Throughout history women have made their mark in a wide variety of ways. Each Saturday I plan to highlight one of these remarkable women. There will be no limit to the areas of history that I may include; however as a guide I will look to the month of their birth, the month of their death or the month associated with their mark in history when I select them. Is there an outstanding women in history you would like me to include? I welcome your suggestions. You can access all the previous postings of these remarkable women from the menu at the top of my site.
Today an outstanding woman from literature. Meet Jane Austen.
My idea of good company is the company of clever, well-informed people who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company.
According to what I’ve read online, the biographical information about Jane Austen is very limited. She was born on December 16, 1775 in Hampshire, England. Her parents, George and Cassandra Austen were landed gentry. Her father served as the rector of the Anglican parishes at Steventon, Hampshire and he supplemented his income through farming and teaching three or four boys at a time of which the boys boarded with the family. Jane had six bothers [James, George, Edward, Henry Thomas, Frances William, Charles John] and one sister, Cassandra Elizabeth. Both Jane and her sister were never married.
At only a few months of age, Jane was sent to be nursed and live with Elizabeth Littlewood, a woman who lived nearby and kept Jane for a year to eighteen months. In 1783, Jane and her sister Cassandra were sent to Oxford to be educated by Mrs. Ann Cawley. While there, both girls caught typhus and Jane nearly died. In 1785, both girls were sent to boarding school to learn French, spelling, needlework, dancing, music and drama but due to finances, both girls returned home by December 1786. Jane never again lived outside the environment of her immediate family.
It was through reading and guidance from her father and brothers that Jane continued her education. She had access to a substantial number of books both in her father’s library and that of a family friend. Jane’s father indulged her interest in writing although is was somewhat risqué at the time. Plays staged by the family and close friends introduced Jane to comedy. As early as 1787 (12 years old), Jane began writing poems, stories and plays to entertain her family. 29 of these early works were later compiled in a publication now referred to as Juvenilia. Among these works was a 34 page manuscript of the History of England of which 13 watercolor miniatures by her sister were included. Austen’s Juvenilia is often considered boisterous and without order and often compared to the 20th-century comedy of the group Monty Python.
As an adult, Jane continued to live with her family. This life entailed all that was expected of a woman of that age and social standing. She assisted with the servants and attended to female relatives when they were in childbirth. She attended church and socialized frequently with friends and neighbors including attending balls and assemblies. (Sounds a lot like Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice.) During this time, she continued to write and it was in 1789 that she decided to write for profit and become a professional writer. By 1793 she began writing longer more sophisticated works.
Lady Susan is a short epistolary novel (in the form of letters) by Jane Austen, possibly written in 1794 but not published until 1871 (after death). An early complete work that the author never submitted for publication. It describes the schemes of the main character—the widowed Lady Susan—as she seeks a new husband for herself and one for her daughter.
Sense and Sensibility (originally titled Elinor and Marianne) was her first published work when it appeared in 1811 under the pseudonym “A Lady”. A work of romantic fiction, better known as a comedy of manners, Sense and Sensibility is set in southwest England, London and Kent between 1792 and 1797, and portrays the life and loves of the Dashwood sisters, Elinor and Marianne. The novel follows the young ladies to their new home, a meager cottage on a distant relative’s property, where they experience love, romance and heartbreak.
Pride and Prejudice (originally titled First Impressions) is a novel of manners, first published in 1813. Set in England in the early 19th century, Pride and Prejudice tells the story of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s five unmarried daughters after the rich and eligible Mr. Bingley and his status-conscious friend, Mr. Darcy, have moved into their neighborhood. While Bingley takes an immediate liking to the eldest Bennet daughter, Jane, Darcy has difficulty adapting to local society and repeatedly clashes with the second-eldest Bennet daughter, Elizabeth.
Northanger Abbey (Original working title Susan) was the first of Jane Austen’s novels to be completed for publication, though she had previously made a start on Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. The novel was further revised by Austen in 1816/17, with the intention of having it published. Among other changes, the lead character’s name was changed from Susan to Catherine, and Austen retitled the book Catherine as a result. Austen died in July 1817. Northanger Abbey (as the novel was now called) was brought out posthumously in late December 1817. Northanger Abbey is a satire on the popular gothic novel. You can read a plot summary here.
I mentioned before that Jane and her sister Cassandra never married but this did not mean there hadn’t been chances for Jane. When Jane was twenty, Tom Lefroy, a nephew of a neighbor visited Steventon from December 1795 to January 1796. He had just finished a university degree and was moving to London to train as a barrister. Introduced at a ball or other neighborhood social gathering, it was clear from Austen’s letters to Cassandra that the two spent considerable time together. The Lefroy family intervened and sent him away at the end of January. Marriage was impractical as neither had any money, and Lefroy was dependent on a great-uncle in Ireland to finance his education and establish his legal career. If Tom Lefroy later visited Hampshire, he was carefully kept away from the Austens, and Jane Austen never saw him again. The sentimental relationship between Jane and Tom is at the center of the 2007 biographical film Becoming Jane.
In December 1802, Austen received her only known proposal of marriage. While visiting friends in Basingstoke, Alethea and Catherine Bigg, their younger brother, Harris Bigg-Wither, who had recently finished his education at Oxford was at home. Bigg-Wither proposed and Austen accepted. Harris was not attractive. He was a large, plain-looking man who spoke little, stuttered when he did speak, was aggressive in conversation, and almost completely tactless. Jane had known him since both were young and the marriage offered many practical advantages to Austen and her family. He was the heir to extensive family estates located in the area where the sisters had grown up. With these resources, Austen could provide her parents a comfortable old age, give Cassandra a permanent home and, perhaps, assist her brothers in their careers. By the next morning, Austen realized she had made a mistake and withdrew her acceptance. No contemporary letters or diaries describe how Austen felt about this proposal.
Life in Chawton and Publication
Jane’s father died in 1805 leaving his wife and daughters in a difficult financial situation. From 1805 and 1809, the ladies lived in various rented accommodations. In early 1809, Jane’s brother Edward offered them the use of a large cottage in Chawton Village which was part of his estate. The ladies moved in and it brought them a more settled life. Jane would live in this cottage for the remaining eight years of her life. This cottage is now the Jane Austen’s House Museum. It was during this quiet settled life that Jane became published (See the three listed above) and a fourth, Mansfield Park. Later her fifth and sixth, Emma and Persuasion.
Mansfield Park is the third novel by Jane Austen, written at Chawton Cottage between February 1811 and 1813. It was published in May 1814 by Thomas Egerton, who published Jane Austen’s two earlier novels, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. In the novel, a young girl named Fanny Price comes to live with her wealthy uncle and aunt, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram. Fanny’s family is quite poor; her mother, unlike her sister Lady Bertram, married beneath her, and Fanny’s father, a sailor, is disabled and drinks heavily. Fanny is abused by her other aunt, Mrs. Norris, a busybody who runs things at Mansfield Park, the Bertrams’ estate. The Bertram daughters, Maria and Julia, are shallow, rather cruel girls, intent on marrying well and being fashionable. The elder son, Tom, is a roustabout and a drunk. Fanny finds solace only in the friendship of the younger son, Edmund, who is planning to be a clergyman. Fanny grows up shy and deferential, caught as she typically is between members of the Bertram family.
Emma, is a novel about youthful hubris and the perils of misconstrued romance. The novel was first published in December 1815. As in her other novels, Austen explores the concerns and difficulties of genteel women living in Georgian-Regency England; she also creates a lively comedy of manners among her characters.
Persuasion (Originally titled The Elliots) is her last completed novel. She began it soon after she had finished Emma and completed it in August 1816. Persuasion was published in December 1817 (but dated 1818). Persuasion is linked to Northanger Abbey not only by the fact that the two books were originally bound up in one volume and published together, but also because both stories are set partly in Bath, a fashionable city with which Austen was well acquainted, having lived there from 1801 to 1805. Besides the theme of persuasion, the novel evokes other topics, such as the Royal Navy, in which two of Jane Austen’s brothers ultimately rose to the rank of admiral. As in Northanger Abbey, the superficial social life of Bath—well known to Austen, who spent several relatively unhappy and unproductive years there—is portrayed extensively and serves as a setting for the second half of the book.
Illness and Death
Early in 1816, Jane began feeling unwell and she ignored it at first. By the middle of the year, her illness was unmistakable and lead to a long, slow deterioration that ended in her death the following year (July 18, 1817, age 41). There is more than one biographical description of the cause of death. These are: Addison’s disease, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, bovine tuberculosis from unpasteurized milk or Brill-Zinsser Disease, a recurrent form of typhus. She had completed several chapters of a new novel before she died.
In Sanditon, Austen explored her interest in the verbal construction of a society by means of a town – and a set of families – that is still in the process of being formed. The manuscript for Sanditon was originally titled “The Brothers”, possibly after the Parker brothers in the story. After her death, her family renamed it “Sanditon”. The original manuscript includes only the first eleven chapters of the story.
Her brother Henry, through his clerical connections, arranged for his sister to be buried in the north aisle of the nave of Winchester Cathedral. The epitaph composed by her brother James praises Austen’s personal qualities, expresses hope for her salvation, mentions the “extraordinary endowments of her mind”, but does not explicitly mention her achievements as a writer.
There are many resources online to read about her continuing posthumous legacy.
I will end my post today with an unforgettable scene from the A & E Television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. My favorite adaptation.