A Biography of Jane Austen

Jane Austen’s life bears a close resemblance to the lives of the characters in her novels. Jane lived among the country gentry of England around the turn of the 19th century, and her family and social circle included clergy, farmers, wealthy landowners, affluent tradesman, members of the military, and occasionally, minor nobility. Jane loved dancing, reading, socializing, gossiping, and walking through the countryside, all activities that are central to her novels. But more substantially, Austen was a strong, educated and independent-minded woman who commented on important social issues through her brilliant characters.

Jane Austen was born on December 16, 1775 into the close-knit family of the Rev. George Austen and his wife, Cassandra.  Rev. Austen was the rector of the parish church in the village of Steventon in Hampshire, England. Jane was the seventh of eight children, and Jane’s only sister was also named Cassandra. Jane and Cassandra were extremely close, and their relationship was clearly the model for the warm sisterly affection between Elizabeth and Jane Bennet.

As young girls, Jane and Cassandra had only a few years of formal education, but the entire Austen family was extremely well read and educated.  Rev. Austen and his sons were responsible for most of Jane and Cassandra’s education, which consisted not only of extensive reading, but music, writing, and the performance of plays and skits for family and friends. As early as the age of 12, Jane began writing on her own. Initially, she wrote skits and plays, but she also completed two short novels by the age of 15. These youthful writings showed early signs of Jane’s wit, satire, and the ability to use humor to expose all things ridiculous.

Between 1795 and 1798, Jane wrote three novels that were the early versions of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Northanger Abbey. It’s noteworthy (and probably not a coincidence) that Jane also had her first serious crush during this period. Thomas Lefroy was a young law student who was visiting relatives in the neighborhood, and he and Jane danced together several times. However, the brief flirtation ended when Lefroy’s family sent him away, knowing that he and Jane would have made an imprudent match because neither had money, as Lefroy was dependent on his uncle.  This another example of Jane’s life experiences showing up in her novels.

In 1800, Rev. Austen and his wife unexpectedly decided to retire and move to Bath, taking Jane and Cassandra with them. This move greatly upset Jane, and her writing activities slowed considerably during this time. However, Jane’s brother, Henry, was a successful London banker, and in 1803 through Henry’s connections, Jane sold the copyrights for Northanger Abbey to a publisher for the equivalent of about $15, although he did not publish the novel at the time. 

In 1802, Jane received her only marriage proposal. The man was named Harris Bigg-Wither, and he was an old family friend of the Austen’s. Bigg-Wither was heir to extensive property near Steventon, and in marrying him, Jane would have been able to provide her parents and sister a very comfortable life.  Jane accepted his proposal, but changed her mind the next morning and withdrew her acceptance. There are no letters or diaries from Jane about this incident. However, later in life, Jane wrote to a niece that, “Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection,” which seems to indicate that she did not love this man, and decided that a life of near-poverty was better than marrying him. Again, clearly this episode from Jane’s life was a central plot theme in almost all of her novels.

In 1805, Rev. Austen died, leaving his wife and two daughters in a precarious financial situation. Fortunately, five of Jane’s brothers were successful in their careers. Besides Henry’s successful banking career, Charles and Frank both rose to the rank of Admiral in the British Navy. James took over the rectory of Steventon from his father. Edward had been adopted several years earlier by a distant cousin and his wife who were childless, so Edward inherited a very large estate in Kent. The brothers were able to provide for the three Austen ladies in modest comfort, although the women moved around to various places, often staying with relatives. Jane did little writing during these years, as her domestic life was unsettled. In 1809, Edward was able to offer Jane, Cassandra and Mrs. Austen the use of a cottage in the village of Chawton near his estate. Since her domestic life was more settled, Jane devoted many hours each day to writing. This is where Jane lived the rest of her life, and this is also the time period when four of her six major novels were published.

In 1811, Sense and Sensibility was published. On the title page, the author is referred to only as “A Lady,” as it was considered somewhat scandalous for a woman to be published that time. The novel was a success, both commercially and critically. The first edition sold out, and Jane made the equivalent of several hundred dollars, a substantial sum at that time. When Pride and Prejudice was published in January 1813, it was an immediate success, and a second edition was released in October 1813. Mansfield Park followed in May of 1814, and sold out in six months.  Emma was published in December 1815, and also sold well. None of Jane’s novels published in her lifetime acknowledged her as the author.

In early 1816, Jane started feeling unwell, although she still continued to write, completing Persuasion  in August of that year. However, publication of her works stalled because Henry’s bank failed in 1817, and the Austen brothers lost much of their wealth. As Jane’s health continued to decline, her writing slowed considerably. By March of 1817, she was confined to bed, possibly suffering from what we now know as Addison’s Disease.  Jane Austen died on July 18, 1817 at the age of 41. She is buried in Winchester Cathedral.

After Jane died, Persuasion  and Northanger Abbey were published as a set in December 1817. This was the first time Jane Austen was acknowledged in print as an author. Jane Austen’s novels have been in continuous print since 1832, they have sold millions of copies, and have been translated into dozens of other languages.