She wrote some of history’s best-selling novels, introduced us to Darcy, and was a guest on The History Bombs Show, but who exactly is Jane Austen and how did she become a literary legend?
Jane Austen’s own story starts in the village of Steventon, Hampshire in December 1775. With six brothers to contend with, Jane and her older sister Cassandra quickly became close, especially when both sisters were sent to boarding school when Jane was only eight. Even as adults they were close, constantly writing each other letters in those few moments when they were apart.
Inspired by her own experience, Jane’s novels are full of close sisterly friendships – think Elizabeth and Jane in Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility’s Elinor and Marianne.
All the young Austens were well-educated both at school and at home, where their father actually ran a boys boarding school. Within this bustling household, a young Jane wrote and performed poems and sketches, many of them mocking ideas of class and society, which she picked up from attending local balls and parties.
In late Georgian Britain, Bath was a fashionable party destination and had a huge influence on Jane, who gave the city a leading role in many of her novels. But her writing also shows how radically her opinion of Bath plummeted after she became a permanent resident.
In Northanger Abbey, which she is believed to have started in 1798, a young country girl is swept up into a Bath that is glamorous and exciting, giving us a glimpse of Jane’s earlier visits. Things changed, however, after she moved with her sister and parents to Bath in 1801.
Initially living comfortably just off a fashionable street, financial difficulties and her father’s death in 1805 left the Austen women struggling and renting rooms in a disreputable part of town. This must have been an unhappy time for Jane, altering her view of Bath. In Persuasion she paints it as a vain city, full of pomp and snobbery.
The money troubles in Jane’s life can be seen throughout her books. Sense and Sensibility begins with the Dashwoods being kicked out of their home, the lavish lifestyle of Sir Walter Elliot leave his family in debt in Persuasion, and in Pride and Prejudice characters Jane and Elizabeth almost don’t marry the men they love due to their family’s low financial status. Almost.
Despite the love in her novels, Jane never married, but that’s not to say she didn’t experience romance. The story goes that trainee lawyer Thomas Lefroy was visiting his aunt when he first met Jane. They shared a love of books and, according to her letters to Cassandra, Jane was a bit of a fan. However, his family soon sent him away, leaving many to believe that the Austens’ lack of money meant Jane was unsuitable.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Jane’s leading ladies always overcome social status to marry for love.
Jane eventually moved into a cottage in Chawton, Hampshire on an estate belonging to their brother Edward – he had been adopted by wealthy relatives as a child. Here Jane thrived. She finished her novels, starting with Sense and Sensibility, which was published in 1811 and sold out. This was followed by Pride and Prejudice in 1813, Mansfield Park in 1814, and Emma in 1815.
Sadly, Jane soon fell ill, so ill that she moved to Winchester to be close to physicians in 1817. Two months later, at 41 years old, she died and was buried in the mighty Winchester Cathedral. While this may sound like a grand burial plot, Jane was still relatively unknown, because she never used her own name, instead she labelled her books as ‘by a lady’. It was only when her brother Henry published her final two novels – Northanger Abbey and Persuasion – that he revealed his sister as the great author.
Jump forward 200 years and Jane Austen is one of the biggest names in literature, with Pride and Prejudice alone having sold more than 20 million copies worldwide. Not bad for a country girl from a Hampshire village.
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