Presented on November 15, 2016 by Margaret Sparkes
Jane Austen was the second youngest of eight children born to Cassandra and George Austen. Her father was educated at Oxford University and was the rector for the Anglican parish of Steventon in Hampshire, England. Her favourite brother was Henry, who eventually went into the church, but she was very close to her sister Cassandra who was two years her senior and, like her sister, she never married. Jane’s formal education was cut short because of lack of family funds, but she took full advantage of her father’s extensive library, being an avid reader of books both good and bad. She started writing at a very early age (approximately 11) and also wrote plays for her family, who enjoyed staging them for their own amusement. In fact, Jane’s family were her only critics for much of her career. Against her personal wishes, Jane went with her parents and sister to live in Bath in 1801. Four years later, her father died there, leaving the three women in considerable financial difficulty. For the next few years, they moved from relative to relative until her brother Edward provided a cottage in the village of Chawton, where they finally settled down. Although Jane Austen lived in politically turbulent times, her writing reflects world events obliquely. Her novels reflect the relationships and manners of minor and landed gentry who inhabited the English countryside. A rich source of information about Jane’s own relationships and interests comes from her letters to her sister. She writes of fabrics and fashion, of dancing and visiting acquaintances, and she fell in love (or might have done, given the chance) with a young man, Tom Lefroy. Her interest was reciprocated, but his family effectively removed Tom from her influence because he was destined for greater things than marriage to an impoverished daughter of a country clergyman. The pain of such a separation is reflected vividly in her novel Sense and Sensibility. Much of Jane Austen’s writing is humorous and satirical. She is particularly unkind to mothers like Mrs. Bennett and clergymen such as Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice. Her heroines, like Emma Woodhouse and even her favourite, Elizabeth Bennet, must overcome their own weaknesses and learn from their own mistakes before they can find true happiness. Jane also admires patience and a strong sense of duty, as exemplified by Anne Elliot in Persuasion. Sadly, Jane Austen died of an undetermined illness when she was only 41. Although her novels were usually popular with readers, she enjoyed little personal fame during her lifetime. Indeed, not until the 1940’s did academics acknowledge her as a great English writer, and her wider popularity grew throughout the second half of the 20th century. Jane Austen’s tombstone, laid in the floor of Winchester Cathedral, makes no mention of her being an author. It merely refers to “the extraordinary endowments of her mind.” Northanger Abbey Jane Austen’s first major novel was written in 1798-99, when she was in her early twenties. It is a comic love story set in Bath about a young reader who must learn how to separate fantasy from reality. Miss Austen sold the novel (then entitled Susan) to a publisher in 1803, and the work was advertised but never published. She bought it back many years later, and her brother Henry Austen published the novel as Northanger Abbey after her death in 1817. Sense and Sensibility Sense and Sensibility was the first of Jane Austen’s novels to be published. She began to write it sometime around 1797, and she worked on it for many years before its publication in 1811. The title page said that it was written “By a Lady,” and only her immediate family knew that Jane Austen was the author. Impetuous Marianne Dashwood tumbles into a fairytale romance that goes sour, and her practical older sister Elinor copes with the family’s financial problems while hiding her own frustrated romantic hopes. The book was a success, and it even earned a profit! Pride and Prejudice Pride and Prejudice was first written in the late 1700’s, then rewritten in 1811-1812 and finally published in early 1813. It is probably the most-read of all of Jane Austen’s novels and is a popular favorite among many. Originally entitled First Impressions, the novel deals with the misjudgments that often occur at the beginning of an acquaintance and how those misjudgments can change as individuals learn more about each other. Mansfield Park Mansfield Park was written between February, 1811 and the summer of 1813. It was the third novel Jane Austen had published and it first appeared on May 4, 1814. During her lifetime, it was attributed only to “The author of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice,” and the author’s identity was unknown beyond her family and friends. It is Jane Austen’s most complex novel and deals with many different themes, from the education of children, to the differences between appearances and reality. Emma Emma was written in 1814-1815, and while Jane Austen was writing it, it was suggested to her by a member of the Prince Regents’ household that she dedicate it to His Royal Highness. Austen took the suggestion as it was intended – as a command – and Emma was thus dedicated, but the dedication itself is rather slyly worded. Emma deals with a young woman’s maturation into adulthood and the trouble she gets herself into along the way. Persuasion Persuasion was written in 1815-1816, while Jane Austen was suffering from her fatal illness. She was still working on some revisions at the time of her death in 1817. The novel was published posthumously by her brother, Henry Austen. Persuasion is a novel of second chances, expectations of society, and the constancy of love. Juvenilia Jane Austen’s works from her childhood are full of enthusiasm, humor, and very creative spelling.