Topic outline

  • Jane Austen

    Jane AustenJane Austen (1775-1817) was the seventh child and second daughter of an Anglican rector in a country parish in Hampshire, England. She had a happy childhood. She read widely, though she had little formal schooling, and she and her siblings delighted in writing and performing plays at home. At the age of twelve, she began to write parodies of popular literary works, and set her hand to her first serious writing project when she was nineteen. That project was an epistolary novel called Lady Susan which, while not a work of genius, was good enough to encourage her to keep writing.

    Austen’s novels evolved through years of writing and rewriting. In 1795, she began a novel called Elinor and Marianne that was finally published in 1810 as Sense and Sensibility. She started writing First Impressions in 1796; it was initially rejected for publication, but later saw print in 1812 as Pride and Prejudice. She began work in 1799 on a novel called Susan (not to be confused with her initial effort), which was published posthumously in 1818 as Northanger Abbey. She wrote three other novels as well - Mansfield Park (1813), Emma (1815), and Persuasion (published posthumously in 1818).

    Her personal life was a happy but quiet one, consisting largely of her writing, along with the kind of country amusements - balls, parties, and teas - described in her novels. The family struggled financially between the death of her father in 1805 and the publication of her first novel in 1810. She never married, though in her late twenties she received a proposal from a local aristocrat named Harris Bigg-Wither. She accepted, but changed her mind the next morning. She always maintained a close relationship with her older sister Cassandra, though we know little of her private life, because not only did she guard her privacy very closely, but her family either censored or destroyed almost all of her correspondence after her death.

    Jane Austen died in 1817 of what is now believed to have been Addison’s disease. She knew she was dying, and raced against time and declining strength to finish Persuasion, the novel containing the character considered to be most like Jane herself - the plain but witty Anne Elliot. Her brother Henry arranged for the publication of her last two novels after her death. Only then did people become aware of the author of these popular works of literature - all the novels published during her lifetime had been published anonymously.