Even our most beloved storytellers have lives with stories of their own to tell.
Though it has only been relatively recent that her work has become mainstream - thanks in part to required readings in school, reproductions of her classical works at the bookstores and television and cinema productions covering her novels- the lure of the romantic period that Jane Austen created in the minds of men and women alike has resonated for decades. Her careful selection of characters placed in ordinary positions of their time, only to develop into a more dramatic situation by the turn of the last page, has kept readers revisiting these ageless classics time and again. Having read her works, one is left wondering who Jane Austen really was - how close were the predicaments in these works to her real life? What kind of woman was she in the world that she lived in? Did she ever find the love so elusive in her own novels?
Jane Austen came into the world on December 16th, 1775. Born to Reverend George Austen of the Steventon rectory and Cassandra Austen of the Leigh family. She was to be their seventh child and only the second daughter to the couple. Her siblings were made up largely of brothers, which in some ways forced a close relationship with her elder sister, Cassandra (not to be confused with the mother whom also carried the name Cassandra - but further referred to as Mrs. Austen). In order of birth, the Austen children were as follows: James, Edward, Henry, Cassandra, Francis, George, Jane and Charles. Of all the brothers, it would be Henry to which Jane would form the closest bond with, playing the part of Jane's literary agent in the later stages of her writing.
Growing up, the Austen children lived in an environment of open learning, creativity and dialogue. Mr. Austen worked away in the rectory and also tried his hand at farming on the side to earn more money for the growing family. Additionally, he would take on teaching roles within the home to outside children for additional funds. The Austen children would all grow within this close-knit family with Jane herself forming an exceptional bond with her father.
In 1783, at the age of 8, Jane and her sister Cassandra were sent off to boarding school for their formal educations. Education would consist of the appropriate teachings of the time, which included foreign language (mainly French), music and dancing. Returning home, the rest of Jane's education centered mainly around what her father and brothers could teach her and, of course, what she could learn from her own reading. As Mr. Austen was part of the church, he kept a large collection of literature in his home library. This library was open to Jane and Cassandra as well and the two made extensive use of it in both reading and writing endeavors, with Jane taking the lead in both. Mr. Austen fed Jane's interest in writing by supplying his books, paper and writing tools to allow her to explore her creative side. By all accounts, life inside the Austen homestead was a casual environment where many an attempt at humor was made with some very good debating going on on the side.
It became quite common for the family to invest time and energy into making home-based productions of existing plays or writing and acting out their own creations. One can only assume that it was in these exercises that the true talent of Jane Austen was being nurtured - through observation, improvisation, acting and participation.
1787 rolled along in time to see Jane start taking more of an interest in generating her own works and keeping them in notebooks for future reference. These collections consisted of stories and poems that allowed Jane to touch upon topics of interest and reflect the times. Collectively, these works became the Juvenilia and made up three whole notebooks. By 1789, Jane penned the dark, satirical comedy Love and Friendship, and began to lean towards writing seriously. Four years time would see her delve into play writing in the form of Sir Charles Garandison or the Happy Man, a comedy centered around the works she was forced to read in schools and consisted of six full acts. Unfortunately, the idea fell to naught and was abandoned for another idea that later became Susan, a novel told in the epistolary format - that is, a story told as a series of letters. Sometime before 1796, members of the Austen family recalled Jane completing the work entitled Elinor and Marianne to which she would then read aloud for the amusement of the Austen family.
In December of 1795, a nephew of nearby neighbors began placing several visits to Steventon. His name was Tom Lefroy, a student studying in London to be a barrister. Jane and Tom began spending much time with one another and it was noticed by both families. This marks the one documented instance of Jane Austen admitting to falling in love and spent a great deal of energy in writing to her sister Cassandra about their relationship. Unfortunately for the pair, the family of Tom Lefroy reviewed any forthcoming engagement as highly impractical as Tom was being supported externally by family members whilst he was in school and planning for his own practice. Jane herself, and her family for that matter, had no more to offer in the pairing. As such, Lefroy's family intervened and sent Tom away. Even when in town again, every effort to keep Tom from Jane was made and Jane was never to see her love again for the rest of her life.
With their formal educations completed at the boarding school, Jane and Cassandra return home permanently and Jane sets out to pen the work First Impressions. Little did she know at the time that this single work would become her most popular and enduring piece, becoming the story we now know as Pride & Prejudice. The first draft was completed sometime in 1799.
Always the supportive father, Mr. Austen takes a serious step to help his talented daughter succeed. With one of her works, he attempted to have the piece published through Thomas Cadell, a publisher based in London. The attempt fell flat as Cadell was quick to reject the work, not even bothering to open the package. It remains unknown if Jane knew of her father's attempt at assisting her in her career.
Jane returned to work on Elinor and Marianne, completing all revisions to the story by 1798. The revisions are quite substantial in that she removed the epistolary point of view of the storytelling and instituted a more traditional 3rd person. With the work up to her new standard now, she began serious work on Susan. Susan is the work that would go on to become Northanger Abbey. But before work on Susan was completed, Jane decided to revisit the short play she had attempted all those years before - Sir Charles Grandison or the Happy Man. In this go-round, Jane saw her first play to completion all while finding time to finish Susan.
As with most Decembers in the Austen family history, the December of 1800 brought about some great news. Jane's father George announced that he was retiring from the clergy, an announcement that seems to take the Austen family by complete surprise. This meant that their stay in Steventon was all but over, much to the dismay of Jane, whom had formed an attachment to the one and only home she has known her entire life. Now at age 27, she and the entire Austen family moved to the town of Bath for the Austen parent's retirement life.
Text ©2008-2014 www.JaneAusten.org • All Rights Reserved • No Reproduction Permitted • Email corrections / Comments to JaneAustenOrg at Gmail dot com.
• Jane Austen Basics
• Life Timeline
• Books / Works
• Regency Period
• Regency Period Glossary
• Regency Period Fashions
• Rank and Class in the Regency Period
• Royal Genealogy
• British Military Ranks
• Researching Jane Austen