice were published “on commission,” meaning that Jane Austen had to assume the financial risks for them. She was also not known as an author immediately after her first publications because several of her first books were written anonymously or “By a Lady.” Luckily all her novels proved favorable and were well received by reviewers and popular with readers.

Fact 11: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was extremely popular. In fact, a twenty-first century historian remarked that “before May 1813, Pride and Prejudice had become the ‘fashionable novel’”[5] Jane’s book also remains wildly popular today with USA Today noting that there are ten reasons why it is timeless. Their reasoning ranges from Jane’s interesting and hypocritical characters to the fact that the Bennet girls are much like the Kardashians. The daily paper also notes that Austen’s story contains that ever popular element of being the ultimate “happy every after” story.

Fact 12: When Jane was young, one of her best friends was an older woman Mrs. Anne Lefroy or Madame Lefroy, as she was called. She was enchanting and intelligent had married the Reverend Isaac Peter George Lefroy in 1778. They lived at the Ashe rectory and were therefore the closet neighbors to the Austen family in Steventon. According to Margaret C. Hammond in her article, “Jemima Lucy Lefroy”:

“[Madame Lefroy] was … by all accounts, of remarkable charm and brilliance, who was never happier than when surrounded by a company of friends and family. She was a lively and intelligent conversationalist, and the social life at the elegant rectory at Ashe must have been a benefit to the family at Steventon, providing intellectual stimulation not very common in that remote rural neighbourhood.”[6]

Jane supposedly met Madame Lefroy after being invited to be a playmate for her daughter, Jemima Lucy Lefroy, who was four years her junior. However, Jane’s literary passions piqued Mrs. Lefroy interest and Jane “looked on … [her] as ‘a perfect model of gracefulness and goodness.’”[7]

Jane Austen the novelist

James Andrews’ version of Jane Austen the novelist. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Fact 13: Tom Lefroy is a name that is frequently mentioned related to Jane’s love life. He was Irish and described as serious and in love with the law. He was educated at the expense of his great-uncle Benjamin at Trinity College, Dublin, and eventually practiced law in Dublin. He visited the Lefroy’s from December 1795 to January 1796 and Jane developed a crush on him, but Madame Lefroy discouraged their relationship. Still Jane once gushed of Tom:

“I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together. I can expose myself, however, only once more, because he leaves the country soon after next Friday, on which day we are to have a dance at Ashe after all. He is very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man, I assure you.”[8]

Thomas Lefroy in later life. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Fact 14: Jane never married but in her late 20s, in 1802, she became engaged to Harris Bigg-Wither, the younger brother of her two good friends, Catherine and Alethea Bigg. Harris, who was six years younger than Jane, proposed one evening and she accepted. By the following morning she had a change of heart and called the engagement off, but she never explained why she changed her mind.

Fact 15: Jane’s father, George, died in 1805. Throughout his life he was nearly always in debt and so when he died Jane, Cassandra, and their mother suffered financial difficulties. They lived Bath in leased homes or with different family members before Jane’s brother Edward finally moved them into the Chawton cottage in 1809, which was part of his nearby estate, Chawton House.

Fact 16: The Austen women had much a quieter life in Chawton than what they led in Bath or Steventon. They did not socialize with the gentry, and they only entertained family visitors. According to Jane’s niece, Anna, it was “a very quiet life, according to our ideas, but they were great readers, and besides the housekeeping our aunts occupied themselves in working with the poor and in teaching some girl or boy to read or write.”[9]

Fact 17: On 14 August 1799 Jane’s aunt, Jane Leigh-Perrot, was arrested for shoplifting a card of lace from a Bath haberdashery and milliner’s shop. It became a huge scandal and the charges she faced were serious. She was alleged to have stolen something worth more than 12 pence, which was a capital crime and if she was found guilty it was punishable by death or more likely, she would be granted a reprieve and sent to Australia to serve fourteen years in prison. To learn more about this incident, click here.

Jane Leigh-Perrot. Author’s collection.

Fact 18: In 1793, when Jane Austen was seventeen years old, she became an aunt for the first time when her brother Edward and his wife, Elizabeth Bridges, had a daughter. They named her Fanny Catherine Austen-Knight and as a gift to Fanny, Jane wrote her “five short pieces of … the Juvenilia now known collectively as ‘Scraps’ … purporting to be her ‘Opinions and Admonitions on the conduct of Young Women.’”[10]

Fact 19: There are but a few images of Jane Austen and so many people rely on written descriptions from those who knew her. One account of what Jane looked like comes from the brother of Madame Lefroy. His name was Sir Egerton Brydges and he was an English bibliographer and genealogist who knew Jane when she was a child. He stated of her:

“When I knew Jane Austen I never suspected that she was an authoress; but my eyes told me that she was fair and handsome, slight and elegant, but with cheeks a little too full. That last time I think that I saw her was at Ramsgate in 1803.”[11]

If you are interested in reading other accounts of what Jane looked like, click here.

Jane Austen the novelist - back view

Watercolor portrait of Jane Austen by Cassandra in 1804. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Fact 20: By 1816, Jane Austen was not feeling well but she continued to ignore the warning signs of illness until she found she could no longer overlook how she felt. One letter she wrote about being ill was sent to her favorite nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh from College Street. This letter shows why Jane was much beloved by her nieces and nephews. It was dated Tuesday 27 May 1817:

“I know no better way my dearest Edward, of thanking you for your most affectionate concern for me during my illness, than by telling you myself as soon as possible that I continue to get better. I will not boast of my handwriting; neither that, nor my face have yet recovered their proper beauty, but in other respects I am gaining strength very fast. Mr. Lyford says he will cure me, & if he fails I shall draw up a Memorial and lay it before the Dean & Chapter, and have no doubt of redress from that Pious, Learned, and Disinterested Body. … God Bless you my dear Edward. If ever you are ill, may you be as tenderly nursed as I have been, may the same Blessed alleviations of anxious, simpathising friends be yours, & may you possess-as I dare say you will-the greatest blessing of all, in the consciousness of not being unworthy of their love. I could not feel this.

Your very affectionate aunt, Jane Austen”[12]

Fact 21: Jane Austen the novelist put down her pen for the last time on 18 March 1817. By mid-April she was confined to her bed. She dictated her final work, a poem, to her sister Cassandra three days before her death. The poem is titled “When Winchester Races.” You can read it courtesy of the Jane Austen Centre by clicking here.

Fact 22: Jane died on 18 July 1817, in Winchester, under the care of her physician, Mr. Lyford. Exactly what she died from remains controversial, although most people believe it was likely Addison’s disease.

Fact 23: James, Jane’s oldest brother, composed the epitaph for the slab that would mark where she would be laid to rest. It reads:

“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.”[13]  

Fact 24: Jane Austen the novelist also wrote a play (53 pages long) titled Sir Charles Grandison based on the epistolary novel writer by English novelist Samuel Richardson. However, Jane’s play was not published until 1875, well after her death in 1817. Of this play Brian Southam, a pioneer in Jane Austen studies, writes:

“It carries us to the very heart of the Austen household, reminding us of the tradition of family theatricals, stretching back to the 1780s … The play also holds a historical value. Sir Charles Grandison is one of the great novels of the age, a landmark of eighteenth century literature. It was a favourite novel of the Austens, and the Steventon household would enjoy the sheer cheek of Jane Austen’s joke, in which Grandison is shrunk to the point of absurdity.”[14]

Fact 25: After Jane died, no one cared to document her life and so for fifty years there was nothing written about her. Then her favorite nephew, James Edward, wrote a biography titled, A Memoir of Jane Austen in 1869. His book revived public interest in Jane Austen the novelist, although many claim that what he provided was a sanitized version of her life. Of him writing her biography, Joan Austen-Leigh, the great-great-grandniece of Jane Austen, notes:

“It was with reluctance that he undertook the task, being aware of ‘the extreme scantiness of the materials out of which it must be constructed.’ He knew, however, that there was no one else who would do it if he did not.”[15]

Jane Austen the novelist

Jane Austen the novelist in watercolor and pencil portrait by Cassandra in 1810. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

References:

  • [1] G. Walton, Jane Austen’s Cousin: The Outlandish Countess de Feuillide (Yorkshire: Pen and Sword History, 2021), p. 67.
  • [2] D. Le Faye, W. Austen-Leigh and R. A. Austen-Leigh, Jane Austen: A Family Record (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 50.
  • [3] D. Le Faye, Jane Austen’s ‘Outlandish Cousin’: The Life and Letters of Eliza de Feuillide (London: The British Library, 2002), p. 80–81.
  • [4] “Mansfield Park,” The Literature Page, http://www.literaturepage.com/read/mansfieldpark-53.html
  • [5] E. Copeland and J. McMaster, The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 10.
  • [6] M. C. Hammond, “Jemima Lucy Lefroy,” http://new.jasna.org/persuasions/printed/number14/hammond.pdf
  • [7] D. Le Faye, W. Austen-Leigh, and R. A. Austen-Leigh. 2004, p. 59.
  • [8] D. La Faye, ed., Jane Austen’s Letters, 3rd (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 197.
  • [9] D. Le Faye, W. Austen-Leigh, and R. A. Austen-Leigh. 2004, p. 178.
  • [10] Ibid., p. 84.
  • [11] C.W. Moulton, ed., The Library of Literary Criticism (New York: Henry Malkan, 1910), p. 612.
  • [12] J. Austen-Leigh, “Jane Austen’s Favourite Nephew,” http://new.jasna.org/persuasions/printed/number18/austen-leigh-2.pdf, p. 153.
  • [13] O. F. Adams, The Story of Jane Austen’s Life (Chicago: A. C. McClurg, 1891), p. 220.
  • [14] B. Southam, “Sir Charles Gradison and Jane Austen’s Men,” http://new.jasna.org/persuasions/printed/number18/southam.pdf, p. 76.
  • [15] J. Austen-Leigh, p. 149.

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