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Person of Interest: Jane Austen

Jane Austen was one of the most famous English novelists of all time. She wrote incredibly well-received works of fiction during a time period when women rarely became authors. Her work is all the more remarkable since many of her novels are required reading in most school curriculums until this very day. Furthermore, Jane Austen’s romance-filled fiction has earned her the status of being one of the earliest and most beloved “romance writers” in history.

This image, originally drawn by her beloved sister, gives modern readers an idea of what Jane Austen looked like.
Photo by Pool/Getty Images

Jane Austen was born in Hampshire, England in December 16, 1775. Her parents both came from gentry families. Jane’s childhood was quite comfortable and solidly middle class. Jane had six brothers and one sister, Cassandra. Jane’s sister was only two years older than her and was also her closet friend and confidant throughout her life. Jane’s father was the rector of the Anglican parishes in the Steventon section of Hampshire. Jane’s favorite brother, Henry, also had strong ties to the church since, after his attempts at being a banker failed, he became an Anglican clergyman. Henry also served as Jane’s literary agent. Henry had a large and influential circle of London-based friends that included merchants, bankers, publishers, actors and painters. Henry introduced Jane to many of his friends and it is strongly believed that this vibrant social circle is where Jane got many ideas for the characters and plots in her novels.

Jane and Cassandra were both quite well educated which was something of a rarity for girls in 18th century England. They were both educated at a boarding school but were returned home, when Jane was only 11, because their family could not afford to send both daughters to the school long term. Jane supplemented her education by reading books in her father and uncle’s libraries. The family also staged a series of plays in which Jane sometimes acted. For the rest of her life, Jane never lived anywhere outside the bounds of her family environment.

It is estimated that Jane started writing circa 1787 when she was only 12 years old. By all accounts, Jane’s family was supportive of her writing—something that was also quite a rarity at the time. Jane’s father even supplied his daughter with papers and pens and a writing desk to aid her experimentation with storytelling. Jane penned many poems, plays and stories for her family’s amusement. She later combined 29 of these early works into three bound notebooks that are now referred to as the “Juvenilia” collection. Most of these pieces were written between 1787 and 1793 when Jane was aged 12 to 18.

As Jane Austen grew into adulthood she continued to live in her family home and maintained a vibrant social life. She regularly attended church, went to dances, socialized with friends and neighbors and read many novels. Jane was reportedly a good dancer and enjoyed the company of others although she never let her social life get in the way of her writing. In 1794, at the age of 19, Jane wrote “Lady Susan,” a short novel about a widow seeking a husband for herself and her daughter. This novel was the most ambitious of Jane’s early works. Despite her early writings, Jane did not get her first novel, “Sense and Sensibility,” published until 1811 when she was 36. Yet, after the success of that first novel, Jane’s career took off. She published “Pride and Prejudice” in 1813, “Mansfield Park” in 1814, “Emma” in 1815 and two posthumous works in 1818 titled “Northanger Abbey” and “Persuasion.” All of these books were noted for their romantic plots and witty dialogue.

Although Jane Austen frequently wrote about romance she never married. When she was 20 she met and reportedly fell in love with an Irish-Huguenot named Tom Lefroy. However, Tom had little money and seemingly no way to support a wife. Hence, Jane’s parents did not see him as a candidate to marry their daughter and disapproved of their relationship. After Jane met and befriended him her family intervened to keep him away from her and Jane never saw him again.

In December of 1802, at the age of 27, Jane received her only known marriage proposal. Jane and Cassandra had journeyed to Basingstoke to visit friends of theirs. The friends younger brother (who was five years younger than Jane) named Harris Brigg-Wither had just completed his education at Oxford and asked Jane to marry him. Jane accepted the offer even though Harris was described as unattractive, conversationally tactless, sullen and quiet. Most historians speculate that Jane accepted Harris’ marriage proposal because she had known him since she was young and being married would offer her many practical advantages—especially since Harris was the heir to many estates in the Hampshire area. However, within one day, Jane realized that she had made a mistake by accepting Harris’ offer and withdrew her acceptance the next day.

In 1805, Jane’s father died suddenly leaving his wife and two unmarried daughters in a terribly grim financial situation. Luckily, Jane’s brothers banded together to help their mother and sisters by sending them money. Over the next four years the three women traveled together and lived with numerous family members since they were no longer able to keep up with the expenses of their own estate. Despite these less-than-ideal circumstances, Jane continued to write. In 1809, Jane’s brother, Edward, secured a cottage in Chawton village for his mother and sisters to take residence in. The women’s life in Chawton was comfortable but quiet and Jane was able to get quite a lot of writing done. In the following years Jane enjoyed the publication of several novels starting with “Sense and Sensibility” which came into print in 1811.

In 1816, 40 year old Jane started to feel ill. Over the following months her health deteriorated rapidly. The exact cause of Jane’s ailment has never been pinpointed but most historians believe it was either some form of cancer, tuberculosis, or typhus. Despite her sickness, Jane continued to write until she became too ill to hold a pen in March of 1817. By April 1817 Jane was confined to her bed and in May her family escorted her to Winchester for medical treatment. Jane Austen died in Winchester on July 18, 1817 at the age of 41. She was buried on the grounds of Winchester Cathedral.

After her death, Jane’s mother and sister, Cassandra, arranged to have two of her final novels published. Both were released in 1818. Until this day Jane Austen’s legacy lives on through her stories. Her novels are still widely read and loved and most of her works have been turned into theatrical plays, movies and mini-series. Hence, the legendary Jane Austen lives on!

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