Life and work
Jane Austen’s life resembles her novels—at first glance they seem to be composed of a series of quiet, unexceptional events. Such an impression is supported by the comment of her brother, Henry, who wrote after her death that her life was “not by any means a life of event” or “uneventful.” Similarly, her nephew James added in a biography published fifty years laterthat “Of events her life was singularly barren: few changes and no great crisis ever broke the smooth current of its course.” However, just as readers find that the complexity of Austen’s novel lies in its characters and style, those studying Austen herself discover that the events of her life are secondary to her compelling personality, quick wit, and highly-developed powers of observation. Thefact that Austen’s life lacked the drama that other authors may have experienced in no way detracted from her skill as a writer. In actuality, Austen’s lack of “extraordinary” experiences, as well as of a spouse and children, probably made her writing possible by freeing her time to work on her books. Additionally, because her books were published anonymously, Austen never achieved personalrecognition for her works outside of her sphere of family and friends. Such anonymity suited her, for, as literary critic Richard Blythe notes, “literature, not the literary life, was always her intention.”
Born on December 16, 1775, Jane Austen was the seventh of eight children born to George and Cassandra Austen. The family lived in Steventon, a small Hampshire town in south-centralEngland, where her father was a minister. The Austens were a loving, spirited family that read novels together from the local circulating library and put on home theatricals. It was for the family circle that Austen first wrote high-spirited satires—some of which later became novels after numerous and careful rewritings.
Out of her seven siblings, Austen was closest to her only sister, Cassandra.From 1783 to 1785, the two girls attended schools in Oxford and Southampton and the Abbey School at Reading. In general, she received an education superior to that generally given to girls of her time, and took early to writing, beginning her first tale in 1789.
When the Austens could no longer afford the tuition, Jane and Cassandra returned home to read extensively and learn from their family howto speak French and Italian and play the piano. Most accounts agree that the Austen daughters were pretty and enjoyed the slightly limited but interesting round of country parties described in Austen’s novels.
When Austen was twenty, she met Tom Lefroy, a young Irishman visiting his uncle in Hampshire. Seeing that the two young people were on the verge of an engagement, Lefroy’s family sent himhome rather than letting him attach himself to someone as poor as a clergyman’s daughter. Austen’s second brush with marriage occurred at age twenty-seven, when the wealthy Harris Bigg-Wither proposed and Austen accepted. The next morning, however, Austen changed her mind, giving up the wealth and security inherent in such a match because she did not love him. Such a marriage would have"established" her (in the terminology
of the day), and freed her from some of the constraints and "dependency" then associated with the role of a spinster who must rely on her family for support. Although Austen never married, the emphasis of courtship and marriage in her novels demonstrates the impact that these experiences had on her and her interest in love and marriage.
From 1796-1798,Austen wrote her first three novels—Northanger Abbey (originally titled Susan), Sense and Sensibility (originally titled Elinor and Marianne), and Pride and Prejudice (originally titled First Impressions)—but none was published until later. Northanger Abbey, which was published posthumously in 1818, satirizes the Gothic novels that were popular at the time by presenting a heroine whose...