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Sunday, 16 October 2011

Jane Austen

The seventh of eight children, Jane Austen was born on December 16, 1775 at Steventon rectory. She had six brothers and one older sister, Cassandra, to whom she was very close.

Watercolour-and-pencil portrait of Jane Austen by Cassandra Austen (1773-1845) - Wikipedia Commons

Jane's father, Rev George Austen (1731-1805), was an educated gentlemanly parson of moderate means, who was the vicar at Steventon for over 40 years. Her mother was Cassandra (1739-1827). Her parents left 101 grandchildren when they died.

Jane was modest about her education, saying: “I think I may boast myself to be, with all possible vanity, the most unlearned and uninformed female who ever dared to be an authoress.”

Jane started writing when young and her novel Love & Friendship was written when she was only 14 years old. At first she wrote in secret covering her papers whenever the creaking door of her room warned her someone was coming.

Jane wasn't a beauty but certainly attractive, though her sister Cassandra was considered prettier. A contemporary described her as a “clear brunette with a rich colour, hazel eyes, fine features and curling brown hair."

Jane had several suitors, one of whom she accepted it only to withdraw it the next morning. One of the marriage proposals she turned down was to a chap called Harris Bigg-Wither, who though prosperous was “big and awkward”. In a letter to Cassandra she wrote- "Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection."

Jane Austen wrote the first draft of Sense and Sensibility sometime around 1795 when she was about 19 years old, and gave it the title !Elinor and Marianne." She later changed the title to Sense and Sensibility

Sense and Sensibility was published anonymously (it was attributed to "a lady") on October 30, 1811. By the middle of 1813, the novel had sold out its first print run of 750 copies, marking Austen 's first successful work. It then had a second print run later that year.

Title page from the original 1811 edition

Pride and Prejudice was originally titled First Impressions. It was rejected by publishers in 1797, so the novel languished for 14 years until, flush with the success of Sense and Sensibility, Austen revised the manuscript. It was published on January 28, 1813 when she was 37 years old.

Like both its predecessors Sense and Sensibility and Northanger AbbeyPride and Prejudice was written at Steventon Rectory.

Jane Austen didn’t put her name on her novels, and would only say they were "By a Lady." The title page of Pride and Prejudice said, “by the author of Sense and Sensibility.” It wasn’t until after her death that her brother revealed her name to the public.

Title page from the first edition of the first volume of Pride and Prejudice

Before she began Emma, Jane wrote in a letter, "I am going to take a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like."

All of Jane's' novels were published anonymously. In 1803 Northanger Abbey was sold to the publishers Crosby & Sons for £10 but they did not publish it until after her death.

In 1809 Jane moved to a cottage of Elizabethan origin at Chawton, near Alton, Hampshire, on the property of her brother Mr Knight. Its a long two storey building which now partly serves as a museum with many of her personal belongings. she wrote in the busy family parlour Persuasion, Mansfield Park and Emma. She based many of her characters on local Chawton folk.

By her late 30s Jane began to earn money from her writing. She sold Pride and Prejudice for £110 having asked for £150. The first edition of Sense & Sensibility turned a profit of £140 for her. She received a total of £700 for the four novels published in her lifetime, a fair amount of money in those days but not enough to demonstrate she'd been noticed in the literary world.

Her novels were fairly well received when they were published, with Sir Walter Scott in particular praising her work. The Prince Regent was such a fan of Austen's work that he asked her to dedicate her next book to him, which she did.

Among the hundreds of words and phrases Jane Austen contributed to our vocabulary were "dinner-party," "brace yourself," "family portrait," "door bell," "breakfast room" and ‘"f I’ve told you once, I’ve told you 100 times."

In 1815 Jane included the first literary mention of soft boiled eggs in her book Emma when the heroine’s father, Mr Woodhouse, announced that “an egg boiled soft is not unwholesome”.

Like Elizabeth and Jane in Pride and Prejudice, Jane was very close to her sister Cassandra, writing to each other almost every day when they were apart.

Jane was accomplished at music and she played the piano to a good standard. Her letters to Cassandra were full of news on music trends. She would get up early in the morning to practice her piano playing so as not to disturb the rest of her family and liked piano pieces such as "I'm Jolly Dick the Lamplighter" and "The Tippling Philosophers".

Jane also excelled at the game bilbocatch, throwing and catching a ball in a cup to which it is attached by a string.

Jane mentioned Baseball in Northanger Abbey. Her heroine "prefers cricket, baseball to books." This was the first recorded use of the word "baseball" in English.

Jane Austen's novel Mansfield Park was based on her brother's residence Godmersham Park, Kent, which she frequently visited.

Apart from her father, two of Jane's brothers and four of her cousins were all clergymen. Jane herself was a little sympathetic to the evangelical movement but was put off by some of the more narrow-minded evangelicals, whose seriousness and inability to understand human nature disgusted her. She once wrote in a letter that she has " a great respect for Sweden because it had been so zealous for Protestantism."

March of 1817 saw Jane Austen's health decline rapidly and she was forced to abandon her current work of Sanditon, after completing twelve chapters. It is thought she had Addison’s disease.

On April 27th  Jane wrote out her will and then on May 24th moved with Cassandra to Winchester, to be near her physician. It was in Winchester where she died, in the arms of her sister, on Friday, July 18, 1817, at the age of only 41. Her last words were, "I want nothing but death."

House in Winchester where Austen spent her final days. By Photograph by Mike Peel (

Only four people – the Rev Thomas Watkins and three Austen brothers – attended her funeral. It was held in the early morning before the cathedral’s service began.

The one page of Jane's will left all her possessions to her sister Cassandra and £50 to her brother Henry. The will was proved in London on September 10, 1817, at the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, Jane having died in July. Her total assets were valued at £800.

When Jane died she was practically unknown in the literary world and her tombstone doesn't even mention she was a writer. She only really became well known after JE Austin Leigh's memoir in 1870 of her after which the Jane Austen cult began to develop.

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