Jane Austen, one of the world’s greatest novelists, was born on December 16, 1775, in the rural village of Steventon in Hampshire, England. The seventh of eight children of a country clergyman, George Austen, and his wife, Cassandra Leigh Austen, Jane Austen was primarily educated at home. She benefited from her father’s extensive library and from the schoolroom atmosphere fostered by the presence of Rev. Austen’s live-in pupils. Her closest friend was her only sister, Cassandra, almost three years her senior.
Jane Austen lived a quiet life, but through her brothers, she had unusual access to the greater world. Although little is known about one of the Austen sons — George, the second brother, who was born with a physical or cognitive disability — the lives of the rest are well-documented. The oldest, James, studied at Oxford University and became a clergyman, eventually succeeding his father as rector of Steventon. The third brother, Edward, was adopted by wealthy cousins, the Knights, becoming their heir and later taking their name. On extended visits to Godmersham, Edward’s estate in Kent, Austen and her sister took part in the privileged life of the landed gentry, which is reflected in all her fiction. Before becoming a clergyman, the fourth Austen brother, Henry, served as an officer in the militia and later as a banker, hosting Jane on visits to London, where she attended the theater, visited art exhibitions, and corrected proofs of her novels. The sixth and seventh brothers, Francis (Frank) and Charles, officers in the Royal Navy, served on ships around the world and saw action in the Napoleonic Wars.
As a child, Austen began writing comic stories, now known as the Juvenilia, parodying the popular sentimental fiction of her time. By her early 20s, however, Austen had begun work on more serious realistic fiction, composing versions of the novels that later became Sense and Sensibility (first called “Elinor and Marianne”) and Pride and Prejudice (originally “First Impressions”). Around the same time, she may also have written the novella Lady Susan, which, like “Elinor and Marianne” and “First Impressions,” is epistolary (i.e., composed entirely of letters).
In 1797, Austen’s father offered a publisher the manuscript of “First Impressions,” but his offer was rejected by return post. Austen continued writing, revising “Elinor and Marianne” and completing a novel called “Susan” (later to become Northanger Abbey). In 1803, Austen sold “Susan” to a publisher for £10, but although the book was advertised for sale, it never appeared.
When Austen was 25, her father retired, and she and Cassandra moved with their parents to the popular resort destination of Bath. Austen seems to have disliked the city, and her writing output slowed to a trickle: during the five years she spent there (1801-06), she is believed to have begun only one novel, The Watsons, which she never completed. After the Rev. Austen’s death, the Austen women found themselves in difficult financial circumstances; they relied upon contributions from the Austen sons but were forced to move frequently in search of cheaper lodgings. In 1806, Mrs. Austen and her daughters, along with their close friend Martha Lloyd, moved to Southampton to share a house with Frank Austen and his family.
Three years later, Edward Austen offered his mother and sisters a comfortable cottage in the village of Chawton, near his Hampshire manor house, inaugurating the most artistically fruitful period of Jane Austen’s life. In 1811, at the age of 35, she published Sense and Sensibility, whose title page identified the author only as “a Lady.” Pride and Prejudice followed in 1813, Mansfield Park in 1814, and Emma in 1816. Each book’s title page omitted her name but capitalized on Austen’s growing reputation by referring to one or two of her earlier novels.
Austen began writing the novel that would become Persuasion in 1815, and the following year, her brother Henry helped her repurchase the manuscript of “Susan” for the £10 the publisher had paid her. (Only after the manuscript had been returned did Henry tell the publisher it was by the author of the now-popular Pride and Prejudice.) In the last eighteen months of her life, Austen revised “Susan,” renaming it “Catherine”; finished Persuasion; and began the fragment later known as Sanditon. But her health was beginning to fail, and by March of 1817 she was too ill to work.
On April 27, she wrote her will, naming Cassandra as her heir, and in May the sisters moved to 8 College Street in Winchester, to be nearer the doctor. Jane Austen died there in the early hours of July 18, 1817, at the age of 41, and was buried a few days later in Winchester Cathedral. The epitaph on her gravestone, composed by her family, praises her sweet temperament and deep religious faith but does not mention that she was an author. Medical scholars have posthumously diagnosed her illness as tuberculosis, lymphoma, accidental arsenic poisoning, or, most commonly, Addison’s disease, a disorder of the adrenal glands.
Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were published together in December 1817 with a “Biographical Notice,” written by Henry Austen, which for the first time publicly identified Jane Austen as the author of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma.
Austen’s novels fell out of print in the decade after her death, but they were reissued in the 1830s and steadily gained admirers among the ranks of both professional critics and ordinary readers. Today, they are considered among the greatest works of English literature and are often included on lists of readers’ favorites. Austen’s last home at Chawton Cottage now houses a museum of her life, visited annually by thousands of fans from across the globe. All six of her completed novels, as well as Lady Susan and Sanditon, have been adapted for screens large and small, and online and in print, a flourishing subculture of fanfiction writers continues to make Austen’s stories their own.
Selected Biographies and Biographical Material
Jane Austen, Jane Austen’s Letters, edited by Deirdre Le Faye (Oxford University Press, 1995)
J. E. Austen-Leigh, A Memoir of Jane Austen and Other Family Recollections, edited by Kathryn Sutherland (Oxford University Press, 2002)
Jan Fergus, Jane Austen: A Literary Life (Macmillan Press, 1991)
Park Honan, Jane Austen: Her Life (St. Martin’s Press, 1987)
Elizabeth Jenkins, Jane Austen: A Biography (1938)
Deirdre Le Faye, Jane Austen: A Family Record (Cambridge University Press, 2004)
Claire Tomalin, Jane Austen: A Life (Alfred A. Knopf, 1997)