“Although Jane Austen’s reputation has been secure since the mid-nineteenth century, she has remained one of the great anomalies of literary history” – Claudia Johnson
Jane Austen was born on December 16, 1775 to Rev. George Austen and his wife Cassandra Leigh Austen in Steventon, Hampshire. She was the seventh of eight children: James (1765), George (1766), Edward (1767), Henry (1771), Cassandra (1773), Francis (1774), and Charles (1779).
At the age of 10, Jane and her sister Cassandra were sent to the Abbey House School in Reading to obtain an education. However, after just over a year, the girls returned to Steventon and it is at this time that is it believed Jane began writing her Juvenilia. Over the next 7 years through Jane’s youth, she would compose all three volumes.
These years saw much change for the Austen family as Francis entered the Royal Navy Academy (1786), Charles also entered the Royal Navy Academy (1791), Edward and James both married (1791, 1792), and Cassandra became engaged in Rev. Tom Fowle (1792). It is unquestionable that Cassandra’s engagement would have meant the most to Jane, as she was extraordinarily close with her older sister. Sadly a short five years later, Tom died of scarlet fever. It is rumoured that the Austen sisters then made a commitment to never marry but to be each other’s companions.
At the age of 19, it is believed that Austen had concluded her juvenile writings and had moved on to pursue the novel genre that would later earn her her fame. In these early years, Jane produced drafts of Elinor and Marianne (later Sense and Sensibility) and First Impressions (late Pride and Prejudice). Her first completed novel was Susan (later Northanger Abbey) that she wrote between 1798-1799.
In 1801, the Austen family relocated to Bath. It is thought that Jane was unimpressed by Bath as she was extremely inactive in her writing during her residence there. Also, Jane portrays Bath as quite a dreadful and undesirable place in her final novel Persuasion. In 1802, Jane received her only known proposal of marriage from Harris Bigg-Withers. While she accepted at first, she withdrew her acceptance the following day. In 1803, Jane sold her manuscript for Susan to publisher Benjamin Crosby. While this was the first of her manuscripts to be sold for print, it would be one of the last published as it sat dormant until after her death.
Sadly, in 1805, Jane’s father passed away. Several years later, in 1809, Mrs. Austen, Cassandra, and Jane relocated to Chawton House where Jane would compose the majority of her writings and would live happily until the end of her life. After unsuccessfully attempting to publish Susan in 1803, Jane sold her manuscript of Sense and Sensibility to Thomas Egerton in 1810 and it was published the following year in October. This success can now be recognized as the catalyst for a very active authorial career in which Austen finished and published another 3 books in 4 years: Pride and Prejudice in 1813, Mansfield Park in 1814, and Emma in 1815.
By the time Emma had been published, Austen’s books had grown greatly in popularity. While still no novelist mogul of her time like contemporary Sir Walter Scott, Jane’s work was admired – most notably by the Prince Regent who Jane eventually dedicated Emma to.
In 1816, Jane’s health began to decline; however, she continued to write and completed Persuasion later that year. In 1817, after starting her last (unfinished) novel Sanditon, Jane became too weak to compose. On July 18, 1817, she passed away and is now buried in Winchester Cathedral. Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were published posthumously later that year.
Since her death in 1817, Jane’s work has only increased in popularity molding her into the literary icon she is today. Her novels have been remediated in films starring Hollywood actors Colin Firth (Pride & Prejudice), Kiera Knightly (Pride & Prejudice), Gwyneth Paltrow (Emma) or even adapted into contemporary versions of her timeless plotlines such as in Clueless (Emma). As her novels continue to entertain the public and perplex academic scholars with their fluid narration and captivating heroines, Jane Austen’s wit & wisdom perpetuate into our future.