Saturday, July 20, 2013

Jane Austen (1775-1817)

Jane Austen was born on December 16, 1775, in the village of Steventon, Hampshire, England, about 60 miles (96 km) southwest of London. Her father was the pastor of several churches in this rural area. She had five older brothers, an older sister, and one younger brother. Her sister Cassandra remained her closest friend throughout her life. Apart from learning under the instruction of others in 1783 and 1785-1786, Jane educated herself by reading the books in her father’s large eclectic library and through her own observations and reflections. Her father supported her early and continuous writing by giving her all the paper, ink, emotional support, and time she needed.

Jane never married and continued to live at the rectory in Steventon with her parents as an adult. There she sewed, played the piano, read novels (including her own) aloud at night to entertain her family, socialized with neighbors, visited the poor, and participated gladly in dances held regularly at the town hall.

By the end of 1795 she had finished the first draft of her first novel. Its working title was Elinor and Marianne. In 1796 she started writing her second novel which she initially called First Impressions. She read this aloud to her family as she wrote it and they enjoyed it immensely. She finished the first draft in August 1797. In 1798 she revised Elinor and Marianne and then started on Susan which she finished a year later.

In December 1800 Jane’s father made the surprising announcement that he was retiring as pastor and moving the family to the large and ancient city of Bath (about 66 miles or 100 km west of Steventon). Because her family destroyed most of the letters she wrote during her lifetime, scholars today remain uncertain about the impact this move had on Jane and her writing.

In December 1802, a young man asked Jane to marry him. He was a childhood friend, wealthy, and a recent graduate of Oxford. She immediately said yes. He was also big, rude, and aggressive. The next morning she said sorry, no.

Jane’s father died suddenly in January 1805. Jane, her sister, and her mother just as quickly found themselves without income. For the next four years they stayed for longer or shorter periods of time in the homes of relatives and depended on four of Jane’s older brothers for money.

In July 1809, they were able to settle into their own place once again. Jane's older brother Edward invited them to live in a house he owned in the village of Chawton about 16 miles (26 km) southeast of Steventon. Finally Jane could start writing again.

Jane revised the draft of her first novel Elinor and Marianne and retitled it Sense and Sensibility. A publisher agreed to print it if she would pay for the printing and give him a percentage of the sales income. She agreed and the first edition of 1811 sold out. She appreciated the financial independence it gave her. The book, however, brought her no fame because she had it, and later books, published anonymously. In 1811 she also started writing Mansfield Park.

Pride and Prejudice, her revision of First Impressions, came out in 1813 and was a critical and commercial success. In 1814 Mansfield Park disappointed critics but became Jane’s most commercially successful novel. Just before the publication of Mansfield Park Jane started writing Emma. She had it published in December 1815.

By the summer of 1816, Jane had become unmistakably and irreversibly ill. Scholars disagree about the nature of the disease. She finished Persuasion, which she had started writing the previous summer, in August.

By April 1817, Jane no longer had the energy to get out of bed. In May sister Cassandra and brother Henry took her to physicians in Winchester. She died on July 18th and was buried in the cathedral there.

Jane’s last two completed novels, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey (her final revision of Susan), were published as a set in December 1817. In the biographical note included in the books, her brother Henry publicly identified his sister Jane as the author of her novels for the first time. All her books were out of print from 1820 until 1833 when a new publisher printed them in a set of five illustrated volumes. They have remained in print ever since.

Following the republication of her books, people continued to appreciate and buy them but later authors, like Charles Dickens and George Eliot (pen name of Mary Anne Evans), became more popular. Literary critics varied in their opinions. George Lewes, true love of Mary Anne Evans and literary critic, admired Jane as a writer and later Charlotte Brontë as well. The publication in 1869 of a memoir about Jane, written by a nephew, sparked much greater critical interest in her books.

Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved.