Jane "Persuasion" Austen (1775-1817)

Jane Austen was born 16 December 1775 at Steventon Parish, Hampshire, England. She was the seventh child and second daughter of the Rev. George Austen and Cassandra Leigh-Austen. Jane was devoted to her older sister, Cassandra-Elizabeth, and eventually wrote enough letters to her to choke a horse. When Cassandra, age 10, was sent away to school in Oxford1, Jane begged to be sent along with her even though she was too young. Mr. Austen, however, couldn't really afford their schooling and the girls were back home after less than three years. Apart from this, Jane never lived outside of her family circle again2. She ended up very well-educated for a female, though. Her oldest brother James helped her out by organizing reading lists for her, and Jane could lay claim to a good knowledge of history as well as a little Latin, Italian and musical training.

It was 1787 when Jane made the decision to devote all her spare time to writing. This early work made three volumes of Juvenilia, and you can see all that satire just dying to come out. In 1791, she wrote a parody of Oliver Goldsmith's History of England. A few years later, when she was only about nineteen, she started work on Lady Susan, an epistolary3 novel which was Jane's first attempt at a serious theme. It didn't work well in the format she used, but it was good enough to encourage her to keep going. She began another epistolary novel in 1795, which was titled Elinor and Marianne4, and 1796 saw the beginning of First Impressions5.

But don't think it was all work for Jane. Like any single young lady back then, she went to dances, properly escorted of course, and flirted decorously with eligible young men. Cassandra had become engaged to Tom Fowle, a local clergyman, in 1795. Two years later, Tom's patron, Lord Craven, who had just purchased a colonelcy in the West Indies, asked Tom to go there as his private chaplain, and Tom felt he didn't dare refuse. Unfortunately, Tom died of yellow fever, and Cassandra slid into quiet spinsterhood6 with her sister.

In August of 1797, Jane submitted First Impressions, as it was still known, for publication, and it was turned down firmly. Jane was not surprised or disappointed; she'd only sent it in because her entire family was telling her to. She knew it wasn't any good7. She spent the next two years rewriting Elinor and Marianne into Sense and Sensibility and starting work on Susan8. In 1800 she took a break and went to visit an in-law. She returned home to learn that her home was moving to Bath. Though naturally a bit disconcerted, Jane soon adjusted to the idea of moving, especially since it was probably meant to improve her parents' health. Also around this time, Jane paid her first visit to the Bigg-Wither9 family and met the reasonably young, moderately wealthy Harris Bigg-Wither. About a year later, when Jane visited the family again in early December 1802, Harris proposed to Jane and she accepted. But before you start scratching your head and trying to figure out why she isn't known to posterity as Jane Bigg-Wither10, know that Jane changed her mind the very next morning11. Now this was really something of a scandal. Jane and Cassandra, who was also visiting, fled to their brother James' house (actually their old house) and demanded to be escorted to Bath immediately12, where Jane had to lay low until everything blew over.

Somewhere around early 1804, Jane started another novel called The Watsons, but when Jane's father died on 21 January 1805, she set the novel aside in her grief and never returned to it. Jane and her mother were now exceedingly poor13. Three of the boys in the family chipped in to arrange an annual income and lodgings for the ladies, but Jane's letters of the time hint that she was depressed at the restrictions of her finances. So it was probaly out of desparation that she sent off one of her manuscripts to a publisher. In 1810, Sense and Sensibility was accepted for publication on commission, meaning the printing costs would be paid by the author. Jane, expecting to lose money, only agreed reluctantly, but the novel sold briskly and gave Jane a profit of about 140. Jane, knowing a good thing when she saw it, started work on Mansfield Park and sold Pride and Prejudice for publication in 1812. By the next year, it was the fashionable novel in England14, and Mansfield Park was published and selling right along.

In November of 1815, Jane discovered she had fans in high places. People had finally realized who she was, thanks to her brother Henry, who had begun sharing her identity with his friends and acquaintances, and their friends and acquaintances, etc., until even the Prince Regent, who owned enough copies of each of Jane's novels to stock all his residences, knew who she was. He sent Jane, through his chief librarian, royal permission to dedicate any forthcoming novel to His Royal Highness. Jane, like 99% of the British population at the time15, greatly disapproved of the Prince Regent and made up her mind to ignore this permission. Fortunately, several of her relatives rightly interpreted this permission as a command, and Emma, published in 1815, was duly dedicated to the spoiled, spendthrift Prince.

Jane's health was beginning to fail by now. In her quest to tie up loose ends, she now repurchased the manuscript of Susan(Northanger Abbey) from the publishers who'd bought it for 10 back in 1803 and then ignored it. Once the purchase, conducted through an intermediary, was complete, Jane took great pleasure in informing the publishers that the manuscript was by the renowned author of Pride and Prejudice, etc. There is unfortunately no record of the publishers' reactions to this news.

Though she began another novel during a period of remission, Jane's health was very poor. She probably had the then-unnamed Addison's Disease, which attacks the adrenal glands and is still incurable today. In April of 1817, Jane quietly made her will, guessing in spite of all the doctors' reassurances that she would not live long, and left everything, except two small bequests, to her beloved Cassandra. She died early on the morning of 18 July 1817, with Cassandra at her side. In December of that year, her chatty brother Henry arranged the publication of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, which she'd finished in August 1816, with the first official acknowledgement of Jane's authorship on the title pages16. The heroine of Persuasion, incidentally, was Anne Elliot, who many of her relatives and friends seemed to think was most like Jane herself in temperament. Just didn't want to leave you all wondering about the nickname.

Austen-Leigh, William, Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh, and Deirdre LeFaye, ed. Jane Austen: A Family Record. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.

  1. That's not quite the Oxford you're thinking of. Girls couldn't go there then. They went to someone like Mrs. Ann Cawley, who taught the Austen girls in her home.

  2. Jane didn't do much in her very early years, unless you count nearly dying of typhus. She didn't really do much in her later years, either (except write) but don't hold that against her. I'll fight anybody who says anything bad about Jane.

  3. That means a novel in the form of letters written by one or more of the characters. I hope this doesn't insult anyone's intelligence, but best to cover all the bases.

  4. A couple of years later, this would lose the epistolary form and become Sense and Sensibility, and eventually, a major motion picture.

  5. I know, you think you've never heard of this one. It turned out that a novel called First Impressions was published in 1800 by Margaret Holford, so Jane had to change her title when her novel was published in 1813. Jane chose the title Pride and Prejudice from a line from the novel Cecilia by Fanny Burney.

  6. Don't yell at me for using that word. Jane herself used it all the time.

  7. Well, it's very hard to be subjective about things that close to you.

  8. Susan is actually Northanger Abbey. Honestly, no one's actually trying to confuse anyone.

  9. No, I did not make up that name.

  10. [Shudder]

  11. Some things just don't look good in the cold light of day.

  12. Young ladies of any breeding did not travel anywhere without a suitable male to accompany them. Seems silly nowadays, but there we are.

  13. Cassandra had a small income left to her by her late fiance, but Jane was just about penniless. It seems that no one in the family said anything, but about now, Jane might have been wondering if Harris was really so bad after all. Actually, probably not.

  14. Her novels were being published anonymously, and the whole country was rife with speculation as to who this author could be. Suspects included Lady Augusta Paget, Lady Boringdon, Elizabeth Hamilton (an intellectual), Mrs. Dorset (an already established author), and "a sister of Charlotte Smith's." Charlotte Smith was also a fairly noted novelist of the time, though I don't know why her sister was made a candidate instead of Charlotte herself. The woman who proposed that theory, incidentally, was Miss Annabella Milbanke, the future Lady Byron, who was a big fan of Jane's.

  15. Okay, maybe 95%.

  16. And it's a good thing, too, or we might have had people attributing these novels to Charlotte Smith's sister.