This Day In Literary History
On December 16th, 1775, the legendary English writer Jane Austen was born in Steventon, Hampshire, England. Born to a large upper class family, Jane had six brothers and one sister, Cassandra.
With five sons to educate, (Jane's brother George was mentally handicapped and sent to live elsewhere) the Austens couldn't afford to send Jane and her sister to school, too.
(When Jane was eight, the girls did go to Oxford for a year to begin their formal education, but then they fell ill with typhus and the family's finances became strained.)
So, the girls were well educated by their father and older brothers. Jane's clergyman father, William Austen, provided his daughters access to his large and eclectic library of books. He also provided them with writing and drawing materials.
Though part of the British upper class, the Austens were a liberal, intellectual family. Beginning around the time Jane was seven years old, the family staged plays privately for the amusement of themselves and their relatives and friends.
Most of the plays were comedies and no doubt cultivated Jane's talents for comedy and satire. She began writing her own plays, poems, and stories at the age of twelve.
These works were originally written for her and her family's amusement, but she made clean copies of the manuscripts and organized them into three bound volumes known as the Juvenilia.
Among the works in the Juvenilia were Love And Friendship, a satirical epistolary novella, and The History of England, a scathing parody of Oliver Goldsmith's historical work of the same name, featuring watercolor illustrations by Jane's sister, Cassandra.
Scholar Richard Jenkyns has compared Austen's Juvenilia to the works of 18th century English novelist Laurence Sterne and the 20th century comedy troupe, Monty Python's Flying Circus.
As she grew into womanhood, Jane Austen became involved in activities typical for young women of her age and social class. She practiced the piano, helped her mother and sister supervise the servants, and attended church regularly.
She also socialized with her friends and neighbors. Socializing at the time usually involved dancing, and as her brother Henry later observed, "Jane was fond of dancing and excelled at it."
Although she had become an accomplished seamstress, at around the age of fourteen, she decided that she wanted to be a professional writer. In 1793, at the age of eighteen, Jane began work on a novella, Lady Susan, which she completed two years later.
In this epistolary novella, Lady Susan is an intelligent, attractive, and self-centered middle aged widow who uses her beauty and charm to manipulate and seduce both married and single men alike in her quest to snare another rich husband.
She also tries to marry off her daughter Frederica, whom she considers stupid and stubborn, to a rich man. Frederica, however, is a sweet and sensible girl, and will have none of that.
Lady Susan was considered risque and shocking for its time, but Jane's liberal parents supported her writing endeavors. Around the time she completed the manuscript, the twenty-year-old Jane Austen met Tom Lefroy, the nephew of her neighbors.
Having just graduated from university, Lefroy, a young Irishman, had come to London to train as a barrister. He and Jane met at a social gathering, and it was love at first sight.
They spent a lot of time together, but then Tom's family intervened and sent him away. They had decided that Tom and Jane were too young and too poor to marry, despite their social class. Jane never saw him again.
Jane began work on her first full-length novel, Elinor and Marianne, which would later be revised considerably and published as the classic Sense and Sensibility.
While working on her second novel, First Impressions, (which would be revised and later published as Pride and Prejudice) Jane's father tried to get Elinor and Marianne published. It was rejected. Jane probably never knew about it, as she kept writing.
In 1800, William Austen surprised his family by announcing his retirement and his plan to move the family to Bath. Jane was shocked at having to move out of the only home she had ever known. In Bath, she fell into a deep depression and her writing productivity slowed down to almost a standstill.
Two years after the move, Jane and her sister visited their old friends, Althea and Catherine Bigg. Their younger brother, Harris Bigg, was back home, having returned following his graduation from Oxford.
Jane had known Harris since they were both young. He was a large, unattractive man who rarely spoke. When he did speak, he stuttered, engaged in aggressive conversation, and was completely tactless. He was, however, an heir to his family's considerable fortune, so when he proposed to Jane, she accepted.
Marriage to Harris would be practical - he could take care of her, provide a comfortable life for her parents in their old age, and a home for her unmarried sister. The next morning, though, Jane realized she had made a terrible mistake and withdrew her acceptance.
In 1804, Jane began work on a new novel, The Watsons, but it would remain unfinished. Several months after she started writing it, her father died suddenly. This left Jane, her sister Cassandra, and their mother penniless.
Jane's brothers Edward, James, Henry, and Francis contributed to the support of their sisters and mother. The women lived in rented rooms in Bath and Southampton for the next four years. Then, Edward's fortunes improved and he moved them into a cottage on his estate in Chawton.
Feeling secure again, Jane returned to her writing, and her level of productivity soared. In 1811, her first full-length novel, Sense and Sensibility, was finally published.
The book was published anonymously, under the name "A Lady." The reviews were great and the first edition sold out. The royalties provided Jane with both financial and psychological independence.
She continued to publish classic novels, including Pride and Prejudice (1813) and Mansfield Park (1814), the first editions of which had also sold out.
After her novel Emma was published in 1815, Jane learned that the Prince Regent admired her writing and kept a set of her novels at every one of his residences. His librarian sent her an invitation to meet with the Prince at his home in London.
Jane disliked the Prince, but she couldn't refuse the invitation. She would later base her satirical piece Plan of a Novel (1815) on the many suggestions made to her by the Prince's annoying librarian.
In July of 1816, Jane completed the first draft of her next novel, The Elliots, which would later be published as Persuasion. Earlier in the year, she had fallen ill, but ignored her illness and kept writing at her usual pace.
As a result, her health began a long and slow deterioration. As the illness progressed, she lost all of her energy and experienced increasing difficulty in walking.
Jane Austen died the following year at the age of 41. Her last two novels, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, would be published posthumously in 1817.
Most of Jane's biographers relied on Dr. Vincent Cope's 1964 retrospective diagnosis of Addison's disease. Some claimed that Jane suffered from Hodgkin's lymphoma, a form of cancer.
In a recent work, Katherine White of Britain's Addison's Disease Self Help Group suggested that Jane Austen most likely died of bovine tuberculosis, a common disease during her time that was contracted by drinking unpasteurized milk.
To this day, Jane Austen is rightfully considered one of the greatest English novelists of all time. Her works are still studied and admired by readers around the world.
Quote Of The Day
"The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." - Jane Austen
Today's video features a documentary on Jane Austen called Jane Austen's Life. Enjoy!